Actions

Work Header

Humpty Dumpty

Chapter Text

- The Past: Tuesday, January 25th, 2011 -

Stiles is walking through the school parking lot when his phone vibrates in his jeans pocket. Pulling it out, he heaves a great sigh after he reads the short message displayed on the screen—his dad is too tied up with whatever case he's working to go grocery shopping like he was supposed to, so this task now falls to Stiles. He shoves his phone back in its home, walks the rest of the way to his Jeep, and clambers in behind the wheel, determined to get it done as quickly as he can so that he still has most of his afternoon free.

Once he has made a quick stop at the sheriff's station to pick up the shopping list his dad had taken off the fridge that morning, Stiles heads to the store. He pushes his cart a little recklessly down the aisles, his brand-new copy of Dead Space 2 calling to him where it lies on his desk back in his room. He makes a mental note to text Derek when he gets home, to ask him whether or not he wants to come over and check it out when it's all set up. A large pack of toilet paper is the last thing Stiles pulls from the shelves, and then he gets in line at one of the checkouts and taps his foot impatiently.

Fifteen minutes later, he pulls into his driveway and feels relieved to be home. No one else is in the area as he exits his Jeep and walks around to the trunk to begin unloading the plethora of paper bags within, but, because most of his neighbours should still be at work, this doesn't strike him as strange. Not until he hears a soft nose behind him:

A quiet breath, so close that it ruffles his hair.

Before he can react, Stiles feels a sharp pain in the back of his head, and then everything goes black.

* * *

- The Present: Monday, January 25th, 2016 -

Derek sits in the sheriff's station, staring morosely at the photograph that sits in a plain silver frame on his desk. It was taken over five years ago, at his 21st birthday party, and in it he and Stiles stand side by side, Stiles' arm thrown casually around Derek's shoulders as he grins toothily at the camera. Derek's own expression is the polar opposite, a deep unamused frown, because on his head is a ridiculous neon-pink party hat that Stiles had insisted he wear throughout the day. He could never say no to the boy, so he'd grudgingly acquiesced.

They met when Stiles was in kindergarten and just got closer as the years went on, even after Stiles found out The Big Secret. When Derek was sixteen, his mother sat him down for a serious talk. He was nervous, sure that he'd done something wrong somehow, but those nerves were quickly allayed when Talia apprised him of the abstruse concept of mates, something he'd only heard of in passing before then. Every werewolf in the world had someone made specially for them, she said, their other half. Derek's parents were mates, obviously, and when Derek asked why she was telling him all of this now, the answer he got cast his whole friendship with Stiles in a new, impossibly brighter light.

Talia had suspected for a long time that Stiles was Derek's mate, a feeling his dad shared. It was why Derek was drawn to the younger boy in the first place, his fledgling wolf recognising the connection that was present between them as soon as Derek saw him. It was why Derek never looked at the girls in school like the other boys did—his wolf was already focused on someone, though those feelings weren't yet sexual in nature and wouldn't be until Stiles had gone through puberty, too, and discovered his own sexuality.

When Talia left him to ruminate on the matter, he'd felt a sense of clarity the likes of which he'd never known, while at the same time remaining confused. There was one thing he knew for sure, though: He'd keep their mateship secret from Stiles until they were both older, a task that very quickly proved difficult.

For weeks, every time Stiles was around—which was nearly all the time—a part of Derek longed to reveal their special connection, his wolf scratching at and wearing away his resolve with its intense desire for closeness. Even so, he managed, determined to wait until Stiles was eighteen and could legally make his own decisions. Stiles easily picked up on his strangeness but let the subject drop and never picked it back up when Derek told him that he was just working through some personal stuff. After a few months it got easier, and things returned to normal.

Derek regrets making the choice to wait now.

It would've helped.

It would've helped so fucking much.

He'll never forget the panic he felt when he got the call. The sheriff arrived home late that fateful evening and knew something was wrong as soon as he stepped out of his car. Stiles' Jeep was already in the driveway like it should've been, but the trunk was left open wide, bags of groceries still inside, and the keys were on the ground a couple of feet away like they'd been dropped. Trying not to jump immediately to the worst conclusions, the sheriff ran into the house and searched it top to bottom for Stiles, but there was no trace of him. Frantic, he then called the Hales for help. Their enhanced senses would provide a perfectly reasonable explanation for his missing son, he was sure. Derek had dropped everything and was the first one to arrive at the Stilinskis', where he scented the air for clues. He picked up fear, traces of blood, and—frighteningly—nothing else.

There were no unfamiliar scents he could track.

Just Stiles', and even that vanished a few feet from the property.

Every Hale looked high and low for the missing teenager for months, noses and ears alert for a sign that Stiles was still in the area, but they never found any. Derek personally combed through the whole town on a daily basis, and he even went to all the neighbouring towns, too, to search for his mate. The sheriff rallied the force to aid them, though none of the deputies needed much convincing—Stiles was like a surrogate little brother to every one of them, after all, as he'd grown up in front of most of them.

They tried everything they could think of. Stiles' room was turned inside-out in the search for clues. Stiles' computer was hacked into, but, apart from a few gay porn sites in his Internet history and bookmarks—it didn't escape anyone's notice that most of them featured muscular men with dark hair and stubble, a discovery that had Derek avoiding eye contact with Stiles' dad for a while—there was nothing of note. Just school work, music and a folder of photos, the subjects of most of which were Stiles and Derek. Everyone Stiles could have come into contact with was interviewed—his classmates, his teachers, even everyone they knew was at the grocery store at the same time as Stiles, thanks to CCTV cameras.

All of this effort turned up nothing.

Months and years down the line, the hope that everybody clung desperately to slipped slowly away, and as much as Derek and the sheriff tried with all their might not to, even they began to believe the worst. The searches became less frequent and more perfunctory, and that was when Derek really started to kick himself for his past cowardice.

If he had only been braver and told Stiles about the true nature of their relationship, claimed him when he'd had the chance, he would have had a connection through which he could've found him. If not that, then at the very least he would know if Stiles was still alive. Derek thinks that's the worst thing, not knowing whether or not his mate is rotting away in the ground somewhere, leaving everyone to forever wonder, to carry on with their lives without getting any sort of closure to help them cope. If he knew conclusively, God forbid, that Stiles was dead, he could grieve, as difficult as it would be, as much as he doesn't want to think about it, and as guilty as he feels whenever the thought manages to slip through. Instead he just feels tense all the time, uncertain, and nothing can make it better.

"Hey, Hale!"

Derek tears his eyes away from the picture frame and looks up.

Deputy Parrish stands beside his desk, a pitying expression on his face that Derek hates. He hadn't meant to let his stoic facade slip, but considering what day it is, the five-year anniversary of Stiles' disappearance, he's having serious trouble keeping it up. "What do you want?" he responds coolly.

"The boss wants to see you in his office," Parrish replies.

"He say why?"

"No, but I wouldn't keep him waiting."

With that, Parrish walks away, returning to his own workstation.

Derek is left alone once more, where he sits in his chair for a minute longer, not really wanting to have the short conversation he suspects the sheriff will want to have with him. The day is difficult enough to get through without interacting with the older man and being reminded of the part that is missing from his heart. The shame he feels for dodging the sheriff is a price he is willing to pay to avoid the heartache, but sometimes it just isn't an option.

With a sigh, Derek gets up and approaches the sheriff's office. He finds the beige door left wide open, a sign that everyone who works at the station knows means the sheriff isn't busy with anything. He knocks anyway and, out of respect, leans against the frame until he is given verbal permission to enter. John's head snaps up at the sound, and a kind smile forms on his lips as he puts aside the paperwork he had been poring over before the interruption. Pushing the door shut when the sheriff asks him to take a seat, Derek bites his lip nervously and waits for the inevitable hammer to drop. Already he's certain of what's coming—Stiles' dad told him the same thing last year and, sure enough, the kind, mollifying smile once again in place, John moves out from behind his desk, leans against the front of it, and says those familiar words:

"Why don't you take off early today, son? We're not very busy right now, so we can afford to lose you for a day, or even the whole damn week, if you need it," the sheriff continues, putting a hand on Derek's knee. The gesture is probably meant to be comforting, but instead Derek just feels like he's being dismissed.

Like he's useless.

"I'm fine," he lies, fighting to keep his face impassive.

"I don't think you are, Derek... It's obvious to anyone who knows you."

Derek huffs. "I said I'm fine!" he reiterates, irritation seeping through and causing hurt to flicker across the sheriff's face. Derek immediately feels his irritation fade and hastens to apologise. "Sorry... It's just, Stiles wasn't only my mate. He was your son, too, so this day has to be just as hard for you. I don't understand why you're sending me home again while you continue to stay here. Something about that doesn't feel right."

"I'm the sheriff; I'm needed here. You're not."

"Ouch."

"I don't say this to hurt you, son, but it's true," the sheriff says. "Go home. Rest."

Derek opens his mouth to protest again but quickly finds that he doesn't have the energy to fight his corner any more. As much as he doesn't want to admit it, least of all to himself, he wouldn't be a valuable part of the team if something were to happen. He would just get in the way, cause mistakes with his complacency and end up letting some poor civilian get hurt. With a sigh he gets to his feet, leaves the sheriff's office—petulantly ignoring the sheriff's goodbyes—and retrieves his coat from the back of his chair. After switching off his computer, he marches out of the station with his head held high, aware that all of his colleagues and the two petty criminals currently waiting to be processed are knowingly watching him go.

* * *

Derek quickly discovers that being sent home early was a blessing in disguise. If he was still at the station, he'd probably have spent the whole afternoon just sitting at his desk, ignoring all of his rising paperwork in favour of thinking of Stiles. Instead, his afternoon being free allows him to find suitable distractions. He catches up on everything he has been neglecting—he restocks his fridge, cleans up his apartment, and even tunes up his precious Camaro, changing the oil so that it runs as smoothly as ever.

At just after 8 p.m., Derek reenters his apartment with grease on his hands and sweat cooling on his skin. He's positively pooped, feeling in every muscle a satisfying ache that speaks of a productive day. After ordering some Chinese food for delivery—he's too tired to cook something himself—and taking a rejuvenating shower, Derek stands in his bedroom in nothing but a thin white towel and contemplates which clothes he should cover himself with. Something comfy, of course, so he goes straight for the bottom drawer of his dresser, which contains all of his sweaters and sweatpants. They all feel like snuggly heaven, but he'd never show his face in public while wearing them—he has his broody reputation to uphold, after all.

It's then that he sees it.

Reverently, Derek picks up Stiles' old navy-blue sweater and clutches it to his naked chest, a wave of fondness overtaking him. It's tinged with sadness for obvious reasons, but the sweater comes with one of his happiest memories attached, one that never fails to warm his heart. It was an ordinary Sunday afternoon. They were sitting side by side on Stiles' bed, playing video games for hours, and Derek was actually holding his own in Mario Kart Wii. It was the final lap of Rainbow Road and Derek was in first place, about to claim victory—a complete anomaly, because he usually got his ass handed to him. But then Stiles had come out of nowhere with an impeccably aimed green shell and stolen the win. Derek ended up finishing in fourth place, but he couldn't find it in himself to be mad about it. Not when he looked over at Stiles, who was wearing the sweater, and saw the huge grin on his face.

Derek had known he and Stiles were mates for several years by that point, but it had always just felt like fate, something that would just happen. It was in that moment that he realised truly what them being mates meant. Stiles was laughing at Derek's downfall, and all Derek could think about was how hopelessly in love he was.

Once Stiles had gone missing, Derek had pilfered a few articles of clothing from Stiles' closet, including the sweater. Stiles' scent was the only thing that could help him sleep at night, keeping at bay the nightmares he'd started suffering from, in which he saw all manner of horrific things befalling his lost mate. He slept with a piece of Stiles' clothing in his hand every night, even after Stiles' embedded scent had faded from each and every one of them.

With a wan smile, Derek pulls the sweater over his head and selects a pair of grey sweatpants to complete his lazy ensemble. The sweater is snug on his larger frame, but he doesn't care. Having timed things perfectly, he is just exiting his bedroom when his buzzer goes off. His stomach growling in anticipation, he lets the delivery man into the building and waits for the knock on his door, and then, $35 later, Derek sits down on his black leather sofa in the living room and tucks in to his well-earned dinner, the TV playing some old movie in the background and several bottles of cool homemade beer waiting for him on the coffee table.

* * *

When the credits begin rolling, Derek is close to falling asleep, his stomach full and his mind fuzzy with wolfsbane-laced alcohol. Just as he slumps over on the sofa, his phone chimes from its place on the cushion next to him, startling him rudely back into wakefulness. Disgruntled, he reaches for the small device and peers blearily at the screen, his eyes rolling when he sees that it's yet another text from Laura. He'd gotten several of them throughout the day, like he had for the past four years when this horrible day rolled around.

Derek understands the reasoning behind it—she's just worried for him, after all—but it still annoys him to no end. The texts are usually worded carefully, asking how he's doing and whether he wants any company, but the new text is different. It's not gentle but harsh instead, and it contains a threat that's so Laura that it attenuates a little bit of his annoyance. Just a little. If he doesn't respond to her, which he hasn't all day, then she'll be storming over to his apartment to check up on him in person. Nothing sounds more unpleasant to Derek in that moment, so he hastily types out a quick response and hits send, hoping that it'll be enough to dissuade his sister from invading his privacy when what he wants is to be alone.

I'm fine. I'll talk to you in the morning.

He doesn't wait to see what she texts back.

His eyes still drooping, Derek decides to turn in early. He leaves the empty containers of Chinese food on the coffee table to deal with tomorrow and heads into his bathroom, listlessly brushing his teeth and then falling down onto his bed without bothering to undress or even pull back the covers. He's out within a couple of minutes.

* * *

- The Present: Tuesday, January 26th, 2016 -

It's just a few hours later when Derek jerks awake to a noise, his alert eyes trailing over his dark bedroom in search of its source. Nothing seems out of place, and when the noise repeats itself it sounds distant, like it's coming from outside. His second-storey window is open, flooding the room with cold air, and for the first time Derek realises he's shivering. Getting up, he pads over to the window and opens it wider to stick his head outside, but he doesn't see anything when he looks down into the alley below—it's too dark. Just as he pulls himself back inside and goes to shut the window, he hears the sound for a third time and identifies it as a low groaning.

Probably just an errant drunk, Derek thinks, his hackles lowering as he walks through his apartment to his front door. On his way out he briefly considers grabbing his gun from where it hangs in its holster on the wall, but in the end he foregoes it. He should expect the unexpected, sure—the disturbance might not be something as innocent as a drunk civilian, after all—but if he needs to defend himself he always has his claws.

His well-honed instincts automatically kicking in, Derek unlocks and opens his door and steps out into the empty hallway. Everyone else on his floor seems to still be sleeping peacefully, a good thing because it'll make dealing with whoever is outside that much easier. He makes his way down the hall and down the stairs to the ground floor, past the mailboxes and elevator and over to the entrance. The foyer is well-lit, so Derek can't see anything through the large glass doors but a gaping maw of blackness until he pushes his way through them. It takes a few seconds for his eyes to adjust, for the dim light provided by the street lamps to do their job, and when he can see he moves slowly and silently around to the side of the building, where his bedroom window is. The dark alleyway usually contains nothing but a couple of old, barely used dumpsters and a rusted fire escape.

But there, lying facedown in the middle of the narrow space, is a man.

The only features Derek can discern right away are his height—approximately the same as Derek himself—his svelte build, and his short brown hair. Something about him seems familiar, but Derek doesn't give himself time to try and pinpoint why. Because, when he steps closer to the seemingly unconscious man, he scents blood in the air.

It's reasonably fresh.

"Hello?" Derek calls, stopping right next to the man.

No response, but he can hear that the man's breathing is deep and even. Calm.

Just sleeping, then.

Crouching down, Derek reaches out and touches the stranger's shoulder, jostling him a little in hopes of waking him up. Again they don't respond. With a frown, Derek moves to roll him over onto his back, thinking that maybe they hit their head or something, their equilibrium hampered by drink. The fact that he can't smell any alcohol in the air doesn't even register to him because, when he sees the unconscious man's eerily pale face, his brain just stops working altogether.

* * *

Laura arrives at Derek's apartment building and barges inside, her worry for her brother speeding her footsteps. She'd received his call just ten short minutes ago, and her annoyance at her alone time with her husband being interrupted disappeared as soon as she heard how frantic he was. It wasn't like him to show such emotion, so much that she couldn't get anything out of him but a rushed, "Please, you have to come. I need to know if this is real."

So she dropped everything.

Running up the stairs to the first floor, Laura approaches Derek's door and pauses when she finds it already open. Again, this is uncharacteristic of her brother, who, because of his job and the fact that he has a firearm with him, is scrupulous about security. Cautiously, Laura pushes the door open fully and steps inside, calling Derek's name. She hears no movement, no noise at all, which only exacerbates her concern. Stepping through the entranceway, Laura peers into the kitchen and quickly moves on when she sees that it's empty. The living room is her next stop, where she finds Derek sitting on the coffee table, his hands clasped together and held to his mouth. His eyes are wide as he stares at something on the sofa, something that she can't see from her position in the hallway.

"Derek?" she repeats nervously. "What's going on?"

Her brother doesn't say anything for a moment, and then:

"Can you see him?" he asks, his voice quiet. "Tell me you see him, too."

"See who?"

Edging closer, Laura moves to stand next to her brother and get a better view of whatever he's staring at so unblinkingly. When she does, she understands why.

"Is that...?" she gasps.

He looks a lot different from the last time she saw him, yet he's still the same. His skin is pale and dotted with moles, his face is gaunt, he has dark bags beneath his closed eyes and there's a row of scars across his left cheek from what Laura suspects with a surge of rage were claws. There's a small gash on his forehead, scabbed over, and his brown hair is matted with blood. His clothes look relatively new but are incredibly dirty.

"You see him, too, right? This isn't a dream?"

The questions snap Laura out of her daze, and she turns to her brother to find his eyes now on her. They're glassy, hopeful tears so close to spilling over that it breaks her heart. "Yes. I see him, too," she answers with a smile.

Derek kneels next to the sofa and places a hand on the unconscious man's chest.

"Stiles..."

Chapter Text

- The Past: Wednesday, January 26th, 2011 -

Stiles wakes up in a dark room.

He doesn't remember right away what lead him there, his mind too sluggish to process anything but the all-encompassing blackness around him. The ground beneath his back feels like concrete, hard and likely responsible for the ache in his spine—who knows how long he has been lying on it, unmoving, while it wreaked havoc on his soft body. Slowly, Stiles pushes to his feet, fighting off a brief spell of dizziness, and begins blindly mapping out his surroundings, his arms outstretched to hopefully preclude bumping into or tripping over anything.

The room is small, maybe a square fifteen feet, and contains nothing. The walls are all nearly perfectly smooth, with few distinctive bumps or adornments. There isn't a light switch anywhere—probably a good thing, because light would only blind him after so long without a single trace of it—and the only sign that there's even a door is a tiny groove he can just about wedge his fingernails into. He can't get a good enough grip to pull it open, though.

Suddenly feeling claustrophobic, the true reality of his predicament sinking in, Stiles moves to what he thinks is the middle of the floor and sits down with his legs crossed, trying to keep his breathing under control. Adrenaline courses through his veins, and he very quickly recognises this as the beginning of a panic attack. He's intimately familiar with the awful things, having suffered from them frequently in the months after his mother's death, but it's been a long time since his last. With a lot of effort, he regulates his own breathing, closing his eyes and imagining he's somewhere else, that Derek is with him, guiding him through the attack like he was always so good at doing. Stiles can almost feel Derek's large, warm hand on his chest, his steady, low voice speaking to him, reassuring him that everything is OK.

It works.

Sitting there, Stiles is at a loss. He's trapped.

All he can do is think. He wonders just how long he's been gone, if it's been hours since his last memory of walking toward his Jeep in the school parking lot took place, or days. Is anyone looking for him yet? And if so, are they close to finding him? Curling up on his side, hugging his knees to his chest, Stiles hopes desperately that they are.

* * *

- The Present: Tuesday, January 26th, 2016 -

Derek sits with Laura in one of the hallways of Beacon Hills Memorial, waiting for the sheriff and their parents to arrive. He still can't quite believe that the last hour was real, can't believe that his mate is really back, alive and well. Or at least alive.

As soon as she'd given him confirmation that Stiles really was lying on his sofa and he wasn't hallucinating the whole thing, Laura had taken charge, knowing by sight alone that her brother wasn't capable of doing what needed to be done. She'd called for an ambulance and then called their mother and Stiles' dad. Derek didn't hear what was said on the phone. He couldn't wrench his attention away from the unconscious man on his living room sofa, from the almost hypnotising movement of his chest as he breathed deep and slow, not until his apartment was invaded by a couple of paramedics. They had quickly and efficiently checked Stiles' vitals and then lifted him onto a stretcher and taken him to the hospital.

Ever since then, Derek has sat in an uncomfortable chair with his sister next to him, rubbing soothing circles in his back. He longs for news. He needs to know that his mate will pull through whatever happened to him, but because he isn't family he's shit out of luck. Fortuitously, he only has to wait another couple of minutes, and then he hears a raised voice coming from not too far away. A familiar voice.

"Where is he?! Where's my son?!"

"Showtime," Laura mumbles, also hearing the sheriff.

Both Hales stand up and walk toward the voice. They find its owner in Reception, hounding the poor receptionist with queries about Stiles' location and condition that she is unable to tackle fast enough. Derek feels sorry for her when her lack of answers seems to make Sheriff Stilinski even more frantic, but then the older man spots him and Laura and the receptionist is all but forgotten. The sheriff meets them halfway, his strides long and purposeful, cautious hope written clear across his weathered features.

"Derek, Laura. What's going on?" he demands urgently. "Is he really here?"

"He is," Laura replies, when Derek is unable to.

"Where?"

"They're still looking him over, I think. I don't know if that's a good thing or not. They won't tell us anything, but they'll probably tell you."

With a short nod, the sheriff leaves the two Hales standing there by themselves and dashes off to find the nearest doctor, on the hunt to get to the bottom of things. Derek watches him go with a pang of jealousy, wishing ardently that he could've done the same. Dragging his feet, he returns with Laura on his heels to his chair, throws himself into it, and runs a hand tiredly down his face. It's been over half an hour since Stiles was brought in, and the fact that he hasn't really slept yet isn't doing his rapidly waning patience any favours. He wants to punch something, so he does, twisting in his seat and throwing his fist at the wall, leaving a very noticeable dent. Laura doesn't bother telling him off, just resumes rubbing circles in his back.

The sheriff returns sooner than expected, looking as haggard as Derek feels as he sits down on Derek's other side. "They're almost done, and then they'll come and tell us everything they know," he informs the two siblings. "While we wait, does someone feel like telling me just how my son is back? How did you find him?"

"He was unconscious outside my building," Derek apprises, his voice gravelly.

"And? What else?"

"He had a fresh cut on his forehead and some scars on his cheek, claw marks, but other than that... I don't know. That's all we've got so far."

Silence reigns then, until footsteps announce the arrival of Talia and Nicolas Hale. Both of them are still in their nightclothes with warm coats on top, their hair is ruffled from sleep, and Talia's face is completely clean of makeup. She sweeps Derek up in a hug when she reaches him, while Nicolas pats him on the shoulder, having always been less demonstrative than his wife. Once the niceties are out of the way, Laura fills the married couple in on what little is known about Stiles' physical state while Derek returns to his chair, his wolf restless in his chest. It's almost torturous being separated from his mate when, after five years of nothing, he got barely half an hour in the same room as him. It's almost cruel.

"Sheriff Stilinski?"

Five sets of eyes look up as a doctor comes toward them, his face giving away nothing as both Derek and Stiles' dad stand up expectantly. The doctor is a little shorter than Derek, maybe around 5'10", is middle-aged with short, salt-and-pepper hair, and has piercing blue eyes that are kind but detached, like he doesn't want to get close to his patients. Understandable, Derek thinks. It mustn't be an easy job. The doctor eyes Derek warily—his sleep-deprived state probably doesn't make for a pretty picture—before addressing the sheriff again, his hand held out.

"I apologise for the wait. My name is Dr. Martinez. I'm in charge of your son's care," he greets, shaking the sheriff's hand. "If you'd like to come with me, I can give you my preliminary findings on your son's condition." He gestures back the way he'd come. "We can go to my office, if that's alright. Your friends can wait here."

"No. I'm coming, too," Derek states, his eyes narrowed at Dr. Martinez as if his dismissal is personal. He barely suppresses a threatening growl.

"Are you family?" the doctor frowns.

"No."

"I'm afraid I can't give this information to anyone else. Protocol—"

"It's alright," the sheriff interjects softly. "He can come. He has as much right to hear this as I do."

Dr. Martinez hesitates but then acquiesces. "Very well. Right this way, gentlemen."

Leaving his family without so much as a glance, Derek walks anxiously behind the sheriff until they enter a room a couple of hallways over. It's small, providing just enough space for a desk, a couple of chairs, and a few filing cabinets. On the pale-blue walls there are several diplomas hung up in fancy-looking silver frames, displaying Dr. Martinez's impressive credentials to all who step foot inside. Once the door is closed, Derek and the sheriff sit down in the two chairs facing the desk, while the doctor sits behind it, a manila folder lying shut in front of him.

"Now, let's begin..." he says, his professional demeanour not showing even a single crack as he opens the folder and quickly scans through the papers inside, like he's refreshing his memory. "I'm not going to sugarcoat things. Sheriff, your son was in bad condition when he was brought in. He was severely malnourished and dehydrated, for which he is currently on an IV until he regains consciousness and can get the nourishment he needs through more conventional methods. He had a three-inch-long gash near his hairline that required stitches. A precautionary X-ray found evidence of several bruised ribs, as well as a recent fracture in his right forearm that never healed correctly. We had to reset it, so he'll be in a cast for a few weeks while the bone heals as it should. He has dozens of scars all over his body, from what look like a wolf's or a large dog's claws and fangs, as well as some bite marks made by human teeth. There was scarring across the inside of both elbows that speaks of repeated drug use, and we found evidence of sexual assault."

The sheriff clamps a hand over his mouth, his already wet eyes spilling over.

"Oh God..." he chokes out. "My baby boy."

"This is just guesswork, but I'd say that this all took place over a stretch of several years."

Derek feels numb, all the nightmares he'd had about what Stiles could have been experiencing while he was missing coming true. He doesn't hear what else is said, his ears filled with white noise and the relentless pounding of his own heart. He can see Dr. Martinez's mouth moving still, no doubt spilling more horrors about the time Stiles was gone. Derek has never thought about it before, but he's grateful now that he can't read lips.

It isn't until the doctor gets up and his chair squeaks loudly that Derek is able to snap out of his reverie.

"Derek?" the sheriff says wearily, also standing up. "Come on, son."

"Where are we going?" Derek enquires.

"To see Stiles."

Derek is out of his chair in a flash. The three men make their way to a private room on the other side of the floor, outside of which Dr. Martinez cautions them. "He's still unconscious, mind," he says, putting a hand on the sheriff's arm. "It's nothing to worry about, but I just thought I should warn you. No loud noises. We aren't sure how he'll react, given what he must have been through, so it's best if he wakes up on his own and isn't startled."

Both Derek and the sheriff nod their understanding before Dr. Martinez opens the door and ushers them inside. The curtain is partially drawn around the bed, so at first all Derek is able to see is Stiles' feet beneath the sheets. Out of respect, he allows the sheriff to move closer first, even though an animalistic, possessive part of him wants to keep Stiles all to himself and hide him away from the rest of the world to stop anything like this from happening again. From the gasp the sheriff lets out after he steps around the curtain, Derek knows that Stiles can't look any better than he had lying on Derek's sofa.

"I'll leave you two with him, but a nurse will be by shortly to check on things," Dr. Martinez says as he takes his leave.

"Thank you, Doctor," the sheriff acknowledges.

Derek doesn't say anything.

A minute ends up being all the time his wolf will let him give the sheriff to be alone with his son, and then he's walking around the curtain, too, to take up a post on the other side of Stiles' bed to his superior officer. The sheriff is perched on the edge of a plastic chair, his still-glassy eyes never leaving Stiles' slack face as he holds Stiles' hand in one of his own, careful not to dislodge the heart rate monitor. Derek can feel the sheriff's emotions as keenly as if they were his own—his grief for the son he knew and never got to say goodbye to is palpable, because they both know that, when Stiles wakes up, he isn't going to be the same sixteen-year-old boy from five years ago. He'll be far from it. Derek just hopes they can be what he'll need.

While he stands there, he thinks that what people always say is true—Stiles really does look tiny lying in the hospital bed, an image that's probably made more striking because of the weight loss evidenced in his cheekbones. The pale sheets wash him out even more, making the bags beneath his closed eyes seem darker.

Derek isn't sure how much time passes while he just stands there, but eventually he hears the door open and a woman with dark, curly hair and a kind smile enters. Derek recognises her as Melissa McCall, a nurse he has interacted with on a few occasions whenever a case has demanded it. She's a lovely woman with the ability to make anyone feel at ease and an admirable dedication to her work. She turns her warm smile to Derek when he steps aside to let her check on the patient.

"Everything looks good," Melissa says after a minute.

"Do you know when he might wake up?" the sheriff asks, his voice hoarse. He keeps Stiles' hand clutched in his larger, calloused one.

"No, but that's not a bad thing. He's probably exhausted."

"OK. Thanks, Melissa."

"Anytime."

The two move off to the side and talk in hushed tones that Derek tunes out. His attention is all on Stiles. Taking the chair the sheriff has vacated, he brings it closer to the bed, takes Stiles' hand in his right like the sheriff had and pushes Stiles' dark hair back from his forehead with his left. It's greasy and longer than Derek ever remembers it being, but, surprisingly, it's cut neatly, shorter at the sides and back and a little longer on top. He wonders how.

Out of the corner of his eye, Derek spies Melissa and the sheriff hugging before she exits the room, with the promise to come back in a little while and see again how Stiles is doing. The sheriff also leaves but only to find another chair, which he positions where Derek was previously standing. "Can you smell anything?" he asks softly.

"No..." Derek replies, still stroking his fingers through Stiles' hair. The younger man—and isn't that a weird thought, that Stiles is twenty-one and legally a man now?—doesn't respond to his touch at all, remaining completely unresponsive to anything going on around him. Derek knows it's for the best, like Melissa said, because Stiles needs time and rest to heal, but he still wants Stiles to wake up soon. It's been a long time since he last saw those cinnamon-coloured eyes. "I can't smell how he's feeling or anything like that. Maybe if we were anywhere else, but the scents of a hospital kind of make it impossible right now, especially because he's asleep. If he was awake it'd be easier. As of right now, all I can smell is antiseptic and the general sour tang of sickness that always pervades these damn places."

"That doesn't sound very pleasant," the sheriff comments.

"It's not. Be glad you don't have our noses."

"I am, but it's not all bad, right?"

"No, I guess not."

"There's a reason you're my favourite deputy, you know," the sheriff goes on. Derek gets the feeling he's just making conversation to pass the time, to distract himself from his worry until Stiles finally wakes up. "And it's not just because you're Stiles' best friend and mate-to-be. The others are all good, but you're exceptional at your job because your heightened senses give you an advantage. Some might say an unfair advantage, but it helps save lives so I couldn't give any less of a damn."

"Didn't help us find Stiles any sooner, though."

"I know you tried your hardest."

The conversation quickly branches off into more bland topics, the sheriff apparently sensing Derek's discomfort and switching it up. Laura pokes her head in at one point, just to check whether either of them need anything, and just as Derek is about to ask if she can get him some water, he hears a disturbance in the steady beeping of Stiles' heart rate monitor. His attention immediately leaving his sister's curious face, Derek looks down at Stiles and leans over him, searching for any other signs that he's waking up. Stiles' eyes move rapidly beneath their lids and his eyebrows meet in a faint frown, and then his fingers twitch in Derek's grip and his beautiful eyes blink open and flick around the room. They seem to pass right over Derek without really seeing him before landing on the sheriff and going wide, his breath hitching.

"Son...?" the sheriff croaks, slowly reaching out to touch him.

Stiles' obvious fear only gets worse. He releases a choked whimper and, because Derek is too shocked to stop him, throws himself sideways, out of the bed and away from his father. He falls to the floor in an ungraceful heap, his heart rate monitor slipping off of his finger and filling the room with an ungodly flatline. Stiles doesn't even wince when the needle of his IV tears out of his arm and he starts bleeding everywhere, just scrabbles to put more distance between himself and everybody else, until he's curled up in the corner of the room.

"I'll get the doctor," Laura whispers, sprinting out the door.

"Stiles, it's me," the sheriff pleads, stepping slowly toward his son. Stiles only curls up tighter and whimpers again, causing the sheriff's face to crumble.

"Oh, son, what did they do to you?"

Derek isn't sure what the best course of action is. Stiles is clearly terrified of his father, maybe just of anyone being close, but to Derek he hasn't reacted at all. Maybe Derek can use that to his advantage. With a glance at the sheriff that tells him in no uncertain terms to stay back, the beta creeps closer, pausing only briefly when Stiles peeks out from behind his hands and finally acknowledges him, the beginnings of tears in the corners of his eyes. He doesn't react any more than that to Derek's presence, so Derek pushes on until he's crouched down on the floor, just a couple of feet from his mate.

"Stiles, you don't have to be afraid," he reassures, so quietly that only the two of them can hear. Stiles looks at him curiously but doesn't say anything back, doesn't even blink. "No one here is going to hurt you. We just want to make sure you're alright."

Derek holds out his hand. "Can I touch you?"

A few tense seconds pass, and then Stiles nods hesitantly.

"Thank you."

Ready to retract his hand at any moment, Derek lays his fingers lightly on Stiles' shaking shoulder and, when Stiles doesn't recoil, strokes his thumb back and forth over the pale skin exposed by his hospital gown coming loose. There's a large scar there, a ring of teeth that is disturbingly close to a mating bite. The possessive instinct of Derek's wolf again rears its ugly head, the thought of anyone else attempting to mark their mate like that riling it up, but Derek pushes the discovery aside for later—much later—and keeps his eyes locked with Stiles'. His nose fills with the scent of copper when he takes a deep breath, from the blood that still pumps out from where Stiles' IV needle was inserted. "I need to do something about your arm to stop the bleeding. Will you let me?"

Stiles nods his acceptance again, leading Derek to take a couple of clean tissues out of the pocket of his jeans. He changes positions, sitting down with his legs crossed instead of crouching, and, with the utmost care, pulls Stiles' left arm away from his face and lays it across his lap. "This might hurt a little bit," he warns, "but I have to stop you from bleeding out. Do you trust me?" When Stiles nods a third time, Derek places the tissue over the tiny wound and puts pressure on it to staunch the bleeding. Stiles winces and hisses through his teeth but doesn't try to take his arm back, so Derek counts it as a win. A small one, but he'll take what he can get.

For a few minutes they sit there just staring at each other, with the sheriff fretting to himself where he sits back in his chair, until Laura returns with Dr. Martinez. The doctor makes a disapproving sound when he sees the blood on the bedsheets and floor but doesn't comment on it as he comes closer to Derek and Stiles. Too close. "I see our patient is finally awake!" he says with a smile that is probably supposed to be encouraging. "That's a good sign. Hello, Stiles. Looks like you've hurt yourself there. You mind if I take a look at it?"

Stiles does.

He attempts to yank his arm out of Derek's hold and press himself against the wall when Dr. Martinez steps forward, so Derek positions himself between them.

"I don't think that's a good idea," he growls.

"I need to look at—"

"I said no. You're scaring him."

Dr. Martinez frowns but capitulates. "Fine. But I'll have to check on him sooner or later."

"Later."

Turning back to Stiles, Derek's face softens when he sees how unsure the younger man still is. "Hey," he whispers, drawing Stiles' eyes back to him, "you're OK. You said you trusted me, remember? Well, what I told you earlier is still true: No one's going to hurt you. You're completely safe here. Do you... Do you know where you are?"

Silence.

"Do you remember me?"

More silence, but this question gets a shake of the head.

"Oh... Well, that's fine, too. D'you want to get up? It can't be comfortable there on the floor."

Stiles glances fleetingly over Derek's shoulder before he shakes his head again.

Derek rolls with it and sits down once more. "Alright. We can stay here."

All of a sudden tears build in Stiles' eyes again, and this time they spill over. "Hey, hey, you're safe," Derek hastens to comfort, but Stiles doesn't seem to hear him. Derek's ears easily pick up the racing of the younger man's heart, and he wishes that he could take Stiles properly in his arms. He knows that likely wouldn't be a good idea, would only make things worse, so he refrains but soon finds that things are going to keep devolving anyway. Stiles' panic increases until his breathing is laboured and he's hunched in on himself, soft whines slipping out each time he manages to exhale. Just as Derek is flailing for a solution to calm his mate down, Stiles throws himself forward and lands in Derek's lap, his wet face pressing almost desperately into the centre of Derek's chest as he sobs brokenly.

Hesitantly, Derek wraps his free arm around Stiles' shaking form and holds him close, all the while maintaining pressure on Stiles' arm. "Shh, I've got you," he murmurs, kissing the top of Stiles' head.

"I won't let anyone hurt you ever again."

Chapter Text

- The Past: Wednesday, January 26th, 2011 -

Stiles ends up falling asleep for a while, the enervating effects of his earlier panic attack taking their toll, and doesn't hear right away when a set of footsteps approaches from outside his black room. It isn't until there comes a loud unlocking sound that he jerks awake, his breath stopping in his lungs when the door to his prison cracks open, letting in light that, although just a sliver, already hurts his eyes something fierce. Quickly Stiles holds a hand up in front of his face, just in time for the door to open the rest of the way. He can't see anything and can't hear anything, either. He sits there, blinking rapidly as his eyes slowly adjust to the bright artificial illumination reigning down upon him.

When they do, in the doorway Stiles spots the silhouette of a man, just standing there with his arms hanging at his sides, his hands clenching and unclenching almost reflexively. He's tall, broad-shouldered and obviously muscular, with hair that's a few inches long and a menacing air about him, even though—to Stiles, at least—he's nothing more than a black shape. He's unnerving to say the least, the mere motionless sight of him enough to make Stiles think twice about opening his mouth and spitting out the questions he wants desperately to ask.

Honestly, he's scared of the answers he might get.

The two must stare at each other for whole minutes, until the man takes a single step forward. Stiles squeaks and scrambles backward, his back hitting the wall opposite the silhouette far faster than he'd like. There can't be more than ten feet between them, if that, a too-small distance that is eaten up when the man takes another step forward.

And another.

And then another.

He looms imperiously over Stiles, and although Stiles is unable to make out his face, he just knows the man is grinning at him.

"You're awake," comes a sickly amused voice.

Stiles bites back a snide remark and just keeps staring.

"That's good. We have big plans for you." The man waits a few seconds and then turns back toward to the open door. "You're up," he calls to someone waiting outside.

After the first man leaves, another enters. His hair is buzzed shorter than Stiles' and he is even larger than the first man, so muscular that he takes up nearly the entire doorway. The door shuts softly then, leaving Stiles alone with the second man, again in complete darkness. He can hear knuckles being cracked and heavy footsteps before the air in front of his face is disturbed and two glowing red eyes cut through the blackness, centimetres from his own. Even though his back is already pressed against the wall, out of instinct Stiles tries to lean away even further.

That's when the pain begins.

* * *

- The Present: Friday, January 29th, 2016 -

Stiles isn't released from the hospital for another three days. During that time he still doesn't utter a word and doesn't show any signs of remembering anything about the life he lead before he was taken, nor does he allow anyone but Derek to touch him. No one can really say for sure why this is so, but eventually, when she delivers a home-cooked lunch for Derek and Stiles on Thursday afternoon, Talia postulates that their mating bond is the reason Stiles is comfortable having Derek around, even though, in Stiles' broken mind, Derek is nothing but a stranger. Stiles might instinctively know that Derek isn't a threat because of that, or because some part of him, a part that's locked away deep down, remembers who Derek was to him.

Armed with these theories, as much as it hurts him to suggest it, Derek ends up proposing to the sheriff that he keeps his distance until Stiles shows improvement and can handle having more than his mate near him. The weary resignation that appears on the sheriff's face will haunt him for a while, Derek is sure, but in the end everyone agrees it's for the best.

Derek himself sleeps in a chair beside Stiles' hospital bed each night—something his back does not thank him for—and is witness to Stiles' terrible nightmares. On the first night, he's awoken at 2 a.m. by pitiful whining sounds and is confused in his groggy state, but then he takes in Stiles thrashing beneath his bedsheets, sweat on his scrunched-up brow and his lips bloody from biting them too hard. This shakes off the last remnants of sleep fast and Derek jerks up straight in his chair. Once he manages to coax Stiles out of whatever horrors he was reliving, the human refuses to go back to sleep and the two of them just sit there together for the remainder of the night, the TV switched on to banish the quiet.

The only times Derek leaves Stiles' side are to wash up in the toilet and put on the changes of clothes Laura graciously brings him every morning. Even then he rushes through it because he doesn't want to leave Stiles by himself for longer than he has to. His focus is always the younger man's heartbeat through the pushed-to toilet door, monitoring its pace so that he knows the instant Stiles begins to panic. It isn't an enjoyable experience in any sense of the word, but it is what it is and Stiles is worth it, so Derek doesn't complain.

The morning of his release, Stiles is even worse.

He jumps at every noise.

He shies away from all eye contact.

He doesn't eat any of the breakfast foods Laura brings with her latest delivery of clothes. Instead he just sits there, swamped in the sweater Derek had put on the night Stiles returned and a pair of worn sweatpants, on loan from Derek's admittedly boring and monochromatic wardrobe. If the situation were any different, the sight of his mate wearing his clothes would inspire a much different reaction in Derek than the sadness he feels so acutely. That it doesn't is probably for the best.

Derek gets the impression that the hospital room is something of a safe haven for Stiles, or at least as close to one as Stiles can imagine in his current headspace. He guesses that the mere thought of venturing outside of it, of potentially having to be around vast quantities of strangers, is the cause of his mate's sudden regression.

It breaks Derek's heart, because Stiles was always a gregarious and loquacious person.

"You're alright," he reassures, taking Stiles uninjured hand.

Stiles just shakes his head unhappily.

"I'll be with you the whole time. Nothing bad's going to happen to you."

Melissa pokes her head in then, interrupting them.

"You ready to go?" she asks.

"As much as we'll ever be, I guess," Derek answers with a sigh. With great care, he helps Stiles up from the bed and into the wheelchair that is hospital policy, even though Stiles would be perfectly capable of walking out of there on his own two feet. From the pout that appears on his face when he's forced to sit down, Stiles doesn't seem to like it at all and Derek is sure that, if he could, Stiles would be kicking up a bigger fuss about it all. Derek himself is just happy to see his mate displaying an emotion other than sadness or panic and can't help the small upward curve of his lips as he follows Melissa, wheeling Stiles toward the exit.

"You sure you can handle this?" the woman asks after they stop beside Derek's car.

"Yeah, I got him," Derek soothes. "Thank you."

Melissa looks like she wants to say more but in the end just nods and opens the passenger-side door to the Camaro. Derek helps Stiles climb inside and straps him in, smiling again when he catches his young companion taking in the once-familiar interior of the vehicle with a spark in his eyes, another sign that Stiles isn't too far gone to be brought back. It inspires Derek to work even harder to do just that.

"Take care of him, OK?" Melissa urges, hugging Derek briefly.

Derek returns it, his gaze on Stiles over her shoulder. "Of course," he mumbles.

Once the nurse is gone and Derek is behind the wheel of his car, he glances over at his passenger and offers a crooked grin. "Bet you're glad to be out of there," he says. He isn't really anticipating an answer and isn't disappointed when all he gets in response is a series of owlish blinks. Derek thinks idly that it's a little like talking to a curious child, something that brings back fond memories of when they were actually kids and Stiles had followed him around everywhere. "You'll be staying with me at my apartment, at least until you're recovered enough to sort out something else. You remember what it looks like?"

Stiles just blinks again.

"Right then... Let's get going."

* * *

"You'll be sleeping in my bed, if you're comfortable with that. I'll take the couch," Derek explains as he fits a clean bottom sheet over his queen-size mattress. Stiles stands a few feet away, watching his every move with quiet interest. It's almost like everything is new to him, and beneath his false cheer Derek can't help but wonder again what was done to Stiles to make him like this, how much he needed to be broken to make something so mundane so fascinating. The question is fleeting because he shuts it down as quickly as it had come, knowing it wouldn't lead him anywhere good. He gets resolutely back to the task at hand, laying out the top sheet and taking the cover for his duvet in hand.

An idea hits him then, and he looks up at Stiles.

"You want to help me with this?" he asks hopefully. "You were always better at putting these on than I was."

Stiles stares at him for a while, long enough for Derek to regret asking, but then he steps slowly forward and takes one of the corners of the duvet cover from Derek. His movements are hesitant, like he's frightened of being chided, so Derek smiles warmly at him as reaches for the duvet and begins stuffing it ungracefully inside the cover.

"This takes me back," he comments, watching as Stiles sits on the edge of the bed and assiduously pulls the corners of the duvet into the corners of the cover one by one, so that it's all smooth and perfect, his movements automatic like muscle memory. "You used to sleep over at my house all the time when we were kids, and my parents refused to help us get things set up because, and I quote, ‘it'll be good practice for later'. You had to help me back then because I was useless at it, and I still kind of am now. I guess my parents' hopes were wasted, huh?"

Stiles nods absentmindedly.

Pleased to get a response, Derek takes the finished duvet and, after waiting for Stiles to get up, flings it over the bed. "There, all done," he says happily, patting Stiles lightly on his shoulder. "Now then... All this hard work has really built up an appetite. You feel like eating?"

Another nod.

"Alright. Why don't you get one of the takeout menus from the drawer in the kitchen and choose anything that takes your fancy?" he suggests, ushering Stiles out of the bedroom and pointing to said drawer. Stiles looks incredibly reluctant to leave his side and Derek honestly feels the same, his wolf fighting him every step of the way, but he thinks it would be good for both of them to not spend every single moment under each other's feet. Derek will be there to catch him if he falls, but Derek is also sure that Stiles will never recover like he needs to if he isn't given the space to try to stand on his own again. Something small like this seems like a good way to go, at least to start things off.

"I'm gonna wash up and then I'll call," he finishes. "I'll only be a few minutes."

As much as it kills him, Derek turns, leaving Stiles standing there, and pushes his bedroom door closed. He doesn't move from the other side of it, choosing instead to wait and listen in case Stiles doesn't react well or has another panic attack, God forbid. He hears nothing but shallow breathing for a few moments and then soft footsteps walking away and the sound of the kitchen drawer sliding open. The rustling of cheap paper menus tells Derek that his plan succeeded.

He's proud of this small victory.

* * *

Later that evening, Derek and Stiles are sat together on Derek's couch, with two pizza boxes open on the coffee table and a glass of grape juice each. On the television the first season of Rick and Morty is playing, a show Deputy Parrish had introduced Derek to that he'd grudgingly copped to liking. He thought it was a good choice of entertainment because none of the subject matter was likely to bring up bad memories for his mate, and it would've been right up Stiles' alley when he was sixteen. Derek knows he made the correct decision when he tears his eyes away from the TV screen and sees Stiles' lips twitching. He hasn't gotten a proper smile or a laugh yet, but perhaps that's something that will only come with time.

When the season finale ends, Derek switches off the TV and yawns. "It's getting late."

Stiles tilts his head to the side.

"We should probably get ready for bed. You can use the bathroom first."

Wordlessly, Stiles gets up from the sofa and disappears into the bedroom, leaving Derek to clean up the pizza boxes and put their glasses in the sink.

That done, he makes his way into his bedroom, too, gets a pair of black pyjama bottoms out from his dresser, and sits on the end of the bed to wait patiently for his turn. He can hear the tap being turned off and then the door opens and Stiles steps through, dressed in a purple Henley that hangs on his frame, the neckline exposing one of his prominent collarbones, and a loose pair of boxer shorts.

"You good?" Derek asks when Stiles doesn't move further than the doorway.

A nod is Stiles' answer, and then he flicks his eyes briefly toward the bed before looking back at Derek, as if he's asking for permission. Derek gives it easily, not letting it show how much Stiles' need to make sure that he's allowed is affecting him. He doesn't miss the lightning-quick flash of emotion that passes across Stiles' face, but it's gone before he can even try to decipher it, replaced by a neutral mask as Stiles pulls back the sheets and climbs in, his head resting in the centre of the right pillow. Derek observes him for a while, noting that the mute man lies as stiff as a board, before realising that his gaze is probably the reason why.

Hastily, Derek enters his bathroom and closes the door, berating himself for making his mate uncomfortable with his obliviousness. He makes quick work of getting ready for bed and afterward says goodnight to Stiles on his way back through to the living room. It's automatic for him to switch off the light, so he doesn't think anything of it when he closes his bedroom door and leaves Stiles bathed in darkness.

On the sofa he has another set of sheets folded up ready, which he lays over the length of the cushions. Placing the only spare pillow he owns at one end, he switches off the living room light as well and then lies down and stares at the ceiling, suddenly not feeling very tired. His apartment is still eerily quiet. There are of course the usual sounds—his neighbours to the left are still watching TV; the couple across the hall are arguing about the dishes not being done; and Derek can even hear another couple on the floor above his having sex, a series of sounds that he all-too-gladly tunes out. If weren't for the steady heartbeat he can hear from behind his bedroom door, reassuring him that he's not still by himself, he would think the past few days were all a mere dream. The thought is terrifying, so he shuts his eyes and turns over onto his side, wishing that sleep will come swiftly and save him from thinking any more.

* * *

- The Present: Saturday, January 30th, 2016 -

Derek muses as he blinks open his eyes later that night that he should've expected this. He's getting used to waking up to strange noises now, to quiet, heart-wrenching whimpers and choked gasps—and isn't that just one hell of a depressing realisation? For a moment he continues to lie on the sofa, his spare sheets kicked down to his feet, before he shakes himself from his stupor, stands, and heads with sure steps toward his bedroom.

The sight that greets him once he has the door open isn't surprising.

"Oh, Stiles..." he breathes sadly.

The younger man is sweating and tossing and turning in Derek's bed, obviously caught in the grips of another nightmare so strong he can't get himself out of it.

In an action that has already become second-nature, Derek walks over to Stiles, switches on the bedside lamp, and shakes him lightly. He calls his name until the struggling ceases and frightened honey-coloured eyes are staring wide up at him. There are tears in those lovely eyes—also familiar—so Derek coos and sits down on the edge of the mattress, already tensed up ready for Stiles to throw himself bodily at him. That's just what happens, Stiles climbing into his lap and crying into his shoulder, salty moisture soon soaking into the material of his shirt as Derek rubs his hand up and down Stiles' shaking back and whispers soothing nonsense in his ear. The tears don't stop coming for what feels like hours, but when they do it's fast, with one last sniffle. Derek's shirt is coated with tears and snot, but he doesn't give it more than a passing thought as Stiles pulls away slightly and ducks his head.

"You don't have to be embarrassed," Derek says, wiping the last traces of tears from beneath Stiles' eyes. "No one judges you for needing comfort. I don't judge you, and it's the just the two of us here, after all. You have nothing to worry about."

Stiles doesn't respond right away, so Derek fills the silence with a memory.

"Do you want to know how we met?"

Stiles nods.

Derek eagerly tells the tale, happy to retread this particular road: "You were in the same kindergarten class as Cora, my younger sister, although I don't think you ever really interacted before you and I become friends," he recalls, resting his chin atop Stiles' head when Stiles retakes his previous position cradled in Derek's lap. He feels so small. "I was there one day to pick Cora up because Laura had some after-school thing and couldn't, and your parents were running late, so you were still there, too. You were in the sandbox, building sandcastles that were way too well-constructed for your age. I didn't even pay attention to the boy in the sandbox until I heard you cry out in shock. Another kid—Jackson, I think was his name—had kicked over all your hard work and was sneering at you, and to this day I still don't know what possessed me but I ran right over and punched him."

Derek feels a huffed breath against his neck and smiles.

"After Jackson ran off, I stayed there and helped you rebuild all of your sandcastles, because I couldn't stand to see that sad look on your face even after only knowing you for a moment. You were just too endearing, even back then. From that day I couldn't seem to get rid of you." Derek chuckles, remembering how annoyed he'd been at the start to have this baby duckling trailing after him nearly constantly. "Our parents all found it adorable, of course, and did everything they could to encourage our friendship. They set up playdates for us every weekend, until we were old enough to start hanging out on our own. We were the best of friends..."

Stiles releases a mournful sound that has Derek's arms tightening around him.

"You'll remember eventually," he murmurs.

They sit there for a while. Derek buries his nose in Stiles' hair and breathes him in with his eyes closed, taking comfort in the scent that, until a few days ago, he hadn't smelled in almost five years. Not since it faded from Stiles' blue sweater. It's still the same despite those years, despite everything that Stiles has been through, despite him forgetting everything about his old life, even himself.

Eventually, Derek feels Stiles' body lose all tension as he begins to drift off. "C'mon," he says, releasing the younger man from his hold and guiding him to lie back down. "Try to get some more sleep." He cards his fingers once through Stiles' hair before getting up, but he doesn't get far because a hand wraps around his wrist and prevents him from leaving.

"Stiles?" he enquires, staring confusedly down at said man's worried face.

Stiles opens his mouth as if to say something, and Derek foolishly gets his hopes up. But then Stiles snaps it closed again and simply tugs on Derek's arm until the wolf topples over, his fast reflexes the only things that save him from crushing Stiles beneath him. He rolls over his mate to the left side of the bed and blinks, stunned, by this turn of events. "You... Do you want me to sleep here, with you?" he asks, praying that he hasn't just misinterpreted the situation and ruined what has been, all in all, a wonderful evening.

His prayers are answered when Stiles nods, his eyes slipping shut and his breaths soon evening out. Derek turns over onto his left side and stares at Stiles' slack face, feeling thankful that his mate is letting him be there while he sleeps. They slept in the same room in the hospital, sure, but that was never really Stiles' choice. Derek was just there, and Stiles didn't get a say in the matter. Now, though... The fact that Stiles is actively seeking him out, saying with one gesture that he trusts Derek and wants comfort just from his presence, means everything. He never wants to stop drinking in the sight of his beautiful mate, so he doesn't.

"God, I've missed you..." he breathes, feeling an unexpected wave of emotion.

He's quickly overcome.

True tears come for the first time in years, pouring out before he can stop them. Derek keeps as silent as he can, not wanting to rouse Stiles from his for-once peaceful slumber as his body is wracked with sobs that he keeps back behind his hand. He cries for everything that Stiles went through and is still going through. He cries for all the time they lost, time they could have spent being blissfully happy together. He cries for how unjust it is that, presumably, the people responsible for Stiles' abduction are still out there. He cries for all the others that will likely experience what Stiles experienced until the culprits are found and apprehended.

When the tears dry, Derek is completely worn out. He tries to keep his eyes open but isn't able to manage it. He shuffles carefully toward the middle of the mattress, needing to be closer to Stiles, and his last thought before sleep takes him is a promise: Whoever took his precious mate away from him will be brought to justice, and he will be the one to do it.

No matter what it takes.

Chapter Text

- The Past: Wednesday, February 9th, 2011 -

There isn't a single part of Stiles' body that doesn't hurt.

Time is just a blur of the most intense pain, of broken bones and deep mottled-purple bruises and that constant, all-encompassing darkness, until he can't even guess how many days have passed him by. He spends every minute of them in that small room, only seeing light every now and then when his tormentor returns to beat him all over again. Each time he is left scraps of food, half-rotten things that turn his stomach, but he has to choke them down or risk starving to death before he can escape this hell. It's getting close to the point where he thinks dying might be the better alternative, better than dealing with the unremitting pain and having to vomit and piss and shit in the bucket that had appeared in the corner at some point.

Stiles doesn't even know why this is happening to him, what he did to deserve it.

According to the short-haired alpha, he did something.

That's the theme of his beatings. The domineering man will ask Stiles a question before every hit, before every kick or scratch, and if Stiles gets it wrong—which he always seems to—the resulting blow is worse. They're such easy questions, too. What is his name? Where is he from? Who are his loved ones? The first is obvious. The second he has no qualms about answering, because surely they must already know where he's from.

He was taken from in front of his house, after all.

The third question, though, is one he refuses to touch. It's probably foolish, but he hopes that his refusal to give details on his loved ones, not even their names, will prevent them from meeting the same fate. He would fight back in a more literal sense, but after the first time he learned his lesson. His puny human muscles are no match for a roided-out alpha werewolf. Still, his refusal to cooperate incites rage from his torturer, and once it was so bad that he passed out from the pain. The way his ribs throbbed when he regained consciousness later on told him that he came away from that beating with some of them being at least bruised. Probably cracked.

He'd never before felt such pain. There was no position he could adopt to relieve it without exacerbating one of his other numerous injuries, so he'd lain on the floor, expelling wheezing breaths and wishing for an escape. Any escape.

Even death.

Now, when Stiles is awakened by the door opening, he barely reacts. He knows the routine by now. Punch, kick, scratch—it's all the same. Right on cue, the short-haired alpha steps through, footsteps loud and heavy enough to make the floor shake beneath Stiles' ear, and stops in front of Stiles' prone form. The red eyes he had once upon a time stared defiantly into stare down at him, but now Stiles doesn't bother meeting them, not even when a steel-toed boot steps on the fingers of his left hand with just enough force to hurt but not break.

"What's your name?" a low voice asks, sounding bored.

"Stiles..." Stiles mumbles.

"Wrong."

The boot presses down harder, the bones of Stiles' fingers grinding against the concrete and causing him to wince. He doesn't make a sound until he feels the white-hot flash of his middle finger snapping like a twig. Then he isn't able to bite back his whimper, which only makes the alpha increase the pressure on his hand with a sadistic chuckle.

"What's your name?" he repeats.

"Stiles!" Stiles gasps.

"Wrong. Again. What. Is. Your. Name?!"

With every word the alpha inflicts a new injury. A kick to Stiles' stomach. A punch to the side of his face. Bending back another finger until that, too, is broken.

"I don't know what you want from me!" Stiles cries.

He tastes blood, so he knows he must've bitten his lip too hard again.

"I want you to tell me the truth!" the alpha yells, his eyes seeming to burn even brighter.

"I am!"

"No. You're not." The alpha breathes harshly into Stiles' face.

"Well then, enlighten me," Stiles sasses, finding fire he didn't know he still had.

For his troubles, the alpha grabs Stiles roughly by the back of his neck and squeezes, forcing him to meet angry red eyes. "Your name isn't Stiles," he sneers. "Or Mieczysław. You have no name. No one's coming for you. You're nobody. Nothing. I admit, I'm impressed with how long you've managed to hold out so far, but sooner or later I will break you. I'll make you forget everything about who you were, turn you into a mindless puppet that some lucky men are going to get the pleasure of playing with, of using and fucking. You'll learn your place. But, by all means, try your hardest to hold on to your stupid memories. It's been a while since I had someone resist this much, and I love a challenge."

* * *

- The Present: Saturday, January 30th, 2016 -

Derek wakes up to heaven.

It's a melodramatic thought, especially for him, but that doesn't stop it from being true. His sleep-addled brain doesn't register any strangeness right away, not when he has Stiles sleeping comfortably, safe in his arms. He doesn't yet remember that Stiles isn't really Stiles, doesn't yet remember that he probably shouldn't be holding his mate this way, no matter how much he wants to. He doesn't remember that there's work he needs to do.

All Derek can think as he drifts between sleep and lucidity is that this is how it should always be. He tries desperately to stay in that space, tightening his arms instinctively and pulling Stiles impossibly closer, their legs entangling and his nose pressing into the short hairs at Stiles' nape. He can almost let himself imagine that this has been his life for years, that Stiles is truly his mate, claimed and everything, that Stiles has been living with him since he turned eighteen and moved out of his dad's house. That Stiles had gone to college while Derek was in the academy. That waking up intimately entwined with Stiles isn't something unusual, something he has never experienced before. That every infrequent fantasy he'd dared to let himself have over the past five years is true.

But it doesn't last.

Reality eventually sets back in and Derek lets go of his mate and slides away, separating their bodies until he can slip easily out the other side of the bed. He tucks the sheets tighter around Stiles before grabbing a change of clothes, tiptoeing into the bathroom and taking a perfunctory shower. Soon, ready to go, Derek retreats to the kitchen with one last look at Stiles still sleeping the morning away and flicks on his coffee machine, tapping his fingers impatiently on the countertop while he waits for it to brew. He thinks over what he has to do, his promise from the previous night playing through his head. There's a lot of work to be done, and while Derek wants to get in on the ground floor, the logistics of how he'll manage that are tricky.

Stiles clearly doesn't like to be separated from him, a feeling that is more than mutual. He can't take Stiles with him to the station and subject him to all those people, so he supposes that the only option is to take a back seat in the investigation for the time being. At least until Stiles warms up enough to someone else. Maybe Derek can get someone from his family to stop by, ease Stiles into things. Yes, that sounds like a good plan.

Just as he takes his first sip of coffee, Derek hears his bedroom door open.

Out steps Stiles, looking honestly adorable in Derek's long-sleeved Henley, his spindly legs sticking bare out of his boxer shorts.

"You sleep alright?" Derek asks over the rim of his mug.

Stiles nods, pads over to him and stares, as if he's awaiting instructions.

Derek lowers his mug and gestures to the coffee machine. "You want some?"

Another nod.

Derek takes a second mug down from the cupboard and fills it up near to the brim, before handing it to Stiles. "There you go," he says with a smile.

Stiles smiles back, making Derek's heart flutter.

He has to look away.

"Listen, just so you know, someone will be coming over later today," he begins, sighing when the change in topic almost instantly causes the mood to darken and the timid smile to vanish from Stiles' lips. Derek hates himself a little bit and swiftly goes on, trying to attenuate his mate's sudden fear. "Don't worry; I'll still be here, too, and I won't leave you alone with them. You'll still be safe. Besides, it's no one you haven't already met. You remember my sister, Laura, from the hospital, right? Well, it'll probably be her, if I can convince her to come."

Stiles still looks hesitant but doesn't show any signs of true panic, so Derek guiltily moves forward with his plan, picking his coffee back up and retrieving his phone from where he'd left it on the coffee table in the living room. Soft footsteps behind him tell him that Stiles is shadowing him again, but Derek doesn't pay the human any real mind, his gaze focused on the small screen in his hand. He dials Laura's number, holds his phone up to his ear and sits down on the sofa while it rings. His sister is notorious in their family for being awful at taking calls or replying to texts, so Derek is surprised when it only takes three rings for his call to connect.

"Yo, little bro. What's up?"

"I was just wondering if you were free to come over this afternoon," Derek answers, straight to the point, praying that she doesn't already have plans with her husband, Nathan. He pats the next cushion over, inviting Stiles to sit beside him.

"Uh, sure, I guess. What's the occasion?"

"Nothing, really. I just figured it's been a while."

"Really?"

"Yeah," Derek lies.

"I'll choose to believe you. For now. I've got a hair appointment at just after noon, but I can be there for around three, if that works."

"Yeah, that works. Thanks, Laura. See you then."

"I would say 'anytime' but..."

The call disconnects with one of Laura's signature cackles, which always have Derek rolling his eyes so hard it hurts. This one is no exception. With a fond shake of his head, Derek locks his phone and sets it back on the coffee table, then sags back into the sofa and takes in the sight of Stiles next to him. The younger man is sitting stiffly, his legs crossed beneath him, his back a rigid line, his still-full coffee cup clutched tightly in the hand not currently in a cast. His head is bowed with his eyes glued to the steaming brown liquid warming his palm.

"What's wrong?" Derek enquires, concerned. "Is it Laura? 'Cause I can call her back and cancel if you're really not comfortable with her coming."

Stiles just shrugs.

"Are you going to drink your coffee?"

This gets his mate moving, raising the rim of his mug to his lips to take a cautious sip. The grimace that forms on his face immediately after causes Derek to grin. "Not a fan, huh?" he teases, taking the coffee from Stiles and downing it himself. "S'alright. You want to watch some more Rick and Morty? Looked like you were enjoying it yesterday."

Stiles perks up at that.

* * *

Laura's arrival is a prompt one. As soon as Derek sees the clock on his wall tick over from 2:59 to 3:00 p.m. there comes a knock at his door. It's a pointless courtesy and all the warning Derek ever gets, because Laura always lets herself in with the spare key he'd given her shortly after he moved in years ago. She strolls over to where Derek and Stiles still sit together in the living room, wearing a sleeveless black silk blouse, the top few buttons undone, and a pair of bright high-waisted jeans, her long dark hair falling in gentle waves down to just past her collarbones. Derek can't see a difference in the thick locks at all, but past experience has taught him that he sure as hell better give her a compliment if he doesn't want to face her wrath.

"Your hair looks nice," he says, getting up from the sofa to hug her.

"Thank you," Laura replies with a grin.

Derek ends the embrace after a few seconds and takes a step back, his arms crossed over his chest. "Thanks for coming."

"Anything for my favourite brother," Laura winks.

"I'm your only brother."

"Semantics."

Rolling his eyes, Derek turns back to the sofa, to Stiles. "You gonna be OK in here while I talk to Laura for a bit?" he asks. Stiles glances his way briefly, his eyes flicking warily between the two Hales, before returning his gaze to the television with a jerky nod. Derek can easily tell that his attention isn't really fixed there. It remains on Laura, Stiles' body language screaming that he's still not comfortable around her, but, no matter how much he wants to call the whole thing off, Derek is determined to see this idea through.

So he leads his sister into the kitchen.

Laura helps herself to coffee and an apple from his fruit bowl and then leans against the counter, levelling Derek with a speculative look. "So, little brother, how're things going with the two of you?" she enquires, taking a large bite of her apple. Derek can see the real concern behind the casual question and is for once glad for Laura's frankness, her unwillingness to beat around the bush.

"Alright..." he sighs, leaning beside her. "He had another nightmare last night."

"That sucks. You find out yet what they're about?"

"No. He still isn't speaking."

"Well, Dr. Martinez said there isn't a problem with his vocal chords, so...just give it time."

"I know."

"So, you care to tell me the truth about why I'm taking time out of one of my rare free afternoons to come over here?" Laura needles, one imperious eyebrow raised. Derek has always cracked beneath that expression, so he looks away quickly, suddenly finding the beige tiles of his kitchen floor incredibly interesting. Maybe he'll count them. "C'mon, Derek, tell me! And don't bullshit me with that lame excuse you gave earlier, because, as much as I know you love me, I also know you'd never willingly suggest spending time together like this if you didn't have an ulterior motive. You're too much of a hermit for that. I think I already know what your motive was but I want to hear it from your mouth. So spill."

"I just..." Derek starts, biting his lip. "I want Stiles to be comfortable around you."

"Why the urgency?"

"I have to find the people who did this to him."

"So you're just gonna foist him off on me?" Laura accuses. "Jeez, Derek, I didn't think you had it in you to just abandon your mate like that."

"I'm not abandoning him," Derek defends with a glare. "I would never do something like that, especially not when he needs me like he does now. But he'll need to re-acclimatise himself to you guys at some point, so I just figured there was no point in delaying that process. I know it's going to take a long time, and I'll still be here every step of the way, but I need to find those bastards, Laura. For Stiles. For myself. For anyone else they might have hurt. I need to know that they can never get their hands on Stiles again."

"I get that, but don't you think—"

"Laura, if it was Nathan, wouldn't you need the same thing?"

The elder Hale inclines her head. "That's fair," she admits. "Alright, I'll help."

"Thank you."

Grabbing some water for Stiles, Derek heads with Laura back into the living room, where Stiles is sitting in the exact same position. After handing him the glass, Derek returns to his space next to his mate and drapes his arm across the back of the sofa, hoping that, if he acts as if everything is normal, Stiles will be able to relax a little.

"Hi, Stiles," Laura greets cheerfully, offering him a wave.

The twenty-one-year-old stares at her without blinking, a slightly unnerving sight, but Laura takes it in stride. She wisely chooses not to sit on the sofa with the two men and opts instead for the floor next to the coffee table, close enough for her to interact with Stiles a bit more but far enough away for her not to be viewed as a threat. Hopefully. "So, boys, what's on the agenda for this afternoon, hmm?"

"Nothing much," Derek answers.

"Talkative as ever, I see."

"Shut up."

Laura laughs easily, a high mellifluous sound, and reaches into the small handbag she'd brought with her. From it she extracts a tiny bottle of glittery dark-purple nail polish, which she sets on the table before examining her bare nails and humming thoughtfully to herself. Derek groans none too quietly.

"Do you have to do that here?" he whines. "You'll stink up the whole apartment."

"Yup. My nails are in desperate need of repainting."

Derek huffs but doesn't protest again.

For the next few minutes the three of them sit in silence while the TV plays in the background. Stiles isn't really pretending to watch it any longer, though—he shifts in place frequently, his eyes switching back and forth between the TV screen and where Laura sits on the floor, painting the nails of her right hand with practised strokes of the tiny brush. Eventually Stiles' shifting is bad enough that Derek clues in to his restlessness. "What's up?" he murmurs, following his mate's gaze to Laura but not figuring out what's so fascinating about what she's doing. Perhaps Stiles is just reaching his limit for company already, although Derek hopes not.

Stiles' eyes snap to his, wide like he's been caught doing something he shouldn't as he shakes his head rapidly. Laura, obviously witnessing this interaction, makes a contemplative sound as she moves on to painting her other hand, the corners of her mouth turning up in the beginnings of a smirk. Derek spots this instantly and becomes irritated.

"What's so funny?" he demands.

"Nothing, nothing," the older Hale singsongs smugly. "This just takes me back to when we were kids."

"How is this at all like anything that happened back then?"

Laura holds up her hand and shows off her painted nails. "Because of this."

The memories come back to Derek then, and he realises that this does indeed all feel familiar. When he was fourteen, Stiles was eight and Laura was seventeen, Laura got home from shopping with her friends one afternoon and was painting her nails in the living room when Derek and Stiles came down from Derek's room to get a snack. Stiles insisted on stopping to say hello to her on their way back upstairs and they'd ended up lingering, for reasons Derek wasn't aware of right away. Not until Laura finished up and offered to paint Stiles' nails, too, much to Stiles' verbose delight. After that day, every now and then his sister would steal Stiles away for half an hour or so for a juvenile 'pampering' session, but then an unnamed alpha stopped by one day with some news for their mother and found them. The man made a snide remark that took all the fun out of it, a remark that Talia tried to smooth over. But the damage was done. Derek doesn't even remember what was said but, from that afternoon on, Stiles shook his head whenever Laura offered to paint his nails, to the point where she just stopped asking him.

"Oh..." Derek breathes.

"You remember now?" Laura enquires, bringing Derek out of his mind.

"Yeah, I do," he replies quietly, frowning.

"Stiles?" Laura calls softly, plastering a sweet smile on her lips when he looks timidly down at her. "You want me to do yours?"

The human turns helplessly to Derek, asking for something.

Derek doesn't know what he's supposed to do, so he just nods encouragingly. He's sad when this doesn't seem to be enough and Stiles stays where he is, but then Derek thinks again about what happened with the visiting alpha and about how his mate has acted since Derek brought him to his apartment. Perhaps Stiles needs more reassurance that it's alright to do something like this. "Would it—" he starts, drawing Laura's eyes now, too. He feels nervous for some reason and berates himself for it. He's secure in his masculinity, God damn it! "Would it help if I did it, too?" he finishes, not missing the bounce of Laura's hair as she excitedly bounces up and down in his periphery.

Stiles hesitates for a second longer and then nods his agreement. Derek is the first to leave the sofa, sitting down on the floor next to Laura and waiting while she gets a few more bottles of nail polish out of her handbag. She asks him to choose, and he looks pointedly at Stiles until the younger man points slowly to a neon orange that hurts Derek's eyes.

While he doesn't think it will suit him at all, Derek doesn't back out, laying his hands out flat on the coffee table to give Laura complete access to his short nails. Stiles observes with rapt attention as all ten of them are painted and then, when Laura is finished and looks up at him questioningly, silently asking him whether he's ready for his turn, he slowly climbs down from his seat, too, and positions himself right next to Derek, their thighs pressed against each other. Derek removes his hands from the table and rests them on his knees while his nails dry, leaving Stiles to put his smaller hands on the table where Derek's just were, the slight nervous tremor that shoots up his arms not going unmissed by Derek.

"Alright, hold still," Laura instructs, dipping the brush in the bottle of nail polish and reaching for Stiles' right hand.

Surprisingly, and amazingly, Stiles doesn't flinch.

It's the first time anyone but Derek has touched Stiles that hasn't ended with Stiles freaking out. His chest swells with pride and he smiles to himself while he sits there, feeling light, almost weightless from such a simple step in the right direction. Having his mate and his sister getting along again is wonderful. Laura talks but he doesn't listen, just looks at the side of Stiles' curious face as Stiles pays attention to what she says—the part of his full lips; the slight, adorable upturn of his nose; the dusting of moles across his scarred cheek...

It's all perfect.

"There! All done," Laura chirps sometime later, screwing the cap back on the bottle of nail polish. "You like them?" she asks Stiles.

The human in question wiggles his fingers in front of his face, examining them, before meeting Laura's patient eyes and giving her a tiny, shy smile. "I'll take that as a yes," she says happily, putting her nail polishes back in her handbag. She zips it up and gets to her feet. "Well, Derek, this has been fun, but I really should be getting back home now."

Derek gets up as well and walks with her to his front door.

"I think today was a success," she comments.

"Yeah... Thank you again for coming," Derek responds, hugging her tight. "I really appreciate it."

"Of course."

Letting go, Derek opens the door for her.

"Take care of yourself," she says as she steps outside. "And him."

"We'll take care of each other."

Laura pats his bearded cheek, her eyes sparkling. "Sap."

Chapter Text

- The Past: Monday, April 4th, 2011 -

The first time Stiles is allowed outside of his dark little room, the beatings have died down and his injuries have mostly healed. Even so, it doesn't even cross his mind to try to run. The short-haired alpha is who comes to pull him from captivity, and his mere presence is enough to keep Stiles in line as he is shepherded along a narrow corridor.

A voice in Stiles' mind begs him to take in every single detail, no matter how minute. He recognises this voice, and although he can't quite put a name or face to it, he knows they were important to him. The fact that he can't remember them is disquieting, but when he stops briefly to get his bearings he is just shoved harshly onward by his minder. It's happening more and more lately. The alpha is gradually getting his way, chipping away parts of Stiles' mind until fewer and fewer things are left. The only things Stiles knows for sure now are his name and that he has people who must be missing him. He can hear them sometimes and can still see one of their faces if he tries hard enough—they're beautiful, with hazel eyes and dark facial hair framing chiseled yet pretty features—but Stiles doesn't let himself try much anymore. It's just too painful to have a sense of how special they are to him but not know why.

The corridor is long, with several other doors identical to the one he came out of on both sides, ten in total, which don't blend in to the walls from this side. Stiles doesn't hear anything but his and the alpha's footsteps, but intuition tells him that he isn't the only one being held here. Some of the doors have buckets outside of them, leading him to guess that only a few of the rooms are currently occupied. It's still a harrowing thought. There are flickering yellow lights running along the middle of the high ceiling, the only illumination in the place, and the walls are painted white, a haphazard job that doesn't quite cover up all the red brick beneath.

Stiles is soon lead through the heavy metal door at the end of the corridor, which is secured with a multitude of locks and bolts. Once the short-haired alpha pushes it open, Stiles takes his first breath of fresh air in what feels like an eternity, a miraculous thing. He wants ardently to savour it, to stand there and greedily fill his lungs over and over again after so long spent breathing in nothing but the scents of his own waste and unwashed body.

The alpha doesn't let him.

He grabs Stiles' arm in a bruising grip when Stiles doesn't keep moving, and the human is forced to walk with him across a complex comprised of four disconnected buildings. Two of them are small, just a single storey each with no identifying features apart from a single door. The one he just came from—the holding cells, Stiles calls them in his mind—is also one storey but is quite a bit bigger. The fourth and final building, the one Stiles is made to enter next, is the largest of them all, standing tall at three storeys. All of its windows are obscured with black paint or newspaper stuck to the inside of the glass, and the left side of the exterior is almost completely covered in vines and ivy, the green contrasting with the brick.

"Get in," the alpha growls, shoving his captive again.

Stiles scrambles to obey.

Inside, the building is not much different than what he has already seen. In fact, most of it's the same—the long corridor with many doors on both sides; the sickening yellow lighting; the choking aura of pain and oppression in the air. Only here the walls are smooth and grey instead of badly painted brick and there are no buckets. Stiles takes this all in during the few seconds it takes for the alpha to slam shut and lock the entrance, and then his arm is grabbed once more and he's tripping over his own feet in an effort to keep up.

In the next corridor over, they stop in front of one of the doors.

"In here, boy."

Stiles is unceremoniously pushed through it. He groans when he lands on his face.

"Pathetic..." the alpha disparages.

The room Stiles finds himself in is small, even smaller than the one in which he was previously immured. It features dirty tiled walls and flooring and contains nothing but a mouldy wooden clothes hamper and a shower stall, which is really just a corner of the room sectioned off with a transparent piece of plastic hung on a high railing. On the floor beneath the rusty shower head are two bottles—shampoo and shower gel, Stiles reads from his position on the floor. He thinks that maybe he'll just stay there rather than participate in this next stage in the destruction of his entire self, but the alpha has other ideas. Stiles feels fingers tangle in his growing hair and hisses through his teeth as he is roughly pulled up to his feet and turned to look into red eyes.

"Strip," the alpha commands, releasing him.

"W-what?" Stiles stammers, taking an instinctive step backward.

"Take. Off. Your. Clothes."

"Why?"

"Now! Or do you want me to take them off for you?"

The alpha holds up his hand and shows off his claws. Stiles knows exactly the damage they could cause if they were turned on him and so, shaking like a leaf the entire time, he reaches for the hem of his ratty, stained T-shirt and pulls it off over his head.

"Good. Pants and underwear, too."

Stiles complies and holds his hands over his crotch, his body breaking out in goosebumps all over as the chill of the room hits him full force.

"Now, you're going to shower, get nice and clean."

It sounds too good to be true, scrubbing the grime from his body.

"And then?" Stiles dares to ask.

The alpha appraises him for an unnerving amount of time before deigning to answer. "You'll be seeing our doctor, of course," he explains with a disgustingly smug smile, like he knows and is enjoying what having his eyes on Stiles' naked form is doing. "He's not qualified in the strictest sense, but don't worry—he knows what he's doing. We need to make sure everything's in working order for what we have planned for you, and then, once I've removed those last few pesky parts of the old you from your brain, you'll move on to the next step in your training. You're going to be able to make all of your clients very happy by the time we're through with you."

* * *

- The Present: Saturday, February 13th, 2016 -

For the next two weeks, Laura comes over to Derek's apartment most days after getting off work, just to be around Stiles and help him get more comfortable with others. It's not perfect—some days go so well that Derek thinks it's almost like old times, while on others Stiles is distant and doesn't react well to having Laura near him. It takes Derek a while to suss out that it's because of Stiles' nightmares. The younger man never sleeps peacefully through a whole night, but some are full of dreams so bad that Stiles literally wakes up screaming.

After those nights, Laura's visits are short.

Today looks like it's going to be good. Stiles surprisingly slumbered without incident, Derek thinks, because he wasn't woken up by anything. And with how vigilant he has been of late, his sleep lighter than ever because he wants to be there at the slightest whimper, that's saying something. It shows progress, more than Derek thought he would see from his mate in what is, in the grand scheme of things, such a short amount of time. He read case studies when he was training to become a deputy, every horrific word detailing the unfathomable cruelty real individuals had suffered. He brushed up on the studies after Stiles came back, and every one of them painted a picture of it taking so much longer for the victims to reach the stage Stiles has. Perhaps their as-of-yet unfulfilled mating bond helps, like Derek's mother told him she suspected. Or maybe Stiles is just stronger than all of those other people. Derek feels a little bad for thinking it—pain is pain, and everyone deals and copes with it differently; it's not a failing of others if it takes them longer—but part of him is proud, too.

He knew Stiles was strong.

"You ready?" Derek asks him, standing by the front door.

Stiles is beside him, looking nervous but trusting. He nods his confirmation.

"Great," Derek smiles. "Let's go, then."

This afternoon, Derek is taking his mission to expose Stiles to others to the next level. His mate can now stand to be left alone with Laura for almost half an hour before showing signs of freaking out, so—after talking it through with both Dr. Martinez and a psychologist he'd recommended, Marin Morrell—he thinks Stiles is ready for more. Derek is taking Stiles to his house in the preserve, where just Stiles' dad, Talia and Laura are waiting. Derek's dad and Cora had wanted to be there, too, but because Derek felt that Stiles being able to handle two strangers in close quarters was already pushing their luck, they'd agreed to clear out for a while.

As he locks up his apartment and guides Stiles downstairs to his car, Derek hopes it goes well. If it does, then he'll be able to leave his mate in his family's care while he joins the investigation, which John already has well underway. Derek has been asking for periodic updates from the sheriff and knows that, thanks to a blessed shortage of crime in Beacon Hills at present, the force is already making headway re-interviewing every witness from the original case five years ago. He should probably be there—his werewolf senses make him a walking lie detector, after all—but, because he didn't pick up on any deception the first time, and because he can't bring himself to leave Stiles alone with anyone for long periods of time yet, he makes do.

Another part of him feels guilty for sitting out the footwork. He's on paid leave for the foreseeable future, until Stiles recovers enough, but when Derek had voiced those feelings to his superior one evening, he was told that he was being an idiot:

"If you think I give a damn about the money, then you don't know me at all," the sheriff had reprimanded passionately. "You're not taking advantage or whatever stupid thing that's gotten into that head of yours. I'd give you my entire life savings if it meant Stiles was taken care of. He's the most important thing here, and, as much as I want to be there for him, you're the only who can do that. Your job will be here waiting for you but, right now, just concentrate on helping your mate and my son."

The memory makes Derek snort, drawing Stiles' confused gaze.

"Get strapped in," he instructs, climbing into the Camaro with an awkward cough.

The younger man gets in, too, but just sits there.

Derek can easily pick up on his nerves. "You can still say no, you know," he prods. "We don't have to do this today."

Stiles bites his bottom lip and then does up his seatbelt, his movements hampered by the cast on his left arm. Derek takes this as the confirmation he was looking for and turns the keys in the ignition, bringing the engine to life with a roar that, after all the years he has owned the car, is soothing. He notes out of the corner of his eye that the purr of the engine seems to have a similar effect on Stiles, the human's body sinking back into the passenger seat and radiating less anxiety than before. It's nice to see and bodes well for what is awaiting them.

* * *

As promised, when Derek pushes open the front door and steps across the threshold of his childhood home, he finds it practically deserted where usually it teems with people. A werewolf family is always a large one and the Hales are no exception to the rule, especially not after the Stilinskis were brought in to the fold and made honorary members, so the quiet is alien to Derek as he pulls Stiles along behind him with a gentle tug on their clasped hands.

"Derek? S'that you?" comes a voice.

"Yeah, mom!" he yells back, sliding off his leather jacket.

The woman comes through from the kitchen as he's hanging the precious garment up on one of the hooks beside the front door. She's dressed in a pair of black jeans and a soft-looking red blouse, buttoned all the way up to the collar, and her hair is woven into a thick braid that drapes elegantly over her shoulder. Her eyes shine brighter, seem bigger, with the aid of some subtle eyeliner and mascara. It's a smart, put-together look even for her, and as Derek is pulled into her embrace he smirks to himself, suspecting that she'd dressed up specially because Stiles was coming over. He appreciates the effort, even though he thinks it wasn't necessary.

"It's good to see you," Talia grins, releasing and patting Derek on the cheek.

"You, too," he responds, stepping off to the side to reveal Stiles, who was trying to hide behind him.

Talia's grin softens. "Hi, honey."

Stiles is obviously silent.

Wisely, Talia doesn't try to embrace him, too, instead keeping her distance. He observes her warily, though he does seem to relax a little after Derek rubs his arm. Derek can hear talking coming from the living room, the voices of Laura and Stiles' dad clear as she informs him of what she believes the dos and don'ts are for this afternoon. He is grateful for his sister's perspicacity when, after John asks whether or not Stiles would be amenable to a hug, she tells him not to get too close. Stiles has to come to him first, and no sooner. Tuning out of that conversation following the sheriff's despondent acceptance, Derek refocuses on his mother and trails after her into the kitchen, Stiles on his heels, where he finds two trays laid out ready on the island. Upon one of them are five teacups, a steaming teapot and a bowl of sugar cubes, all of which are white with matching purple floral designs running up the sides. Upon the other tray is a selection of finger sandwiches and small homemade cakes.

"How do you want to do this?" Talia asks.

"We'll play it by ear," Derek responds, hearing Laura tell the sheriff to get ready.

"Alright."

As a threesome they walk through to the living room, with Talia taking point. It's a spacious room, with dark hardwood floors and pale-blue painted walls adorned with a multitude of family photographs. Laura and Stiles' dad are sitting on either end of one of the three black leather sofas, which are positioned in a U shape facing a large fireplace. In the centre of it all is a low glass coffee table, on top of which Talia and Derek place the trays.

Derek opts for the sofa opposite Laura and John and sits in the middle.

Stiles sits down on his left, their thighs touching.

Talia takes the third sofa.

The sheriff doesn't remove his pained eyes from his son, not even when the eldest Hale gives him both his and Laura's teacups.

"I like your nails, Stiles," Talia comments, trying to dispel the tension.

Said boy looks down at his fingernails, which Laura had painted a metallic pale olive a few days prior. He breaks from his farouche demeanour for a second to offer the woman a smile, which she returns warmly and moves on, not making a big deal out of it.

"It's good to see you, son," the sheriff echoes Talia's earlier words, continuing to stare. Stiles wilts under his longing gaze, under the intensity of it, breaking eye contact and looking instead at his lap. Laura nudges John in the ribs with a not-so-subtle cough that's clearly meant to say, "Lay off a little," a message that's thankfully received loud and clear—the sheriff lowers his own eyes and picks up one of the finger sandwiches at random, not caring which variety he ends up with as he stuffs half of it in his mouth. While he chews, silence descends upon the living room, until Talia makes a contemplative sound and gets up from her seat.

"I'll be right back."

She vanishes for a minute, leaving the others baffled, until she returns with a large photo album in her hands. Derek groans when she puts it down on the coffee table and he gets a look at the two names printed in gold cursive on the brown leather cover: Derek & Stiles. Laura laughs at her brother's reaction and switches places, throwing herself into the free seat to Derek's right and reaching for the album. She bats Derek's hands out of the way, lays it out across his lap so that both of them and Stiles can see its contents, and opens it to the first page, which features a set of photographs from one of Derek's birthday parties when he was a kid.

"Your eyebrows were legendary even then," Laura smirks.

"What did I do to deserve this?" Derek whines, glaring halfheartedly at his mother.

"I thought it might help jog Stiles' memory," Talia responds unrepentantly. "What've you got to lose?"

Derek sighs. "My dignity."

"Derek."

"Fine, fine, let the humiliation begin..."

Talia and Nicolas Hale were very liberal with the use of their camera, the album stuffed full of just the first couple of years of Derek's friendship with Stiles. Derek had his own album for the first few years of his life, but then Stiles entered the picture and, because the two boys were always together, it just made sense to the Hale and Stilinski parents to merge their documentary efforts into one resource, with each family getting a copy.

One photo in particular catches Laura's eye, which was taken at Derek's twelfth birthday party in the back garden of their house. Both families can be seen in the background, sitting spread across two tables piled high with various foods and cakes and fizzy drinks, watching the two boys in the foreground with fondness on their blurry faces. The main focus of the photograph is Stiles, who is jumping up and down and excitedly attempting to pop the bubbles that Derek has just blown for him. The unbridled joy Stiles was feeling that afternoon is palpable, contorting his little face into a wild, almost manic grin, his tiny eyes reduced to slits. Derek's face is much more stolid, almost lacking an expression entirely, but it would be clear to everyone who took the time to look carefully that the twelve-year-old was also having a wonderful time.

"Aww, you were so cute!" Laura fawns. "What happened?"

"Laura..." Derek says lowly.

"Now you're just a great big grump."

"Mmm, I don't know..." Talia interpolates, holding her fingers to her chin, her amused eyes flicking between Derek and Stiles. "I'd say he's still cute from time to time."

"True," Laura agrees, grinning when the tips of Derek's ears burn pink.

The man in question just scowls, resisting the urge to cross his arms over his chest and pout like a petulant child. Despite his earlier capitulation, he has half a mind to snap the photo album closed and burn it to ashes so that it can never be used to embarrass him again. But then he takes in the way Stiles is still staring down at the photographs.

The human switches between looking down at the album and up at Derek, almost like he's making sure that the bearded man beside him is truly the same person as the older of the two boys in the glossy images. Derek doesn't know what does it, but eventually something convinces Stiles that they are and his eyes remain glued to the page currently open in his lap. The way his slender fingers skate over the younger version of himself in his lap evinces deep sadness and longing. Derek can't imagine how that feels. It would be one thing to find yourself lacking your entire identity and be told who you are by strangers. But to see concrete evidence of who you used to be and be unable to remember even a tiny portion of it must be something else entirely. It's apparent to Derek that this idea of his mother's hasn't worked. Stiles is no closer to remembering himself or any of them.

"You OK?" he enquires quietly, bumping their shoulders together.

Stiles' fingers freeze on the photograph and he releases a slow breath before nodding.

His dad speaks up then, hesitantly. "Is anything...coming back to you?"

Stiles shakes his head dispiritedly.

"Just keep trying, dear," Talia says soothingly. "It'll happen when it happens."

"And even if you never remember," Laura adds, ignoring Derek's heated glare, "we can just start over. Shouldn't be hard. I'm very loveable."

Derek sighs. "Laura..."

"What?"

"Just— Never mind. Let's see what else is in here."

For the next half hour, Derek and Stiles flip through their photo album, with Derek explaining what he remembers of the days each photograph was taken. It's not much, because all of it happened over fifteen years ago now, but Stiles seems interested to learn about their past, so he has no problem indulging him as best he can. The sheriff, Talia and Laura just sit in the background, listening but not participating more than throwing in the occasional comment here and there, supplementing Derek's admittedly foggy remembrances.

But then, after checking her watch, Talia interrupts things.

"I'm sorry to cut this short, but I have to get going," she says, getting to her feet again. "I have a meeting with the alphas of neighbouring areas to discuss...recent events," she says, her keen eyes not missing the way Stiles tenses up at the word 'alpha'.

Derek doesn't miss it either. He rubs his hand up and down Stiles' arm a couple of times before leaping up from the sofa and following his mother out into the foyer, his arms crossed and his thick eyebrows meeting in an unhappy frown. "Can't this wait?" he asks, directing judgemental eyes at Talia. He thought she would be staying longer—wasn't that the whole point, to help Stiles get used to being around his family so that he would know his mate was in safe hands when he couldn't be there? He can't help but feel a little betrayed.

"I'm afraid not; this is too important to postpone," Talia placates, slipping her arms through the sleeves of her red coat.

"What's too important?"

"Look, Derek, you know as well as I do that the perpetrators of the crime that befell Stiles are still out there. You also know that they're likely like us. We were never sure before, didn't even want to entertain the idea that one of us could do something like that. But the marks Stiles bears are undeniable. I should've called a meeting with the alphas close to us the day Stiles returned, but I wanted to be here in case you needed me. I know now that you don't." Derek opens his mouth to protest but Talia precludes him by holding up her hand. "You may think you do, but Derek, you've got this. Stiles already trusts Laura, and I feel John won't be far behind in gaining the same thing. I'm sorry, but as the Hale Pack alpha, it's my responsibility to warn the others."

"Where are you meeting them?" Derek demands to know.

"In a neutral location. A diner a couple of towns over."

"Next time, I'm coming with you."

"I don't think that's—"

"This isn't up for discussion," Derek insists, insubordination be damned. "Like you said, it's about what happened to my mate, so I have a right to be there."

Talia raises a disapproving eyebrow at her son's tone but accepts nevertheless. "You're right," she concedes, buttoning up her coat. "You can accompany me to the next meeting, but you're staying here for today. Stiles still needs you."

"Of course."

Derek pecks his mother on the cheek and sighs when she's gone. After waiting a moment to calm himself down, he turns and immediately freezes when he finds Stiles standing in the doorway to the living room, his head bowed nervously and his uninjured arm crossed over his stomach, his nails digging into his elbow. Blinking away his surprise, Derek steps forward and plasters on a smile. "Everything's fine," he assures his mate, unwrapping Stiles' hand from around his own arm and chastely kissing his forehead. "Let's get back to the others, hmm? Some of those cakes looked good."

Chapter Text

- The Past: Monday, April 4th, 2011 -

Having to wash himself in front of the alpha is the most mortifying thing Stiles has ever had to do. The only good parts of it are the shortness of the whole affair and the fact that he feels blessedly clean afterward. Once he finishes drying himself with the scratchy towel the alpha throws at his head, Stiles stands in the middle of the cold room and waits to be told what to do next. His hands once again cup over his crotch to provide himself with a sense of modesty, however infinitesimal. A part of him hopes he will be given something else to wear, but the rest of him is sure it's a stupid thing to wish for. The latter, of course, is right.

"Why are you even bothering to cover that thing?" the alpha sneers, glancing between Stiles' legs. "It's not like anyone's ever gonna be interested in it. Move your hands."

Stiles doesn't, causing the alpha's eyes to narrow and flash red.

"You know I don't like to repeat myself."

Grudgingly, Stiles slowly complies, allowing the alpha to see every inch of him. His tormentor laughs and reaches out lightning quick, taking Stiles' flaccid penis is his hand and squeezing tightly, causing Stiles to cry out. He pulls away instinctively, making the pain worse. "See?" the alpha derides. "This can barely even be called a cock! It's pitiful. Don't worry, though. Some day very soon you'll find out what a real man looks and feels like. Now, follow me."

The short-haired wolf releases Stiles' cock and exits the room, not bothering to look back to make sure he is being obeyed. Stiles awkwardly pads after him, dread churning in his gut as he is lead down another series of corridors toward whatever fresh hell awaits him next. The door the alpha stops outside of is different from the others, a square of glass fixed into the metal at about head height. Through the pane Stiles gets a glimpse of an examination table which, when the alpha jerks the door open and manhandles him inside, he gets up close and personal with. It looks just like one Stiles would expect to find in a doctor's office, except for the custom restraints attached on both ends for hands and feet. It's old and tattered and features several stains that look suspiciously like blood and semen, a sickening thing to behold. Stiles starts to panic inside when the alpha pushes his shoulder and orders him to recline upon it.

The restraints are swiftly secured around Stiles' wrists and ankles. A blindfold is tied over his eyes and a balled-up piece of fabric is stuffed inside his mouth, rendering him wholly at the mercy of his captor. He finds it difficult to draw oxygen into his lungs, a predicament that only gets worse when he hears the door open and close again and he is left with nothing but his own fractured mind. He's completely alone in the room for a long stretch of time, and then, finally, the door opens once more and he hears someone enter and come close.

The newcomer's footsteps sound different from the short-haired alpha's, softer as they approach the table. Stiles wishes he could see them, see the menace in their eyes. With the blindfold covering the top half of his face, though, all he can do is lie there powerlessly and cringe under their gaze as it roves up and down his body. He wants to squirm away from the invasive feeling, but the restraints just bite into his flesh when he tries.

It takes an age for whoever is there to do anything else.

The man—at least Stiles guesses they're a man—still doesn't speak as he begins his 'examination'. Cool fingers touch the boy in places no one else has touched him before. One bare hand pins Stiles' hips to the table as another holds up his soft cock, prodding and poking before repeatedly stroking up and down its length. Stiles feels shame creep up his spine and clenches his sightless eyes shut when his traitorous body starts to react. Blood rushes south, filling his cock to half-mast before it's dropped and left to fill the rest of the way on its own.

The doctor's questing hand moves on to target his balls next, rolling and squeezing them as he searches for something Stiles can't name. When a finger skates down over Stiles' perineum and grazes his hole, he jolts. "No..." he whimpers through his gag, trying to buck the doctor off.

It's a fruitless endeavour.

The doctor proceeds despite Stiles' protestations, his dry hand disappearing for a moment before returning, one digit slicked up.

Stiles' erection flags as the finger corkscrews deep inside his clenching hole, wiggling around until it grazes something that forces all the oxygen from Stiles' heaving lungs. The touch becomes almost gentle then, rubbing back and forth across the bundle of nerves that, through his unwilling pleasure, Stiles' mind tells him is his prostate. The pressure of the doctor's other hand leaves its perch on Stiles' stomach and wraps around his cock instead, also slicked up now as it twists on every upstroke and leaves Stiles a panting mess. Saliva soaks through his gag and leaks out the corners of his mouth to run down his cheeks.

He fights it but can't stop the orgasm that hits a minute later, the doctor's sure grip working him through it as salty tears wet his blindfold. The doctor withdraws his finger once it's over, and then Stiles feels a damp cloth wiping up the mess he'd made of his own stomach. He hears the door open, a disembodied voice drifting in. Though he has only heard it once, Stiles knows it belongs to the long-haired alpha.

"Well? Are we good to go?"

"Definitely a virgin, just as you thought," a cold voice replies. The doctor, Stiles guesses. "Everything seems to be working as it should."

"Excellent."

Even through the blindfold, Stiles can imagine the smirk on the alpha's face. He just keeps crying, feeling betrayed by his own body.

* * *

- The Present: Saturday, February 20th, 2016 -

Like the previous weekend, on Saturday Derek has Stiles accompany him to his childhood home. The same faces are there—John, Talia and Laura—but there are also a few new ones, at least for Stiles. Derek's dad Nicolas, his younger sister Cora, and his uncle Peter are in attendance, although they were warned ahead of time to make themselves scarce if things didn't go well. As he enters the capacious house, Derek's first sight is Peter standing in the foyer with a cocky smirk on his lips. He immediately regrets agreeing to the older man's presence.

"Nephew," Peter greets.

Derek nods politely, shrugging off his jacket. "Uncle."

He prays to whichever deity is listening that Peter won't make things difficult, like he usually does. Of course, when the older man spots the human just behind Derek and smirks, Derek knows his prayer went unanswered.

"And Stiles!" Peter booms, stepping forward. "It's been years!" He doesn't give Derek a chance to intervene, just wraps his arms around Stiles' thinner frame and hugs him tightly. Predictably, Stiles becomes as stiff as a board and doesn't breathe again until Derek rips him from Peter's arms. Peter looks remorseless.

"What was that?!" Derek hisses, stepping between his uncle and mate.

"Just welcoming family," Peter excuses, picking insouciantly at his nails. "I know it goes against your whole being, but you really shouldn't be so prickly."

"If you lay another hand on him, I'll—"

"Peter!" Talia steps swiftly through from the kitchen, her lips held in a rictus smile. "There you are. I've been looking everywhere for you! The barbecue is all set up out back and now that you've said hello, why don't you go help John get the first burgers cooked, hmm?" she suggests, her voice pleasant but the fire in her eyes making it clear that she isn't actually asking. Only when Peter traipses off with a careless wave of his hand does she drop the act, facing her son and shaking her head apologetically. "Sorry about him. I ordered him to behave himself but you know how he is. I hope he didn't cause too much trouble."

Derek glances at Stiles, who still seems a little shaken up but calms down when Derek laces their fingers together. "No, I don't think he did," he responds, looking back at his mother. "What's this I hear about a barbecue?"

"Your dad suggested it this morning," Talia grins. "We haven't had one since..."

Since Stiles went missing, Derek finishes in his head. It was basically a tradition for both the Stilinskis and the Hales. Every couple of weeks they would get together, grill some burgers, steaks and sausages, the adults would drink and then they'd all play some games together. They tried having one just once after Stiles disappeared but never tried again; it was awkward for everyone. No one knew what to say and most of the food went untouched and had to be thrown out, a travesty in Talia's eyes.

Derek wishes he'd had more time to prepare for the afternoon, but, thinking on it while he and Stiles follow Talia through the house and out into the back garden, he concludes that it was a pretty good idea on his father's part. He'll have to thank him later, should it pay off.

The back garden is made up of a large patio, with a purlieu of lush green grass and trees surrounding everything. The smell of nature has always been a comfort for Derek and today is no different, The scents of pine and wood and grass and earth commingle into something else, something that taps into Derek's baser self and soothes him.

He doesn't get much time to savour it in peace because as soon as he steps foot onto he back patio, he is nearly deafened by a yell coming from right behind him. There's a scream of his name and then a weight crashes onto his back and makes him stumble, Stiles' hand slipping out of his. Irritated, Derek peers over his shoulder at whichever of his sisters has decided to attack him and gets a mouthful of long dark-brown hair that he spits out with a sputter.

"Eww, big brother. Really? I just washed it!" the young woman on his back whines.

"Get off of me, Cora," he tries, already knowing it's futile.

Sure enough...

"Nope," she chirps.

If the hellish years growing up with his sisters taught Derek anything, it's that the best thing he can do is play along—refusing to participate in whatever they try to inflict upon him will just make them try harder. So, with a grumble, Derek positions his hands beneath Cora's knees and hefts her up higher on his back, removing some of the pressure from his neck.

"You're a menace, you know that?" Derek sighs when Cora pats his chest in mock sympathy. "How long are you planning on draping yourself all over me?"

"Well, if you really don't want me to, I'll stop."

Derek doesn't need to see her face to know she's pouting. "Is that so?" he asks doubtfully.

"Yes. Just this once."

Derek drops her without warning, eliciting a squeak of indignation from her even though her honed werewolf reflexes allow her to easily land with grace.

"Meanie!" she cries, smacking him on the arm.

"You'll live."

Cora rolls her eyes. They come to a stop on Stiles and her expression shifts, becoming speculative and a little shocked. It dawns on Derek that this is the first time Cora is seeing Stiles since he disappeared. He sympathises with how she must be feeling, how affecting the change is. He hastens to smooth things over before she can say anything to make things uncomfortable, knowing she has never been one to practice the art of tact—and coming from Derek, that's saying something.

"Stiles, this is my younger sister, Cora," he re-introduces, moving to stand beside the thinner man and place a hand on the small of his back. "I've told you about her before, remember?"

Stiles nods slowly, his face uneasy and his body tense, like he's scared of getting jumped on, too. It's a legitimate fear, especially with what Peter pulled earlier, so Derek looks warningly at his sister.

"Stiles. It's been a long time," Cora says, her shock morphing into a tentative smile.

"She's your friend," Derek assures his mate. "Like Laura."

Stiles just stands there.

Cora starts fidgeting, an unusual sight, because even if it's just a facade, she never looks unsure of herself. "Well, this is awkward..."

Laura approaches then, as if sensing their discomfort. "Cora, Uncle John wants your help with the food, since Peter is being as unhelpful as ever," she apprises, nodding back the way she'd come. Derek looks and sees that she isn't lying. John is standing by the grill on the opposite end of the patio, looking extremely unimpressed as Peter, as he is wont to do, stands off to one side running his mouth and doing absolutely nothing to assist the food preparation.

"Ugh, fine," Cora sighs, trudging off.

Laura winks at Derek and mouths, "You're welcome," before tailing the younger girl, who now hovers next to the sheriff with a plate of soft-looking pre-cut burger buns in her hands and a bored expression on her face.

Derek is relieved to be free of his sisters for the time being, while Stiles just looks bemused, like he doesn't know how he should act. "C'mon," Derek murmurs, saving him from having to figure it out himself. He uses the hand he still has on the small of Stiles' back to guide him across the patio. "Let's get some drinks or something. I'm parched."

* * *

Later that afternoon, when their stomachs are fit to burst from overindulging in burgers and a buffet of desserts and snacks, everyone sits scattered around the back garden, split between the tables on the patio and a large blanket laid out across the grass. Derek and Stiles are on the latter with Cora, with Derek working to get Stiles to warm up to her. It's more difficult than it was with Laura because, while his younger sister is nice beneath it all and Derek loves her with all of his heart, he can admit that Cora isn't the most well-mannered or friendly-looking person, especially at first. The things that go unsaid hamper Derek's efforts, too, but he perseveres.

John and the rest of the Hales are still sitting at the tables, talking quietly about various topics over cups of tea or decaf coffee. Every now and then Derek will tune into them, but he pays them very little mind until he hears Stiles' predicament being brought up by the sheriff.

"He seems to be doing alright," John comments wistfully.

"Yes," Peter agrees, his smooth voice almost suspicious, "very well."

"I just..." John sighs deeply, and Derek turns his head to take in John's dejected face. "It's hard, you know? I want to be there for him but I can't. And I feel..."

Talia covers his hand with hers when he pauses. "Feel what?"

"I feel bad that Derek has to do all of this by himself. I should be doing more."

"You will, John. When Stiles is ready, you will."

"But—"

"No buts," Talia interrupts. "Derek's got this."

"I know he does. I don't question his abilities. I feel terrible for thinking it but...a selfish part of me wishes that I was the one Stiles trusted, not Derek. He doesn't remember either of us but with me it seems worse—he won't even let me near him. I just want this to be over with and for him to go back to being my son." The sheriff sighs again at the end of his tirade, then scoffs when he registers the silence with which it has been met. "See? I told you it was terrible. I'm a terrible father."

"No, you're not," Talia soothes. "You're just human."

"It is curious, though," Nicolas pipes up, tapping a finger against his chin, "how much of him just isn't there anymore. I dread to think why."

"Be glad you don't know all the details," John shudders. "Half of me wishes I didn't."

Peter stands abruptly. "I wonder..."

No one seems to know what he's doing, and they are all confused when he starts striding toward where Derek sits on the blanket with Cora and Stiles. Derek, who was still eavesdropping, watches his uncle's approach warily, his body automatically preparing for a fight. He moves subconsciously closer to his mate, what happened just a couple of hours ago not forgotten.

"Niece, nephew," Peter drawls when he reaches the blanket.

"What do you want?" Derek glares, preemptively going on the defensive.

"Just to confirm a theory."

Without preamble, Peter reaches for Stiles' arm and drags him up, eliciting a terrified squeak. Derek is on his feet in an instant, trying to free his mate from his uncle's clutches. But it's not as easy as it was in the foyer—Peter is serious this time and his grip is unremitting as he manhandles Stiles around, grabbing the younger man's flailing arms. Holding them tight, he bends him over to get a look at something on the back of his neck.

There's a flurry of noise from the tables as everyone else rushes over to intervene, containers of food and various utensils going flying in their haste.

Stiles' rabbiting heartbeat is the loudest noise in Derek's ears.

Laura and Talia both scream at Peter to relinquish the young man who still struggles to get free, but Peter doesn't listen, just yanks down the back of Stiles' shirt and smirks. Only after Talia's eyes flash red and she uses an alpha command does Peter let go of Stiles, but he still isn't cowed by her.

"I'm going to kill you," Derek growls lowly, his own eyes glowing yellow and his claws coming out, prepared for battle.

"Do try, nephew," Peter taunts, still smirking.

Derek is about to lunge, lost in his anger, but then Talia is in front of him with a hand pressed to the centre of his chest.

"Calm down," she instructs.

"He deliberately scared Stiles!" Derek snaps. "Again!"

"I know. But it's over now, and as his alpha I'll make damn sure he doesn't try it a third time."

"I still have wolfsbane bullets," the sheriff seethes, his face a picture of rage.

"Where is Stiles?" Laura ponders, looking around.

Derek's anger evaporates and fear creeps in as he, too, looks around. His mate is nowhere to be found. "Did anyone see where he went?!" he asks his family.

"Everybody be quiet," Talia orders. "Use your ears."

They all obey.

It's eerily still for a moment, and then Derek picks up on the sound of distant breathing.

"The house," Cora says needlessly, having heard it as well.

Derek bolts inside with John hot on his heels, following the muffled sound to the spacious dining room. In the middle, surrounded by cushioned chairs, is a dark-oak table, large enough for everyone in their extended family to fit around. It's covered from end to end with a pristine white tablecloth. The sound of Stiles struggling to breathe comes from beneath it.

Slowly, Derek approaches the table, crouches down beside it and lifts the edge of the tablecloth, revealing his mate. Hunched over on the floor, Stiles' face is scared and tear-stained. Just from a glance Derek can tell that Stiles is perilously close to suffering a panic attack

"Hey," Derek whispers. "Mind if I join you?"

Stiles doesn't react, just tries to take another breath and, when he can't, claws at his chest like it will loosen it.

Derek crawls forward and takes Stiles' hands in his before he can do any damage to himself. The human's frantic state is exacerbated by the contact, and Derek worries for a heart-stopping moment that he's made a big mistake in touching him. But then Stiles just deflates and, without thought, Derek wraps his arms around him. He mumbles soothing nonsense in his ear until the shaking of Stiles' body has stopped and Stiles' lungs seem to fill with more ease.

"Shh, you're okay," Derek assures, pressing his lips against the younger man's temple.

"Derek?" Talia's voice comes quietly. "You good?"

Before the beta can respond, his mother lifts the tablecloth and peers at the two of them in the dim light. Derek nods his assent and starts to rearrange himself, attempting to settle more comfortably on the floor.

In the shuffle, Stiles spots Talia still looking at them and recoils suddenly, wrenching himself from Derek's arms and shooting out from beneath the other side of the table. Derek is stunned into inaction for few seconds before his brain catches up. He follows his mate, finding him standing with his back tight to the wall, opposite a very confused-looking Talia and John.

"Stiles?" Talia calls quietly, taking a step closer. "What's wrong?"

The human shrinks back even further, abject terror plain on his paler-than-usual face.

"Stiles? It's just my mom. You like her, remember?" Derek says gently, feeling immensely grateful when his mate still lets him near without fuss.

Talia takes another step.

"I wouldn't, if I were you, dear sister," Peter cautions as he enters the room.

"Get out," Derek seethes, his fury still fresh. He moves protectively in front of his mate.

"You heard him. Get out," John echoes.

Talia narrows her eyes at her reprobate brother. "I thought I banned you from the house until further notice, Peter. What part of that did you not understand?"

"I understood very well," Peter responds coolly, crossing his arms over his broad chest. "I just thought I'd do you all a favour and relay my findings before taking my leave. Or would you rather not know what I suspected and confirmed about the condition of Stiles' memory? Something so obvious I have trouble believing I was the first to think of it? Then again, I am the smartest one here."

"Speak and go. Now."

Peter holds up a clawed hand. "Take a wild guess."

Realisation dawns quickly for Talia. "Oh..."

"Yes. Oh."

"Does someone want to fill me in?" John bites out.

"Stiles' memories were taken by an alpha, sheriff," Peter drawls, rolling his eyes. "He has claw marks on the back of his neck. He won't be able to get his memories back by himself, so you'll have to find the alpha who took them. This also explains his reaction to my sister. I presume no one has informed Stiles once more of what we are?" He looks at everyone smugly. "No? Well, Derek, out in the back yard would be the first time he found out about your mother being an alpha werewolf, just like at least one of the people who would've tortured him." The slight upturn of his lips makes it very clear that he is enjoying being the one with the knowledge and therefore the power. "Have fun with that. I'm banned, after all, so I'm afraid I'm unable to help any more. What a shame. Good luck."

With that he strolls out of the house.

"Mom, is that true?" Derek asks, his voice small.

Talia sighs deeply. "The part about Stiles' memories having to be retrieved from the alpha who took them? Yes," she laments. "And I suppose him being scared of me now is also true and confirms it, as Peter said. I think it's best if I stay away from him for a while, at least until you can convince him I mean him no harm. You should take Stiles back to your place and stay with him for the rest of the day. We can reschedule you meeting the other alphas to next week."

Derek agrees and bids his mother farewell as she exits the room.

"Take care, son," John croaks, obviously wanting to do more but knowing he can't. He exits, too, leaving Derek and Stiles alone.

Derek smiles tiredly at his mate, who is clutching the hem of his Henley. "C'mon. Let's get you home."

Chapter Text

- The Past: Monday, April 11th, 2011 -

He isn’t in that awful place anymore—where and whatever it was.

All he remembers when he wakes is eating the food the short-haired alpha had brought him and then nothing else. There’s a fresh stinging in the back of his neck and though he can barely move by himself, his bones feeling like they’ve been replaced by the densest of metals, he is being violently jostled about by something. It takes him a moment to realise that he’s in the back of a speeding van. He can’t hear anything but the sound of tyres on the road beneath him, the two small windows in the van’s back doors providing him with a view of the blue sky and the passing frondescence of tree leaves. He stares at the outside world, wondering where he is being taken next, but, after a while, when his eyelids start to droop again, he decides not to worry about it.

When he wakes next, he’s somewhere else.

The unfamiliar room is austere but, unlike his previous home, the warm light shining down from the middle of the ceiling could almost be called cosy. The walls are orange and the room itself consists of a proper bed with clean sheets, a desk and chair and a lone door. Curious, he gets up from where he lies on the bed and approaches the latter, finding to his surprise that it’s unlocked. Rather than venturing outside, he backs away from the door again, the cool voice of the short-haired alpha hissing an old command in his ear—he is to stay where he is until someone comes to get him. With nothing else to do, he retakes his place on the bed and waits, running his hands over the sheets for a few moments. He marvels at their softness and their bright greenish-brown colour. It reminds him of something... He can’t remember what that something is, but he figures it mustn’t have been very important.

With a shrug he looks down at himself—on his body is nothing but a pair of tight boxer-briefs. His torso, legs and feet are bare; he must have been stripped once whoever was driving the van got him to this new location. His neck still stings and he wishes he had a couple of mirrors so that could see what the problem is. The best he can do is rub at the irritated skin, although when his hand comes away bloody he leaves it be.

Soon, the door opens, but it isn’t one of the male alphas that enters. Instead it’s a woman, whose caramel skin, long dark hair and eyes make it look like she’s trying her hardest to come off as kind. Boy can see, however, that her features carry the same malevolence he is used to with the males, which is strangely comforting. She wears a black tank top, dark-blue skinny jeans and no shoes, which gives him his first clue as to her identity.

Her toenails are claws, so he presumes that she is yet another alpha.

“Come on, boy,” she says.

Only then, when she calls him that, does he realise he doesn’t know who he is. Try as he might, he can’t recall any places apart from the facility he has recently left behind, nor any faces apart from the short-haired alpha’s, not even his own. There’s nothing there but a gaping black maw, which threatens to consume him if he looks into it long enough.

This emptiness isn’t as unnerving as it probably should be. In fact, he finds he is rather okay with it all, some force in his mind telling him that it’s alright and he should stay calm, that this is how things are supposed to be.

“Now, boy! I won’t ask again.”

She keeps calling him that. ‘Boy’. That must be his name, then. Good.

Boy gets up from the bed and shadows the woman when she exits the room. They make their way down a hallway and he observes with mild intrigue that he’s on the second floor of a proper house this time. The whole place smells faintly of leather and cinnamon. The floor is dark hardwood and the walls are covered in some old-fashioned wallpaper—light-blue swirls and elegant flowers repeating in neat rows—that continues as Boy descends the stairs to the ground floor.

He and the woman pass by a living room and kitchen, but he isn’t given time to discern any details before his arm is grabbed and he is dragged through an open door and down another set of stairs.

In the basement now, Boy blinks his eyes to adjust to the dimmer light and frowns at what he sees in the large room. It’s decked out with all manner of things—benches are bolted to the concrete floor, on the walls are hooks and chains and rough-looking shackles, and on a table off to one side there is an array of different sex toys. Dildos and vibrators, cock rings, butt plugs, floggers and metal sounds are just the ones Boy can identify.

There are three other people already down there—a girl who looks about Boy’s age and two naked middle-aged men. Like Boy, the girl is dressed in just a pair of underwear, her breasts exposed, and she’s down on her knees, tears trailing down her freckled cheeks. The man she is fellating maintains a tight grip on her long blonde hair, and Boy stands fascinated as he gives her a series of instructions in a choked voice:

“More tongue.”

“More suction.”

“Pay attention to the slit.”

“Watch your teeth.”

The second man eyes Boy critically before turning to the female werewolf. “This him?” he enquires, squinting his beady eyes.

The woman nods. “I trust you remember what's required of him?”

“I do,” the man confirms, lasciviously licking his lips.

“Good. I’ll leave you to it. Have fun.”

The woman sneers, then heads back up the stairs and slams the basement door shut, sealing Boy in with the others. Boy blinks dumbly, completely bemused, until the second man pads across the cool concrete and stops in front of him, drawing his attention. The man grins at him, showing off yellowing teeth, before grasping Boy’s shoulders and pushing him to his knees. The position mirrors the girl’s and has the man’s erect cock bobbing right in front of his face, an intimidating sight.

“Right, boy,” the man speaks huskily, “let’s start your first lesson.”

* * *

- The Present: Saturday, February 20th, 2016 -

Stiles seems quieter than usual later that evening, something Derek didn’t think was possible. He sits on the sofa in Derek’s living room, his legs crossed beneath himself and his eyes staring off into space. He’s still as stone—apart from his fingers, which twist nervously around each other in his lap. Derek observes him from the doorway, both saddened that his mate suffered another panic attack and enraged that it was brought about by a member of his family.

He still wants fervently to wring his uncle’s neck for setting his mate back, but he trusts his mother to take care of the problem in his stead while he focuses on what’s truly important: Stiles. With a soft sigh, Derek moves to sit down to the left of the younger man, on the lookout for the first sign that his closeness is unwelcome. Stiles doesn’t really react, just falls against Derek’s side when the cushions sink under his weight. Derek feels safe enough wrapping an arm around his mate’s shoulders to pull them more snugly together. He gently inserts his other hand in between Stiles’ to give him something else to hold on to.

“You OK?” he asks into Stiles’ hair.

The human nods slowly, playing with Derek’s fingers now.

“I’m sorry he did that. I promise I won’t let him near you from now on.”

The room becomes silent again, until Derek’s phone chimes as a text from Stiles’ dad comes in, asking after his son. Derek reluctantly takes his hand back, leaving Stiles to tangle his fingers in the hem of his Henley instead. He succinctly reassures the sheriff that Stiles is alright, shuts the device off without waiting for a reply and places it on the armrest.

“You want to do anything?” he asks, picking up a tension in the air for which he can’t find a cause. Perhaps it’s simply the lingering stresses of the day.

Stiles shakes his head.

“You just wanna sit here together?”

A nod this time.

“OK. We can do that.”

* * *

- The Present: Saturday, February 27th, 2016 -

It’s fast becoming a regular occurrence for Derek to stay awake for another hour or two after Stiles’ eyes slip closed. He wants to be ready to wake his mate up immediately if it looks like he might be having another nightmare and has become well-versed at reading the signs. A small whimper will usually come first, followed by a slightly louder one and a deep frown forming on Stiles’ face. It used to make Derek feel like a creepy voyeur, but he has long since gotten over that. To him, the ends justify the means, and tonight is no different.

He lies facing Stiles, a respectable amount of distance between them and Stiles’ soft snores filling the dark room. Stiles faces him, too, like how he starts out every night. Derek suspects it’s so that Stiles can keep him in his sights, a visual reminder that he’s safe and has someone there he trusts to protect him. He’s more than happy to fill that position.

The first hour progresses as normal, with Derek making up for lost time by devouring every single movement of Stiles’ slumbering form, from the twitching of his fingers to the way his eyes move back and forth beneath his closed eyelids. And then, a few minutes into the second hour, Stiles moves more than that, turning over onto his other side and presenting Derek with his back. This happens some nights, when Stiles sinks far enough into dreams that are at least not entirely unpleasant, so Derek finally allows his own tired eyes to close.

His mind drifts for a while, before he thinks of what Peter said in the living room.

He believed him without proof. So did his mother.

Derek forces his eyes open again. Slowly, hoping Peter was wrong and was just playing games with their heads and emotions in that borderline-psychotic way of his, Derek reaches out to slowly pull down the back of Stiles’ T-shirt, just a little. He hadn’t noticed them before—how, he doesn’t know, when they seem so obvious now—but there, on the back of Stiles’ neck, are tiny scars, pinpricks of flesh that are raised and shiny.

He stares at them for a while, damning his uncle again, until Stiles stirs slightly and he pulls the neck of Stiles’ shirt back up and withdraws his hand. Then, the human mumbles something in his sleep and Derek forgets what he was just thinking about. It was unintelligible, but it was there. He heard it. Stiles’ voice, and not just a whimper.

It was sweet, better than Derek’s favourite song, and Derek prays for Stiles to speak again. He rolls him back slightly, so that Stiles’ face isn’t smashed into his pillow and, should Derek get his wish, the words will be clearer.

He waits for a long time and has resigned himself to not hearing Stiles’ voice again that night when it happens. It’s quiet, nothing more than a mumble in between a grunt and a whine. But Derek still hears it:

“Aiden...”

A name uttered with fear so sharp it has Derek’s eyes stinging. The fear means he should probably wake Stiles up—scratch that, he should definitely wake Stiles up—but part of him is reluctant. In all the nights Stiles has been sleeping by his side since his return, Derek never remembers this happening. Sounds of distress, yes. But never words. Never clues they could potentially use in the investigation.

The vengeful half of him wants to leave Stiles as he is in hopes of getting more to go off of, but in the end, his compassion and love for his mate wins. Unable to subject him to what he suspects has become another nightmare, Derek leans up on his elbow and shakes Stiles lightly until cinnamon irises blink blearily up into hazel.

“Sorry,” Derek murmurs, stroking his thumb across Stiles’ scarred cheek. “You just sounded like you were having a bad dream.”

Stiles shrugs, the movement encumbered by his position lying down.

“Who’s Aiden?”

The question slips out before Derek can stop it. He was planning on waiting until morning to ask it but, now that his mouth has run away with him, he watches for Stiles’ reaction. Fear, surprise, anger... Anything.

But nothing of the sort happens. Stiles just seems confused, his brow creasing, so Derek rephrases it: “Does the name ‘Aiden’ mean anything to you? Maybe he was someone you encountered while you were...away.” It doesn’t help. Stiles’ expression doesn’t change, so Derek is forced to drop it.

“Never mind. Forget I asked,” he sighs, falling off of his elbow and lying on his back, staring up at the ceiling. “It doesn’t matter.”

With a hand tucked behind his head he thinks. Because Stiles doesn’t remember anything about the life he had five years ago, Derek and everyone else had assumed that he also wouldn’t remember much of what happened during those years. Either that, or he wouldn’t be in a position to talk about it for quite some time. The former looks to be the case.

Stiles doesn’t seem able to recall what he endured following his abduction, at least not while he’s awake. Derek still doesn’t really know how it works when a person’s memories are stolen by an alpha. The way Peter and his mother had described it, it sounded like those memories are just...gone from the person’s head, leaving behind empty spaces until the alpha fills them again. But maybe not. Maybe the alpha just locks the memories away in a place that’s not consciously accessible. At least in Stiles’ case, that would explain why he may still remember something in his subconscious.

This Aiden person must be important somehow. Maybe he was a part of Stiles’ abduction, which would explain the fear, or they met some other way over the years. Whatever the nature of their encounter, Derek stores the name away to give to the sheriff later and, after seeing that Stiles is already asleep again, tries to follow him.

* * *

Derek feels guilty as he drives to the address his mother gives him from her spot in the Camaro’s passenger seat. Stiles is back at his apartment with just Laura for company and Derek can’t help feeling bad as he recalls the almost betrayed look his mate had shot him when he announced that he would be gone for a few hours, the longest they’d be separated since Stiles’ return. They can’t be together 24/7, something Derek has to remind himself of, but even though Stiles has at least a modicum of trust for Laura now, her accusation from a few weeks ago plays repeatedly through his head.

Despite what he’d said at the time, it does kind of feel like abandonment now. Only the knowledge that today will be the last time all the alphas of Beacon Hills’ neighbouring counties will be meeting for some time makes Derek feel any better about it.

“Here it is,” Talia announces, pointing to a building a little farther down the road.

Lucky’s Diner is a small, retro-looking place with a huge sign that’s currently switched off—Derek is sure it would be flashing neon if the sun wasn’t still up—and huge windows around the entire facade, giving him a view of the patrons within. Nerves strike Derek as he gets out of his car and accompanies his mother inside the establishment. From the names she gave him, he doesn’t think he’s ever met any of the alphas who are awaiting them.

“Ah, they’re already here.” Talia points out a nearly filled booth in the back corner of the diner and walks toward it.

Derek lets himself fall behind, keen to observe.

Seven alphas—four men and three women—stand up to greet Talia with kisses on cheeks. Even from a distance Derek can tell that every one of them exudes the same strength, confidence and authority that his mother does, things that are apparently just innate to an alpha. A minute later, Talia beckons Derek forward and awkward introductions are made, during which Derek shakes everyone’s hand and fights to keep his own steady.

Deucalion is first, a tall man with longish, light-brown hair and well-toned muscles apparent beneath his long-sleeved shirt. He leads a pack north of Beacon Hills. Derek can’t really get a read on him.

Next comes Ennis, a man with buzzed-short hair who is even larger than Deucalion. His handshake is enough to make Derek wince, and the way Ennis smirks doesn’t do anything to melt the coldness of his eyes. Derek finds himself glad when he hears that Ennis’ pack is the farthest away.

The final two men introduce themselves as Marc and Geoff, middle-aged, dark-skinned brothers just one year apart from each other. They share leadership of a pack on the border of Arizona, inherited from their deceased alpha father. Alphas are by nature territorial, so this news has Derek raising his eyebrows in surprise, a reaction that isn’t missed.

“Yeah, it’s unusual, huh?” Marc chuckles, falling back into the booth and dragging his brother with him. His voice is low and smooth like honey.

“We make it work,” Geoff adds.

Poppy is a skinny woman with startlingly blue eyes and a black bob. She only comes up to Derek’s chest and mustn’t be much older than him. Everything about her seems sweet and bubbly, which, when conflated with her tiny frame, paints a deceptive picture of innocence that Derek is sure she has used to her advantage many times. Her firm handshake tells a different tale, though, one of power.

After her is Trinity, Poppy's opposite in nearly every way. The oldest of them all and almost as tall as Derek, Trinity would be every bit as intimidating as Ennis if it weren’t for the kindness she radiates. Derek thinks fleetingly that her pack is lucky to have her.

The final introduction is to Kali, a long-haired woman whose smile is more of a sneer. She’s just as unpleasant as Ennis. Derek can easily tell that neither one really wants to be there.

It’s a tight fit for them all in the booth. Derek is grateful when he ends up wedged in between his mother and Trinity, with Poppy on the end. Deucalion, Ennis, Marc and Geoff sit on the opposite side of the table, while Kali takes a lone chair she demands from an aggrieved-looking waitress. They are all handed menus before the waitress hurries off again, her hair flying as she tends to another diner rudely snapping their fingers at her.

“You should try the chicken club,” Talia comments, nudging Derek. “S’good.”

Derek is about to agree, but Kali pipes up and interrupts him. “I don’t mean to be rude, but can we just get on with this already?” she pushes. “I have important things to do today.”

“Yes, I admit I would rather jump straight in myself,” Deucalion agrees.

Talia sighs. “You’re not staying, I take it?”

“No. The only reason I consented to this third meeting when we already hashed everything out during the first two is because you said your son insisted, Talia,” Kali snaps. “Why you let him seek demands from you like that is beyond me, but I suppose it’s not really my business how you run your pack.”

“Indeed it isn’t,” Talia concurs aloofly.

“So? Why am I here?”

“Well, Derek thought that, since it was his mate we were discussing, he should be present. I agreed.”

Kali looks at Derek askance. “And he can’t tell us this himself?”

Talia bristles, her motherly protectiveness kicking in, but Derek places a hand on her arm before she can bite back. “Oh, I can,” he tells Kali calmly, “but I was showing a little something called respect. It’s a brand-new concept, apparently. Have you heard of it?”

“Ooh, I like him,” Marc whispers to Geoff. “He’s feisty.”

Kali snarls. “You impudent little—“

“That’s enough!” Deucalion barks, drawing the eyes of everyone in the diner. Realising this, he paints a congenial smile on his lips and dismissively waves them off before turning back to the fractious group with which he sits. All the other alphas barring Talia have their heads bowed—even Kali, something that fascinates Derek. Every one of them may technically be compeers, but Deucalion and Talia still seem to be of a higher echelon than the rest. “Kali, be nice,” Deucalion continues. “Emotions are running high at the moment and I’m sure Derek didn’t mean any harm. Isn’t that right, Derek?”

“Right,” the beta echoes, pleased by the barely concealed outrage on Kali’s face.

“Excellent. Now, you were saying?”

Derek clears his throat. “Well, I know you were going to investigate the probable supernatural cause of Stiles’ abduction,” he begins, refusing to wilt under the scathing looks Kali keeps sending his way. “I’m a deputy with the Beacon Hills sheriff’s department, so, despite the personal connection I had to the case, I was heavily involved, as was Stiles’ dad, the sheriff. I thought, now that Stiles is back and we’re revisiting everything, it might be a good idea to pool our resources. As much as Stiles’ dad and the rest of the force wants to help, the majority of them aren’t a part of our world and can’t go the places we can. They also don’t have the channels and connections I’m presuming you all have. I’ve been out of the loop for a while because I needed to help Stiles start his recovery, but I think he’s almost to the point where he can manage without me there for a few hours every day.”

“That must be tough,” Trinity sympathises, putting a hand on Derek’s shoulder.

Kali scoffs but is ignored.

“It’s worth it, as I’m sure those of you here with mates will know,” Derek asseverates. He is relieved when Trinity, Geoff and Poppy all nod their assent. “Anyway, I wanted to be here to say that, and to pass a clue I got last night on to you guys. It hasn’t happened before now but, while he was asleep, Stiles spoke. He gave me a name.”

Everybody perks up at this. Even Kali and Ennis pay closer attention.

“What? Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” Talia asks with a frown.

“I’m telling you now, and I’m going to stop by the station to tell John on the way home.”

“Well, what was it?” Poppy urges impatiently.

“Aiden.”

The group descends into silence for a moment as they all process this new information. Kali breaks it. “Doesn’t ring a bell,” she says shortly, getting up. “If that’s all?”

Derek grits his teeth. “Yes.”

“Good.”

With a nod to Deucalion and Ennis, Kali pushes her chair back with an ungodly screech and stomps away from the table, her bare feet slapping on the linoleum. Once the door shuts behind her, the lone waitress apparently feels brave enough to make a reappearance.

Her hair still a mess, she pulls a notepad from the pocket of her blood-red apron. “Alright, are we ready to order?” she asks, surveying the remaining group with a smile that doesn’t quite reach her eyes. As his mother rattles off both of their orders, Derek thinks that he’ll be giving the waitress a generous tip in hopes of making up for Kali’s horrid attitude.

Chapter Text

- The Past: Tuesday, April 12th, 2011 -

When he opens his eyes the next morning, Boy isn't sure how he feels.

He spent what he could only guess was the entirety of the previous day down in the basement with the two middle-aged men, 'learning the ropes', as one of them put it. The blonde girl was sent back to her room shortly after Boy arrived, because his education was apparently more important that hers and needed both men to oversee it.

It wasn't exactly a pleasant experience, but it wasn't terrible, either. Having had the impulse to fight back beaten out of him weeks ago, Boy was compliant and allowed both men to use his mouth for their pleasure. Back and forth, back and forth, until they were so spent they couldn't get it up anymore. By the time that happened, Boy was well-acquainted with the bitter taste of semen. He'd spat out the first load, but neither man liked that and so, with each subsequent orgasm, he gagged and forced the fluid down his throat, thinking that pleasing them would be better for him than angering them.

Boy stares at his plain bedroom ceiling, his stomach growling. He hasn't eaten anything real in two days and he wonders when his next chance will be. Almost as if his thoughts called them, someone knocks on his door and pushes it open a few seconds later. It's the blonde girl from the basement, still dressed in just a pair of underwear. She carries a small tray in her hands, on top of which is a large plate and a glass of water.

"Here," the girl croaks, placing the tray in front of Boy.

He dives on it, the allure of toast and eggs too tantalising to wait. The girl watches him as he stuffs his face, her expression blank.

"Who are you?" Boy asks with his mouth full.

The girl looks away then. "I don't know," she mumbles.

"I don't know who I am, either," Boy says, picking up on her moroseness and hoping to comfort her.

"I know. None of you guys do."

"There are others here?"

The girl glances warily at the closed door and tears into her bottom lip, deciding something. Whatever she sees on Boy's face must be good enough to break her silence, because after a moment she keeps talking.

"There are lots who come through here like you," she answers, her voice so quiet that Boy has to stop eating to make out the words. "There's another one here right now, actually, but I've only seen him in passing. I think he's almost done with his training, so he'll be gone soon like all the others. Not one of you has known who you were. You come, you complete your training and then you leave. I'm not sure where you go."

"How long have you been here?" Boy asks, afraid of the answer.

"I don't remember. Years, I think."

Boy feels sorry for her. "So you're not like me?" he asks. "You just said you've been here for ages, but yesterday...it looked like you were new."

"I am, in a way," the girl agrees. Her voice sounds detached, like she has to step away from what little is left of herself in order to cope with what's going on in her head. "What you saw wasn't the first time. I think they keep making me forget so they can do it all over again. Parts of this place are foreign to me, but others feel so familiar, like old memories that are foggy. There are scratches on the wall in my room, tally marks below the bed so no one else can see. I think they were all made by the other me's. There are enough there for years."

Boy is suddenly not hungry anymore. "That sounds horrible."

"Don't worry. I've gotten used to it."

"You said you've only seen the others in passing?"

"That's right. Why?"

Boy frowns confusedly. "Why are you here then, talking to me?" he queries. "What makes me so different?"

The girl regards him sadly. "I only know a little... I heard them talking about you, the people in charge," she reveals, picking at the bedsheets. "You're special. I don't know why, but they've taken a particular interest in you. The others they let waste away until there's almost nothing left, but you... They want you to be weak but still relatively healthy for whatever they're planning. I'm supposed to bring you breakfast every morning from here on out. It's quite exciting, actually."

The girl's lips twitch into a smile, the first positive emotion she has displayed since she stepped through Boy's door. It looks a little unhinged and Boy doesn't know what to make of that, so he just stays quiet. "I haven't had anyone to talk to in a long time. Since before I first came here, probably."

"I see. Do you—"

The door slams open, rebounding off of the wall, before Boy can finish his next question. In the doorway stands the female alpha, her bright-red eyes narrowed at the girl. Her hand curls around the doorframe, claws gouging the wood. "You were supposed to feed him and then leave, not sit here gossiping like a couple of stupid bitches!" she hisses.

The girl doesn't react other than to pick up the tray of unfinished food and flee.

The alpha watches her go before turning back to Boy. "You!"

Boy flinches.

"Get your ass down to the basement. It's time for your next lesson."

* * *

- The Present: Monday, February 29th, 2016 -

After a whole month away, it feels strange for Derek to walk into the sheriff's station with just his gun and badge, ready to dip his toes back into regular life. Most of his fellow deputies greet him warmly, celebrating his return with hearty slaps on the back and, in the case of Jordan Parrish, his partner since he first joined the force, a well-meant but awkward hug. Once the fanfare is over, Derek is quickly given the rundown of what he missed while he was looking after Stiles. There hasn't been much crime to speak of in Beacon Hills over the past few weeks, he is told, which meant that the majority of everybody's time has been dedicated to revisiting every single facet of Stiles' disappearance five years prior.

Even with all the manpower at their disposal, not much progress has been made.

In one of the incident rooms there is a board set up. It's nearly identical to the one Derek remembers from years ago and contains what paltry clues they have—a jumble of blurry snapshots taken from security cameras, witness statements both old and new and suspect photographs, all connected with variegated threads. There are even printouts of emails from Stiles' laptop, of correspondences he'd had with his classmates and teachers regarding schoolwork and other mundane things.

The newest addition to the board seems to be a plain piece of paper, upon which is written AIDEN and a large red question mark. At the top of it all is pinned a glossy 8x10" photograph of Stiles, all smiles, which was taken by Derek in the Stilinskis' back garden just a month before Stiles went missing. The lone occupant of the room for the time being, Derek sips from the cup of steaming black coffee the sheriff had thrust in his hand shortly after his arrival and eyes the board critically, searching for something his coworkers may have missed.

He reads the new witness statements, checking them against the old ones for any changes that can't be put down to the fallibility of memory. He quickly comes up empty, as even the optimist in him knew he would. In his mind, he goes back to the meeting with the alphas over the weekend and thinks it would really help to get one of them to stop by. They might be able to offer some fresh insight, see a name or a description that will open a door.

It's a little unorthodox, but, as he glances through the sheriff's open door, Derek believes it just might fly.

"Can I float an idea past you?" he asks from the doorway.

John looks up from his paperwork and gestures him inside. "By all means."

"Last Saturday got me thinking. Maybe the reason we're still not having any luck is because we keep looking at things from the wrong angle."

The sheriff frowns, leaning back in his chair. "Go on."

"So far, we've been working this like any other case, like officers of the law," Derek continues, returning to the door and shutting it as a precaution. "Maybe we need to start thinking not as a sheriff and a deputy, but as people with knowledge of the supernatural world. The current theory, at least between us, is that Stiles was taken by werewolves or was at least involved with them at some point, right?"

Derek waits for the sheriff to nod. "Well, you remember that meeting I talked my mom into letting me tag along to on Saturday? I talked to some of the alphas who were there and, after I subtly reminded them that it's pretty much their duty to help weed out any people among us who are doing harm to innocent people, they agreed to start looking into things themselves. I thought it might help if we brought at least one of them in to look at what we've got so far. Joined forces, so to speak. They might see something we can't."

John eyes Derek appraisingly while he processes this proposal, the gears turning in his head almost visible behind his eyes. Eventually he agrees, much to Derek's relief. "Alright," the older man says, running a hand down his face. "At this point I'm willing to try anything. Do you have a particular alpha in mind?"

Derek thinks over his options.

Kali and Ennis are immediately out of the running.

Deucalion seemed amiable but was close to the first two, so Derek writes him off as well.

Poppy, maybe, but Derek never really got a good read on her.

This leaves Trinity, Geoff or Marc, all of whom Derek liked and believes would be at least willing to hear them out.

"I think we should extend offers to three of them and see who gets back to us," he suggests.

"Do it," the sheriff says decisively. "The sooner, the better."

* * *

- The Present: Wednesday, March 2nd, 2016 -

In the end, Trinity is too busy tending to some problem within her pack to come. Geoff and Marc are amenable, though, with the former making his way to Beacon Hills while the latter stays behind to take care of their pack by himself.

Geoff strolls into the sheriff's station two days later with a swagger in his step, dressed simply in black jeans and a plain white T-shirt. Derek is the one who spots him first, having been keeping an eye on the entrance from his workstation.

"Geoff, thanks for coming on such short notice," he greets.

"You bet. Anything I can do to help, I'm there," Geoff grins, already setting Derek at ease with his laid-back attitude. "So, where do we start?"

"This way." Derek leads Geoff to the incident room, which is again empty at Derek's request.

The alpha whistles when he sees it. "Wow, quite the setup."

"Go ahead," Derek says, when he notices the older man hovering uncertainly in the middle of the room, like he's afraid to touch anything.

"What sorts of things am I looking for?" Geoff asks, stepping up the main board.

Derek approaches it with him and stands there with his arms crossed over his chest. "Just see if there's anything that stands out to you," he clarifies, his own eyes running over every detail again, just like they had a dozen times a couple of days before. He feels like he could tell someone about every photograph and piece of paper pinned up on the board with his eyes closed. "It seems like every one of us has been over most of this a thousand times and every time we've come up with nothing. You're basically here as a set of fresh eyes. Ideally I'd like to get all of you guys in here at some point, because I'm sure you all know stuff that the others don't, but Stiles' dad and I will take what we can get for now."

"Alrighty then..." For the next hour, Geoff, after gaining Derek's permission, takes down pieces of evidence from the board and examines them closely at one of the desks that are pushed off to one side.

It's slow going, so Derek leaves him to it and waits in a chair at a different desk. He fiddles idly with a stapler and texts Laura, flinging insults back and forth and seeking updates on how Stiles is coping without him. He's proud—and selfishly disappointed—when she informs him that his mate is doing really well and has so far shown no signs of panicking.

It isn't until Derek walks back into the incident room with refills of coffee for both of them that something changes. Geoff now stands in front of the board and stares intently down at the white piece of paper he has in his hand. After walking closer, Derek sees that it's the sheet with Aiden's name written across it.

"Something the matter?" he asks, tearing Geoff from his thoughts.

"Oh, no, I wouldn't say that," the alpha replies, gratefully accepting one of the coffee cups from Derek and taking a sip. "It's just...this feels so familiar."

"In what way?"

Geoff pins the sheet of paper back in place and returns to the chair he previously occupied. "Ever since you told us about this Aiden guy on Saturday, there's been this thought in the back of my head, y'know?" he explains with a frown. "I haven't really had a chance to look into it properly yet because of my duties as an alpha but...I'm still not sure how, but I think knew him. Or at least knew of him. Maybe I read about him somewhere."

Derek can't help but feel disappointed. "Yeah, maybe..."

"Have you tried searching for him?" Geoff enquires. "I mean, not to tell you how to do your job or anything, but maybe he's in missing persons or something."

"We're looking into it, yeah," Derek answers, sitting down, too. He looks despondently into the dark-brown liquid that fills his mug to the brim. It suddenly doesn't look very appealing, so he sets it down on the table and doesn't pick it back up. "We searched locally at first, and when we came up with no hits we expanded the search to nationwide. But that takes time, especially since all we have is a first name that might not even be real. Stiles didn't seem to know what his own name was when he came back, so maybe Aiden isn't this guy's real name but something he was given or gave himself. We don't know anything yet. It feels like we're just running around in circles again and it sucks."

Derek sighs. "Sorry. I didn't mean to lay all that on you," he murmurs, only realising that Geoff is no longer listening to him when he doesn't get a response.

Looking up, he notes that the alpha seems deep in thought again. He is about to pry when Geoff leaps excitedly up from his chair, knocking it over with a dull thud. "Do you have a computer I can use?" Geoff requests, his eyes bright.

Dumbfounded, Derek nods. "Yeah, you can use mine."

In the bullpen, Derek shows Geoff to his desk and switches on his computer, which has been accumulating dust without him there to use it every day.

A few minutes after the alpha is seated, he yells in triumph. "I knew it!"

"What is it?" Derek queries.

"Take a look."

Over Geoff's shoulder Derek peers at the news article on the computer monitor. It's a relatively small story, no more than a couple of paragraphs printed in a local newspaper five and a half years ago. Derek guesses this explains why everyone had missed it until now. It details the disappearance of two boys from the outskirts of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Aiden and Ethan Steiner, twins, were 15 when they went missing, just a year younger than Stiles, and haven't been seen or heard from since. The article comes complete with two tiny, black-and-white, nearly identical photographs, both of which are too low in quality to make out anything more than the most basic facial features of both boys—eyes, noses, mouths, hair.

Once he has finished reading, Derek thinks it's too much to be a mere coincidence and looks to Geoff. He is met with the alpha's broad grin.

"Who were these boys?" he asks.

Not answering right away, Geoff stands and gestures back to the incident room. Only once they're back inside with the door firmly shut does he explain. "I heard about them shortly after they went missing. They were like us—werewolves—so they just stood out to me, I guess," he says. "No one ever connected them to Stiles' disappearance, because it happened several states away from here and it was never treated as a kidnapping in the first place."

"Didn't anyone look for them?"

"They did, but...Aiden and Ethan's pack situation wasn't the best, truth be told. I never really crossed paths with them back then, but I'd heard from others that the alpha at the time was a nasty piece of work. Everyone just assumed that Aiden and Ethan ran away from a bad situation and any search that was started was called off again very quickly. By the time the alpha was succeeded by someone better, it was too late to make any true progress in the search. The twins could've been in a whole different country by then, for all anyone knew, so everyone just stopped looking."

Derek takes a moment to process this new onslaught of information and then poses a question: "Is anyone from the original pack still left?"

"I think so. Just the alpha changed."

"Do you think they'd be willing to talk to us about it?"

"I can ask, if you want."

Derek nods avidly. "I'd really appreciate that, thank you."

"No problem," Geoff smiles. "I'll get in touch once I leave here and let you know."

* * *

Later that afternoon, Derek makes one stop in town and returns to his apartment with a bag of Chinese food in hand, so packed full that it threatens to burst open at any moment. He and Geoff had parted ways shortly after Geoff found the newspaper article, with the alpha telling Derek that he would be getting a hotel room and sticking around town until he heard from the twins' old pack. Derek was tempted to offer the other werewolf a place on his sofa to save him spending any money, but Stiles' reaction the last time he was around an alpha and knew it had him holding his tongue. He could simply omit that information, but that would feel like lying and Derek never wants to lie to Stiles like that about anything. So a hotel room it was.

Laura is waiting just inside the front door, all ready to go back to her own home and her husband now that Derek is there and she isn't needed anymore to keep Stiles company. As they say goodbye to each other, even though neither would expect one of him, Derek makes a mental note to get his sister and Nathan a gift to show his appreciation for their continued help. He owes them a lot, especially because Laura's assistance involved using up her precious holiday days, which Derek knows the married couple had planned on using to go away together for a couple of weeks to some tropical climate.

Once Laura is gone, Derek shuts and locks the door and hangs up his jacket.

"Stiles?" he calls, walking down the hallway.

Said man appears in the living room doorway, the frown on his mole-dotted face evening out into something happier when his eyes land on Derek. He stops fiddling with the hem of the sweater he wears—a dark-grey thing Derek thinks came from his dresser which is adorably baggy on Stiles' thin frame—and lets his arms hang at his sides, his posture relaxed.

"Hey," Derek smiles.

Stiles smiles back, a shy thing, before his gaze falls to the bag in Derek's hand.

Derek doesn't miss this. "Oh, yeah, I brought dinner."

In the kitchen, he spreads the white containers out on the counter and pulls two large plates out of the cupboard. "I hope you're hungry, ‘cause I got a lot."

Stiles nods his assent.

With plates piled high, they migrate into the living room. Derek is surprised when he spots an open plastic box on the coffee table, within which are several bottles of nail polish in various shades and types—matte, metallic, glittery and plain colour, twenty in total—along with a large bottle of polish remover, nail clippers, a nail file and a buffer. "This is Laura's doing, I presume?" Derek asks, finishing his inspection and sitting down on the sofa when Stiles confirms this theory. "They look new. Did she get them for you?"

His mate nods again, and Derek hums.

"That was nice of her," he comments, feeling more and more grateful for his sister by the minute.

The two men eat their dinner in easy silence with just a single inch separating them. The television is on to provide some background noise, but Derek doesn't watch whatever show is flashing across the screen. Instead he thinks and dreads having to ruin Stiles' good mood with what he and Geoff had discussed earlier. Eventually, when both of their plates are stacked on top of each other next to Stiles' new box of nail polishes, Derek knows he cannot delay it any longer and decides to just rip the Band-Aid off. He reaches for the remote, mutes the terrible comedy that's on and meets Stiles' confused gaze.

"I'm going to be leaving soon," he announces, immediately feeling terrible when his mate's face becomes distressed. Realising how what he said must have sounded to Stiles, he is ashamed of his bluntness. "Shit, no, that came out wrong. Don't worry—I'm not leaving you. It'll only be for a couple of days and then I'll be right back here. Laura or maybe even your dad will be with you. You'll hardly even notice I'm gone."

Stiles calms slightly but still looks dubious.

"Yeah, that's probably not true, is it?" Derek admits. "It won't be happening for a few days yet, though."

Stiles looks down at his lap and picks at his bronze-painted nails.

Derek sighs. "Hey, look at me. Please?" he entreaties. When Stiles complies, his sad countenance has Derek opening his arms invitingly, needing to do anything he can to remove that expression. The human looks at Derek almost suspiciously for a moment before falling into him and allowing Derek to wrap him up tight.

Derek buries his nose in Stiles' hair. "I promised I would never let anything bad happen to you again, remember? I intend to keep that promise, no matter what, but, unfortunately, this trip is part of that. You want your memories back, right?" Derek pauses and feels more than sees Stiles nod into his chest. "Well, hopefully this will be the first step in us accomplishing that. I swear that, as soon as I have what I need, I'll come right back here. To you."

Derek presses a kiss to Stiles' head. "Is that okay?"

There's a pause and then Stiles pulls away and, though still sad, nods again.

"Good. Now, let's try to enjoy the rest of our evening." Derek's gaze lands on the box on the coffee table. "You want to paint my nails?"

Chapter Text

- The Past: Monday, May 16th, 2011 -

Boy doesn't see the girl again after the morning she brought him breakfast. He would worry about whether or not something bad happened to her, but he doesn't have the time. He's far too busy studiously leaning everything he can about how to please a man. The sense of wrongness he'd felt the first day is easy to leave behind; instead he embraces what the two naked men tell him, letting himself drown in the praise his hard work is rewarded with.

And does he ever work hard.

He perfects the movements of his tongue and the suction of his mouth when it's filled, the roll of his hips when he's straddling a firm body and a hard length rubs along the clothed crack of his ass. He was confused the first time they did that—there was no penetration, not even a finger, and Boy wondered how he was supposed to learn to have sex the right way if they weren't actually having it. He never voiced those thoughts—he never used his voice at all, in fact, the short-haired alpha's order to never speak to those above him unless expressly ordered to staying in his mind—but the two men seemed pleased with what he was doing anyway, so he must have learned what he was supposed to.

Every time he receives a compliment from either of them, his chest grows warm and he redoubles his efforts, wanting to chase that feeling and never let it go. It's so much nicer than the fear the female alpha instills in him with her mere presence. He actually starts looking forward to being down in the basement, where he is actually welcome.

After a month of this, Boy is woken up at the crack of dawn by his door slamming open. He jerks upright in his bed and rapidly blinks the sleep from his eyes. The short-haired alpha stands in the doorway, looking as menacing and arrogant as ever, and Boy feels his world come crashing down again. It wasn't a happy existence, exactly, life in this house with the two men and the female alpha, but it was alright. Now fresh terror grips him wholly, memories of bruises and broken bones assaulting him.

"It's time," the alpha grins, showing off teeth that aren't quite human. He crosses the room and yanks Boy out of bed.

The teenager is docile as he is taken down to the ground floor. Instead of passing right by the living room like he is used to, though, the alpha ushers him inside it. Floundering, Boy looks curiously around the room until he spots the female alpha sitting in the middle of the white sofa. She has obviously been waiting for some time, judging by her ticked-off expression. Or maybe that's just her face. Boy hasn't decided yet.

On the cushion next to her she has a see-through plastic box filled with different makeup and hair- and skincare products, which she now starts taking out. Once she has what she needs, she gestures with an impatient hand for Boy to kneel on the ratty towel spread on the floor in front of her.

Boy hurries to comply.

"Hold still," the woman instructs, forcefully tilting Boy's face up so that he's looking right at her. "You mess this up and there'll be hell to pay."

Boy keeps obediently still on his knees, even when they start to hurt, as the alpha applies a variety of products to his face. It feels weird, makes his skin feel heavier somehow, and he has to fight hard to remain motionless when she comes at him with a sharp black pencil. His eyes water as she outlines them.

When what Boy guesses is about half an hour has passed, the female alpha puts down the last brush and moves on to his hair. From the box she pulls out a pair of sharp-looking scissors, making Boy's heart pound against his ribcage. Instead of stabbing him to death then and there like he expected, she turns his head to the side and starts cutting his hair. She works her way around from one side of Boy's head to the other, leaving the top untrimmed and roughly brushing the cuttings from Boy's shoulders so that they fall onto the towel.

Once that's done, too, she rubs some sort of white wax on her palms and runs it through the longer strands on top of Boy's head so that they stand up on their own. She appraises him critically and must find him adequate, because she then waves the short-haired alpha over from where he was watching the entire process against the wall.

Without a word, the man grabs Boy and takes him through the foyer and out the front door. Boy has enough time to see that they're in the middle of nowhere before he is ushered into the back of the same van that brought him there and the doors are slammed closed, obstructing his view. Unlike last time, the alpha gets in with him and raps twice on the metal that divides the back of the van from the front, where whoever is driving starts the engine. Wanting to get as far away from the alpha as he can, Boy slowly crawls to one of the corners and curls up into a ball.

"I admit, you clean up pretty good," the alpha comments, watching Boy closely.

Boy doesn't react.

"I might even be tempted to fuck you myself, if I was allowed."

Boy shudders, making the alpha smirk.

"Oh, please. You'd love it. I bet you'd beg for me like the whore you are. But, sadly, you're wanted as untouched as possible. We get more money that way."

The alpha goes quiet after that, much to Boy's gratitude, until the van comes to a stop and doesn't move again. The alpha's smirk is back in full force then as he gets to his feet, his muscles taking up seemingly all of the space. "Buckle up, boy," he chuckles. "You're about to meet your new owner."

* * *

- The Present: Friday, March 4th, 2016 -

After Laura arrives at his apartment to stay with Stiles, Derek finds Geoff waiting on the side of the road when he pulls his car up outside of Beacon Hills' only hotel. The older man has a bulging backpack slung over one shoulder, one hand wrapped around the strap and the other holding his phone. The device seems to have all of his attention, leaving Derek's arrival unnoticed. Derek toots his horn and huffs out a short breath of laughter when Geoff's head snaps up and he stares with wide, shocked eyes. It's a sight Derek wouldn't have thought characteristic of him.

When he has recovered, Geoff hurries over to the Camaro, climbs inside the passenger seat and tosses his backpack in the backseat, where it joins Derek's own meagre luggage for this trip. "Sorry about that," he apologises as he buckles his seatbelt.

Derek starts driving again. "You looked pretty engrossed."

"I was texting Marc to see how he's holding up without me there to support him. He's never run our pack by himself before."

"What'd he say?"

"That he's been fine. Surprisingly."

Derek glances at his passenger. "Why is that surprising?"

"Well..." Geoff heaves a long-suffering sigh. "Marc has never been the most responsible person. He finds it difficult to be serious for more than two seconds. Even though we're both alphas of the same pack and take care of it together, it's basically an unspoken rule that I'm the one who's really in charge. I honestly thought he'd have called and begged me to come back by now."

"Isn't it a good thing that he hasn't?"

"I suppose it is, yes."

"Then why do you sound like you're disappointed?"

Geoff shakes his head. "To be honest, if it's all the same to you, I'd rather not get into it right now. Don't worry; it's stupid anyway."

Derek nods his acceptance. "Alright."

When no new topic is brought up after five minutes, Derek leans forward at a red light and switches on the radio to fill the silence. Some obnoxious pop song blares from the speakers, making both men cringe, so he quickly flips through the stations in search of something more palatable. He comes up empty and so, leaving the radio on a station playing old rock songs from the ‘70s, he just concentrates on driving.

Geoff makes the occasional comment as the hours pass slowly by, until the sun is starting to set and they finally pass through Arizona and into New Mexico. At this point, Geoff reads out directions from a map he pulls up on his phone. He guides Derek along the fastest route to the address he was given by the current alpha of Aiden and Ethan's old pack.

The house is huge, bigger than all the others in the spread-apart neighbourhood. It has a Spanish Mediterranean feel, with smooth light-beige walls, orange tiled roofs and windows with curved tops. The front garden is bisected by the large driveway. Each blade of lush grass is cut to a uniform shortness and running around the perimeter of both patches is a tiny, neatly trimmed hedge, which Derek thinks would come up to his ankles.

The driveway is already full of different vehicles, so Derek parks on the side of the road.

"Well, here we are," Geoff smiles encouragingly. "You ready for this?"

"As I'll ever be," Derek replies.

The two men unbuckle their seatbelts, exit the Camaro and walk side by side up the three stone steps to the double glass front doors. On the other side are two long blinds which have been pulled down, presumably to prevent anyone from invading the privacy of those who live there. From deep inside, the quiet sounds of heated talking can be heard, like two people are currently engaged in an argument.

Geoff looks to his left, at Derek. "You wanna do the honours?"

Derek would rather not, but he still agrees.

Raising his hand, he pushes the doorbell that's screwed into the wall and waits patiently, hoping that they haven't arrived at too bad a time. At the classic two-note chime that plays, the argument cuts off and Derek hears a soft, high voice order someone to behave themselves before footsteps approach. Preparing himself, he stands tall as the doorway swings inward and a woman is revealed.

Derek instantly knows she's the alpha. She looks to be in her early forties and has tanned skin and straight, dyed-red hair down to her shoulders. She sports jeans and a pink tank top, which shows off her toned arms. It's apparent that she is a woman who exercises frequently.

Her smile is welcoming but doesn't quite reach her brown eyes, like she lacks the energy to make it truly convincing.

"Hello," she greets. "You must be Geoff and Derek, yes?"

"That's us," Geoff confirms, shaking her hand.

"I'm Melanie. It's nice to meet you."

"You, too," Geoff responds.

"You, too," Derek echoes, attempting to keep his nerves out of his voice.

"Well, come on in," Melanie says, stepping aside.

From just seeing the foyer, Derek can tell that the inside of the house is just as grandiose as the outside. The floor is comprised of large white tiles and the walls are done up with a fancy gold-and-white wallpaper, adorned with mirrors and various artworks. The staircase that's positioned in the middle of the foyer is also white, but it is contrasted with polished dark-wood banisters.

At Melanie's instruction, Derek and Geoff both shrug off their jackets and toe off their shoes in the entranceway. Following her through to the living room, they find three people spread out across a lone beanbag chair and two sofas, one with two seats and the other with three. The two people on the sofas are in their teens—a younger boy and an older girl—and the boy in the beanbag chair is around eight years old, if Derek had to guess. In his hands the child holds a PlayStation 4 controller with earphones plugged into the bottom, presumably so that the sounds of gunfire from the video game he is playing aren't audible to anyone else in the room. Derek is thankful, his werewolf hearing picking up enough.

"Sasha, Seth, this is Derek and Geoff," Melanie introduces the two teens.

Seth waves and offers a brief smile before returning to the open book in his lap. Sasha just glares, gets up and storms from the room. Derek hears her stomp up the stairs and then a door slamming shut.

Melanie grimaces. "Sorry about her. Teenagers."

"Hey!" Seth protests.

"Most teenagers."

"Better."

Derek frowns. "I hope we didn't interrupt anything."

Melanie shakes her head and flops down on the sofa next to Seth. "Don't worry, you didn't. That's just Sasha being Sasha. She's always throwing a tantrum about something or other. Please, make yourselves comfortable."

"Thank you." More carefully than Melanie, Derek sits on the two-seater sofa, with Geoff to his right.

The three werewolves stare at each other for a few awkward moments, and then Melanie's expression becomes horrified instead of expectant. "Oh God, I'm so sorry! What must you think of me? I'm being a terrible hostess, aren't I?" she babbles, getting up again and leaving the room in a flash, through a different door than Sasha. She yells back over her shoulder, "I'll put on a pot of tea!"

Derek gapes at the abrupt exit. "Uhh..."

Seth snorts. "Relax," he says, not looking up from his book. "She's just anxious."

"Why?"

With a sigh, Seth closes his book and looks up at Derek. His gaze is intense and scrutinising, like he is seeing through to the core of Derek's very being. "You're here to dredge up painful memories," Seth says eventually, evidently deciding to be blunt. "Plus, Melanie hasn't been our alpha for that long, really. That's why she's anxious."

"Did you know Aiden or Ethan?" Geoff butts in.

"Not well. I was only eight."

"I see. Do you think they just ran away, too, like the papers said?"

"No," Seth answers, opening his book again. The gesture makes it clear that he is finished with this conversation for now.

"Do either of you take sugar?" comes Melanie's timely question.

"No, thank you," Derek calls back.

"One, please," Geoff adds.

A minute later, Melanie reenters with a tray of teacups and cookies, which she sets on the coffee table. "Help yourselves," she says, picking up her own cup and pointing out which one is Derek's and which is Geoff's.

"Thank you."

"Now, let's get this unpleasantness out of the way, shall we? Tell me, what exactly did you come all this way to learn?" Melanie asks Derek, blindly dipping a cookie in her tea and biting off a chunk. "Geoff told me on the phone the other day that you were curious about what happened to Aiden and Ethan and that it pertained to something important that's happening to your pack at the moment, but I didn't quite catch how."

Derek dives right into his explanation, trying to get across the urgency he feels while skating over as many of the details as he can—Melanie and Seth are still strangers, after all, so it doesn't feel right to get too far into Stiles' suffering with them. In contrast to how flustered she had seemed before, while Derek talks Melanie keeps her face carefully schooled and gives away none of her thoughts. But when Derek mentions that Stiles is his human mate, a tiny crack shows in her mask, her right eye twitching a couple of times before going still again. It's enough for Derek to suspect that she has put some puzzle pieces together in her head.

"The official story has always been that Aiden and Ethan ran away," Melanie says after Derek finishes, her eyes on her teacup. "Keith, my predecessor, was cruel, a despot in every way. Ethan took a lot of the heat, for reasons no one knew for sure. I had my suspicions, though. Aiden, being the elder of the twins, was fiercely protective of his brother and often stepped in the line of fire. No one would have blamed the twins if they really did run, but very few of us believe that's what actually happened. Especially because of Danny."

Derek sits forward, intrigued. "Who's Danny?"

"Ethan's mate. He went missing at the same time as the twins."

"Oh..."

"He was human, just like your Stiles."

Derek's mind races, comparing his and Stiles' situation with Ethan and Danny's. Some pieces match but others don't. If the same thing that happened to Stiles happened to Danny and Ethan, then why wasn't Derek taken, too? And what of Aiden?

He voices these questions in the hope that Melanie will be able to answer them, but he is disappointed when she shakes her head sadly and sets down her half-finished tea. "I have no idea. All I know is that, before I overthrew Keith, Ethan met Danny and then both them and Aiden vanished."

"Can you tell us more about them?" Geoff asks.

Melanie acquiesces. "If you think it would help. They'd always been close. Being twins, it was pretty much expected, I suppose. If one was around, the other wouldn't be far behind. As I said, our old alpha wasn't a nice person, especially in the run-up to the twins' disappearance. Happiness was a rare thing around here back then." She smiles wryly. "Everyone had a strict regime they had to stick to, or else.

"I remember once that Ethan's arm was broken under suspicious circumstances. It was just us two and Keith home that afternoon. I was upstairs cleaning the bathroom when I heard this crash from down here, followed by a scream. When I went to investigate, I found Ethan crying and clutching his arm. Keith said that Ethan tripped over his own feet and caught himself wrong, but I knew. Everyone knew, once the story circulated through our pack. No one doubted that Keith was the one who broke Ethan's arm, not a bad fall."

Geoff looks horrified. "He sounds like a monster."

"Oh, he was. That's why those of us who could colluded to unseat him as our alpha."

"And Danny?"

The curve of Melanie's lips is this time more genuine, though still tinged with sadness. "Danny's family moved here just over six years back," she reminisces, her eyes far away. "You couldn't have met a friendlier kid. He caught Ethan's eye almost immediately, though he didn't understand why at first. I suspected what was happening and told him. Keith didn't want Ethan around Danny, I think because he was a bigot who thought same-sex relationships were aberrant, but I used to cover for them so they could still see each other. Aiden was jealous for a while, felt like Danny was stealing his brother away. But when he saw how happy Ethan was, he got over it pretty quickly."

"Yeah, he could be a dick sometimes," Seth interjects, giving up the pretence of reading and rejoining the conversation.

"Seth!" Melanie chides, narrowing her eyes at him.

The teenager shrugs. "What? He could."

"Anyway," Melanie continues pointedly, "things were pretty good for a while. Ethan and Danny were happily in puppy love and Aiden was happy for his brother. Of course, that's when a spanner was thrown into the works. Keith caught Ethan and Danny in a...compromising position one afternoon and blew a gasket, especially when he found out that it wasn't the first time. I don't think anyone got hit, but it was a close thing. The days after were tense and Ethan was confined to his room without his phone, though Aiden would pass messages to him from Danny. And then, all three of them just...vanished."

"She means Keith did something to them," Seth corrects, drawing surprise from Derek and Geoff and wariness from Melanie.

"We don't know that," she cautions.

Seth rolls his eyes. "Oh, c'mon! We've all always thought that's what happened, even if no one would actually say it out loud. I know that's one of the main reasons you all chose then to try and take over. Don't lie to me and tell me otherwise."

Melanie purses her lips. "Fine, I did think that," she concedes. "But I don't anymore."

Seth frowns. "You don't?"

"No. Not if Aiden really is connected to Derek's mate. That would explain why no one was ever able to find proof when we looked for it."

"Do you have pictures of them, perchance?" Geoff requests.

Melanie nods. "Hold on."

She leaves the room again for a few minutes and returns this time with a couple of glossy photographs, which she gives to Derek. "Here. One of them's of Aiden and Ethan together at one of Aiden's soccer games, about a year before they went missing. Danny took the other one when he went on a date with Ethan. You can keep them, if you want. They're copies, so I can just print out more."

Derek nods his assent.

"Out of curiosity, why did you want them?"

"They might be useful in some way to the investigation."

Geoff agrees readily. "At the very least, I can show these to some of the other alphas and see if they jog any memories."

Derek glances through the room's large window and feels surprise when he sees that the sun has already set. "It's getting late. Thank you for meeting with us. I think we've got everything we came here for and I don't want to intrude any longer," he says, rising to his feet. He tucks the photographs in his wallet, extracts a small white card, upon which is printed a series of numbers, and hands it to Melanie.

She takes it with a bemused look on her face, so Derek explains: "If you think of anything else, no matter how small, please call me right away. You never know—sometimes the smallest clue can help solve a case, even one years old like this. Likewise, I'll let you know if we discover anything about Aiden, Ethan or Danny, too."

"I'd appreciate that," Melanie smiles, escorting the two men to the front door.

With a wave in Seth's direction, Derek and Geoff grab their jackets, exchange goodbyes with Melanie and, once the door is shut, make their way back to the Camaro.

"So, where are we staying tonight?" Geoff asks. "I'd love to wash today's travel off."

Derek pauses with his key in the driver's door. "Actually, I know we planned to head back tomorrow morning, but do you mind if we go now? I'll drive the whole way so you can sleep, if you want. I just... I need to get back to Stiles as soon as possible."

Geoff regards him understandingly. "Sure."

* * *

- The Present: Saturday, March 5th, 2016 -

It's nearing eight in the morning when Derek gets back to Beacon Hills. His eyes itch and his limbs feel heavy because of how tired he is, but the thought of his nice warm bed keeps him driving. He says a quick farewell to Geoff when he drops the older man off beside his car, which is still parked in the hotel lot, and then he ignores everything else and heads on autopilot for his apartment.

His usual space is still free, so he cuts the engine, grabs his unused bag from the backseat and gets out. In the lobby of his apartment building, Derek checks his mail quickly and is about to walk to the elevators when he senses another presence. Turning, he spots a man in one of the chairs positioned along the left wall, his startlingly blue eyes focused intently on him.

"Can I help you?" Derek asks.

"Yes, I think you can," the stranger responds, getting up. He doesn't say anything else.

Derek takes a breath. "Make it quick. I really want to sleep."

The stranger's smile isn't soothing.

"My name is Chris Argent. We need to talk."

Chapter Text

- The Past: Monday, May 16th, 2011 -

The structure Boy sees when he leaves the back of the van is more of a shack than a house. It's in the middle of dense woods, with windows that are so encrusted with dirt they're almost opaque and wooden walls which seem like they would collapse if there was so much as a light breeze. The short-haired alpha hops out of the van after a moment and gestures for Boy to follow him, so Boy stops his gawking and walks with him to the shack's lone door.

Without the alpha having to knock, the door is opened by a man dressed in an incongruously smart suit, who welcomes them inside with a conspiratorial smile. He has impeccably tousled black hair, green eyes that are far too intense for Boy's liking, and a husky build that pairs well with his imposing height.

The interior of the shack is just as insalubrious as the exterior. The hardwood floor is rough on Boy's bare feet and there's a pervasive chill in the air despite the fire currently burning away in the dusty fireplace to the left. It's the only real source of light there is, the windows not letting much of the sun's rays through. The sole pieces of furniture in the room are a double bed in one corner and a round, rickety table right in the middle, on top of which is an expensive-looking tablet in a leather protective case. Off to the right is another door, open to reveal a tiny bathroom.

"Nice place you got here," the short-haired alpha comments sardonically.

The suited man scoffs. "Well, I could hardly have him brought to my actual house now, could I? My pack don't know about my...needs."

"Fair enough."

Satisfied, the suited man turns his eyes to Boy.

"My, my, aren't you lovely?" he titters.

He grabs the teenager's chin and jerks his head up to look at him. Boy finds it difficult. The intensity of the man's greedy orbs seems even worse up close, all the nasty thoughts that float behind them clearly visible. "Very pretty features. Not that I'll be looking at them much."

After releasing his chin, the stranger circles Boy slowly, scrutinising every part of Boy's mostly bare body. His expression becomes more and more excited as he completes second and third circuits and a wide grin forms when, at the stranger's behest, the short-haired alpha makes Boy remove his underwear.

Boy is left standing in the shack completely naked and desperate to cover himself again, but he knows what will happen if he tries. So he doesn't. He remains frozen in place and wishes he was back in the basement with the two middle-aged men who made him feel good.

"I take it you approve?" the short-haired alpha says impatiently.

"Oh yes," the stranger affirms.

He stops at Boy's back. "Very perky. Yes, he'll do nicely. He have a name?"

The short-haired alpha shakes his head. "He won't in a minute, once I have the money. Call him whatever you want."

With a flourish, the suited man picks the tablet up from the table, folds back the case and taps on the screen a few times. "There. Five hundred thousand, as agreed."

"Excellent."

Instead of leaving right away, the short-haired alpha approaches Boy and sneers at him to turn around. Boy does so, turning his back to the alpha. He feels a sharp pain in the back of his neck that makes everything go blurry for a few seconds, and then things swim back into focus.

He doesn't remember how he got where he is, or even who he is. There's simply nothing there, not even so much as a brief flash of memory. He's a completely blank slate, but he doesn't have time to dwell on this because his vision is suddenly filled with the lecherous smile of a well-dressed man.

"You and I are going to have a lot of fun," the man says, moving him toward the bed.

He goes compliantly and then just stands there, avoiding the man's gaze. Something tells him he shouldn't meet it unless he's told to.

The silence drags on for seemingly forever, neither one of them speaking or moving an inch until, finally, the man makes a contemplative sound. "Hmm, what to call you..." he ponders, staring unabashedly. "Ah, I know! I'll be your master and I'll name you after my mate. I'm probably going to be screaming his name when I'm with you anyway. Well, Riley," he says with glee, "I want you to undress me. Start with my shirt."

Thinking that the name is better than nothing, Riley undoes the buttons of his master's shirt, revealing more and more smooth skin and muscle. Riley doesn't know what to think of it, so he doesn't, just keeps on going robotically. He pushes the shirt off of the man's shoulders so that it falls to the floor and then moves on to his belt, his hands starting to shake. It's strange. He still can't remember anything about his past, but he somehow knows what is coming next, what he will be expected to do. It's frightening.

Sucking someone's cock he's sure he can handle, but his master is most likely going to fuck him. From the heat of his eyes, Riley doesn't think he'll be gentle about it.

"Pull down the zipper," the man says after his belt has been dropped to the floor.

Riley does so and sinks automatically to his knees, the position carrying a sense of familiarity to it. Part of him hopes naively that, if he does a good enough job blowing him, his master won't want to do anything else.

The man apparently forewent underwear that morning. Once the button is popped and the zipper is down, his cock springs out of the opening in the front of his slacks and hits Riley in the face, smearing his cheek with pre-come. Riley swallows nervously at its size, his throat feeling tight as the man's slacks fall down to his ankles and he threads his fingers through Riley's hair.

"Let's see if I got my money's worth."

With one brutal thrust, Riley's mouth is filled and his nose is smashed against the man's pubic bone. Self-preservation makes him scrabble to get free but it's pointless. Once the initial panic passes and his rational mind takes over again, Riley goes limp and allows his master to use him as he likes.

Semen spills down his throat a couple of minutes later, but the speed is not a mercy.

No sooner has the man spent himself than he tosses Riley face-down on the bed and hikes up his hips.

"Yes... I've waited so long for this," the man whispers almost reverently, caressing the smooth cheeks of Riley's ass and then pulling them apart, baring him fully.

Riley shudders and buries his face in the coarse sheets.

"I love the real Riley dearly, but there are just some things you don't do to the person you love. I tried to not think about it, to tamp down these urges of mine, but I just couldn't. That's why you're here, to help me get my more perverse desires out of my system. My mate is delicate, you see—he wouldn't be able to take it, wouldn't understand. Good thing I don't have to worry about that with you, hmm? You'll take everything I have to give you."

Riley lies there and trembles as something hard and blunt bumps against his unprepared hole like a kiss.

Then, hot words are breathed in his ear: "You're going to scream so beautifully for me."

Riley does.

* * *

- The Present: Saturday, March 5th, 2016 -

Derek's tiredness is immediately gone when the blue-eyed man introduces himself. He knows that name. Argent. It carries nothing good. As a beta from a prominent werewolf pack, he knows all about hunters, all the lives of his kind they have taken in the name of ‘protecting the innocent'. Derek is aware that, in some cases, what a hunter does is justified, but he has heard one too many tales where it isn't for him to want anything to do with any of them.

And the Argents are the worst of the lot. His mother warned each of her children to watch out for them years ago, when a terrible story spread through the supernatural community. Nothing could ever be proven, but a family of innocent werewolves—including young children—losing their lives in a suspicious house fire while the Argents were in town was just too much of a coincidence to be believed.

Finding a hunter in the lobby of his apartment building is unnerving, especially because Stiles is right upstairs and therefore in potential danger again. It makes Derek want to strike first.

"Leave," he growls at Chris, managing to hold back for now.

"I know what you're thinking, but I'm not my father," Chris defends, holding up a placating hand. His face clouds with shame, but Derek errs on the side of caution and doesn't let himself fall for it. "Or my sister, for that matter. Please, just hear me out and, afterward, if you still want me to leave, I will. But I promise you'll want to hear what I have to say."

Derek narrows his eyes. "Have you spoken with my mom about this?"

"No," Chris admits carefully. "Not yet."

"Then why are you here?"

"Because this is important."

"That doesn't matter. You hunters are supposed to go straight to the alpha of any territory you enter to seek permission to be there, and that's not me."

Chris steps forward, getting far too close for comfort. "I know, but—"

"No," Derek cuts in, stepping back with his hackles raised when he detects the scent of fresh wolfsbane in the air. He wouldn't have put it past a hunter to not come unarmed, but having the suspicion confirmed increases his fear and protectiveness tenfold. He wants to end this conversation then and there so that he can rush upstairs and check on Stiles and Laura. "I don't appreciate being ambushed outside my home. If what you have to say is really so important, you can leave here, go to my alpha and wait for me there."

He points to the entrance.

Chris inclines his head. "Very well."

Once the hunter is gone, Derek runs for the stairs and takes them two at a time. He doesn't stop until he reaches the door to his apartment. He takes a calming breath, unlocks it and steps inside, where the sight of Laura sleeping peacefully on the living room sofa is like a balm to his frayed nerves. After checking his bedroom to make sure that Stiles is in a similar state in his bed, Derek kneels next to his sister and shakes her.

"Laura," he calls, quietly so that he doesn't wake Stiles, too.

"Ugh..." the woman grumbles. "Go away..."

"Laura!" Derek repeats, with more urgency.

This rouses Laura enough for her to open her eyes, and when she spots Derek, she sits up and rubs tiredly at her eyes. "Derek? What are you doing here? I thought you weren't getting back until this evening."

"I came home early, obviously. Listen, there was a hunter waiting for me downstairs when I got here, an Argent," Derek explains, causing Laura to cut off a yawn, her eyes widening in alarm. "Yeah, that was my reaction when he introduced himself. I sent him away for now, because he hadn't even spoken to mom yet to get permission to stay in town. I need you to get in touch with her so we can get this sorted. He said he had something on Stiles, and while I don't trust this at all...I have to admit I'm curious about what he has to say for himself."

Laura doesn't respond verbally but reaches for her phone on the coffee table. Derek, satisfied that his sister will have their mother in the know post-haste, stands and returns to his bedroom. Keeping a little of his attention on the one-sided conversation he can hear coming from the living room, Derek pushes his bedroom door open and creeps over to the bed, where he sits down on the edge and brushes the hair back from Stiles' forehead.

The younger man is sleeping calmly, something Derek is glad to see; he didn't think it would happen without him there. He keeps sitting, combing his fingers through his mate's hair until he hears Laura bid their mother goodbye. She appears in the doorway a moment later, and Derek raises his eyebrows at her in a silent request for information.

"She's waiting at the house," Laura explains. "Go. I'll stay with Stiles."

"OK."

Derek waits for Laura to disappear back into the living room before he leans down and presses his lips to Stiles' temple. "I'll be back soon," he promises.

* * *

When he pulls to a stop outside of his parents' house and gets out of his car, Derek finds that the couple is already waiting on the porch with the hunter. They are both still dressed in their night clothes and regard Chris with stony expressions. The latter pleases him and sets him at ease, knowing with certainty that no harm will come to him while he has them there with him.

He is halfway up the front path when another person gets out of Chris Argent's vehicle. He freezes mid-step and stares at the unexpected newcomer with trepidation—seemingly around Stiles' age, the young woman has long brown hair, pale unblemished skin and a square jaw. Her eyes don't possess any malice, nor the guardedness that Chris' did in the lobby of Derek's apartment building, and the smile she sends Derek's way doesn't appear to carry anything but friendliness.

Even though everything about her practically screams that she's sweet as pie and wouldn't hurt a fly, Derek has been around the block enough times to know that appearances are often deceiving.

"Alright, we're all here like you wanted. Now, tell me who this is," Talia demands.

Chris straightens up. "This is my daughter, Allison."

"Hi," the young woman greets.

"I was informed of only one hunter in my town," Talia stares. She flicks her eyes over to Derek, who just shrugs, before returning them to Chris. "Explain yourself."

Chris is visibly annoyed at being ordered around so much but capitulates. "Allison and I hunt together, and the information we've complied we found together," he says, gesturing to the large file Allison is currently carrying. "I promise you that we're not here to cause a fuss. We'll even leave our weapons in the car as a gesture of goodwill. We could've just not included you all in our findings, but because we've recently had reason to believe that Stiles was and is a part of what we know, Allison convinced me it was only right to let you have a say."

"Do you believe him?" Nicolas asks his wife.

Talia squints at the two hunters. "I do," she announces after a moment, dropping her defensive posture. "But at the first sign of trouble, I want you gone. Understood?"

Chris nods. "Understood."

"Alright. Everyone inside."

Once they are all situated in the living room—Derek in between his parents on one of the sofas and Allison and Chris on the sofa opposite, the coffee table like a bulwark between them—Chris gets right down to business.

"A few years ago, a pattern was brought to my attention, which I pointed out to my father," he says, while Allison opens the file she still holds and extracts from it a large piece of folded paper. Taking this, Chris unfolds it and, once the two cups of coffee that sit on the coffee table have been moved, lays it out flat. Printed on it is a massive map of the United States, with what must be at least two dozen bright-red dots scattered across it. All of them are paired with a date and a number. It doesn't escape Derek's notice that one of these dots is right over Beacon Hills and, unlike the others, it has two dates written next to it—the dates of Stiles' disappearance and return.

Strangely, over half of the dots are clustered together in California and its neighbouring states, and they become more spread out the further east the map goes. "My dad didn't think anything of this pattern," Chris sighs. "He didn't want me to waste my time pursuing it, but I secretly kept an eye on it with my source's help. Once he, my wife and my sister were killed a couple of years ago, I made it more of a priority and extended my search. When Allison finished her training, I had her join me."

"What are all these dots?" Talia questions, leaning forward to get a better look at the map.

"Missing persons."

Talia's eyes widen. "All of them?"

"Every one of them. All of these people just vanished, and all of them had a unique connection to the pack that resides or resided in that area. Allison and I have been all over the country for our job," Chris clears his throat uncomfortably, "and every time we're near one of these dots, we try to talk to the pack there. You're our latest and most important stop."

Talia raises a suspicious eyebrow. "And why are we your most important stop?"

Derek holds his breath.

"Because," Allison takes over, "Stiles is the only one who came back."

"How did you find out about us?" Talia frowns.

Chris chuckles but shuts up quickly when he spots Derek's powerful glower. "It was quite easy, really. Stiles was all over the news for months when he first went missing, and his name was brought up again not too long ago by the source I mentioned earlier," he says cryptically. "We weren't sure why at first, but eventually business brought us to California and we snooped around a bit and heard of Stiles' miraculous return through the grapevine. Naturally, I thought about approaching you right away, but Allison thought it would be a good idea to give you some time. Then, when you went to visit the pack in New Mexico, well..." He taps the map, and Derek looks down to see that, sure enough, there's another red dot and date right over Albuquerque. "That's when we knew you were starting to see what we've been seeing for years."

Talia opens her mouth again. "Why not—"

"You're not speaking to Stiles," Derek interrupts, his voice stern and his eyes hard as they stay locked on Chris'. "You're not getting near him."

"Relax," the man huffs, "we don't need to speak to him."

"Well...good."

"All we want is to tell you what we know so far and inform you that we think we're getting close to cracking this," Chris carries on, glancing at Allison.

From the file still on her lap she pulls a series of papers, which she leans across the coffee table and gives to Derek. "These are all the people we suspect are connected to what happened to Stiles," she says. "We can't prove some of them, but the clues are there."

Derek shuffles through the papers, each of which contains a name at the top, a photograph and a short list of details on the subject, which includes the date they went missing and the names of their pack. One of the names in these lists is always circled in orange highlighter. Obviously, there is a sheet of paper with Stiles' name and picture on it and another set of three with Ethan's, Aiden's and Danny's. Derek makes sure to memorise the latter's last name for when he informs Stiles' dad of what he and Geoff found out in New Mexico.

In total there are twenty-seven sheets of paper, all of which Derek gives to his parents when he's through with them. There are two common threads that he can see running through every one—each person in the pile ranges from fifteen to twenty-two years old and is, with the exception of the twins, human.

"Stiles is really the only one of these poor kids to return?" Talia asks sadly.

"Yes," Chris answers.

"Stiles is your mate, correct?" Allison speaks up, looking up from yet another piece of paper to peer intently at Derek.

"He is," Derek replies proudly. "Were all these...?"

"Were those missing kids all also the mates of werewolves?" Chris finishes.

Derek nods slowly, already knowing the answer thanks to Melanie.

"They were."

"All except for Ethan and Aiden Steiner," Allison adds.

"How does this all make any sort of sense?" Nicolas ponders quietly, leafing through the papers. "Why would someone kidnap all of these kids? None of them look remotely alike, so this criminal mustn't have a type or anything like that."

"Think about what Derek just asked me," Chris prods patiently.

Nicolas stares for a moment, and then realisation dawns on his face.

"That's the reason?"

"We suspect so, yes. Again, except for the twins."

"You see the names that are circled on each file?" Allison adds. "Those are the werewolf mates of each missing person."

Derek watches as his dad locates the files for Stiles, Ethan and Aiden. Derek's name is circled on Stiles' file, and on Danny's, Ethan's is. Aiden doesn't have a circled name on his file, a piece of the puzzle Derek doesn't yet know how to fit with the rest.

"Do you have suspects?" he asks.

"Nothing concrete," Chris responds, running his hands across the map. "As you can see, it's pretty clear that whoever is responsible resides in California, or at least that's where they run their base of operations. They would also have to know about all of you guys and, from what we could gather by interviewing each missing person's pack, they'd have staked their victims out for a long time. Learning their schedule so they'd know when best to strike. If I had to guess, I'd say it's more than one person doing all of this, too. It's spread too far for just one."

"Some of my fellow alphas have their feelers out," Talia says, "but I haven't heard anything thus far."

"I still have difficulty believing anyone could be capable of doing something like this," Nicolas whispers, rubbing a hand over his mouth. "It's...heinous."

"Indeed it is," Chris agrees. "The reason we're bringing this to your attention is because, while you probably don't trust us yet, we need your help to see it through. Whatever this is, it's big, and it involves all of us." He peers intently at Derek. "I said I didn't need to speak to Stiles and I stand by that, but do you think you could show those files to him? There's a chance—however small that chance may be—that he'll recognise one of them."

Derek smiles wryly. "Don't get your hopes up, but fine. I was planning on showing him Aiden, Ethan and Danny anyway."

"Good. Now, I think we'll be going. We'll leave all of this with you. If we have your permission, I'd like to stay in town for a while."

Talia nods. "You have it."

Two minutes later and both hunters are gone.

"Well, that was disturbingly enlightening," Nicolas sighs, looking sadly down at his coffee.

"I'm gonna go, too," Derek announces tiredly, standing up.

"So soon?" Talia frowns.

"I drove all night and now I really need a nap, at least," Derek explains, yawning as if to prove his point. He accepts his mother's hug when she stands up, while his dad pats him a couple of times on the back. "Plus I've already been away from Stiles for too long, so...I was supposed to be back with him over an hour ago."

Talia smiles softly. "Alright. Give him my love."

"Will do."

With that, Derek goes home. To Stiles.

Chapter Text

- The Past: Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012 -

After almost a year, Riley remains trapped in that dilapidated shack.

He still has not grown used to his master's rough hands, hasn't been able to numb himself and render them inefficacious. He tries leaving his body behind while he soars off to fantastical places that only exist in his imagination, but every time he thought he was close to reaching that state, the man would just throw something new at him and bring him literally screaming back.

At the start, his master would come to see him almost every day. But, as time went on, the number of days between each visit grew larger and every time the alpha did come around, he seemed less like he wanted to be there. Like he was taking less pleasure in Riley's pain.

Now, Riley hasn't seen his master in two weeks. It's the longest yet he's gone without being fucked raw and bloody, but he can't even be grateful because now he's experiencing a different kind of pain. The sink in the bathroom off the main room has running water, so he hasn't died of dehydration yet. But the pitiful supply of food his master had brought with him on his last visit was depleted by the end of the second day.

Riley is starving. He can't even go outside to see if there's some wildlife he could kill—he's desperate enough, but clever conditioning kept him immured in the shack back when he still had enough energy to try and now he is so weak he can't move from the bed anyway. He just lies there and stares up at the ceiling, lonely and actually wishing for his master to return, just so he'd have something.

But the man doesn't come.

No one comes.

* * *

It's dark when Riley hears something outside.

The sound tears him from his daze. He manages to scrape together the energy needed to lift his head and peer at the door. Heavy footsteps approach on the other side and, just for a moment, Riley thinks it's his master. But then he realises that the footsteps are heavier and knows that, whoever they are, they aren't who he wants. A few moments later the door is pushed open and a man with huge muscles and buzzed-short hair steps inside.

"Long time, no see," he says, walking over to the bed with a sneer.

Riley just stares bewilderedly.

"Don't worry. You'll remember me in a second."

The newcomer lifts Riley up so that he's sitting, eliciting a pained groan from him. He brings a hand to the back of Riley's neck and shoves his claws in.

"There we go."

Riley blinks blearily up at the alpha. His memories of him come back all at once, weeks of darkness and pain, as do his memories of himself. It sets Riley off balance—or is his name Boy? It's like there are two people in his head—the boy moulded by the short-haired and female alphas and the person he became over the past year. It's incredibly difficult to assimilate his recent memories with his old ones, which feel like they belong to a completely different person. In the end, he just sticks with Riley and pushes everything else aside to sort through later.

He is picked up bridal style by the alpha. He lies in his arms and decides to let whatever's about to happen to him happen.

When they get outside, Riley is met with the same van that brought the other boy in his head to the shack all those months ago. His chest burns with shame. He failed in his duty to his master and now being back with the short-haired alpha is his punishment.

Said alpha drops him unceremoniously in the back of the van, gets in himself and closes the doors. "We're good to go!" he yells to the driver.

The engine starts and Riley feels the metal beneath him vibrate as the wheels start moving over the rough gravel path. He wishes he could turn away from the alpha, but he can't.

"Time to start over," the man says conversationally.

Riley stays stubbornly silent.

"Your owner got bored with you. Sad, I know." The alpha laughs. "Don't feel too bad, though. It happens to all of you eventually."

* * *

- The Past: Friday, June 15th, 2012 -

Boy has spent two months being brought back to health. All he did was lie in bed and, once his stomach could handle it, eat what was placed in front of him. It gave him the time he needed to try to reintegrate his fractured mind, to restore its two halves to some semblance of wholeness. Now, his memories of being Riley are still there, but it's easier to think of himself and that boy as the same person.

After he finishes his lunch, Boy's door opens.

"Time for owner number two," is all the short-haired alpha says when he enters. "Try not to mess it up so quickly this time."

It's almost the same process as before. Boy isn't dolled up this time, but he still sits in the back of the van as they journey to God knows where and is then lead up to a modest but well-kept house.

"This one has an unusual kink. I think you'll enjoy it."

Another man is there to meet them, corpulent and well-groomed but dressed in inexpensive clothes. He smiles at Boy almost kindly, but Boy is wary and just stands there as the business is taken care of. Money is transferred electronically—much less than before because, as the muscled alpha tells him, he's been soiled and is therefore not worth as much anymore—and then the alpha pierces the back of Boy's neck with his claws to erase his mind and leaves him with his new owner.

Disoriented and wondering what's going on, his hand is taken by a large man and he is pulled into a living room. In the middle is an ugly orange shag rug, which the man drags aside to reveal a trapdoor.

"In here, sweetheart," the man says, opening it.

Not knowing what else to do, he climbs trepidatiously down the ladder with the man following. He gasps when he sees what lies at the bottom.

"Do you like it?" the man asks.

He nods automatically, still taking it in.

The basement is a single room and is kitted out like an apartment with an open floor plan. It's lit by several lamps scattered around, some tall and on the floor and others short and on small tables. There's a black leather sofa in the middle which faces a huge television, and off to the right is what looks like a retro-style kitchen. The floor changes from carpet to cheap black-and-white chequered linoleum and the cupboards are painted a pastel blue.

To the left is a toilet and bathtub and directly opposite the ladder, behind the sofa, is a huge canopy bed with blood-red sheets. But even with all of this, the thing that stands out most to him is the dark soundproofing foam that covers the walls and ceiling.

"I'm glad," the corpulent man sighs. "Come on, baby. I made us dinner."

* * *

He comes to lying on something soft. He is confused, because the last thing he recalls is uneasily starting to eat the lasagne the large man had prepared for him.

He tries to open his eyes and search his surroundings for answers but discovers he can't. He can't move at all, in fact. All he can do is lie perfectly still and breathe, his eyes moving restlessly back and forth behind lids that seem glued shut.

Soon, he senses movement next to him and focuses on that. Whatever he is lying on dips—the canopy bed, he guesses—as someone climbs up next to him, and then he feels calloused fingers stroke down the side of his face in a touch that's almost tender. It does nothing to allay his anxieties but that doesn't seem to matter.

The touches continue down to his jaw and then down his neck and beneath the collar of his shirt, which is when he realises that he is wearing more than just the underwear he had on before. He can feel silky fabric against his legs, too, so perhaps while he was unconscious the man put him in a pair of pyjamas. It would make sense, given the fact that he's currently in bed.

"You're so beautiful, Luke..." a voice whispers.

He attempts again to move but the best he can do is make his fingers twitch, a movement that is picked up by the man next to him

"I've got to be careful, huh, Luke?" the man asks rhetorically. "Don't wanna wake you."

For a moment he is even more confused—is Luke his name?—but then he feels the buttons of his sleep shirt being undone and what's happening becomes that much clearer.

"What a lovely present you are, just waiting to be unwrapped. All for me."

Soon enough the last button is undone and the sleeves of Luke's shirt are gently pulled down, leaving his top half bare. Those same fingers travel down his chest, circle his nipples and dip into his belly button. The man takes his time exploring, familiarising himself with Luke's body. Luke counts in his head to distract himself, because, although the touches aren't altogether unpleasant, they're certainly unwanted. Especially in his current condition, where he can't see what's coming next.

He reaches 126 before the man moves on.

The touches descend to Luke's bottom half, pushing apart his legs and slowly pulling down his pyjama bottoms to leave him completely naked. The man just sits there and takes everything in for several minutes, the sound of his soft but excited breathing the only sound in the room until he finally moves again. He turns Luke onto his side, hitches one of his legs forward and slides up behind him, pressing them together from head to toe.

Luke feels nothing but soft skin, so his owner must be naked, too.

"Let's get you ready, baby," the man whispers into his ear.

A slick finger slides inside Luke, the glide smooth because whatever was in his food leaves him wholly incapable of tensing up. It's meticulous, the man opening him up until three fingers fit snugly inside him. Only then does the man withdraw the thick digits and replace them with something else. When he pushes inside to the hilt in one smooth motion, Luke manages to make a distressed sound which has the other petting him lazily and kissing his jaw.

"Shh... I've got you, baby. Just sleep."

* * *

- The Present: Saturday, March 5th, 2016 -

After a power nap, Derek wakes just before noon feeling reasonably refreshed and ready to face the rest of the day. He'd sent Laura home when he got back to his apartment earlier that morning and had then fallen face-first into bed next to his mate, who was still sleeping peacefully. Stiles is gone now, Derek notices, and must have left some time ago because the other half of the bed is cold. Using his ears, he follows the sound of Stiles' heartbeat and locates him on the living room sofa. The younger man is still dressed in his sleep clothes and has a thick book open in his lap.

"Hey," Derek croaks, joining him.

Stiles blinks at him and puts his book aside, giving him his full attention. A glance tells Derek that the book is not one of his, so his sister must have left it behind. "Did you have a good time with Laura?"

Stiles nods.

"I'm glad. You eaten yet?"

Stiles shakes his head this time, just as his stomach gives a timely rumble. The sound makes Derek chuckle quietly as he gets up. "Alright. Let's see about fixing that, shall we?" He offers Stiles a hand and walks into the kitchen to search for something that looks good. He swears he had at least some stuff left in the fridge and cupboards before he went with Geoff to New Mexico, but when he opens them all now he doesn't find much of anything.

With one of his eyebrows raised he looks over his shoulder at Stiles, who is watching him from where he hovers awkwardly a few feet away. "Just how much food did you two eat while I was gone?" he teases, shaking his head and huffing amusedly when Stiles flushes an adorable red and looks down.

"Well, that kind of limits our options..." Derek sighs, closing the fridge and leaning against the countertop. He curls his fingers around the edge and stares thoughtfully at Stiles as an idea occurs to him. Stiles probably won't receive it well, but he puts it out there anyway. "How about, if you're feeling up to it, we go out for breakfast today?"

Like Derek thought he would, Stiles immediately looks apprehensive, so he pushes away from the counter, crosses the room and rests his hands on his mate's shoulders. "You can say no—you can always say no—but I just thought this might be a good opportunity to take the next step in your recovery," he soothes, rubbing his thumbs back and forth over Stiles' collarbones.

"I'll be with you the whole time, like every other time you've left this apartment. There'll be no Peter there to harass you and I'll keep everyone else away from us, too. I've been told by many that my face can be very effective at that." He furrows his brow and playfully narrows his eyes. "See? What do you say?"

Stiles bites his lip but eventually agrees.

"Great!" Derek grins. "I'm gonna shower and then we'll leave."

* * *

The establishment Derek selects is a well-kept secret among the denizens of Beacon Hills. Few know about it, it's so out of the way, and those who do usually keep to themselves while eating there. When Laura had told him about it years ago, he'd pictured something seedy and unsavoury and was surprised to find when she dragged him along one day that it was anything but. It's small but clean and with a warm atmosphere.

The family who owns it is always friendly but never overly so, which instantly made it a favourite of Derek's. Maureen, a woman in her early sixties, is behind the front counter today, which means her husband and their eldest son are in the back cooking food and baking pastries. Derek offers her an amicable nod as he enters and walks toward the back of the place, to a table in one of the corners. There aren't many others in the place because they luckily missed the breakfast rush, and those that are pay them no mind.

"I'm gonna go order," Derek tells Stiles, sitting him in a chair facing the wall and touching his cheek when he looks up, his eyes wide. "Don't worry; I'll be quick."

True to his word, Derek approaches Maureen and politely returns the smile she gives him.

"Hey, stranger," she says. "Haven't seen you in a while."

"I've been pretty busy lately."

Maureen smirks knowingly. "I can see that."

Derek glances back to where Stiles is nervously shredding a napkin. He's glad when Maureen doesn't pry.

"So, what can I get you today, dear?"

Derek keeps his order simple: two stacks of pancakes with sides of crispy bacon, one black coffee and one mocha. Once Derek has paid and Maureen has sent the order to her husband in the back, Derek returns to his mate and takes the seat opposite him. It's a perfect vantage point, from which he can see the entirely of the establishment, including the door. This way, he'll be able to see whenever someone enters or leaves.

"You doing okay?" he asks Stiles.

The boy nods shakily and stops shredding the napkin, the scraps of which Derek sweeps off to the edge of the table.

"Food'll be ready soon."

Derek fills the silence while they wait, keeping Stiles' focus on him and not on the people around them. It's not long until their breakfasts are brought out and set down in front of them, and then both are mostly quiet as they eat. Judging from the way Stiles devours his food in no time at all, Derek doesn't have to ask whether or not he likes it.

Derek is actually last to finish, a rarity between the two of them. Once their mugs are emptied and their stomachs warmed with their beverages, Derek signals to Stiles that they're leaving and gets up. The door opens before they reach it and a teenage girl steps inside, her eyes on her phone. She bumps right into Derek.

"Oh my God, I'm so sorry! I wasn't looking where I was going!" she squeaks, brushing her light-brown fringe out of her eyes and fidgeting with the strap of her purse on her shoulder.

"That's alright," Derek accepts. "No harm done."

A relieved smile creeps onto the girl's face, but then she spots Stiles and it slips right off again.

Derek tenses. While the salient details have been kept from the public, it's no secret that Stiles, a prominent missing person in not just Beacon Hills, is back after five long years. It's clear that this girl recognises Stiles' face and Derek is ready to whisk his mate out of there depending on what she does next.

But he needn't have worried. Instead of attempting to wheedle information out of him or, worse yet, question Stiles directly like Derek feared, the girl pales and then rushes right back out of the building.

"That was odd," Derek frowns, completely thrown off. He takes a step toward the exit, too, enters the space the girl had just occupied and, beneath her citrusy perfume, gets a whiff of something even stranger than her behaviour: the sourness of guilt. Curiosity rising in leaps and bounds, he turns and walks back to the front counter, letting the I-mean-business facade he wears when on the job take over.

"Do you know who that girl was?" he asks Maureen.

The woman wears a fond smile. "Oh, the brunette? Yes, she's a regular. Jessica something. A shy but very sweet girl, that one. Always tips well."

"Know anything else about her?"

"Mmm...no, can't say that I do. She doesn't talk much."

"Thanks."

Already devising a plan, Derek puts a hand on the small of Stiles' back and leads him outside.

"Sorry about that. Just had to check something," he excuses, looking up the street in case Jessica is still in the area. She isn't.

"C'mon. Let's get home."

* * *

- The Present: Sunday, March 6th, 2016 -

After making sure that Stiles will be alright by himself for a couple of hours, Derek leaves his apartment after breakfast the next morning and heads straight for the station. When he arrives, he ignores his peers, including the dirty look one of them sends him, and walks toward the sheriff's office, the door of which is closed. Thinking this unusual, Derek hovers outside and eavesdrops for a few seconds, his eyebrows rising high on his forehead when he hears John talking to someone about Stiles. He knows the other's voice, but it takes him a bit to put a face to it. When he does, he throws open the door and enters the office without knocking first.

Chris Argent twists in his chair to face him. "Hello, Derek."

"Chris."

John stands up and walks around his desk. "Derek, I wasn't expecting you," he says. "I thought you were spending today with Stiles."

"I will be, but there was something I needed to talk to you about first."

Stiles' dad frowns. "I'm listening."

"It's another potential lead, but..." Derek looks askance at Chris. "Maybe in private?"

The hunter scoffs and reclines in his chair like a king sitting upon his throne. "We're on the same side, remember?" he points out. "I want to stop these people just as much as you do, so whatever you have to say, you can say in front of me."

"It's alright, Derek," John agrees.

The beta capitulates but chooses his words carefully, holding on to some of his reservations. "Fine, but keep this to yourself for now," he warns Chris.

He tells both of the older men about what happened yesterday morning, about the teenage girl who reacted so strangely to seeing Stiles. "The way she hightailed it out of there... It was like she was guilty and terrified of him. Like she knew something."

"Who was she?" Chris queries, sitting forward in his chair.

Derek ignores him and looks to his boss. "That's what I wanted to talk to you about. All I know is what she looks like and that her first name is Jessica."

John hums thoughtfully. "I think we can work with that."

"How do we find her?"

"Well, I presume she'll be a student at Beacon Hills High, so we can start there," John replies, crossing his arms. "That means we'll need access to the school roster."

"And how long will that take?"

"We'll probably need a court order, which could take days."

"Or..." Chris interrupts, pursing his lips.

"Or?" Derek urges, when the hunter doesn't continue.

Chris stands up and smirks. "Just leave it to me."

Before Chris can make it to the door, John rushes forward and grabs his wrist. "Now hold on a minute," he says sternly. He doesn't relinquish his grip even when Chris looks down at his hand. "You're not going to do anything illegal, are you? I'd hate to have to arrest you so soon into our partnership."

"The less you know, the better."

"How are you—"

"The less you know," Chris repeats firmly, "the better. Unless you want to wait days to find out what this girl knows about your son."

The sheriff hesitates, seemingly in a crisis of conscience. He turns to Derek, who just shrugs.

"Well?" Chris presses. "Yes or no?"

Steeling himself, John releases Chris.

"This conversation doesn't leave this room," he warns. "Got it?"

"Don't worry," Chris assures confidently, "I'll be discrete. Just wait for my call."

With that, he leaves.

* * *

It's late when Derek finally hears from his boss.

He's in his bedroom, going through his dresser so that both his and Stiles' clothes are more organised, while Stiles himself sits on the bed and reads more of the book Laura had brought with her on her last visit. Stiles' old clothes were all moved from the sheriff's house a few weeks back, and even though the younger man will usually choose to wear something of Derek's instead of clothing from his own collection, it settles something inside of Derek to see their wardrobes together like this.

When he's halfway through their shirts, hears his phone and drops everything to pull it from the back pocket of his jeans. On the screen is a short text from his boss:

Jessica White, 22 Cedar Lane.
Meet me there. Half an hour.

How Chris got his hands on this information, Derek doesn't care to think about, but he supposes it won't matter to him if this lead brings them even one step closer to finding the people who took Stiles. Tucking his phone back in its home, Derek leaves his dresser in disarray and sits down next to Stiles on the bed.

He smiles warmly when Stiles looks up from his book, all doe-eyed.

"I need to step out for a bit," he says. "You gonna be okay here by yourself again?"

Stiles frowns.

"Just chasing another lead," Derek elaborates, affectionately brushing Stiles' hair back from his forehead. "It won't take long. Scout's honour."

Stiles still appears unsure but nods anyway. Derek gets up and, after the younger man has gone back to reading, leans down and presses his lips to the back of Stiles' head, earning a startled sound. Derek grins and grabs his leather jacket from the back of the bedroom door. "I'll be back in time for bed," he promises.

Chapter Text

- The Past: Thursday, January 31st, 2013 -

Luke's day begins like any other. He wakes up alone in the big subterranean room, washes the previous night's activities from his body and pillages the fridge for breakfast. His stomach full, he passes the time by cleaning, reading and quietly watching a couple of the old black-and-white films that are stacked up beneath the television. It's mundane in every way and a little boring after a while, but it's all Luke knows. It's just how his life is and he accepted it a long time ago.

But then, when it's nearing six p.m. and Luke is setting the table for himself and his master to eat dinner, he gets his first clue that this day is different from the routine they have established for themselves.

The hatch opens and his master descends the ladder. At first, like always, he just seems happy to see Luke, his face breaking out into a toothy grin. But when Luke looks closer, he can tell that this happiness isn't entirely real. The large man is worried about something, his appearance not as put-together as it usually is. His hair isn't neatly combed and his clothes are wrinkled.

Luke ignores all of this evidence that something is wrong. It isn't good to question his master, isn't his place, so he takes his seat at the small kitchen table and waits, the scents of fresh waffles and maple syrup filling his nostrils.

If the alpha wants to act as if everything is fine, Luke has no problem with it. He's had a lot of practice playing pretend. His master doesn't like it when he does anything that destroys the verisimilitude of the loving relationship they are supposed to have. Luke's cheek stung and bled for weeks when sharp claws helped him learn to keep up the facade at all times. It was just safer that way, even if his master seemed genuinely contrite for injuring him.

Luke watches the alpha circle the small kitchen table and scrutinise the food. Luke knows that waffles with maple syrup is a favourite of the gluttonous werewolf's, but at every mealtime they share he worries he'll have done something his master won't like. He always feels unbearably tense, prepared to receive a similar punishment to the last time he majorly fucked up. This evening is no different. But then his master drops the cool demeanour and his face warms with pleasure, so Luke breathes a sigh of relief and allows himself to relax. He keeps sitting quietly, his hands in his naked lap, until the alpha has taken his first bite.

"Mmm! This is delicious!" the man effuses, his mouth full. "Thank you, darling."

Luke offers him a smile he doesn't mean. He never means them.

They eat, but instead of the dinner conversation Luke is used to receiving—inane chatter about members of his master's pack he has never seen—he gets nothing but silence.

That's clue #2.

Unable to just come out and ask what's wrong, Luke keeps pretending.

When it comes time to retire to bed, his master brings with him two glasses of water. Like every day, Luke contemplates not drinking it—he knows what it will do to him—but, like every day, he gives in and gulps down the cold liquid.

With the sheets pulled up to his chest, Luke lies there as the lights are shut off one by one and the mattress dips beside him. He allows himself to be drawn sideways by large arms, until his back is pressed to the rounded front of his master and warm breaths puff out across the back of his neck. He is squeezed tighter than usual, tight enough that it becomes difficult to breathe. It's almost like the alpha is scared of him disappearing, which is ridiculous because he couldn't be more trapped. Luke can feel the scratch of coarse pubic hair against his bare ass and a rigid length between his thighs.

None of this is comforting, but already Luke's eyes are slipping closed without his permission. Darkness quickly envelops him.

* * *

As he expected, when Luke comes round, unable to gather enough energy to even open his eyes, his master is already inside of him. The man is endlessly soft, keeping his hardness a smooth slide in and out of Luke's ass and the caressing of his hands over Luke's body gentle. Luke never takes any pleasure from it. Honestly, he doesn't think he's capable of feeling real pleasure at this point, not even with his owner hitting that spot inside with every few thrusts.

Each touch is just...empty, like pitiful sparks which all fail to ignite a fire.

Luke just lies there and shuts off his mind, until he feels the movement of his master's hips become uneven and jerky. That's when what's happening becomes impossible to ignore, when the length inside him twitches with release and what feels like burning-hot needles sink into where his neck meets his left shoulder.

Luke manages to whine sharply in pain, but he is unable to squirm away like instinct tells him he should. Something warm and thick—Luke guesses his own blood—trickles down from where the pain emanates. Putting the pieces together, he is horrified when he realises that his master has just bitten him.

An alpha has just bitten him.

He stays in a state of shock until his master extracts his fangs.

"Oh dear..." the man whispers, pulling away. "I didn't— Oh dear..."

Luke is left by himself on the bed, leaking various fluids all over the sheets. He wants to assess the damage but still can't move.

In the next moment, something slams loudly open and then Luke hears his master's panicked voice and a distinctly female scream. The sound isn't filled with fear, but rage so powerful that Luke is surprised the ceiling doesn't cave in and bury them all.

"What the fuck is this?!" the female voice screeches.

"Tasha, please, I can explain!" Luke's master beseeches, but whoever Tasha is doesn't listen.

"This is where you've been disappearing to recently? A secret fucking bunker?!" the woman continues, her stomping footsteps getting close to the bed. "Complete with a whore!"

The bed shakes, so Luke assumes she kicked it.

"Who is he, Paul?!"

"He's just...he's nobody!" Luke's master—Paul—lies. "He means nothing to me!"

Tasha scoffs and violently shakes Luke. "Hey! Wake the fuck up, you little home-wrecker!"

"Tash, sweetie, stop; he won't—"

"He won't what?!"

Paul takes a breath, like he's steeling himself. He sounds ashamed. "He won't wake up for another few hours..."

"...Did you give him something?"

"Yes..."

"So what, you drug him and then fuck him? That's sick, Paul. Sick!" Tasha's hand tightens on Luke's arm, and then she suddenly gasps and releases him.

"What is that?" she asks, her voice hushed and shaking. Luke suspects she is close to tears. "You fucking bit him? You turned him?!" she spits, followed by the sounds of fists smacking against flesh. "So this is why you've never committed to me, huh? 'Oh, Tash, it's not you! I'm just not the settling-down type'! What a load of shit. I can't believe you! I can't believe I fell in love with you!"

"No! Please, you've got it all wrong. He won't turn."

"Oh, really? Why don't you set me straight then? Tell me how it really is?"

"It was..." Paul hesitates, seeming to choose his words carefully. "It was an accident. I just got caught up in the moment and— And..."

"You tried to mate with him," Tasha finishes when the man is unable to, sounding disgusted. Luke is disgusted, too, but he's also relieved that he'll stay human; he doesn't want to be like these people.

"God... What a fucking mess," Tasha laughs. It sounds wet so the tears must have finally arrived, but her voice remains somehow strong. "You'd rather try to mate with some...some stupid little boy—which would never work because he's not meant for you—than with me, your actual mate. When you started distancing yourself from me, I kept hoping things would get better on their own. But when they didn't I... I had theories, y'know? Shady dealings, selling drugs or something. I wouldn't have put that past you. I never would've thought I'd find something like this. I should kill you both!" She smacks Paul again before going silent, like she's thinking. "But even with how much this hurts...I can't hurt you. God, that's so pathetic."

"It's not path—" Paul tries, but he is cut off.

"I'll settle for just killing him."

Luke hears Tasha's footsteps coming closer again and readies himself for the end, but the end doesn't come. Instead there's a short-lived scuffle and then something heavy lands on the floor. Tasha, Luke presumes.

"You're not killing him!" Paul growls. Luke can just imagine his eyes glowing red.

"Why?" Tasha chokes out. "You just said he doesn't mean anything to you, or were you lying?"

"Alright, I was. I was lying. So what?"

"How do you think the rest of our pack will react when I tell them about this? D'you think they'll still call you their alpha?" Tasha threatens. "Because, mark my words, I'm going to tell them all the dirty details, including your sick little drugging kink or whatever the hell it is you've been doing to him."

"You're not telling anyone."

"Oh?" Tasha laughs again, sounding a little unhinged. "You gonna stop me?"

Paul sighs, a long and regretful sound. "If you really want to, then no, I won't try to stop you," he says. Luke feels his master's thick fingers stroke across the scars on his cheek. "But I'm going to ask you not to. Let me fix this a different way. I'll get rid of him myself, send him back where I got him, and then we can pick up where we left off."

"You really think we could do that?" Tasha derides. "I don't think I could ever look at you the same after this."

"At least let me try! Please. Despite what it looks like, I do love you, Tash."

"Fine, I won't tell anyone about what you've done, and I'll let you get rid of him your way," the woman agrees, her tone weary.

"Thank you. I promise you won't regret it."

"I know I won't," Tasha says, "because we're done."

"What? Now Tash, let's talk about this—"

"No! I said we're done, and I'm done here. I'll be back tomorrow. I expect him to be gone by then. If he's not, your secret is out. Goodbye, Paul."

Luke hears shoes on the rungs of the ladder that leads above ground and then the trapdoor shutting with a soft click. Paul steps away from the bed for a moment and returns with a damp washcloth, which he holds over the still-bleeding bite wound on Luke's shoulder.

"I'm so sorry about this, darling," he whispers, pressing his lips to Luke's forehead. Luke can feel his tears. "I wish you didn't have to leave... What we had was special, I know, but I'm afraid it's time for it to end. I hope whoever gets to have you next knows what a treasure you are. I'll never ever forget you."

* * *

- The Present: Sunday, March 6th, 2016 -

Jessica sits up in her bedroom, staring at the girl in the mirror on her desk. Her eyes are haunted as the greatest mistake of her life plays endlessly through her mind.

She has changed a lot over the past few years, all because of a secret she's been carrying with her. She used to be a happy child. She remembers her frizzy pigtails, her smile with missing baby teeth and her colourful clothing, all of which is still immortalised in photographs around the house. She wanted to be friends with everyone, young and old, even when those friendships were labelled inappropriate by her parents. She got good grades in school and was well-liked by all of her teachers and most of her peers.

And then, when she was twelve years old, she saw something that changed her. Gone were the smiles and the personable mien, replaced by fear and guilt that festered. She altered her appearance to hide who she was becoming inside. That anyone could ever guess of the war she was fighting was simply not allowed. Her hair became sleek and straight, her fashion more refined and her face a carved and blended mask thanks to makeup.

She became flashy so no one would ever look too closely. But this carefully cultivated image was a lie, one she doesn't think she can maintain for much longer.

She saw him again, and now her mask is cracking and will soon break completely.

The thought terrifies her.

It all started just over five years ago. One of the girls in her grade was being mean, bullying her relentlessly for the gap between her front teeth and her silly hairstyles. One day, when her parents had already left for work, trusting their perfect daughter to get herself on the school bus like every other morning, Jessica just couldn't bear the thought of being in the same room as her horrible classmate. She rebelled for the first time and stayed home.

For most of the day she had the time of her young life. She ate while watching television in the living room, which her parents never allowed her to do. She snooped around their bedroom and found strange objects in the nightstand drawers. She even gave herself a little makeover using her mother's makeup collection.

But, come late afternoon, the fun stopped.

Jessica shudders to think about it and shuts her eyes tightly, banishing the sight of herself. Her stomach lurches as his face taunts her behind her eyelids—a face that, up until a month and a half ago, she'd blocked from her mind.

Stiles Stilinski.

Everyone in Beacon Hills knows that name.

Jessica had a crush on the older boy, which developed after she crashed her bike on his street not long before he went missing. Stiles saw the accident, patched her up and stopped her tears with silly jokes. The day it all went wrong, Jessica wanted to see him again. She knew her parents wouldn't be home until late and so, a little while after she knew the high school would let out, she got on her bike again and pedalled to Stiles' street.

The day they met, Stiles was so kind and attractive in a way she didn't understand, his face so open and endearing. She saw at the coffee shop that this openness is still present, but instead of kindness there was only befuddlement and alarm at her presence. Jessica got the feeling that the muscular man Stiles was with was the only reason he didn't completely freak out. And the scars... She doesn't want to imagine how he got those jagged pink lines on his cheek.

Jessica wishes she'd had the courage to tell someone what she saw that day, but she was just a scared little girl who feared for her life and the lives of her parents. She didn't want the boy with the strange eyes to hurt them. It would work itself out, she had told herself. But then, once she started seeing posters all over town, proclaiming Stiles as missing, she understood the gravity of the situation and thought about finally coming forward.

She didn't.

"Jessica!"

The shout startles her. Whipping her head around, Jessica spies her mother, Cindy, standing in the open doorway, a concerned frown on her face.

"Honey, are you okay?" the woman asks. "I called your name three times."

"Yeah, mom, I'm fine..." Jessica sighs. She turns back to the mirror so that her mother won't see the turmoil she knows is still clear on her face. "What's up?"

"There are some men here who want to speak with you," Cindy explains. "I think they're with the police." When Jessica immediately tenses up, dropping her lipstick with a clatter, Cindy walks into the room and puts her hands on her daughter's shoulders, a gesture that's probably supposed to be comforting. It isn't. "Honey, is there something you want to tell me before we go downstairs? You've been acting strangely lately, and now this..."

Jessica tries to smile but it's more of a grimace. "No, everything's fine. What do they want to talk about?"

"I don't know, but it sounded important."

Disquieted, Jessica gets up from her chair and follows her mother from the room, guessing that it's finally time to face the music. When she enters the living room, she knows it is.

Her dad, Mike, sits on one of the sofas, across from the men her mother told her about. One of them is the man she saw Stiles with the previous day, his leather jacket and facial hair making for an imposing sight in spite of his nonthreatening expression and body language. The other man she recognises vaguely as the sheriff, which makes him Stiles' dad. Both men eye her like they can see through to her very soul, like they already know all of her secrets. It's difficult to swallow.

She's so screwed.

Trying to stop her hands from shaking, Jessica sits between her parents and digs her manicured nails into the material of her black trousers.

"Alright, gentlemen, what is this about?" Cindy enquires.

John turns to Derek, giving him the floor.

"Jessica, right?" the beta begins kindly, leaning forward. He waits for her to nod. "Thank you for agreeing to meet with us. We're not here in any official capacity just yet, and I can assure you you're not in any trouble. But when we ran into each other at The Coffee Spoon yesterday, your reaction to seeing who I was with stood out to me."

"Who were you with?" Cindy asks curiously.

"My son," the sheriff answers. Understanding dawns on the faces of Jessica's parents, while Jessica's clouds over with a fresh wave of shame.

"We have to ask you, Jessica," John continues, "do you know something that could help us?"

When the girl stays quiet and unable to meet the sheriff's eyes, her father responds for her. "What on earth could she possibly know? She was a child when that happened, for Christ's sake," Mike rebuts, failing to keep his annoyance out of his voice.

"Mr. White, please—"

"She obviously doesn't know anything," the angry man carries on, steamrolling right over the sheriff. He stands up and points to the front door. "I think it would be best if you leave now."

"Dad..." Jessica says quietly, reaching out and grabbing his arm. "It's okay..."

Mike looks down at his daughter. His anger vanishes as quickly as it had come when he sees the resigned look on her face. "Jess?"

"They're right. I do know something."

The living room is eerily silent for a long time. Mike drops back into his seat and stares disbelievingly at his daughter, while his wife looks almost vindicated. Jessica fidgets in her seat as she works up the courage to meet the sheriff's eyes. The hope in them bolsters her and gives her the push she needs to finally open her mouth and come clean.

It isn't easy. Each word is like pulling teeth.

"I saw it happen. I saw Stiles get taken," she whispers, picking at the nail bed of her right index finger. She doesn't stop until it starts to bleed. "I skipped school that day," she reveals, ignoring the stern looks on her parents' faces. "I was being bullied and just didn't want to deal with it, so I stayed home. My parents both worked late back then and I forged a sick note to take in the next day, so I didn't have to worry about being caught out. I knew Stiles. Kinda. He was cute and I liked him, so when school let out and I knew he'd be getting home, I got on my bike and went to his house..."

Jessica trails off.

"It's alright," the sheriff assures quietly. "Take your time."

Jessica nods jerkily and takes a deep breath. "He was a little later than I thought, but I waited and eventually he showed up. I think he had groceries or something. I was a little ways down the street, just watching from behind a hedge like some creepy stalker." She gives a short, humourless laugh. "There was no one else around for a minute, but then this other guy showed up. He looked about the same age as Stiles, so at first I figured that maybe he was one of his friends or something.”

She lowers her gaze to her lap and keeps it there. “He wasn't. I don't know what he did because I was too far away to see clearly, but he did something to Stiles that just made him...crumple. I gasped and he heard me. I don't know how—I wasn't that loud—but I swear he heard me. I hid as soon as he looked my way, but he still found me. He left Stiles on the ground, right next to his car, and then in the next second he was looming over me. His eyes..."

Derek and the sheriff both hold their breath, while Cindy wraps an arm around her daughter's shaking shoulders.

"I must've been seeing things or something, I don't know," Jessica continues, leaning into her mother for support. "His eyes didn't look right. They were almost...golden. I thought he was going to hurt me next, but he didn't. He gave me a warning instead, said if I ever told anyone what I saw, he'd be back for me and my family. I was too scared to react, but he must've figured the message sank in because he left me alone right after. When I dared to look back around the hedge, both he and Stiles were gone. And then I went home."

Derek thinks on this for a moment and lets a theory form in his mind. "You said the other boy was Stiles' age?" he asks, pulling his wallet out of the back pocket of his jeans.

"Yes."

"Is this him?"

Derek extends his arm over the coffee table and gives Jessica the picture of Ethan and Aiden that he got from Melanie. If the person who took Stiles was one of the twins, that would explain why Jessica was simply threatened instead of being harmed in any way. While what they did was despicable, Derek suspects that whichever of the twins abducted his mate didn't do it willingly.

The way Jessica's eyes widen when she sees the photograph is enough for Derek to confirm his own theory, but he waits for her to speak anyway.

"It's him," Jessica whispers, handing the photograph back as if it's on fire. "One of them, anyway. I don't know which."

Mike takes a deep breath. "Is that everything, Jess? Really, this time?"

"That's everything, dad, I swear."

"That's good. You did good, kid," the sheriff says, smiling softly at the teenager. He pushes the box of tissues on the coffee table closer to her so that she can dry her tears. "Would you be up for coming down to the station tomorrow morning to give an official statement? It would really help us out. As you're underage, one of your parents will have to be with you, of course."

Jessica sniffles. "I guess that would be alright."

"Thank you." John stands up and shakes hands with the Whites. "We'll leave you to the rest of your night."

Derek follows his superior out of the house and, once the door is shut, turns to him. "This just keeps getting stranger and stranger."

"It does," John concurs.

"At least we're actually getting somewhere now."

The corner of John's mouth quirks upward. "Yeah..."

"I'll see you tomorrow, okay?" Derek says, taking a step toward his car.

"Tomorrow."

Chapter Text

- The Past: Thursday, November 25th, 2010 -

The day Aiden's life is ruined starts out normally enough. His brother is still not allowed out of his bedroom for anything, so he goes to school by himself and hates his alpha for being a homophobe on top of a giant asshole. His classes are as boring as ever, making him contemplate whether or not he really needs to get his high school diploma.

When the last bell finally rings, Danny Mahealani—Ethan's mate-to-be—runs up to Aiden in the parking lot and asks him to pass a folded-up piece of paper on to his brother. The Hawaiian boy has given him a similar note every day for the past week and a half, ever since Ethan's punishment was first enforced. Aiden doesn't mind; he knows Danny makes Ethan happy, as long as it took him to realise and accept it, so he'll do whatever he can to keep their budding romance alive through this tough time.

The fact that it spites Keith is just a bonus.

When Aiden walks through the front door of the pack house, the note is forgotten. He can hear Keith in the kitchen, engaged in a quiet, one-sided conversation, but that one side is all Aiden needs. He has known that the alpha is an awful person for years, has been on the receiving end of his vicious barbs and fists enough for that to become fact in his and his brother's eyes. But what he hears is something he hadn't thought even a person like Keith was capable of. In an effort to keep his pack 'pure', the man is plotting to have Danny taken by someone. Who that someone is, Aiden doesn't know, but he supposes it isn't important. No matter who they are, it can't happen.

As quietly as he can manage, Aiden creeps up the staircase and heads to Ethan's bedroom. He opens the door and, after slipping quickly inside, shuts it again in an effort to muffle the talk he is about to have with his brother.

"Aiden," Ethan says with a tired smile. It drops when he notices the expression on his twin's face. "What's wrong?"

"I need to tell you something... It's bad."

Ethan's eyes widen. "Is it Danny? Has something happened?!"

Aiden slaps a palm over his brother's mouth. "Shh!" he hisses. "Keith can't hear us!"

"Why?" Ethan asks, the word garbled.

"Just be quiet, okay?"

Following Ethan's nod, Aiden releases him. As gently as he can, he apprises the other beta of what he overheard downstairs, but he wasn't gentle enough.

"He's doing what?!" his brother squawks, face flushing with anger.

Wincing, Aiden is about to silence Ethan again but it's too late. The damage has been done. He hears footsteps thundering up the stairs and turns to the door, bringing forth the wolf within to defend them both. Ethan copies him, but fear shows clearly through the heavier features of his identical beta form. A few seconds later, the door slams open as Keith barges inside with a wrathful mien. He lunges right for the twins.

Both Aiden and Ethan try their hardest to defeat their adversary, but the two betas don't have enough training to overcome an alpha with several more decades of experience. Ethan is thrown against a wall and knocked out cold, his limp body slumping to the floor. Aiden, seeing this, cries out and leaps on Keith's back, his hand poised to rip out the elder's throat. His claws are just an inch from their target when Keith grabs Aiden's arm and pulls him off over his head, flipping him over so that he lands jarringly on the floor. With his prey lying supine in front of him, busy blinking past the stars in his eyes, Keith presses his booted foot down hard on Aiden's throat, choking him.

Aiden scrabbles at the leather but can't get free, his vision soon darkening around the edges as he falls unconscious.

* * *

- The Past: Wednesday, December 8th, 2010 -

Aiden has been sequestered in a pitch-black room for God knows how long. The first time he woke up there, he tried with all his might to bust down the door when he located it but, like Keith, it proved to be an insurmountable foe. He felt oddly weakened in both his strength and his senses. It took him a while pinpoint the reason why—there was a quiet sibilant sound in the room, coming from somewhere too high up for him to reach. A vent, he guessed, pumping in some airborne strand of wolfsbane to keep him from escaping.

Now, Aiden has given up trying.

Ethan is in the room to his left and Danny is in the next one over. It's quiet, but Aiden knows that will soon change. It always does. Every day, someone will come to Danny's room and rain all manner of violence down upon him. Aiden and Ethan can do nothing but listen to the assaulter's useless questions, to Danny's screams of pain and the occasional breaking of bones. It tears Aiden up inside every time Ethan begs fruitlessly for whoever is hurting Danny to grant him clemency.

Eventually, he hears the telltale tread down what he assumes is the hallway outside, which will usually herald another round of violence for Danny. He hears a door unlock and open, but that's where things take a different turn. Instead of going into Danny's room and hurting him, Aiden is stunned when the person outside unlocks a second door, keeps walking and stops on the other side of his. Light floods in, temporarily blinding him. When his vision is clear again, Aiden sees a massive alpha with buzzed-short hair and stubble waiting for him.

"Come on," the alpha says before disappearing from view.

Tentatively, Aiden steps outside of his room. Turning to his left, he can see that both Ethan's and Danny's doors are open, too. Both occupants stare back at him, looking just as confused as he feels.

The alpha beckons them down the hallway and, with nothing else to do, Aiden, Ethan and Danny are forced to trail after him. Danny stumbles on his first step, unable to walk well on his own, so the twins each sling one of his arms over their shoulders and support him as they approach another door. It leads outside of the single-storey building. The huddled group of three treks across a small courtyard, into somewhere much larger and down a series of new hallways to what looks like a decrepit shower room.

"Leave him," the alpha instructs, gesturing to Danny.

Ethan hesitates. "But—"

"I said leave him!"

The twins have no choice but to carefully deposit Danny on the floor, propped up against the wall. Though he is loath to, Aiden has to drag Ethan from the room to preclude the alpha getting even angrier. He gets the impression that the man has a short fuse and a very violent temper. Aiden really doesn't want be around when it surfaces.

He pulls his brother along until they reach another room with newspaper-covered windows along the opposite wall, a multitude of chairs positioned in several haphazard rows across the floor and a large desk off to the left. Aiden guesses it used to be a reception. Right in the middle is a man of diminutive size. The tall alpha shakes hands with him while wearing a disgusting smile.

"These them?" the short man asks, staring at the twins.

He has curly dirty-blond hair and is dressed in torn jeans and a white tank top. The sight of him is relatively harmless, but his aura is powerful enough for the twins to know in a heartbeat what he is.

Aiden wonders idly just how many alphas there are wandering around here.

"Yup. I'll leave you to it," the taller alpha says. He turns and walks back the way they'd just come.

"Who are you?" Aiden dares to ask, subtly stepping in front of Ethan.

"Name's Austin, but you'll be calling me 'alpha'."

Aiden snorts. "Yeah, I don't think so. Thanks but no thanks."

"Oh, I don't think you'll have much of a choice," the man smirks, taking a step closer. "Not if you don't want your friend back there to get hurt."

This gives Aiden pause. "What?"

"Listen closely, because I'm only going to say this once," the man warns. He steps closer still, until there is just an inch separating him and Aiden and he has to tip his head back to maintain eye contact. Even with the disparity in their heights, Aiden is the one left feeling intimidated. "If your brother submits to me completely," the man continues, "then when your little friend is delivered to me in a few weeks, I won't kill him. And if you submit to me completely, I won't kill your brother right now."

Ethan starts crying softly.

Aiden pales. "You can't be serious..." he breathes.

"Oh, I am. So, what will it be? Yes or no?"

* * *

- The Past: Sunday, January 23rd, 2011 -

The house in which Aiden now lives is huge, but it's so ill-kept that any sense of grandeur it may have once possessed is long gone. It's home to a small pack of three betas—Frankie, Luther and James—and Austin, the alpha Aiden and his brother now reluctantly call their own. All of them are older, brutish and domineering. Aiden didn't exactly think he would be treated with respect and kindness, but what he and Ethan get is still worse that whatever he expected. They're glorified servants, carrying out any menial task the others can't be bothered or somehow think themselves too high and mighty to do—cooking all the food, washing dirty clothes, scrubbing toilets. With his strong sense of smell, Aiden finds that last job particularly sickening.

When they were brought to the house, both he and Ethan were given the bare essentials and nothing else—one set of old clothes and a single mattress each in two empty rooms upstairs. Whenever they aren't needed, they are locked in these rooms. Without the wolfsbane that was pumped into the pitch-black room he left behind, Aiden could easily break down his door. But he doesn't, thinking of his brother.

Danny arrived about a week ago. Aiden has only seen him a couple of times, but those brief sightings were enough to shake him to his core. It was like there was nothing left of the boy who made his brother so happy. He heard Ethan sobbing quietly from across the hall after Ethan first ran into the boy who should've been his mate and was met with just a blank stare. What Danny's purpose was wasn't lost on either of them, either. The Hawaiian boy is kept in the alpha's bedroom at all times. When the sun has gone down and Aiden and Ethan lie in the dark, they can hear what goes on in there. Aiden shudders to think about it.

When Frankie, the only woman in the house, lets him out of his room this morning, his routine changes.

"You, come with me," Austin commands, pointing at him and walking away.

Aiden follows him sedately.

"I have a special job for you today."

They're in the alpha's study now, a room with wall-to-wall bookshelves and a roaring fireplace, even in the daytime. It's stifling, but from his seat behind the desk, Austin doesn't seem affected by the heat at all.

"Come closer."

Aiden does, keeping his head down until a piece of paper is thrust under his nose. He takes it carefully and reads the handwritten words upon it. He reads a name and two addresses, both of which confuse Aiden greatly. He risks a peek up at Austin and finds the alpha watching him knowingly. "What d'you want me to do with this?" Aiden enquires.

"It's simple. You're going to do some work for a friend of mine," the short man explains, leaning back in his chair and taking pleasure in the horrorstruck expression that soon forms on Aiden's face. "You'll leave here, go to the first address, retrieve the person named on that piece of paper and deliver them to the second address. Easy, right? Don't think about running out on me, though. Your brother will be remaining here, after all, and I'd hate for anything to happen to him because you foolishly decided to rebel against me."

"Understood," Aiden says, clenching his fist at his side.

"You have four days. If you're not back in time, Ethan pays the price."

Aiden turns to go but pauses in the doorway and looks back over his shoulder. "How am I supposed to get there?"

"I'm sure you'll figure it out."

* * *

- The Past: Tuesday, March 5th, 2013 -

Aiden sits on his thin, hard mattress and seethes.

He wants out. He wants his life back now, but at the rate things are going, with what he has been forced to do to keep his brother breathing, he doesn't think he'll ever get it. He's mad at the world for landing them in this hell. He was a good person, damn it, and Ethan was even better, so he has trouble figuring out what crime they could have possibly committed when they were kids to make karma set its sights on them all those years ago. It wasn't enough for Aiden and his brother to end up in the care of an abusive alpha after their parents died.

No, they had to be subjected to this, too.

Aiden bangs his head against the wall at his back and loses himself in the brief pain it causes him. Anything is a welcome distraction from his emotions and memories. Confined as he is at present, all he can do is think. As it is wont to do, his traitorous brain keeps circling back to the events of the past two years, to the faces of the dozen people, the teenagers just like himself, he has condemned to the same fate as Danny. He can picture all of their faces clearly, every detail, every expression, can hear the screams of the ones he didn't manage to capture completely unaware.

He hates himself.

Blinking his eyes rapidly when they begin to sting, he waits. The sun is up now and the others in the house are already moving, meaning that he and Ethan will be let out soon and given tasks to do. It's been a couple of months since Aiden was last sent to abduct someone for Austin's friend, so he knows the day he is given another name is closing in.

There's some sort of ruckus going on downstairs, voices talking exuberantly to each other, but Aiden doesn't listen to the words. Eventually the voices stop and he hears feet on the stairs. His door is subsequently unlocked and, because she is the one usually in charge of letting the twins out of their rooms in the mornings, Aiden expects to see Frankie's face. She'll make some snide comment that will make Aiden want to claw her eyes out, and then she'll laugh because she knows he can't pursue this want.

But, this time, it isn't Frankie who has come to usher him into a new day of servitude and humiliation.

"Good morning," Austin grins from the doorway. "Wash up quickly and come downstairs. I have a surprise for you. I know you'll love it!"

Filled with dread, Aiden takes as long as he dares in the bathroom and then slowly descends to the ground floor, his brother in tow. The foyer is empty, so they follow the voices to the living room. Spread out across the sofas and floor are the other betas, which isn't surprising because they're always lounging around somewhere or other.

Aiden is just wondering what Austin could have been talking about when said man appears from the kitchen. He isn't alone.

A boy about a year older than Aiden stands beside him, someone Aiden never thought he would see again. He is completely naked, which allows Aiden to see all the scars that litter his pale, mole-dotted flesh, the starkest of which is in the form of a ring of teeth between his neck and left shoulder. The crude facsimile looks recently made and Aiden has no trouble discerning what it was meant to be, how it must have been made and why the boy is here now. He feels sick and his self-hatred grows just a little bit more. He wishes the ground would swallow him up already.

"From the look on your face, I take it you recognise him, then?" Austin asks, still grinning.

It's all Aiden can do not to throw up as he nods.

"Excellent. This is my new pet," Austin continues, running a hand through Stiles' hair. "He'll make a nice addition to our little family, don't you think?"

"Who is he?" Ethan whispers to his brother.

Aiden keeps his lips sealed. He has never told Ethan what his thankfully infrequent outings entail, wanting to keep it a secret for as long as possible. He hopes Ethan doesn't blame himself when he inevitably finds out.

"Right then!" Austin slaps Stiles once on the ass and winks at him. "You go on upstairs and wait for me. The door at the end of the hall. I'll be up soon."

Stiles goes silently.

"As for you," the alpha continues, stepping forward to stand right in front of Aiden, "I have another task for you. You," he turns to Ethan, "go make breakfast. I need to speak to your brother in private."

With a glance back over his shoulder that says they'll be talking about what just happened when Aiden gets back, Ethan disappears into the kitchen. For once, Aiden wishes he was in there with him, but he lets himself be escorted into his alpha's study again, where the alpha gives him the usual slip of paper and then waves him away.

"You know what to do."

* * *

- The Past: Thursday, March 7th, 2013 -

Aiden is crouched by the side of the road, head between his knees.

He breathes deeply to stave off the panic he can feel building in his chest. The car he'd hijacked after leaving his alpha's house two days ago idles a few feet behind him, the driver's door wide open from when he'd felt himself losing grip on his emotions and had stumbled out of it. He doesn't know how much longer he can do this, how many more lives he can wreck before he does himself in.

The human girl he had abducted last night is still unconscious in the backseat. Aiden watched her for hours, waiting for when she was alone, and in those hours it all hit him again what he was doing. This girl has a family. She has parents who love her, a little sister who idolises her and a beta boyfriend from the local pack who looks at her like she hung the fucking moon. Aiden saw it all and destroyed it in one fell swoop when she was taking out the trash before bed.

Her loved ones are probably already going out of their minds, wondering where she went and worrying about what could have happened to her. Aiden hopes for their sake that their fears don't come close to the truth. If Ethan were to just disappear like that, he doesn't know what he would do. He tries to soothe himself with the knowledge that those who'll grieve for this girl won't be alone and that Ethan is all he has. It doesn't help.

With one final, drawn-out breath, Aiden pushes himself up and returns to the car.

He has a delivery to make.

* * *

The short-haired alpha is waiting for Aiden when he arrives outside of the complex that housed him, Ethan and Danny for two long weeks. Normally, the muscular man will stand with his arms crossed over his chest, huge biceps flexing, and his jaw will be clenched tight, both signs that he is angry about something. Today, however, his arms hang loose at his sides and his jaw is relaxed, both things Aiden is not used to. He looks almost astonished. It's the most normal Aiden has ever seen him, though he grants that their interactions are always ephemeral.

Perplexed, Aiden leaves his vehicle before the muscular man's strange mood has a chance to sour. Saying a silent apology in his head, he opens one of the car's back doors, pulls the girl out and hoists her over his shoulder.

"You're early," the alpha comments. He adopts his usual stance when Aiden walks up to him, his astonishment vanishing and being replaced by the cool arrogance Aiden is familiar with. He doesn't move from his spot, just stays where he is and looks imperiously down at the beta. Aiden is forced to stand awkwardly before him and gets the impression that this is a display of power and superiority.

Its effectiveness increases the longer it goes on, until Aiden huffs impatiently.

"We doing this or what?" he questions.

The alpha smirks and finally moves. He begins walking around the main three-storey building, leaving Aiden to follow a few steps behind. Across the courtyard and inside the smaller building, the alpha takes Aiden down to the other end of the corridor and pulls open the last door on the left.

"Dump the bitch in here," he orders, stepping back.

Aiden grits his teeth but does as he is told, laying the girl on the floor. The alpha shuts and locks the door afterward and leads the way back outside. Aiden glares for a moment at the back of his head before lowering his eyes to the ground, not really looking where he is going. With the girl locked up and officially sentenced to her fate, Aiden is again swamped by guilt and loses track of his surroundings.

When the alpha stops suddenly, Aiden bumps right into him and stumbles back a couple of steps. They're right outside of the back entrance to the three-storey building and the alpha has his hand on the door, while his eyes are narrowed at Aiden.

"What the fuck are you doing?" he snarls. "Get the fuck out of here!"

Not waiting to be told twice, Aiden starts walking back around the side of the building, only to pause halfway when he hears voices from inside.

"Is it done?" one asks the other. Aiden doesn't recognise it.

"Yup. She's all ready to go," the other replies, the short-haired alpha.

"Good. I've already got a buyer lined up."

"New?"

"No, he's a repeat customer," the stranger says nonchalantly. "Apparently he already got bored of the one he got from us before."

With a frown, Aiden starts walking again and doesn't stop until he's sitting behind the wheel of his stolen car. His mind races. The exchange he just heard isn't entirely unique—in the time he's been doing this, Aiden must have heard over a dozen such conversations, each one giving a slightly different set of information.

Information he might be able to use to his advantage, if he is careful.

An idea fast taking shape, Aiden stares defiantly up at the three-storey building for a few seconds and then backs the car out onto the road. He can't just sit back and take it anymore. He can't keep subjecting more and more people to what the poor girl he is leaving behind will have to go through. To what Danny and Stiles are still going through.

He doesn't know that much yet, but he swears to himself that this will change. He's unnoticed a lot of the time, after all, doesn't even warrant a passing glance from those in charge. Being a fly on the wall should be easy. Plan made, Aiden smiles to himself and starts making a mental list of all the people he already knows are involved.

All the people who will be going down in flames.

Chapter Text

- The Past: Wednesday, July 10th, 2013 -

Four months after Aiden made his resolution, not much is different. He knows he has to keep up appearances if he is to succeed, so he tries to emulate his usual demeanour in hopes of no one suspecting what he is planning. When he and Ethan were first brought to the house, Aiden overheard some things but shut out most of the boisterous conversations Austin and his betas had; he didn't want to hear their scorn and braggadocio, all the awful shit he was sure they were laughing about with each other.

Now, Aiden listens to everything, on the hunt for more clues and information he can use. He steals a piece of paper and a pen from Austin's office and compiles the relevant details in a secret list he hides in a hole in his lumpy mattress.

It's slow going, but it all adds up.

After breakfast, Aiden stands in front of the kitchen sink, elbow deep in sudsy water as he washes the rest of the pack's dirty dishes. Ethan is right next to him with a dishtowel, ready to dry off each piece of cheap crockery as Aiden finishes with it. His brother’s eyes are eerily empty, a sight that Aiden would ordinarily find disheartening. In this situation, however, he is grateful for it. It means Ethan doesn't have any clue what's going on in Aiden's head. It means that, should anything go wrong and Aiden be caught, Ethan won't be punished or, more likely, killed.

Without having to worry about his brother's life on top of his own, Aiden is better able to concentrate on his goal.

As he washes another grease-slathered plate, he pays attention to what is going on in the living room behind him. The betas and Austin are engrossed in a talk that is, for once, serious. There are two enemies staying in a nearby motel, Austin informs them. The Argents. They're powerful hunters who have massacred many a pack and will use any excuse they can find to satiate their bloodlust again. Everyone is to be very careful until the hunters are gone.

Aiden knows an opportunity when he hears one.

He is just beginning to fret over how he's going to get out of the house without arousing suspicion when he discovers it won't be an issue. Lady Luck must on his side today because, once the last dish is dried and put away in the cupboard, Austin enters the kitchen, walks right up to him and surreptitiously gives him a familiar slip of paper. This is just what Aiden was looking for—a chance to put everything he has gathered thus far to good use.

Acting distraught at having to abduct someone else isn't a difficult task; he remembers how he'd felt last time and draws from that to make it convincing. The way Austin grins at him tells him his little farce has worked, so Aiden slips out of the house and allows his mouth to form into its own grin when he's sure he is out of sight.

With all the experience he’s had recently, finding and stealing a car is easy. After jogging the miles between Austin's pack house and one of the towns nearby, he chooses the oldest model he can find and breaks into it. As he'd hoped, there doesn't seem to be a GPS system in place, so the owner of the car won't be able to have the authorities track it easily.

Aiden is taking a huge risk, he knows. If what Austin said about the hunters is true, he will be walking right into his death. But, because he believes very little of what comes out of Austin's mouth, Aiden hopes that the hunters won't be hostile and will at least hear him out. He knows vaguely of the Code by which most hunters abide, so they should want to help him take down a bunch of corrupt werewolves who are harming innocent humans.

He has four days. Four days to ruin another person's life and potentially gain an ally in his crusade.

Aiden knows he can do it. He kidnapped the last girl faster than was expected of him. All he has to do is find the hunters, talk to them and then pray he can repeat his swiftness with the boy he is supposed to take this time. If all goes according to this hastily made plan, Aiden should be delivering the boy to the browbeating alpha exactly three days from now, leaving him just enough time to race back before his deadline runs out.

He starts the engine.

* * *

- The Present: Monday, March 7th, 2016 -

Once Jessica White has given her official statement and left with her parents, John gathers every deputy who is not actively working a case and sits them in the middle of the incident room. All five face the board that holds the information they have pertaining to Stiles' disappearance, while John himself stands next to it with Derek by his side. Jordan Parrish is the only seated deputy who seems alert. John is ready to give the others a fresh briefing, to raise their morale and dispel the weariness and resentment he can see in some of their eyes.

He hopes that Jessica's statement, plus the information Chris and Allison Argent brought to the table, will be just what he needs.

"I know some of you are probably getting sick of going over and over this by now," John begins, keeping his face impassive when one of his deputies nods emphatically. "We've been at this for years and have barely gotten anywhere, so I understand your frustration. Believe me, I felt that frustration more vividly than any of you. But with Stiles back, the ball has been set rolling and we've made more progress in a month than we did in five whole years."

Looking around the room, John is pleased to see his deputies begin to engage again. "In fact, thanks to a new eyewitness and an informant who I won't compromise by naming yet, just this past weekend we were given what I wouldn't hesitate to call two major breakthroughs." John gestures to Derek, who begins handing out copies of Jessica's statement and a list of the names Chris and Allison gave them, with the supernatural details omitted. "I think you'll all find this makes for particularly engaging reading," John says. "If this doesn't convince you to keep putting your all into this investigation when the fact that it's about my son—a boy I know you all met and interacted with for years—doesn't seem to be enough for a select few of you, I don't know what will."

Silence descends for a few minutes while the deputies go over the pages in their laps. When they're done, John continues, turning to the board.

"Before, apart from Stiles himself, we were never really sure what or who we were looking for. Now, thanks to Jessica White coming forward, we do," he explains, triumphantly pointing to the blown-up photograph of the twins he'd had Derek pin to the board before he started the briefing. "Aiden and Ethan Steiner. As you can see from your copies of Jessica White's statement, one of them took Stiles in broad daylight from right outside our house, then threatened her and her family with violence to keep her quiet. It's only because she was made aware of Stiles' return that she was brave enough to come forward now."

One of the deputies holds up his hand, the one whose face just five minutes ago held resentment. John pauses to acknowledge him.

"Yes, Rodriguez?"

"What exactly are we supposed to do with all of this?" Rodriguez asks scornfully, indicating the pile of papers in his lap.

"I'm getting to that," John answers calmly. "As I was saying, we've never known who to look for before, apart from Stiles. With the twins in mind, I want two of you to start checking the traffic and security tapes from in and around town on the day Stiles was taken. We should still have copies around here somewhere. Whichever twin took my son must have been picked up by at least one of them. He wouldn't have been able to get Stiles out on foot, so see if you can find a license plate number. I'll be joining you soon. The other three I'm sending out with pictures of the twins. You'll canvass to see if anyone recognises them, starting with my neighbourhood and then branching out. It's a long shot, but we have to try. Everyone clear?"

The deputies all answer affirmatively, Rodriguez with much less alacrity than others, so John dismisses them.

"You're sure you won't need me?" Derek asks his superior once the room is otherwise empty.

John turns to him. "I'm sure. Your main job is still to take care of Stiles." Derek looks relieved, making him smile.

"I guess I'll head home then."

"You do that," John agrees, patting Derek on the shoulder. "Say hi from me."

Together the two men exit the incident room. John is about to go to review traffic cam footage but notices that Derek has stopped, his face angled toward the bullpen.

"Something wrong?" he asks the younger man.

Derek frowns. "No, it's just..."

"What?"

Derek clenches his jaw. "Forget it. It's nothing. I'll see you later." The beta storms for the exit before the sheriff can get another word in.

John stares at the space Derek just occupied until his brain catches up and he approaches the bullpen, curious about what Derek must have heard to make him flee so swiftly. He hovers out of sight and listens to the voices coming from over the dividers that separate the workstations from each other.

"This is such bullshit," a deep voice complains loudly. John recognises it as belonging to Rodriguez. "Hale has always been his favourite, right from the moment he joined. He couldn’t make it any clearer," Rodriguez carries on, oblivious to the fact that he is about to be in big trouble. "Hale gets to sit out and chill while we're stuck doing all the legwork for a case that no one else even gives a shit about anymore. It's ridiculous!"

"You might wanna stop talking," Parrish cautions, his tone short. "Unless you want the sheriff to hear you and hand you your ass."

"C'mon, you know I'm right."

"Seriously—"

"Hale's probably living it up. I bet he's loving all the alone time he's getting with the sheriff's kid."

Parrish inhales sharply. "What're you insinuating?"

"Oh, please!" Rodriguez snorts. "Everyone knows Hale's wanted to screw Stiles for years. With him back, Hale's probably finally doing it."

John's blood boils, the parental protectiveness he has for both Stiles and Derek kicking in.

He can't listen to Rodriguez's vituperative speech any longer, so he makes his presence known. He steps forward and looms over him, pleasure sparking in his gut when all of the deputy's bluster disappears in an instant. He's aware of the picture he must make—he holds a blank face but knows his eyes are burning with rage so powerful it could kill.

"What was that you were just saying?" John questions.

"I-I was just, uh..." Rodriguez stammers, eyes wide.

"Yes?"

Rodriguez manages to gather himself. "I wasn't saying anything," he denies.

John raises an unimpressed eyebrow. "So I didn't hear you defaming a coworker?"

The deputy stares defiantly up at his superior. "I was just saying what everyone else is too much of a coward to say."

"So you're the brave one, are you?"

"You said it, not me."

"Well, it seems to me you said a lot just now."

John can see out of the corner of his eye that the rest of the room is eavesdropping, but he doesn't care. Rodriguez has always been a bit of a pain in the ass to work with—he's crass and a little bit sexist, but, as badly as John has wanted to give him one, the deputy never did anything bad enough to warrant a suspension. Hopefully, if any of his other deputies are harbouring similar thoughts about Derek and Stiles, what he is about to do will deter them from giving those thoughts voice.

"Let me get this straight," John says lowly, leaning his hip against the edge of Rodriguez's desk. "You believe that Deputy Hale is taking advantage of my son, who went through five years of horrors that left him so traumatised he couldn't bear to have anyone come near him when he first returned? My son, who is still so affected by what he went through that he doesn't talk and Derek is the only person who can touch him without him panicking, even after six weeks of being back in a safe environment? You've read the reports and as much as what I just heard says the opposite, I know you're not stupid. You can guess all that was done to him. And you also believe that I am—how did you put it?—'playing favourites'?"

John resists the urge to roll his eyes at the ridiculousness of it all. "Yes, it's true that I'm closer to Derek than I am to any of my other deputies; that's to be expected considering that he and Stiles have been best friends since Stiles was in kindergarten. Derek is like a second son to me, I won't deny that. But me giving him preferential treatment while we're both on the job is, quite frankly, ludicrous. Does that clear things up for you?"

Rodriguez foolishly doesn't back down yet. "Then why isn't he here right now, working like the rest of us?" he demands, gaze unwavering.

John has to give him credit. The other man's got balls.

"Did you not understand me when I said that Derek is the only one my son can stand to have close without being thrown into a panic attack?" he enquires incredulously. "Trust me, being reminded of how much my son has been hurt is not a vacation."

"But—"

"That's enough!" John slams his palm down on the desk. "You're suspended."

Rodriguez glares. "What?! Why? For pointing out the obvious?"

"For insubordination."

"That's not fair! I've done nothing wrong!"

"You've questioned my authority—rudely, I might add—and you glibly accused a fellow deputy of abusing a rape survivor," John lists, not backing down. "I think a month should help this lesson sink in. Get your things and get out of my sight. Human Resources will be in touch."

Fuming, Rodriguez shoves his chair away from his desk, grabs his jacket and strides out of the station without looking back. Once the galling deputy has gone, John releases the breath he had been holding and looks at the others in the room. They immediately lower their heads and make a show of getting on with their work.

Shaking his head, John pushes away from Rodriguez's workstation and walks away, intent on seeing how much progress is being made with the traffic cams.

* * *

- The Present: Friday, March 11th, 2016 -

Derek stares down at his phone.

For the past few days he has been keeping Stiles company, not giving much thought to the investigation after he left the station on Monday. Now, John has found something and is requesting his help again. There's only one problem: Laura can't take any more time off of work without risking getting fired, which, as far as Derek can see, leaves him with two options. He can take Stiles with him to the station or he can drop him off at his parents' house. Derek would rather keep Stiles out of the unpleasantness of the investigation as much as he can, so the second option is the clear winner in his eyes.

But there's a glaring flaw: Stiles' fear of alphas. He can't try to kick his mother out of her own house, especially not when she'd be the one best equipped to protect Stiles should anything happen.

Perhaps he can help his mate get over his fear, at least to the point where he can stand to be around Talia. But how? Derek wonders, setting his phone down on the kitchen counter. He stands there for almost ten minutes before an idea comes to him, in the form of a treasured memory from when he and Stiles were children.

They had been friends for almost two years when Stiles discovered the Hales weren't human. The boy was scheduled to come around for a playdate one Saturday afternoon, but some emergency had come up and his parents dropped him off earlier than was planned. Derek and Laura were play-fighting in the living room, both shifted into their beta forms and making so much noise that neither of them heard Stiles let himself into the house.

The seven-year-old's loud gasp was the thing that finally tipped Derek and Laura off to the fact that they were no longer alone. The siblings had sprung apart and pushed their wolves back immediately, but it was too late—Stiles had seen.

Derek was terrified of what the younger boy's reaction would be when the shock wore off. He anticipated rejection, but he didn't get it.

Instead, Stiles found the whole thing fascinating.

"Oh my God!" the boy had exclaimed, rushing to stand in front of Derek. "Do it again!"

Derek's brain couldn't fathom this turn of events. "What?" he'd asked dumbly, causing Stiles to roll his eyes.

"Show me again! I wanna see!"

Laura was grinning by this point. "You heard him, Der."

Unable to deny Stiles anything even then, Derek cautiously allowed his beta form to return. His eyes glowed gold, hair grew down the sides of his then-smooth face, his eyebrows receded and his brow became more prominent. His nails lengthened into sharp claws and his teeth turned into fangs he kept hidden behind his lips.

Despite Stiles quite literally asking for it, excitement clear in his high voice, Derek had still thought the younger boy would react badly to seeing him up close like that. Stiles surprised him again.

"Wow!" the seven-year-old had grinned, reaching up to touch Derek's face to feel the changes, too. "That's so cool!"

"You...you're not scared?" Derek whispered.

Stiles laughed. "Of course not! You're Derek. I could never be scared of you."

"Oh..."

"You're like a superhero!"

The proclamation had sent Laura into a fit of giggles that had Derek's face flaming. But, looking back on it now, Derek just feels overwhelming affection.

Smiling to himself, Derek leaves the kitchen and wanders into the living room, where Stiles is still quietly eating his breakfast of Cheerios. Derek sits down next to his mate and throws his arm over the back of the sofa, settling in to wait. Once Stiles has finished eating, Derek scratches a nail lightly across the back of the human's neck to get his attention.

"Hey," he says when the human blinks confusedly at him. He bites nervously into his bottom lip, hoping his plan plays out the way he wants it to. "I'd like to test something, if it's okay with you. I have to go down to the station soon and I'll probably be gone for most of the day. I don't feel right leaving you here by yourself for that long, and since Laura can't come stay with you on weekdays anymore...how would you feel if I take you to my parents' house so that my mom can keep you company?"

Stiles' eyes fill with worry, so Derek continues.

"That reaction brings me to what I wanted to test out," he says. "You're scared of her because she's an alpha and alphas hurt you, right?"

Stiles nods warily.

"Okay, so...I'm going to shift into my beta form, a little bit at a time, and it's my hope that this will help you not to be scared when you're around my mom. Sort of like exposure therapy." Derek sits forward. "Does that sound alright to you?"

Dubiously, Stiles nods again, so Derek proceeds.

"Alright, eyes first," he says, staring right into Stiles' and allowing his to glow the gold that had entranced Stiles so much as a kid. He was hoping to get a similar reaction now, but Stiles doesn't do anything but tilt his head to the side. While not what he was after, Derek supposes it's more ideal than his mate panicking and jumping away from him.

He carries on. "I'm going to shift the rest of the way now."

Again, Stiles hardly reacts to Derek's changed features.

"You doing okay?" Derek asks, just to be sure.

He doesn't get another nod, but something even better. A clue that the boy Derek has loved for most of his life is still in there somewhere, Stiles does exactly what he did fourteen years ago—he reaches up and brings his hands to Derek's face, fascination written clear across his own. He runs his fingers through the coarse hair that has grown from Derek's sideburns, skates them across his hairless brow and moves down to his lips. He presses on the bottom one in a sign that he wants Derek to part them.

Swallowing tightly, Derek does so and allows Stiles to see his fangs. Though Stiles' heartbeat remains steady throughout all of this, Derek is ready to snap his mouth shut again at the slightest hint of things going south. He can't erase the scar on Stiles' left shoulder from his mind, knowing it was made by fangs just like his.

"Careful," he lisps when he feels Stiles prod at the tip of one. He wraps his hand around Stiles' wrist and gently pulls his finger away.

Stiles lets him, his eyes lowering to the long, deadly-looking claws that are in place of Derek's short nails. He studies them carefully but doesn't seem scared of them. Derek thinks this is because his memories of getting the jagged scars on his cheek are locked up tight in his mind. Stiles does the same thing he had done with Derek's fangs and pokes at the claws, but Derek isn't fast enough to stop him this time. Stiles ends up accidentally piercing the skin of his index finger, a tiny bead of blood forming and running down the length of the slender digit. He innocently sucks it into his mouth.

Thinking this is a good time to bring his experiment to an end, Derek forces down his wolf. "See? Not so bad, right?" he comments quietly, holding onto the seven-year-old Stiles saying he could never be scared of him.

"You're like a superhero!"

Stiles looks up from under his eyelashes and slowly shakes his head.

Derek releases a relieved breath. "I'm glad. My mom isn't scary, either."

Stiles' expression becomes disbelieving, so Derek amends his statement.

"Fine, she can be scary, but she would never hurt you," he says with certainty. "Just like there are good and bad people in the world, there are good and bad werewolves. The one that made you scared of alphas was one of the bad ones, but my mom's not like that. She's one of the good guys and I trust her with my life. And with yours. You liked her before you found out what she was, right?"

Somewhat reluctantly, Stiles nods.

"Well, d'you think you can give her a chance?" Derek entreaties. "For me? I can ask her not to show her eyes around you."

After looking at Derek for a minute, Stiles acquiesces.

"Good," Derek smiles. He presses his lips to Stiles' temple as a thank you and gets up from the sofa. "If you feel comfortable without me there, you'll be at my parents' until sometime this evening. If you don't, then we'll call the whole thing off and think of something else. Maybe you can wait in your dad's office. But we'll cross that bridge if we get to it. Go get your things sorted, okay?"

When Stiles leaves the living room, Derek stands there smiling proudly.

Chapter Text

- The Past: Wednesday, July 10th, 2013 -

It takes Aiden most of the day to find where the hunters are staying.

He drives through all of the towns that surround Austin's pack house and checks every motel he comes across, but each is a dead end. He is close to giving up and driving to the first address Austin gave him when his luck changes. It's late in the afternoon and his stomach is rumbling loudly when Aiden detects wolfsbane in the air around the Sunrise Motel in Cedarville.

It isn't a very big place, comprised of a single row of rooms with a while exterior and blue doors. Aiden follows the scent of wolfsbane to a black truck parked in front of the rightmost room. A quick sniff of it reveals to him that there is likely a vast range of weaponry stored within. He steps back again and looks nervously at the door. Now that he has found the hunters, every instinct he has is telling him to get as far away from them as possible.

But he doesn't.

Aiden doesn't give his fear a chance to win. He can pick up on quiet talking coming from inside the room, a man and a young girl. Who knows, he thinks, when his next chance to talk to these hunters will be? This may be the only one he'll get.

With this thought, Aiden walks right up to the door, knocks on it sharply and waits. The talking stops, footsteps approach and then, after a few seconds, the door opens wide to reveal a tall middle-aged man with short light-brown hair and piercing eyes which look like they could be fashioned from ice. Just behind him, Aiden sees the girl he had heard. He guesses idly that she's not much older than himself, but she could be; it's difficult to tell because she is partially hidden in shadow.

The man moves to fill the doorway when he notices where Aiden's gaze has wandered. "What do you want?" he asks shortly.

Aiden swallows tightly and tries not to wither. "Are you...the Argents?"

The man's eyes narrow suspiciously. "Who are you?" he snaps.

"I-I need your help," Aiden manages to get out. He clears his throat and tries to get control of his voice to prevent any more embarrassing stuttering. He infuses it with desperation instead, to sway the hunter into listening to him. "I don't know why you're here or if you already know, but there's something huge going on that I need to tell you about. Alphas are kidnapping humans, brainwashing them and then selling them as slaves."

The hunter doesn't look trusting. "And why should I believe you?"

"Why would I seek out hunters if I wasn't telling the truth?"

The man lets Aiden stand there and just stares down at him arrogantly, until the girl behind him says, "Dad, c'mon."

"Fine," he sighs, stepping back. "Come in."

Cautiously, Aiden walks forward but is stopped by a strange barrier. He looks down and sees a narrow line of silvery-grey powder on the carpet just inside the door.

"Oh yeah, sorry." The girl rushes forward and breaks the line with her foot.

"Allison!" her dad scolds.

"What?" She rolls her eyes. "You're the one who told him to come in. He can't exactly do that if there's mountain ash in the doorway, now, can he?"

Once the door has been closed and locked, Allison sits down on one of the beds while her father remains standing with his arms crossed. Aiden stays standing, too, until the man's impatience gets the better of him and he demands that Aiden explain himself properly.

Aiden does. He talks about how he, Ethan and Danny had been taken. He talks about what was done to Danny and what he has had to do to keep the other two boys alive. He talks about the epiphany he'd had four months ago and the efforts he has gone to and the risks he has taken in order to gather some of the information he thinks will be necessary to bring it all down.

As he goes on, Aiden is glad to see the man's expression become less hostile.

When he finishes his tale, the man doesn't quite look sympathetic, but Aiden suspects he has gotten through to him in some way, at least. Allison certainly seems saddened.

"That's awful!" she says.

"What exactly do you want us to do about this?" her father queries.

Aiden reaches for his pocket, withdraws a piece of paper and holds it out. "Here."

"What is that?"

"Just look."

The man takes the paper and scans it quickly. "Who are these people?"

"The victims," Aiden answers.

"I suppose if what you've told us is true, we're obligated to kill the werewolves who did this."

Aiden shakes his head vehemently. "No!" he exclaims, making the hunter's head snap up. "I mean—yes, eventually, but not yet. There's still so much I need to find out first, like who else is involved and who's running the show. Sir."

The hunter snorts. "Just call me Chris," he says. "So you want us to just sit on this?"

"On the alphas? Yes," Aiden responds. "But the other teenagers? No. There's only so much I can do by myself. Austin only lets me out of the house when I'm supposed to take someone else. That list contains all the people I've been forced to take to keep my brother breathing; who, when and where. But I bet there are others. Maybe you can find them."

Allison takes the paper from her dad. "That's a lot of people."

Aiden looks down, ashamed. "I know."

"Hey," Allison says, putting a hand on his shoulder, "you had no choice, right?"

"Doesn't mean I don't hate myself for it."

"Anyway," Chris interjects, though his voice is a bit gentler, "you're the expert here. So tell me: how would you suggest we find more of these kids?"

"You're looking for missing human mates of werewolves," Aiden answers. "Just search for missing teenagers who have some connection to different packs. Someone had to be taking them before they took us and forced me to do it. Most of them have been here in California, but it wouldn't surprise me if there are others in different states."

"Right..."

"Will you do it?"

Chris stares at Aiden, scrutinising him. Whatever he finds must be enough, because he nods.

Aiden releases a breath, feeling relief. "That's good. I should get going... I can't afford to miss my deadline or Ethan will be in trouble."

He turns to exit the motel room, but Chris grabs his arm to stop him. "Wait."

Confused, Aiden pauses and observes as the hunter reaches into a bag that sits on the end of one of the two beds. From it he extracts a prepaid phone, an old flip model which he holds out for Aiden to take.

"What's this for?" Aiden asks.

"You won't have any means of contacting us once we leave here, right?" Chris posits. "Well, that's what the burner phone is for. My number's already programmed in there. Send us any new information you can get as you get it and we'll do the same. We can set up times to meet as well, whenever your alpha lets you out of the house."

"Oh. Thanks, I guess."

With a nod in Allison's direction, Aiden opens the door and leaves.

* * *

- The Present: Friday, March 11th, 2016 -

When Derek gets down to the station after making sure that Stiles will be alright in the care of his mother, he follows his nose and locates the sheriff. The older man is hunched over his desk in his office, eyes fixed on his computer monitor. Derek notes the bags under his eyes through the blinds in the windows and suspects that Stiles' dad hasn't been taking very good care of himself. As he opens the door and steps inside, Derek decides against bringing it up. There'll be time for all of them to get some much-needed sleep when the case is solved.

"What've we got?" Derek asks, cutting right to the chase.

"Come see for yourself."

The sheriff beckons him closer and Derek ends up leaning over his shoulder to look at the computer screen. John begins slowly flicking through a series of snapshots of the car one of the twins drove while abducting Stiles. They were taken by different traffic cameras and each of them is labelled, so Derek has no trouble figuring out that they follow a route upstate.

"How'd you get all these?" Derek queries, standing straight again.

"A lot of time and calling in a few favours," John answers. "We also know who the car belonged to."

"Who?"

"Look at that."

The sheriff points to a piece of A4 paper on his desk. Derek picks it up, quickly scans his eyes over it and discerns that it's from the DMV.

"Marsha Wilkes, from Alturus," he reads aloud.

"Yup. Want to know something strange?"

Derek nods avidly.

"There's been an increase in stolen vehicles in Modoc County in the past five years."

"The twins?"

John nods. "That was my thinking."

"They must be staying somewhere around there. But where?"

The sheriff gets up from his desk. "Tell me, am I right in assuming that you wouldn't be up for leaving Stiles for another two-day roadtrip?" he asks. When Derek confirms this, he gestures to the chair he has just vacated and chuckles at the wide eyes it gets him. "Well then...how would you feel about taking over for me for a few days while I go up to Modoc County and track down our lead? There's a list of vehicles on my computer that are likely to have been stolen and used by the twins. While I'm gone, I want you to use that list to come up with a timeline of their movements over the years, see if you can figure out which vehicle was used to abduct which teenager and liaise with other forces for more snapshots. Does that sound doable?"

"Are you sure?" Derek gapes.

"I'm sure," John says, lips twitching.

"There are deputies who've been here longer, though."

"True, but you're the best I have. And that's not bias talking. Need I remind you of that drug ring you helped bust last year?"

"I did, but—"

"No, I'm not going to hear it. I have a few years in me yet, but when I eventually step down, yours is the name I'm going to back to replace me. If you want to. So, what'll it be?"

"I'd be honoured," Derek answers, holding back the emotion he feels.

Conversely, John allows his smile to come through. "Okay then. If all goes well, I'll be gone for three days. I'll be making preparations today, so you'll be holding down the fort from now until Monday evening."

"You going alone?" Derek asks.

"I was planning to, yes."

Derek frowns. "I don't think that's a good idea."

"I more than capable of taking care of myself, son."

"I wasn't suggesting you weren't. It's just...this could be dangerous. I'd feel better about it if you took someone with you."

"Well, I suppose I could take a deputy. Parrish, maybe."

Derek thinks back to when he met with the alphas. "You'll have to talk to my mom to get in touch with them, but Poppy and Deucalion's packs are up there. Why not ask them?"

* * *

- The Present: Saturday, March 12th, 2016 -

John's drive up to Modoc County goes smoothly.

As Derek had suggested, he meets Poppy and Deucalion at a prearranged location outside the California Pines Fire Department. Poppy has her black hair slicked back and tucked behind her ears. She wears a navy-blue sundress, and even though the weather isn't suited for it, she doesn't seem cold. The short woman greets John with a smile, whereas Deucalion, dressed in a black T-shirt and dark-blue jeans, shakes his hand but is more reserved.

"So, what are we looking for?" Poppy asks, climbing in the passenger seat of John's car. Her voice is high and smooth and her accent posh.

Deucalion gets in the back.

"I'm not sure," John answers truthfully. "I just know that there have been a bunch of automotive thefts in this area over the past five years or so. The hunch is that Aiden and Ethan Steiner, our best chances of tracking down the people responsible for what happened to my son, are the ones doing it and are still here somewhere. The most recent theft was just a couple of months ago, so it's looking that way."

"Why not speak to the pack that's around here?" Poppy proposes.

"There's a pack here?"

"Yes," she confirms. "I don't know that much about them because they stick to themselves, but we're near their territory. If Aiden and Ethan are still around here, I'd say they would know. What do you think, Duke?" Poppy looks over her shoulder at the other alpha.

Deucalion nods. "That sounds about right."

John starts the engine. "Direct me."

Halfway between Juniper and California Pines, the house John pulls up outside of is the only one for some distance. It's massive, about twice as big as his own. It has a slate shingled roof, dark walls and large windows with white painted borders. The front door is make of a solid dark oak. Off to the left there's an old swing set, unused and rusted. The seat of the swing dangles off of one chain. Looking back at the building, John stares up at it with a sense of perturbation. Nothing about it reads as out-of-the-ordinary, but still John can't help but feel there hasn't been much happiness here.

"John? Are you alright?" Poppy asks, poking him in the shoulder.

The sheriff startles but calms quickly. "Yeah, I'm good."

"Are you sure you wish to go in alone?"

He nods. "Yeah. I appreciate the offer, but this is still part of an official investigation."

"Very well."

With a glance at Deucalion, who doesn't say anything, John exits his car and approaches the front door. As he walks up the path he swears he sees movement in one of the upstairs windows, just a twitch of a curtain. The curtain is still when John looks closely, so he shakes his head and continues on his way. Standing in front of the door, he raises his fist and knocks twice.

He doesn't have to wait long.

The door is opened by a squat man with curly hair. His face is guarded, giving nothing away even when John tells him who he is and asks if he can come inside and ask him a few questions. The man looks John up and down as if sizing him up, and then his eyes move past him to the car. The first trace of emotion shows on his face when he spots Poppy and Deucalion sitting patiently within, but it disappears again before John can determine what it is.

"Of course," the man agrees eventually. He steps back. "Come on in."

"Thank you...?"

"The name's Austin," the man offers, leading John through the house. They end up in the living room, in which there is a woman reading something on a battered-looking Kindle. She sits in the middle of one of the sofas and looks up when she hears her name. "This is Frankie."

"It's nice to meet you," John says diplomatically.

Frankie snorts and rolls her eyes. "Sure it is. Bore someone else." She lowers her eyes back to her Kindle.

"Can I get you anything?" Austin asks, smoothing over the tension. "Tea? Coffee? Water?"

"Just water is fine, thanks," John replies.

"Take a seat. I'll be right back."

John sits down on the sofa opposite Frankie. He decides against trying to make conversation with her and settles for looking around the room. The walls are painted a faded yellow, but the colour does nothing to make the room seem warm. The beige carpet is so filthy it looks brown, which makes John glad he wasn't asked to remove his shoes at the door. The red sofas are all old, with frayed cushions that feel flat and lumpy. On one end of the coffee table between them there is a small pile of magazines, the pages of which are tattered and torn. A quick look at them reveals that they're a mix of cheap tabloids and a few old skin mags from the 80's.

"Here we are. One glass of water," Austin says as he reenters the living room. He presents the beverage to John with a dramatic flourish.

John thanks him again. He takes a sip before placing it on the table.

"So, to what do we owe this pleasure?" Austin queries, taking a seat right next to Frankie. She looks at him askance and shuffles away from him.

"You're the alpha of this pack, correct?"

Austin looks surprised for a moment and then smiles. "Yes, I am. How did you know, if you don't mind me asking?"

"I'm close with a pack back home, thanks to my son. I know what to look for," John explains. "Anyway, I have reason to believe that people important to the case I'm currently working on are in the general area. They're betas, as far as I know, and may be responsible for multiple kidnappings and car thefts." From his wallet, John extracts a photograph.

"Can I see?" Austin asks.

"Of course."

John stretches over the coffee table and lets Austin take the photograph of Aiden and Ethan. He watches the alpha's reaction very closely but gets nothing. He doesn't detect any signs of recognition, not even a twitch. Austin looks down at the photograph with a completely blank face. Almost too blank, John thinks shrewdly. At the very least he would expect to see mild curiosity. The fact that he sees nothing is suspicious.

"I can't say I recognise them," Austin says eventually. He gives back the photo. "What are their names?"

"Aiden and Ethan Steiner."

Again, Austin doesn't react.

Something else happens, though. From upstairs, John hears a strange thumping sound, like a scuffle. It repeats a couple of times before going quiet again. John stares at the ceiling and only lowers his head again when Austin coughs.

"Don't mind that," the alpha says. "S'just our dog, Molly. She's a little unruly at times."

"Ah," John responds. He doesn't bring up that he knows werewolves can very easily gain control of canines.

"Was that everything you wanted to ask me?"

Taking it for the dismissal it is, John nods, stands and allows himself to be shepherded back into the foyer and to the front door. As he walks back to his car, he thinks he was right—there is definitely something off about the whole place. He wants to go right back inside the house and demand answers, but he knows he doesn't have the legal right to do that. Apart from the thumping and Austin's strangely reticent behaviour, there was nothing overtly indicative of wrongdoing. With a sigh, John gets behind the wheel of his car and looks up at the house.

"How did it go?" Poppy asks right away, leaning forward to catch John's eye.

John spares her a brief look. "You weren't listening?"

"Well, yes, but I thought it would be nice to give you the opportunity to tell us yourself," the woman answers. "Right, Duke?"

Deucalion grunts from the backseat.

"Let's get away from here," John says. "Then we'll talk."

* * *

Once they are a safe distance from Austin's pack house, John pulls over to the side of the road and cuts the engine. He sits back in his seat and stares out through the front windshield, losing himself in thought until Poppy tries to resume their conversation.

"So?" she prompts, watching him closely.

John sighs. "They know something."

"Are you going to pursue it?"

"It's not that simple." John looks at Poppy for a moment, taking in her expectant expression, before returning his eyes to the barren view in front of them. "I'm a sheriff. I follow the law first and foremost, and it can be tricky to balance that with werewolf politics and procedure. I've been a part of your world for about fifteen years now and it's still difficult to know how to play things sometimes. If I went back to that house right now with a few wolfsbane bullets, I could probably get the answers I want. But there would be major consequences."

Poppy hums contemplatively. "I see your point. It seems this leaves you in a quandary. How will you proceed from here?"

"I'm honestly not sure. You didn't hear anything suspicious?"

"I'm afraid not."

John sighs disappointedly, but then Poppy speaks again.

"Perhaps Duke can try his luck."

Both John and Poppy turn to look at Deucalion, who stares back aloofly.

"You have a lot of sway, do you not?" Poppy goes on. "I'm sure if you were to ask this pack very nicely to cooperate, they would accommodate you."

"Maybe," Deucalion says noncommittally. In the next moment there is a vibrating sound and he pulls his phone out of his pocket. Whatever he reads on the screen has his eyebrows raising high in surprise. "But that will have to wait for another day. It's late and I was supposed to be back with my pack half an hour ago."

John checks the clock on the dashboard and feels surprised himself. It is late, nearing 10 p.m. "That's fine. I'll drop you both back at your cars."

Once John has returned them to the road opposite the California Pines Fire Department, Deucalion leaves for his own vehicle without a second glance. John expects Poppy to the do the same, but she lingers with her hand poised on the passenger door handle.

"Out of curiosity, where are you staying tonight?" she enquires.

"I was just going to sleep in the backseat," John answers.

"Oh, that simply won't do."

"I've done it before."

"Nonsense. You're sleeping in a proper bed at my house. Follow."

Before John can protest, Poppy is in her shiny red car and driving past him. When John doesn't immediately do as she asked, she idles a little way down the road and toots her horn a couple of times to spur him into action. Though still feeling a little unsure, John presses his foot down on the gas pedal and sticks close behind her, the promise of a warm bed too much to pass up. His back will certainly thank him for it in the morning.

Forty minutes later, Poppy and John arrive at her house. It's more of a mansion, John guesses, but it's too dark for him to make out most of it.

When John steps out of his car, Poppy calls him from the front doorstep. "Come. I'll show you to your room."

"This is a nice place," John comments as they traverse an opulent staircase and many long corridors.

Poppy tosses him a half smile. "Thank you. I inherited it from my parents," she explains. They pass by a portrait hung up on the wall, which she gestures to. It contains a man and a woman sitting side by side. They both look proudly down at the infant in the woman's arms. "My mother was alpha to this pack before me."

"Was?"

"She was murdered. Hunters. I would prefer to say no more on the matter."

John winces. "I'm sorry."

"It's quite alright. You didn't know."

They stop in front of a white door. Poppy opens it, flicks on the light and steps inside. "This is one of our guest rooms. Make yourself at home."

John's mouth drops open. It's a large room. It would have to be given the sheer size of the bed—a California king. "Thank you."

Poppy points to another door. "The bathroom is through there," she says. "We usually convene for breakfast at 7:30 a.m. I wish you pleasant dreams."

Chapter Text

- The Present: Sunday, March 13th, 2016 -

When John gets back to Beacon Hills, the sky is orange and there aren't many people out on the streets. Thanks to a text he had received from Derek before he left Modoc County that morning, John knows that his son's mate will still be at the station this late, waiting for him.

When his stomach rumbles loudly, he picks up some Indian takeout for them and tries not to drool all over himself because of the smell. He hasn't eaten since breakfast with Poppy's pack that morning. A stately affair, they'd sat at a long polished table and were even served by butlers. Everyone in Poppy's pack possessed the same high-class accent as their alpha and the same careful way of choosing their words. It made John a little uncomfortable, to be honest, but he got a very good meal out of it, so he supposes now that it wasn't so bad.

After parking next to Derek's Camaro, John enters the station. It's quiet, Parrish and Parks the only people in the bullpen. Parrish waves at him as he walks past, a gesture he returns using his free hand.

Light shines from the blinds covering the windows of his office. John lets himself in and finds Derek sitting behind the desk, his shoulder hunched up to keep the desk phone pressed to his ear. The deputy looks up as John enters, nods to acknowledge him and then returns his attention to whatever is being said by the person on the other end of the call, a deep crease forming between his eyebrows.

John leaves him to it. On a corner of his desk he unpacks the thin plastic bag of takeout and briefly leaves his office again to grab a couple of forks from the stash his deputies keep for when they order food in at the station.

Back in his office, John opens the containers of takeout, searches for his vegetable korma and leaves the chicken tikka masala for Derek. Perching himself on the edge of one of the chairs in front of his desk, he digs into his late dinner and waits. From what Derek says down the phone he deduces that the call is about tracking Aiden's movements.

Eventually, Derek hangs up. He puts the phone back in the receiver with more force than is strictly necessary and sags in his chair. "They're a real pain in the ass."

"Who?" John asks around a mouthful of food.

"The Shasta County Sheriff's Office. They're being obstinate."

John makes a noise, urging his deputy on.

After a moment, Derek pulls his chicken tikka masala closer and starts eating, too. He attacks the food with enough fervour for John to know he isn't the only one who hasn't eaten enough that day. "I asked if they could check if they still have traffic tapes from the times I suspect one of the twins was driving through the area," Derek explains between bites, "but they won't. Despite the magnitude of this case, it's not urgent or current enough, apparently. They can't spare even one officer for five damn minutes."

"Yes, well..." John says sadly. "Every station has its good and bad cops. Unfortunately, some of the bad ones land higher up."

"Still."

John moves the conversation along. "So, how've you been holding up here?"

Derek swallows his last mouthful. "Alright, I guess."

"There's been no...friction?"

"What d'you mean?"

"Any dissent about me leaving you in charge," John clarifies.

"Oh. No, not that I heard," Derek answers, fiddling with the collar of his shirt. "I wasn't really listening to whatever went on out there, but I think whatever you said to Rodriguez was enough for the message to sink in with everyone else, too."

John snorts. "I bet it was."

"You didn't have to do that, by the way."

"Do what?"

"Suspend him. I didn't care what he was saying."

With a frown, John sits forward in his chair and catches Derek's eyes. "You and I both know that's a lie," he points out. "I saw your face when you left that day."

"Yeah, well... It doesn't really matter anymore, does it?"

"I suppose not." John purses his lips and hums.

"Why do I sense a 'but'?"

The sheriff's lips change again into a smile. "Because, son, you have good instincts."

Derek smirks wryly. "Alright, just get on with it."

"If something like that happens again, either when Rodriguez gets back or with someone else, I want you to promise me you'll tell me," John implores. "This goes for everyone who works here, but I guess you need a reminder. Asking for help doesn't make you weak or whatever you may be thinking."

Derek looks down at the desk. "I just didn't want to cause a fuss. You already have enough on your plate with, y'know, everything."

"It doesn't matter. It's part of my job to look after not just civilians, but all of you, too," John says firmly. "Promise me."

"Fine," Derek murmurs. "I promise."

John breathes out, satisfied. "Alright, now that that's taken care of, let's get back on track, hmm?" he suggests. He stands up, walks around his desk and positions himself next to where Derek still sits. "Let me see what you've got so far."

"Sure."

Gradually, Derek takes John through everything he has done in his stead. John is pleased with his deputy's progress, all of which just serves to make it clear to him that he has made the right choice in his vote for his successor. Over the past three days, Derek has liaised with sheriff's offices across the state and has managed to trace either Aiden or Ethan's movements with impressive accuracy. He even has several grainy snapshots from multiple traffic cameras, each of which feature one of the twins sitting behind the wheels of different cars.

"Some of the instances are too old, so the footage just isn't there anymore," Derek says with a put-out huff. "But I got what I could."

John pats him on the shoulder. "And what you've got is damn impressive."

"There's just one thing that keeps eluding me."

"Go on," the sheriff prompts.

"Look at this."

On John's computer screen Derek pulls up a map of northern California. On this map are dots, similar to the ones the Argents had used in their own map of the whole country. All of the dots are congregated within a small area.

"I've got just over half of the kidnappings documented. Each time one of the twins is seen, I've been able to trace them to around here," Derek says, pointing to the dots clustered together near Weaverville in Trinity County. "But that's as narrowed down as I'm able to get it. The trails just...end. It's like whenever whichever twin it is gets to this area, they just disappear. They're going to the same place, as far as I can figure, but they drive there a different way every time so it's difficult to determine where that place is."

"It must be somewhere away from civilisation," John speculates.

"I thought the same thing; there'd be less chance of getting caught. Only thing is, that's a lot of ground to cover."

"True," John concedes. He stands up straight and pops his back with a groan, his full day of driving catching up to him. "But we can deal with that tomorrow. We should probably call it a day. I bet Stiles is missing you."

"I'm missing him, too," Derek admits quietly, the tips of his ears turning pink.

"Then collect him and go home."

Nodding, Derek switches off John's computer, pushes the chair in beneath the desk and follows the sheriff out of the room. Parks is still sitting at his desk, head bent down as he pores over some paperwork, but Parrish has moved. The affable deputy is now positioned in front of the coffee machine, waiting for it to spew the caffeinated liquid out into the cheap paper cup beneath the spout. When he notices Derek and John, Parrish turns with a smile and briefly intercepts them on their way out of the building.

"You two headed home?" he asks.

"Yeah," John confirms. "Anything else new I need to know about before I do?"

"Nah, the town's been surprisingly quiet. Just a couple of drunken fist fights."

He would have stayed longer if he was needed, but John is relieved he isn't. "Good to know. Keep up the good work."

"You know it."

John resumes walking to the exit and hears Parrish and Derek exchange farewells behind him. He holds the door for the bearded deputy and walks with him toward their cars in the private staff car park. "How has Stiles been?" he asks, unable to help himself. He hasn't had an update on his son since he left for Modoc County.

"Good, I think. He's taking well to my mom again," Derek replies fondly. He seems to get distracted for a moment, his nose raised in the air, but then John speaks again and he forgets about whatever he was smelling.

"I've been thinking..." the sheriff starts. "Do you think he'd be up for visiting mine sometime soon? It's been a while since I last saw him."

Derek takes his time before answering, carefully considering every possible result of John's request. "I can ask him, but I can't promise anything," he says eventually. He seems torn between his sympathy and respect for John and his intense love and protectiveness for Stiles, something John understands. "As I said, he's only just getting comfortable around my mom again. I fear that asking him to be around you as well might be asking too much of him in too short a time. I'll try, but if he says no, I won't force him. I'm sorry."

"Of course. Stiles' wellbeing will always come first for both of us," John accepts easily. It hurts still being apart from his son even though he is back, but John is unable to dispute anything Derek has just said—every bit of it is right.

He thinks not for the first time or even then hundredth that Stiles and Derek are lucky to have each other.

Derek opens the driver's door of his car. "I'll ask him in the morning and let you know, okay?"

"Okay."

As Derek's taillights are swallowed up by the darkness, John gets into his own car and sits for a moment. Once he is ready, he starts the engine and begins driving to a home that has felt too cold and too quiet for five years. He hopes that, come tomorrow, that will change, if only for an afternoon.

* * *

- The Present: Monday, March 14th, 2016 -

The following day, even though he feels uncertain about the whole idea, Derek is also pleased when Stiles agrees with little trouble to visit his father at his old house. The only stipulation the younger man had had was that Derek had to be there, too. As Derek was already planning on accompanying his mate on the visit, this wasn't a problem.

The journey doesn't take long. Stiles is still and silent the whole way, but once Derek has pulled his car to a stop on the street outside of the modest dwelling John calls home, this changes for the worse. Stiles shifts restlessly in the passenger seat and stares up at the house with his mouth held in a thin line. Derek, unable to do nothing in face of such obvious discomfort, reaches out to touch Stiles' shoulder.

"Hey," he says. "It's going to be fine."

The two men maintain eye contact for a few moments, and then Stiles' lips relax. Knowing that the crisis has been averted, Derek exits the car, waits for his mate to do the same and then leads the way up the front path. The door is unlocked when Derek reaches it, so he pushes it open and steps inside without bothering to knock—they're long past that.

"John? We're here!" Derek calls.

There comes a great thud from above, like something heavy was dropped on the floor, and then John appears on the stairs. "Ah, you're early," he says with a flustered smile. In his hands he carries a huge album, which Derek presumes is what was dropped.

"Yeah, we didn't really feel like just waiting around, so..." Derek excuses, hanging up his leather jacket. "What's that?"

John looks down at the object in his hands. "It's an old photo album. I thought it might help kickstart the bond between Stiles and I again." He inclines his head in the direction of the living room, so Derek follows him in there and Stiles follows Derek, a hand fisted in the back of Derek's light-grey Henley. "Please, make yourselves comfortable," John starts, only to stop himself. He gives a dry chuckle and rolls his eyes at himself. "Look who I'm talking to. You know by now what to do. I'll just, uh...get us some drinks or something."

The sheriff sets the album down on the coffee table and disappears into the kitchen. Not long afterward, Derek hears the sounds of cutlery clinking together and a kettle boiling.

"You still good?" he whispers to Stiles, pulling them down on the lone sofa.

Stiles nods, his eyes fixed on the album.

Satisfied enough to let it drop, Derek looks, too. He doesn't recognise it. The cover is a deep burgundy with floral patterns around the edges in embossed gold. In the middle is golden writing, slightly worn with age but still legible:

Cherished Memories

It doesn't seem like something John would pick out, so Derek presumes Stiles' mother was responsible.

"Here we are!" John reenters the room with a tray in his hands this time. He puts it down next to the photo album, picks up one of the steaming mugs and sits down apart from his guests in one of the armchairs. Still on the tray are three plates, forks and mugs. Derek's nose tells him that both mugs contain hot chocolate, but in one of them the brown liquid is hidden by a bunch of pink and white mini marshmallows, a sight he hasn't seen in a long time.

He picks up both mugs and gives the one with the marshmallows in to Stiles, remembering that, as a child, the younger man had always had a predilection for the fluffy, sugary things. On the plates are three slices of crudely made chocolate cake with peanut butter frosting and chocolate ganache in the centre. Derek recognises this, too, as something Stiles used to help his mother bake once upon a time. He muses that John is really going all out in his trip down memory lane.

"Stiles, you look good," John comments. He tries to come off casual but doesn't quite succeed.

The younger Stilinski just blinks at his father.

As awkward as it is, after looking closely at his mate, Derek has to agree with the sheriff. He hasn't really noticed much of a change because he and Stiles have, for the most part, spent every waking moment in each other's pockets. But, conjuring a picture in his head of how Stiles had looked that first day in the hospital, Derek observes that there has been a dramatic change for the better.

For one, Stiles has put on some weight again. He isn't back up to where he was when he was sixteen, but he still seems a lot healthier; less gaunt. The cast on his arm has also recently come off, the skin beneath even paler than his other arm even though right now it's hidden by one of the long-sleeved flannel shirts Stiles still favours.

Finally, he doesn't look as timid. Derek knows that Stiles can still get incredibly nervous around people who aren't him—his earlier hesitance in the car was proof of that—but compared to the panic attacks Stiles has had both times John has seen him since he came back, it's a big improvement.

Derek feels pride.

"I see Derek's been taking good care of you," John tries again. This time, Stiles looks down at his hot chocolate but responds with a nod. "I never expected anything less."

The three men lapse into silence momentarily and then Derek catches Stiles eyeing the cake with intrigue. He picks up their slices and holds Stiles' out to him.

"It's not a patch on Claudia's," John says sadly, "but I tried my best. I know you used to love it, son."

After seeking permission from Derek—or maybe reassurance—Stiles cuts a chunk of his cake off with his fork and puts it in his mouth. His eyes close seemingly automatically and he makes a noise of pleasure which instantly catches the attention of the older men. This is the first noise either has heard Stiles make that didn't sound distressed, something that has John tearing up a little. The man wipes quickly at his eyes while Derek graciously pretends not to notice.

"Is it okay?" John asks.

Opening his eyes again, Stiles slides his fork out from between his lips and nods shyly.

"I'm glad."

The cake is devoured in no time, and Derek has to agree with his mate—while it isn't quite as good as he remembers Claudia's being, Stiles' dad did a good job.

Once the refreshments are all gone and the plates and mugs have been set back down on the tray on the coffee table, John meets Derek's gaze and gestures subtly down to the photo album, like he's asking whether or not Derek thinks it's the right time. The beta does. Thanks to the years they have spent working together, he is able to communicate this with just his eyes.

John picks up the album. "I'd like to show you something, if that's alright, son," he says quietly. "Do you mind if I sit next to you?"

Stiles glances uncertainly at the free seat to his left.

"He won't touch you if you don't want him to," Derek assures.

"I won't," John confirms.

This is apparently all it takes to appease his son, because Stiles permits his father to sit down on the sofa.

"Thanks, son."

"What are we looking at?" Derek asks.

John allows Derek to take the album and spread it out across his and Stiles' laps. It reminds Derek of just a month ago, when they were in this exact position in his parents' house. He hopes John isn't expecting different results.

Derek opens the album to the first double-page and his face is overtaken by a huge grin. The eight photographs are all of a newborn Stiles cradled in his mother's arms in her hospital bed. His little face is all squishy and wrinkly, his wispy hair the same shade of brown as Claudia's. Derek has seen a few photographs of an infant Stiles before, but it's been a while. He had forgotten how cute he was; how cute he has always been.

When Stiles skates his fingers over the glossy photographs, his eyebrows pulled together in a frown, Derek wonders if he recognises himself at all. "You know who this is?"

Stiles shakes his head.

"It's you, back when you were a baby."

The frown fades slightly from Stiles' face, so Derek continues flipping slowly through the pages and concludes that this album chronicles the first few years of Stiles' life, before they met. John is featured infrequently, which baffles Derek for a moment before he figures out that it's because John was the one behind the camera when most of the photographs were taken.

Claudia and their son take centre stage.

Eventually, when they reach a page displaying one large photograph instead of four smaller ones, Stiles' frown returns. The photograph is a closeup of Stiles' and Claudia's faces. Stiles grins at the camera, while Claudia has her profile to the lens and her pursed lips pressed to his mole-dotted cheek.

It's adorable, but Derek's gaze is glued to his mate in the present. He can almost sense the question the younger man would ask if he could.

"You're wondering who she is," the sheriff speculates, echoing Derek's thoughts.

Stiles nods again.

"That's my wife," John explains, his voice choked. "And your mom."

Looking up, Stiles stares at his father for a moment before turning his eyes to the room, like he's waiting for something. When Derek realises his mate is waiting for someone and not something, his heart stutters in his chest and his hand unconsciously curls tighter around the edge of the photo album.

He wasn't prepared for this. It didn't even register when he first opened the album and saw that Claudia was a ubiquitous presence across its pages that this conversation could come up. Feeling woefully underprepared, like he has been set down in the middle of the Sahara desert without food, water or a map, Derek doesn't know what he should do.

It takes John a little longer to realise what his son is waiting for, but when he does he inhales so sharply it sounds painful. "Oh Stiles..."

Said young man turns back at his father. His eyes widen in shock when he sees a single tear run down the man's cheek.

"I'm sorry, son, but...your mom died a long time ago," John croaks.

Without trying, Derek is cast back to when it happened. It was a rough time for everybody. No one would tell Stiles the truth about what was going on, but he knew anyway—not all the details, but enough to know it was bad.

When Claudia had to stay in hospital, John wanted to dedicate all of his time to his wife and entrusted the Hales with Stiles' care. Derek's parents were all too willing to help. Stiles was given a spare room while his mother was treated, but he ended up slipping out of his bed and into Derek's every night, seeking solace from his best friend.

This pattern continued for a while, until Claudia finally succumbed to her illness. John lost himself to his grief and tried to drink the pain away, so Stiles continued to stay with the Hales. Only, from that point on, he didn't even attempt to sleep in his own bed anymore. He went right to Derek's every night, and Derek would hold him while he cried. After a few weeks of this, John managed to get himself together with the help of Derek's parents, and Stiles went back home.

Derek's bed felt cold for a long time after that.

Coming back to the here and now, Derek looks between his mate and John and is amazed by what happens.

With the memories unearthed, John is having a tough time putting a lid on his emotions. Stiles watches his dad for a minute with a strange expression on his face, but then, just as Derek is about to reach over and offer the sheriff comfort, Stiles beats him to it.

John's breath hitches when he feels Stiles' hand on his arm. He stares at his son in shock, like he never expected this to happen. Derek can sympathise; Stiles hasn't reached out to anyone but him since he returned. Sure, he'll let Laura touch him, but he never initiates it. Now, seeing his dad in distress, even though Stiles still doesn't remember him, is evidently enough to break down that barrier. It's major progress.

Before Derek can advise against it, John pulls Stiles into his arms. Stiles predictably goes stiff as a board, so Derek moves closer to gently prise him free of the sheriff's embrace, but he doesn't need to. As soon as he touches Stiles' back, Stiles relaxes into his dad's hold.

The younger Stilinski doesn't appear one hundred percent comfortable, but when John tucks Stiles' head beneath his chin he shuts his eyes and strokes a hand down the sheriff's arm. Derek recognises it as what he himself has done in the past to comfort Stiles, so Stiles must have learned it from him. He observes the scene with soft eyes and takes back what he thought before.

He's happy they came.

Chapter Text

- The Past: Saturday, July 13th, 2013 -

Under twinkling stars, Aiden returns to Austin's pack house with conflicting feelings. He's sad for the teenage boy he is getting back from kidnapping, disgusted with himself for doing it and irritated by the prospect of being around Austin and his rowdy betas again. But, on a more positive note, he is also emboldened by his meeting with Chris and Allison Argent and the fact that he isn't shouldering the burden of all of this by himself anymore.

When he walks inside the house, he can instantly sense that something is different. There are fewer heartbeats than there should be. Even when Austin and one or two of the other betas aren't home, there should be at least four other hearts beating alongside Aiden's own—Danny's, Stiles', Ethan's and a fourth belonging to whichever beta has been left behind to make sure the others don't try to escape. But now there are just three. Filled with concern now, Aiden shuts the front door and makes his way into the living room. He spots Frankie lounging on one of the sofas like always, watching some shitty soap opera.

"Where is everyone?" he asks her warily.

Frankie glances at him, her nose wrinkling. "Out."

"Out where?"

"Austin's getting rid of some dead weight and James and Luther are on the prowl. Like they're the only ones who want to get laid..." Frankie makes a frustrated sound. "Assholes. It's always me who gets left behind to look after your sorry asses."

Aiden holds on to the doorframe and digs his claws into it to ground himself. "What dead weight?"

"Austin got bored with the skinny one, so he's ditching him."

"The skinny one? You mean Stiles?"

Frankie shrugs. "If that was his name, then sure."

Before the woman can get mad at him for constantly interrupting her, Aiden leaves the living room and takes the stairs two at a time. He pauses outside of Ethan's room and listens for his heartbeat, needing to verify what Frankie told him. When he hears his twin on the other side of the door, Aiden relaxes slightly and continues down the hallway to Austin's bedroom. He has only been in there a few times and each of those times was brief. He shudders to think of the depraved acts he witnessed.

Shaking his head, Aiden listens again. He can make out Danny's heartbeat, a rhythm he had memorised years ago. It's sluggish at the moment, so Danny must be napping. Austin probably wore him out again the previous night.

"C'mon, you," says a voice from right behind Aiden.

He jumps and whirls around to see Frankie standing there looking bored. Aiden is still not used to how silently she can move. "W-what?"

"Get in your room," the woman elaborates. "Don't make me force you."

Not wanting Frankie to put her hands on him lest she accidentally find the burner phone Chris Argent had given him, Aiden hurries to obey. He walks into his bare bedroom, the door slams and locks behind him and then he picks up Frankie's soft footsteps descending the stairs. Aiden sits down heavily on his mattress and pulls out the phone. He sends a short text to inform Chris of Stiles being moved and then switches it off. He stuffs it in the hole in his mattress he uses to store his lists and leans back against the wall, his eyes on the ceiling.

While it was terrible, he had hoped that Stiles would remain in the house with him and Ethan and Danny, where he was safe. Or as safe as he could be. Then, when it was all said and done, when Austin and the short-haired alpha and everyone else involved were gone, he'd be able to make sure at least one person got back to the people who love them. To his dad and his mate, that grumpy-looking beta with the leather jacket. He'd be able to make up for just a little bit of what he did.

But no.

Aiden supposes that Stiles will be sold to someone else very soon. He'll be violated all over again in both body and mind.

With a sigh, Aiden lies down on the mattress, folds his hands over his stomach and closes his eyes. There's nothing he can do for Stiles now, so he decides there's no point wasting time and energy fretting over him. Especially not when there is still so much to do.

* * *

- The Present: Tuesday, March 15th, 2016 -

Chris Argent has never been more bored in his life.

He has had nothing better to do for almost two weeks than to sit around in Beacon Hills and wait for others to make progress in the investigation he and his daughter had started with Aiden three years and nine months ago. Even after all he had done to help, all the information he brought to light out of the goodness of his heart, the sheriff refuses to let him be an active participant. Chris suspects that the other man feels guilty for turning a blind eye to the unlawful way he had procured Jessica White's address. A little breaking-and-entering never hurt anybody as far as Chris is concerned, and he was in and out of the high school in five short minutes, if that.

The sheriff's revitalised moral compass is infuriating, quite honestly. Such staunch support of human law is cumbersome for someone like Chris, whose job is firmly outside of it. It makes everything more difficult and is just one of the many reasons he usually keeps as much distance between himself and law enforcement as possible.

He can't do what he needs to do with them butting their heads in.

Now, though, when he is fresh from the shower and his phone lights up with John's name, Chris hopes his boredom is finally coming to an end. Still clutching the towel around his waist, he hits the green button and holds the device up to his ear. "Hello?"

"I need you to check up on a pack up in Modoc County."

"What, no 'hello'? No 'how are you?' I'm offended," Chris says sardonically.

"Hello. Now, the pack; there's something up with them. I want you to see what you can find."

Chris looks up at the ceiling of his hotel room and prays for patience. "Fine, fine... What are the details?"

John relays them quickly and concisely and also speaks of the feeling he'd gotten when he went to visit Austin's pack. "I don't have proof that they're involved yet, but I'm sure they are in some way. It's more of a gut feeling than anything else, but in all my years doing this job, my gut hasn't led me wrong." He pauses for a moment, thinking about something. "I can't stop replaying this sound I heard coming from upstairs. I know Austin was lying about what caused it."

Chris is already aware of what—or rather who—Austin is hiding but says nothing. "Alright," he accepts. "Text me the address."

"There's something else, too."

"Of course there is."

"I have to stay here with my family, otherwise I'd do it myself."

"Just spit it out, John. I don't have unlimited time."

The sheriff sighs down the line and informs Chris of the progress Derek had made while he was up north. "We can't pinpoint exactly where whichever of the twins is doing this is disappearing to," he finishes.

"And that's what you want me to find out?"

Again, Chris chooses not to reveal to John that he already knows it's Aiden doing the abducting and not his brother. Where Aiden is taking his abductees is a mystery to him, though, because Aiden has never told him when he and Allison have asked. As much as it had annoyed him at first, Chris eventually understood—the beta didn't want to risk them showing their hand before they could figure out who was in charge of the whole operation.

"Exactly. All we've been able to figure out is that it's somewhere around Weaverville. Probably some distance from it, though. It'd be too risky to be close."

Chris nods his head in agreement. "True. I make no promises, but I'll see what I can find."

"Remember, I don't want them to find out we know until we're ready."

"I think I know how to do my job, John."

"Yeah, yeah... Just be careful, is all I meant."

"I have to say, it's about time you realised what a valuable resource you have at your disposal," Chris comments smugly, starting to pack with his free hand.

"If you say so."

John hangs up before Chris can respond.

The hunter stares down at the black screen of his phone and the corner of his mouth twitches. He still may not like the sheriff very much, purely for how rigidly he is sticking to the law after his one slip-up, but Chris has to admit he has a bit of respect for the other man—it's not often that he comes across someone who can go toe to toe with him like that.

Shaking his head, Chris drops his phone on top of the crisp white bedsheets and continues packing. Once the last item of clothing is in his bag—barring the ones he'll be wearing shortly—he glances at Allison's bed and wonders where she has disappeared to. A coffee run shouldn't take more than half an hour and his daughter has been gone for double that time.

Now that Chris thinks about it, Allison has been vanishing more and more often since they decided to stay in town. With a frown, he picks up his phone again with the intention of calling and asking her where she is, but then the door opens and said girl enters dressed in a loose blue top, a pair of white shorts and white trainers.

Chris knows his daughter well enough to see that the smile she gives him is covering something.

"What took you so long?" he asks, cutting straight to the point.

Allison blinks at him innocently and holds up the full coffee cup in her hand. "I was getting this," she answers.

Chris takes it. It's long gone cold, so he puts it down on the table. "And that took a whole hour?"

"...Uhh, yes?"

"Allison Anne Argent, don't lie to me."

The twenty-one-year-old rolls her eyes. "Alright, alright, no need to bring out the full name," she sighs. "I was meeting someone, that's all."

Chris crosses his arms. "And who might this someone be?"

"No one. Just this guy I met while doing the coffee run last week."

"Are you sure that's wise?"

Allison's eyes turn defiant. "Why wouldn't it be?"

With a sigh, Chris drops his arms and sits on the end of his bed. "We're itinerants, Allison," he says gently. "Trust me, I've been in your position, but we don't really have time for romance. As soon as you get close to someone, you'll have to leave again."

"What about you and mom?"

"That was different, unless you're going to tell me that this boy is a hunter, too."

"No... He's studying to be a veterinarian."

"See? It's just going to end badly."

"That's for me to decide. The women make the decisions in this family, remember?"

Chris sighs. "I remember, but I'm still your father and I have a right to worry."

"Well, don't."

"It's not a switch I can flip, Allison."

"Why are you making such a big deal out of this?" Allison questions. "It's not like we have anywhere we need to be right now anyway!"

"That's not exactly true."

Allison freezes. "What do you mean?"

"If you were back on time, you'd know," Chris says. "I just got a call from John Stilinski about some leads."

"Where?" Allison's voice is hesitant.

"Up in northern California."

Allison's keen eyes linger on the packed bag next to her dad and her fight seems to drain from her. "And I take it you want us to leave now?"

"Unfortunately, yes, I do. We can't afford to waste time with this."

"Fine," Allison accepts. She presents a strong face but Chris can see through it easily. "Pack the car. I have plans I need to cancel."

Feeling for his daughter, Chris picks up the clothes he left out and rests a hand on Allison's shoulder on his way back into the bathroom. He waits for her to look at him before speaking. "I'm sorry. I wish it didn't have to be this way, but this is one of the drawbacks of doing what we do. We can't get close to civilians. They wouldn't understand. I promise you it's for the best."

Allison doesn't look convinced.

* * *

- The Present: Saturday, March 19th, 2016 -

Following Stiles' bonding moment with his dad last Monday, a routine is quickly established. Every day, Derek will leave Stiles in his mother's care while he goes into the station and then, come late afternoon, he and John will both go to the Hale house and they will all spend some time together. Stiles still doesn't really like to be touched by anyone other than Derek, but their one hug at the beginning of the week seems to have been enough for John to content himself with.

Saturday morning brings something different.

John gives himself the afternoon off and Derek the day off and another barbecue is held at the Hale house. It's almost like old times, a put-to-rest monthly tradition into which new life has been breathed. Everybody is there from 11 a.m. onwards—even Peter, to whom Talia extended an invitation after extracting a promise from him that he wouldn't go near Stiles at any point during the day.

Both Derek and John watch the middle-aged beta carefully and stick close to Stiles' side for the first hour, but they gradually allow themselves to relax a little when Peter doesn't so much as glance in the young man's direction. When it comes time to eat, Derek seats Stiles at the end of one of the picnic table benches and takes his place next to him, while John sits directly across from his son. Laura and Cora join them, while Talia, Nicolas and Peter take the other table.

It's calm. It's nice.

John breaks the silence. "So, Cora, how's college treating you?"

Cora looks up from her cheeseburger, her brown eyes wide and startled. "Uhh...it's going fine, I guess," she replies vaguely. "Why?"

"No reason. I'm just curious."

"You haven't changed your major again, have you?" Derek asks suspiciously.

Cora purses her lips but keeps them sealed and her eyes on her food, which is an answer in and of itself.

"You have! What is it this time, then?"

"Journalism..."

"Got bored of Art History, did you?"

The youngest Hale nods. "Yeah. I dunno why mom thought it'd be a good fit for me."

Derek chuckles. "So, if I'm remembering correctly, you've gone through Business, English, Economics, Film Studies, Gender Studies, Art History, and now you're on Journalism. Did I miss one?" he teases.

"Her short-lived attempt at Psychology," Laura adds, smirking.

Cora rolls her eyes and takes another bite of her burger. She speaks with her mouth full. "You're both such assholes."

"Older siblings' prerogative."

"I wish I was an only child..." Cora laments.

"Oh, please!" Laura laughs. She reaches across the table and messes up Cora's hair. "You love us."

"Ugh, get off!"

Derek watches his sisters bicker with a smile.

Soon enough, the two women and John leave the table, each wanting seconds, so Derek returns his attention to Stiles. The human looks back at him with a bemused expression, his cheeseburger left half-eaten on his cheap paper plate. "I take it you won't be wanting seconds as well, then?" Derek enquires. "Or are you going to finish that?"

Stiles plays with the long sleeves of his green plaid shirt and shakes his head, so Derek, sharing his sisters' lycanthropic appetite, gladly eats what his mate left. Once all the food is gone, everyone migrates from the back garden into the house, the 'adults' in the kitchen and the 'kids' in the living room.

When no one strikes up another conversation, Laura switches on the television and flicks seemingly aimlessly through the channels. She eventually stops on some tacky reality show Derek doesn't care to know the name of, so he blocks out the noise from where he sits on one of the sofas with an arm around Stiles. His mate leans into him, head on his shoulder. Derek looks down and sees that Stiles' eyes are closed, Derek's warmth and a full stomach apparently causing him to fall asleep.

Derek considers joining him, but then talk from the kitchen catches his attention.

"So how's the investigation going?" Talia asks John. Her tone is conversational but masked beneath Derek notes an avid interest.

"We've been making progress," John answers.

"Oh?"

"I think we're getting close to something. Something big."

"I can't wait for all this unpleasantness to be over and done with," Nicolas murmurs.

"Yes, you do look quite tired, John," Peter observes, his smirk audible in his smarmy voice.

"Your concern means a lot," the sheriff responds sarcastically.

Talia intervenes before her brother can comment further. "Behave, boys," she orders. The smell of fresh coffee drifts into the living room.

"It'll be nice to truly have Stiles back," Nicolas says.

"Yeah, it really will."

"Do you know how much longer it will take, John?"

"I can't go into detail," the sheriff reminds them, "but like I said, we're close. I actually sent Chris Argent to follow up on a lead earlier in the week."

"I hope he brings good news."

Derek tunes out then, his own eyes beginning to slip closed. He lets them, slides down on the sofa a bit and rests his head atop Stiles', settling in for a nap.

* * *

That evening, Derek and Stiles sit on the floor on opposite sides of Derek's coffee table, where Derek is teaching his mate to play Uno. Ideally more than two people are needed for the game, as Derek had explained, but Stiles had happened across some old scuffed-up decks shortly after they arrived home from the barbecue and thought it looked interesting. Because Derek was powerless to resist the younger man's pleading eyes, he had removed the useless reversal cards from the decks, made a small grid of four coloured squares so that Stiles can change the colour in play without speaking, and the games began.

Stiles easily picked up its simple rules and is currently winning with four cards left to Derek's six, much to Derek's surprise. It reminds him of old times, when Stiles would always kick his ass in whatever game they chose to play. Stiles even still sticks his tongue out of the side of his mouth when he's concentrating, a distraction which Derek blames for his current predicament.

Having only number cards in his hand, Derek already knows he is going to lose but puts up a valiant fight anyway. He puts a blue 8 down on top of Stiles' blue 4 and waits for his mate's next move. Stiles, ever the cheeky one, plays a blue +2, giving Derek seven cards in total to Stiles' three, and then a blue 7. Grumbling under his breath, Derek puts down a blue 6. Stiles, unable to use his voice to call Uno anymore, knocks once on the table surface, plays a +4 and points to the red square on his colour grid.

With eleven cards now in his hand, Derek is annoyed to find his bad luck in drawing special cards persists. He still has just number cards, which means he can't change the colour from red.

Accepting his fate, Derek plays a red 3, on top of which Stiles immediately places his last card, a red 5.

"Good job," Derek congratulates with a pout.

Stiles grins at him.

Derek doesn't really want to play another game, so he sets down his remaining hand, leans back on his arms and extends his legs beneath the table. Stiles, seeing this, gathers up all of the cards, puts both decks back in their boxes and stacks them neatly on the side of the table. Derek chuckles at Stiles' newly acquired compulsion for neatness.

"What d'you want to do now?" he asks.

His mate shrugs and rests his forearms on the table.

"Yeah, I don't know either..."

That's the problem with spending so much time at home, Derek supposes—you very quickly run out of interesting things to do. There are only so many times you can watch the same episodes of Rick and Morty or South Park or whatever else without them becoming stale and boring. He considers himself a bibliophile, but he can only read so many lines of tiny print before his mind wanders. He could let Stiles paint his nails again, he muses, but that would take up half an hour at most and it's only 7:30 p.m. They've a lot more time to kill than that before turning in for the night becomes a viable option.

Derek thinks that's why he got so good at his job; he would do just about anything to avoid having to spend more time than he needed to in his apartment. He would inevitably grow tired of what comforts he had and want something more to occupy his mind. Focusing on his work gave him that.

At a loss, Derek blows out a long breath and realises he hasn't eaten since the burger and a half he'd had for lunch. He meets Stiles' eyes. "Could you eat?"

When Stiles nods his assent, Derek is satisfied and hops to his feet, excited to have something else to do. He walks into the kitchen, Stiles trailing behind him like always. "Mmm, what looks good?" he mumbles to himself as he peruses the contents of his fridge. Nothing leaps out at him, so he closes it again and leans back against the door as he thinks. He looks to Stiles, who looks patiently back, and has a thought. "How 'bout a stir fry? You used to love those, if I remember rightly."

Stiles blinks confusedly a couple of times but nods again anyway.

Decision made, Derek scans through the fridge a second time and the cupboards and makes a list of everything he'll need.

"I've just got to make a trip to the grocery store," he tells Stiles as he slips on his leather jacket. After shoving his shopping list inside one of the pockets, Derek kisses Stiles' temple and opens the door. "Be back in half an hour, an hour tops."

* * *

Derek knows something is wrong as soon as he reenters his apartment building. He isn't sure how, but he knows. It's just a feeling he gets, a tightening of his chest and a sudden shortness of breath. Trying vainly to stave off his fear, Derek foregoes the lift and rushes up the stairs to his floor. When he reaches his apartment, he freezes.

The door is ajar.

He swears he locked it, and Stiles would never open it for anyone but him.

Dropping his grocery bag on the hallway floor, Derek barges inside his apartment and has to cover his nose because of the smell. It's too strong for him to tell what it is, but he doesn't stop until he reaches the living room. It's in shambles. There are claw marks in the sofa cushions, the coffee table is on its side and Uno cards and shards of glass litter the floor. Derek thinks he spots a few drops of blood amongst them.

He stares at the small red stains for what seems like a long time and then scrambles to search the rest of the place. It's for naught—the kitchen, his bedroom, the en suite bathroom...every room is empty.

The horrible truth hitting him, Derek sinks to his knees.

Stiles is gone.

Chapter Text

- The Past: Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013 -

The boy awakens on a sofa. Blinking sleep from his eyes, he sits up and looks down at the purple blanket that falls in a heap in his naked lap. He doesn't know how it got there. He doesn't know how he got there. Confused, the boy looks at his surroundings, trying figure out where there is.

The sofa is a hideous floral thing with cushions so large and soft if feels like he is sinking into quicksand. He decides he doesn't like the sensation and gets to his feet. His legs are shaky but they support him. The emerald-green carpet tickles the soles of his feet. There's a glass coffee table next to the sofa, on top of which are an empty white mug, several remote controls and an issue of TV Guide with a blond man holding an Emmy statuette on the cover.

Across from the boy is a large flatscreen television in the centre of a huge black entertainment unit set against cream-coloured walls. In the various compartments of the unit there are many sorts of expensive-looking devices. To his left is a window, but the curtains—printed with the same off-putting pattern as the sofa upholstery—are closed so he can't see outside. To his right is an arched doorway. A glance through it reveals a long hallway with many closed doors, at the end of which is a kitchen so white it's almost blinding. Before the boy can traverse the hallway and explore further, one of the doors opens and a man steps out.

"Ah, you're awake!" he says with a wide smile.

He is incredibly tall, around 6'4". He runs his hand through his shoulder-length red hair and then holds it out for the boy to take. With nothing else to do, the boy takes it and allows himself to be pulled into the room the man had just exited. It turns out to be a bedroom, with purple carpeting, light-grey walls and a canopy bed. The blood-red sheets are a little messy, like the man has just rolled out of them. Given the fact that the man is just wearing a pair of grey sweatpants, the boy thinks this is highly likely.

There is also a floor-length mirror in one corner, next to a dresser. The boy feels a strange emptiness when he gets a glimpse of his own reflection.

"Come on, let's get you washed up, hmm?" the man suggests, nudging him in the direction of the ensuite bathroom.

The boy stands back as the man reaches into the large shower stall and switches it on. The glass is completely translucent, but the boy supposes it doesn't matter. There would be no point in modesty now, not when the man has already seen him naked.

Once the man deems the temperature acceptable, he sits down on the closed lid of the toilet and watches the boy expectantly. The boy steps hesitantly inside the shower, slides the door closed and tries not to feel the eyes on his back, but the man must notice his discomfort despite his efforts, because he speaks.

"Don't worry, love. I just want to make sure you don't hurt yourself," he assures, giving the boy a smile that sets him instantly at ease. It's soft but tinged with sadness. The boy is curious as to why. "You might lose consciousness and hit your head again or something. You injured yourself pretty badly the first time, so I don't want to risk you falling again and making it worse."

Nodding to show he understands, the boy turns away from the man and moves beneath the shower spray. It's hot, almost too hot, but he doesn't move out of it again or attempt to lower the temperature. He'll get used to it, he knows, so he focuses on getting himself wet all over and then on picking out which products to use. The caddy that is stuck to the tiles with a suction cup is full of bottles of different sizes and colours, so the boy examines them one at a time until he comes across one containing shower gel.

It's when he is halfway through washing his body that he notices the marks. They're all over—claw marks, bite marks, faint bruises on his wrists and hips which look mostly healed and even some strange pinprick scars on the insides of his elbows. There are probably even more that he can't see. He suspects how he got the bruises on his hips, but the scars are another matter.

He doesn't think he wants to know how he got those.

"You alright?" comes the man's voice.

The boy nods automatically and goes back to washing himself. When he is eventually done, he switches off the shower, opens the door and steps out of the stall.

The man picks up a fluffy white towel. "Come here, love."

Gently, almost lovingly, the man pats the boy down until he is dry again and then tosses the towel in the hamper in the corner. He brings the boy back out into the bedroom, leaves him by the bed and walks over to the dresser, from which he extracts a pair of black boxer-briefs and a plain blue T-shirt. He gives them to the boy, who dresses himself quickly, and then sits them both down on the bed.

"Okay...we need to talk about some things, huh?" the man chuckles.

The boy nods slowly, confused about everything.

"Are you feeling alright?"

The boy thinks for a moment and then nods again. He's a little cold, truthfully, but it's not that pressing of an issue.

"That's good to know," the man says. "Do you...do you remember me?"

The boy shakes his head this time. Something about the man's crestfallen expression seems somehow disingenuous, but the boy tells himself he's just imagining things.

"Do you remember yourself, at least? Please tell me you do."

The boy thinks again, realises he doesn't and shakes his head a second time.

His face falling even more, the man grabs the boy's hand and holds it in one of his, like he is trying to comfort him. With his other hand he reaches for a picture frame on the nightstand. "That makes me sad, but I suppose it's to be expected," he says quietly. He holds the frame out for the boy to take. "You had an accident recently which caused you to hit your head quite hard. You've been unconscious for a couple of days. Your name is Stiles and I'm Adrian. I'm an alpha werewolf and you're my pack member. I was so worried I would lose you, too..."

Looking down at the picture frame, the boy—Stiles, he reminds himself—takes in the sight of himself and Adrian. They stand close together at some sort of birthday celebration. Adrian wears a forest-green V-neck T-shirt and a leather jacket and has a ridiculous pink party hat perched on top of his red hair. Stiles is grinning at the camera, but Adrian's expression is more subdued, a barely there upward curve of his lips.

"Does that trigger anything?" Adrian asks.

The photograph stirs nothing in Stiles' brain, so he gives it back to the man and shakes his head again.

"Oh... Well, it was a long shot, I suppose," Adrian murmurs with a sigh. Stiles thinks he is trying to make himself feel better. "As long as you're still with me."

Stiles doesn't know how to react, so he doesn't. He just sits there, stares at his alpha and fiddles nervously with his own fingers. Adrian sets the photograph back on the nightstand and, with alarming cheer, pulls him back to his feet. The tall man leads Stiles back out into the hallway and into the kitchen. On the way, Stiles takes in some more details of the house to sate his curiosity.

There are more picture frames hung up on the off-white walls, each of them containing photographs of Stiles, Adrian or both of them. They aren't spaced evenly apart, so Stiles wonders whether there used to be more. None of the other doors are open, so he couldn't peek inside any of the other rooms even if Adrian didn't have hold of his wrist.

The kitchen still hurts Stiles' eyes, it's so bright. Everything is white or silver—white table, white floor and wall tiles, white ceiling, white cupboards, silver appliances and light fixtures, silver cutlery... Stiles thinks the room feels clinical. He almost doesn't want to touch anything for fear of contaminating it, but Adrian sits him at the island on a silver stool and tells him to make himself comfortable.

Stiles isn't sure that's possible, but he already likes the man and some instinct has him wanting to make Adrian happy however he can, so he tries. He settles in, leans his elbows on the clean white island and watches Adrian fry some bacon in a frying pan.

"It's a little late for breakfast, but I won't tell if you won't," the alpha jokes, sending Stiles a wink over his shoulder.

Stiles manages a smile.

* * *

- The Present: Saturday, March 19th, 2016 -

Derek stays on his knees and stares at the wreckage of his living room for far too long. Distantly, in the very back of his mind, he knows he should have been up and moving minutes ago. He should have already called John and Talia and whoever else and be trying to track down Stiles. But he is unable to move, unable to listen to that thin voice. He can't hear past the white noise in his head, can't tear his eyes away from the droplets of blood on the floor.

He just keeps kneeling there.

Until, finally, a noise jolts him out of his head, a loud bang from above. His nose still burns from the strange stench, his eyes sting and his cheeks are wet, but Derek ignores all of these distractions and fumbles his phone out of his pocket. Barely able to see what he's doing, he somehow finds John's name in his contacts and holds the device up to his ear.

He waits impatiently as it rings and rings and rings. The call doesn't go through, so he tries again and almost gives in to his building frustrations and throws his phone at the wall when John still doesn't pick up. He controls himself—barely—and tries someone else. He scrolls down to Parrish's name instead and clenches his eyes shut, sending new tears falling, when he hears his partner's cheery voice almost immediately.

"Hey, Derek! What's up, man?" the other deputy asks over the rustling of papers.

Derek's voice is gravelly when he speaks. He ignores the greeting and cuts to the chase; he has wasted enough time already. "Is the sheriff there?"

"Uh, yeah, somewhere. Are you alright? You sound upset."

"Tell him to get to my place. Now."

Before Parrish can ask anything else, Derek hangs up without compunction and dials his mother next. He keeps that conversation short, too, because he doesn't have the energy nor the will to field any questions just yet. Once that call has also ended, Derek picks himself up off the floor, trudges out into the hall and throws himself back down next to his forgotten groceries. He wipes the leftover salty moisture from his face and sets in to wait, tomato sauce soaking into the rough carpet next to him like blood.

It doesn't take long.

A pair of rapid footsteps soon comes up the stairs at the end of the hall and John strides over to him, still in uniform.

"Derek? Why're you sitting out here?" the sheriff asks.

Derek opens his mouth to speak but a choking sound comes out instead of words.

"Son, what's going on?" John asks again, his voice becoming more urgent. Again Derek tries to answer and can't. He lets the sheriff pull him up and then points to his apartment, the door to which is still wide open. John regards him warily for a moment before his eyes widen. "In there? Has something happened to Stiles?!"

Derek just nods and trails sedately after John when the older man dashes through the doorway.

"Oh my God..." John breathes when he reaches the living room.

The minutes pass slowly. Derek hears John picking his way through the rest of the apartment, but he stays in the entranceway because he doesn't feel quite up to seeing the mess again. He leans against one of the walls and stares at the one opposite him, trying to keep a hold on his tumultuous emotions. It's difficult work, but he manages it and is grateful when he hears more fast footsteps and his mother is suddenly in front of him.

Seeing her concerned face takes Derek right back to being a child. He is tempted to permit the chains he has precariously wrapped around his emotions to break. He wants to let go and sink into her arms like he did whenever something upset him as a pup, like he did when Stiles was taken the first time. But he doesn't. He is stronger than that now; he has to be. Instead of breaking down when his mother asks him the same questions John did, he leads the way into the living room, ready to deal with what happened.

John was careful enough not to disturb anything, so the mess is just as Derek had left it.

Talia's reaction is similar to the sheriff's. She gasps and covers her mouth. "What happened here...?"

John looks up from examining the shards of glass on the floor. "I don't know," he answers, his voice shaky, "but I can't find Stiles anywhere."

Talia turns to her son. "Derek?"

Finding his words with difficulty, the beta explains. He speaks of how he and Stiles had finished a game of Uno and he was going to cook dinner, only he lacked a few ingredients. "I couldn't have been away more than thirty minutes. When I came back, I found the place like this and Stiles was g-gone..."

His voice breaks on the last word, so Talia hugs him tightly.

"I've got to call this in," John says heavily, reaching for the radio strapped to his belt. He leaves but pauses to say, "Don't touch anything," on his way.

Once Talia releases her son, she scrunches up her nose and covers it with her palm. "What is that awful smell?" she asks.

"I don't know," Derek says. "It was here when I got back."

"It's everywhere. I can't pick up anything else."

Derek frowns and inhales carefully, even though it makes his nostrils burn. Thinking more clearly now, he is dismayed to discover that his mother is right—all he can smell is the unidentified stench. He can't even smell the blood on the floor or Stiles' scent, which has become so ingrained in the apartment over the past couple of months that it's always there, mixed with his own into something wonderfully soothing and right.

He can't smell whoever took his mate from him.

"This could pose a problem," Talia mutters, biting into her bottom lip.

Derek doesn't have anything else to offer, so he doesn't open his mouth. He leaves his apartment once more and spies John pacing over a short distance at the end of the hall. The older man has his phone to his ear, but Derek doesn't bother to listen in. He has already done this whole song and dance before, so he knows exactly what's coming.

His co-workers will interview him and his neighbours, people will pick through his apartment for clues they probably won't find and then there'll be a frantic search to locate Stiles before too much time passes. He knows that after the first 24 hours, the likeliness of Stiles being found decreases from unlikely to nearly impossible.

Derek sighs, leans back against the wall and waits for hell to break loose.

* * *

- The Present: Sunday, March 20th, 2016 -

Several exhausting hours later, all the evidence has been bagged and the circus is gone again. Derek stands tiredly outside of his apartment building, unwilling to go back inside for two very different reasons.

For one, the illusion of safety his apartment gave him has been shattered. Ever since he moved in it didn't feel much like home because Stiles wasn't there with him, but it was still a refuge when being around people became too much. It's so much worse now. It had finally felt like home to him thanks to Stiles finally being there with him, and now all of that is gone.

The second reason Derek doesn't want to go back inside is because he is still incensed by what he had overheard from his neighbours' interviews. Few of them were home, but those who were and professed to have heard the commotion did nothing about it. They heard the scuffle and the sound of glass breaking but couldn't be bothered to even call 911.

"It was none of my business," they'd all said.

Derek wanted to ram his arm through their chests.

John is still with him, having given instructions to his other deputies on how to integrate this event into Stiles' case.

"Come on, son," the sheriff says, putting a hand on Derek's shoulder.

"Where?"

John offers a wan smile and ushers the beta down the road to their cars, which are parked one in front of the other. "Back to mine," he replies, obviously sensing Derek's hesitance to stay in his apartment. "You can sleep in Stiles' old room and then tomorrow morning we'll see what we can do to help with the search, okay? And don't try to argue with me. I know it's hard, but neither of us will do Stiles any good if we can barely keep our eyes open."

"I suppose you're right," Derek admits reluctantly.

"You go ahead," John instructs, bringing them to a stop next to Derek's Camaro. "I'll get some of your things and be there soon, alright?"

After agreeing, Derek gets behind the wheel of his car and watches John walk back to his apartment building. Once the sheriff is out of sight, he gives himself a moment to vent his emotions and then, when his anger and grief isn't boiling dangerously and his steering wheel is slightly dented from his fists, he starts driving.

* * *

Fresh from a long shower in which he mostly just stood beneath the spray and stared at the walls, Derek hovers outside of Stiles' childhood bedroom, trying to work up the nerve to open the door. His hand has been on the knob for almost ten minutes now, so it's not going well. He doesn't think he can handle sleeping in Stiles' old bed, surrounded by nothing but his mate's faded scent and the physical reminders of what he has just lost. He doesn't think he can handle a lonely night after getting so used to having Stiles sleeping beside him.

John had disappeared into his own bedroom a long time ago, but Derek can tell that the older man is still awake and probably will be for a while longer. Derek can empathise. He doesn't know how John dealt with this, how John dealt with sleeping down the hall from his son's empty room for years without having a complete breakdown.

Maybe this was a bad idea. Derek seriously contemplates leaving, going to sleep in his own childhood bedroom at his parents' house instead, or maybe on the sofa downstairs. Either would probably be less difficult. But he doesn't. He just stands there until his flagging energy gets the better of him and he can't put it off anymore. Dreading how he will react, Derek twists the doorknob and steps inside.

He saw Stiles bedroom a couple of times after he first went missing, when he collected some of Stiles' clothes to help him cope. Apart from the dresser, the contents of which John had brought over to Derek's apartment a few weeks ago, nothing has changed since then.

It's like a time capsule.

The same dark-brown rug is positioned in the middle of the hardwood floor. The same posters are tacked up on the walls, colourful things with pictures of movie stars, video game characters, musicians and bands on them. The desk still has Stiles' schoolbooks and 2011 MacBook Pro on it. The noticeboard is still hung up above the desk, complete with flyers for events in town or at school, reminders to do homework and pictures of Stiles and Derek or Stiles and his other school friends. Stiles' Nintendo Wii is still plugged into the television, the case for Mario Kart Wii and a couple of Wii steering wheels lying beside it.

Even the bedsheets are the same, some red Marvel atrocity that Derek used to pretend to hate but secretly loved, purely because Stiles loved it. They aren't dusty or anything, so John must wash them and remake the bed on a regular basis.

The room still smells pretty much the same, too, like quintessential teenage boy—sweat, pizza rolls and Doritos and Dr Pepper, Axe body spray and even a faint trace of semen from the rare nights Stiles spent alone there and masturbated. It should be gross, but for some reason, it's not. It feels familiar to Derek, comforts him in a strange way. It takes him back to a simpler time, when things were good.

Derek stands stock-still into the centre of the room and closes his eyes. He can easily transport himself back to all the summer days he and Stiles had spent shut up in this room, playing games, watching movies and scarfing down junk food or just talking and laughing with each other. If he concentrates, Derek can still hear Stiles' laughter, the joyous, unrestrained, mellifluous sound clear as day. The memories seem to warm his entire body from his heart outward, until the room is bright and sunny and welcoming. It's a nice illusion while it lasts, but of course it doesn't last long.

Opening his eyes again, Derek is thrust right back into the darkness.

More memories and grief threaten to assault him, but he doesn't let them. With a sigh, he trudges wearily over to the bed and slides gracefully beneath the sheets. They smell strongly of whatever detergent John favours, but beneath that, embedded firmly in the mattress and pillows, is Stiles' scent. It isn't as painful as Derek thought it would be.

He lies there for a long time, staring up at the ceiling and listening to the sounds of the night. He can hear nocturnal wildlife, the distant hum of the cars of late-night drivers and even some married couple having an argument a few houses away. From his deep, even breathing and steady heartbeat, Derek knows that John has finally succumbed to his exhaustion. He wishes he could do the same.

Derek turns over onto his side and tries, but it's no use without Stiles' slumbering form beside him. He looks forlornly at the empty space until he has a thought. He doesn't dare to do it a first because it seems foolish, but then he stops giving a damn; it's not like anyone is around to judge him for it. He takes the pillows, lays them in a line parallel to his body and hugs them close.

It's a poor facsimile for Stiles. The pillows are too cold and soft, but if he closes his eyes and buries his nose in the pillow in front of his face, Derek can go back to that wonderful imaginary place where nothing hurts. The pillows harden and warm, the one he breathes against becomes the back of Stiles' neck and Stiles is there in his arms again, safe.

A smile curving his lips, Derek finally relaxes. He allows himself this one night to be weak and then, tomorrow, he'll be strong.

Tomorrow, he'll be the superhero Stiles needs.

Chapter Text

- The Past: Wednesday, November 20th, 2013 -

A couple of months down the line, Stiles lies in his bed early one morning and reminisces.

He thinks he has settled very well into his life with Adrian. Things were definitely awkward at first. Because he didn't remember anything about their life together, he never knew how to act around his alpha, was never sure what was appropriate and what wasn't. Adrian was endlessly patient with him, though, explaining clearly and concisely all the rules of the house and what was expected of him.

The rules were simple.

He can go anywhere in the house he wants, apart from Adrian's study. That room is kept locked at all times behind one of the doors in the hallway between the living room and kitchen. A safety precaution, Adrian had said, because he handled sensitive information no one else could lay their eyes upon, not even Stiles. Stiles was perfectly alright with this, because he had all the other rooms to explore and familiarise himself with. Or re-familiarise, he had supposed.

Stiles can do whatever he wants, too, within reason. He wants to watch television? He can. He wants to read a book from Adrian's mini library? He can. He wants something to eat? He can get it. He can do all of that, so long as he cleans up after himself and keeps the house tidy. The only thing he isn't permitted to do is go outside of the house by himself.

He didn't understand why at first. He wanted to feel the sunshine on his face or run through the torrents of rain he could hear hammering down on the roof on the rare occasion. But Adrian refused to let Stiles go alone and the one time he tried, Adrian caught him and got upset.

Because of the marks he'd found on his body when he first woke up, Stiles feared he would be struck. Adrian's anger, however, was quiet. After dragging him away from the front door, Adrian released him and looked at him disappointedly, and that was actually worse than the thought of violence. Stiles didn't go near the door again for fear of putting that coldness back in Adrian's eyes.

Later that evening, after the alpha had locked himself in his study for several hours, Adrian calmly sat Stiles down on the red satin sheets of his bed and explained to him why the rules were what they were.

"I'm just scared," the alpha had said, clutching Stiles' hands tightly in his own. "You could get hurt again. That would kill me."

From that point on, Stiles always made sure to follow the rules, trusting his alpha to know what was best for him. That was Adrian's job as his alpha, after all.

Stiles knows now that he was right to place his trust in Adrian, because, with the exception of the afternoon he broke one of the rules, Adrian has shown him nothing but kindness. The alpha is a very tactile person, always putting a hand on Stiles' arm when he talks or teasingly ruffling his hair or pulling him into hugs.

Stiles was delighted to discover this the first morning he awoke in his own bedroom and sought Adrian out. The man had immediately hugged him and didn't release him again for several minutes—not that Stiles was complaining. From that morning on, it became routine.

The affection surprised Stiles, especially the nature of it. Again because of his scars and bruises, he expected the touches to feel sexual, or even romantic, but they never were. They were still loving, but a platonic kind of love instead. As pretty as Adrian is to look at sometimes, Stiles preferred this for a reason he didn't know.

Pulling himself out of his memories, Stiles leaves his bed. His room is quite plain, all things considered—pale-blue walls, dark hardwood flooring, a twin-size bed with dark-blue sheets and an empty dresser. It doesn't have any personal touches, no photographs or mementos or anything that would really tell him who he used to be before he got injured and lost his memory. He thought it strange the first time he laid eyes upon it, but Adrian told him with a forlorn expression that his things were lost in a fire not long before his accident.

He barely notices this lack of personalisation now as he rubs sleep from his eyes and journeys across the hall to make use of the bathroom. Once business has been taken care of, Stiles goes to find Adrian, wanting company before the alpha shuts himself in his study to get some work done. He finds Adrian in the kitchen, dressed in his usual sleep attire and absentmindedly stirring a large saucepan of porridge on the stove. As he stirs, he stares unseeingly at the wall and mumbles to himself.

Stiles is too far away to hear what Adrian is saying. He walks closer to the alpha, which seems to be enough to force Adrian out of whatever he was doing. The man looks down at Stiles for a moment, his green eyes strangely blank before the sparkle returns to them and he smiles fondly. He lowers the heat under the saucepan and opens his arms wide, an invitation Stiles accepts gladly. The human leans into the werewolf's warmth with a contented sigh.

"Good morning, love," Adrian greets, wrapping his arms tightly around Stiles and kissing the top of his head. "Did you sleep well?"

Stiles nods into Adrian's muscular chest. The embrace always feels familiar, but Stiles is never able to determine why.

"You hungry?"

Another nod leads to Adrian pulling away to check on the porridge, so Stiles gets two bowls down from one of the cupboards and sets them down on the countertop next to the stove. This earns him another smile which sets him alight inside.

"My little helper, aren't you?" Adrian smirks.

* * *

- The Past: Sunday, May 11th, 2014 -

Eight months after coming to on Adrian's sofa, Stiles wakes up in the middle of the night with his heart beating a mile a minute and sweat soaking the sheets. He jackknifes upright and looks frantically around his dark bedroom, his breaths coming in short pants. He can't remember what he was dreaming about, but to elicit this reaction from him he is sure it must have been awful. Something tells him that, whatever it was, his dream wasn't just a dream.

As he sits there, trying to calm himself, it feels like something is touching him lightly all over his body, like ghostly fingertips. The sensation makes Stiles want to rip his own skin off.

When his breathing isn't quite so erratic, Stiles throws the damp sheets to the foot of the bed and slides off of the mattress. The floor is a welcome coolness against the soles of his feet. Despite the physical effects of his nightmare wearing off, Stiles is still scared. He pads to the door, steps out into the hallway and walks toward Adrian's bedroom.

Adrian will know how to help, Stiles is certain.

He slowly opens the alpha's door and peers inside. It takes a few seconds for his human eyes to see through the darkness, but Adrian's slumbering form soon comes into focus. The man's ridiculously long body is spread diagonally across his bed, with his head just missing the pillows and one arm and both feet hanging off of the mattress. The position doesn't look that comfortable, but Adrian's rest doesn't appear hampered by it at all.

Stiles watches his alpha sleep for some time before lowering his gaze to the floor and ruminating on the best way to approach Adrian and wake him up. Just walking up to him and shaking him seems rude, but Stiles can't think of anything else. Perhaps he can simply slip into Adrian's bed without having to go through all of that trouble—just having the alpha by his side will probably be enough to soothe him.

Settling on this, Stiles comes out of his thoughts and is startled to discover that Adrian's soft snores have cut off. The alpha reaches for the lamp on his bedside table, switches it on and then turns onto his side, propping himself up on his elbow.

"Stiles?" Adrian croaks, squinting at his unexpected visitor. "What's wrong?"

The human boy blinks back at the alpha. He is unsure how to respond, but thankfully he doesn't have to try to explain.

"D'you have a nightmare?" Adrian continues, concerned.

Stiles nods slowly, suddenly feeling ashamed.

"Hey now, none of that. Come here." When Adrian holds out his hand, Stiles walks slowly over to the bed and allows himself to be drawn onto it. Adrian pulls the sheets over both of them and has Stiles curl into his side, Stiles' head resting on his chest. "That better?"

Stiles nods again, listening carefully to the steady rhythm of Adrian's heartbeat.

"Don't feel bad about needing me," the alpha whispers, stroking his fingers gently through Stiles' hair. "I have nightmares too from time to time, so believe me when I say I know how awful they can be. If you have more, don't be afraid to seek me out right away, okay? I enjoy taking care of you, so I swear I won't mind."

Feeling safe, Stiles finds it easy to drift off again. His sleep is restful.

* * *

- The Present: Sunday, March 20th, 2016 -

The morning after the break-in, Derek is up with the sun. The shock and weakness he experienced the night before has worn off and he is now left with nothing but determination. He stands in the kitchen, waiting patiently for John to come downstairs and accompany him to the station. He can hear the older man puttering around on the floor above, getting dressed, brushing his teeth and making a phone call. Derek doesn't listen in but pours himself a second cup of coffee and fills another travel mug for John to save them both time. He moves in the foyer with them in his hands.

Finally, several minutes later, the sheriff joins Derek on the ground floor.

"I've been up for most of the night thinking," he says by way of greeting, accepting his coffee with a grateful nod.

"About?" Derek plays along, glancing at the door when John doesn't open it.

"Something about the timing of all of this feels off to me. I don't think it's a coincidence that this happened right after I paid a visit to that pack up in Modoc County," John expounds, taking a sip of his steaming beverage. "I know you've left Stiles by himself in your apartment before and nothing bad happened, so what reason would whoever took Stiles have to strike now? No, I must've been getting too close to something, and that was their impetus."

Derek nods his agreement. "You think they're responsible?"

"I'd say it's highly likely. I was on the phone to Parrish just now. They're not done with all the evidence yet, but I don't want to just sit around until they are and they tell us they've got nothing." John's eyes are like steel when he looks at Derek. "I knew something was off—I knew it—but I did nothing because I didn't have just cause. Screw that... I don't care about playing by the rules anymore."

Derek is mildly surprised but shrugs it off. He doesn't care either.

"Come on. Let's get going," John says, tearing open the front door and stepping out into the early-morning sun.

Derek hurries to catch up. "I'll call my mom. She'll want to come, too, and the more strength we have on our side, the better. She can tear them apart."

* * *

In the end, it isn't just Talia who joins Derek and John on their campaign. The entire Hale family tags along—Nicolas, Laura and her husband Nathan, Cora, and even Peter. Derek's parents and uncle go with John in the cruiser, while his sisters and brother-in-law accompany him in his Camaro. It's a tense drive in which there is hardly a word exchanged. Everything that needed to be said had already been said when they were all picked up, and even that was too much for Derek.

He catches his passengers exchanging the occasional glance of well-meant concern for him and grits his teeth. He doesn't blame them, not really. He would be just as concerned were they in his shoes, but as it is, the glances just annoy him. He doesn't want coddling.

He just wants Stiles.

Eventually, their little convoy enters Modoc County. Derek tightens his fingers around his dented steering wheel when they pass the road sign, knowing that the moment of confrontation is drawing nearer. He looks forward to it, has been waiting a long, long time for someone he can hold accountable for all of this.

The thought of what Stiles could be going through the longer it takes to rescue him runs through his head in an endless loop, rousing within him a rage he hasn't ever felt. He thinks back to what he said to John about his mother tearing Austin's pack apart and amends it in his mind.

He will be the one tearing them apart and savouring it.

"Is that them?" Laura asks, pointing.

The question pulls Derek out of his vivid fantasies of blood and viscera. He follows his sister's finger and spots a familiar black truck parked a little farther along the road. He can just make out the figures of a short-haired man and a young girl standing by the back of it, sorting through something.

"Yeah, that's them," he answers.

Derek pulls his car to a stop behind the truck. John does the same with his cruiser.

"Quite a group you've brought," Chris comments as Derek and John approach on foot. "I wasn't expecting you to bring your entire family with you."

"Then you're not very smart," Derek responds rudely, in no mood for the hunter's sass.

"That's cute."

"Gentlemen, please," Talia sighs, having caught up with her son. "I know things are strained at the moment, but let's not have infighting."

John puts a hand on Derek's shoulder and then turns back to Chris and Allison. "Tell us everything you've learned."

"Well..." Chris hesitates. He shares a significant look with his daughter.

Derek finds this behaviour odd. Granted, he has only had a couple of interactions with Chris since they were introduced, but never has he seen the older man be anything other than cocky and self-assured.

He narrows his eyes suspiciously. "Come on, we're wasting enough time standing around out here as it is. Just tell us. Did you manage to find out what Austin was hiding or not?"

"What my dad is trying to tell you is," Allison says carefully, her tone measured and even, "we didn't need to find anything out about Austin's pack. We've known they have Aiden, Ethan and Danny since before we came to you guys."

Derek stares at her, aghast. "You've what?"

"We've known—"

"Oh, I heard you. I just can't believe you," Derek spits.

"You mean to tell me you've known where the twins were this whole time, even when I told you we were looking for them, and you said nothing about it?" John questions, all calmness vanishing. His voice starts out quiet but gets louder and angrier the longer he goes on, until he is nose to nose with Chris. "You mean to tell me we could've found them months ago, possibly solved this damn case already and avoided my son being taken. Again?!"

No one sees what's coming until it's too late to stop it. His anger reaching its boiling point, John reels back his fist and punches Chris right in the face, sending him stumbling back a couple of paces.

It's madness for a few moments.

Allison tends to her father, while Talia and Nicolas each grab one of John's arms to prevent him from lunging at Chris again. Laura looks scandalised, Nathan looks uncomfortable, Cora is grinning and Peter stands off to the side and regards them all with disinterest. Derek himself is vindictively pleased with what has just happened and doesn't feel bad at all when Chris raises his head and reveals a bloody nose.

"John, calm down!" Talia hisses into the sheriff's ear.

"Why? You heard what they said!"

"Yes, but think, John."

"About what?!"

"Think about what's important here: getting Stiles back," Talia gently reminds the sheriff. "We have a better chance with them than without."

John relents, but everyone can tell he would love nothing more than to punch Chris again.

"I don't regret making the choices I made, but for what it's worth, I'm sorry about your son," the hunter says, releasing his nose with a pinched expression. It no longer bleeds, so he takes the tissue Allison gives him and starts cleaning himself up. "I just couldn't risk you getting hot-headed and ruining things before Aiden could find out who is in charge. But things are unravelling now, so I suppose caution doesn't really matter anymore."

John is eerily silent for a moment, and then he promises, "If we don't get Stiles back alive, I'll kill you."

"O-kay!" Nicolas says loudly, a forced smile on his face, "how about we move on, hmm? What's the plan?"

* * *

Aiden is washing the dishes after dinner when it starts.

At first, he doesn't really register that something is happening. He hears three engines in the distance but tunes them out, expecting them to drive right on past like everyone else who ventures this far out into the middle of nowhere. He doesn't realise the engines are getting closer instead of farther away until they cut off right outside of the house, at which point he freezes elbow-deep in sudsy water and listens more closely. He picks up almost a dozen new heartbeats and hopes they don't belong to friends of Austin.

That's when the front door explodes, sending splinters of wood flying everywhere. Aiden is glad he's too far away for them to hit him.

Austin comes barrelling down the stairs in nothing but a pair of jeans, his claws already out. Frankie, Luther and James emerge from the living room, all similarly prepared for battle. The dust settles and strangers storm inside the house with claws and fangs of their own, eyes blazing. Aiden stays in the kitchen, watching the ensuing chaos with his feet firmly glued to the floor.

It takes him a while to figure out who the intruders are because everything is happening so fast and the fighting is so loud; growls, gunshots and pained screams fill the air. Most of them look like they could be related and are fellow werewolves, which is Aiden's first clue. His second comes in the form of the bearded, leather-wearing beta he faintly remembers seeing with Stiles Stilinski before he abducted him.

And then Aiden spots Chris and Allison Argent fighting alongside the others, the final piece of the puzzle. He doesn't know why this is happening, but now that he has caught up he is quick to act.

His first thought is to get to his brother. Aiden dashes toward the stairs, ducking when a body sails through the air and lands motionless against the wall. He stops briefly to see that it's Luther and then keeps going. On the second floor, Aiden kicks open Ethan's locked bedroom door and barges inside. He finds his twin cowering in the corner.

"Come on!" Aiden yells above the noise, pulling him up.

"Why? What's happening?!"

"You're gonna protect Danny, that's what's happening!" Aiden pushes his brother in the direction of Austin's bedroom. "Go! I'll be back!"

Once he is sure that Ethan is safe behind Austin's door, Aiden heads back downstairs, toward the sounds of violence. Luther is still out cold on the hallway floor, so Aiden leaps over him and runs into the living room.

It's a mess, furniture knocked over or—in the case of one of the sofas—torn clean in half. Frankie and James still fight two female werewolves, one close to Aiden's age and the other a bit older, and another male werewolf around the same age as the older female.

James is facing away from him, so while he is preoccupied blocking a blow from the youngest intruder, Aiden leaps on his back, causing him to careen forward. The girl takes advantage of this and copies Aiden. Together they weigh too much for James' legs to support and he crumples. In a move that amazes Aiden, the girl uses the momentum of the fall to make sure James bashes his head hard on the floor. He joins Luther in unconsciousness.

"Cora! A little help here!" the elder female shouts from where she fights Frankie.

"Thanks," the girl, Cora, says to Aiden, before assisting the other intruder.

Certain that Frankie is going to lose now that it's three against one, Aiden goes in search of Austin and the other interlopers. He tracks them to the back garden, a place Aiden has only seen but never been inside of until now. It's overgrown with weeds and a few colourful flowers, but none of that matters to him.

Austin is clearly a force to be reckoned with, proving right the impression Aiden got when he first met him. He is still standing even though he is outnumbered. He fights against three werewolves, two male and one female. The female's hair whips around her face as she moves, obscuring it, but Aiden still glimpses her red eyes. The other two werewolves are betas. The younger one—Derek, Aiden recalls then—is putting up more of a fight than the other, who doesn't seem like he is really trying to beat Austin at all.

Lying on the ground a few metres away from the scrap is Allison Argent. Chris is crouched next to her, holding a blood-soaked piece of his shirt to a wound in her side. Their guns and knives lie around them, useless. Also nearby are two middle-aged men, one human and one werewolf. The human—Aiden thinks he might be Stiles' dad—helps the other nurse a broken leg. Aiden spares them all a passing glance before refocusing on the battle.

"How much longer do you think you can keep this up?!" the female alpha shouts at Austin.

"Baby, I can go all night!" Austin fires back, his vicious expression a contrast to his flirtatious words.

Aiden chooses then to join the fray.

He darts beneath Derek's outstretched arm and throws himself recklessly at Austin, hoping to act again as a distraction.

"You fucking brat!" Austin growls.

Aiden cries out as claws rake across his back. The pain forces him to let go, but he doesn't stop. He lunges again, attacking in tandem with Derek. They both grab one of Austin's arms in hopes of immobilising him, but Austin just throws them off like they weigh nothing and rounds on Derek. The female alpha steps in front of him before he can do anything and the two crash to the ground.

They're a blur to Aiden, the two alphas attacking each other too quickly for him to make out much detail. He thinks he sees Austin attempting to claw out the other's throat, but she deflects each attempt. She ends up on her back with Austin above her, his arm poised to strike again, but she pulls her knees up to her chest and shoves him off of her with her feet.

Immediately she and Derek are on him. Derek manages to hold Austin still long enough for the female alpha to punch Austin unconscious, bringing an end to the fighting. Only the sounds of laboured breathing and the occasional groan of pain from Allison and the beta with the broken leg remain.

"Is that everyone?" Derek pants, releasing Austin's limp form.

"I think so," the female alpha replies.

Derek falls back on his ass and turns to Aiden, who is trying not to move too much while the wounds on his back slowly heal. "Aiden," he says, his eyes hardening a fraction, "we have some things to talk about."

Chapter Text

- The Past: Friday, February 6th, 2015 -

After the first time, Stiles doesn’t come across Adrian staring off into space and talking quietly to himself again for a while. The unusual occurrence slipped Stiles’ mind almost as soon as it had happened, but he is reminded of it when he enters the living room one evening over a year later.

He is ready to watch a film or two with Adrian—as has become their weekly tradition—but instead of being greeted by the alpha waiting for him on the sofa like usual, he finds Adrian standing in the middle of the room with the same distant look in his eyes he’d had that time in the kitchen. Adrian doesn’t even seem to notice Stiles, just keeps standing there looking blankly at the wall, his mouth moving around indecipherable words. The television is switched on and the menu screen for the final Harry Potter film is displayed, the music playing on a loop, so whatever is wrong with Adrian must have come on suddenly.

Stiles moves in front of the alpha and looks up at him. He still can’t make out what Adrian is saying, and that just makes it all the more disconcerting. Hoping to snap the man out of whatever trance he is in, Stiles raises his hand and waves it back and forth in front of Adrian’s eyes, but Adrian doesn’t even blink.

He hasn’t blinked the whole time Stiles has been in the room.

Placing his hand on Adrian’s shoulder, Stiles shakes him gently at first and then again with more force, but that, too, gets no reaction. All it does is cause the television remote to fall from Adrian’s hand. It hits the floor with a clatter and slides beneath the coffee table.

Stepping back again and looking down at where his bare toes peek out from beneath the loose hems of his sweatpants, Stiles isn’t sure what else he can do. He doesn’t want to do anything more to Adrian because he doesn’t want to hurt him even a little bit, but he also doesn’t want Adrian to stay in this unnerving state. Considering his options, Stiles doesn’t notice that the mumbling has stopped until fingers run through his hair. Jerking his head up, he stares into Adrian’s eyes, which are filled with awareness again. He could cry with relief.

“Hey, what’s wrong?” Adrian frowns, moving his hand down from Stiles’ hair to grasp the back of his neck.

Stiles just shakes his head and hugs the alpha fiercely. Adrian goes stiff with surprise for a moment before he gets with the programme and wraps his arms around Stiles’ smaller body. They stand there for a while and then Stiles pulls away.

“You sure you’re okay?” Adrian asks.

Stiles nods and bends down to retrieve the TV remote. He gives it back to the alpha, who gets the message.

“Movie time, huh?” Adrian says with a grin.

* * *

- The Past: Saturday, May 16th, 2015 -

It’s getting worse.

More and more often, Stiles will find Adrian mumbling, unaware of his surroundings. It takes longer for the man to come back to himself with each recurrence, but when Stiles tried once to say that he was worried, opening his mouth for the first time in his short memory and beginning to croak out a question, he was angrily rebuffed. He hadn’t seen Adrian like that since he nearly left the house by himself, so he shut up and ignored it. It wasn’t really a problem, he told himself. Adrian seemed perfectly fine otherwise. This was just one of the alpha’s quirks.

Stiles finds out how wrong he is when he hears Adrian shouting his name one evening. He sets down the book he is reading, gets up from the living room sofa and follows his alpha’s voice to the kitchen. Adrian stands in front of the sink with his hands on his hips and a fire in his eyes that keeps Stiles from coming too close.

“What is this?” Adrian asks, jabbing his finger at the sink.

Looking past the man, Stiles bites his bottom lip when he sees the dirty dishes from dinner.

“You were supposed to do these hours ago, Stiles. You know I hate mess,” the alpha reminds him, his voice low and growly. The fire in his eyes intensifies to an almost manic level as he stalks forward.

Stiles is too stunned to move. This isn’t the Adrian he knows and has come to care for deeply. Adrian grabs his forearm so tightly that he cries out as the bones grind together. The sound, which he knows would have had Adrian fretting over him under normal circumstances, does nothing to break whatever spell the alpha is under. Adrian just drags him forward and shoves him at the sink. He hits the edge hard and the air is knocked from his lungs. He almost falls over but manages to stop himself by grasping the counter.

“Take care of it,” Adrian orders before leaving the room.

Stiles doesn’t turn to look after the alpha, but he gets the implicit threat loud and clear. He turns on the hot tap and retrieves the rubber gloves that are kept in the cupboard beneath the sink. His arm and ribs protest the movement but he doesn’t pause, not even when tears come and make it hard to see what he is doing.

* * *

In recent months, Stiles’ nightmares have had him going straight to Adrian’s room every night instead of his own, but what happened earlier has left him feeling unsure. He stands in the hallway and warily eyes Adrian's bedroom door. It had closed a while ago, but Stiles knows from the sounds coming from behind it that the alpha hasn’t gone to bed yet.

With a wince, he rolls up the long sleeve of his midnight-blue nightshirt and looks at the finger-shaped bruises circling his forearm. They’re already dark and will only get darker. His left side is the same, a low, constant ache that is oddly familiar. He rolls his sleeve back down and holds his hand lightly over his ribs, thinking hard. Perhaps he got hurt in a similar fashion before his accident—or perhaps even during it—and that’s why he is experiencing this sense of déjà vu. Yes, that must be it.

Stiles keeps standing there until the door to Adrian’s bedroom opens.

“You’ve been standing out here for ten minutes,” the tall man comments, poking his head out. “S’going on?”

Adrian’s gaze holds nothing but true concern, which makes Stiles even more confused. He struggles to reconcile the calm, loving Adrian he has come to know with the cruel Adrian he encountered earlier. He can’t figure out if they are really the same person, if the cruel one is just a side Stiles has been lucky enough to never bring out until now.

He must stand there for too long without responding, his hand still held over his ribs, because Adrian’s countenance becomes even more worried and he approaches Stiles. His eyes fill with hurt when Stiles takes an instinctive step away from him.

“Stiles?” Adrian whispers. “What is it?”

Finally lowering his hand, Stiles shakes his head and steps forward again. He makes himself keep going until he and Adrian are within touching distance of each other. He offers the alpha a smile he hopes is reassuring, shepherds Adrian back into his bedroom and gently closes the door behind them. Adrian still looks worried but he doesn’t ask again whether Stiles is alright.

Once they’re lying in bed with the lights turned off, Adrian shuffles up behind Stiles and spoons him, a heavy arm thrown over his side. Stiles clenches his jaw to keep in the pained noise that almost slips out because of the pressure on his ribs. He looks off into the darkness as his bedmate gradually drifts off, still trying to figure out what happened earlier. Adrian doesn't appear to remember what he did, so Stiles decides that his Adrian and the angry Adrian are like two people living inside the same head, almost alike but still different in the worst ways. He hopes he doesn’t come across the bad one ever again.

He just has to work harder.

* * *

- The Past: Thursday, July 9th, 2015 -

So far, things with Adrian seem to have returned to normal. Stiles hasn’t seen so much as a glimpse of the cruel version of the alpha his forgetfulness brought out before. Adrian will still zone out from time to time, but Stiles is getting used to it; it isn’t as upsetting anymore, so he just waits for each instance to pass and things carry on as normal.

It isn’t until two months after the kitchen incident that his comfortable and mostly happy life is disrupted again. This time, it isn’t something as simple as a nightmare that sends him into Adrian’s bed, or a broken rule that leads to a few hours of distance. Stiles has made good on his promise to himself to do better, to follow every rule Adrian has set and carry out every task given to him to as close to perfection as he can pull off.

No, what Stiles sees throws everything he thinks he knows into question.

He is flipping through the TV channels with disinterest one evening when he comes across a news report about a drug ring in Beacon County, California, being busted earlier in the day. In a case that spanned months, it took hundreds of hours of tireless work put in by several different police forces to gather the necessary intel, organise the undercover operations and pull off the raid that took it all down.

At first, the report is just mildly interesting to Stiles, but when it switches from the reporter to footage captured during the aftermath of the raid, something catches Stiles’ attention in a big way. Very briefly, in the background of one of the shots is a man with dark hair who is dressed in a dull beige uniform. Not much detail can be seen because the man isn’t close to the camera, but Stiles sees enough to get a strange sensation in his chest.

He rewinds the footage, pauses it on the clearest frame of the man he can find and slides off of the sofa to get closer to the TV. Stiles can just about make out the man’s features; he has a sharp nose, thick eyebrows and what Stiles had originally thought to be just stubble is really a neatly trimmed beard which perfectly accents his strong jawline. His considerable muscles are not hidden at all by his uniform—the shirt stretches across his chest and the sleeves are short, showing off his large biceps and the dark hairs on his forearms.

At first, Stiles believes that what has drawn him to this man is nothing more than his appearance. It’s obvious even from the slightly blurry image on the TV screen that the man is the definition of masculine beauty. Stiles feels bad for thinking it, but not even Adrian measures up to him and, although there has never been anything romantic between the two of them, Stiles has always liked looking at Adrian.

When he sits back down on the sofa, lets the report play on and tries to put the man out of his mind, Stiles finds that he can’t. It’s not just the man’s beauty, he realises. Something else about the man calls to him, something he can’t see.

And Stiles has to listen.

* * *

- The Present: Sunday, March 20th, 2016 -

Once Austin and his betas are all tied up securely with wolfsbane rope taken from Chris Argent’s truck and all injuries have been treated, Derek leaves his family downstairs to keep watch over their captives. He and John go to search the rest of the house, taking Aiden with them. The young man is shifty and nervous as he leads them up the stairs to the second floor, so Derek makes sure to keep an eye on him, the thought that he was the one who took Stiles never leaving his mind.

“Is this where they kept you?” John asks as they pass a broken-in door in a long hallway. Derek sees nothing but a mattress inside.

“That was Ethan’s room,” Aiden answers. He points to the door opposite. “That was mine.”

“Where is your brother?”

“In Austin’s bedroom, with Danny. Over here.”

Aiden shows Derek and John to the door at the end of the hall. He knocks on it and calls for Ethan, and a few seconds later there comes the sound of a lock turning. Aiden grabs the handle and opens the door.

“It’s alright,” he says quietly as he steps inside, John and Derek trailing after him. “It’s over now. Austin can’t hurt us anymore.”

“Really?” comes a nearly identical voice. The only difference is the tone, so cautiously hopeful that it grips Derek’s heart like a vice.

“Really.”

Edging further into the room, Derek spots Aiden’s twin sitting in the middle of a king-size bed. Next to him is a Hawaiian boy Derek recognises as Danny, but barely. This Danny is a lot different than the one he had seen in photographs—his muscles have shrunk in the time since he was kidnapped and his tanned skin has a pallor to it that speaks of malnutrition. His eyes are glassy and vacant, even as a tearful Ethan grips his hand to the point where it must be painful, and the bags beneath them are huge.

Danny's modesty is protected by the bedsheets, but Derek can still see that he has marks all over his body similar to the ones Stiles now bears. Bruises that were made by rough hands and scars caused by claws and fangs. It’s a sorry sight from which Derek has to look away.

Ethan uses the back of his free hand to wipe his cheeks of his tears. “Who are they?” he enquires, looking nervously at Derek and John.

“They’re, uh...” Aiden trails off, looking uncertain himself now.

John takes pity on him. “My name is John Stilinski,” he explains kindly. “I’m a sheriff down in Beacon Hills. This is Derek Hale, one of my deputies and a beta in the local pack. We’ve been looking for you for a while now.”

Ethan glances at his twin. “Y-you have?”

“We have. Sorry it took us so long, but Chris Argent didn’t tell us where you were until today.” The hunter’s name comes out in a growl, John’s anger at Chris’ secrecy still apparent.

“Who’s Chris?” Ethan blinks, confused.

This gives John pause. He turns to Aiden. “He doesn’t know?”

Aiden shakes his head slowly. “I didn’t want to get his hopes up if I didn’t get the info I needed or I was caught.”

“I see.”

“Well I don’t,” Ethan frowns. “Aiden, what’s he talking about?”

Aiden scratches guiltily at the back of his neck. “When Austin got rid of Stiles, I—“

“Wait,” Derek interrupts, stepping forward with narrowed eyes. “Stiles was here? When?”

Aiden takes a step away from Derek, keeping the same amount of distance between them. “For a few months, about three years ago,” he responds quietly. “Austin bought him because he knew it would get to me. I guess it kind of backfired on him though, since Stiles being here is a big part of what made me decide to try to get us out. It lead to me finding the Argents.”

Ethan just looks even more baffled. “But why would Stiles being here affect you? You didn’t do anything.”

“That’s not exactly true, is it Aiden?” Derek accuses.

Ethan looks at Derek strangely before turning to his brother. “Aiden?” When the other boy refuses to meet his gaze, he pushes harder. “I thought we didn’t keep secrets from each other. If that’s still true, tell me why Austin bringing Stiles here would affect you.”

“Because I’m the one who took him, okay?!” Aiden yells, his head snapping up. A lone tear trails down his left cheek. “I’m the one who took him! I’m the one who took all the other teenagers these bastards have been fucking up over the past five years, just like Austin has fucked up Danny. I didn’t want to do it, but I had to or else Austin would’ve killed you! There. Are you happy now?”

By the end of his rant, Aiden is breathing heavily and Ethan looks horrified. Derek and John stand there awkwardly, neither of them wanting to interrupt the tense moment between the two brothers.

“Aiden...” Ethan breathes. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I didn't want you to blame yourself or look at me the way you’re looking at me right now,” Aiden sniffles, wiping his face.

Neither twin seems to know what to say. They just stare at each other, so John gently changes the topic. “Clearly there’s a lot here that needs to be processed, but I’m afraid we don’t really have the time,” he says, walking around the bed until Danny’s blank face is visible. His eyes flick down to something on the wrinkled bedsheets and he clenches his jaw.

Curious, Derek joins him and realisation sweeps over him when he spies the empty syringe lying beside Danny. That explains why he isn’t with it, Derek thinks.

“First thing’s first,” John says after releasing a breath. His sheriff persona takes over, easily allowing him to take control of the situation. “We need to get him out of here and get him seen by a medical professional. From these marks on his elbows, he’s been being drugged for some time and I’m concerned about the damage this could’ve done to his system. He’s your mate, right?” he asks Ethan, who nods. “We’ll get all the evidence we need to track down the people who did this and then call an ambulance.”

“I’m not leaving him,” Ethan asserts sharply, clutching tighter to Danny’s hand.

“I know. I’m not asking you to. You can go with him in the ambulance,” John assures. He turns to Aiden. “Let’s go back downstairs. Like Derek said before, we have some more things we need to talk about.”

Derek gestures for Aiden to go ahead of him and then shadows him, leaving Ethan with Danny. Nothing has changed down in the living room. Austin and his three betas are still unconscious with Talia, Nicolas and Laura watching them and Allison is still recovering from her wounds on the sofa, but Derek doesn’t really care. Without a second glance he keeps walking into the kitchen with Aiden and John, where Chris joins them. They all sit facing each other at a small table. Again, no one seems to be know how to begin, so Derek, frustrated with all the stopping and starting, urges things along by raising his eyebrow impatiently at Chris.

The hunter rolls his eyes. “Just ask us what you want to know.”

Gradually, guided by the questions Derek and John pose, Aiden and Chris explain everything that they have done over the past few years, how they had eavesdropped and tracked down as many of the people involved as they could. Nothing really stands out above everything else, but Derek’s interest is piqued when Aiden describes the short conversation he had overheard when he was dropping a girl off at the facility to be beaten and broken down. He shares Aiden’s theory that the second male voice he had heard belonged to the leader of the whole thing, but he is disappointed when Aiden isn’t able to produce a name or even a single detail of his appearance.

“I’ve never seen him, and I only heard him that one time,” the young beta says despondently.

“That’s alright. Just tell us what you do know,” John instructs.

When Aiden describes the alpha who always meets him at the facility, a great brute of a man with buzzed-short hair, Derek feels hope again. Something about this description sounds familiar, but he can’t quite recall why until his mother suddenly appears in the kitchen. He didn’t hear her approaching because he was entrenched in his own head, so he jumps when she speaks from the doorway.

“That sounds like Ennis,” Talia says, frowning.

Derek’s eyes widen, her words slotting the pieces together. “It does,” he corroborates.

“Who is Ennis?” John asks.

“He’s one of the alphas I meet up with every now and then to discuss important matters,” Talia answers, holding her hand to her chin. “If he really is who Aiden has been meeting, then this is deeply concerning. I’ve told him a lot about Stiles.”

“You’ve told all the other alphas a lot about Stiles,” Derek points out fearfully.

“I have. If Ennis is involved, then...”

“Then the others could be as well,” John finishes, catching on. He stands up abruptly, the legs of his chair screeching against the floor. “We need to figure out if they are.”

Talia produces her phone. “Should I call them?”

“Don’t tell them anything that could give away that we know. We don’t want to give them a head start.”

One by one, Talia calls every alpha who was present at the meeting Derek attended at the diner. Geoff and Marc answer right away, as do Poppy and Trinity. Talia makes it seem like she is just checking in, asking them if they have heard anything new about Stiles’ first disappearance back in 2011 since the last time she called. None of them say they have, so Talia keeps the phone calls short and sweet.

“If they’re lying, they’re very good at it,” she says, hanging up after saying goodbye to Trinity.

“What does your gut tell you?” Derek asks.

“I think we’re good so far. Now, on to the next one...”

A contrast to Geoff and Marc, Kali doesn’t answer her phone at all. Talia postulates that she could simply be busy, but Derek can tell she doesn’t really believe that. From the impression he got of Kali from their one interaction, Derek doesn’t believe it either. Attempts to contact Deucalion and Ennis end similarly, which Derek takes as close to a confirmation as they’re going to get.

“I must admit, I’ve never really liked Kali or Ennis,” Talia opines, looking down at the screen of her phone with a pensive expression. “It makes sense for them to be involved. Deucalion, though... If he’s involved, too, I’d never have suspected him. I trust him, or at least I thought I did, but I suppose it does make a sick sort of sense. He, Kali and Ennis have always been closest with each other.”

Derek ponders all of this. “Where do we go from here, then?”

John looks to Aiden. “Can you take us to where you took the teenagers you abducted?” he asks, his gentle tone not placing blame. “We never could pinpoint it.”

Aiden shifts anxiously in his chair but nods. “I guess.”

“Then we start there.”

Once everyone has agreed, John takes Aiden outside to his cruiser while Derek, Talia and Chris stay in the living room. Austin and his betas are still out cold against the wall, which Derek is glad to see. “What do we do with this lot? We can’t exactly take them with us.”

“You don’t need them anymore, no?” Chris asks.

“I don’t think so.”

The smile that appears on the hunter’s face is unsettling. “Don’t worry then. We have contacts for things like this,” he says vaguely.

“But—“

“No, no, you just leave it to me.”

When the front door is closed minutes later, leaving Chris and Allison alone with Austin and his betas, Derek is left with nothing to do but follow his sisters.

“Alright, Aiden is going to give me directions,” John briefs the assembled group, his booming voice making everyone turn to him and pay attention. “Derek will follow us in his car until we get there. Let’s go find my son.”

Chapter Text

- The Past: Friday, July 10th, 2015 -

The next day, the strange man from the news report is still front and centre in Stiles' thoughts. He has to find out more about him; who he is, where he is from. The only problem is, how is Stiles supposed to go about doing so? It takes him hours to come up with a flimsy plan, and even then it's only because Adrian suddenly announces over lunch that he is going out for a few hours.

Stiles waits anxiously until he is alone to put his plan into action.

Adrian has a computer in his study, Stiles knows. He has still never been allowed inside, but he has seen a few flashes of the room before Adrian shuts the door behind himself. He doesn't remember using a computer before, but something tells him that if he wants to find out more about the man he saw on the news report the previous afternoon, he should start there.

When he is sure that Adrian won't be returning to grab something he had forgotten on his way out, Stiles goes into the alpha's bedroom—which has basically become their bedroom—and attempts to remember where Adrian keeps his spare keys. The man had shown them to him just once, about a week after he woke up on the sofa. They're for emergencies, like if there's a fire when Adrian isn't home and Stiles needs to get outside to safety, but on the keyring is a copy of every key in the house. Including the key to Adrian's study.

It's hazy, but Stiles recalls the alpha showing him something in the dresser, so that's where he checks first. He goes through all of its drawers, carefully rifling through Adrian's clothes in search of a glint of metal. The two dedicated to trousers and T-shirts are busts, as is the drawer in which Adrian stores his sweaters, scarves and other assorted winter wear. Stiles' face turns bright-red when he reaches Adrian's underwear drawer. The intimacy of fondling the small pieces of clothing is embarrassing, so much so that he finds it difficult to keep from averting his eyes.

Eventually, thanks to stubborn persistence, Stiles finds that the underwear drawer is as much of a dead end as all the others, so he gladly closes it. That just leaves Adrian's sock drawer. His enthusiasm lessened by how fruitless his search has been so far, his questing becomes more perfunctory and Stiles almost misses it when his fingers brush against something hard and jagged right at the back.

Blinking with dumb surprise, Stiles pushes aside a rolled-up pair of black socks and grins proudly to himself when he finds the keyring. Snapping it up, he slams the drawer shut and races out of the bedroom to Adrian's study. The keys are all labelled, so he doesn't have to waste more time searching for the one that will unlock the door.

Adrian's study is just as he remembers it from the glimpses. It's a large room, filled with things Stiles would love to inspect past a cursory glance were he not on a time limit. The walls are the same off-white as the living room, but the light in the middle of the ceiling casts a yellowish glow over them, making the paint seem warmer. The right side of the room is taken up by six cardboard boxes stacked on top of each other. There is no writing on the outside of any of them, so Stiles is clueless as to their contents. To the immediate left there is a black two-seater sofa positioned next to a small fireplace with a protective silver grille, and farther along the wall is a plain dark-wood desk with a blue swivel chair tucked beneath it.

On top of the desk is a printer and what Stiles is looking for—Adrian's computer, an old and slightly scuffed-up iMac.

Hurrying over to the desk, Stiles sits down and discovers a kink in his plan: he has no clue how to turn it on. He spends too many minutes looking for the small power button, and by the time he finds it on the lower-right corner of the back of the screen, he is cursing whoever designed it. The machine powers up with a loud sound, the white screen blinding him momentarily until his eyes get used to the brightness.

While the computer loads up, Stiles looks away from the screen to grab the mouse to his right, an automatic action which tells him he has used a computer like this before. But when he looks back at the screen, he is struck by the image Adrian is using as his background. It looks almost like a family photograph, a group of nine people of varying ages crowded on and around a sofa in an unfamiliar room. Every one of them smiles at the camera, some more widely than others.

At the very centre is Adrian. The alpha was several years younger when the photograph was taken. His hair was short and his muscles were less developed, but even from the still shot Stiles can see that Adrian carried himself with confidence. From this and his position in the middle of the image, Stiles deduces that Adrian was still an alpha back then.

But who are all the other people?

Stiles squints at their faces. Surrounding Adrian are five females and three other males. The youngest, a little girl with both of her lower front teeth missing, is around six years old, if Stiles had to guess. The oldest, a man with the same red hair as Adrian, seems to be in his forties or fifties. The resemblance between them has Stiles thinking that this man is Adrian's father.

They all seem so happy, even the ones with smaller smiles; the happiness just shines from their eyes instead. Stiles almost doesn't want to look away, but he does. He'll come back to it later, if he has time.

His eyes falling to the bottom of the screen, Stiles moves the little black mouse cursor over all of the icons there. They're confusing and colourful and he doesn't know which one to try first, so he begins with the very first, a strange blue-and-grey thing that looks a bit like a smiling face.

A window appears, taking up the left side of the screen. Inside is a list of files and folders, all named and seemingly organised meticulously by date. One folder in particular, titled 'Family', stands out above the others, but this isn't what he wants right now. Stiles clicks on the second icon along the bottom of the screen and is rewarded with a much larger window which this time takes up the entirety of the screen. Along the top are a couple of thin bars and in the centre is a group of eight boxes with the text 'Frequently Visited Sites' hovering above.

With what he was searching for right in front of him, Stiles thinks back to the news report and, in the bar at the top of the page, types what he remembers, his out-of-practice fingers moving slowly over the keyboard. All of this comes instinctively to him, too. He has never given it much thought before, but he wonders now when the last time he used a computer was. Before his accident, obviously, but why has Adrian not let him use one since?

Putting the question aside, Stiles refocuses on the screen and reads through the page of search results Google has given him. It's quite an extensive list, featuring many different websites. Stiles has a difficult time choosing between them, so he just selects one at random and waits for it to load. The article that shows up seems promising, covering a drug bust in someplace called Beacon County.

The details are vague, but Stiles still manages to weed out the information he wants. Armed with the names of the police forces who took part in the case, he exits the webpage and performs a new search. He works his way through all the forces, on the hunt for a familiar uniform. He finds it eventually, the boring beige thing he had seen the strangely alluring man wearing on TV.

The website for the Beacon Hills Sheriff's Department is Stiles' next stop. It's a simple thing with little flash—appropriate, Stiles thinks. A few clicks reveals that there isn't a list of employees readily available, which makes sense but irritates Stiles nevertheless. It would have made things easier. As it is, the website does have a page for awards and commendations received by the men and women who work in the department.

It looks extensive, but Stiles doesn't have to scroll far. Because the drug bust happened so recently, it is right at the top of the page. The headline states that a deputy is receiving a commendation for his outstanding work, for going above and beyond the call of duty to crack the case. A name doesn't immediately pop out because the paragraphs waffle on, but soon enough Stiles comes across the name 'Derek Hale'.

A third Google search leads Stiles to a website called Facebook. At the top of the blue-and-white page is a long rectangular photograph of some dense trees and other greenery. Below this is Derek's name and, to the left of that, is a small square photograph of the man himself.

Like Stiles had thought, Derek is beautiful. His expression is reserved and almost guarded, like he didn't really want to have his photograph taken in the first place. After clicking on it to enlarge it, Stiles stares at the photo for a long time. He gets lost, until the chiming of the clock in the living room brings him back out of his daze.

His hand jerking over the mouse, Stiles accidentally clicks on the side of the photograph and another one appears in its place, this time of a younger Derek. The man still sports facial hair and holds his face in a mask, but his mien seems softer somehow. He isn't looking at the camera but at something behind it. Or rather, someone. Stiles wonders who.

Now that he knows there are more photographs, Stiles clicks again on the little white arrow on the side of the small window and browses through them. The sensation that had overcome him the day before intensifies with each new photograph, until the pull is so strong it makes his chest feel tight, his breaths coming with less ease. It disturbs Stiles, honestly, how drawn he is to this Derek Hale. It's as if there is some divine force trying to pull the two of them together, to tell him something. Stiles doesn't know what that something is and it frustrates him, so he just keeps clicking.

He takes in many more photos before stopping again.

He can't quite comprehend what he is seeing. His eyes must be playing a trick on him, surely. In the photograph currently on the screen, Derek is standing next to a boy who looks just like Stiles.

They have the same eyes, the same hair colour, the same constellation of moles on the pale skin of their faces. Stiles stares. He stares and then stares some more, waiting for his eyes to stop lying to him, to show him the true identity of the person next to Derek.

But they don't and Stiles' own scar-free face keeps smiling back at him.

* * *

- The Present: Sunday, March 20th, 2016 -

The facility is completely still and silent when Derek steps out of his car and approaches it with his family and Aiden behind him. It doesn't bode well, but he doesn't let it affect his determination. He gestures for Aiden to lead the way and follows closely behind him when the younger beta walks around the large building they face. Aiden takes the group to the back and across a small courtyard to another, smaller building which carries the stench of almost a decade's worth of pain, tears, human waste and unwashed skin.

The door that serves as the building's sole entrance is wide open when they reach it, something that gives Aiden pause. The beta regards it warily, confusion plain on his face.

"What's wrong?" John asks him.

"It's unlocked," Aiden answers quietly. "It's always locked."

Derek shares a significant look with the sheriff, both men silently communicating their apprehension. When Aiden doesn't go any further on his own, Derek takes a deep breath through his mouth and goes first. He can hear his companions keeping close behind him, their footsteps soft and cautious.

The hallway Derek enters is long and filled with heavy doors. Some of them are open as wide as the entrance and some are closed tightly. Some have buckets placed outside of them and others don't. Derek doesn't have to look closely to figure out what the buckets were used for. He makes sure to keep clear of them as he walks.

"This is filthy," Peter derides with a sniff.

"What is this place?" Cora wonders aloud, drifting along at the back of the group. She peers into the rooms as they pass by them.

"This is where they kept us..."

Aiden's voice is further away than Derek had anticipated. He turns around and sees the young beta is still standing by the entrance, his eyes fixed stubbornly on the wall right next to him. He seems unwilling to move properly into the hallway, his eyes haunted by something Derek doesn't want to know. But he has to.

"What did they do to you?" he asks the younger werewolf. His family walks past him, but he can tell that they are all listening attentively.

"They didn't do anything to Ethan and me, at least not directly," Aiden says softly, losing himself in his memories. "But Danny, the things they did to him... They kept us in rooms right next to each other and we heard everything. The rooms are pitch-black when the doors are closed, so there was nothing else to focus on even if I could. I think that was part of it, making Ethan and I listen to the punching and the screaming and the broken bones."

Aiden shudders and closes his eyes, his hands balled into fists at his sides. "Nearly every day someone would come and beat the shit out of Danny," he continues. "They'd yell questions at him and beat him harder if he got them wrong, which, even though he never lied, he always did. I don't know how long they kept us here, but eventually they let us out and made us leave Danny behind so that he could 'complete his training'. That's when we were handed off to Austin. A few weeks later, Danny showed up at the house, a shell of who he was before. I don't know what else was done to him after we left him here, but... I don't know how it's possible, but it must've been even worse."

When it looks like Aiden won't be saying anything else, Derek turns away from the other beta and looks into the room closest to him. Without conscious thought he imagines Stiles being trapped inside of it like the twins and Danny were—helpless, in pain and probably crying out for help. He feels the last of the blame he had still harboured for Aiden slipping away and swallows with difficulty. He can't blame Aiden anymore, not with the evidence of the hell he suffered right in front of him.

"No one's here," Laura says sometime later, appearing next to Derek.

This snaps Aiden out of his silence. "There has to be," he argues, finally moving forward into the hallway. "I didn't drop off the last person that long ago."

"Well, they're not here now."

"Maybe they knew we were coming," Cora theorises.

"I don't know how they would," Peter counters. "Austin didn't."

"That's true..."

"Regardless, we need to move on," John says, stepping away from the last cell in the hallway and making his way back to the entrance. Once the group is outside again, he turns to Aiden. "Do you know your way around the rest of this place?"

Aiden shakes his head. "Not really. I only know this building and a few of the rooms in the main one."

"Alright. Here's what's going to happen: Talia, Laura and Peter, you take the two other small buildings and see if you can find anything useful—records and what have you. Basically, just look for anything that could tell us where the people who ran this place could be, who their clients were and, maybe most importantly, where the kids who came through here ended up. Everyone else, you're with me. We're going to search in there for the same things." John points to the three-storey building. "Are you all clear on what you're supposed to do?"

Once everybody has given their affirmative, the group splits apart.

* * *

"Well that was a complete waste of time," Cora complains when the search is over half an hour later.

"I suspected there would be nothing to find once we discovered they'd cleared out the cells," John says evenly, resting his hand on the top of the open driver's door of his cruiser, "but it was still worth checking to make sure. Now that that's out, we'll just have to move on to tracking down our three elusive alphas and getting the answers we want from them directly." He glances at Talia. "Where's Ennis' pack? I'd like to start with him."

"I'll direct you," the Hale matriarch replies, getting into the passenger seat.

"Text me the address," Derek instructs his mother as he pulls out his phone.

Peter frowns at him. "What're you doing, nephew?"

"Chris'll hopefully be done with Austin by now," Derek grudgingly explains. "I'm asking him to meet us there."

"Oh. How lovely."

Derek glares. "You're welcome to walk home if this is too much of an inconvenience for you."

Peter holds up his hands and the corners of his mouth twitch. "Now, now, let's not do anything rash."

"Just be quiet. Believe me when I say that today is not the day you want to test me."

With a roll of his eyes, Peter mimes zipping his lips before he slopes off and climbs into the back of John's cruiser. His irksome relative dealt with for the time being, Derek reigns his emotions back in and, when he notices John signalling him to tell him that they're about to leave, he gets inside of his own car and starts the engine.

The others all pile inside as well, Laura in the passenger seat like before and Cora, Aiden and Nathan squeezing themselves into the back. When John starts driving, Derek shuts out his passengers' quiet conversation and follows closely behind, eager to meet Ennis again.

* * *

Ennis' pack is located near a town called Weed in Siskiyou County, almost directly between the facility he used and Austin's pack house. Like with the majority of packs, it's split apart from human civilisation to give them some privacy, something for which Derek is grateful. It means he doesn't need to be careful of someone seeing something they shouldn't.

When Derek pulls to a stop outside of the house, he finds that Chris Argent is already waiting for them. How the hunter beat them there, he doesn't know, but he supposes it doesn't matter. Allison is absent now, he presumes because of the injury she sustained while seizing control of Austin's pack. He would be worried about being a man short, but because of Aiden, he isn't. He doesn't really have anything against Allison—she seems nice enough and good at her job—but he'll take a werewolf over a hunter any day.

Derek takes in the two-storey building through his front windshield. The facade is painted a pale orange, while the frames of all the windows, the curtains behind the large glass panes and the front door are white. The brown-shingled roof is half-covered in dark-green moss. Surrounding the building is luscious grass, each blade cut precisely, and in the little extension on the side of the house there are several parked vehicles, identifying it as the garage.

When he finishes with his inspection—and admiration—of a navy-blue sports car, Derek looks over the house one last time and notices several sets of eyes in the windows. They stare unabashedly.

As he gets out of his car, the front door opens and a middle-aged woman steps out, dressed in baggy jeans and a grey sweater. "What's going on here?" she asks them, her raspy voice full of trepidation. The wind blows her long, brown hair into her eyes.

"Where is Ennis?" Talia speaks up before anyone else can.

"Who wants to know?"

"Talia Hale, alpha of the Hale pack."

Recognition and fear flits across the strange woman's face. In a flash she retreats and closes the front door to a sliver just big enough for her face to peek through. "You need to leave right now," she orders, her eyes hard. "Our alpha warned us all about you disgusting people and I'll not have you on his property any longer." With that, she slams the door fully closed. Derek hears the sound of several locks sliding into place afterward.

The Hales share significant looks with Chris, John and Aiden.

"What do we do now?" Cora asks, frowning up at the house.

"Watch and learn," Peter smirks, breaking away from his family and strolling right up to the front door.

"Peter, what are you doing?" Talia calls warily after him, taking an aborted step forward.

Her brother just waves a dismissive hand at her before raising his right leg and kicking the door with such force that the wood splinters right down the middle.

"Peter!"

"What? We want Ennis, no? Well, let's get him."

With that, Peter kicks the door again, breaking it completely, and disappears into the house. Panicked screaming starts up, leaving the rest of the group no choice but to follow him and try to mitigate the violence.

Fighting quickly breaks out. The woman who had opened the door is the first thing Derek sees, slumped against the wall clutching some sort of slowly healing injury in her leg. Peter is a little further in the house, holding his own against a couple of other betas from Ennis' pack as they try to defend themselves. Talia and Nicolas rush forward to assist the most troublesome member of their family, apprehending their opponents and putting them out of commission as gently as they can.

While he is watching his parents, ready to step in at the slightest sign of them not having things under control, Derek notices movement at the top of the stairs. Raising his gaze, he spots a pair of young children watching them all, a boy and a girl. They can't be more than five or six years old, but that's all Derek can discern before a woman in her twenties appears behind them and whisks them away from the danger she apparently perceives, as if he would have no qualms about harming children.

Given their entrance, though, he supposes this perception is understandable.

When another of Ennis' betas tries to pounce on her, Talia releases a stentorian roar infused with her alpha power, causing everyone to cower and cover their ears. "That's enough!" she yells, her eyes bright red. "No more. We're not here to hurt any of you. We just want Ennis to answer for his crimes."

"Crimes? You're the criminals here!" the woman who answered the door rebuts, pushing herself up the wall.

"I assure you we're not."

The woman glares. "So you didn't just break into our house and injure me?"

Talia looks askance at Peter. "I apologise for that. My brother acted out of turn. It won't happen again," she says earnestly. "But we still want Ennis. He is a criminal who has done more to hurt my pack and others than I suspect you can even fathom."

"How so?" a young man asks from where Talia and Nicolas had left him on the floor. His hair is short and blond and his features are strong, but his eyes are soft.

John chooses then to speak up. "He took my son, or at least had a hand in it."

The next few minutes are spent explaining everything Derek and John have learned. Ennis' pack seems disbelieving at first—it is a farfetched tale from the outside—but once Aiden informs them of every interaction he has had with Ennis, the disbelief melts away a fraction. Derek is honestly impressed with the younger beta's courage. Aiden repeats words Ennis had spoken to him verbatim and doesn't shy away from the gritty details, although that could be his plan; to shock them into accepting the truth.

"That does sound like Ennis..." the blond man says unsurely.

"You can't honestly believe this crap?" the woman who opened the door snorts.

"Dana, think about it. You know Ennis has a temper."

"Yes, but this?"

"You heard their heartbeats. They weren't lying."

"Oh, please! You're just being stupid, Kai," Dana sneers. "Like you always are. You never ever learn."

"If I may interject here," Talia says pointedly, "we can prove it to you."

* * *

According to Kai, Ennis has been leaving on 'business' a lot over the past few years, more often than he ever has before. He always refuses to say explicitly just what this 'business' is and didn't react well the one time Kai had tried to push him on it to sate his curiosity. Ennis had left on another one of these trips a few days ago but is due back any minute now.

Derek lies in wait a safe distance away from the house, ready for Ennis to show his face. His family are doing the same thing, each one spread out from the rest so that they surround the place. As soon as any of them catch sight of Ennis, they will text the others and they'll converge again. Talia had theorised that, when confronted, Ennis would no longer be able to lie. The truth of his evil deeds would be exposed and none of his betas would be able to deny what they have been told about their alpha.

Derek hopes it works.

Just as the sun is painting the sky a vibrant gradient of yellows, oranges and reds, Derek's phone lights up in his hand with a message from Laura, informing him that Ennis is on the property. Unable to stop a smirk from curling his lips, Derek emerges from his hiding place behind a thick tree trunk and runs back to Ennis' pack house. In the distance he can see his family and Chris doing the same thing. He arrives there before anyone else and, once they've all caught up to him, he allows his mother to go first into the building.

Ennis is right in the foyer with his arms crossed over his broad chest, showing off the muscles of his arms in an effort to intimidate.

Derek isn't impressed.

Elsewhere in the house, the hearts of Ennis' betas can be heard beating fast as they wait to hear the outcome of this encounter.

"Talia, what are you doing here?" Ennis asks.

"I think you know, Ennis," Talia responds, not bothering to hide her disdain.

"I take it you're the reason my front door is currently in splinters?"

Peter raises his hand with a chipper grin. "Actually, that was me. It was ugly anyway, so you're welcome."

"Tell us, Ennis," Talia requests, "what happened to Stiles?"

"Stiles? Something's happened to Stiles?" Ennis' mouth drops open in shock. It's a convincing act.

"I don't know if you were the one who did it, but if not, I know you know who did."

"Why would you think that?"

Apparently sensing that Ennis won't budge so easily, Talia tries a different tactic. "Your pack says you've been awfully busy for the past few years," she says conversationally. "Whatever you've been doing must have been very important to be worth abandoning your duties as alpha so frequently. Care to share with the class?"

"Not really."

"It seems suspicious, don't you think, how you won't even tell your second-in-command?"

"I don't have to explain how I run things around here to you, Talia," Ennis bites out, his act fading away and leaving behind annoyance.

"I'm not the only one who thinks this, either," she chuckles insouciantly. "No, I had a lovely talk with Kai and Dana about your mysterious disappearances and they said they found it suspicious, too. Seems to me like you're not doing a very good job here."

Derek listens to his mother's words and tries to figure out what she's doing. It doesn't come to him at first, but when he glances at the throbbing vein in the middle of Ennis' forehead, he understands. Talia is trying to goad Ennis into messing up, getting him so angry that he accidentally lets something slip and gives her an opening she can exploit. He hides his smile behind his hand and shares a look with Laura, who, just from that look, he can tell has also cottoned on to their mother's methods.

"At least no one from my pack has ever been taken from under my nose," Ennis retorts, his top lip curling back in a snarl.

"Gee, I wonder why..." Cora mumbles.

"Regardless," Talia continues, ignoring her daughter, "I think it's sad, the state of things here. If you're going to keep going on these mysterious outings you can't tell anyone about and leaving your pack to fend for themselves, don't you think it's for the best that you step down? There's no use in you being an alpha anymore if you're not going to actually do the job. What about Kai? I'm sure he would be an acceptable replacement. Young but capable."

Ennis shakes his head. "That's never going to happen."

"Do you even know your pack, Ennis?"

"What?"

"Your disappearances weren't all I talked about with them. I also got to know them a little," Talia lies, so expertly that her heartbeat never falters. "Did you know Kai is seeing someone?"

Ennis frowns. "Who?"

"A lovely young woman close by, right in Weed. Things are going well between them right now. Kai is optimistic, and I hope it continues that way... Telling humans our secret is always a gamble. You can never be sure how they'll react, after all."

"Like hell that's happening!" Ennis growls.

"Oh, it is. Soon, too. The word 'marriage' was brought up more than once. Just wonderful, isn't it?"

Ennis stalks forward and jabs a thick finger in Talia's face. Derek twitches, ready to come to her aid, but she remains strong, doesn't so much as flinch. "Over my dead body," Ennis seethes, his eyes flashing red. "No one in my pack is going to take some impure human bitch as a mate. We've never allowed disgusting shit like that happen with other packs and we're not about to start now! No, she has to be taken care of." Spinning on his heel, Ennis stalks away again roars, "Kai! Get your ass out here!"

Movement comes from all around the house then as Ennis' betas show their faces one by one. Kai stays at the back, shielded by his packmates.

"I can't believe it," Dana says softly. "They were right."

The alpha narrows his eyes. "What?"

"You really did do all those things they said. You hurt all those kids."

Ennis goes rigid, realising his mistake. "I didn't. I don't even know what the hell you're talking about!"

"That's where you've been going these past few years, and why you refused to tell any of us what you were doing," Dana continues, not even listening to her alpha's denials. "Every time... Every time, you were hurting some kid. Like you hurt their young friend. Like you hurt that Stiles boy. Like you said you were going to hurt the mate she made up for Kai."

Ennis glances at Talia, nervousness beginning to show. "Made up?"

"Yes," Talia confirms. "Made up."

"And you played right into it," Derek says smugly.

"You're not our alpha," another of Ennis' betas speaks up, glaring fiercely. "I refuse to call you that anymore."

"Me, too," another concurs.

And another. "Me, three."

Talia looks over her shoulder and nods to Derek, Chris and John before advancing on Ennis. "You're coming with us, even if I have to break you in half to do it."

Chapter Text

- The Past: Saturday, August 1st, 2015 -

Stiles keeps telling himself to just ignore what he discovered on Adrian's computer. Derek still calls to him, but he ignores it. He has to—he thinks he'll unravel completely if he doesn't. But it's difficult; every time Stiles closes his eyes now, he sees that photo of Derek and the boy who looks exactly like him. Every time he wakes up in the morning, for a brief moment he feels a sense of deep contentment, as if whatever he had dreamed about was something happy instead of something painful and panic-inducing.

But then the moment always ends when Stiles realises that the arm draped heavily across his waist is Adrian's. Then he is left with this aching emptiness, like something is very wrong, like Adrian isn't supposed to be the one holding him at night.

He doesn't know why. Adrian has always taken care of him, has always been his friend and his alpha. That's what Adrian told him, and in spite of his bursts of violence, he trusts Adrian.

Doesn't he?

One morning when he feels the man wake up behind him and leave the bed, taking with him the trapping weight of his arm, Stiles keeps his eyes closed and pretends to still be asleep. He does this often now. He knows Adrian can always tell he is awake by his breathing and the rhythm of his heartbeat, but Adrian never says anything and goes about his morning ablutions as normal.

Only when he hears the shower shut off does Stiles open his eyes. He stares at the wall in front of him for a few moments before getting up himself and leaving the master bedroom. In the kitchen, he switches on the coffee maker for Adrian and retrieves the ingredients for pancakes from the fridge and cupboards. He has to have breakfast ready by the time Adrian comes to find him, or else Adrian will be mad.

That has started happening more often, too—the anger. Stiles doesn't know why, but it terrifies him. Before, the only glimpses he got of Adrian's formidable temper were when he broke a rule or did something he shouldn't, like the time he left dirty dishes in the kitchen sink for too long. Now, Stiles doesn't even have to do something wrong to make Adrian mad. It just happens seemingly at random, and Stiles comes away with a new bruise or two every time Adrian handles him too roughly, his enhanced alpha strength going unchecked.

Adrian never remembers. Stiles used to get dizzy trying to keep up with the alpha's sweet words and gentle touches one moment and his paroxysms of rage the next. Back and forth, back and forth, until Stiles stopped trying to predict or understand it anymore.

Now it just...is.

* * *

- The Past: Wednesday, October 21st, 2015 -

Almost two months later, Stiles doesn't think things can get much worse. Adrian is now angry more often than not, will snap over the tiniest infraction. Stiles is in a constant state of walking on eggshells and his body carries new bruises almost daily. He never sleeps in Adrian's bedroom anymore, doesn't trust him not to lash out while he is unconscious, causing even more damage. Stiles' bare bedroom is unwelcoming and cold, but even sleeping alone in his own bed is better than being woken up in the middle of the night by Adrian mumbling in his sleep and digging his claws into Stiles' torso.

The alpha hardly ever leaves the house anymore either. He spends his time wandering around like he is searching for something, but he never finds it. He breaks things in his frustration—vases, the glass inside picture frames, even a table—and then, later on, he'll return, see the broken object and blame Stiles for it. In his rare moments of lucidity, Adrian never notices the injuries he has inflicted on his charge, not even when Stiles stops hiding them. Perhaps he doesn't want to notice.

Eventually, Stiles has to stop running away from what he saw on Adrian's computer. If he doesn't, then Adrian just might kill him one of these days, and Stiles really doesn't want to die. It's clear he has some sort of connection to Derek. He can't live in denial anymore, can't pretend that his discovery hadn't put a giant crack in the reality Adrian painted for him when he first woke up on the living room sofa. Perhaps if Stiles can find out how he came to be in a photo on Derek's Facebook page, he can shatter that reality and find out the truth. Whatever that truth may be.

The only problem is Adrian's sudden transformation into a recluse. With the alpha nearly always around, Stiles can't risk sneaking into his study again.

But then something miraculous happens.

On Wednesday morning, Stiles drags himself out of bed to make breakfast and hears nothing but silence. He searches every room, even presses his ear up against the locked door of Adrian's study, but he still hears nothing. Adrian isn't there. It isn't until Stiles revisits his bedroom that he spots a yellow Post-it note stuck to the door.

Getting groceries. Back around 12.

A check of the clock in the living room tells Stiles that he should have almost two hours before Adrian returns. That should be more than enough time.

Once he has retrieved Adrian's spare keys from the dresser in his bedroom, Stiles sits down in front of the computer in the alpha's study and repeats what he had done before. It's already switched on with the internet browser left open, so it's easy to find Derek's Facebook page. After bracing himself, Stiles clicks through all of Derek's profile pictures to the picture of the two of them together. He knew what he would see, but Stiles still feels a sense of shock when he sees his own face again. It's undeniably him, if younger and unmarred by scars. He looks so...happy, so unrestrainedly happy with his arm thrown around Derek's shoulders that it makes his chest tighten painfully. He misses that feeling like a limb.

As the shock wears off and he keeps staring at the photograph, Stiles gets the feeling that he has seen it before. It takes him several minutes to pinpoint where, but when he does he rushes back to Adrian's bedroom and snaps up the picture frame from the bedside table.

Back in the study, he holds the frame up to the computer screen and has his suspicions confirmed—the pink party hat, the leather jacket, the green V-necked Henley, the out-of-focus people in the background... Except for Adrian's face, the photographs are identical. Now that Stiles is looking at things more closely and with a clearer head, he notices something about the doctored photo he hadn't noticed before, or perhaps had ignored. Adrian's chest has always been smooth, whether because it is naturally devoid of hair or because he shaves it regularly. But in the photograph, the body Adrian had superimposed his head onto—Derek's body—has chest hair peeking out of the neck of his shirt.

It isn't even the right colour. It's dark, unlike the hair on Adrian's head. If it weren't for the original photo on the computer screen, maybe Stiles would try to explain it away. He'd try to excuse it by thinking that Adrian simply dyes his hair or something, but with further thought he knows that wouldn't hold up for long. Not unless Adrian dyes his leg and armpit hair, too.

Setting the picture frame down on the desk, Stiles is about to click out of the photo on screen when he spots the text to the right of it. In the white box below Derek's name is a sentence he hadn't bothered to read before, his attention too focused on the image of himself and Derek. It says that the photograph was taken at Derek's 21st birthday party five years ago and then, next to that, is his own name.

with Stiles Stilinski

He stares at it and realises for the first time that he has never known his last name, as crazy as it sounds. He has never thought about it before, but now that he is he also realises he doesn't know Adrian's. He barely knows anything.

Hovering the cursor over his own name, Stiles clicks on it and his eyes widen when what must be his profile appears on the screen. It's similar to Derek's with most of it kept private, but that doesn't matter. It still contains more than enough.

Apparently he used to live in Beacon Hills and attended the local high school, which makes sense because he and Derek used to know each other and Derek is now a deputy there. They used to be friends, or maybe even more than that for all Stiles is aware.

He opens up a new tab and searches for a map in Google. In the page he is taken to, Stiles types in 'Beacon Hills' and watches as the screen zooms in to a section in the lower half of the state of California. He zooms in even further and, with a quick scan, finds the sheriff's station. He wonders if Derek is inside of it at that very moment, wonders what happened to separate them. Is Derek thinking of him like he is thinking of Derek?

Stiles hopes so.

Tearing his eyes away from the building, his eyes alight on a small circle on the screen with the text 'Directions' written beneath. Intrigued, Stiles clicks on it. The map zooms out, but not as far as Stiles would have thought. California still fills the page, but now there is a series of blue and grey lines connecting Beacon Hills to another location a few towns away called Hemet. Both are within the borders of Beacon County and, according to the information the website presents to Stiles, they are under an hour's drive from each other.

Stiles can't believe it. He and Derek have been so close this entire time.

Eyeing the printer next to him on the desk, Stiles clicks around the screen until he finds the option to print. It's a loud process, but once it's done Stiles takes the sheet of paper, writes Derek's name on it, folds it up and puts it in his back pocket. Something tells him he'll need it.

Unsure what else to do with this discovery, Stiles closes the web browser. Beneath is the white box with the bunch of folders he had found the first time he used Adrian's computer. After checking to make sure he still has time, Stiles does what he had wanted to do before and clicks curiously through everything he can. The folders all contain different things—some yield documents and spreadsheets that Stiles can't make heads or tails of, while others are filled with .mp3 files.

It isn't until Stiles happens across a folder containing .psd files that he finds something worthwhile. Double-clicking on one of them opens another application. It takes a while for the blue square at the bottom of the screen to stop bouncing slowly up and down, but once it does, on the screen appears another photograph, this one also of he and Adrian.

Having walked past it hundreds of times, Stiles recognises it as one of the pictures hanging in the hallway outside of the study. In it, he is sitting on a bed next to his alpha and both of them are looking at something off to the right with what Adrian had told him were video game controllers in their hands. Adrian is further away from whoever took the picture and has his legs crossed, so his height isn't immediately apparent. If Stiles had ever thought about it enough before, he would have seen what he sees now—the body next to his isn't as tall as Adrian. If Stiles had to guess, he'd say they are nearly the same height, so he presumes that this is another altered photo and the original showed Derek instead of Adrian.

Going back to the folder, Stiles opens the rest of the files within and feels his sense of betrayal get more profound with each one. He knows all of these photos well, but the truths behind each one are all so obvious now, as if a shroud has been lifted from his eyes and he is seeing clearly for the first time. There is something slightly off in each photo—not enough height disparity; dark chest hair instead of red or none at all; a strange blurriness around Adrian's long hair.

They're all falsehoods. Every one of them.

Unable to look at the evidence anymore, Stiles closes everything down and pushes away from the desk. He sits there for God knows how long, trying to process everything he knows now. How do he and Adrian really know each other?

Because of the falsified pictures, Stiles can't trust what Adrian had told him about being his alpha. He goes back, replays every word he can remember Adrian telling him and searches of clues. He thinks of a few, small things that on their own mean nothing but, when added together, form something bigger. The most stark clue comes from the talk they'd had the day he woke up on the sofa, when Adrian spoke briefly of the accident that cost Stiles his memories. The alpha had said he was afraid of losing Stiles, too, implying that he had lost someone before.

Maybe the people in the photograph Adrian uses as his computer background. Stiles wasn't amongst them.

Getting up from the chair, Stiles' eyes land on the unlabelled boxes stacked up on the opposite side of the room. He had meant to go through them last time he was in the study but hadn't had the time.

He has time now.

Stiles sits down on the thinly carpeted floor, drags the first box closer and opens the top flaps. Inside is an assortment of things—ornaments, a bundle of rusting cutlery, a hairbrush...even a couple of worn T-shirts. Every item is singed, blackened by fire. Stiles picks up a snow globe and shakes it, causing all the silver glitter inside to swirl around the plastic snowman that stands in the centre of a tiny winter wonderland. Replacing it in the box, Stiles decides there is nothing of value there and moves on.

Rummaging through a second box, Stiles pulls out more clothes and dumps them on the floor next to himself. At the bottom is something else, a large book with a blank green cover. Stiles lays it across his lap and opens it up to find that it's a scrapbook containing a series of clippings from newspapers several states away. Each one covers a house fire that killed eight people. Stiles is horrified by the articles and wonders why on earth Adrian has these stored in his study, but then, as he keeps reading with sick interest, he comes across a familiar name.

An Adrian Emerson is listed as the sole survivor of the fire. Could this be Stiles' Adrian?

With a frown, Stiles flips through the scrapbook. The newspaper clippings are stuck chronologically to each of the pages. The first was written the day after the fire and is obviously from the front page of a newspaper, the biggest story of the day. The text at the top is huge and bold. It calls the fire a great tragedy and assures its readers that a full investigation as to its cause is underway. The next few clippings are much smaller and lack any real news as the journalists waited for fresh information to exploit with another flashy headline. It wasn't until a week later that the information came, when the fire was confirmed to be an act of arson instead of an accident and the deaths were ruled murders.

Stiles turns the scrapbook page to see another huge article from even more weeks later, which reveals the identity of the perpetrators as Kate, Gerard and Victoria Argent. All three were killed in a shootout when local law enforcement tried to make their arrests. The other two members of the Argent family, Chris and Allison, were found innocent of any wrongdoing.

Feeling a huge sense of unease now, Stiles puts everything back inside the second box and moves on to the third.

There he finds a bunch of picture frames. They contain photos of a group of nine people in various formations. Stiles recognises them as the people in the desktop background of Adrian's iMac. To him, this confirms what the scrapbook had made him suspect, that Adrian's pack was killed in the fire and Adrian was left as an alpha with no betas to look after. It makes Stiles sad to think about, so he searches through the pictures for himself. He wasn't expecting success, not after the .psd files he'd found earlier, but the lack of his presence in the photographs is still somehow disappointing.

Stiles sits on the floor for a long time, just thinking about everything he has learned. But then he hears a noise elsewhere in the house and is jolted out of his thoughts. He curses in his head and leaps to his feet. How much time has passed? Stiles doesn't know, so he hastily tosses all of the picture frames back in the box and puts it back in its place against the wall with the others. After a quick check to make sure everything is how he had found it, he leaves the room and locks the door.

Turning around, Stiles gasps when he sees Adrian barrelling down the hallway in his direction. He closes his eyes tightly and braces himself for pain and new bruises, but they don't come. The air in front of him is disturbed but nothing else happens.

Cracking open one of his eyes again, Stiles squints at his surroundings and finds them empty of Adrian. The alpha must have walked right past him and on into the living room. Making sure to hide the ring of spare keys behind his back, Stiles creeps toward said room and takes in Adrian pacing the length of it, clearly out of his mind again. Ordinarily this would make Stiles uncomfortable, but in that moment he is grateful for Adrian's detachment from reality for saving his ass. God knows what would have become of him otherwise.

Before the alpha's state has a chance to change, Stiles retreats and returns the keyring to the back of Adrian's sock drawer. That done, he shuts himself in his own bedroom, leans back against the door and breathes a sigh of relief. He has to be more careful, or else the next time he messes up like that, luck might not be on his side. Adrian might be cognisant and mete out punishment, and Stiles would really rather avoid that.

* * *

- The Present: Sunday, March 20th, 2016 -

Even as arrogant and strong as he is, it's thankfully clear to Ennis that he would stand no chance whatsoever against nearly twenty angry werewolves and a seasoned hunter. In the end, he has no choice but to capitulate.

The alpha sits in the back of John's cruiser, his red eyes boring into Chris' as the hunter wraps wolfsbane rope around his wrists and ankles and then connects them together with another length, meaning that Ennis can't raise his arms above chest-height. No doubt more than used to being on the receiving end of a seething werewolf's ire, Chris doesn't pay attention to Ennis' heated glare, just makes sure the knots are tight. Once that is done, he takes the syringe he had asked Derek to hold for him and without preamble sticks the needle in Ennis' neck.

"Hey! What the fuck are you doing?!" the alpha screams, thrashing about.

"Just an extra precaution."

Chris pushes down on the plunger and swiftly removes the needle when the barrel is empty. In seconds, Ennis' struggles become less severe.

"What the hell was in that thing?" Derek asks.

Chris takes a breath before answering, as if he is deciding whether he should. "It's a breed of wolfsbane my dad made," he says eventually, watching closely with Derek as Ennis goes completely still, his eyes half closed. "It greatly reduces a werewolf's strength to the point where he or she is as weak as a kitten. My dad intended to use it for things a lot worse than this, of course, but there's no reason we can't use it to suit our needs now."

Hearing footsteps, Derek looks over his shoulder as his mother comes closer.

"I just had an idea," the woman says, her eyes fixed on Ennis.

"What about?"

Talia holds up a clawed hand. "If I can get inside Ennis' head, I might be able to see who else is involved in all of this and confirm our theories."

Humming his approval, Derek allows his mother to take his place next to the cruiser but doesn't go far. Chris stays to watch, too. Having never seen this process firsthand before, Derek observes with rapt interest as Talia skates her claws over the back of Ennis' neck like she's looking for the right spot and then suddenly pierces through the tanned skin. Ennis makes a quiet sound of pain but Derek ignores him, his eyes trailing up his mother's arm to her lax face. Her eyes are closed and she stands eerily still for a long time, until Chris proclaims his boredom and saunters away to talk with John.

Eventually, when Derek is becoming restless as well, Talia inhales sharply and jerks her hand away from Ennis' neck, her bloody claws vanishing. She stumbles backward a couple of paces, so Derek supports her until she regains her footing. When he's sure she is alright, he releases her again.

"Well? Did you see anything?" he asks nervously.

"I did," Talia breathes. Her face is ashen. "We were right. Kali is also involved and Deucalion is the one running the show. God, the things they did to those kids, to Stiles..."

"You saw Stiles?"

"Yes. Ennis beat him like he did Danny."

Derek barely contains the urge to rip out Ennis' throat then and there. "Alright then," he says tightly. "I guess we should go."

Back with the others, Nicolas notices how affected his wife is by what she has just seen and embraces her. No one asks for more details.

"Do we really have to take that asshole with us?" Cora asks with a frown. "Can't we just kill him and get it over with?"

"No, honey, we can't," Talia refuses, leaving her husband's arms looking marginally better.

"Why not?"

"We need him to give Stiles back his memories, remember?"

Cora sighs, disappointed. "Oh, right."

"About that..." Derek interjects, staring at the shadow of Ennis' head he can see through John's rear windshield. "I don't think it's a good idea that we make Ennis give all of them back. With everything Stiles must've been through, the pain and the rape and the emotional trauma...as strong as he is, I don't know if he could survive that. I don't know if anyone could. You're really shaken up, mom, and you weren't even the one who lived through it."

"So you're suggesting that Ennis keeps those memories and just gives Stiles back the ones from before all of this happened?" Talia clarifies, her expression thoughtful. "I can see your point, but it's a tricky situation and any way we slice this is going to cause problems. On the one hand, like you said, if we make Ennis give Stiles back everything, we risk it being too much for him to handle. On the other hand, if we make Ennis leave out the memories of abuse and restore him to his sixteen-year-old self, Stiles will still have questions about why he is suddenly missing five years of his life and why his body is covered in scars. There's no way to hide what happened from him, not completely."

Derek understands the point his mother is making, but to him there one clear winner. "I'll go with option two."

"Are you sure?"

"I'm sure," Derek confirms with certainty. "Yes, we'll have to explain some of the things that've happened to Stiles, but just knowing what happened will be less traumatising than having to relive it."

"Okay. He's your mate, after all, so it's not up to me to decide."

"John, what do you think?" Derek asks the sheriff.

John looks down at his feet, thinking hard. "If it will save Stiles more pain," he says after a moment, "then I agree."

More moments later, when Chris is sure that Ennis is out of commission and will be for a long time, the group reconvenes in between the three vehicles they'll be using. The plan is the same as before: Talia will direct John to Kali's pack this time instead of Ennis', and Derek and Chris will follow. Only now, with a prisoner in their ranks, the passengers have to be switched around a bit.

"So who's going with who?" Laura asks, looking to her mother.

"I'll go with Ennis," the older woman says. "In case anything goes wrong, I'm best equipped to deal with him."

"I'll go with you," Peter offers.

"Fine. Nic and Cora, you go with Chris, and Laura and Nathan will go with Derek."

Behind the wheel of his Camaro, Derek looks at the darkening sky with tired eyes. He ponders the merits of them all continuing as they are as nighttime descends on them. He has already exerted himself a lot today, what with apprehending Austin's pack and driving for hours on end across the state. He thinks for a moment that he might not have enough energy left for what is still to come, but then he shakes his head and turns his keys in the ignition, bringing his car to life. They can't stop now.

He doesn't want to waste another night for rest, a night in which Stiles could be suffering even more unknowable torment.

Besides, nighttime could be the perfect time to strike.

* * *

- The Present: Monday, March 21st, 2016 -

Talia's directions lead the group to a house just out of Red Bluff in Tehama County. It's the middle of the night by the time they arrive and there are no lights on in the windows, at least not right away. As Derek pulls up the parking brake and switches off the engine of his car, he sees lights begin to turn on up on the second floor. Several members of Kali's pack, if not all of them, were no doubt awoken by the noise produced by the new arrivals on their property.

"That's her car," Talia says once everyone is ready. She points to a blue Volkswagen.

"So she's home," Peter grins. No one tries to stop him as he ambles up to the front door and kicks it in.

Inside the house, the Hales and their three companions are greeted by a furious-looking Kali and six betas still in their nightclothes, which, for a couple of the males, consists of just a pair of boxer-briefs. It would be a funny sight were the situation not so serious.

Both sides stand at an impasse for several moments, neither one making the first move. Derek uses this time to listen for other heartbeats in the house, not wanting them to be ambushed. He presumes when he fails to detect any that Kali's pack is just much smaller than Ennis'. He is glad because this should make things go faster.

"Talia, what is the meaning of this?!" Kali snarls, breaking the tense silence.

"You know why—"

"Yeah, I don't really feel like doing this whole song and dance again," Peter interrupts his sister. He rolls his eyes when she gives him a look clearly telling him to shut up. Of course, he doesn't obey. "Just knock her out already so we can move on to Deucalion. As fun as this little excursion has been so far, I really need my beauty sleep, you know."

Kali levels Peter with a glare. "What are you talking about?"

"Tell us who has Stiles and I'll make this easy for you," Talia orders, her voice calm.

"You're making no sense," Kali responds, though she isn't very convincing. She doesn't seem to care enough to put on the act that Ennis had.

Talia breaks away from her group and walks up to Kali, who stands her ground. "I know what you've done. I've seen it in Ennis' memories," she says, her lips quirking up into a pleased smile when her adversary's eyes narrow a fraction, giving away her displeasure. "Don't even try to deny it again. I know you took part in breaking down those kids and selling them off to be used in sick ways. And you're going to pay for it."

"Alpha, what is this woman talking about?" one of Kali's betas enquires, a man of average height. He looks to be in his mid-thirties and has sandy-blond hair.

Peter doesn't quite manage to hide his amusement. "Alpha?" he snickers.

"Show some respect!" another beta sneers.

"I think I'll pass, thank you."

"Be quiet, Peter!" Talia demands, flashing her eyes at him before returning them to Kali. "Are you going to tell them the part you played? Or should I?"

"You won't get the chance," Kali growls, shifting quickly into her beta form and lunging at the other alpha.

The brawl that ensues is rough but fast. Kali evidently teaches her pack to fight dirty, as Derek learns when he goes to apprehend a female beta with a black pixie cut and narrowly avoids getting kneed in the crotch. Cora has his back, though. Not one to refrain from dirty tricks herself—much to the chagrin of their mother—she elbows the short-haired beta in the chest and stomach in quick succession, causing her to lose her breath and curl in on herself. From there it's easy for Derek to incapacitate her.

Kali's pack just doesn't have the numbers to hold their own against Talia's, so the rest of them go down without much trouble. By the time that it's just the two alphas scrapping, everyone else still standing is littered with cuts and scrapes but otherwise isn't worse for wear. Especially not the werewolves, whose rapid healing rates take care of their injuries in minutes. They steer clear of the fight, allowing Talia to take care of it.

Although Kali is an aggressive fighter, Talia holds the respect she does for a very good reason. Derek saw evidence of it in the diner and he sees more now.

Kali was able to last for as long as it took for her betas to be picked off around her, but she isn't as strong as Austin was and doesn't last much longer without anyone to help her. When Talia manages to break through Kali's defences and opens up deep gashes down her torso that instantly bleed profusely, the fight is won.

Kali falls to floor, holding her hands over her wounds. "Are you going to kill me?" she gasps, staring heatedly up at Talia.

"No," Talia replies, her beta form receding. "That would be too merciful after what you've done. Chris, you got any of that wolfsbane rope left?"

The hunter steps forward. "Yup. I've got a bunch, courtesy of the guys who are taking care of Austin and his pack as we speak."

"Good. Go get it."

Chapter Text

- The Past: Friday, October 23rd, 2015 -

Stiles contemplates what to do about the discovery of Adrian's deceit for a couple of days. In the alpha's rare lucid moments, Stiles tries his best to pretend that everything is normal, reciprocating any affectionate touches and cleaning up around the house as he has always done. He wants to flinch away every time Adrian comes close, but he manages not to.

At night, he takes the map he had printed out over the weekend from its hiding place beneath his pillow and stares at it for hours. He traces his fingertips over where the blue line ends in Beacon Hills, imagining what Derek is like. He thinks that, unlike Adrian, Derek is probably nice all the time. The unaltered photographs he had found support this, are in Stiles' eyes hard evidence of the fact that they used to spend a lot of time happily in each other's company.

He doesn't think he would've been that close with someone who hurt him, so Derek must be nice.

By Monday morning, Stiles still hasn't come to a decision on what he should do. He and Adrian eat breakfast together, and Adrian is in one of his increasingly rare pleasant moods. Before Saturday, Stiles would have soaked up the attention, desperate as he is these days for any kind of positive interaction. But now...with what he knows, he just feels sick as Adrian chatters away about catching up on work before hosting another of their movie nights.

Stiles is sure this night won't come to pass—Adrian will most likely be out of his mind again by then—but he doesn't really care anymore, not when he is aware of it all being a lie. He glares down at his bowl of cereal as if it's to blame.

"Is something wrong?" Adrian asks, setting his spoon down with a clatter.

Realising that he has unwisely let his act slip, Stiles offers the alpha a smile he hopes will be convincing and shakes his head. Thankfully, Adrian lets it go.

"Alright," the alpha says, getting up and putting his empty bowl in the sink. "I've got to get that work done now, so I'll see you later, okay?"

Stiles nods this time, accepts the kiss Adrian presses to his forehead and watches him as he walks down the hallway to his study. Stiles only lets his facade drop again when the man shuts the door behind himself, the sound of the lock being turned following.

He really needs to come to a decision soon.

* * *

A mere hour later, when the dishes from breakfast have been cleaned up and are drying on the drying rack next to the sink, Stiles is walking down the hallway to the living room when the door to Adrian's study bangs open. The handle chips the paint on the wall as the door rebounds off of it, but all Stiles can pay attention to is the hulking figure of Adrian standing in the doorway. The alpha's nostrils flare wide as he breathes heavily, all of his muscles looking larger than ever as he holds them taut.

Stiles is instantly terrified and steps backward, intending to escape back into the kitchen, but before he can move any more than that, Adrian has grabbed him. His shoulder flairs with pain as Adrian drags him into his study.

"What is this?!" the alpha questions angrily, tossing Stiles at the desk.

At first, Stiles doesn't know what Adrian is asking, but then his eyes land on the computer screen and his terror increases tenfold. There on the screen is a list of previously visited websites, and among them are all of the ones Stiles has looked at recently—the news website, the Beacon Hills Sheriff's Department website, Derek's Facebook page, his own Facebook page, his Google Maps results. He thinks frantically for a way to smooth this over, to calm Adrian down, but his mind is blank and he can do nothing when Adrian spins him around again and looms over him.

"You've been looking at things you shouldn't," the alpha states, his voice deceptively calm now. "You've been bad."

Stiles regains enough control of his body to shake his head, but Adrian goes on.

"What have you been planning? You're planning on leaving me, is that it?!" the man growls, walking impossibly closer so that Stiles has to bend backwards over the desk. "That's never going to happen... You're mine. Mine!"

Stiles isn't sure what happens next, but he goes flying, crashing into the wall. He hears a great cracking sound when he lands in a heap on the floor and whimpers, his right arm throbbing. When he sees Adrian coming toward him out of the corner of his eye, he stays where he is, petrified. He really wants to get up and run, but he is incapable of even a twitch.

His inability to move is solved for him when Adrian picks him up by his T-shirt and pins his front against the wall with an arm across his shoulder blades. The pressure makes it hard to draw in air.

"You're not leaving me," Adrian says, his eyes red and his fangs out. "No one's going to leave me ever again!"

Stiles feels something sharp at the back of his neck before everything goes black.

* * *

- The Past: Saturday, October 24th, 2015 -

Stiles wakes up in his bed with a foggy mind. He sits up and looks around his room, confused as to how he got there. He doesn't remember going to sleep, and he wouldn't choose to sleep by himself anymore anyway. With some effort, the last thing Stiles is able to recall is sitting down with Adrian for another of their movie nights. Perhaps he fell asleep partway through one of the selections and the alpha carried him to his bedroom. Yes, that must be it.

Stiles yawns and tries to get out of the right side of the bed as usual, but he can't. As soon as he puts pressure on his right arm, pain flares white-hot and he falls onto his back again with a scream. As soon as his brain is back online, Stiles looks down at his forearm and blinks dumbly at the fabric that is wrapped tightly around it. He hadn't noticed this anomaly before. He pokes at it gently and detects a couple of long pieces of some hard material beneath it on either side, held in place by the fabric—a splint, Stiles' mind supplies. How it got there, however, he doesn't know.

Again he attempts to leave his bed, this time more carefully. He ventures out into the hallway and follows his ears to the kitchen, where Adrian is standing in front of the open fridge. The alpha turns to him as he approaches.

"You're up," Adrian says, his face impassive.

The shock of the sight in front of him has Stiles stopping halfway across the floor. Adrian looks different than yesterday—he's thinner, his skin possessing an unhealthy-looking pale quality. The alpha's demeanour is also different, more subdued. His unshaven face isn't as open and his eyes are dulled and not as warm, like he's not entirely there. Stiles stares for a long time, his brain failing to figure out how this could have happened. He stares for so long that Adrian becomes impatient and goes back to inspecting the contents of the fridge.

"What do you want to eat?" Adrian asks, looking over his shoulder. "Waffles?"

Stiles, getting over the worst of his shock now, nods dumbly. Truthfully, he doesn't really care. He keeps standing in the middle of the kitchen and watches as Adrian putters about preparing the batter for their breakfast. Trying to find an explanation ends up making his head hurt, so he stops after a while and sits down at the island, his eyes still on Adrian.

"Eat up," the alpha says a few minutes later. He presents Stiles with a couple of slightly overcooked waffles and takes a stool opposite him.

Stiles looks down at his knife and fork and then at his right arm, pondering how he is supposed to eat without it. When he doesn't move to use either of the utensils, Adrian finally picks up that something is amiss and a strange mix of guilt and anger flashes across his face.

"Oh, that..." he frowns. "You had another accident. Just eat with your good hand."

Not wanting to press the issue any further, Stiles does as he is told. He awkwardly takes bites of his waffles until they're all gone and then puts his plate in the sink, which presents him with another problem. Part of what is required of him is to clean up after himself, including doing the dishes, but how is he supposed to do that with only one useable hand?

Adrian appears at his back while he continues to think about it, sliding his own plate into the sink as his breaths ruffle the hairs on the back of Stiles' head. "I'm sure you'll figure it out," the alpha says before leaving.

* * *

After Stiles finally finishes washing the dishes, he leaves the kitchen and walks through the house. Now that his mind isn't slow from sleep, he sees things in the hallway that he hadn't seen before—more missing picture frames on the walls and broken glass in most of the ones that remain. This find makes him feel even more off-kilter, and as Stiles keeps going into the living room, he notes how things have changed in there, too.

The small end-table that used to sit beside the sofa is gone, as is the vase that was previously in the corner next to the entertainment unit. The walls have a couple of holes in them, Stiles guesses from fists, and the coffee table has spiderweb cracks running through it, like it's one knock away from shattering.

Like Adrian, it's as if the house has completely changed overnight.

Trying not to let his panic overcome him, Stiles lingers in the living room before a possible explanation comes to him. He remembers reading something months ago in one of Adrian's books, which focused on werewolf biology. Needing to make sure, Stiles retrieves this book from where he remembers returning it to the bookcase in Adrian's bedroom and carries it back to the living room.

He sits down on the edge of the sofa and opens the large book on the table, flipping through the worn pages until he finds the chapter he wants. It covers the unique abilities alphas possess. He quickly reads it again, his theory becoming more likely with each word.

When he is done, Stiles switches on the television and flips to the local news station. He doesn't pay attention to what the anchor is saying, just stares at the date and time at the top of the screen.

He's missing over three months.

Unsure what to do with this information, Stiles sits there for a long time. He looks down at his arm and shakes as another horrible thought enters his head. What if he didn't have another accident? What if Adrian was the one who broke his arm?

Stiles thinks back to the day he forgot to do the dishes and Adrian had handled him roughly. He recalls the bruising that marred the pale skin of his arm for weeks after the fact.

Is it possible that Stiles messed up again, only this time so badly that Adrian went too far and then tried to erase the damage? It would explain the flash of guilt Stiles had seen on his face over breakfast. He doesn't like to think Adrian would be capable of something like that, but the alpha he met today isn't the one from his most recent memory, and even though he wants to, he finds himself unable to rule it out entirely.

This new version unnerved him, if he is honest with himself.

Feeling vulnerable just sitting in the living room like this, Stiles makes a hasty retreat to his bedroom and shuts the door firmly behind himself. It's foolish, but just having that extra barrier between him and Adrian allows him to relax, if only marginally. Breathing easier, he climbs delicately onto his bed, his movements slow because of his arm.

When his head hits the pillow and he wiggles in place to get comfortable, he is confused when he hears a strange crinkling sound. Using his good arm, he reaches beneath his pillow and pulls out a folded-up and slightly crumpled piece of paper. He doesn't recall stashing it there, so he must have done it during the time he is missing. Supposing that this is his only lead to finding out why—he seriously doubts Adrian will tell him, considering he was the one responsible—Stiles becomes curious instead of confused.

Eagerly unfolding the paper, he examines what's printed on it and doesn't know what to make of it. It's clearly a map, but of what? He doesn't recognise any of the locations or the name that is handwritten on the left end of the blue line that runs across its length, so he doesn't know why he would bother printing it out or writing the name. Stiles knows the writing is his own, but who is Derek Hale, and how would he even go about printing out the map?

Stiles raises his eyes from the paper and stares at his door. Did he break one of Adrian's rules and go in the study? Is that why Adrian got mad and broke his arm?

Maybe.

Stiles has so many questions and no answers. It frustrates him.

The paper doesn't tell him anything, so he is about to screw it up and throw it in the dustbin when he catches what it says at the other end of the blue line:

Home

It's enough to make him reconsider. If this 'Home' is where Stiles is right now, then he is close to this Derek Hale.

Deciding that he must have had a reason for printing the map out, he holds on to it, folding it up and putting it back under his pillow. He can figure it out later.

* * *

- The Present: Monday, March 21st, 2016 -

After tending to their wounds, Derek and the others leave Kali and her pack in the capable hands of Chris' hunter friends, who don't mind adding them in with Austin's pack on their journey back to their base of operations. Derek's last port of call is Deucalion's house outside of Sierra City, Sierra County. It's an area abundant with lush trees and greenery, the perfect place for werewolves to feel connected to nature. As he drives through it, still following John's cruiser, Derek is reminded of his family's own home back in the Beacon Hills Preserve.

When John and Chris pull over to the side of the road about half a mile away from Deucalion's pack house, Derek follows their lead and exits his car with his siblings in tow. "We going in guns blazing?" he asks.

"Hopefully that won't be necessary," Talia says. "But if it is..."

"They could be like Ennis' pack, willing to listen to reason," Nicolas theorises hopefully, eager to avoid more violence.

Talia smiles wryly. "Or like Kali's on steroids. Duke's is much bigger than hers."

Peter laughs childishly, earning an eye-roll from Laura.

"Really, uncle?" she says exasperatedly.

"What?" Peter blinks innocently. "It was right there!"

"You really don't have a mature bone in your body, do you?"

"Oh, I can think of one," the man snickers again.

"This is serious, Peter," Talia tells her brother, her tone stern. "We don't have time for any more fooling around, so get it together. We need you."

Peter looks to the heavens with a sigh. "Yes, fine, I'll behave."

"Good. Are we all ready?"

Everybody murmurs their assent, so the group begins the trek through the trees to Deucalion's pack house, leaving a drugged-up Ennis alone in John's cruiser. There's a palpable tension in the air, Talia's words of caution seeming to play through each person's mind. They run through Derek's, too, and he can't help but worry about the outcome of this impending fight. They've come out relatively unscathed thus far; a few minor injuries here and there, plus the more substantial wound that knocked Allison out of commission but left her alive.

Derek doesn't want to think it, can't bear the thought of losing anyone in his family, not even Peter, but the thought is still there nevertheless.

With some effort, Derek forces his worries away because he knows they'll just distract him and potentially lead to his own demise, and he can't have that. He needs to stay alive for Stiles' sake.

"We're getting closer," Talia whispers fifteen minutes later. "They'll probably have heard us coming by now."

"Have you been here before?" Cora asks her.

"Just once, a few years ago. It's...ostentatious, to say the least."

"It seems like a lot of packs have huge houses," John adds in from where he walks between Derek and Cora. "Poppy's was kind of insane. It was so posh I was afraid to touch anything for fear of breaking something."

Talia hums her understanding. "Most packs date back generations and generations," she says from the front of the group. "That's plenty of time to amass a decent amount of money, and as you probably already know, a pack needs to be close together. Many end up choosing to live in the same place, which requires a large house. We're no exception to that rule."

She sighs. "Then of course there are some alphas who don't have proper control of their pride and like to show off with their possessions and even force their betas to stay as close as possible. I got the impression that Ennis was like this with his. I'd never do that, which is why I had no problem with Derek and Laura getting their own places, but as an alpha I get the impulse."

"Am I allowed to make a sarcastic comment about loving this little biology lesson, or would that not be serious enough?" Peter asks.

"To be safe, just don't speak at all," Talia says shortly.

"Aye aye, captain."

From then on, Talia tells everyone to be as quiet as mice.

Four minutes later, the trees part to reveal a gargantuan clearing, at the very centre of which is a mansion. Derek stares up at it with wide eyes. He thought the house he grew up in was big, but it doesn't even compare to the sight in front of him.

Made up of three floors, Deucalion's pack house seems to be almost twice the square footage of the Hale house. The brick facade is prolific with windows in rows, so many that Derek has trouble guessing what over half of the rooms they belong to could possibly be for. His mother's words on the size of Deucalion's pack playing through his mind, Derek guesses that the third floor—and maybe the second as well—is most likely comprised of just bedrooms for all the pack members, but the ground floor remains a mystery.

In front of the house, a bunch of different vehicles are parked, all different models and every colour of the rainbow. Derek can also hear many heartbeats inside the house, too many to count, so he knows that most if not all of Deucalion's pack is currently home.

"Here we go," Talia whispers, looking at the front door.

Focusing his hearing, Derek is able to discern a set of footsteps on the other side of the door just before it opens.

"Talia, this is a surprise," a man greets, peeking outside. His skin is dark and the hair on his head coarse and short, his black tank top and jeans clinging to his tall frame. His tone is pleasant but his eyes run over the Hale pack with distaste.

"Hello, Omar. I'd like to speak to Deucalion, please," Talia says, forcing a smile.

Omar's jaw clenches and he closes the door infinitesimally. "He's not here right now. You'll have to come back later."

"Then whose car is that?" Talia points to a vehicle to the right, a white BMW 3 Series. "I'd rather do this amicably but I'm afraid I have to insist."

"Why?"

"He has crimes to answer for. Big ones."

Omar hums and one side of his mouth quirks upward. "So you know."

If Talia is surprised by this apparent admittance of guilt, she doesn't show it. "We do. Now step aside and let us in."

"Duke's doing the right thing. Now fuck off."

With that, Omar slams the door shut and movement can be heard throughout the house as Deucalion's pack mobilises. Derek listens apprehensively to it all and prays that they have enough strength in their own numbers to overcome the odds.

"Guns blazing, it is," Talia sighs.

In the next second she is transformed into her beta form and racing toward the front door. Derek shifts, too, and runs after her with the rest of his family as his mother copies Peter's previous actions and breaks down the door. The house is teeming with werewolves, enough to outnumber the Hale pack two-to-one, and as soon as the Hales are through the front door they pounce.

It's disorienting madness, the amount of bodies flying everywhere and deep growls and loud roars permeating their air.

Derek quickly pairs himself up again with Cora against four other betas. Three of them are older, one man in his late-thirties and two women in their early-fifties, Derek guesses, and the other is a girl around Cora's age who, despite her youth, evidently doesn't lack experience. They're scrappy and well-trained, and even though Derek was expecting this because he was made aware in the diner that Deucalion is just as powerful and revered as his mother and would thus train his betas accordingly, he still has a hard time keeping up with them.

He fights back-to-back with Cora, the middle-aged man and the young girl attacking him and the two older women attacking his sister. They move non-stop, trying to take the siblings down any way they can. The man, stocky with muscle, uses brute force, while the girl utilises her small size to weave her way swiftly in between her teammate's movements. Derek uses his forearms to block most of the blows from the man, every one sending jarring shockwaves through his bones, but the occasional one slips by and opens up more opportunities for the girl to land hits of her own.

In the glimpses he gets of Cora, Derek knows she isn't faring much better.

Certain that he needs to switch things up before he loses, he stops fighting defensively and becomes offensive. Instead of blocking it when his male adversary slashes at him with his claws, Derek deflects the attack and launches one of his own.

The older beta isn't expecting this switch-up of methods, so Derek manages to open four neat gashes down the side of his face. The man stumbles backward, caught off-guard, and Derek is about to pounce on the opportunity to do more damage when he is stopped. The girl, who he had stupidly stopped paying attention to, reappears suddenly and sweeps his legs out, sending him sprawling to the floor.

The air is knocked from his lungs and the girl is on top of him before he can even begin to get it back. She claws viciously at his raised arms. Out of the corner of his eye, Derek can see the two betas Cora is fighting pushing her toward the front of the house, separating them and precluding any chance of her coming to his rescue like her wide eyes tell him she desperately wants to. The older male has also regained his footing now and stalks forward, his wrinkled face contorted with malice.

Derek tries to grab the wrists of the girl on top of him to stop her from clawing him up any more, but the older man grabs his instead and pins them above his head. Still slightly winded, Derek isn't at full strength and isn't able to wrestle himself free of the man or buck the girl off. She smirks at him and runs her sharp claws across his exposed throat. Derek picks his head up off the floor and presses his chin to his chest to prevent what he knows is about to happen, but the girl uses her other hand to push him back down.

"I'll tell Stiles you said hello," she sneers, claws poised to strike.

Distantly Derek can hear Cora shouting his name, but all he can concentrate on are the words of the girl on top of him. They were meant to provoke and they do. The thought of being eliminated before he can lay eyes on Stiles again is just unacceptable. From somewhere deep inside of him, Derek finds new strength.

Just as the girl strikes at his throat, he rips his hands free of the man's and intercepts her, his fingers circling her forearm and piercing deep into the skin. The girl gasps at the unexpected pain and then screams when Derek twists her arm violently, the sound of the bone breaking reverberating throughout the house.

Derek throws the girl off of him, rips her throat out in one fell swoop with his right hand and leaps gracefully to his feet with a snarl. The man who had held him down eyes him warily, his cocksure attitude gone in light of the girl's death. Lost to his wolf, Derek thinks the scent of this trepidation tastes wonderful. He bares his fangs and, before the older man can do anything to protect himself, he leaps at him and battles him with every ounce of aggression and skill he possesses. A few moments later, the man joins his packmate in death.

His wolf receding now that his would-be killers have been dispatched, Derek refocuses on his surroundings. He darts out of the room he is in and reenters the foyer, from which he can see everyone else.

His beta family members keep fighting valiantly against Deucalion's pack, while Talia flits in between everybody who looks like they need help and lends them her alpha strength. It's a system that seems to work well—except for Cora, who, thanks to her adversaries continually pushing her into what looks like the living room and away from her family, is now too far away from the rest of the action for their mother to be of any help. Derek plans on remedying that.

He storms into the living room just as Cora is about to lose. His baby sister being hurt renews the rage he had felt before.

As fast as he can, Derek dashes across the room and tackles one of the betas against whom Cora is facing off. The woman wasn't expecting the attack and they tumble to the ground, but she isn't slow to regain her awareness. She turns herself over onto her back and kicks out at Derek, who barely dodges her booted foot. Before she can attack again, he flips over her supine form and rakes his claws across her neck. She gurgles for a few seconds, her hands clutched over her throat as if that will prevent her blood from pouring out, and then she goes still.

When he is sure the woman is dead, Derek whips his head around and is pleased to note that Cora is now in control of the fight again. Knowing that she doesn't need his help anymore, Derek runs into a different room in search of the rest of his family. When he sees that no one seems to need his immediate assistance, he stands there and observes, ready to intervene. A couple of other members of Deucalion's pack have been picked off, but the man himself is nowhere to be found. Derek thinks this is highly suspect.

He runs his eyes over everyone in sight to double-check—over his family, then Chris and Aiden as they continue to go at it with Deucalion's pack. At first, it just seems like a regular fight, but then he notices it.

Deucalion's pack keeps pushing their enemies away from the back of the house.

Derek skirts around the violence and, as soon as he has an opening, slips into the room his family has thus far been stopped from entering. It turns out to be quite an extensive library, the walls lined with ceiling-high bookshelves all filled with books. In the centre there are four heavy oak tables surrounded by chairs, obviously for reading.

Nothing seems out of the ordinary at first, so Derek drowns out all the noise around him and looks at everything more closely. A voice in his head is whispering to him, telling him that there must be something here that he just isn't seeing yet. The voice sounds suspiciously like Stiles.

Derek sees them on his second circuit, grooves in the hardwood floor in front of one of the bookcases. Stiles made him watch enough movies back in the day for him to have an inkling of what this means.

He steps up to the bookcase and inspects it for anything that differentiates it from the ones either side of it. Around the edge of all of them a design is etched into the wood, lines flowing in loops and elegant curves. And on the left side of the bookcase with the marks on the floor in front of it, there is tiny button cleverly hidden inside one of the etched loops.

Derek pushes it and steps back out of the way.

For a second nothing happens, but then the bookcase judders and swings slowly forward. Behind it is a set of stairs leading down into darkness.

With a glance back at his family, Derek begins the descent. It isn't at all wise to go by himself, he knows, but he can't refuse the pull he feels, doesn't think he can wait for someone else to be free to come with him. The staircase goes surprisingly far beneath the ground, and Derek becomes more on edge as the darkness gets more all-consuming with each step, the light from the library unable to penetrate this far down. He runs his left hand along the brick wall next to him as his supernatural eyesight comes into play.

Finally he reaches a door. Derek listens for a presence on the other side and frowns when he hears slow breathing and the steady heartbeat of a single person. He recognises those sounds, having slept beside them every night for months. Reaching for the handle, Derek makes as little noise as possible as he pushes the door open, just in case it's a trap.

Nothing happens, though. The rate of the breathing doesn't even change, so Derek steps through the doorway and takes in the small room before him. It's illuminated by a single exposed bulb in the middle of the ceiling. There is a chair and table on the left side of the room with an empty plate and glass on top of it, and there, on the right, is Stiles.

Derek just stands there and stares.

He is unable to believe that he has finally found his mate again. The young man appears to be sleeping peacefully on a cot in just a pair of boxer-briefs, something that makes Derek fearful. The beta can't see any new marks on his poor mate's skin, but that doesn't mean he hasn't been hurt in some way in the days since he was taken from Derek's apartment.

Just as Derek takes a step toward the cot, he registers something clicking shut and footsteps coming calmly down the stairs.

Before the newcomer can reach the bottom, Derek places himself between Stiles and the door, ready to defend both himself and especially his mate at all costs. He waits on bated breath as the footsteps get closer, and then the person they belong to enters the room through the door Derek had left open.

Deucalion.

Derek should have known. "You," he growls.

"Me," the alpha smirks, his hands clasped behind his back. "Hello, Derek."

Derek longs to sink his claws into Deucalion's body and rip him apart, but he wants an explanation first. "Why?" he snarls.

"Why?" Deucalion chuckles, like Derek has just said something funny. "I'd have thought it was obvious."

"That you're a psychopath? It is. I still want to know why."

Sobering slightly, Deucalion shuts the door and walks to the table, his eyes never leaving Derek's. He smiles when the beta moves with him, keeping himself between him and Stiles. "Fine," he acquiesces, "I'll tell you. It's all about purity, of course, although I know you're already aware of this."

"How did you know that?" Derek asks warily, not dropping his defensive stance for a second.

Deucalion leans back against the table and examines his nails, evidently not worried at all about Derek getting the jump on him. "I had Ennis spy on you," he explains as if he is talking to a child. "Ever since I was informed that your beloved Stiles had made his way back home, I had Ennis visit Beacon Hills periodically and listen to find out how much you knew. He would stake out your home and the sheriff's station for hours, just because I asked him to."

His eyes flick up to meet Derek's. "You knew a lot, much to my surprise. I was actually impressed. I never anticipated you finding out about Aiden that quickly, nor that the Argents would come to you and you'd share intel with each other so freely. That was my fault, but it doesn't really matter. You're not leaving here alive anyway."

Derek clenches his jaw. "Why did you take Stiles again?"

"I knew you were getting close and wanted to tie up some loose ends, so I had Ennis steal the boy when he was sure you'd left him alone. I even gave him a nifty little bottle of rare wolfsbane that isn't really harmful to us but would cover his tracks when smashed, but thanks to Aiden, that was a waste, hmm?"

As much as Derek doesn't want to ask his next question, he has to know. "Why not just kill him if that's what you wanted? Why keep him alive?"

Deucalion purses his lips. "I was planning on having some fun with you, to send you photos, videos. I actually have a few already but didn't get the chance to send them before you arrived." From his jeans pocket, the alpha extracts his phone. "Want to see?"

"I'm going to kill you for touching him."

"I'm sure you'll try."

"We've already taken out Austin, Ennis and Kali," Derek says smugly.

"Have you now?" Deucalion hums thoughtfully. "Good for you, but I think Talia can be given credit for most of that. Even with those three defeated, do you really think that means I'll be as easy? Trust me, I have absolutely no intention of losing here today. It's a shame that Kali and Ennis are gone; they were useful, loyal. But I'll find others when I'm done here who are stronger and won't fall to lesser wolves like you. I'll start over somewhere new and do everything again until this world is rid of all the filth like you and your 'mate'."

"You've got a lot of confidence in your betas," Derek observes. "They're formidable, I'll give you that, but to me they weren't that hard to kill."

"Yes, I felt those bonds break. Like I said, I'll just get new ones."

Deucalion's uncaring attitude disgusts Derek and he doesn't stop his face from showing it. Deucalion laughs.

"Don't like that, huh? Whatever. What you think means nothing to me," he says dismissively. He pushes away from the table and stares intensely at Derek, red eyes boring into hazel. "Now, are we done with this discussion? Because I would really like to deal with you, move on to whoever is left upstairs and be out of here before dinner."

Instead of responding verbally, Derek shifts back into his beta form and calls upon all the power he has left in his body. Deucalion grins at him and shifts as well, his fangs long and deadly-looking.

As if someone has fired a starting gun, both werewolves move at the exact same moment, lunging for each other. Derek is glad when he somehow knocks the alpha backward—he doesn't want the carnage to get too close to Stiles, potentially putting him in harm's way. He doesn't know if he can really survive this battle, but if his life is going to end down in the dingy basement of Deucalion's pack house, he will give it everything he has to ensure that he takes Deucalion with him.

Unsurprisingly, Deucalion is incredibly strong. Incredibly skilled, too. Derek can hardly keep up. He ducks when the alpha swipes at his face, only just avoiding having it shredded. He goes for Deucalion's legs, but the alpha pushes down on his shoulders, jumps smoothly right over his head and lands smoothly behind him. Derek feels a hand grabbing the back of his jacket, so he shucks it off and mourns it for a second when Deucalion rips it in half and tosses it to the side.

"Oops," the older man laughs.

Not falling for it, Derek circles around his enemy and waits for him to make the next move. It doesn't take long.

Deucalion goes right for Derek, so Derek sidesteps him and aims to put distance between them again, but he finds himself impeded when something wraps around his left ankle. He has just enough time to look down and see Deucalion's fingers curled around it before the alpha wrenches him so hard that his other foot leaves the ground and he is swung horizontally through the air. Halfway through the motion, Deucalion releases him and he soars across the room. He hits the wall so hard it shakes and Derek feels one of his ribs crack. He gasps, the shock of the pain causing his human features to reclaim his face.

A second is all the time Derek grants himself to lie on the floor. After that, he forces himself to stand back up, blood dripping from a fresh cut on his forehead.

He meets Deucalion's smirk.

"Still want more?" the alpha asks cockily.

Again Deucalion sprints toward him. Derek, his rib not healed yet, can't do much more than tuck and roll beneath him, though he does make sure to keep his arm outstretched so that, as Deucalion passes over him, his claws cut into the alpha's stomach. He tries to get up a second time, uncurling himself and beginning a flip that will end with his feet firmly planted on the floor, but he doesn't make it that far.

An intense pain rips suddenly through his entire body, like something important has just been torn away from him forever. It incapacitates him.

He gasps and attempts to process what has just happened, to determine the cause of the pain, but then Deucalion is above him again, the lone chair that sat tucked beneath the table in his hands. Derek looks blearily up at him and tenses as the chair comes down on him and breaks apart with the impact, pieces of wood skittering in all directions across the floor.

"I expected more," Deucalion sighs.

Derek can't reply, can't move his body. He is still too overwhelmed by the phenomenon that just happened to him.

"Is something wrong, Derek?" Deucalion taunts. He glances at the ceiling and feigns a noise of sympathy. "Aww, did someone die? That's a shame, but you know what they say—an eye for an eye. In this case it's a life for a life. I wonder who'll be next. Maybe someone in this very room..." He trails off, spins on his heel and stalks toward the cot upon which Stiles still lies unmoving. Derek manages to suppress his pain enough to focus his eyes. Because all of the noise hasn't awoken the younger man, Derek presumes he has been drugged again.

"Perhaps I'll finally put this one out of his misery, hmm?" Deucalion says, running his clawed index finger down the middle of Stiles' chest. It leaves a thin trail of blood in its wake. "He's been through so much, but you already know that. It would be doing him a kindness, really, and it would destroy you as well. It's a win-win, as far as I see it."

The possibility of one of his family members being killed and the promise of Stiles meeting the same fate right before his eyes does something to Derek. A sound builds and slips out between his lips, a ferocious thing even though it isn't particularly loud. It makes Deucalion freeze, his countenance full of intrigue as he turns back to Derek and stares down at him, his hand still hovering over Stiles' chest.

With the sound comes a feeling of fury which suffuses his entire being and taps into something he has never experienced until now. Before he knows what's happening, Derek snarls and innumerable bones in his body break at once and begin to reform.

His eyes glowing gold, Derek's clothes rip and tear and fall from his body. Hair grows rapidly from every pore on his skin to form dark, glossy fur. His fingers shrink and turn into paws. His mouth grows bigger, longer, transforming into a muzzle filled with teeth that could rend the flesh from even the toughest of opponents, and a tail sprouts from his tailbone.

By the end of his metamorphosis, Derek stands on four legs instead of two, a waist-height wolf in all its glory. It's odd but at the same time feels natural. His vision is different, lower to the ground, but it seems more focused. His mind is also free of complicated human thoughts, narrowed down to base instinct.

It's freeing.

"What...?" Deucalion whispers, actually showing fear. "You?"

Derek doesn't know what the alpha means and he doesn't care. What he does know is that Deucalion has just threatened the most important person to him on the planet and that can't continue. Derek knows Deucalion needs to be killed. His new body moves even more fluidly than his human one, limbs following perfectly as he gives them commands.

He jumps at Deucalion with his jaws open wide. The alpha gets over his surprise but not in time to move out of the way. When the wolf topples the man and clamps his jaws around the man's neck, the body beneath Derek tries to fight back and releases a scream that echoes around the room.

Derek is pushed and shoved and scratched at, but it's all useless. It doesn't move him. Derek has a single goal, and that's to hold Deucalion between his jaws until his life is done. He bites down hard and shakes him from side to side, tearing flesh and filling his mouth with coppery fluid.

And then, with one last increase of pressure, Derek feels something give. There's a snapping sound and the hands tearing into his flanks flop to the floor.

Like the worthless thing it is, Derek discards Deucalion's corpse carelessly and licks his chops, cleaning off the blood. It tastes horrible, but the flavour is cast aside as primal power hits him, making him stagger. He raises his head and howls as loudly as he can, his golden eyes flickering to red and staying that way.

When his howl ends, he is left panting and dizzy, his vision spotty as he pads slowly over to the cot. Stiles is still unconscious upon it, and Derek has just enough left in him to jump up next to the young man. He rests his head on Stiles' stomach before the black spots in his vision obscure everything else and he, too, is out like a light.

Chapter Text

- The Past: Monday, January 25th, 2016 -

Stiles flinches where he sits on his bed when he hears something smashing in the hallway outside. He has his arms wrapped around his torso, hugging himself as Adrian rages and breaks something else. Stiles is terrified. He doesn't know what brought on this pure, all-consuming anger, but he hopes fervently that he doesn't end up in the firing line.

He has barely left his bedroom for weeks, only daring to do so when he is one hundred percent certain that Adrian is asleep. This current fit of anger has been going on for hours now, long into the night, and Stiles wants desperately for it to be over already. He doesn't feel safe. He doesn't feel happy, hasn't for even a second since he realised that his memories have been tampered with.

He has to get out somehow, has to leave Adrian behind before the alpha does something he can't take back. The only problem is finding the opportunity. Adrian is either awake and storming through the house, or he is asleep in his bedroom, which means that Stiles can't get the keys for the front door. It's endlessly frustrating.

When something else breaks—in the kitchen, Stiles guesses—he flinches again and grabs the piece of paper beneath his pillow, clutching it to his chest like a lifeline. He still doesn't know what the map will lead to, who Derek Hale is—he can't risk sneaking into Adrian's study to find out—but it has to be better than staying where he is.

* * *

Later in the day, when all the noise has stopped, Stiles feels brave enough to leave his bedroom in search of water. He tucks the map in the back pocket of his jeans and pulls his unzipped red hoodie tighter around his body, like the warm material will protect him from anything. He explores the house and is amazed by all the damage Adrian has done in his fit.

There are more broken things than Stiles ever remembers there being before, so much that the hallway floor is covered in shards of glass, the remaining picture frames torn from the walls. In the kitchen, cabinet doors have been ripped off of their hinges and splintered in half. Cutlery is scattered everywhere, as are the expensive and intimidating kitchen knives that Stiles has always shied away from using. The fridge has a massive dent in it and its contents have been carelessly thrown out. Broken eggs congeal on the tiles and the milk carton has several long tears it in from sharp claws, allowing the white liquid to form a large pool where it landed.

His mission to get water forgotten, Stiles backtracks.

The door to Adrian's study is wide open, revealing more destruction. The iMac and printer that used to sit on the desk are smashed up on the floor, joining pages upon pages of paper ripped out of books. The boxes on the right side of the room are torn open and the clothes that were likely stored within are shredded.

Elsewhere, the living room is in a similar state. The entertainment unit has been tipped over, breaking every piece of electronics that sat in it. The sofa is displaced but otherwise unharmed and the coffee table has finally given up the ghost, glass shards spread around beneath the thin but heavy metal legs.

Stiles bites his bottom lip and hopes Adrian doesn't expect him to clean it all up.

Speaking of Adrian, Stiles stands still and listens, but he can't hear the alpha anywhere in the house. His hopes rising, he returns to the hallway and approaches Adrian's closed bedroom door. He presses his ear to it to make sure, but as he thought, no one is on the other side. Entering the bedroom, Stiles scans his eyes quickly over the torn-up bedsheets before dashing over to the dresser, thankful that there aren't shards on the carpet that he has to avoid. The piece of furniture is completely untouched, so Stiles rummages through each drawer until he finds the keyring Adrian had shown him during the first week he can recall being in the house.

With the keyring in hand, Stiles picks his way through the living room until he reaches the entranceway. He is about to insert the front door key into the lock when he senses movement behind him.

"Where are you going?" Adrian asks darkly, getting up from where he must have been sitting this whole time against the wall.

Stiles wants to cower, but he doesn't. He touches his back pocket for strength.

"You're trying to leave me again, aren't you?"

Stiles' eyebrows meet in a frown. Again?

He doesn't have time to contemplate it, because in the next second Adrian is stalking forward like the predator he is. "You keep trying to leave me. Why? Aren't you happy here?" His face is blank and his voice is calm, but to Stiles he has never looked more threatening. "After all I've given you... I took care of you, gave you food, shelter, my unconditional love and affection. Don't I make you happy anymore?"

Feeling brave, Stiles shakes his head.

"No?"

Stiles repeats the action and takes a step backward. He ends up pressed against the front door.

"You tried to leave me before, you know. Did a bunch of research when I wasn't around, but I found out before you could make use of it and stopped you. Took your memories so you'd never leave me. But I guess this is just going to keep happening." Adrian's eyes glow red and his hands ball up into fists. Blood soon drips through his fingers from where his claws cut into his palms.

"You're an ungrateful waste of money," he growls, the vein in his forehead pulsing. "If you won't stay with me, if you can't be what I need..."

Adrian doesn't finish the sentence. He just lunges.

With a gasp, Stiles ducks out of the way and runs as fast as he can. He makes it through the living room, not caring about all the glass on the floor cutting the soles of his feet. As he reaches the hallway, Adrian catches him. He hits the floor hard, another shard cutting his forehead.

As Adrian begins crawling up his back, Stiles wrestles himself over onto his front and kicks the alpha as hard as he can in the face. He hears the crack of something breaking and then he is free again, Adrian recoiling with a howl and bringing his hands up to cradle his nose. Stiles doesn't stick around to wait for him to recover, just leaps back to his feet and keeps running into the kitchen.

"Stiles! Get back here!" Adrian shouts after him, but Stiles doesn't listen.

In the kitchen, the human snatches up the first weapon his eyes land on, which happens to be one of the kitchen knives he saw on the floor earlier. It's heavy in his hand, about eight inches long and deadly sharp. Breathing heavily, Stiles backs himself up against the counter and keeps the knife hidden behind his back as footsteps thunder toward him.

Adrian appears in the doorway, the lower half of his face shockingly red with shiny blood. "You'll pay for that! Come here!"

When the alpha tries to grab him again, Stiles jumps to his left and thinks for a moment that he has avoided the attack. But then he feels a sharp tug on the hem of his hoodie and then Adrian is using the garment to pull him closer. The alpha grabs for his neck but he leans away and Adrian's hand ends up tangling in the front of his T-shirt instead. Taking another step backward and trying to yank himself free, Stiles' feet fly out from under him thanks to the smashed eggs on the floor and he brings Adrian down with him.

An automatic defence mechanism, Stiles slams his eyes shut and raises his arms to protect himself from being crushed, forgetting about the knife still in his hand. Like he was afraid of, Adrian's full weight does press down upon him, but only for a second. The man swiftly rolls off to the side with a choked sound.

Stiles' brain takes a little while to catch up. When it has, when he realises that nothing else is going to happen, he opens his eyes and turns his head to the side, where he heard Adrian fall. He gasps.

He hadn't even felt the knife sink into Adrian's chest, but there it is, the handle sticking out of it and Adrian's heart pumping more and more red out onto the floor. It mixes with the milk already there into a sickening pink colour. Adrian's skin turns paler and sweat beads on his forehead as his body attempts to hold on to life. But it's useless.

Before Stiles can even think of helping, the alpha is dead.

* * *

- The Present: Monday, March 21st, 2016 -

When Derek wakes up, every muscle in his body aches, so he stretches languorously to ease the dull pain and turns over, burying his nose in the neck of his bedmate. He hums contentedly at the scent that fills his nostrils, the scent of home, and is about to drift off again when it all comes roaring back to him. Arriving at Deucalion's pack house. Almost being killed. Finding the secret staircase in Deucalion's library. Facing off against said alpha. Transforming into a literal wolf and killing him. Ascending from a beta to an alpha.

Jerking upright, Derek remembers crawling up next to Stiles on the cot and falling unconscious. His mate is still beside him, and Derek just drinks him in for the longest time, afraid not to just in case the human disappears. He doesn't think he could stand them ever being parted again.

Eventually, noise from above forces Derek to look elsewhere. It doesn't sound like fighting but like talking and crying. He prays it's his family and worries about what has caused the latter noise. He looks around the rest of the room, which is as it was before all the energy he had exerted finally caught up to him. Deucalion's cooling corpse is still on the floor a few feet away, as are the scraps of Derek's clothes, too far gone to be even remotely salvageable.

That could be an issue.

Getting to his feet, Derek looks down at his naked body and contemplates what to do about it; nudity and privacy isn't the biggest issue between werewolves in a pack, but he doesn't want to go back upstairs and see Chris and John without at least something on his bottom half. The cot doesn't have any sheets he can tie around his waist and taking Stiles' underwear for himself isn't even an option, which leaves him with just one choice, disgusting as it may be.

Wrinkling his nose, Derek kneels next to Deucalion and reaches for the button of his jeans, not giving himself a chance to talk himself out of it. He pulls down the zipper, wrestles the rough fabric off of the dead man and then pulls the jeans up his own legs and does them up, careful not to catch anything important in the zipper. His modesty sufficiently protected, Derek just wants to get out of there.

He lovingly brushes Stiles' hair back from his forehead before sliding his arms beneath the human's shoulders and knees. Picking him up to rest against his bare chest, head tucked beneath his chin, Derek opens the door, leaves the basement and doesn't look back. He takes the stairs as swiftly as he can without jostling Stiles too much and encounters another problem when he reaches the top. The bookcase that serves as the secret entrance to the basement is shut tight now, and he can't find a switch to open it from this side.

"Hello?" he calls out, hoping it really is his family he can hear out there.

"Derek?" another voice says a moment later. It belongs to Cora, but it's hoarser than he has ever heard it. Her footsteps come closer and stop on the other side of the bookcase. "How did you get behind there?"

"There's a button on the left."

Derek waits for his sister to find it, and then the bookcase shudders and swings open. Stepping out into the light, his eyes quickly getting used to the sudden brightness, he frowns when he sees the fresh tear tracks on Cora's face. Readjusting Stiles in his arms when the younger man begins to slip, he regards the girl with concern.

"What's wrong?" he asks, dread pooling thick and heavy in his stomach as more of his battle with Deucalion comes back to him. The intense pain he had felt halfway through ghosts through his bones, and he thinks now that Deucalion was right about what caused it.

"It's— It's—" Cora chokes out, fresh tears falling. She ends up shaking her head, unable to speak. Instead she walks toward the living room.

Following his sibling, Derek sweeps his gaze disbelievingly over the carnage. The lifeless bodies of Deucalion's betas lie amongst destroyed furniture, the death of their alpha presumably enough to give the Hale pack enough of an upper hand to take the victory. Aiden and Chris stand uncomfortably off to one side, but none of that is what Derek ends up staring at.

It doesn't sink in right away, but when it does he barely stops himself from falling to his knees. In the middle of the room, the rest of his pack is gathered around another body. There is no blood in sight on it, but the head is bent at an unnatural angle, the neck obviously snapped. Nathan is slumped over it, sobbing uncontrollably. No one attempts to comfort him.

"Laura," Derek gasps, his own eyes filling with tears. They fall silently.

"One of Deucalion's betas did it," Peter explains needlessly from somewhere behind him. His sassy demeanour is gone.

Derek keeps staring at his older sister's body until someone else appears beside him. Almost robotically he turns his head and blankly registers that it's John. "You found him," the sheriff whispers, his eyes on Stiles in Derek's arms. His face is a mixture of sadness for Laura and relief at the return of his son, the latter understandably winning out.

"Yeah," Derek says, clutching his mate closer.

"Is he alright?"

"Yeah," Derek repeats, incapable of saying anything else. His brain just isn't working.

John touches his bare shoulder. "Do you want me to take him?"

Immediately Derek shakes his head, a vehement action. Having Stiles in his arms is the only thing keeping him together. John seems to get it because he nods and backs off, but he doesn't go far.

Derek isn't sure how long he stands there, but eventually Nathan is all out of tears and being lead out of the house by Talia. Nicolas picks his daughter up, cradling her like Derek continues to hold Stiles, and trails after his wife and son-in-law. His face is devoid of any emotion like Talia's, and Derek thinks idly that they are probably trying to be strong so that the children they have left can fall apart. He appreciates it greatly as everyone else trickles out, too, until it's just him, Stiles and John left. The sheriff asks him whether he is ready to go as well, so he looks one final time at the spot Laura had previous occupied and gives another soft, "Yeah."

Outside, the somber mood follows the group.

Nathan has been put in the backseat of John's cruiser, the door left wide open so Talia can crouch down next to him and speak to him quietly. Nathan looks as lifeless as his mate, whose dark locks spill across his lap. Cora is still crying in the backseat of Chris' truck with, surprisingly, Peter trying to provide her solace. He wraps an arm around her and pulls her closer.

Elsewhere, Aiden is standing with Chris and John a few feet away from the hunter's vehicle. Derek thinks he hears them planning what to do with all the bodies left inside the house, but he tunes them out.

He doesn't really care what happens to those bodies.

Moving like he is in a dream, Derek walks on bare feet to his Camaro and climbs in the back. Someone else can drive, because he isn't letting go of Stiles. He wipes his eyes and settles in, his fingers moving constantly through his mate's hair. He just concentrates on Stiles' face and blocks out everything else, trying not to think about the cost of this reunion.

* * *

- The Present: Tuesday, March 22nd, 2016 -

At 2 a.m., Derek sits alone in one of the empty staff rooms in Beacon Hills Memorial Hospital, waiting for news of Stiles' condition. He has been there for nearly an hour now, after he was given a clean set of gym clothes to change into by Melissa McCall, which she managed to obtain from one of her coworkers. For the first half of that time, Derek had paced back and forth, unable to quell the restlessness he'd felt, but now he sits in one of the chairs with a cup of bad coffee in one hand and Deucalion's phone in the other.

The situation is reminiscent of the one he had experienced just two months prior, when he had found Stiles outside of his apartment building.

Only now Laura isn't there to keep him company.

Derek shakes his head rapidly, ridding himself temporarily of his grief before it can whisk him away from the present. He slumps back in his seat and casts out his senses, listening to all the noises around him. He can hear endless heartbeats, the non-stop beeping of machines designed to keep people in intensive care alive on the floor below. He can hear doctors and nurses talking with patients and the sound of running water as someone washes their hands in a sink somewhere close by. It all serves as a wonderful distraction, which he takes full advantage of until the sound of nearby footsteps breaks through it all.

"Derek," John says, opening the door and peeking his head in, "the doctor's ready."

Standing up, Derek slides Deucalion's phone in the pocket of his borrowed gym shorts and places his full coffee cup on a table on his way out of the staff room. He treks the hallways with John until they reach Dr. Martinez's office, something that is again very familiar. The doctor is already there, and he shakes Derek's hand before gesturing to the two seats in front of the desk. He has another manila folder in front of him, which Derek knows contains all the information on Stiles' condition.

"First off, I'm pleased to tell you that what we found is nowhere near as severe as the last time Stiles was brought in," Dr. Martinez says. He refers to the folder before addressing the sheriff. "He was dehydrated and slightly malnourished, and was under the influence of a particularly strong sedative. We haven't been able to determine the origins of this sedative yet, but we're confident that it will deal no lasting damage to your son. We're going to keep him until he wakes up, of course, and then a little longer for observation, just to make absolutely sure. You should be able to take him home after that. Does that sound alright to you?"

"So there were no new injuries?" John asks, ignoring the doctor's question. "No more evidence of sexual assault?"

"No. Just what I've just mentioned."

John lets out a long breath. "Thank God..."

Derek stays silent but shares the sentiment. He thinks of the videos Deucalion had mentioned, his hand cupping the phone in his pocket. He'll check them out when Stiles is back with him, whole and well.

Dr. Martinez closes the manila folder and gets up. "Would you like to see him?"

"Please."

Stiles is being kept in a different room than before, but it's still private thanks to the standing John has within the community. As soon as he is inside, Derek is at his mate's bedside. He drags one of the chairs there closer to the bed and holds on tightly to Stiles' hand, his wolf calming for the first time since they were separated.

"I'll leave you two to it," Dr. Martinez says with a kind smile. He shuts the door on his way out.

"I hoped we'd never end up back here," John laments, taking a second chair and sitting on the other side of Stiles' hospital bed.

Derek hums. "At least it's really over now."

"I suppose."

"I'm so tired but I don't want to close my eyes," Derek confides, stroking his thumb over the back of Stiles' hand.

"I know the feeling."

"Where's everyone else?"

"Peter is with Cora and Nathan at home, Chris and Aiden are looking after Ennis, and your parents are...well, they're with Laura."

Sheriff and deputy lapse into silence then, both watching the rise and fall of Stiles' chest as he breathes and listening to the steady beeping of the ECG machine. The sight and sound are hypnotising in a way, reassuring. They both know there is a lot to talk about still, a lot to be done, but for the time being they are content just to be in the same room with the most important person in their lives.

What could be minutes later or possibly hours, the relative silence is disturbed by visitors. Talia and Nicolas quietly enter the room, the rims of their eyes red. Derek presumes that they have vented a small portion of their grief for their eldest child in the moments of privacy they've had since returning to Beacon Hills, but their strong masks are back in place now. Two more chairs are positioned on Derek's side of the hospital bed as they join the vigil over Stiles.

As John tells Nicolas what they know of Stiles' condition, Talia puts her hand on her son's thigh and squeezes. "You doing okay?" she asks him.

"About as well as I can be, I guess," Derek replies.

"You're different."

Derek glances at her. "I am."

"You're an alpha now," Talia states, drawing the attention of the other two men in the room. "I felt it, but there's...there's something else. Something happened before you killed Duke."

Derek doesn't really want to talk about it, but he can't avoid it forever. Slowly, he details what happened to him down in the basement of Deucalion's pack house. His parents stare at him as he talks, and while John keeps his eyes on his son, Derek knows the sheriff is listening, too. "I don't know how, but when Deucalion threatened to kill Stiles then and there, something in me snapped. I changed, like you do, mom. It hurt. It hurt a lot, but then it just felt natural. Deucalion couldn't recover from his shock in time to stop me from tearing his throat out." The corner of Derek's mouth twitches at the memory. "I passed out after that, and when I came to again I took Deucalion's jeans since mine were torn to shreds, got Stiles, and...and the rest you know."

"Things are going to be interesting for a while then," Nicolas says with an amused huff. "Two alphas in one pack."

"We'll manage," his wife promises.

"You're still the true alpha, though, mom," Derek avows.

"For now. But it will be difficult to learn your new instincts. We'll clash until you do. You'll need a crash course since I haven't been preparing you for this like I had..." Talia trails off, a flash of pain appearing on her face before she smothers it.

"Maybe those brothers can help you out," John interpolates helpfully. "Marc and Geoff, right? They're both alphas of the same pack, so maybe they'll have some advice."

"I'll call them later," Talia agrees, grateful for the save.

* * *

By the time Stiles wakes up, Talia and Nicolas have taken their leave again, saying that they were going to see to some things and would be back later. Derek knew what things his parents were seeing to and asked no questions, just went back to staring at his mate's slumbering form. John has also left, but only briefly to refill his coffee cup.

Derek sits there alone for another few minutes before it happens.

Stiles comes to gradually, the steady beeping of the ECG monitor faltering and his breathing speeding up fractionally. Derek is out of his chair in an instant, needing to be the first thing Stiles sees. It takes another minute, and then caramel eyes blink a few times and stay open halfway. The human is obviously groggy from whatever drugs Deucalion forced on him and probably will be for a while yet, his eyes tracking slowly over the ceiling above him before landing on Derek's face.

Recognition isn't instantaneous, but it happens.

At first Stiles looks fearful and confused, but the confusion soon melts into hope and then, finally, happiness takes over his features. He raises a shaky hand and touches the side of Derek's face, like he is double-checking to make sure the wolf is real. Derek smiles down at him and covers Stiles' hand with his own, holding it there.

"Hey," he says, injecting every ounce of love he feels for his mate into that single word. He loses track of how long they just gaze into each other's eyes, but then the door opens and John reenters.

The sheriff freezes once he gets around the curtain and sees that his son is awake. "Stiles," he gasps, dropping his newly refilled cup and spilling coffee all over the floor. No one cares.

Having already had his time with Stiles, Derek doesn't complain when the younger man's attention is taken away from him and put on John instead. He is unable to wipe the smile off of his face as father reconnects with son, as John grabs Stiles' other hand and leans down to tenderly kiss Stiles' forehead. "You had me worried, kiddo," the sheriff says against the pale skin before drawing back. He falls back into his chair. "I'm so glad to have you back."

* * *

- The Present: Wednesday, March 23rd, 2016 -

When Stiles is released the next day, Derek takes him to the Hale house rather than his apartment. His reasoning is that it will be less traumatic for him, considering what happened the last time Stiles was in the latter location. There is a pervasive feeling of sorrow in the large house, every one of the Hales feeling their loss keenly—Cora is in the kitchen with their parents and Nathan is upstairs in Laura's old bedroom, eerily quiet. No one knows where Peter is, but Derek doesn't think about his missing uncle as he makes himself comfortable on one of the living room sofas with Stiles next to him and John on Stiles' other side.

"What time are the Argents supposed to be here?" the sheriff asks Derek.

"Any minute now," the alpha replies.

He is nervous. Today is the day they finally give Stiles his memories back. Today is the day that, if everything goes according to plan, he gets Stiles back. "Are you scared?" he asks his mate, not missing the way Stiles fidgets every so often.

The human nods and looks at him with wide eyes, so Derek raises his arm and allows Stiles to slot up against his side. Since his return back in January, Stiles has definitely enjoyed the occasional cuddle, but since he was rescued from Deucalion and woke up in the hospital again, Stiles has clung to Derek like a limpet. Derek isn't complaining. He just wishes the reason behind it wasn't so sad.

"It'll be alright son," John reassures, eyeing the pair fondly.

Soon enough, Derek hears a vehicle approaching the house. It stops right outside, three car doors slamming in quick succession, followed by a fourth a moment later, and then there comes a knock on the front door. Derek doesn't bother getting up to answer it because he can already hear his mother moving through from the kitchen to do just that. He listens as pleasantries are exchanged, and then the newcomers enter the room. Aiden is first, followed by Allison with a shotgun in her hands. Chris Argent brings up the rear, dragging with him a gagged and bound Ennis.

Stiles shrinks further into Derek's embrace at the sight of the brutish alpha, which Derek was prepared for. He knew this would be difficult, considering the fact that Ennis was the one who took Stiles from his apartment. He hates that, to get Stiles his memories back, they have to go to one of the people who has caused his mate such pain.

"Don't try anything," Talia warns Ennis, glaring up at him, "or you'll have two alphas handing you your ass. Understood?"

Staring her down, Ennis grudgingly nods and spits out the gag when Chris unties it. "Who's the second one?" he growls angrily.

Derek flashes his eyes warningly. "Me."

Ennis considers him before moving his hard gaze to Stiles. "Let's just get this over with."

"You remember how this is going to go down?" Chris asks sternly, pulling a dagger out of the scabbard he has fastened to his waist.

"Restore him to just before he was taken," Ennis says mockingly, rolling his eyes.

"Good."

Chris cuts through the wolfsbane rope that binds Ennis' wrists behind his back and steps away. He takes the shotgun from Allison and points it at Ennis, ready to pull the trigger if the alpha puts even one toe out of line.

Derek rubs Stiles' arm and brings them both to their feet. "You ready?"

Stiles just studies Ennis.

"I'll be right here the whole time," Derek comforts, gently turning Stiles' head so that their eyes lock. Something wraps tightly around his heart when he sees the fear there. "You can keep hold of my hand if you want. Just keep looking at me. It'll be over before you know it and then you never have to think of him or see him ever again. Okay?"

Once Stiles has given him his consent, Derek gestures for Ennis to come forward. Stiles gets more tense with each step the other alpha takes, so Derek rubs his thumbs over the backs of his mate's hands in an effort to get him relax again. It doesn't quite work, but then Ennis has his claws out and is thrusting them recklessly into the back of Stiles' neck and it doesn't matter anymore. Stiles' eyes close and he goes completely still.

Derek is about to reprimand Ennis for continuing to treat his mate so callously, but it's over before he can even open his mouth. Ennis retracts his claws, steps away again and allows Allison to wrap new rope around his wrists with an unnerving smirk on his lips.

Certain that Ennis is sufficiently restrained once more, Derek grasps Stiles' biceps and focuses all of his attention on him. He is alarmed to find that, while Stiles' eyes are open again, they are strangely blank, like there's no intelligence behind them whatsoever. He shakes Stiles lightly, hoping that the action with snap him out of whatever trance he has slipped into.

"Stiles, c'mon," he begs, "come back to me."

"What's going on?" John demands to know, looking at his son from over Derek's shoulder.

Derek ignores him, recalling Ennis' smirk from just a moment before. "What did you do?!" he seethes at the older alpha.

"What you asked," Ennis replies casually. "I gave him his memories back."

"How many?!"

"All of them."

What happens next is lost on Derek. He isn't used to his aggrandised wolf and loses control of it before he even knows it needs to be controlled. He blacks out and when he comes to, his cheek stings and his mother is holding him in a bruising grip, having used all of her strength to stop him from getting to Ennis and ripping him to shreds. While he is still furious, Derek manages to reign in his wolf again and sags in his mother's hands, his fangs and claws disappearing.

"You good?" Talia asks her son.

Derek swallows tightly. "I'm good."

Once he is released, Derek looks once at Ennis and feels satisfaction when he notes the healing shallow claw marks on his neck. He got close.

Talia stalks up to the malicious man and raises an eyebrow, silently asking for an explanation.

Ennis scoffs. "I was never seeing the light of day after this anyway," he says, baring his teeth. "Might as well go out with a bang, y'know?"

It's evident in the way Talia's hands shake at her sides that she wants to finish what Derek had started, but she doesn't. Instead, she addresses Chris Argent. "Take him out of here. We don't need him anymore. I trust you can think of something fitting for all he's done."

"Oh, yeah," Chris grins, "I have something good planned."

"Like what?" John enquires, still standing by his statue-like son.

"We know an emissary who can bind his wolf. It's a particularly painful process, and then you'll be able to lock him up for the rest of his life like us 'disgusting humans' without worrying about him breaking free."

Ennis is freaked out by this prospect, his gloating facade gone. Derek has to admit it does sound horrible to be cut off from an intrinsic part of yourself, but it's a fitting punishment. He observes, pleased, as Ennis struggles against Chris dragging him back outside, but it's a pointless effort when Aiden steps in and assists the hunter. Once the sound of the Argents' truck has faded, Derek looks at Stiles in despair.

"What are we going to do?"

"Let's get him sat down first, sweetheart," Talia says. She wears a sad smile as Derek and John walk Stiles back to the sofa. They have to move his limbs like a doll.

The sheriff looks pleadingly up at Talia when it's done. "Is there a way to fix this?"

"Maybe," she says thoughtfully, her hand on her chin.

"How?"

"Let me try to take the memories back."

Derek eyes her warily as she sits down on Stiles' other side, in the seat John used to occupy. She brings her claws to the back of Stiles' neck and inserts them into the wounds Ennis left behind, but nothing happens. "It's not working," she says disappointedly, extracting her claws.

"Why?" Derek demands to know.

"The memories are locked in Stiles' mind. I can access them," Talia says, shuddering, "but I can't remove them while Stiles is like this. There's a barrier."

"There has to be some way to reach him, though."

"I can't be certain," Talia cautions, "but the shock of being bombarded with all of those painful memories could have caused Stiles to shut down to protect himself. It's possible he is simply hiding from them because they're too hard for him to deal with all at once. I can't remove them because they're not a part of him again yet. If someone were to go inside of his mind, find him and make him feel safe enough, he may be able to accept the memories as a proper part of himself. Then we can try to remove them."

"I'll do it," Derek volunteers immediately, ready to try anything.

"I don't think—"

"I'm doing it!" Derek snaps. "He's my mate."

Talia takes a breath. "You're still new to being an alpha, Derek. You haven't done anything like this before."

"So talk me through it."

"Derek..."

"Let him try," Nicolas speaks up, putting a hand on his wife's shoulder.

The couple communicates silently for a minute before Talia acquiesces with a sigh. "Bring out your claws," she tells Derek calmly. Once he has done so, she helps guide him to find the perfect spot on the back of Stiles' neck. The human doesn't react at all. "Now, you want to pierce the skin and go deep enough to tap into his mind, but not deep enough to cause any permanent damage. I don't know what you'll find once you're inside, so be prepared for anything, alright?"

Derek nods tightly.

"Good luck."

After a pause to gather his courage, Derek presses his hand forward and the world around him vanishes.

Chapter Text

- The Past: Monday, January 25th, 2016 -

Stiles stares at Adrian’s corpse for a long time before it sinks in. He killed him. He has blood on his hands, literally and figuratively. He tears up and chokes on his own breath as he fumbles to his knees and hovers over the body. Adrian’s eyes are still open, looking blankly at the ceiling. Stiles thinks he will be haunted by that image for the rest of his life.

Even though Adrian had hurt him and hadn’t been his friend for many frightening months, even though he still doesn’t know how he entered Adrian’s life, even though Adrian messed with his memories at least once and probably more times before that...Stiles didn’t want the alpha to die. He swears he didn’t. He cries as he remembers the good times they’d shared, how well Adrian had taken care of him in the beginning—sharing his bed, comforting him when he had nightmares he couldn’t remember and woke up shaking so hard he felt like he might vibrate right out of his own skin. Cuddling up together on the living room sofa to watch movies as the world outside got dark.

Now that man is dead for real, and Stiles is the one responsible.

He can’t be in that room anymore, so he gets up, his ribs protesting from when Adrian fell on top of him. He stumbles back out into the hallway, blood dripping from his fingers. The tears in Stiles’ eyes make it hard to see, but he manages to get to Adrian’s bedroom and the en suite bathroom. He turns on the shower, shrugs off his clothes and steps inside the stall. He washes himself robotically, his tears mixing with the pink water until they stop coming and he is just left with a feeling of loss, of consuming emptiness.

Once he has dried himself with a towel that he drops carelessly to the floor, Stiles retrieves the map from his dirty jeans and goes into his own bedroom, where he pulls out a fresh set of the clothes that Adrian had bought him over a year ago and dresses himself.

At least he feels clean now.

When he shuts his bedroom door for the final time, Stiles avoids even glancing at the kitchen and walks in the opposite direction. He proceeds through to the living room and on into the entranceway. The ring of spare keys still lies on the floor where he’d dropped it when Adrian caught him. After bending to pick them up and double-checking that the map is in the pocket of his emerald-green chinos, Stiles finds it surprisingly difficult to raise his hand and unlock the door.

He knew he wanted to leave this place, wanted to discover who Derek Hale is and leave Adrian’s near-constant torment firmly behind him. He still does. But even though a lot of it was bad, Stiles has a hard time accepting that this part of his life—the only part of his life he can remember—is over, and he will never be able to get it back.

With a deep breath, Stiles is finally able to insert the key in the door and turn it. The sound of the lock sliding open is like a gunshot that kills the last shred of his old self.

He opens the door.

* * *

- The Past: Tuesday, January 26th, 2016 -

Getting to Beacon Hills was an arduous task. Adrian’s house turned out to truly be in the middle of nowhere, something Stiles had half known by looking out of its windows but hadn’t quite grasped entirely. The road that is highlighted in blue on the map he’d found beneath his pillow was deserted for the most part, the only traffic it saw being a lone car every half an hour or so, if that. None of the cars stopped or even slowed down when they passed by Stiles trudging along the side of the road, so it took him hours and hours to traverse it.

When the sign telling him he is entering Beacon Hills is finally close enough to become readable, Stiles’ feet and legs are sore and he is really regretting not bringing any food or water with him. He feels weary and would love nothing more than to lie down on the ground and sleep off his exhaustion, but he knows that isn’t an option. He has to keep going.

He can rest when he finds Derek.

The sky is darkening rapidly. Just a sliver of light can be seen above the horizon and the majority of the buildings in the town have lights on in the windows. Where there would be a lot of traffic on the roads during the day, there is little now.

Stiles walks past buildings without really looking at them. Most of his focus is on the map in his hands as he attempts to keep track of which roads he has already taken, which corners he has already turned. He apparently isn’t very good at orienteering, because when he looks up from the crumpled paper, his eyes flitting over the street name he should be on, he is greeted by a junction completely different from the one he was expecting.

He must have gotten turned around somewhere.

Walking back the way he’d come, Stiles searches the street signs for the one he last recalls passing on the map and curses himself. He can’t find it.

He’s lost.

Panic should be setting in, a sensation Stiles is well acquainted with. But because of his fatigue, it’s subdued and never really takes hold. He can’t even be grateful for this small mercy, not when he is so close to finding the sheriff’s station and, by extension, Derek Hale. He has to keep moving, but in which direction? And, he wonders tiredly, with what energy?

Stiles manages to get another street over before his vision starts to blur. The few civilians who walk by him regard him strangely but none offer their help. He drops the map without meaning to and doesn’t even want to contemplate bending down to pick it back up. Stubbornly putting one foot in front of the other and holding his hand against the wall to support himself, Stiles reaches what he thinks is an apartment building. The lobby looks so inviting, so bright and warm. He grabs the handle of the glass doors and pulls, but nothing happens. The door refuses to open for him and he doesn’t know what else he can do.

Stumbling on in a daze, Stiles somehow ends up in the alley between the apartment building and the building next to it. There’s a dumpster halfway along it, which Stiles reaches before his legs finally give out on him. He collapses on the cold, filthy ground and is disappointed to find he doesn’t even have the energy to curl his body up to retain as much heat as he can. All he can do is lie there on his front and let the world fade to black.

* * *

- The Present: Wednesday, March 23rd, 2016 -

One instant Derek is in his parents’ living room, his claws in the back of Stiles’ neck, and then the next he is somewhere completely different.

As his surroundings swim into focus, he is at first too disoriented to recognise his new location, but soon enough he registers that he is in the bedroom of his apartment. Derek stands in the middle of it and spins in a circle, fascinated by the verisimilitude of the place. The undecorated pale-orange walls; the hardwood floor; the dresser filled with his and Stiles’ clothes, the latter’s largely untouched; the large bed with the body curled up beneath the sheets... All of it looks exactly like the real thing. If Derek didn’t know that he is actually sitting on the living room sofa in his childhood home, he would almost believe that what he is seeing now is real.

But he does know, so the illusion doesn’t quite grip him.

Turning back to the bed, Derek steps closer and spies the tuft of messy brown hair peeking out from where the sapphire-blue sheets are pulled up high. He sits on the edge of the mattress and tugs them down to reveal Stiles’ slack face, his eyes closed. At first, Derek thinks that Stiles is really sleeping, but after another moment spent peering down at his mate he deduces that it’s an act. Stiles is awake and is just ignoring everything around him.

“Stiles,” Derek says quietly, shaking him.

He gets no reaction and tries again, his voice louder this time. “Stiles, come on, look at me.”

Again, no reaction.

With a frustrated sigh, Derek retracts his hand and thinks of a possible reason Stiles chose to be here. There isn’t anything remarkable about his bedroom. In fact it’s quite spartan, lacking the many indulgences Derek knows other people have. The only thing that he can come up with is that maybe Stiles just likes it here. Perhaps what Derek’s mother had theorised is true and the memories of what Stiles had suffered over the past five years were too much. Perhaps he has locked himself away from them in a place he feels safe and happy so that he doesn’t have to face them.

Derek feels awful at the prospect of forcing him, but he has to.

Instead of simply shaking Stiles, this time Derek climbs over him and lies down next to him on the bed, their faces inches apart. It isn’t his imagination that Stiles seems slightly more tense than he was just a bit ago, so Derek is sure he is on the right track.

“I know it’s scary,” he soothes, cupping the side of Stiles’ face with his hand. He rubs his thumb back and forth over the scars on Stiles’ cheek. “I can only guess the horrors you’ve been through, and I get why you would want to avoid reliving them at any cost. I would, too. Believe me, I would. But...you can’t stay in here forever. At some point, you need to open your eyes, leave this bed and confront your memories. You need to do it for yourself, because otherwise they’ll always haunt you. You’ll never be free of them. You need to do it for your dad, who wants his son back more than anything. And you need to do it for me. I don’t want to be alone again, and if you stay in here, that’s exactly what will happen.”

Derek feels a little bad for using a tactic as low as emotional manipulation, but he figures that, if it gets Stiles to at least acknowledge him, it’ll be worth it.

“Please? I need you.”

Seconds pass. Then a whole minute, and still nothing.

“Okay...” Derek swallows his sadness and turns onto his back. He folds his hands over his stomach and settles in. “Guess I’m staying here as well then. I meant it when I said need you, so if you’re going to stay here, I’m going to stay here with you.”

More minutes pass before something changes. The bed shifts next to Derek, a small movement that he almost misses. He opens his eyes—when did he close them anyway?—and turns his head on his pillow to find that Stiles has finally stopped pretending and is looking right at him. Derek lets out a relieved breath and reaches for Stiles’ hand, tangling their fingers together.

“Hey,” he whispers, face breaking out into a grin he couldn’t stop even if he wanted to. “Are you feeling strong enough to give it a go now?”

Stiles looks briefly down at their joined hands and then back up at Derek, the apprehension in his eyes growing.

“I’m here,” Derek reassures. “I don’t really know how this works, but I’ll be by your side the entire time. I’m sorry Ennis did this to you,” he says, a feeling of failure obstructing his throat because he didn’t protect his mate. He swallows it down, knowing that he doesn’t have the luxury of wallowing in his guilt. “I should’ve known he would do something like that, but I promise we’ll get through it together. They’re memories. No matter how scary they are, no matter who hurt you in them, they can’t hurt you anymore. You trust me, right?”

Hesitantly, Stiles nods.

“Are you ready?”

Another nod.

With a loving smile, Derek gets up from the bed and waits patiently for Stiles to do the same. The human’s movements are sedate as he pushes the sheets off of himself, like he is giving Derek every opportunity to take back what he said, allowing him to stay in this imagined copy of his bedroom. It pains him, but Derek doesn’t give in because he knows this is for the best.

Soon enough, Stiles is standing in clothes Derek recognises from his own dresser, the ones his mate likes to wear in the evenings. The warm maroon sweater is baggy even on Derek, so it nearly swamps Stiles completely; apart from his shoulders, which are just as broad. The dark-grey sweatpants Stiles has put himself in are the same. It’s probably the warmest outfit Derek owns, and though the situation makes it inappropriate, the wolf can’t help but appreciate once again how adorable Stiles is in it.

He holds out his hand. “C’mon.”

Stiles takes it and looks at him with such trust that Derek prays he doesn’t mess this up. Turning to the closed bedroom door, Derek leads his mate toward it and shares one last look with him before opening it.

* * *

When Derek steps through the doorway, he doesn’t emerge into his living room but somewhere completely different. It’s pitch-black, but that isn’t a problem for Derek’s eyes. The room he is enclosed in is small, dirty and stinks of foul things he doesn’t want to name. The only thing inside it is a rusty bucket in one of the corners, from which the smells emanate.

At first, Derek doesn’t notice that Stiles isn’t standing next to him. The confusion he feels from the abrupt change of location means it takes a few beats to realise that Stiles’ hand is no longer in his.

Derek spins around the room and becomes frantic when he doesn’t see his mate anywhere. He is completely alone in the room, and there is no indication of where Stiles might have gone. Until, that is, he hears someone coming closer on the other side of one of the walls. He presses his ear to it and listens attentively. The person’s footsteps sound male, the weight behind them telling Derek that they are probably tall and either overweight or packing some serious muscle. It’s this thought that leads him to remember that he has seen the room he is in before, just three days ago when he went to visit the facility in which Ennis immured his victims.

That must mean that the person outside is Ennis himself.

“Hey!” Derek shouts, banging on the wall.

Nothing.

The footsteps pass the room Derek is in and only stop when they reach the one next to it. “Hey!” he shouts again.

He hears a door being opened and then Ennis speaks to whoever is inside the next room. Derek thinks he knows who it is and feels fear.

“What’s your name?” Ennis asks, sounding bored.

Then comes a punch being thrown and a sharp cry of pain from the voice Derek didn’t want to hear. His panic kicks into overdrive. He paces around the four walls in search of an exit but doesn’t find one right away, all while Ennis asks more questions and inflicts more pain on Stiles. Eventually forcing himself to calm down and think rationally—he won’t do his mate any good if he loses is head now—he detects a couple of grooves in one of the walls he thinks could be a door. He wedges his short nails in the grooves and pulls with all of his might, but the door doesn’t give even a inch.

“Where are you—“

Derek hears Ennis’ question being cut off. There is a sharp metallic clang followed by a thud he thinks could be a body dropping to the floor. “Stiles?!” he yells, fearing the worst has happened. It doesn’t occur to him in his mental state that none of this is real and therefore Stiles can’t die.

Everything else is silent for a tense moment, in which all Derek hears is his own breathing and the rapid beating of his heart. But then the metallic sound comes again and the door to the room next to his is reopened. More footsteps, softer this time, before something comes undone on the other side of the door Derek is still pressed against—a lock. Derek leaps back, prepared to fight Ennis just in case, but then the door opens and he sees Stiles on the other side. The human has a split lip and is now wearing the dirty and ripped clothes he was taken in, but otherwise he seems alright.

Derek rushes forward and hugs him tightly. “Stiles!” he gasps, pulling back again and holding the human at arm’s length to get a better look at him. “I was so worried. Please tell me you’re okay.”

Stiles’ face doesn’t change as he nods, like he is too stunned to process whatever has just happened to him, but Derek will take it. He returns the nod and releases him. “I guess I was lying when I said I’d be by your side the whole time, huh?” he says sadly, looking down at the floor. “I guess that’s not how this is going to work...”

It makes sense, Derek supposes. Stiles is the one who has to deal with his memories, so of course Stiles will have to be the one to fight them off. Derek is in the middle of chastising himself when he feels Stiles’ hand slip into his. Raising his head again, he notes that the stunned expression on his mate’s face is gone, replaced by kindness and understanding. Derek spares another second to chide himself for making Stiles feel like he has to comfort him—Derek is the one who should be comforting Stiles and helping him through this ordeal, not the other way around. He pulls himself together with a long breath.

“Sorry,” he murmurs, squeezing Stiles' hand.

His curiosity getting the better of him now, Derek walks slowly to his right, wanting to know just how Stiles managed to stop Ennis.

In the dark room Stiles was locked in for weeks in real life, Ennis lies facedown right in the middle of the floor, a huge cut on the side of his forehead. He isn’t breathing, blood slowly pools beneath his head and right next to him is a metal bucket with a serious dent in its base, which explains the metallic sounds Derek had heard. Stiles must have hit Ennis so hard with the bucket that it killed him.

“Impressive,” Derek says. He knew Stiles would be strong enough to do this.

When he has looked his fill at Ennis, he turns back to Stiles and gestures with his free hand to the door right at the end of the hallway, the only way outside. “You ready for round two?”

* * *

This time, when the world around Derek rights itself, he finds that he has been dropped alone in the middle of a dense forest at nighttime. The scents of nature fill his nose, pine and dirt and the lingering traces of rain. It’s pleasant and would ordinarily go a long way to setting him at ease, but again he has been separated from Stiles and ‘at ease’ isn’t a state of being he is capable of.

The only problem is, how will he find his mate?

He knows he won’t do it just standing in one spot, so Derek starts walking slowly through the forest. He keeps his eyes to the ground and most of his focus on what he breathes in, hoping to spot tracks in the dirt or to pick Stiles’ scent out of all the others around him. For several minutes he walks without finding success.

“Fuck!” he curses, swinging his fist as hard as he can at a tree. It groans and tilts with the impact, half of its roots tearing from the ground because Derek has yet to gain proper control of his new strength. Tired of being on an emotional rollercoaster, Derek moves on from the tree and decides to just keep walking in the hopes that he will happen upon wherever his mate is soon.

* * *

Some time later—maybe five minutes, maybe thirty, for all Derek knows—Derek sees light breaking through the darkness in the far distance. It’s the first change of scenery he has seen since he arrived in the forest, so he picks up his pace and runs. As he gets closer, it dawns on him that the light comes from the window of a cabin—if it can even be called that. It’s more of a shack, a rickety thing that is standing on its last legs.

A few feet away from the shack now, Derek slows down and power-walks the rest of the way. When he reaches the window and peers inside, his blood boils.

The window looks into a single room with a tiny bathroom attached like an afterthought. The fireplace to the left is roaring away, casting a warm glow over the place that Derek doesn’t think would be enough to combat the cold temperature. Across from the window is a double bed, next to which Stiles is standing in his underwear with a strange man—an alpha. The human has his back to Derek, so Derek can’t get a read on what is going through his mind, but he can see the man. They are dressed in a smart deep-blue suit, which is tailored to hug his husky form. His dark hair is artfully tousled and his green eyes are filled with lust as he speaks to Stiles.

“Hmm, what to call you... Ah, I know! I’ll be your master and you’ll be named after my mate. I’m probably going to be screaming his name when I’m with you anyway. Well, Riley, I want you to undress me. Start with my shirt.”

When he sees Stiles raise his arms to do just that, Derek is about to bolt to wherever the door is to the shack, or even break through the window if it came to it. He fears that Stiles has gotten caught up in his memories, has forgotten that he has a choice here, that he doesn’t have to relive whatever atrocity the suited man had planned for him. But then Stiles pauses with his hands halfway in the air, which causes Derek to pause, too.

He hadn’t expected the hesitation. He would give anything to be able to see his mate’s face.

“Riley, I won’t ask again,” the suited man says dangerously, the lust in his eyes turning to impatience.

Instead of listening, Stiles takes a step backward, distancing himself.

“Riley!”

The man’s growl is low and dangerous, and everything Derek thought about Stiles having to do this by himself is thrown out the metaphorical window. He follows through on is previous intention and runs around the shack in search of the door. When he finds it, he bashes his shoulder against it, thinking it might be locked. He tumbles through it when he finds that it isn’t and lands in a sprawl on the floor. As the door rebounds off of the wall and ends up shut again, looks up at Stiles and the suited man, who are both upside-down from his perspective.

Stiles has turned around and is staring right at him, but the suited man doesn’t acknowledge him at all, like he can’t see him. Derek supposes he probably can’t.

“You will obey me, Riley!” the suited man says, wrapping his hand tightly around Stiles’ arm.

When his mate is jerked around and thrown onto the bed, Derek is on his feet and rushing over to prevent the other man from doing anything else. Before they can get on top of Stiles’ trembling form, Derek makes a grab for the back of their shirt, intending to pull him back and toss him aside like a ragdoll. But it doesn’t work, his fingers passing right through the material.

The suited man climbs onto the bed, catches Stiles’ wrists and pins them to the mattress. Stiles squirms desperately beneath him, heart-wrenching terror in his misty eyes.

“I’m going to rip you apart from the inside for disobeying me!” the man snarls, spittle flying from his mouth onto Stiles’ face.

With there being nothing he can do to help directly, Derek thinks of something else. He moves to stand beside the bed and draws Stiles’ gaze away from the rapist currently holding him down. “Stiles, look at me,” he implores, crouching so that they’re at eye level. When his mate shakily tears his eyes away from those of the man on top of him, Derek tries for an encouraging smile. “It’s all in your head,” he reminds the younger man. “Your fear is what’s giving him all his power in here. He can only hurt you if you let him. I know you’re stronger than you’ve been made to feel these past few years. You can fight him. I know you can.”

Stiles looks at Derek, petrified, both of them ignoring the obscenities that continue to pour from the suited man’s mouth. When Derek nods at him, encouraging him further, Stiles looks back up at the alpha atop him and renews his struggles to pull his arms free. When that doesn’t work, Derek notes their positions and has an idea.

“Use your knee,” he suggests.

For a moment Stiles is confused, but then he catches on to Derek’s line on thinking and knees the man pinning him right in his groin. The man reels back with a choked scream, releasing Stiles’ wrists and cupping himself as he topples over sideways to the other side of the bed. Stiles scrambles away from him and almost falls to the floor in his haste, but Derek catches him and helps to steady him.

“You good?” the alpha asks his mate.

Stiles nods slowly, his eyes not leaving the whimpering man still on the bed.

Thinking that this section of Stiles’ memories is finished with, Derek moves them back over to the door and opens it, expecting to be presented with something new when they step through it. But they aren’t.

“What the...?” he breathes when he is met with the forest again. He wonders fleetingly why they’re still in the same place, but then he hears the suited man whimpering from the bed again and susses out what’s going on. It isn’t enough for Stiles to incapacitate his tormentors. No, they were only able to move on from the facility in which Ennis kept his victims because Stiles managed to do enough damage with the metal bucket to kill the manifestation of the alpha. Stiles needs to do the same thing now.

Reentering the shack, Derek searches for a weapon his mate can use and alights on the old-looking fire poker right next to the fireplace. He removes it from the hook it hangs upon and holds it out to Stiles, who has stuck close to his heels.

“Here, take this,” he says. Once Stiles has it in hand, Derek leads the younger man back over to the bed, where the suited alpha is beginning to recover. He doesn’t like the thought of Stiles having to kill someone, even a bastard like this, doesn’t like the thought of Stiles having to live with the weight of that, but he once more contents himself with the knowledge none of this is real. “Just stab him through the neck. It’ll be quick.”

Stiles looks understandably uneasy, but he does it anyway. Just as the suited alpha’s whimpering has tapered off and his scrunched-up eyes open with murderous intent, Stiles raises the poker in the air and brings the pointy end down on the side of his tormentor’s throat. It pierces easily through the skin even though it’s slightly dulled with age, and the alpha seizes on the bed, his hands moving up to try to remove the implement. But it’s too late, and seconds later he has bled out.

In the next instant, the alpha’s corpse glows so brightly that Derek has to hold his hand in front of his eyes. Through his fingers he can just about see some sort of silvery mist coming off of the body, the likes of which he has never seen. It hovers in the air before shooting right at Stiles’ head. Thinking that the mist is dangerous, Derek steps in front of his mate to protect him, but it passes right through him and reaches its target anyway.

Stiles’ eyes close as the mist enters him through the middle of his forehead, but otherwise he does nothing. Derek runs his eyes up and down his mate’s body, looking for a change for the worse. He doesn’t find anything, and when Stiles opens his eyes again and looks at him, Derek blinks dumbly.

“Do you...do you know what that was?” he asks. Stiles shakes his head but seems calm, so Derek hopes his instinct was wrong and it was nothing bad. “Did that happen with Ennis?”

Stiles nods this time, and Derek is satisfied.

Facing the door again, he is pleased to see that, instead of the forest, through the open doorway there is just a swirling black mass. “C’mon, time to go,” he says, taking Stiles’ hand again and leading him out of the shack.

* * *

Next, Derek finds himself in the kitchen of an unfamiliar house. The room is startlingly clinical, with blindingly white cupboards, countertops and floors and silver appliances. There isn’t a spec of dirt anywhere, which creeps Derek out. He leaves the room and enters a hallway with several doors on either side and what he guesses is a living room at the opposite end. He can hear a television coming from the latter, so he heads in that direction.

The first thing Derek sees is Stiles. He is sitting on an ugly sofa with another alpha’s arm wrapped around his shoulders, keeping him pinned to his side. His outfit has changed yet again, turning from just a pair of boxer-briefs to a pair of jeans, a T-shirt and a red hoodie. The alpha has shoulder-length red hair, a smooth, conventionally attractive face and looks several inches taller than Derek. He wears an emerald-green tank top, a pair of grey sweatpants and nothing on his feet, the perfect attire for a lazy evening at home watching TV for hours on end.

At first, Derek is too enraged to fully take in the picture before him, the sight of another werewolf draping himself over his mate so casually not sitting right with the heightened possessive instincts of his alpha wolf. But then another detail catches his eye and makes him reassess the situation—Stiles doesn’t look particularly uncomfortable, staring up at his companion with a mixture of longing and guilt. Derek doesn’t want to imagine why.

“Stiles,” he says, drawing his mate’s attention off of the redheaded alpha and onto him.

The human seems confused at first, as if he had forgotten what he and Derek have been doing for the past however long it’s been. But then recognition flashes across his face and he slides out from beneath the redheaded alpha’s arm and walks over to Derek. The man he left on the sofa has stopped watching whatever is happening on the television screen and instead frowns at Stiles, obviously baffled by him getting up and standing seemingly by himself just inside the entrance to the room.

“You okay?” he asks.

Stiles looks back over his shoulder and nods. He holds up a finger to say that he’ll be a minute, which the alpha thankfully accepts.

Taking his mate’s hand, Derek pulls him gently down the hallway, still trying to process this new memory. Once they reach the kitchen, he leans back against the island and stares at the wall opposite.

Clearly Stiles wasn’t unhappy wherever and whenever this was. Part of Derek is jealous at the thought of his mate being happy living with someone else, but the other part, the part Derek focuses on, is grateful. While he knows enough to guess, he still doesn’t know conclusively everything that Stiles endured after his first kidnapping, but if even a part of that wasn’t hellish, if the redheaded alpha looked after him, Derek can’t feel too bad about it. Especially when he remembers that Stiles wouldn’t have remembered him at the time.

Snapping out of his thoughts, Derek sighs when he notices his mate looking at him worriedly. “I’m fine,” he reassures. “Just...I don’t know why we’re here. This obviously isn’t an unpleasant memory that you need to overcome.”

Stiles looks down at his feet, and Derek knows what he is thinking.

“I don’t blame you for liking it while you were here,” he says gently, drawing Stiles close. “In fact, I’m glad it wasn’t all bad.”

As if those were the magic words, as soon as the last one leaves his lips, the kitchen flickers in and out of existence a couple of times before coming back different. It isn’t meticulously organised but a total mess—cupboard doors are ripped off, cutlery, eggs and milk are on the floor, and a couple of paces away from where Derek stands, the redheaded alpha lies on his back with a knife protruding from his chest.

“What the...?” Derek breathes.

Stiles leaves Derek’s neck to investigate and immediately averts his eyes again when he spots the body on the floor. Derek’s arm drops back to his side when Stiles darts away from him to the other side of the room. The human faces the wall and shakes, his fingers curling and uncurling into fists.

Derek approaches him slowly and risks touching his shoulder. When Stiles bows his head but stays facing away from him, Derek leaves his hand where it is and forces his mind to catch up to this new occurrence.

In Stiles’ previous memories, he has been presented with a tormentor he has had to defeat, but that evidently isn’t the case this time. Stiles was content living with the redheaded alpha for however long that was, but something must have happened somewhere along the way to change that. “Did...did someone break in and do this?” Derek asks his mate.

He gives him all the time he needs to respond and is both pleased and dismayed when, two full minutes later, Stiles shakes his head.

“What was it then? Did...did he try something with you, too?”

A nod this time.

“Like Ennis? Or like the alpha in the shack?”

Stiles raises his hand and holds up his index finger.

“I don’t understand,” Derek admits, annoyed with himself. “You two seemed...cosy.”

When Stiles turns a few degrees to his left, putting Derek in his line of sight while keeping the body out of it, Derek is stunned to discover tears running down the human’s cheeks. With his other hand, Stiles reaches for the back pocket of his jeans and extracts a folded-up piece of paper, which he gives to Derek.

Even more confused now, Derek unfolds the paper and blinks at the map that is printed on it. He traces his finger over his own name written in Stiles’ hand.

“You...you were looking for me.”

The realisation leaves him breathless. He looks up at his mate, wide-eyed. “H-how? I thought your memories of me were gone back then.”

Still avoiding looking at the body, Stiles has Derek follow him out of the kitchen. The wolf is further astounded by the fact that the property damage continues in the hallway and on into the living room. Stiles draws them to a stop beside what Derek presumes is the front door of the house and waits.

Soon, a third iteration of the redheaded alpha appears ghostlike next to them. He speaks to the empty space in front of the door about how Stiles had tried to leave him before. Derek doesn’t fully understand, but he understands enough to get the gist. Somehow, Stiles must have discovered him and done some research to find out where he is, which explains the crumpled map Derek still holds in his hand. But then he was caught before he could make his escape. Adrian took his memories, but he didn’t take the map.

The ghostlike figure of Adrian fades just as he lunges for where Derek guesses Stiles must have been standing in front of the door.

“Is that when...?” he asks, looking to his mate.

Stiles nods.

“And now you feel guilty,” Derek concludes. His previous relief at Stiles’ not killing anyone real fading away, Derek believes he has figured out why his mate’s memories have brought them there. “To get out of here, I think you need to come to terms with what happened in that kitchen and stop blaming yourself for it. You did what you had to do to find me.”

When Stiles gives his assent, Derek takes his trembling mate and brings him back into the kitchen. At first, Stiles still refuses to look at the body, his eyes on the ceiling, but Derek is patient. He stands there and lets the younger man take all the time he needs to gather the nerve necessary to face this last inner demon.

After a while, Stiles visibly braces himself and lowers his gaze to the floor. The trembling gets worse, but Stiles doesn’t back down. He takes a step forward, and then another, and another, until he lowers himself to his knees right next to the body.

As wrong as it feels, Derek stays back, his experiences inside Stiles’ head making him sure that this is another thing Stiles has to do by himself. He observes silently, his jaw clenched as Stiles reaches out with a shaking hand and grips the handle of the kitchen knife embedded in the redheaded alpha’s chest.

Stiles pulls the knife out and throws it away. He presses his left palm to the wound it left behind and rests his right over the alpha’s forehead. The redhead’s eyes stare up at nothing, an eery sight even though Derek has seen dead bodies before, thanks to his vocation. Stiles stays like that as more time ticks by, and then with his right hand he closes the alpha’s eyes.

As soon as that is done, the body glows and emits the same silvery mist as the alpha in the forest shack.

The last thing Derek sees is the mist entering Stile’s head.

* * *

Derek jerks awake to find himself back in the living room of his parents’ house. From the lack of others in the room and the fading light outside, he knows he has been inside of Stiles’ mind for a long time, but beyond that cursory thought he doesn’t care. He retracts his claws from the back of his mate’s neck, sheathes them and turns Stiles’ head to face him.

“Stiles?”

For a few moments Derek is terrified that it didn’t work, that he’ll never get Stiles back, but then his mate opens his eyes and looks at him.

“Derek?” Stiles croaks out, his lower lip wobbling.

The sound of his mate saying his name is enough to make Derek cry, too. He pulls Stiles into his arms and buries his face in his neck, his eyes clenched shut as a sob escapes him. He feels Stiles’ arms come around him to hold him just as fiercely.

The two mates sit on the sofa, oblivious to world around them, to John, Talia, Nicolas and Cora all entering the living room in a rush. They soak up finally being reunited with each other.

They’re both home.

Chapter Text

- The Present: Wednesday, March 23rd, 2016 -

Derek and Stiles stay in each other's embrace for an unknowable amount of time, neither one willing to pull away from the other just yet. Derek buries his nose in Stiles' neck and breathes as the heavy chains that have been keeping his heart prisoner for five awful, interminable years break away, allowing it to soar. He hardly dares to believe that, after all the anguish, turmoil and setbacks they have gone through, he finally has Stiles in his arms, whole again and relatively well.

He holds him tighter and doesn't ever want to let go.

Eventually, Derek's euphoria lessens to the point where he is able to pick up on the things happening around him. He keeps holding Stiles as the younger man cries but opens his eyes to see his parents, John and Cora surrounding them, all of them teary-eyed as well. He ponders how long they have been standing there watching him and Stiles before deciding that he doesn't actually care.

"Is he really back?" John asks him hopefully.

Derek just nods.

For a while longer Stiles cries into Derek's neck, soaking it in tears and snot that the alpha doesn't give a single shit about, until he manages to calm down and raise his head with a sniffle. He seems disoriented for a moment, but then his red-rimmed eyes widen when he realises he and Derek have company. In the next second he extricates himself from the new alpha and throws himself at his dad.

Derek instantly misses his warmth, but the sight of this long-awaited reunion is worth the temporary loss of it. He can't wipe the smile off of his face, especially when he catches matching expressions on the faces of his parents and younger sister. They are all in need of this victory in light of their loss, so they soak it up greedily.

When John pulls back, he wipes the fresh tears from his son's cheeks and then holds him at arm's length, just staring at him like he's the most amazing thing in the world.

Derek can relate.

"Hi, dad," Stiles smiles shakily. His voice is raspy from major disuse.

"God, it's good to hear you speak again," the sheriff laughs happily, drawing Stiles into another hug.

"Hey, don't hog him!" Cora complains, jokingly narrowing her eyes at the pair.

"You'll get your turn, runt," Derek smiles at her.

Stiles is hugged quickly by the remaining Hales before he ends up squished between Derek and John on one of the sofas. Talia, Nicolas and Cora take the one opposite, the coffee table positioned between them. Now that the high of being back is fading, Stiles looks around the room with a frown. "Where's Laura?" he asks, oblivious to the way the question causes all the air to leave the room. No one seems to know how to answer it, and Stiles' confusion only grows the longer the silence goes on. "Seriously, where is she?" he laughs nervously.

"Stiles..." Talia says softly, leaning forward. Derek sees her digging her nails into the meat of her thigh in order to help her keep a lid on her raw grief and looks away, not wanting to see how much effort it takes her to speak. "When we confronted Deucalion's pack to get you back from him, there was a fight and...Laura didn't make it."

Stiles is stunned, his face falling. "W-what?"

"She was killed in the fight by one of Deucalion's betas."

"She...she..." Stiles breathes, sinking back into the sofa cushions and holding his hand to his mouth. "It's because of me?"

"No!" Derek refutes ardently. "It was not your fault."

"He's right, Stiles," Talia corroborates. "We all knew the risks and were willing to do it anyway. It's the fault of the one who killed her, and it's Deucalion's for putting us all in that position."

The human nods slowly and lowers his hand, but everyone can tell from his haunted expression that he doesn't really believe them yet. Derek takes Stiles' hand in his own and makes a promise to himself that he'll keep telling Stiles it wasn't his fault until it sinks in and he does believe it. No matter how long that takes.

"So, Stiles," Talia says delicately, changing the subject and pulling her nails out of her leg, "are you feeling up to me taking your memories of the past five years tonight, or would you rather wait until tomorrow morning? I know people being in your head can be draining and you've had a lot of that today, so either way is fine."

Stiles looks down at his lap and doesn't respond.

Derek nudges him lightly. "Everything okay?" he mutters.

"Yeah, it's just..."

"You can tell me anything," Derek assures. "You know that."

Stiles takes a breath before looking up at him. "I wanna keep them," he announces, shocking everyone.

"What?" John gapes. "But...why?"

Derek is just as baffled. "Are you sure, Stiles? You went through a lot and none of it is going to be easy to deal with."

Stiles' nod is fervent. "I'm sure. I know it's going to be hard. I…I haven't even begun to sort through everything that happened to me," he reveals, his countenance pained. "The slate was wiped clean every time someone new bought me, so it's like I've been moulded into several different people lately and I don't really know what to do with all of that. It's like they're all separate in my head and it'll take some time until I really feel like myself again. But I do know that I've had enough of people violating my mind like that. I want to keep them."

Talia's face is understanding and she lets the subject drop.

"Son," John says trepidatiously, "I hate to have to ask you this, but...in order to catch all the people responsible for what happened to you, and to stop it from happening to anyone else, we'll need to get a statement from you."

"It can wait, though," Derek glares. "Right?"

John looks at him placatingly. "Of course it can."

"When?" Stiles asks quietly.

"Whenever you're ready. I'd love not to put you through all of that, but you weren't the only one who was taken."

"I know..."

John blinks a couple of times. "You do?"

Stiles, needing comfort, leans further into Derek. "Yeah. It's still fuzzy, but I know I interacted with maybe two others at least once. A girl and a guy."

"Was one of them Danny?" John asks. He elaborates when Stiles frowns at him. "I believe you were both bought," he spits out the word, "by an alpha named Austin. Danny is around your age. He's Hawaiian."

"I think that was him," Stiles says unsurely. "Maybe. Like I said, it's fuzzy."

"You just rest for now," Derek instructs, kissing Stiles' temple and rubbing his hand up and down the younger man's arm. When he is sure that his mate is comfortable, he addresses John. "What's going to happen with the investigation and everything now that Deucalion and his pack are dead?" he asks the sheriff.

"Let me worry about that," John smiles kindly, checking his watch. "Right now, Chris and Allison are taking Aiden and Ennis upstate to reunite Aiden with his brother and Danny. They should be arriving in a couple of hours. When Danny has been given the all-clear and is released from the hospital he was taken to, they'll have Ennis restore Danny to his old self and bring all three of them to the twins' old pack. And if Ennis tries anything with Danny like he did with Stiles, Melanie has consented to step in and remove the bad memories." John looks thoughtful. "Although, considering Stiles' decision, I should probably get in touch with her and tell her to ask Danny what he wants to do first."

"Have Danny's parents been contacted?" Talia enquires, curious.

"Yes, but it'll still take them a while to get here," John elucidates. "They needed a fresh start after Danny went missing and moved clear across the country."

Nicolas wipes his palms on his thighs and gets to his feet with a yawn. "I'm gonna go check on Nathan and then I think it's time for me to go to bed," he says, kissing his wife on the cheek. He ruffles Stiles' hair on his way out.

"That's probably a good idea," John concurs. "It's been a taxing few days for all of us."

"You're welcome to one of the guest rooms if you want," Talia offers.

"That's okay. I should be getting home."

Stiles and Derek follow the sheriff out into the foyer to say goodbye. He hugs them both a final time, lingering with his arms around Stiles for a few seconds longer than is necessary before letting go. With a promise that he'll be back the next day at around noon—and unnecessary reassurances from Derek that he'll take good care of his son—John exits the house.

As he stands at the open door and watches the sheriff walk to his cruiser, Derek inhales sharply when he remembers Deucalion's phone. "Wait!" he yells, catching John's attention. "I forgot to give you something!"

Once he is sure that John has stopped, Derek leaves Stiles by the door and dashes upstairs to his bedroom. Deucalion's phone is still on his nightstand, where he had put it after changing out of the gym clothes Melissa had managed to borrow for him. He still doesn't know what is on it, what photos and videos Deucalion had taken of Stiles down in that basement. He had tried to look once Stiles had gone back to sleep in the hospital the night before, but there was no battery power remaining on the device and no one in his family had a cable to charge a Sony model.

Dashing back downstairs, Derek power-walks outside and gives the phone to John. "Here, this was Deucalion's. He said he had...things regarding Stiles on there."

John examines the phone with distaste before tucking it in pocket. "Thanks. I'll add it to the evidence in the morning."

After John finally drives away, Derek returns to his mate and closes the front door. "You tired, too?" he asks him, not missing the way he sways slightly.

"Yeah," Stiles replies.

It still seems odd to Derek to hear the human's voice again instead of receiving a nod or a shake of his head. He smiles and lovingly pushes Stiles' hair back from his forehead before gesturing toward the stairs. "C'mon, we can sleep in my old room, if that's alright with you," he says quietly, linking his fingers with Stiles'.

In his mind he makes plans to ask someone to sort out his apartment for him while he stays with his mate. It was never cleaned up properly after Ennis broke in and took Stiles, and he wants to lessen the chances of the human freaking out when they go back there.

Maybe he'll move, just to be safe.

Once they're upstairs, Derek takes Stiles quickly past Laura's bedroom and, entering his own, walks over to his bed. On the edge is the duffle bag of clothes John had packed for him when he slept at the sheriff's house a few nights ago. Most of it is still clean, so Derek extracts from it two sets of black underwear, two pairs of sweatpants and a couple of henleys for him and Stiles to change into, one short-sleeved and red and the other long-sleeved and heather-grey.

"Here," he says, giving Stiles the set with the heather-grey shirt. "You can wash up first, if you want."

"Thanks."

While his mate is out of sight, Derek sits down on his bed and listens to the sounds coming from the bathroom to keep himself calm, to stop his wolf from prowling back and forth inside of his mind, demanding that he get Stiles back and keep him close so he can never disappear again. He hears the toilet flush and the tap running in the sink, but after the running water ceases he doesn't hear the bathroom door opening like he thought he would.

Derek frowns when almost a full minute passes without another sound.

Trying to keep a handle on his worry, he gets up from his bed and traverses the hallway to the closed bathroom door. He knocks lightly on it. "Stiles, you alright in there?" he calls through the wood. When he doesn't get a response of any kind, Derek reaches for the knob, opens the door and steps inside, where he finds his mate staring at himself in the mirror above the sink.

"What're you doing?" he asks.

"It's strange," Stiles says after a moment, touching his scarred cheek.

"What is?"

"I...I looked in the mirror, and at first I expected to see myself at sixteen, like I was here on a sleepover with you or something. But then I saw the scars and everything that's happened came rushing back." Stiles doesn't look away from his reflection as he speaks, not even when Derek's face appears in the mirror over his shoulder. He just keeps staring at himself. "I already told you it's like there are different me's in my head. I feel like myself, like the Stiles I was before...before I was taken, but at the same time I don't. I don't know how to explain it properly to you or to anyone else."

"It's okay," Derek murmurs, hugging his mate from behind. "You don't have to."

Stiles hesitates before meeting Derek's eyes in the mirror and asking, "You're not going to suggest that my memories be taken again?"

Derek's response is an instant, "No."

"Why?"

"Because it's your decision and you've made it. I admit that, in a misguided attempt to protect you, I was planning on taking that decision away from you before today, and that's something I regret now. But I trust you. If you think you can handle it, then I have no right to try to persuade you otherwise. If you end up wanting them gone further down the line, I'll be here. And if you don't, I'll still be here. Always."

"You were so patient with me," Stiles says, turning his head and resting his forehead against Derek's bearded cheek. "Took such good care of me, gave all your time to me without a second thought. Ever since we were kids I think I've known. Even when I came back with no clue who you were or who I was, with no way to know if I was truly capable of it in that state, I still somehow found myself feeling something I didn't know how to express. I think it's just in my DNA to feel this way, and I know how to express it now."

Derek holds his breath and looks at Stiles' profile in the mirror, waiting for him to finish.

"I love you," the human says. "So fucking much."

They've never said it to each other before. It's always just been something they've both known but never spoken aloud. For Derek it was because he was too cautious, didn't want to progress from best friends to full-fledged mates too quickly and risk ruining something that was already amazing as it was. But now, he finds that reciprocation is easy.

He holds his mate tighter. "I love you, too."

* * *

- The Present: Monday, March 28th, 2016 -

It's not until five days later that Stiles thinks he is ready to give a formal statement about everything that has happened to him—leaving out the supernatural elements, of course. As he drove him to the sheriff's station, Derek couldn't stop himself from repeatedly asking his mate if he was sure, each repetition getting a small smile and a soft, "Yes," in response.

Now, Derek sits at his desk and anxiously bites his fingernails, waiting for Stiles to come out of the interview room.

The past few days have been eventful, to say the least. Geoff and Marc have agreed to visit Beacon Hills for a few days to help Derek and Talia get to grips with their changed relationship, to prevent them from seeing each other as rival alphas of the same pack and instead as a team. The visit will be at the beginning of next week, after Laura's funeral, but Derek thinks the brothers can't come soon enough. Several times now he has found himself snapping at his mother whenever she asks him to do something, his control over his strengthened wolf not as good as it could be.

Being ordered around by another alpha, even if they aren't really orders but polite requests, doesn't sit well with Derek's wolf, which wants him to prove that he is the one in charge. Luckily Talia hasn't taken his behaviour to heart and has thus far accepted each of his apologies when he realised what was happening and reigned himself in.

Derek has also officially started looking for a new place to live. One hour back in his apartment was enough to make it clear to him that Stiles wouldn't be one hundred percent comfortable there ever again, and that just wouldn't do. As luck would have it, his lease is up very soon anyway, so maybe it's kismet.

The process of finding a new home has been just as annoying as Derek remembers it, but he is optimistic. He's looking for a proper house this time, somewhere he and Stiles can live together long-term. He has already transferred all of their clothes and essentials to his old bedroom, but he ended up leaving everything else in the apartment for now to avoid having to move it all twice.

In the meantime, both he and Stiles are staying with his parents in his former home in the preserve. There's more than enough room and, if Derek is honest with himself, it feels nice to be in such close proximity with his family after they all lost Laura.

Stiles has been suffering from horrible nightmares that have him waking the whole house up with his near-hysterical screams. Derek was expecting something like this to happen, given all that Stiles has been through, but it breaks his heart every time nevertheless. He hasn't gotten much sleep because, after he manages to calm Stiles down, the younger man is reluctant to close his eyes again and Derek ends up staying awake to keep him company. He's nearly always tired as a result, but he doesn't mind.

Derek is staring at the photograph of himself and Stiles that still sits on his desk when he hears the interview room door open. Looking up, he leaps to his feet and rushes over as Stiles walks out wiping his eyes, a sad and awkward-looking Parrish trailing out after him.

"How'd it go?" Derek asks his mate, cupping his cheeks and wiping off the rest of the tears himself.

"Okay," Stiles croaks, offering a wobbly smile.

Derek glances at Parrish, wanting further details but not wanting to press Stiles for them.

"He's right," the other deputy confirms with a stilted smile, the tale he has just been told dampening his usually sunny demeanour. "Got a bunch of helpful details that should be a big help. You should be proud of him."

"I always am," Derek says, looking saccharinely at his mate.

"You guys are disgustingly cute," Parrish comments, shaking his head and walking away with a chuckle.

Alone now, Derek gathers Stiles close to his side and walks him to the exit. "You're sure it went well?"

"Yes, Der," Stiles assures, patting Derek's chest. "It went as well it could've."

Derek hums and accepts that that's all he is going to get. "So...now that you've got that out of the way, what do you feel like doing?"

"I don't know," Stiles frowns.

"Well, the world is our oyster, so whatever you want."

Once Stiles is sat in the passenger seat of the Camaro and the alpha is behind the wheel, he makes up his mind. "Would you judge me if I said I just wanted to go home, curl up in bed with you, watch a bunch of shitty, feel-good movies and stuff our faces with junk food until we feel sick?" he asks, his face open and vulnerable.

Derek is certain that the past hour has affected Stiles more than he is willing to let on right now—how could it not? he thinks—but he doesn't push. "Like old times," he says. "That sounds perfect to me."

"I'll even let you choose one of the movies," Stiles offers, not taking his eyes off of Derek.

"That's very considerate of you."

"I thought so."

Derek grins as he backs out of the station parking lot. Yeah, they'll be fine.

* * *

- The Present: Thursday, March 31st, 2016 -

Three days later, John stops by the Hale house with some good news just as Derek finishes his morning workout. With Stiles' return, the sheriff has allowed Derek another sabbatical so that he is available to help Stiles twenty-four-seven. As a result, Derek has been ignorant to any progress that has been made in closing the investigation they have all been working on for years. To be honest, he prefers not being directly involved now anyway; it means that all of his focus can go to making sure Stiles is adjusting well.

It's just the two of them in the living room, Derek still sweaty in a pair of blue shorts and a white tank top and John in his uniform. The rest of the Hales are elsewhere in the house, Peter having returned in the middle of the night from wherever he has been. Stiles had chosen to remain up in Derek's old bedroom rather than be present for this conversation, only wanting to know when it's over and nothing else. Both Derek and John wholeheartedly respected this decision when Derek had informed the sheriff of the especially violent nightmare Stiles had suffered the night after giving his statement, like because all of the memories he'd had to dredge back up.

The wolf drinks from a bottle of cold water and listens attentively as John explains what has happened over the past week.

Armed with Stiles' testimony—which included detailed descriptions of all the alphas who bought and abused him—they have begun to track down everyone who contributed in any way to Deucalion's sex slavery 'business', either by 'training' the teenagers or purchasing one or more of them. It was initially slow going because Stiles was only able to describe six people out of probable dozens. Talia could put names to four of those six, but otherwise they were stuck.

Then they hit a breakthrough.

"They were really stupid enough to leave an electronic paper trail?" Derek asks the sheriff incredulously.

"Yes," John responds, pleased. "I didn't know what else to do when we first hit that roadblock. Looking at the big picture, Stiles was just one of at least two dozen kids who were affected by this horror, and there wasn't a hope in hell that we'd be able to track them all down and return them to their families. But then I reread Stiles' testimony from a few days ago and I noticed him mentioning the first bastard who bought him paying for him via a tablet of some kind. That kind of thing always leaves a trace. You just have to know where to look."

Derek smiles. "And you knew where to look."

John returns the smile. "Of course," he says. "Thanks to Talia identifying him as one Jason Hastings, the alpha of a pack in Utah, I was able to get a hold of his personal bank records and saw a large sum of money leaving his personal account almost five years ago, the only payment he made which was that substantial."

"When he bought Stiles," Derek surmises, mouth curling into a grimace.

"Exactly. We also got into Adrian Emerson's account after recovering his body and found a payment made at the beginning of September 2013 to the same account that Hastings paid into. Both your mom and I suspected that this mysterious account belonged to Deucalion and were able to confirm our suspicions yesterday. Now we're highlighting any large sum that came into it and trying to track down their origins. There's a lot of red tape to cut through because we're doing this legit, but I'm confident that we'll be able to nail them. When we have their names, Chris will have some of his fellow hunters deal with them."

Derek leans back in his seat. "I hope everyone is able to get closure."

"Me, too."

"Did you manage to check Deucalion's phone?"

John hesitates. "I did," he says after a while. "Our guys cracked it and went through everything a couple of days ago."

"What was on it? He said...he said he made videos."

"He did. And took photos."

The revulsion in John's voice is enough to give Derek an idea as to their contents, but he needs to know for sure. "What were they of?"

"In the grand scheme of things, they were pretty tame. No more lasting damage was done. Stiles was knocked out in every one of them as Deucalion did...things to him. Fondled him. I could only stomach a few seconds before I had to leave the room." John's face turns a light shade of green as he remembers. "I asked the guys to tell me if something worse than that happened in the videos and they haven't gotten back to me yet, so I'm hoping that was it."

"I wish I'd killed him slower," Derek growls, his top lip briefly curling back.

"I'd have helped you."

The two men talk for another few minutes, until John announces that he should be getting to the station.

"Let me know if you find anything else major," Derek requests, seeing the sheriff out.

"I promise."

A minute later, Derek jogs up the stairs and heads toward his bedroom to get some fresh clothes so he can take a shower. He finds the door open wide and Stiles sitting against the headboard of the bed, a book discarded next to him. "Your dad just left. You okay?" Derek asks him, walking over to the bed instead of his closet.

Stiles ignores the question and asks one of his own. "Can I see him?"

Derek sits down next to him with a frown. "Who? Your dad? Because I'm sure we can visit the station later or something, maybe bring him lunch."

"No, not him. Can I go see Adrian?"

Derek's eyebrows rise high on his forehead. "Why do you want to see Adrian?"

"I dunno..." Stiles mumbles. "It's kinda dumb, but I guess I just feel like I still need some closure there, y'know?" He looks up, spots the unchanged look on Derek's face and smiles wryly. "Yeah, I told you it was dumb. Forget it, it's fine."

"I don't think it's dumb," Derek rebuts. "You just caught me off-guard."

"You don't?"

"Not at all. If this is something you think you need to help you heal, then I'm all for it." Derek pulls Stiles against his side and rests his chin atop the younger man's head. He smiles when he feels Stiles' arms immediately come around him and hold him tight, apparently unbothered by the sweaty state of him. "I just have to find out what's happened to him and then in a few days we'll see about having a small road trip. That sound good?"

"Thanks," Stiles whispers, rubbing his cheek against Derek's chest.

"Anytime."

Chapter Text

- The Present: Friday, April 1st, 2016 -

It turns out that Adrian’s body has already been interred with the rest of his pack in the San Jacinto Valley Cemetery. Derek drives Stiles out there in the afternoon, just one day after he asked to see him. Although he was the one who brought up the idea, Stiles has been particularly glum ever since they left the house, which concerns Derek greatly. He glances at his mate at every stop sign and red light, but Stiles just stares out the passenger window at the passing cars and responds to questions Derek asks or comments he makes with single words.

The wolf is desperate to know what Stiles is thinking, but he grants him the space he seems to need.

At 3:44 p.m., Derek pulls up the parking brake in the lot across the street from the cemetery and unbuckles his seatbelt. "Here we are," he says pointlessly, looking again at his companion. Stiles' eyes are still glued to the window, and he doesn't appear to have even noticed that the car has stopped.

Derek gently pokes his arm. "Earth to Stiles."

Jumping, the human whips his head around to Derek and blinks quickly before taking in their surroundings. "Oh, sorry," he says softly, unbuckling his seatbelt as well.

"S'alright. C'mon."

Derek gets out of the car, waits patiently for Stiles to do the same and takes the younger man's hand as they begin walking toward the cemetery. The road is reasonably quiet, so they don't have to wait long for the opportunity to cross to present itself. Once they are on the opposite side, Derek walks them to the left and around the corner to the open gate that serves as the cemetery's entrance. There are several other people already there visiting loved ones, leaving bouquets of beautiful flowers on their grave markers and even, in a couple of cases, talking quietly to their loved one about everything that has happened since their last visit.

Stiles sticks close to Derek's side, so close that Derek almost steps on the younger man's feet a couple of times. He watches his mate in his periphery and notes the discomfort on his pale face, which Derek presumes comes from being out in public. He squeezes Stiles' hand and keeps walking.

The plots for Adrian's pack are in the back-left corner, so it takes a few minutes of traversing rows of flat stone grave markers for Derek and Stiles to reach it. They're nothing fancy, and Derek notes with a pang of sadness that there are no flowers in sight on any of them. It doesn't surprise him that much because, from what little his mother has told him of Adrian's pack, they were fairly isolated from the society around them. Everyone who would have left flowers is already buried there.

"Do you want me to leave you alone for this?" Derek asks his mate once they stand in front of Adrian's marker.

Stiles shakes his head. "You can stay."

"Okay."

Derek stands a couple of paces behind the younger man with his hands in the pockets of the new leather jacket he'd bought the day before to replace the one Deucalion destroyed. He feels a little uncomfortable being in a cemetery, he realises then, his thoughts drifting repeatedly to Laura and the fact that she'll very soon be in a place just like this back in Beacon Hills. It makes his chest ache, the bond that used to connect them still throbbing where it was severed.

Needing to keep his mind off of his sister, Derek steps forward until he stands next to a kneeling Stiles. "Tell me about him," he requests.

Stiles hesitates but speaks anyway, resting a hand on the flat stone of Adrian's grave marker. "He wasn't all bad."

"I saw. Things were good at first, right?"

"Yeah. For the first year or so, everything was actually pretty great. I know now that it was all a lie and he wasn't actually my alpha, but I...a part of me can't help but look back on that time fondly. I think he really did love me at one point," Stiles says sadly.

He leans his head against Derek's arm when he feels a hand come to rest on his shoulder. "He said I had an accident and lost my memory that way. He kept me shut up in his house—to protect me, he said—but I didn't mind. I wanted to go outside sometimes, sure, but there was plenty to do indoors and I loved having his company when he wasn't working in his study."

"What changed?" Derek enquires, squeezing Stiles' shoulder.

"After the first year, Adrian started acting weird more and more often, just staring off into space and stuff. He would get angry over the smallest thing and lash out at me. It started with grabbing me too hard and leaving bruises, but it got to the point where he was barely himself anymore and I was scared of him all the time."

Stiles takes a shaky breath. "You already know this," he says, retracting his hand from Adrian's grave marker and laying it in his lap instead, "but I need to get this all out. Adrian wasn't the only one who changed. Something changed in me, too. I couldn't be there anymore, couldn't live my life in constant fear. I was never allowed inside his study, but I knew he had a computer in there for his work. I must've snuck in while he was out running errands or something and used it. I don't know how I found you, but I did. I think he caught me, though, because I don't remember what happened afterwards and when I woke up again my arm was broken." He holds said arm as if feeling phantom pain of the break. "I think he took my memories of whatever lead me to you in hopes of keeping me there with him."

Derek looks down at where Adrian's name is engraved in the marker and frowns, a theory of what happened to him piecing itself together in his head. He leaves it alone when Stiles keeps talking.

"I found that map beneath my pillow and tried to leave anyway, even though I only had a name. He tried to stop me, but I managed to get to the kitchen and found the knife on the floor. When Adrian was suddenly there again and grabbed me, I slipped on something and brought us both down. I didn't mean to kill him, but he fell on top of me and the knife was just positioned wrong."

"It wasn't your fault," Derek comforts him.

"I know that. Rationally. It's just...part of me still wonders what I did to make him hurt me."

Saddened to hear his mate talking like that, Derek kneels down next to him and wraps an arm around him. "There was nothing you could have done to prevent Adrian from treating you how he did after the first year," he says gently, sharing his theory. "He was an alpha who lost his pack in incredibly tragic circumstances and never found a new one. Maybe he bought you because he was hoping that would be enough, but there was no way it would be. An alpha needs a pack to survive—betas, more than just one person he can rely on. There was nothing lacking or wrong with you, but with just you to take care of and no matter what you did, there would've been no way for Adrian to keep his sanity forever. I'm surprised he lasted as long as he did."

The pair stays in front of Adrian's grave for another few minutes, neither one saying anything else until Stiles touches Adrian's grave marker again as if saying goodbye. Then he clears his throat, pushes himself to his feet and smiles wanly at Derek. "Thanks for bringing me here."

"Of course," Derek says, standing as well and linking their hands again as they begin the trek back to the entrance. "Did it help?"

"I think so. It helped me let some of the bad memories go and hang on to the good ones. He was really important to me for a while there, so I didn't want to lose that. After everything he did, I still feel sorry for him. I hope he's in a good place now."

Derek feels a surge of affection for his kind-hearted mate. "He was lucky to have you."

Stiles' smile is bright this time.

* * *

- The Present: Sunday, April 3rd, 2016 -

Derek stands in his bedroom and stares frustratedly at himself in the full-length mirror he has taken from Laura's bedroom as a keepsake. He is dressed in a white button-up shirt and a pair of black slacks, the belt around his waist still undone and his black suit jacket lying neatly on the bed behind him. He fumbles with the black tie around his neck, trying to tie it perfectly because it's what Laura deserves, but he gets more and more irritated when his hands just don't seem to do what he wants them to.

"God fucking damn it!" he yells when the tie again comes out crooked. He rips it from beneath the collar of his shirt, throws it to the floor and glares at it like it's the tie's fault that the current day is what it is. He wishes he could burn it with just his eyes.

"You're having problems, I take it?" Stiles asks, stepping cautiously into the room in identical dress.

"I can't tie it right," Derek growls.

His countenance too understanding for Derek to look at, Stiles walks up to him, picks the tie up off of the floor and turns them so that they're facing each other. "Let me," he says, gesturing to Derek's collar. Once the wolf has obligingly turned it up, Stiles slips the silky fabric around Derek's neck and works on the tie with practised movements.

"How'd you get so good at this?" Derek enquires, watching him in the mirror.

Stiles' hands come to a standstill for a moment before he answers. "I went through something similar when I was getting ready for my mom's funeral. I refused to leave my room back at dad's without it looking perfect."

"I never knew that," Derek murmurs.

Stiles' amused huff is appropriately subdued. "That's 'cause I never told you, silly." He pushes the knot of Derek's tie up to rest over the top button of his shirt and smooths down his collar. "There. You look very handsome."

"Thanks. So do you."

"You ready to do this?" Stiles asks, watching as Derek buckles his belt and slips on his suit jacket.

"As I'll ever be."

"I'll be beside you the whole time. We can support each other."

Derek does up the top button of his suit jacket and examines himself one last time in the mirror before concluding that he looks good enough. "You sure you'll be okay around all those people?" he asks Stiles, leading him out into the hallway and closing the door behind them. "I'm sure Laura wouldn't blame you for missing her funeral if you don't think you can handle it."

"I know," Stiles replies, clearing his throat nervously, "but I want to be there."

Derek nods. "Alright. But if at any point it gets too much, just tell me and I'll bring you back here."

"It's not like there are gonna be hundreds of people anyway. I think I can deal with that."

"Just our family, a few of Laura's old friends from high school and college, and a few of her coworkers. I think it's around forty or fifty in total."

"See? Easy peasy."

Derek can still hear the anxiety in Stiles' voice that he doesn't quite manage to hide, but he lets it go. "Alright. My parents are already there and the others are driving separately." Once they reach the foyer, he glances at his phone to check the time before sliding it in the pocket of his trousers. "It'll be starting soon, so we should probably leave now."

"After you."

* * *

Laura's funeral is a sombre affair. Like Derek had estimated, there are forty-three mourners in total, a sea of black in the pews. John, Stiles, Derek and the rest of the Hales sit up in the front row, Stiles in between his father and mate. Derek could tell that the walk up there was unnerving for Stiles, having all of the other guests staring obviously at him because they know at least vaguely what has happened to him. Derek had walked them more briskly when he noticed, wanting to save his mate from having to endure any more stress than is absolutely necessary.

Now, Stiles holds on to his dad's and Derek's hands as Nathan gives the eulogy, a moving thing that has nearly everyone in the church at least tearing up and, in a couple of cases, flat-out sobbing. Derek is in neither camp. He feels out of place being one of the only ones not crying, but his grief is all internal and he can't force the tears to come.

It's like his sorrow has numbed him and all he can do is sit and listen.

Later, at her wake, Derek spends a couple of minutes beside his sister's open casket and runs his eyes over every detail of her face. He is never again going to see it in real life after this day, so he makes the most of it.

"Hey," Stiles says, appearing next to him.

It doesn't escape Derek's notice that the hand that slips into his grips him tighter than usual. He finally stops gazing at his sister's face and pulls Stiles off to the side, away from the rest of the people conversing quietly with each other and swapping happy memories of Laura. "D'you want to leave?" he enquires worriedly, cupping his free hand around the side of Stiles' neck. He frowns when he notices that Stiles' face is whiter than usual.

"N-no, I'm good," Stiles promises, though it's not very convincing.

"You don't sound good. Don't look it either."

"That's rude," Stiles jokes halfheartedly. "But seriously, I wanna stay. Yeah, I feel jittery being in close proximity to all these strangers, but I'm better already now that I've found you. You're like my big wolfy security blanket."

Derek stares into his mate's eyes, searching for sincerity he eventually finds. "Alright," he accepts.

Reluctantly, Derek and Stiles rejoin the crowd. The alpha weaves them through it on the hunt for the rest of his family, not slackening his hold on his mate's hand. Just as he spots Cora and Peter loitering against the wall on the opposite side of the room and starts beelining for them, a woman steps right in his path and brings him to a halt.

She is vaguely familiar to Derek but he can't quite place her. She is short, around 5'2", with light-brown hair cut in a pixie style, a youthful face and the palest blue eyes Derek has ever seen, even paler than Chris Argent's. They unsettle him. The full-length sleeves, shoulders and collar of her dress is made of black lace, whereas the bust down to the hem just above her knees is made of black silk.

In Derek's opinion, the dress is a bit risqué for a funeral, but he makes no comment on it. Laura probably would've liked it.

"Ah, Derek, I've been looking for you!" she says, touching his arm.

"Well, you found me," Derek responds shortly.

The woman's laugh is high-pitched and loud. "I see you're just as surly as ever," she grins, not removing her hand from his arm.

Derek's annoyance grows and he clenches his jaw. What mood does this woman expect him to be in at his sister's funeral? "Who are you?" he asks, not caring at all about being discourteous.

"Oh, you don't recognise me?"

"Obviously not."

"I went to college with Laura," the woman explains, finally taking back her hand. "Teresa Hill. I used to come to your house all the time, but I moved to New York after graduation and haven't been back since. It's nice to see everyone again. I have to say, I used to have a crush on you back then and you've only gotten more attractive over the years. Are you...single, by any chance?"

Teresa lowers her head slightly and looks up at Derek through her eyelashes in a move that is no doubt supposed to be coy.

"No," Derek says tersely. "Now if you'll excuse me."

He attempts to move past the irksome and shameless woman, but she moves with him, her eyes now on Stiles.

"Oh, who is this?" she enquires nosily.

The look on her face tells Derek that she knows exactly who Stiles is and enjoys the way the younger man squirms under her gaze. "None of your business," Derek snarls.

"Hmm, he's...reasonably pretty, I suppose, but damaged. You could do better."

Stiles' ensuing flinch is the last straw.

Derek is about to gladly relinquish control of his wolf and disembowel Teresa for what she said about his mate when his mother appears behind him and touches his shoulder. "Derek, Stiles, I believe the sheriff wanted to talk to you," she says with a forced smile aimed at Teresa. The short-haired woman glowers back at her, clearly upset about her foolish attempts to pick up the brother of the person whose funeral she is attending being foiled.

"Thanks, mom," Derek says after a breath.

He kisses her cheek before making his escape, their connected hands bringing Stiles with him. Once they are a safe distance away from Teresa and everyone else who was gawking at the scene they made, Derek draws Stiles against him and wraps him up tight in his arms. "I'm so sorry about that bitch," he whispers into his mate's hair. "She couldn't have been more wrong. There is no one better than you in the entire fucking world. No one."

"I think I'm ready to leave now," Stiles says into Derek's neck, his fingers tangling in the front of Derek's dress shirt.

"Okay. Let's get you home."

* * *

Stiles is quiet for the rest of the afternoon. To Derek it seems like they've gone backwards and Stiles has returned to being unable or unwilling to speak a single word. He is troubled by this apparent relapse, although he does understand what caused it. Again he wonders why Teresa behaved the way she did and why Laura was ever friends with her.

Try as Derek might, he can't get a picture of Teresa's past self in his head. In order to save money, Laura had lived at home while attending college, and Derek does recall her college friends visiting the house every once in a while. He didn't spend enough time around them to picture their faces now, had always sequestered himself in his bedroom or gone to Stiles' house whenever they showed up. He was moody a lot back then, when he was in his late teens, especially whenever Stiles wasn't there to cheer him up. Hanging around his sister's friends, even though he loved her fiercely, was grossly uncool.

Maybe they weren't all bad, and maybe Teresa wasn't so bad back then, but now Derek hates her. He actually hates her.

When the evening comes and Stiles doesn't seem amenable to coming downstairs for dinner, Derek brings both of their plates of chilli chicken, rice and steamed vegetables upstairs instead. He finds his mate sitting at the head of their bed, staring blankly at the desk that's on the other side of the room.

"Stiles, here," he says, climbing onto the mattress next to him and sticking one of the plates beneath the younger man's nose. "You've got to eat."

He may as well not have spoken.

Stiles keeps sitting there, lost in his own head. It reminds Derek of how he was after Ennis gave him all of his memories back, but he knows it isn't the same. This has happened a few times since his memories were restored, as Stiles attempts to put everything in chronological order and face it.

Derek tries not get too worried because Stiles always comes back eventually, shaken up but with more of his jumbled-up mind in order, but that's just never going to happen. When it comes to his precious mate, Derek will always worry too much. He settles in and makes a start on his own dinner, though he doesn't really taste any of it.

When he is almost finished, Stiles finally comes back. The human is rattled like always, but after looking into his eyes, Derek can see that it's worse this time.

"Hey, Stiles, look at me," he commands, hastily dumping his mostly empty plate next to Stiles' full one on his nightstand. He grips Stiles' shoulders, forcibly turns him so that they're facing each other and rests their foreheads together.

Stiles is panicked, close to crying and his breathing is ragged, but he slowly calms down after a few minutes of looking closely into Derek's eyes and gripping on to the front of his chocolate-brown Henley. His breaths come easier and he blinks a few times to push back the last of his tears.

"You wanna talk about it?" Derek asks, letting Stiles disentangle himself.

"Not really..." the human mumbles, picking at his cuticles.

"Are you hungry?"

"Not really," Stiles repeats.

"Stiles...please don't shut me out," Derek entreaties. "I can't help you if I don't know what's wrong."

The younger man offers a tight smile. "You can't help me with this."

"Maybe not directly. I can support you, though, but only if you let me."

Stiles sighs and tips over sideways, his head ending up on Derek's shoulder. "I was trying to push myself to get better faster," he explains, closing his eyes when Derek runs his fingers through his hair. "After...after what that woman said today, I guess I let it get to me. I can't help feeling that way sometimes, for brief moments, like she was right and you should ditch me and find someone better. Someone who's not broken. And I know what you're going to say. You're going to say that I shouldn't think of myself as 'broken' and that there's nothing wrong with me, but the truth is, there is something wrong with me. There's a lot wrong."

Stiles picks his head up and gets up from the bed to pace back and forth beside it as he blurts out all of his thoughts. "I can't even leave the house without you being close by," he continues, "and even then I'm usually so uncomfortable I can barely stand it. I wake us both up with my nightmares nearly every night and then you have to stay awake with me because I'm too scared to go back to sleep. I can't stand other people touching me. I know I wanted to keep my memories, and I still do, but I just...I just want to be over this."

He pulls at his hair, and Derek wants so badly to comfort him but knows he needs to let him get it out.

"I want to be able to go places by myself like I used to, to have some independence," Stiles rants, barely pausing between sentences to refill his lungs. "I want to go on dates with you. I want to kiss you and touch you and have you touch me and do so much more with you, to do everything that other couples do. But after everything they did to me, just the thought of having sex again, even with you, nearly sends me headfirst into a panic attack. I can't give you those things. I don't know if I'll ever be able to give you those things, and that's not fair to you. You say I deserve the world, but so do you and I'm depriving you of it."

With a shaky breath, Stiles' rant comes to an end and he stares helplessly down at his bare feet. Apart from to lower his arms, he doesn't move.

Derek is desperate for something he can say to make it all alright again, but he can't come up with anything. There is no quick fix for this situation. Stiles has just let him in on his genuine fears and desires, and Derek would never want to invalidate those feelings, to make his mate feel like he is wrong for having them. He is forced to settle for tackling the last fear Stiles expressed.

"I'm sorry that people keep knocking you down," he says, deciding for once not to close the distance between them. He keeps his body language open, though, so that Stiles can close the distance himself if he wants. "But you already give me so much just by being alive. I understand that you can't even think about being physically intimate with me right now. I don't think anyone would be able to if they were to go through what you went through. But that doesn't matter to me. I've made it this long without sex and I can honestly say I don't care if we never reach the point where that becomes an option."

"But—"

"I promise it's okay," Derek says. "And as for the other stuff, well...there's not much I can do but let you lean on me whenever you need it."

"I feel like such a burden," Stiles whispers, sniffling.

"You're not. No one thinks of you like that."

"Stop fucking lying! You couldn't even stay for the full duration of Laura's funeral because I couldn't handle one mean comment!"

"Stiles..."

Derek doesn't take his mate's paroxysm of anger to heart. He knows it isn't really directed at him, that it is simply another consequence of his trauma, like his anxiety and his fear of being touched by anyone other than close family. It'll take months to begin going away and years to fade completely, if it ever does. "I love you," is all he can think of to say.

As suddenly as it had come on, Stiles' anger disappears again and he visibly deflates, his face looking years older. "I'm sorry..."

Derek shakes his head. "It's fine."

When Stiles returns to the bed and holds out his hand for his dinner, Derek gives him his plate with a small, affectionate smile, glad that his mate is eating. He polishes off his own dinner and sets his empty plate back on the nightstand before sliding down the bed until his head hits the pillows. He stretches and yawns, his lack of sleep lately catching up to him now that he is reclined. "You want to nap after you've finished that?" he asks Stiles, tucking one hand beneath his head and resting the other on his chest.

Stiles glances at him and nods warily. "I can try."

Once all the food is gone, Stiles puts his plate on the floor and copies Derek. He turns onto his left side and snuggles up to him, using his chest as a pillow. His right hand ends up curled up in front of his face, and Derek links their fingers together.

"Maybe we can look into finding a therapist or something," Derek suggests after a while, disturbing the silence.

"Hmm?"

"I mean, as much as I want to, I can't give you all the help you need."

Stiles holds Derek's hand tighter. "I know..."

"I can talk to my mom tomorrow, if you want? I'm sure there must be someone out there who you wouldn't have to lie to about the supernatural aspects of what was done to you," Derek says. "With all the crap that happens in this world, there must be a demand for it."

"I'm not sure..."

"If you're worried about talking to a stranger, I can go with you until you get used to them."

Stiles turns his face into Derek's chest, hiding it. "Do I have to?"

"Of course not. I'm never going to make you do something you really don't want to do, especially not when it's this important." When Stiles doesn't speak again, Derek strokes his thumb back and forth across the back of his hand. "You don't have to decide right now. We've got plenty of time," he reassures. "Just...promise me you'll think about it, okay?"

Stiles' response is a whispered, "Okay."

"Thank you," Derek smiles. He kisses his mate's forehead. "Sleep well."

Chapter Text

- The Present: Saturday, July 16th, 2016 -

Three and a half months later, Derek lies on his back in the morning and stares at his for-once peacefully sleeping mate. The sheets are pooled around their waists, leaving their torsos exposed, but the room is warm enough for them to still be perfectly comfortable. Stiles is lying on his front, his right arm thrown carelessly across Derek's bare sternum.

As he greedily drinks in the sight of his bedmate's slack face, the alpha thinks about how things have improved recently. Stiles still feels insecure about their relationship sometimes, has frequent nightmares and doesn't react well whenever he is touched by someone he doesn't know, but Derek can easily see the progress his mate has made in leaps and bounds. Whereas before Stiles would cling to him nearly all hours of the day, he can now go a few hours without him before he starts freaking out, just like he could before his memories were returned.

His nightmares, although still severe, are less frequent, waking them both up every two or three nights now instead of every one. Stiles also doesn't drift off into his own head anymore, having already put all of his memories in order. Touching is still an issue, and he outright refuses to leave the house without Derek next to him, but Derek is optimistic.

He thinks the therapy sessions with the psychologist his mother had found them are to thank for a lot of this progress. He wasn't sure what to make of Marin Morrell at first. She had an air of mystery about her, her face and voice always so inscrutable that Derek felt constantly on edge during the first couple of sessions on which he sat in. But, gradually, he learned to trust her. She knows what she is talking about and comes with the benefit of being a part of the supernatural world, meaning that neither Derek nor Stiles have to lie about anything.

When Stiles mumbles in his sleep and turns away from him, Derek looks at the digital alarm clock on his dark-wood nightstand. He is surprised by how long he has been lying there, lost in his own head. It was around 8 a.m. when he woke up and it's nearing 10:30 now. Because it's the weekend he doesn't feel bad about not being up early, but he supposes he has been lazy long enough.

Carefully sliding out of his and Stiles' new king-size bed, Derek tucks the maroon sheets around his mate's body and tiptoes across the cool hardwood floor to the closed door of their bedroom. He pads out into the hallway, pushes the door to so that he'll be able to hear better if Stiles needs him and walks down the hallway to the bathroom. He thinks idly that he needs to get some pictures or something to hang on the light-brown walls; they're much too bare.

The house in general is still pretty sparse of decoration or personal touches, but given that he and Stiles have only been living there for a month and Derek didn't own that much to begin with, that's to be expected. The two-storey house is close to John's, was in good condition when Derek's realtor brought it to his attention and was more than big enough for him and Stiles, with three bedrooms, two bathrooms and a large attic.

In short, it was perfect.

Once he has finished up in the bathroom, Derek descends the stairs and scratches his nails through the hairs below his navel.

The floor plan is familiar, like a smaller version of the one in his childhood home. When you enter through the black front door and stand in the foyer, the living room is to the left, the dining room to the right. The kitchen is past the living room, and between that and the dining room is a room that Derek has turned into a combination laundry room and home gym.

The walls on the ground floor are all the same colour as the ones upstairs, pleasant and inoffensive. In the living room they have a new pale-orange sofa, which was a housewarming gift from Derek's parents. Most of the furniture and electronics are new, in fact, because Derek wanted to make absolutely sure that Stiles would never be reminded of the day he was abducted from Derek's old apartment. So far it seems to have worked.

In the kitchen now, Derek walks across the light-grey slate floor, skirts around the island and switches on the coffee maker that sits on the warm wood-veneer countertop. He pulls out a couple of mugs from one of the cupboards and gets to preparing some breakfast for both himself and Stiles while he waits for the coffee to brew. He estimates that, by the time he is done with it all, Stiles will be awake too and will have come looking for him.

Later, when Derek is plating pancakes, bacon and eggs, he is proven right.

"Hey," Stiles says groggily as he enters the room. He rubs at his eyes and yawns before taking a stool around the island.

"Hey. Sleep well?" Derek asks, setting the plates down in front of Stiles.

"Actually, I did."

Derek grins. "I'm glad."

He retrieves the coffee, puts the mugs next to the plates and sits down himself, opting for the stool right next to his mate. They eat in relative silence until the food is all gone, and Stiles is sipping the last of his coffee while Derek washes everything up at the sink. The wolf can feel the happy atmosphere fading slightly, and when he glances back over his shoulder he sees Stiles staring morosely down at the mug in his hands. He thinks he knows why.

"You nervous about your session today?" he asks conversationally, avoiding making a big deal out of it.

Stiles' reply is a quiet, "A bit."

"D'you want me to come with you?" Derek offers, setting the pan in which he'd fried the bacon in the drying rack and moving on to the saucepan that has bits of scrambled egg stuck to it. "You know Morrell doesn't mind me sitting in every now and then."

"No, I wanna do it alone. It's just gonna be hard."

"If you're sure."

"I am."

Sensing that that's as much as Stiles will talk about that subject at present, Derek presents him with a different one. "Chris and Allison Argent are going to be visiting tomorrow. They said they have important news."

"I barely remember them," Stiles says. Derek hears him slide off of his stool and then he is slipping his empty mug in the sink for him to wash out.

"They're...they're alright, I think," Derek says. "I wasn't sure at first, but they came through when it counted most."

"I guess."

"Do you want to come with me to see them?"

Stiles hoists himself up on the countertop next to the drying rack and leans his head against the cupboards lining the wall, his eyes on Derek's hands as they continue to wash up. "I don't really know. You know I still have trouble with the whole 'strangers' thing, and that's all they are to me."

"You wouldn't be left alone with them," Derek points out, stacking the saucepan up next to the frying pan, "but it's completely fine if you want to stay here instead."

Stiles nibbles on his bottom lip. "I'll think about it."

"Okay."

* * *

- The Present: Sunday, July 17th, 2016 -

When Derek and Stiles arrive at the Hale house the next morning, Derek isn't shocked to see that the Argents' black truck is already parked out front. He brings his Camaro to a stop next to it, pulls up the parking brake and unbuckles his seatbelt before looking to his passenger.

"No second thoughts?" he asks.

Stiles is obviously wary but trying to be strong. "No, I'm good," he says, unbuckling as well and getting out of the car.

Inside the house, Derek follows his senses to the living room, where everyone is already gathered. He greets Chris and Allison with a polite nod before he walks over to hug his parents and John. The protests of his alpha wolf are weak now when he embraces his mother, something about which he is pleased. He's honestly quite proud of himself.

With most of his time dedicated to making sure Stiles is as well as he can be, Derek hasn't had much to spend on himself, on getting a handle on his strengthened instincts. He still has times when he speaks with his mother and the voice inside his head will tell him that he should assert his dominance over her, but they're getting fewer and further between. He has Marc and Geoff to thank for that, the lessons they've had and the exercises they taught him during their visit shortly after Derek gained his alpha status helping tremendously. He also thinks it helps that he is back to not living under his mother's roof.

"It's good to see you, son," John tells Stiles, moving on from Derek to hug him.

"You, too," the young man smiles shakily.

"Stiles, you're looking well," Chris comments, while Allison waves.

"Thanks. I feel well."

It takes a few minutes for everyone to get settled, for tea to be served and everyone to find their seats. Predictably, Derek and John sit at either end of the centre sofa with Stiles in between them. Talia and Nicolas take the sofa to the left, while Chris and Allison remain on the one to the right. Talia is who gets things started.

"So, what did you want to talk to us about?" she asks the hunters, holding her teacup in her hands. "It didn't sound urgent on the phone."

"It isn't. It's actually pretty good, I feel," Chris says, his own teacup remaining untouched on the tray on the coffee table. His eyes flick briefly over Stiles' face, and the twenty-one-year-old leans infinitesimally closer to Derek, not outright uncomfortable but needing reassurance anyway. "Thanks to all of your hard work, we've managed to track down as many kids and the alphas who bought them as we can. There are unfortunately still a few missing, but there's no way for us as hunters to find them and so there's nothing left for us to do in regards to this case. I've been in this game for decades now, and Allison being hurt when we took down Austin's pack was the eye-opener I needed to come to an important life decision."

"Which is?" Talia prompts.

"We're quitting hunting," Allison announces, "and we'd like your permission to remain here in Beacon Hills. Permanently."

Stunned silence follows, until Talia breaks it again. "Well, I wasn't anticipating that," she says, setting her teacup down next to Chris'. "I thought being a hunter practically ran in your family's blood."

"Oh, we won't suddenly forget everything we know," Allison elaborates. "We'll keep honing our skills so we can use them to assist you in anything that may crop up in the future; if you allow us to stay in your territory, that is. It's just...I've only been doing this properly for about three and a half years, and frankly the life of a hunter is already beginning to wear on me. I don't think it's really meant for me. I want as close to a normal life as I can get, and I can't have that if we keep actively hunting and moving all around the country."

"What will you do if you don't hunt?" John interpolates, sitting forward curiously.

Chris smirks. "I have a side business selling firearms to police forces like yours, which I used as a cover if we needed to stay somewhere for an extended period of time," he explains proudly. "I'm planning on making that legit."

John nods along, impressed. "I'll have to look into that."

"So, just to be absolutely clear," Talia says, getting things back on track, "if I permit it, you'll move properly into town, find a house and everything. You won't hunt anymore, apart from if something requires our attention close by, at which point you'll assist us in any way you can. Otherwise you'll just lead normal lives. Am I getting that right?"

"You are," Chris confirms.

"And you're certain this is what you want?"

Father and daughter share a significant look before turning back to Talia and answering at the same time.

"Yes."

"It is."

Talia stares at them for a moment speaking again. "We'll need to discuss it between us," she says calmly, her face giving nothing away. It's a perfect mask. "Even though you've been a big help to us in getting my son's mate back—and we are all incredibly grateful for that—I'm sure you'll understand that welcoming hunters into our territory like this is a very big decision to make, and it affects everyone here. We'll need some time."

"Of course," Chris accepts easily.

"I'll let you know in couple of days, when I've gotten a chance to speak to everyone."

With that, the meeting comes to an end. Derek and Stiles stay seated on the sofa as the others bid each other farewell. As Allison walks past him, Derek notes for the first time that day that she looks different, more made up. Instead of sensible jeans and a T-shirt, she wears a loose red dress that falls down to her knees and has a plunging neckline, and she is wearing makeup. Objectively, Derek thinks she looks beautiful. Why she is so dressed up, he doesn't know, but it helps to assure him that she and her father are serious about leaving hunting behind them.

Chris follows his daughter out of the living room, but he doesn't seem to get very far. Derek doesn't turn his head to look, but he can hear the older man talking quietly to Peter, who has apparently only just deigned to show up.

"So you're not hunting anymore," Peter comments in a tone of voice Derek hasn't heard from him before.

"No, we're not," Chris replies.

"And you're hoping to stay in town indefinitely."

"We are."

"That's interesting... Very interesting."

Derek can just picture the confused frown on Chris' face as he says, "It is?"

"Yes. You'll have to tell me when you're all settled in. I'd love to show you around town sometime."

Nothing else is said, and then Peter swaggers into the living room with a predatory smirk on his face.

Derek thinks he knows what it means and feels sorry for Chris.

* * *

- The Present: Wednesday, January 25th, 2017 -

When Derek gets home from the sheriff's station, the first thing he does is unbutton the shirt of his uniform and shrug it off, leaving himself in just a white, sweat-stained tank top. He drapes the shirt over his right forearm, ascends the stairs and walks down the hallway to his and Stiles' bedroom. He feels a little gross because he and Jordan Parrish spent the better part of the afternoon chasing down a criminal who thought it was a good idea to rob the gas station on the outskirts of town. He plans on grabbing a quick shower and a clean set of clothes before dinner.

He finds Stiles sitting at the foot of their bed.

The twenty-two-year-old smiles at Derek and accepts the kiss the alpha plants on his forehead. "Hey."

"Hey," Derek echoes against Stiles' skin, lingering for a few seconds before pulling away and walking over to their dresser. Once he has selected a pair of old basketball shorts he still has from when he played the sport in high school and has turned back around, he notices the piece of paper in Stiles' hand. "What's that?"

Stiles holds it out. "It's another letter from Ethan."

His curiosity piqued, Derek reads quickly through the handwritten text on the page.

It contains an update on how Danny is dealing with everything and floats the idea that maybe the two of them and Aiden will come to Beacon Hills for a visit soon. Derek is glad to read that the Hawaiian boy is managing well. Like Stiles, when given the choice, Danny had chosen to keep his memories. It was rough going at first, and it had saddened Derek to read the first couple of letters he and Stiles had received from Ethan, but the beta seems confident that Danny is now making wonderful progress in his recovery.

"So, what do you think?" Stiles asks, his face hopeful.

"About them coming to stay for a while?"

"Mmhmm."

"I think it's a great idea," Derek opines, folding the letter up and giving it back to Stiles so that he can put it with all the others they have been sent over the past few months. "We have a couple of guest rooms that rarely get used, after all."

"They'll stay here?"

"If that's alright with you. I'm sure my parents can put them up if you're not comfortable with that."

Stiles shakes his head. "No, it's fine. I think it'll be good."

"Great. I'll get in touch with Melanie tomorrow and set it up, okay?"

Stiles gets up, slides his arms around Derek's waist and tucks his nose into Derek's neck. "Thanks, Sourwolf."

Derek reciprocates the embrace and is content to stand there forever, but eventually Stiles draws away and looks him up and down.

"Now, go shower. You stink."

* * *

- The Present: Thursday, January 26th, 2017 -

The next evening, Derek and Stiles leave the house dressed to the nines in fancy suits. They drive toward an upscale restaurant in town, where they will be meeting Allison and her boyfriend, Scott McCall. It's something they have done a few times now, the whole double-date thing, ever since Stiles was re-introduced to Scott through the ex-huntress and they became fast friends.

The two young men used to go to the same high school but were never really more than acquaintances, mainly because Stiles spent basically all of his time outside of school either with his dad or with the Hales. Derek was glad when his mate took a shine to Scott and started expanding his horizons. As much as he would have happily spent every moment of every day shut up in his bedroom with Stiles, he knew that wouldn't have been healthy, nor would it have helped in any way with Stiles' still-ongoing recovery. Stiles needs to make connections with other people, and Derek is extremely proud of his mate for forging one with Scott.

Derek wasn't sure what to make of him at first. The vet-in-training seemed kind of silly and behaved fecklessly when it came to most aspects of his life, didn't seem to give some things the seriousness they called for, and Derek was wary about how that would affect Stiles. But after they spent some more time together, Derek had grudgingly admitted to himself that Scott wasn't so bad.

When it comes to his closest friends, a small circle into which Stiles had quickly wormed his way—as had Derek, by extension—Scott is fiercely protective. He is respectful of Stiles' boundaries, of not touching him unless Stiles initiates it, and he isn't judgemental if Stiles has a panic attack or gets irrationally angry at something. That was enough for Derek to put up with him and even start liking him. Not that he'll ever tell anyone that.

"You ready for this?" Derek asks.

"Hell yeah. I'm hungry," Stiles replies happily.

After both getting out of the Camaro, Derek takes Stiles' hand and sticks close to him. The younger man can handle it, but he still isn't that comfortable out in public and so, when they meet up with Scott and Allison and go inside the building, the maître d' picks up four menus and leads them to their usual private room in the back.

"Here you are," the man says, gesturing to a medium-size square table with chairs tucked under each side.

"Thank you," Allison tells him, allowing Scott to chivalrously push her chair in.

Derek does the same for Stiles.

The maître d' gives a little bow. "Someone will be by to take your orders in a few minutes."

"So, what's new with you two?" Scott asks once the maître d' has left, opening his menu and perusing it like he won't choose the same thing he has had the previous times he has eaten there.

"Not much," Derek says.

"Is that guy you work with still being a dick?"

Derek shakes his head. "Nah, Rodriguez seems to have learned his lesson," he responds, hiding his pleasure behind his menu. "He still sends the occasional dirty look my way, but he isn't outright hostile and he hasn't breathed a word about Stiles and I to anyone since Parrish reported him to the sheriff for badmouthing me again a couple of months ago."

"That's good," Allison adds, smiling herself.

"Yeah."

The young woman turns to Stiles. "And you? Anything exciting going on?" she asks, obviously wanting to be inclusive.

"N-not really," Stiles stammers, caught off-guard by the sudden attention. He calms slightly when Derek rests a hand on his leg beneath the table. "My dad got me a tutor a couple of weeks ago so that I could catch up on all the stuff I missed in those last two years of high school and then get my GED. So that's something. I just had a couple of lessons with her earlier today and she says it's going well, but I'm not so sure. I feel kinda dumb doing it."

Allison wears an expression of concern. "Why?"

Stiles looks down at the tablecloth, his face flushing with shame. "It's difficult to get my mind to focus on that stuff sometimes..."

"You'll get it," Scott reassures Stiles before Derek can. "I know we weren't friends then, but I still remember seeing you around back in school. You were like, the second smartest person in all the classes we shared, and that's only because Lydia Martin was an alien or something. I was jealous."

"You were?"

"Hell yeah. Super jealous."

"Thanks," Stiles mumbles, a tiny smile on his face.

"Anytime."

Minutes later, a waitress with long blonde hair and red lips enters the room. "Alright then, what are we having?" she asks with a grin.

* * *

As much as Stiles likes hanging out with Scott and Allison, being around anyone other than Derek for a period of more than a few minutes is an enervating experience for him. As soon as they arrive home and the front door is shut and locked, his whole body sags with relief and he all but collapses on the living room sofa. He unbuttons the top few buttons of his shirt, kicks off his fancy shoes and arranges himself lengthways on the sofa with an arm thrown over his closed eyes. It feels good to be home alone with Derek, in the only place he feels he can truly let go.

"You good?" the wolf asks. He picks up Stiles' legs, slides beneath them and rests them across his lap.

"Yeah, I'm good," Stiles replies, smiling when he feels Derek rubbing soothing circles into his ankle with his thumb. "Just had my fill of social interactions for today."

Derek hums understandingly and rests his head against the back of the sofa. His eyes land on the clock that hangs on the wall opposite and he watches the time pass, not feeling the need to fill the silence when it's just the two of them. Eventually, looking at the clock gives Derek a prickly sensation at the base of his skull, makes him suspect that there's something he is missing, some occasion about which he has forgotten. It takes him some time, but when he realises what the occasion is he jerks up ramrod straight and turns to his mate, who has uncovered his eyes because of the sudden movement.

"Do you know what today is?" Derek asks Stiles.

The human swings his legs off of Derek's lap and sits up too, his face curious. "No. What day is it?"

"It's the anniversary of when you found your way back to me."

Blinking a couple of times, Stiles' curiosity turns to understanding. "Oh."

"It's a good day."

"Yeah," Stiles agrees.

Derek raises his arm. "Come here."

Gladly, Stiles slots himself up against the alpha's side, head resting on his shoulder. Derek can feel the contentment rolling off of him in waves.

"I love you," he murmurs into the younger man's hair, holding him tight.

"I love you, too," Stiles echoes, tilting his head up. He finds Derek looking down at him, his hazel eyes shining with the proof of his love. In that moment, Stiles finds the courage to do something that, up until that moment, he never has before. His gazes drops for a split second down to Derek's mouth before he closes the gap between them and kisses him.

Derek gasps against him but doesn't pull away. The kiss isn't anywhere near as extreme or messy as some of the ones Stiles has had before. It isn't sexual at all or even sensual. It stays simple, chaste, just lips pressed against lips, but because this kiss was entirely his choice, and because it's Derek he is kissing, it's perfect.

Stiles still has a long way to go. He still has nightmares from time to time that leave him flinching at any touch or sound for hours after he wakes up. He still can't leave the house without Derek there to keep him calm. The thought of doing anything more than kissing still repulses him. But, as the kiss ends and he tucks his face into Derek's neck and inhales his woodsy scent, he thinks that life is good.

He has Derek's unwavering love and support.

He has his dad.

He has the rest of the Hales.

Hell, he even has Scott and Allison now.

And, most importantly, he is beginning to get himself back.

With all of that to help him, he knows with one hundred percent certainty that he'll be fine. He'll make it.