“You need to come home”, Scott says when Stiles picks up the phone, voice urgent and tightly controlled.
“What happened? Who is it?”, Stiles demands, pulling up booking websites with trembling fingers, because Scott has never demanded Stiles come back, not once, in all the time that has passed since Stiles could call Beacon Hills home.
Stiles can hear Scott breathing on the other end of the line, hesitating, and Stiles’ fingers slow on the keyboard, chest constricting painfully in anticipation of what he knows is coming.
“It's Derek”, Scott says and Stiles clicks out of his browser, jams a finger against the power button of his laptop for good measure.
“No”, he says, tone hard, and hangs up before either of them can notice the quiver in his voice.
Scott doesn't call again.
* * *
Stiles hasn't been to Beacon Hills in two years and twenty-nine days.
He hasn't slept in his childhood bedroom for a lot longer than that, hasn't had lunch at the station with his Dad, hasn't driven his Jeep, hasn't seen most of the people he used to call his friends.
Stiles hasn't been in the house his mother lived and died in for seven hundred and fifty-nine days and for that, most of all, he hates Derek a little bit more every single day.
* * *
“Stiles”, his Dad says when he calls, two hours after Stiles hung up on Scott.
“No”, Stiles repeats.
It comes out petulant and childish, because as much as Stiles can admire his father's loyalty in other contexts, it's been a thorn in their collective side that the Sheriff still likes Derek when all his son has been doing these last years is learn how to hate him more, bit by painful bit.
Sometimes, when he's feeling particularly hurt and vindictive, he wishes they could go back to the beginning, back to when his Dad was still over-protective of Stiles and wary of Derek, before he had begged his father to try and Derek to be nice, before he had made them bond over their shared love of baseball, before the Sheriff had made Derek his newest deputy and started calling him son - before everything had become too good to last.
“Listen to me, Stiles”, his father says, rushing the words out before Stiles can beg him to stop, “Derek was in a car accident.” - and Stiles can't fucking breathe - “He's fine, though, you hear me, son? Or he will be, at least. But...”
And here it comes, Stiles knows, the thing they were all calling about, because nobody dares use Derek's name around him these days - not when Derek gets shot by a rogue hunter, not when Derek freezes half to death because some troll threw him into a frozen lake in the middle of winter, not ever.
Certainly not when he's in a car accident he will easily heal from.
“Stiles, his car caught fire after the crash”, his Dad says, voice gentle and quiet and Stiles closes his eyes tightly against it, “He wasn't -- the paramedics cut him out pretty quickly after that, but he's still...he's not healing as well as he should be. Deaton says he’s gonna be okay, though,l and you know how I feel about that guy, but he's the best we got, that's what you always used to say, right?”
John's forced laugh sounds far away, distorted by the sound of rushing blood in Stiles' ears.
“But he was pretty out of it for a few days and when he finally woke up a few hours ago, he...” - his Dad stops, swallows audibly, takes a deep breath - “he doesn't remember much, Stiles. The doctors say it's probably mostly psychological and it should go away hopefully, but I didn't really understand a lot of what they were saying, and he's just -- he doesn't recognize any of us.”
And Stiles can't seem to hear anything over the rush of blood in his ears, thrumming adrenaline through his veins and leaving him shaky and brittle, but he's pretty sure there's something wrong with his breathing, because his chest hurts and his vision is swimming and there's no air.
He drops his head between his knees and presses the phone tighter to his ear, until his skin hurts with it and he can almost make out his father yelling down the line, telling him to breathe, now, one. Two. Three. and when they've made it to ten, the pain in his chest has stopped being quite so bright and all-consuming, has dulled enough that Stiles can feel the churning in his stomach again, that sick twisting and turning that makes him want to scream and rage and cry. That makes him find his voice again, because knowing is painful, but not-knowing is hell.
“Does he...?”, he croaks out, the rest of his question getting stuck in his throat.
“He remembers you.”
“Oh. Okay”, he breathes through the sudden wave of relief that hits him, hard and unexpected, because as much as he has worked on forgetting Derek these last years, through work and late nights and alcohol and strange bodies, he's never, not once, really thought about Derek forgetting him.
“Stiles”, his father says, soft and sad and apologetic, Stiles realizes, because this will be the thing that finally gets Stiles to board that plane home and they both know it before the words have even left his father's mouth, “he doesn’t remember anyone but you.”
* * *
Stiles packs in a daze, pulling clothes out of his closet at random and throwing them in the direction of his open suitcase, his mind already hundreds of miles away. The next flight out doesn’t leave for another four hours, but he packs in a hurry, motions quick and jerky, fingers fumbling against the cotton of his undershirts, because there’s a building pressure behind his eyes and his mind is racing a hundred miles an hours and he’s afraid of what will happen if he just. Stops.
That’s how Ryan finds him when he comes looking for him after Stiles has been officially late for their lunch date for forty minutes, comes through the front door that Stiles never locks when he’s home now because there’s nothing he’s afraid of anymore, here, and stares at the state of Stiles’ bedroom wordlessly for a long while.
It’s only when he places a light hand on Stiles’ shoulder to make him stop, just stop for a minute, that Stiles realizes there’s no underwear in his packed suitcase and his hands are shaking.
Ryan makes him sit down on the bed and unpacks everything again, folds the clothes up nice and tidy and puts them back into the suitcase, adds underwear and socks for good measure as well. Ryan waits until he’s in the adjoining bathroom, packing up Stiles’ shower gel and razors and toothpaste, before calmly asking him what’s going on and it makes Stiles’ stomach burn with shame - because he’s nice enough to not make Stiles look at him while asking and he’s packing up Stiles’ toothbrush even though Stiles compulsively throws away Ryan’s spare whenever he tries to leave one and because he never pressured him when all Stiles could give was casual dates and I like you and I’m not ready for anything serious yet.
It’s not fair to either of them, Stiles thinks, that he finds a nice, good, sensitive man who likes to plan ahead and talk about his feelings and thoughts and inner workings only now when he’s no longer able to appreciate any of it.
So because it’s the least he can do, Stiles tells him where he’s going and why and doesn’t cry about his many complicated feelings for his ex-boyfriend in front of his would be-boyfriend of nine months and when Ryan comes out of the bathroom with a sad tilt to his mouth, Stiles knows they both heard the silent apology beneath his words.
Ryan drives him to the airport, finally, although he’s still two hours early and when Stiles presses a perfunctory kiss to Ryan’s lips just outside the gate, he tastes salt and regret.
Ryan’s face is guarded when Stiles pulls away, the way it has been ever since Stiles uttered the words Derek’s name and they’d both realized this goodbye would be a lot more permanent than either of them was willing to let on.
Stiles doesn’t look back all the way to his seat inside the gate, and when he finally does, once he’s seated comfortably and his carry-on is resting on the seat beside him, Ryan is already long gone.
* * *
It's past midnight when his Dad picks him up at the airport.
He wordlessly pulls Stiles into a tight hug as soon as they’re standing in front of each other and doesn’t let go until the familiar smell of his father’s aftershave has made Stiles’ racing heartbeat calm down enough to let him breathe normally.
They drive straight to the hospital from the airport, his father filling him in on the situation as best as he can while Stiles stares out of the window, at familiar streets and houses and places flying by and it hurts his heart a little how nothing has seemed to change at all in the time he’s been away when he’s changed so much that sometimes, Stiles has trouble even remembering the person he once was.
He doesn’t hear anything his father says and after a few minutes of Stiles staring out the window without moving a muscle, the Sheriff falls silent.
* * *
It’s a testament to the quiet life he’s been leading these past years that when he gets pounced as soon as he’s stepped through the hospital’s sliding doors, he’s shocked enough to lose his breath a little.
“I can’t believe you’re actually here!”, Erica squeals from where she’s buried her face in Stiles’ neck, inhaling his scent in big greedy gulps and pushing her thick blonde hair up under Stiles’ nose.
Stiles nods dumbly, too stunned for words and lifts his arms jerkily to put them around Erica’s back, but before he has the chance to do so, Erica pulls back and hits him across the head, hard enough to sting.
“Ouch”, Stiles says, almost involuntarily.
“Don’t you ever do that to me again”, she hisses and Stiles takes a deliberate step back.
He hasn’t come here to let himself be guilted into apologizing.
“Don’t”, he warns, shaking his head almost imperceptibly.
Erica’s mouth thins, gaze going steely, “You could’ve called.”
Stiles presses his lips together, looks at the floor between their feet.
“Just once, Stiles”, he hears Erica whisper, “One phone call would’ve been nice.”
“Erica…”, he pleads, eyes still fixed intently on the squeaky clean hospital floor. “You know I -- I couldn’t…”
“I get that you had to leave, trust me, Stiles - everyone did. But no visits, no address, no postcards? Scott wouldn’t even give me your phone number, I mean, what’s up with that? It’s like you broke up with all of us.”
Stiles stuffs his hands deep into the pockets of his jeans to stop them from fidgeting, clamps his mouth shut tightly. It’s not going to help her to hear that that’s exactly what it’s felt like to Stiles all this time.
“What, did you think I’d run straight to Derek and give him your number or what?”
Stiles tries not to flinch too visibly at the casual mention, but he knows it’s a useless attempt when he hears Erica’s exasperated huff of breath.
He squares his shoulders and meets her gaze head-on, “Yeah, actually, I think that’s exactly what you would’ve done. Are you honestly telling me you wouldn’t have, if he'd been begging you for it?!”
Erica opens her mouth almost reflexively, ready to lash out and defend herself, her honor, her pack, but one look at Stiles’ face makes her reconsider.
“There’s a reason there were no visits, Erica”, Stiles says.
Because I don't have the strength to walk away a second time, Stiles thinks, but doesn’t say, just shoulders past Erica on his way to the elevators before she can open her mouth enough to ask.
* * *
Scott’s pinched face greets him as soon as Stiles steps out of the elevator and his best friend hugs him briefly, thankfully not asking about the flight or any of the other pleasantries that Stiles doesn’t have the patience for.
There are people in white coats standing off to the side, talking to one another and at Stiles’ inquisitive look, Scott leads him over to them and introduces them as Derek’s doctors.
There’s a lot of strange words being thrown around, then, but Stiles is pretty confident he gets the gist of it, because as much as he likes to wish it was, this is nowhere near the first time he’s had to do this.
Here’s what he thinks he understands: Derek was in a car accident. He’s suffered multiple fractures in his right leg as well as four broken ribs and a punctured lung. He has third degree burns on forty percent of his body and a severe concussion.
When he woke up from being unconscious for two days, as a result of his concussion combined with the profound emotional trauma of being trapped in the same hell that most of his family had lost their lives in, he doesn’t remember anything about the accident or the fire that killed his family. He doesn’t recognize any of his friends either.
“On a smaller scale, we know this kind of memory loss from patients who repress traumatic experiences if their psyche is not capable of dealing with the trauma and we also know that some severe head injuries can cause selective amnesia, but the exact workings are unclear”, the doctor explains with a placid smile on her face. “We think in Mr. Hale’s case, it’s probably a combination of the two, but there’s certainly reason to hope that his memory loss is mostly psychological and, therefore, reversible.”
There’s more after that, Stiles thinks, and Scott keeps asking questions that are mostly for Stiles’ benefit, he’s sure, but it’s all lost to Stiles the second he’s spotted Isaac slumped over and asleep in one of the chairs that line the hallway, right next to a door that’s firmly closed.
His feet start moving and the conversation around him falls silent.
Thirty-four steps and seven hundred and sixty days and then, finally, there’s Derek.
He looks different than Stiles remembers him, smaller and softer, somehow, almost fragile against the stark white of the hospital bed. His eyes are closed and his skin is pale, pale enough to tell Stiles there must have been quite a bit of blood loss.
There are people in the open doorway behind him; Scott and his father, he assumes from the hushed whispers. He balls his fists against the urge to make them leave and steps closer to the bed, lets his fingers dust over the crisp white bedding in lieu of touching skin.
The whispers fall quiet behind him and Stiles can feel their eyes on his skin, tracking his every move as he takes in the man lying before him. It’s strange to see him like this, all plastered up and bandaged and bruised - he never used to need any of that.
It makes the severity of the situation sink in quite suddenly and Stiles knows Scott has picked up on the increase in his heart rate and the sweating of his hands when there is a low whine from behind him, but then, Scott isn’t the only one.
Slowly, strenuously, Derek’s eyes open and then, like it’s nothing, like it doesn’t cut Stiles up on the inside and leave him raw and open, they’re staring at each other.
“Stiles”, Derek says, soft and croaky and Stiles closes his eyes briefly.
It’s been a long time since anyone has said his name like something to be treasured.
“I’m okay”, Derek continues because of course, of course he’s picked up on the racing of Stiles’ heart and Stiles would have laughed at that if all the air hadn’t been sucked out of the room the moment Derek worms one of his hands out from under the blanket.
Worms it out from under the blanket and reaches for Stiles’ hand still lying limply on the bedding, intertwining their fingers and squeezing tightly.
* * *
“You don’t think that piece of information would’ve been useful?!”, Stiles demands. “‘Hey, Stiles, Derek doesn’t remember anybody except you and oh by the way, he also somehow deleted the whole part where you broke up and haven’t spoken in over two years and thinks you’re still happily together. Yay.’”
There’s no immediate response to that, but the Sheriff and Scott both look sufficiently guilty.
“Stiles, you’ve got to understand the situation we were in here -”
“He tried to kiss me.”
The Sheriff sighs and rubs a hand across his eyes. “I know. And I’m...really sorry for that, but Stiles, what were we supposed to do? You’re the only one he’ll listen to, you’re his only --”
“He tried to kiss me.”
“We know”, Scott says, placatingly, and Stiles rounds on him, fists clenched and eyes blazing.
“No. No, you don’t”, he spits, “You have no idea.”
A pair of nurses walks past them and they fall silent for a moment, Scott taking a step to the side to let them pass more easily in the narrow hallway.
Stiles is looking at the scuff marks his new trainers have left on the shiny linoleum floor, tracing the line of them with the toe of his shoe when Scott speaks up again, voice soft and apologetic.
“You can’t tell him.”
Stiles barks a bitter laugh. “Yeah, I kinda figured that’s what ‘he’s really fragile, you can’t upset him’ meant, but thanks for reminding me.”
“I’m sorry we didn’t tell you, but we were afraid you wouldn’t come if we had”, his father says. “I know you would’ve hated me for that later.”
And that’s true, probably, but it still hurts to realize that everybody knows one look is all it takes - one look at Derek and Stiles is utterly unable to leave, no matter how much it pains him to stay.
“I hate you now, for making me come here”, he spits out instead, turns around and leaves his father and Scott staring after him in the empty hallway outside Derek’s hospital room.
* * *
He takes a cab back to the house, raids his father’s liquor cabinet for the most expensive bottle of Scotch he can find and drives the Jeep to a secluded spot in the Preserve where the cops don’t ever think to look.
He’s obsessively conscious of the property lines, careful not to go anywhere near Derek’s land - Stiles has had quite enough of blurring lines and crumbling defences for his first day back.
He takes a few swigs of his bottle, the alcohol burning his throat on the way down and contemplates calling Ryan, imagines for a second how that conversation would go.
Already he feels like the voice his mind assigns to Ryan is losing its shape and focus, but then again he hasn't quite gotten into the habit of replaying their conversations over and over again in his head yet.
Instead, he calls Lydia.
“Tell me”, he says as soon as she picks up.
“Stiles. What happened?”
“Everybody hates me for leaving”, Stiles says because that's the easy part in all this and takes a long swig from the Scotch bottle.
“Everybody?”, Lydia asks carefully and it’s a relief, really, that there are still people in his life that he can count on not to say his name.
“Well, no, but that's only because Derek has no idea I ever left.”
There’s a sharp intake of breath on the other line, followed by a soft “Oh honey”.
“Yeah, well, that’s why I need you to tell me.”
“Stiles, I really don’t -”
Stiles thunks his bottle against the steering wheel and hurries to interrupt her before she can finish her sentence. “Lydia. Derek doesn’t remember he’s supposed to hate me. I need you to tell me.”
Lydia sighs deeply down the line. “You had good reasons for leaving him, Stiles. You weren’t happy and you wanted different things and it wouldn’t have worked out.”
Stiles presses his eyes tightly shut and nods along with her words, the Scotch sloshing softly from side to side in the bottle with his movements.
“Your reasons for leaving are still relevant. You will not be weak when it comes to him. It’ll only end in heartbreak.”
Stiles puts the bottle to his lips, gulps down as much of it as he can in one breath and nods vigorously to himself.
“Thank you”, he says when he’s finished drinking.
“For the record, I still don't agree with any of that. You two clearly have a lot of unfinished business between you, maybe this could -”
Lydia sighs again. “I’m just saying - you’re not the only one who’s changed over the past few years.”
“That’s kind of the opposite of what you’re supposed to tell me.”
Stiles feels like he can actually hear Lydia get frustrated over the phone, even with hundreds of miles of between them.
“Fine”, she huffs. “You will not be weak.”
“I will not be weak”, he whispers back to her, listens to the dial tone for a long minute after she’s hung up and proceeds to drink himself into oblivion.
* * *
He doesn’t go back to the house that night.
He sits and drinks and ignores his phone ringing almost-constantly on the passenger seat until he falls into a hazy stupor somewhere around dawn.
It’s almost noon when he finally feels sober enough to drive.
* * *
Five hours later, Stiles is still hung-over and Derek is being quiet and Stiles is freaking out.
Derek hasn’t said a word since Boyd and Scott had manoeuvred him and his broken leg into the passenger seat of the Jeep ten minutes ago and neither has Stiles, but really, if appropriate words exist, he hasn’t found them.
He’s going to be the live-in caretaker for his amnesia-ridden, slow-healing ex-boyfriend of a werewolf, a little bit of speechlessness is his prerogative, he figures.
Thing is: Derek doesn’t know any of that.
For all he knows, this is just another normal day in the lives of Derek-and-Stiles, witch-hunting and late night dinners and picking up boyfriends from the hospital, and Stiles thinks it really shouldn’t be too much to ask for Derek to pick up the burden of making these silences less suffocating, just this once.
But alas, Derek doesn’t find silences suffocating on principle.
“How’re you holding up?”, Stiles finally cracks, after he’s stared at the side of Derek’s face for a full two minutes while sitting at a red light without getting so much as a glance in his direction in return.
Derek tears his gaze away from the window with apparent difficulty and throws Stiles an unimpressed look.
“Fine”, he grunts curtly.
Stiles snorts. “At least try for mildly convincing next time, dude, you’re kinda insulting my intelligence here.”
Derek glares at him darkly and Stiles almost weeps with joy that, at last, something feels vaguely familiar amidst all of this fucked up weirdness.
And then Derek sighs, deep and long, and nothing that comes out of his mouth next feels even remotely close to familiar.
“It hurts”, he grits out. “I’m not healing fast enough and I don’t know why and I’m used to pain, obviously, but I didn’t know it could be so...constant. I keep expecting it to stop and it just - doesn’t.”
Stiles throws a glance over at Derek and his stomach clenches hard at the barely disguised grimace of pain on his face.
He hadn’t even stopped to consider what it must be like for a born werewolf - for someone who has only ever had to deal with sharp, short bursts of agony - to experience the slow, burning, draining pain of healing.
“I don’t like feeling so helpless”, Derek goes on, quietly, and although the obvious Nobody does is on the tip of Stiles’ tongue, he makes himself stay quiet. “And then, as if all of that wasn’t enough, I always feel like I’m not in on the joke, you know? There are all of these people who know me and I can't even match names to their faces and it’s like this whole, huge piece of a puzzle is missing and I - ... I don’t even know what the finished puzzle’s supposed to look like.”
Stiles thinks he should have just let himself suffocate in peace, because he still hates Derek, has had years of practice hating Derek, but there’s a hard, coiled ball of feelings clogging his throat and cutting off his air supply and however hard he tries, he can’t make himself hate Derek even a tiny bit more today.
“You’re the only piece of the puzzle that still makes sense”, Derek says then and reaches across the center console to grab Stiles’ hand in a vice grip. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
And that, that’s so much more suffocating than any kind of silence could ever be.
* * *