When Derek had first been caught, after the overwhelming rush of panic and adrenaline that had sustained him through weeks and weeks on the run gave out, he had settled into a brittle kind of numbness. He’d lain in the dirt, bleeding from at least two puncture wounds, but hadn’t felt the pain of the numerous arrows he was vaguely certain were now lodged in his body. No. Instead, he’d been bothered by the cloyingly rich smell of the dirt under his nose. He had felt the burn of overexertion climbing up his upper chest and throat. He felt the pounding of his head as the mild headache he’d carried for days took a violent turn for the worse.
But as soon as he’d hit the ground, it was like the remainder of his awareness had been knocked right out of him. He hadn’t heard how many footfalls slowed from a sprint, to a jog, to stillness around him. He only absently realized that his hands were being pulled back and bound. And though he never fully loses consciousness, he loses all sense of time from that point forward until he reawaken in a cold, nearly airless eight by eight foot room in which he is shackled by what, judging by the horrific burning, must be wolfsbane-laced cuffs around his limbs and neck.
He panics then; he feels that too familiar anxiety and deep fear rise up from his belly into his throat to choke him. He sees a flash of blonde hair, hears the tail-end of a laugh. So he sinks into the pain of his burning skin and lets himself fade again.
He doesn’t know how many hours or days go by like that. He knows he’s being hurt, but only distantly. He sees fists and devices come towards his body, make contact, and then leave again. He sees the anger and frustration on the faces of his captors but feels no fear as a result.
And then she takes over.
He registers that he should be scared. He registers that she never looks angry or frustrated while she’s in front of him - her lips are always curled into an easy smile - and that should terrify him. But he’s too tired. Too weary of this cycle. Of being free, until he’s not; of being safe, until he’s not; over and over it repeats. And he thinks, if he can just let go this time. If he can just fade away - take the hits and let them take what they want - then maybe it’ll end. Maybe he can break this cycle. Maybe if he’d been smart enough he’d have figured that out ages ago...
To which Stiles replies, “Really?” His smile is also easy, but it’s warm. It’s inviting, and soothing, and it instills a sliver of serenity deep inside Derek to see it. “Great plan, sourwolf. Just kick the bucket, that’ll show them.”
Derek’s facial muscles feel like stone when he tries to grin ruefully back at him.
“How’d you find me?” Derek asks lazily. They’re sitting in his camaro, facing the oncoming waves of the Pacific ocean. He probably shouldn’t have driven this far out on the beach, it’ll be hard to get the traction to get back. But that’s a problem for later.
Stiles shrugs, tapping his fingers listlessly on the gear shift. “How I always find you.” He raises his fingers up to wiggle them at Derek, who looks away immediately. “Magic.”
Derek snorts. It doesn’t matter, really.
His window’s been rolled down and the humid, salty air is grounding him. He’s read somewhere that decades and centuries ago, northern people would move south to find coastal climates to heal themselves. It was a good idea to come here.
“How long are you here for?” He asks Stiles, who’s now gripping the gear shift, but drumming the fingers on his other hand on the dashboard in a rhythm Derek can’t follow.
“As long as you need.”
Derek nods. He appreciates it.
“Are you nervous about something?” Derek asks.
Stiles turns to face him. He’s cut his hair back to the buzzcut he had when they first met. It looks weird now against the more angular cheekbones of his older face.
“Nope,” he replies. “Just trying to get you to pay attention.”
Derek turns back to the ocean. The moon is full and bright in the sky, but he feels no pull from it.
“I am,” he insists.
The drumming gets louder, like claws against an empty metal box, and Derek can only count to the crashing of seven more waves before he can’t ignore it anymore.
“Stiles,” he begins, his tone warning. But when he turns to face him, Stiles’ hands are splayed out in the air facing him, and Derek can’t help but count 11.
Electricity, as a tool of pain, makes a comeback. Whatever minor reserves of werewolvian strength he still had are being zapped away with each touch of the current. They give him water, though they haven’t fed him yet. As his body seizes and spasms helplessly once more, he wonders how long the customary wait between meals might be during torture. Is it like on-flight service? Because on flights shorter than 4 hours, he doesn’t think meals are served. Has he not been there long enough yet? How long has he been there?
The buzzing in his skin, in his veins, in his bones dies down suddenly.
“You used to be a fighter, sweetie. What happened to my little Scrappy Doo, huh?”
In a psych class at college, Derek had learned about learned helplessness. There was an experiment where dogs were given electric shocks they couldn’t escape, but when introduced into an environment where they had the power to stop the shocks, they didn’t even try. One half of their crate produced electric shocks, the other half didn’t, and they never bothered to walk around the crate to figure that out. They had just lain down, because in the previous part of the experiment, they’d been taught that the shocks were inevitable and uncontrollable. That lesson stuck with Derek like nothing else in his brief years at college had. Over the years, whenever he’d felt like nothing could change, he would think of those dogs and force himself to do something, anything . Often, it turned out that ‘anything’ didn’t improve his situation any, and sometimes made it worse, but at least he’d tried. So long as he never stopped trying, he could live with himself and whatever was thrown his way.
But he thinks he gets it now. The dogs were right all along. Yeah, they could have walked around and found their way to the other side of the crate. They could have learned in this very controlled environment that they had a modicum of power over their circumstances. But ultimately, they were getting shocked because some guy in a white coat stuck them in a lab and was hurting them for science. There’s no happy ending to that story, only momentary reprieves and hollow victories.
The reason Derek is at Beacon Hills High School in the middle of the night, heart pounding as Jennifer walked out of the teachers’ lounge is because people more powerful chased him through three states, kidnapped him, tortured him, and are injecting him with various substances for science. And for fun. And there is no escaping that. He gets that now. And he no longer feels any shame in the thought of laying down and accepting it. There’s nothing he can do.
Still, he appreciates it when Stiles pulls the fire alarm with an unrepentant shrug.
If his life had room for quiet moments, he might have wondered why the comfort he turns to in his mind is a random teenager he’s strangely connected to yet hesitates to even call a friend. Why not Laura? Why not his parents? Is it pragmatism? Would his mind just not allow the delusion to play out knowing he was speaking to people long dead while technically Stiles could be in this makeshift dungeon with him?
Is it yearning? Some unresolved something that could have been if he’d stuck around, if one of them wasn’t broken, if the other hadn’t been possessed, if, if, if…
Or is it maybe just...habit? That his mind has accepted that, if it were to replay a highlight reel of his worst moments in the past five years, Stiles would feature in almost every one of them, either as the person saving his life, or as a simple source of comfort. Is that pragmatism? Yearning? Both?
But of course, his life does not make room for quiet moments of reflection.
His stomach hurts. He’s sure his entire body hurts, but somehow, his stomach is commanding all his attention. Is it bleeding? Is it punctured? Has it been ripped out of his body? Has he been poisoned?
He’s been mostly aware for a full day now, he thinks, though he has no point of reference for this, really. But Kate’s gone. He’s been given water. And aside from his stomach, it’s been the most pleasant day he’s had in a long while.
When Kate comes back, Stiles winks at him, hands mercifully stuffed into the pockets of his hoodie and jerks his chin as if to say, “let’s go”. So he goes.
The woods of the Beacon Hill preserve are so calm this time of year. It’s the dewy comfort of fall, and also the tranquil stillness of the the world after a fresh snow. It’s spring blossoms and summer humidity. The two - three! - packs are running together under the light of the moon, and the world is just breathing, in and out, unhurried.
Laura has managed to shift into a full wolf and their mom is so proud. They’re running together. Cora is seven years old and trying to keep up on two legs, laughing herself out a powerful gait. And deep in the forest, Derek can hear the happy roughhousing noises of his three betas.
He’s building a bonfire with his dad, and the flames don’t hurt him. When he reaches for another log, a warm hand slips into his palm instead, and his stomach hurts again.
He knows it’s not real. No matter what idyll is presented to him, his soul is too tarnished at this point to ever accept a version of his life where peace is an option. But Stiles doesn’t always come to whisk him off into a fantasy. In this prison, sometimes Stiles comes to him, begging for his help. Sometimes he’s covered in blood. Other times, his eyes don’t belong to him and in those cases, Derek welcomes reality more than the horror show his mind can conjure up.
And sometimes, there is no fantasy. Sometimes his mind is so tired it can’t even provide a utopia. Sometimes Derek dreams in simpler factors - that the door is busted down and there’s a young deputy wielding nothing but a bat on the other side, with no plan, no backup, and no real shot at pulling this rescue attempt off. But because it’s Stiles , somehow it works out: Derek is pulled down from the metal, and they just walk away from this.
No matter the scenario, everything always comes down to numbers. Six when it should be five, eleven instead of ten. He avoids it for as long as he can but he knows eventually his attention will be called to those fingers. They’ll wave cheerfully at him. They’ll squeeze his hand. They’ll splay comfortably across his shoulders and he’ll feel each of the imprints fingerpad on his skin. And he’ll allow it because he craves it, but then the illusion will be over.
Even as that door busts down, and Stiles stands on the other side of it, too fierce and terrified in equal measure, Derek knows he has only moments to enjoy this reprieve. There’s no bat this time, but a gun instead. And he’s not alone, he’s brought the pack with him. Derek watches dispassionately as one by one his tormentors are taken down, none left alive for questioning because his mind is unforgiving and uncaring of the rule of law at this point.
And then Stiles reaches him. His smile isn’t easy or cocky or smug. It trembles as if he’s barely managing it. And then he’s out of view and after a few moments of tugging, Derek falls to the floor, barely thinking to brace himself. His head smacks hard against the cement floor and immediately long fingers are stretching out towards him so he closes his eyes, not yet ready to face them.
“No, no, no, stay with me.” he hears Stiles murmur. “Hey, come on, big guy.”
Stiles’ fingers comb through his hair quickly, efficiently, looking for something, and Derek lets his body relax onto the hard floor, reveling in the feeling of being horizontal for a moment.
“Hey,” Stiles calls. “ Hey. ”
A finger flicks him on the edge of the ear, hard, and he opens his eyes.
“I know you’re in rough shape and I can’t imagine what you’ve been living through for however the fuck long but we gotta get out of here before people get a chance to ask questions. And trust me, these people are really good at making sure their questions are answered. So I need you to wake up now and get to your feet because I can’t drag your 200-pound ass out of here on my own, especially not without getting all eyes on us.”
Derek blinks slowly. This sense of urgency Stiles is projecting is new. He nods, because he thinks it’s expected of him. Stiles nods back and his face loses some of its tension. “Okay, let’s go.”
Stiles leverages himself on the balls of his feet and grips Derek’s hands to pull him up in one, less-than-graceful move. It feels different than the other times. Something’s different. Stiles tries to pull his hands away but Derek grips them tight, breathing hard for a moment before forcing himself to look down.
One, two, three,
“Hey,” Stiles says, tugging at his hands. “Derek. Please, you gotta focus up, man. You can go comatose when we’re clear but we have to get out of here.”
Four, five, six -
“Derek ,” he pleads. “I know you’re there, dude. And we’re so close to landing this plane...or whatever, you’ve just gotta pull up. Come on. Be that guy who landed on the Hudson. You can do-”
“Did you just - did you just fucking shush me in the middle of rescuing you?”
“Ten,” he whispers reverently. He wants to brush his thumb across each finger to verify tactually what his eyes are telling him but the minute he loosens his grip, Stiles’ hands slip away to help him stand on better footing.
“So basic arithmetics are a go, that’s great, my man,” Stiles says, sounding only mildly sarcastic. “What about motor functions? How about we give those a trial run?”
He looks up at Stiles and sees him for the first time. His hair is long, he’s got stubble , and his amber eyes are dark and worried. Around them, Derek sees this torture chamber of a room he’s been kept in like an animal. Sees the blood staining the walls and floor and his own body, which he barely recognizes. He wants to explain something, but doesn’t know what. He wants to ask questions but doesn’t know which.
“My stomach hurts,” he tells Stiles, whose face goes through a cycle of difficult expressions before landing on sympathetic but unyielding.
“I don’t doubt it. But we gotta go, so you’re gonna lean on me and we’re gonna haul ass. Deal?”
Stiles takes off, dragging him along before Derek can respond to what, in hindsight, might have been a rhetorical question. Or maybe it wasn’t rhetorical, maybe he just knows that, after all they’ve been through, he may be the only person on the planet Derek would say yes to before hearing terms. The only person he’s learned to trust unquestioningly.
So Derek picks his feet up as best he can. He grips Stiles’ vest with more force than he means to, but the numbness that had kept him company for so long is slipping away with every step he takes. They pass armed strangers that appear to be with Stiles, but Stiles pays them no mind, pushing on further and further until they’re outside and Derek is reintroduced to the pure taste and smell of unrecycled air.
He’s folded into the passenger seat of an unfamiliar car that smells like Stiles, and without meaning to, loses time again.
When he comes to, the sun is rising on the left, and there are no cars ahead of them.
Stiles’ right hand is on the gear shift, and his left is on the wheel, his fingers tapping out a beat Derek can’t place. This scene is familiar, it’s haunting, and Derek shifts quickly until his face is angled out towards the passenger window instead.
“Hey, you with me?” Stiles asks. His right hand leaves the gear shift and settles gently on Derek’s forearm, all fingers splayed out. Easy to count, even without looking.
He smiles. “Yes.”