The first time Derek said it was the day Stiles started bleeding. He didn’t hear, of course. He was delirious with pain, with shock, gasping for air like he was drowning, stump of an arm clutched against his chest like someone was going to fight him for the rest of it. He couldn’t even scream.
Derek was cupping his hands around Stiles’ arm, like he could hold it all in, wondering stupidly why it wouldn’t heal. He barely stopped himself from picking up the hand—not a hand, now, not really. A chunk of dead flesh, no movement—and pressing it against the wound, willing it to close.
Stiles was shaking, so he pulled him close and wrapped his arm in his own ratty sweatshirt. Someone was calling an ambulance, he was sure, he could hear them from the other side of the room. A woman. Erica? Lydia.
“Shh. Shh. Shh.” He wasn’t thinking, rocking the skinny shoulders back and forth. “Shh, Sweet Boy, it will heal, it will heal. Shh.”
Weeks later, when the wound opened up again, when Stiles’ face went white and his shirt went red, he said it again. “Shh, shh, Sweet Boy. It will heal.”
His father used to call him that, when he was scared, when he was broken. Laura, too, after their father was gone and Derek was too old for sweet names. It wasn’t intentional, really, just instinct. He’d gotten better at instinct.
It didn’t heal, though. It took a few months to realize, acres of fresh bandages and weeks of Stiles keeping completely still, monitoring every move that might pull even a single stitch. A few hours of one-handed internet searching and a few phone calls to folklore experts later and he flopped back into his bed, hysterical with laughter, light-headed with it, breathless. He called Derek, still gasping, tears running sideways off his face and into the pillow.
“It was a cursed. Blade. It won’t heal. It won’t ever close. Not for good, anyway.”
Stiles started laughing again at the horror in his voice, but he breathed in a mouthful of spit and started choking. Derek was in the window in fifteen minutes, holding his shoulders as he jerked on the bed, wrapping his hands around the flesh that refused to scar.
Nowadays, Stiles will say he isn’t sure whether the blade was cursed or he was. The answer depends on his mood.
It doesn’t bleed constantly, of course. He’d probably be dead by now if it did. It’ll close for a while, the stitches will hold, but then one morning he’ll wake up and they’ll be gone and he’ll be lying in a puddle of blood, soaking all the way down to the mattress. Now that Derek shares his bed, there’s less of a mess. Derek can smell the skin peel back, and wakes him up before it gets too bad. He’s lucky.
Sometimes it’s just a trickle, just a sliver of raw flesh. Sometimes it’s like the day he lost it, oceans of it. On those days he hooks himself up to a bag of B-positive and waits it out. Derek’s face goes tight on those days, his lips a thin line, and he won’t stop touching. He’ll hold Stiles’ shoulder when he checks on the needles, brush the back of his head while reaching behind him, kiss the base of his neck as he passes by. Stiles doesn’t bring it up.
Sometimes it’ll stay closed for days, weeks, even months at a time. There’s always a treacherous part of him that thinks he’s been cured.
“Seven years. That’s gotta be it,” he declared, just this side of manic. “Seven’s a magic number; everyone knows that. I’m done, I’ve paid my dues. It’s been two months since it opened. It’s going to heal.”
Derek said nothing, just pulled him down onto the couch and held him close. It was a ratty old brown thing, fourth- or fifth-hand, probably, and smelled like vodka and cigars. They fell asleep there, curled together under one of Stiles’ winter coats. Derek whispered, “Sweet Boy,” into his ear when he muttered in his sleep. They woke up soaked in blood, Derek’s blue shirt turned brown. That was the first time in five years that Stiles cried.
When the ten-year mark passed, last year, they both thought about hope. Neither said anything, though, so when his stump started dripping onto the floor of the bus, they could both pretend not to be disappointed.
Stiles is surprisingly good about it. For the most part. He’s quieter than he used to be, but no one is sure how much of that is constant pain and blood loss, how much of it is grief, and how much of it is prolonged exposure to Derek.
He lost it completely only once, after they lost Danny. He was fine for almost a month, quiet, breathing shallow like a little bird. But fine. He stayed healed, too, went to work and everything.
Derek came home and smelled blood, worse than usual. Stiles was on the kitchen floor, covered in it, draped in it like cloth, almost, running over his knees. He’d picked it open himself, nails clogged up with bits of skin and surgical thread. When Derek dropped to his knees with a handful of dishtowels, Stiles pushed him away and pushed him away and pushed until he shoved himself back against the oven, catching the side of his head on the handle and splitting it open.
Derek sank back on his heels and twisted the towels in his hands, breaking his own fingers to keep from howling.
“What, Stiles? What—”
“Stop fucking trying to save me! Just let me fucking— Let me be!” Stiles spat at him, and he was covered in it, covered in it and Derek actually felt sick to his stomach for the first time in years.
“Why?” He couldn’t say anything else or he’d cry, and he couldn’t cry. Can’t get salt in his wounds, he thought, ridiculously. You can’t cry on someone who’s bleeding, it’ll make it worse.
“Danny,” Stiles choked out. “Danny.”
“That wasn’t your fault. Stiles, it wasn’t—”
“I’ve got blood on my hands!” he screamed, and his mouth was red, his face was smeared with it, it was running into his ears. “Every day! Every day of my life, I’ve got blood on my hands! I’ve got blood on my hands! Blood on my—”
He screamed it, howled it, held the stump to his chest until he passed out on the dirty tile. Derek carried him to the bath tub, stitched him up, washed him, put him to bed.
Derek is allowed to cry when Stiles can’t see him. It’s not Stiles’ rule; Stiles dreams of the day Derek lets him see. He doesn’t think he deserves it, yet. Someday he will, if he tries hard enough. If he’s good enough, smart enough, gentle enough.
If he’s very, very clever, he can fake sleep well enough to fool the wolf. He’s learned how to hover on the edge of sleep, just awake enough to feel Derek’s nose against his hair, to hear a catch in his throat, to feel the words ghost across the skin of his cheek. My Sweet Boy. Oh, my sweet, sweet—
That was the worst night. The one after Danny. It hasn’t been that bad since. Stiles apologized awkwardly the next day, hooked up to the last of the bags Melissa had brought them a few months earlier. The pack keeps themselves to themselves, most of the time, but she looks out for him as much as she can.
He’s old enough, now, that he can play a war vet if he wants to. There’s a world of annoyances that come with a wound that won’t heal, and a world more that accompany living life one-handed. He can’t hold the same job for very long; people start to notice an arm that doesn’t stop bleeding. There’s not a whole lot he can do, anyway, with no college and limited physical skills. He thinks it’s funny, on days when he can find anything funny, that Derek is the one who has to deal with humans most of the time, working full-time, finding them places to live. Stiles stays by himself, most of the time. Sometimes he’ll play the injured vet, the Purple Heart, for tips or respect or … an excuse. Everyone wants a story; everyone wants a reason.
“When I was working my dad’s farm …”
“Car accident … “
“Before we knew it, the infection …”
“Read the safety labels, man, I’m telling you …”
Some days he can have fun with it, but mostly he’s just tired. He’s tired all the time. He’s been selling newspapers, lately, at a stand in Baltimore. They’ve been there three months now, and he’s hoping they can keep it up for a few more. No one’s tracked them, anyway. A couple regulars recognize him on the street, buy him a drink or a cup of coffee. Everyone’s nice to the sweet-faced boy with the stump.
Both he and Derek think the curse is particularly pointed, designed for him. They don’t talk about it, but they both believe that it fit Stiles perfectly. His own personal hell.
Derek knows how ashamed he always was of his humanity, even back at the beginning. He always did everything he could to compensate for his weakness, his lack of instinct and power. This wound acts as a constant reminder of his inability to heal himself, his mortality, his dependence on people, Derek in particular. Derek imagines that it eats him up, that the physical pain doesn’t even touch the soul-deep ache of weakness.
He’s wrong, though. That isn’t why it hurts so much.
The physical pain is there. It’s a definite reality. Scar tissue never forms, so every time it opens it’s like getting brand-new nerves again. Like it’s the first day, repeating and repeating. The stitches hurt, every time, and you can only get so accustomed to pain when you have skin that refuses to scar.
Scars are good for you. You don’t really understand that until you don’t have them.
The worst thing, for Stiles, the most exact torture is the pity. The agonizing, constant, unavoidable pity.
It doesn’t matter what story he comes up with, how tough he pretends to be, how much he tries to play at nonchalance. He can’t ever avoid it. He hated it after his mother died. He hated it after his father, after they were forced to run, after Danny. It’s worse than a beating, worse than a knife to the skin. It’s the reason he stays with Derek, when things get bad. Because even when Derek hates him—which he does, sometimes—he never, ever looks at him with pity.
He even fights, sometimes. They fight, technically, but Derek always fights harder. He pulls his punches, which takes twice the effort of just going for it. The bad fights end with silence, with Derek drawing back to the doorway, growling. He doesn’t leave, he just stands and seethes. Stiles bandages his own arm after those fights. It takes him a while, but he can do it pretty well. He uses his teeth, contorting his shoulder to reach the back and to tie it off. By the time he’s done, Derek is back in the room, anger faded. He kneels at his feet, buries his face in Stiles’ stomach, and whispers through gritted teeth.
“What are we doing, Sweet Boy? What are we doing here?”
Stiles winds his fingers into Derek’s hair and says, “We’re getting by. We are. It’ll get better, you’ll see.”
It’s his twenty-ninth birthday today. It’s just past two, and they’ve already been in bed for hours. Stiles only wakes up screaming once, which he claims as a birthday gift from his own brain. He stays awake, for a bit, watching Derek’s breath move the lose edge of his pillowcase up and down. He traces the curve of Derek’s jaw with one finger, stump tucked up under his chin. Derek’s eyes open, slowly, grey on white in the dark.
“Hello,” Stiles whispers, fingers moving against Derek’s face. Derek takes hold of his bad arm and pulls it towards his mouth. It’s bleeding lazily, just a slow seep into the bandages. He presses his lips against it, breathing in the smell of blood and skin and sleepy sweat. Somehow, this smell, this taste that used to scare him so much he could hardly breathe, this curse of a thing has turned into something sweet.
His lips are wet and red when he pulls away. Stiles kisses them clean.