Derek awoke with a start, like a flip switched or a cable snapped, eyes flashing bright red in the moonlit bedroom. It was much more like losing time than waking; alarmingly so. Equally alarming was the absence of warmth at his side, of how cool the sheets were where his mate had laid when he’d closed his eyes. Notes of laundry detergent clung to the soft flannel of their winter bedclothes, but what was most apparent was the caustic scent of anxiety.
Stiles’ anxiety; an easy, familiar scent.
Derek kicked free of the blankets and followed it out of the bedroom, through the hallway. Past their several guest rooms and their offices, Derek tracked his mate downstairs into what was typically a large, cozy living room—a den, really, for their pack—filled with warm blankets, plush pillows, and deep furniture. Moonlight flitted through gaps in carelessly closed window curtains, and Derek could scent the cold air seeping through cracks and crevices he hadn’t quite sealed.
There, in the dappled darkness, sat Stiles in the center of the couch. His legs were crossed, feet Derek knew to be cold tucked snuggly beneath his calves. His shoulders were hunched beneath the thin fabric of his long-sleeved shirt, his head lowered to stare at his hands fidgeting in his lap. Long, nimble fingers tangled and untangled within themselves, sometimes clutching the seam of his sweatpants, sometimes dragging a nail over the fabric of the couch in the space between his legs.
Then, like some awful motion-activated air-freshener, a puff of sickly bitterness—like antiseptic and natural gas—flooded the living room from Stiles. When Stiles finally lifted his head to acknowledge Derek, his eyes glowed like aged bourbon at sunset. He didn’t have the eyes of a fresh beta: bright amber, almost yellow. No, Stiles’ eyes were still the deep brown Derek loved, but his irises shown like stained glass at dawn.
“It’s going to storm,” he said. The sound of his voice was startling in the otherwise still night, and how it lacked inflection even more so.
Derek frowned, worried, but scented the air anyway, though he found nothing to indicate an oncoming storm to his werewolf senses. “The Nemeton,” he said, sleep rough. He knew, but he always hoped for something different.
Stiles nodded, then dropped his glowing preternatural gaze back to his twitching hands. “I didn’t mean to wake you,” he murmured.
“How long have you been down here?” Derek abandoned his place leaning against the banister and padded across the living room to sit beside Stiles. He kept a few inches of space between them despite how badly he wanted to wrap Stiles in his arms; his wolf sensitive to the magic radiating off him like the pulses of a magnet.
“Maybe an hour. I don’t know. I still can’t—” Stiles stopped abruptly and clenched his jaw. He didn’t need to say more. Neither of them would necessarily unmake their past decisions, but living through the aftermath proved difficult.
Tightening his fists reminded him his claws weren’t covered in Stiles’ blood, maybe just clammy from nerves. “I’m surprised I didn’t sense you gone from the bed sooner,” Derek remarked easily. It was only within the last eight months that Derek had stopped consistently sensing Stiles leaving their bed, ever since that night in the woods.
Stiles shook his head. “I was asleep when it happened, so it, like. It touched you before I could leave. I didn’t know how long it would last. I hoped you’d just sleep through it.”
“And find you gone, again?” Derek asked. “No. I’d rather be awake. I’d rather be with you.” The additional just in case went unspoken. Derek hated chasing after Stiles, of being left behind and unable to stop it.
He could recall, with vivid, striking clarity, the utter terror that gripped him the first time Stiles wandered off in the night. It actually had been storming, then, a sudden maelstrom that tore down trees and powerlines almost two weeks after they’d rescued Julia from the cult; something no amount of science could explain. They were still living in the loft, then, in what constituted downtown Beacon Hills and skirted a warehouse district. Derek woke to an empty bed and an empty loft and raging storm. Stiles’ shoes, his hoodie, his keys and wallet and cell phone were still where he’d dropped them—by the door, on the coat hook, on the breakfast bar, and his nightstand. But Stiles was just gone.
It hadn’t taken Derek long to rule out abduction. His and Stiles’, the pack’s, scents familiar and safe were all he parsed from the loft. That and, well, blood. Iron. Glucose. It hung in the air, light as anything might expect to smell. And then something else, something he couldn’t quite identify, but something he smelled before—something he smelled that night in the woods. He dressed quickly and left, fear flooding him anew as he braved the storm.
Stiles’ scent had led him to the street just outside the apartment building, but the rain and wind erased any lingering trace of him Derek could follow. The blood, however, was a bit stronger, a bit thicker and harder to wash away, so Derek followed it. But it only led him as far as the suburbs; and he rounded through the familiar neighborhood where Scott and Stiles grew up, checking their parents’ homes but finding nothing. After going back to where the trail had ended, he’d picked up a new one, that different scent he’d found in the loft, the one from the night in the woods. He could just barely make it out over the smells of the storm and his wet clothes, his soaked leather jacket.
So he ran. He ran and he tracked and his eyes flashed their fiery scarlet. His fangs descended and his claws extended. The wolf charged forth on a hunt for its mate, primal and protective and so overwhelming Derek hadn’t realized where he was going until he arrived, until he heard Stiles’ whimpers.
The Nemeton. Stiles, on the Nemeton. Stiles, bloody. Stiles, with glowing eyes and wearing nothing but a soggy pair of sweatpants, standing in the center of the stump. Ruby streams washed down his arms and chest, marks carved into his flesh with Derek’s claws nearly two weeks prior. Diluted with rainwater, the wood beneath his bare, bleeding feet still stained.
“Stiles!” Derek had rushed forward, but stopped abruptly when something, some force, pulsed against his wolf like an opposing magnet. It was a sensation he’d quickly become familiar with in the coming weeks, but that night, it had been new and terrifying and kept him from Stiles. He growled and fought and eventually managed to climb into the Nemeton. He immediately shrugged out of his jacket and draped it over Stiles’ trembling shoulders. Then he’d touched gentle fingers to his mate’s bloody chest. “What happened?”
“It called me,” Stiles had said, voice wrecked and broken. He huddled beneath Derek’s jacket, using one pale hand to clutch it closed. “It tore me open and made me come. I can’t—Derek, it hurts. It hurts.”
Derek wrapped one hand around Stiles’ wrist and cupped his cheek with the other. He absorbed what pain he could, and it had caused both of them to flinch. How Stiles remained upright, Derek hadn’t understood. “I’ll take you home.”
“It’s not finished with me, yet,” Stiles argued.
And now, nearly eight months had passed, and the Nemeton still wasn’t finished with Stiles. It summoned him without warning, activating something in Stiles no one had managed to identify or understand, despite their best efforts. The clouds gather, and scars Derek carved into Stiles’ flesh would grow into fresh wounds, a gradual disintegration of skin that bled more freely than when initially cut with werewolf claws. Stiles staggered off into the night, abandoning all sense of self to answer the call and fulfill the demand of blood.
When it became apparent nothing could keep Stiles from going, Derek had the old Hale house rebuilt, so Stiles’ journey to the Nemeton wouldn’t be as far or as dangerous.
After eight months, Stiles recognized the first few notes of the Nemeton’s song and tried to lessen the burden of answering it. After eight months, Derek recognized the scent of magic and understood the limits it demanded he respect.
Derek reached across the inches between them and threaded his fingers between Stiles’, despite the pushback of magic. He brought his hand to his lips and kissed his knuckles. “We’re going to figure this out,” he murmured against his skin. Then he drew what pain he could from Stiles, the veins of his hand and along his cheek darkening with its path.
Stiles nodded again. “I know,” he said. “It’s just exhausting, is all. I don’t know how to make it okay with you. I need it to be okay with you.”
“It knows I’m a threat,” Derek said. “It knows I won’t let it take you from me. It will never be okay with me.”
Stiles’ smile was weak, but it was genuine. “I’m sorry I’m doing this do you, Derek. It’s…selfish, what I asked of you.”
Derek shushed him. “Your sister is safe,” he said. “That’s what matters, right? I’d have done the same in your position without question.”
With a soft hum, Stiles leaned forward and tucked his face against Derek’s neck. “I love you,” he sighed. He was pliant when Derek shifted and pulled him closer, wrapped his arms around him, and kissed his temple.
“Love you, too,” Derek murmured.
He knew Stiles wouldn’t sleep—he never did once the cycle restarted—and he wouldn’t return to their bedroom. It was the first steps of the call that prepared Stiles to abandon everything. But maybe, on the couch, in the dark and quiet, Stiles could rest. Maybe in Derek’s arms, Stiles could rest.