“Derek. Derek! Calm the fuck down.”
Derek snarled and poised ready to slash Erica’s face for the disrespect. His posturing had little effect on the rebellious beta, however; Erica just frowned with a disappointed and unimpressed huff.
“We’re never going to find the remedy if you wolf out and destroy everything.”
Derek looked down at his filthy claws, soil, clumped with fertilizer and blood, caked beneath them, the skin of his hands stained rust-brown. Even the brilliant white gold of his wedding band was dulled with muck. He took a deep breath through his nose and swallowed the dryness clinging to the back of his throat. Instead of calming him, it only stoked the wolf’s rage—Stiles’ blood and fear still hung heavily in the air, a thick fog marking his failings. He roared, eyes burning bright crimson.
Erica, strong, resilient, beautiful Erica, with her torn and bloody clothes, her mud-smeared skin and tear-streaked make-up, flashed her amber eyes and roared in kind. Her heckles rose in challenge. Her claws shot from her fingertips, the polish of her manicure flaking and cracking even further, and bent her knees to lower her center of gravity, just like Derek taught her to do before pouncing.
“Enough!” Boyd growled. He dug claws into twin leather jackets, Derek’s in one hand, Erica’s in the other, and pushed their snarling wolves apart. With the dangerous rumble in his growl, the glimmer of his descended fangs, the seething alpha within Derek paused long enough for Derek to gain more ground in controlling it. Erica, for her part, shook her blonde hair like a dog with a damp ruff, then appeared completely human and in complete control.
It always surprised Derek, after everything he’s learned and been through, how flimsy his restraint became when concerning Stiles.
But Boyd still looked at him, still gripped the supple leather of his jacket, still tensed his bicep and forearm to keep Derek away from Erica. “You good?” he asked.
Derek nodded and wrenched Boyd’s claws away from his chest. “Let’s find that damn plant.”
And their search resumed.
The three of them combed every inch of the neo-nemeton’s root cellar, raking claws through dirt and grime, and pressing noses close to questionable splatters for better, purer scenting. With every whiff, every breath, Derek could only focus on what lingered of Stiles—his fear, his blood, his tears. He parsed every aspect of Stiles’ struggle, the sparks of his muted magic. His screams echoed in Derek’s ears, the raw abandon that curdled the edges of Stiles’ voice a sound Derek wouldn’t soon forget.
In normal circumstances, Boyd’s voice would be steady, deep and grounding, but Derek slipped beyond even his reach. Too consumed in the present scents and the recent past’s sounds, the wolf reclaimed the ground in control it had previously lost. And Derek…Derek sunk back to the too-light weight of Stiles in his arms, the quivering of his too-slow heartbeat, the tacky mess of his too-bloody clothes.
Derek hadn’t been smart enough to figure out the darach’s intentions. Derek hadn’t been fast enough to find its lair before the spell had started. Derek hadn’t been good enough to free Stiles before he’d succumbed. And Stiles, targeted for this power and his standing within the Pack, was used to get to Derek—dismantle the local pack and build a new nemeton. He’d not only all but lead the danger to Stiles, but he’d practically handed him over to it.
Erica’s wretched sob, a sound bordering on a wail or a howl, violently yanked Derek from his stupor and dumped him unwittingly into a new state of panic. Because she stood in a doorway they hadn’t checked yet, and even with how her back was to him, he saw her hand covered her mouth. Her shoulders trembled, and she smelled suddenly, unabashedly, and powerfully like grief.
“What is it?” he asked, but his heart sank—before he could acknowledge it, his wolf had already identified the problem.
Decay had a very distinctive scent—sweet, repugnant, nauseating. Decaying plants, unlike decaying flesh or meat, had an earthy scent, like overturned dirt and damp. It’s what wafted passed Erica through the open door.
He stood behind her, a breath from touching, but his vantage over her shoulder was clear: the room was full of dead plants, a botanical genocide. Shelves upon shelves upon shelves, lined along every wall, extending from floor to ceiling, tightly packed with plants. Countless species, some in glass cases, others left to grow freely; all of them dead. And with them were Stiles’ chances of survival.
“What are we going to do?” Erica whispered.
“This doesn’t make sense,” Boyd said, annoyed. He squeezed by Erica and strode into the room. Despite his broad shoulders and heavy build, he weaved easily between the shelves and delicately lifted drooping stalks and souring flowers with the tip of a claw. He squinted his lantern-yellow eyes, studying the leafy corpses that were Stiles’ only hope.
Meanwhile, Derek stared at the room like a car crash, ribs tightening around his heart with every breath.
“They’re all at approximately the same state of decay,” Boyd said.
Erica scoffed, though her voice was watery. “What? Are you some sort of botanist now?”
“You can smell it,” Boyd answered, bored. “And—”
“Magic,” Derek murmured.
Boyd nodded. “Must have been tied to the darach.”
“Do you think they’re really dead or—” Erica stopped short when Derek’s phone rang.
“It’s Scott,” Derek said, and if his voice waivered, he didn’t care. He turned his back on the room, his betas, and his resulting crushed hope to answer. “What?”
“Derek, you should be here,” Scott pleaded. “He’s not doing well. He needs you.”
“He needs a cure,” Derek snarled.
“He needs his husband,” Scott snapped. Derek’s wedding band burned like a brand around his finger. Then, softer, Scott added, “Deaton says he doesn’t have long. You need to be here. Please. For him.”
Derek disconnected the call before Scott could remind him anymore of Stiles’ dire condition. He’d been conflicted enough when he’d decided to leave Stiles’ side and return to the root cellar—stay by his mate’s side and trust someone else to find a cure, or leave him to make sure the job got done. And now, he was called back to the one place he’s never wanted to leave in the first place. To his betas, he said, “Gather everything you can. Use your senses to collect at least one of every species. We don’t know what Deaton needs, so bring everything.”
Erica’s smiled, a little forced, but she nodded. “Okay.”
“We’ll be there as soon as we can,” Boyd assured him.
Derek left his wolves to it.
Derek shook the excess water from his hands, wiping them carelessly on the clean jeans he’d hastily changed into before walking the back room of the animal clinic. He’d preferred Stiles rest at their house, in their bed, but Deaton wouldn’t have had enough of his supplies on hand—Stiles’ condition was too erratic, the highs and lows too unpredictable to risk not having a treatment nearby to quickly administer. So instead, they turned the back room of the animal clinic into a makeshift hospital room, complete with a hospital bed Scott and Isaac had nicked behind Melissa’s conveniently turned back.
An IV of Deaton’s creation delivered some sickly green concoction directly into Stiles’ blood steam, but he was pale against the crisp white sheets, his skin clammy and drawn, his hair a damp mess. He wore one of Derek’s button-downs, soft and comfortable and easy to maneuver when Deaton checked his vitals. The brand of the darach’s magic peeked through the top open buttons. Runes and sigils painted in blood that wouldn’t wash off, and Stiles’ skin rose angry and inflamed around the markings—like they were brands or carvings. Sometimes they glowed, and the scent of magic in the room would strengthen. Stiles’ head would swim and he’d cry out in agony. Deaton said it was the darach’s magic still at work, a complex spell he still didn’t understand enough to disassemble and break.
Despite his weakness, his smile was bright when Derek entered the room. “Hey, handsome,” he rasped. He leaned up and hummed happily as Derek leaned down to kiss him—he tasted like medicine, but Derek didn’t care. “Missed you.”
“Missed you, too,” Derek answered. He sat in the chair waiting for him, the one on Stiles’ left side, so he could trace his husband’s wedding band in a nervous sort of fidget. There, he wrapped Stiles’ chilly hand in his own warm ones, lacing their fingers and kissing his knuckles. His veins went dark without Derek’s conscious thought, his wolf willing and eager to comfort its mate however it could.
The process normally left a faint static-tingle in its wake, but instead, it burned like lemon or salt in an open wound. The curse or poison or whatever—Deaton still hadn’t quite identified the process concisely—in Stiles actually hurt the wolves who tried to comfort him. Derek’s eyes glowed softly in response to how hard he pulled at Stiles’ pain.
Scott looked up from where he rested his head against his folded arm, one hand tucked under his jaw while the other clasped Stiles’ right hand. His smile was tired, his red-ringed eyes bleary—he pulled just as hard as Derek, tried just as desperately as Derek to keep Stiles around long enough for Deaton to cure him. But instead of engaging Derek in any conversation, he just tucked his face back against his arm and feigned sleep. Derek appreciated the semblance of privacy.
“Any news?” Stiles asked with hopefully arched eyebrows.
Without breaking contact, Derek spun Stiles’ wedding band around his finger, and dropped his gaze to watch as he did so. Dirt still clung beneath his fingernails, but at least their rings matched in the brutal florescent lights of the room. “Boyd and Erica are collecting samples from the root cellar. I couldn’t bear being away from you any longer, so I left them to the task.”
Stiles teased, “And after all that huffing and puffing about needing to do it yourself.” His smile was small, worn, and whatever Deaton pumped into his system had his pupils blown wide. It also seemed to lower his inhibitions, because lust was a faint and familiar note beneath the layers of sick and magic in his scent.
“Stop,” Derek chided, and he tugged lightly on Stiles’ hand. “You should be resting, not thinking dirty thoughts.”
“Most of my thoughts are dirty when you’re in the room,” Stiles answered. At least his sense of humor remained intact.
“Still here,” Scott said, muffled by his arm.
Stiles’ hum was pleased. “Look at this, two werewolves tending to me. And not just any ol’ werewolves, either. Alphas. Two alphas are tending to me. I must be important.”
“Very,” Derek said, at the same time as Scott answered, “So important.”
Their eyes met over Stiles’ waist, and though Scott hid it well, he worried; a quiet tension quivering just beneath the service of his calm veneer. It was for Stiles’ sake, the same way Derek forced himself to remain calm. Stiles was anxious by nature—or rather, had been anxious for so long that it became part of his nature—and neither wolf wanted elevate his heartrate. To do so would have whatever poisoned him speed faster through his body, already at a disadvantage with its humanity.
“Love you,” Stiles laughed.
Both alphas replied in unison: “Love you, too.”
“Owe me a Coke,” Scott grinned.
Derek rolled his eyes.
Stiles humor faded, though, as the quiet extended between the three of them. His smile soon disappeared as he suddenly gritted his teeth, and a tiny grunt of discomfort echoed in the cage of his closed mouth. With a deep breath through his nose, his back arched, head thrown back, and he clutched Derek and Scott’s hands in twin bruising grips.
The wolves straightened from their laxed positions, each instinctively pulling more of Stiles’ pain.
Scott’s eyes glowed brighter with his redoubled efforts.
Derek knew he wore a similarly worried expression, but Scott looked suspiciously less concerned than Derek imagined he’d be—certainly less concerned than Derek was. “What’s happening?” he demanded. “Stiles?” He shot to his feet, leaning over his husband in an attempt to make eye contact while Scott called for Deaton. Derek carded through Stiles’ hair and tried to shush his whimpers of pain. He pulled harder at Stiles’ discomfort through their joined hands, through where Derek cupped his face, and his eyes burned where the alpha crimson brightened. “Stiles? Stiles, what hurts? Tell me what’s wrong.”
Deaton appeared at Scott’s side between one panicked heartbeat and the next, quickly opening Stiles’ shirt to assess the marks blemishing his skin. Not for the first time, apparently, they were glowing, pulsing steadily, a pulse Stiles’ voice mimicked in its peaks and valleys of pain.
Deaton’s expression was grave. “How much longer will your betas be?” he asked Derek.
“Not much longer, I hope,” he answered. He didn’t want to consider the useless husks he knew Erica and Boyd would return bearing, so he was grateful when Scott asked, “What can we do in the meantime? What happens if there’s nothing in the root cellar that can help?”
“Just keep him comfortable,” Deaton answered.
Scott nodded, crestfallen, and remained melancholy.
Stiles thrashed through the waves of the spell, wracked with muscle spasms that reminded Derek of Erica’s seizure when she’d been poisoned by the kanima. And he responded as he had with Erica, by turning Stiles onto his side and holding him just steady enough to not fall off the bed. He kept his husband’s hand wrapped in his own, kept leeching what he could despite how much it hurt him, too, and just waited. He held Stiles and waited.
When Stiles finally stilled, it was as sudden as a flipped switch.
“The glowing stopped,” Scott remarked. “We can probably turn—” but he stopped short when Derek climbed into the small hospital bed behind Stiles.
Derek wrapped his arm around Stiles’ waist, keeping their fingers laced, and tucked his knees behind his husband’s, his arm beneath the pillow they shared. He pressed his nose against the back of Stiles’ neck, where cold sweat clumped the down-soft hair at the base of his skull, and breathed. Home and family and safe washed over him, slowing his racing heart he knew pounded against Stiles’ spine with how he pressed them together. He wanted Stiles to feel it—his heartbeat—and know he wouldn’t leave.
“Hopefully, Boyd and Erica will be back soon,” Scott said, softly. “Deaton will probably be able to at least make a better potion or whatever to help with his pain.” He paused briefly before adding, “He’s strong, one of the strongest people I know. He just has to hold on long enough for Deaton to brew a cure, and Deaton’s pretty fast. So he’ll be okay. He’ll—”
“All the plants were dead,” Derek murmured.
“What?” Scott asked, and even Derek winced at the tremor in his voice.
“They were dead,” he repeated. “Everything. There was magic in the room. We think they died with the darach.”
“Why are you telling me this?” Scott asked.
“Because I had to tell someone,” Derek answered. Scott’s shuttering breath spurred Derek onward. “And because I need your help.”
“When Jennifer poisoned Cora, Peter told me something about being an alpha,” Derek said, “about that extra spark that made us different from other werewolves.” He settled himself more securely around his mate, pressed an absent kiss against his shoulder. “Contact with pack mates can expedite the healing process—that’s part of why we can absorb the pain of others—and, um, I’d done that with Cora. I just pulled and pulled and concentrated and pulled and I thought I was going to die. I felt a part of me slipping, but she recovered before I lost it.” When Scott’s brows rose in something like hope, Derek said, “It was my alpha power. That spark, or whatever, that Peter described. I’d nearly lost it saving Cora.”
“You think I have that spark, too?”
“You’re an alpha.”
“And if we both try that with Stiles?”
“That’s what I’m suggesting,” Derek agreed. “Stiles’ condition is worse than Cora’s—I wouldn’t stand a chance by myself. But if you…”
“Of course,” Scott said. “Of course, Derek, Jesus, he’s my best friend; he’s my brother. What do we do?”
“Start pulling,” Derek answered. “Concentrate.”
Scott might not have been the best at taking Derek’s direction, but his devotion to Stiles was unquestionable—and Derek used that loyalty to double-down. He couldn’t count on Deaton finding a cure in the compost his betas collected, not when Stiles was on the line, so he watched Scott take a deep breath and close his eyes. Scott wrapped both his hands around Stiles’ right, and the veins darkened like a starless night, spider-webbing as fast as lightning bolts up his arms. Even from behind closed lids, Derek could see the glow of his red eyes.
Once convinced Scott properly dedicated himself, Derek closed his own eyes, and pressed his lips against Stiles’ skin. His grip on his left hand tightened, and he splayed his right flat against Stiles’ chest. And just like with Cora, he pulled. He pulled, and it felt like quickly digging a grave to hide a body, like pulling a commercial airliner with his teeth. It felt like trying to breathe underwater. He clung to Stiles, as if he could physically prevent him from succumbing to this curse with his body alone, and dragged the poison from Stiles veins with each beat of his heart, and every shaky breath pulled into his lungs.
It seared his skin as fast as his werewolf metabolism healed it. It crashed his system as quickly as his healing restarted it. But the world collapsed to nothing but Derek and Stiles. Derek, trying to save Stiles—his mate, his husband, the source of his strength and everything he lived for.
And then, like a fraying rope, something snapped.
The world suddenly rushed in expansion.
Stiles gasped like he’d been suffocated.
Derek loosened his crushing hold.
It was Erica. Erica was in the room.
“Jesus,” Boyd commented.
Derek blinked and tried to regain his bearings.
Erica and Boyd stood on Stiles’ opposite side, behind Scott, who had all but collapsed onto the edge of the hospital bed. Stiles trembled and gasped in his arms. Deaton stood beside Scott and injected Stiles’ IV with a syringe of something.
“Derek?” Stiles croaked.
“I’m here,” he answered, giving him a brief squeeze. “I’m right here.”
“Your friends saved you,” Deaton answered.
“Scotty?” Stiles disentangled his hand from his best friend’s and pet Scott’s sweaty hair. “Yo, you alright, bud?”
Scott groaned in answer, but lifted his head and smiled anyway. “You’re okay.” Then, to Deaton, “He’s okay, right?”
“He’ll be just fine,” Deaton assured. “It’s nice to see people come together for a common cause.”
Scott smiled more broadly when he met Derek’s gaze over Stiles’ shoulder.
Thank you, Derek mouthed. Before Scott could reply, he nuzzled against the back of his husband’s neck. Closing his eyes, he relished the sound of Stiles’ steady heartbeat, and the dissipating scent of magic.