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“So the only thing we’re really sure about is that it’s completely unrelated to the lunar cycle,” Stiles says.

Derek and Peter look dubious, and Stiles can’t blame them. He’s just spent the better part of an hour discussing daylight duration times, warm/cold cycles, nitrogen levels and photosynthetic synchronization with ley line fluctuations, and every other sentence has been, but that’s the old theory. It’s confused the best scientists the USDA’s got for decades, and they at least have had old-growth Nemetons to study since they were founded. In Europe, the spread of Christianity had nearly wiped out the species, what with missionaries blindly hacking away, and Asian and African ‘Nemetons’ are a completely different clade.

“Yeah, I know.” Stiles sweeps up all his charts and nutrient level diagrams, and piles them on top of his laptop. “There’s a common set of triggers, we all know it, but there’s too much data to wade through with current funding levels. All the Nemetons in America are under too many different environmental conditions—I mean, this is only one of three in California.”

“Bottom line, you can’t eat meat except in the wintertime, or if the Nemeton is feeling particularly peckish. You can eat, and do need, blood regularly—” Peter starts.

“Except honestly, it’s better if it goes straight to the tree. I know you guys get off on it, but if I take it in, it’s like popcorn. You know, tasty, salty goodness, but five minutes later you’re empty again,” Stiles says.

Peter nods. He’s usually very good at this sort of thing, and hell, well, he’s at least managed to extract the basics from Stiles’ rambling, but Stiles can see the effort it’s taking. “Right. Okay. But if you’re craving blood or meat, and the tree’s not in a growth phase, then that’s a danger sign.”

Stiles makes a little not-quite noise and Peter and Derek both snap to attention, which just makes Stiles grimace again. On the one hand, he’s glad they’re taking this seriously, and it’s nice to be able to rattle on about this stuff with somebody not his dad or in a lab coat (Scott tries, but anything science is not going to keep him awake). On the other, they’re kind of overachieving, super-protective werewolves, and while that’s sweet, he’s been handling himself for years.

“It’s not a danger sign. It’s more like…the little warning light on your dashboard. You know, hey, heads-up, you might want to turn into the garage within the next hundred miles,” Stiles says. He picks up a pen and fiddles with it and tries to figure out how to say this next part without getting himself a werewolf killing spree. “A full-growth Nemeton, which is what we have now, okay, keep up, stores up between feedings. It’ll send out hunger signals when it wants another one, but it doesn’t actually need it most of the time. There’s a reason why the thing looks like we pumped it full of steroids.”

Derek looks like he has a headache, and is mad werewolf healing doesn’t cure that, but he takes a deep breath and tries. “But if it wants a meal, does it hurt for us to feed it?”

“Well, um, sometimes. You can overfeed it, and that’s usually when the things go punch-drunk and start wanting elaborately symbolic sacrificial rituals.” Which is why darachs are tops of the Forest Service’s most-wanted list. Idiots just won’t listen to reason, always think more is better. “Look, you don’t have to worry about that. I helped my mom with the family tree soon as I could walk up to it, I know the difference between bitching and meaning it. They can be whiny little shits but generally they prefer being pillars of the local biome over crazy bloodsucking fiends. We’re going to have more of a problem keeping other people from trying to feed it.”

Peter smiles with all his teeth. “No, we’re not. Now that we’ve been allowed to help on your patrols.”

Stiles rolls his eyes. Sometimes he thinks he shouldn’t be so laidback about the Hale murderous streak; they’ve had to fast-track paperwork to get Peter and Talia designated as local consultants because the unauthorized kills are getting ridiculous. But hey, keeps his dad in when the weather is poor, and the Hale crematory is really handy. He just wishes Peter would let him in on the Hales’ information network already, because central intel is getting a little pissy at all those kills checking out post-mortem.

“What happens if it doesn’t get fed when it needs to?” Derek asks.

Which is where Stiles was hoping they wouldn’t have to go. At least, not when both werewolves are mobile and not distracted by sex. “It can skip a couple feedings. It doesn’t like it, I’m not going to look too good, but as long as I catch it up, it’ll be fine.”

“And if you can’t?” Peter says, picking up on Stiles’ discomfort.

“Um, well…that hasn’t happened since the Second World War,” Stiles says.

Peter eyes him, but doesn’t do anything else. He does lift a hand when Derek shifts like he’s going to swing over to sit by Stiles. “Would you rather we read about it?”

“Ah…no, I think I’d better just…” Those reports still give Stiles nightmares. His mom and his dad had fought for a week on when to tell him, so he’d looked it up himself, and had embarrassed himself by insisting on sleeping with his parents for two days afterward. His mom had just told him he’d earned that right, reading all of it by himself.

His mom.

Stiles rubs the side of his face and fights down the familiar pang. He’s…okay now, him and his dad. In a good place with their grieving process and all, and mostly happy otherwise. But sometimes it still hits him. “So when the Russians were retreating from the German army…there aren’t a lot of Nemetons left in Europe—the ones that are, they’re usually in remote places and seriously old. One of them was in the way, and the guardian was taken prisoner by the Germans, who didn’t believe in Nemetons. It went unfed through summer into winter, when it was German-occupied territory, and then it—ate fifty acres. Just ate it, everything in it, in a week. In the photos it looks like a giant fucking mouth in the ground. They had to bomb it out from the air.”

He rubs his face again, then flaps his hand when he notices it’s shaking. The cushion beside him suddenly sinks down. Derek hooks his chin over Stiles’ shoulder and leans into him, making a gut-level, rasp-rolling sound that’s oddly soothing. Stiles gives up and wraps his arm around Derek’s waist.

“The guardian went insane long before that,” he adds. He looks up and Peter is watching him too steadily, face calm but his fists are pressed tightly to his knees. “He started attacking guards and other prisoners, biting pieces off them, so they put him in solitary. So he started eating himself. He ate like, twenty percent before he accidentally hit a major vein and bled out. And I—I really do think it was an accident. I think if he hadn’t, he would’ve kept on trying to feed it.”

Stiles takes a deep breath, then gags a little letting it out. He scrubs his hand over his mouth, then over the rest of his face.

Something catches his wrist, draws it gently down. He didn’t hear it, but Peter is squatting in front of him now, looking fiercely up into his eyes. “It won’t happen,” Peter says softly. He rubs his thumb over the underside of Stiles’ wrist. “We’ll find you. We’ll always find you.”

“It hasn’t happened since then,” Stiles says, with a jagged little laugh. He winces, then reaches out and touches Peter’s cheek. “People kind of realized after that, you know, bad idea. These days, the guardian dies or goes missing and there’s no successor, they cut it down and trigger hibernation immediately.”

“Still,” Derek says, and pushes his face into Stiles’ throat. He and Stiles breathe together, and then he pulls his head back. “We’ll get you first.”

And hey, Stiles is eighteen and has been getting himself into and out of shit since he was about eighteen days old (his dad still mocks him for an uncanny ability to throw up on senior agents), and on top of that, he’s seen enough cock-ups to know that not everybody gets saved. Good people get fucked over, bad people get more than they deserve, and the world can be bitterly indifferent. But he looks at the two werewolves, and he thinks, you know, maybe they could.