It never snowed in Beacon Hills. It hadn’t, for as long as Derek had been alive, and his grandmother had shaken her head when he’d crawled into her lap - five years old, snug in pajamas and the warmth of their always-bustling house - and begged her to tell him stories about “the old days.”
His grandmother, who’d passed on the Alpha power to her eldest daughter and taken on the equally challenging role of resident babysitter, story-teller, and feelings-soother, would stroke over the stubborn cowlick on the crown of his head and let him tuck himself under her chin. “It’s not cold enough here, my little wolfling,” she’d say.
He'd grown up relying on her as his first resource on any difficult subject: what makes snow (his introductory lessons on the intricacies of science and nature); why his mother was gone so often (Alpha duties - protecting her territory and advising other werewolves on theirs); where babies came from (a conversation his father had been roped into, and which had turned into an outline of his responsibilities as a soon-to-be older brother); why Laura was such a jerk (don’t say that, darling: someday, I promise you’ll be grateful for her friendship); and what it meant that he got the same fluttery sensations in his chest when Charles touched his hand as when Anna did (love is love, my sweet; just be sure the person’s good to you, and you to them).
It didn’t snow in their part of California; it never had, and likely never would. But that didn’t stop him from asking, or longing, once he was too old to believe his parents could make anything happen. Maybe it wasn’t the natural state of the world, for a town that wasn’t far enough north, or high enough in the mountains, to gather that magical dusting he daydreamed about every winter. The thing was, though. Most of the world didn’t know werewolves existed outside of fairy tales and horror films. People relied on what they knew, and what they’d been taught, without opening their eyes to other possibilities.
So he patiently wrote "snow" at the top of his wishlist, every year, in careful blocky letters, from the time Laura made fun of him for assuming they were writing to a benevolent werewolf named Santa Claws, to the point when even Cora was old enough to start rolling her eyes at the holiday festivities.
Derek pretended, after that. Groaned loudly when his mom insisted he go to the woods to chop down a tree with his sisters. Griped about the lights strung up on the lamp posts in downtown Beacon Hills, the carols playing on a loop in the stores, the overpowering scents of cinnamon and peppermint in every coffeeshop and bakery. He faked disappointment when his birthday presents were inevitably, and clumsily, wrapped in shiny scraps of snowflake- and candy cane-patterned paper.
“I know it’s not easy being a Christmas baby,” his mother apologized every year, frazzled by the community responsibilities she always ended up overbooking. She’d whirl in and out of the house, kissing Derek and Cora on the tops of their heads, squeezing Laura’s shoulder and reminding her to take care of them, and coaxing his dad out of the combination office-library at the back of the house. Derek spent a lot of time in there, dipping into the dusty old history books his dad was studying, and occasionally serving as a sounding board when he wanted to try out a new lecture for his upcoming seminars.
Winter was the best time of year, even inside the house. They’d keep an unnecessary fire crackling in the fireplace, Derek tucked into an oversized armchair with a book, and his dad frowning away at the papers spread across the table, his glasses in constant danger of slipping down his nose. The library wasn't off limits to Laura and Cora, per se, but they never chose to spend time in it. Laura was constantly picking up odd jobs and volunteer work - trying to follow in her Alpha's footsteps, Derek figured, or maybe they were just that similar - and Cora preferred to run around in the woods at all hours of the day and night, often sneaking out of bed to chase the moonlight.
His mom would enter the library, sigh fondly at her bookish boys, and ruffle Derek's hair before tugging her husband into accompanying her to another charity fundraiser dinner. He'd emerge from his studies, a little bleary-eyed but smiling, always ready to draw his wife into a kiss and follow her anywhere. Derek would blush as they kissed under the fake mistletoe in the doorways, and Cora would make fake gagging sounds until Laura pinched her, but their parents' love had been their anchor their entire lives.
The holidays made Derek happy, every year, even if the weather never did shift over into the picture-perfect landscape all the movies and songs lingered over lovingly.
He even secretly loved being born on Christmas Day - "the best gift I've ever received," his mom would say. "Me too," Laura would add, since her reward for a ruined Christmas spent in the hospital had been a silky black puppy with big eyes and bigger paws. She'd spent years trying to shift into her full wolf form so they could tumble together in the Preserve, two woodland creatures at play.
She hadn't managed it - not then. Not until years later, long after the Alpha powers had coursed through her body and left her shaking and sobbing, grey-white flakes of ash drifting softly in the air and settling onto their bowed shoulders, coating their smoldering house and scorched yard into a mockery of the winter wonderland Derek had always dreamed about.
It'd been snowing in New York the day he felt her die.
The plane to California, the taxi ride from the airport to Beacon Hills, finding Laura's Camaro parked at the house - all of it passed in a daze. The ground was cold, but not icy, when he'd dug her grave. The air was crisp but clear as he'd wrapped her up and covered her, letting the wolfsbane rope shred his hands as he buried it in a protective spiral around her.
He stayed there for a while, hunched over in the ashy dirt, not sure whether he was going to cry or puke or scream at the top of his lungs.
In the end, he did none of it. His hands healed, the blood drying on them as a reminder that this, too, was his fault, because he hadn't wanted to go back with her. It'd taken years to clear the scent of ash out of his nostrils, to not flinch at every brush of a snowflake against his skin, or melting in his hair. And now he'd lost everything. His Alpha, his sister, all the hard-fought progress at not hating himself every day of his life.
New York had been their final destination, but Boston had been the first place he'd ever seen snow. Laura had thought - well, she'd gone with what she knew of him, not realizing that the memories that kept her on her feet left him feeling raw, flayed open. It was the first time he'd cried - standing on the ice in the Public Garden, Laura sweeping her arms and legs into a snow angel on the thickly-coated bank.
He wanted the ice to crack under his feet. He wanted to sink into the water, to have it knit itself back together over his head. He wanted to disappear. But he couldn't - not with Laura still there - laughing a little at the snow slipping under her collar, calling out for him to join her. He brushed roughly at his eyes, told himself to grow up - he was sixteen, it was old enough to know better, to be better - and pushed it all down.
He built a snowman with her. He let her push him into a snowdrift and rub snow into his hair, smiling in an attempt to wipe away the worrylines that’d begun to etch themselves around her eyes and mouth. He helped her pick out a tree and sneak it into their hotel room, pine needles dropping in a clear trail down the hallway. He spent an hour staring blankly at gloves and scarves and jewelry and perfume in Macy's, sharp reminders coming up every time he saw something he wanted to buy for his mom, or Cora, or his grandmother, or his little human cousins, who'd been visiting the night of the fire. Who hadn't even known - too young to keep that kind of secret - the Hales were something more than human. Who'd burned alive anyway, because Kate - because Kate had let him believe she'd loved him, then destroyed everything.
He stayed in Beacon Hills, after Laura. He stayed because he deserved the daily reminders - the old ladies in the grocery stores who remembered his mother, the long paths in the Preserve he'd run with her and his sisters, his dad's charred glasses in the rubble of his library. The way Scott, freshly turned and angry about it, hated him, but needed him. The way Stiles hated him, but...that part he didn't understand, not for years.
Stiles was fire and fury, in a way Kate had been - vibrant and smart and beautiful, with a dangerous underlayer that he couldn't help finding appealing. He threw himself at Stiles with harsh words and toothless threats, antagonism always simmering under the surface. He was waiting to be broken. Ready to fall apart under the weight of Stiles's disdain, to watch someone else stand over him, triumphant in his defeat.
But Stiles didn't break him. Stiles picked him up. Stood over him, yes, but only to slap him back to consciousness, relief pouring through his scent as Kate's bullet wound faded into his skin. Held him above the water, until his limbs were trembling, moments away from drowning alongside him. Yelled in his face but dragged him out of the hospital elevator, a look in his eyes that Derek hadn't been able to read and couldn't think about without his heart twisting strangely in his chest.
When he left Beacon Hills, finally ripping the tether free and remembering how to breathe, how to live again, it was Stiles who came after him. Stiles, who showed up at his door with blazing eyes, looking like he wanted to punch him in the face, but wrapping his arms around him instead, making him grunt in surprise at the raw strength of his embrace.
“You asshole,” Stiles said, slapping him heartily on the back as he extricated himself, his voice rough under his bright smile. “You couldn’t have made yourself harder to find, could you?”
Derek stood in the doorway as Stiles pushed past, dragging a heavy bag behind him, its wobbly wheels scrape-thumping over his meticulously polished hardwood floors. He felt - bewildered? Thrown entirely off balance, in that way Stiles always managed. He eventually moved his shock-frozen limbs to peer out into the front garden, half-expecting to find Scott or the Sheriff opening the gate, loaded down with additional luggage, but the closest heartbeat he could hear came from the house next door: a neighbor playing his violin, the bow scraping gently over the strings.
He shut the door, locked it as an afterthought, and followed the sound of Stiles clomping up the stairs, his suitcase hitting each step as he climbed.
“How many floors does this place have?” he called, his voice drifting from somewhere around the second turn in the staircase. Derek didn’t answer, figuring he was plenty smart enough to count for himself. By the time he reached the top of the stairs, Stiles had deposited his suitcase and backpack next to the mattress on the floor of his studio, peeled off his jacket, and was staring openly at the canvases - some blank, some in various states of completion - scattered around the room.
“What are you doing here,” Derek said flatly, crossing his arms over his chest and trying to remember how to look threatening. If he’d had any advance notice at all, he would’ve taken some time to change out of sweatpants and a t-shirt he desperately hoped Stiles wouldn’t recognize as his.
No such luck, of course.
Stiles turned, jabbing a finger at the canvases behind him. “Isaac was being a pretentious douche with his descriptions, as usual, but for once, I’ll forgive it. He was right: these are amazing.” His gaze traveled up and down Derek’s body. “That’s a suspiciously familiar shirt. Did you pick it up at Casa Stilinski?”
“No,” he said, scrunching his eyebrows in embarrassment.
“Derek, I don’t buy a lot of new clothes, as everyone who knows me is well aware. That? Is one I’ve had since at least freshman year. And I’ve never once seen you in a graphic tee, so don’t pretend like you’ve started now.” He gave him another appraising once-over. “It looks good on you, though. You look good. In general.”
“I - thanks,” he stuttered. “Um. You too?”
Stiles laughed abruptly, his cheeks flushing. “Oh, god. Sorry. I didn’t actually mean it that way. I just meant you look - lighter, maybe. Happier than when I last saw you.”
“Oh,” he said, feeling stupid and wishing he’d kept his mouth shut. He pushed it down, saving it for later agonizing when Stiles wasn’t around to read the play of emotions over his face, and repeated gruffly, “Why are you here?”
The muscles around Stiles’s mouth wobbled for a split second, as though he was deciding which expression to reach for. His grin, when he found it, was lopsided and didn’t seem entirely genuine. “Investigating whether you’re as gracious of a host as I’ve heard. I’ve gotta say, so far, the rumors aren’t matching up with the reality.”
“I don’t run a bed and breakfast, Stiles.” He couldn’t retain the faux anger - he was glad to see him, he’d always be glad to see him - but the exasperation in his voice was real enough. “How did you even know to come up here?” He supposed he should be asking how Stiles had arrived at his front door to begin with, well over a year since they’d parted ways, but somehow, that part didn't seem all that surprising. But the easy familiarity with which he'd strolled into his house and up the stairs was abnormal, even for someone this nosy and resourceful.
“Isaac,” he said again, shrugging and poking at the window frame to see if it opened. When it did, he stuck his head out and whistled at the view before latching it shut again. “He told me your spare bedroom was technically his and that he’d snap my neck if I touched anything in it, but that you keep another bed in your studio.” He nudged at the mattress with a ragged sneaker. “I’m not sure this counts as a bed, exactly. But it’ll do. Better’n what I’ve been sleeping on.” He said the last bit softly, almost under his breath, as though he’d forgotten what it was like to be around someone with supernatural hearing.
Now that Derek was examining him more closely, he realized that he hadn’t been telling the truth earlier. Stiles didn’t look particularly good. Not in the way he’d thought he’d meant, nor in the clarified version. He looked exhausted and unhappy, with bruised circles under his eyes and patchy scruff that made Derek think, for a moment, that he’d smeared glue on his face and rolled through a patch of dirt, then twig-strewn weeds. He’d been wearing a backwards baseball cap when he’d arrived; now that he’d tossed that on the bed, his hair was standing wildly on end, thick and most likely unwashed.
“You should take a shower,” he said, giving in. He had no idea how long he was planning to stay, but it’d sounded like one night, at least. Maybe two. “Bathroom’s one floor down - use the one connected to the guest bedroom. It’s got a shower stall and better water pressure than mine.”
“Thanks,” Stiles replied, heavy on the sarcasm, but with a light in his eyes that Derek hadn’t realized had dimmed until it’d started to spark back up. “Nice to see you, Stiles. Wash your filthy human body before you touch my sheets. Makes a guy feel welcome.”
“Towels are in the bathroom cabinet,” he said. “I’ll make dinner in a bit, if you’re hungry.” His shoulders were broad, his arms visibly well-muscled, even under his long-sleeved shirt, but there was a gaunt appearance to his face that hadn’t been there when Derek had left. He looked - not quite like he had when the Nogitsune had him in its grasp, but worn thin. He was beginning to suspect the scattered updates he’d been receiving from Scott weren’t conveying even half of the true story.
Shooting one last worried glance at his canvases and deciding Stiles wasn't that clumsy - they were probably safe around him - he headed back down to the kitchen, texting Isaac and leaving Stiles fumbling at his shoelaces and grumbling to himself. He would've preferred to call, but he'd learned that Isaac had a deep aversion to actually picking up the phone. If he did manage to get him on the line, he'd be far more silent than Derek, as though he was afraid someone was listening in, recording his words for later ammunition.
He'd filed that away in the ever-growing list of "probably related to his dad, never touch it unless he brings it up" and transitioned to texting. Isaac would, if he was in the right mood, drain his battery with extended stories about his day, complaints about Jackson, and boasts about how his accent was nearly indistinguishable from the other Londoners' now. Derek wasn't sure that was true, but he congratulated him and kept up with the streams of conversation as best he could.
When did you talk to Stiles? he typed out laboriously, his fingers still feeling too large for the phone’s compact screen. Jackson had tried to talk him into buying an upgrade, but he didn’t need a new phone, not when this one still worked. It was ridiculous to trade it in every six months, like Jackson did, just because the next one was shinier and supposedly a slight improvement on the last. The last time he’d seen Jackson’s phone, it was basically the size of a mini tablet; it had its uses, Derek supposed, but it’d lost its primary purpose - portability - and hardly even seemed like a phone at that point. Jackson had violently rolled his eyes, then denied any responsibility for the increased spam Derek had subsequently gotten from various electronics stores.
Is he there? came back after a few minutes. I wasn’t sure he’d actually do it.
Derek was still frowning at his screen, trying to figure out what to ask next to pry actual information out of Isaac, when a seeming afterthought bleeped onto his screen: What a dick.
Me or him?
Stilinski obviously. He hasn’t talked to Scott in something like two months. You should call him he’s worried.
Derek made a face at his phone, then shot a guilty glance at the stairs, as though Stiles would be hovering there and locking that into his “ways Derek fails at social interactions and/or is a secret giant dork” column. Stiles had never said he was tracking that sort of thing, but. Derek had...issues. To put it lightly. And Stiles was the kind of person who noticed.
I’m not their go-between, he said. He wasn’t going to report on Stiles behind his back; if there was something broken between those ludicrously inseparable friends, there had to be a reason. They were both adults now, more than capable of making their own decisions, free of his influence, and it wasn’t his place to shove his way into the middle. Even if he’d wanted to. Which he didn’t. He hesitated over his phone for a while as Isaac remained frustratingly and uncharacteristically silent - probably stewing over Scott’s hurt feelings, or busily texting him now and ignoring Derek. Did he ask you about me? he typed, then deleted it. Why did you tell him where I was? He didn’t mean that, though. It wasn’t like he was actively trying to hide. He didn’t send holiday cards or change of address forms or anything, that was all, but he was easy enough to locate if you wanted to. Why did you tell him about my paintings? That was even worse, as was the shiver of happiness over Isaac complimenting his work, and Stiles agreeing with him. It was a silly childhood hobby he’d picked up again now that he had the time and space. It didn’t mean anything. He didn’t want to show anyone. His heartbeat skipped slightly, and he frowned down at his chest, silently telling his traitorous heart to cut it out.
He crashed on our couch for a week and ate all our food, Isaac finally said, before Derek had managed to send anything comprehensible and non-cringeworthy. We kicked him out last month and told him you had a big place with lots of room. Good riddance. You’ll probably need to stock up on cereal.
Like you don’t empty my fridge every time you’re here, he couldn’t resist shooting back, sharp with unreasonable disappointment. Stiles hadn’t actively hunted him down, after all. He’d simply been his last ditch attempt at finding someone to take him in.
Fair, Isaac said. Scott says to make him call him. He either ditched his phone or keeps it shut off all the time, and his voicemail’s been full for ages.
Not a messenger service, he repeated. He tapped his fingers along his phone, thinking about it, wondering if Stiles had been in touch with his dad, or if the Sheriff was pulling his hair out with worry. Stiles cutting off contact with his dad for any extended length of time didn’t seem likely, but: I’ll mention it. But no promises.
Good luck, Isaac sent as a parting message, as though Stiles singing, off-key, in his shower was the worst thing to happen to him that year. Maybe it was, but not in the way Isaac thought.