“I’m sorry, sir. Estimated delay is about six hours. The weather should clear by then, but Beacon County Airport doesn’t have equipment to keep the runway clear in snow like this.”
The gate attendant’s voice was trembling a little, and Derek made a conscious effort to relax the scowl from his face. It wasn’t her fault, and he was sure she was equally unhappy to be trapped at a regional airport with a handful of disgruntled passengers on Christmas Eve.
“Okay,” he said, nodding, ignoring the scent of her relief as he walked away. He’d been away from new people for too long; He’d forgotten how to school his expression to reduce the instinctive terror his resting face seemed to inspire in others.
Derek, put the Murder Brows away, a voice teased lightly in the back of his memory.
Derek found himself smiling to himself. He hadn’t thought of Stiles in…
Well, that was a lie. He thought of Stiles a lot, but he hadn’t heard his voice so clearly in his head for years. Must be something about going back to Beacon Hills.
He sat back in his seat at the gate, resting his feet on his scuffed leather duffle bag and leaning his head back. Later he’d walk around, stretch his legs a little, but for now he just wanted to close his eyes and make the world go away for a little while.
He was on the verge of sliding into a light doze when he felt the hair on the back of his neck prickle with the sudden awareness of being watched. He opened his eyes and startled.
Big, serious brown eyes were staring right into his from only a few inches away. The child had clambered half over the arm of Derek’s chair to study him at close range, her little rosebud mouth pursed in concentration.
“Uh.” Derek couldn’t look away as the little girl reached out one pudgy hand and patted him gently on the cheek. Her scent was soft and sweet and somehow a bit familiar, just enough to keep Derek from shying away. Derek didn’t know too much about kids but he guessed this one was probably three years old or so, head still oversized in proportion to the short limbs and round little belly.
She seemed fascinated with Derek’s beard, eyes widening further under incredibly thick lashes as she petted Derek’s cheek some more, smoothing down the short stubble. Finally she grinned widely. “Good wuff.”
Derek jerked upright, hands clenching on the edge of his seat. Did she just say?...
“CJ!” The child was suddenly gone, lifted up by a strong, tattooed forearm around her little potbelly. “You scared the he— heck out of me! What have I told you about wandering — Derek?”
It was just like the last piece of a puzzle locking into place — a scent similar to the child’s, comforting and warm, but exponentially more so. Derek looked up into startled amber eyes in a face that was familiar and yet not. All the baby fat was gone, the planes and angles of Stiles’ face sharpened and honed over the years, but his eyes were still bright and curious, his mouth still pink, open in surprise for a moment before it curled up into a soft smile.
“Derek! Jesus, man, it’s good to see you again!” Stiles stepped right up onto the row of seats behind and over the seatbacks, landing next to Derek in a spill of long limbs, the child still clutched easily to his chest. “What the fu — fudge are you doing here?”
He reached back, yanking a carry-on bag and a small rolling Spider-Man backpack over the row of seats to rest at their feet.
And Derek couldn’t help his soft huff of laughter. “Fudge?” he repeated, his amusement deepening as a faint tinge of pink colored Stiles’ cheeks.
“It’s a work in progress,” Stiles admitted with a wrinkle of his nose that Derek was absolutely not finding adorable.
The child was squirming in Stiles’ arms now, trying to get free.
“She’s...yours?” Derek found himself asking stupidly. Of course the child was Stiles’, her scent was unmistakable, but Derek was still wrapping his mind around it. In his memory Stiles was not much past childhood himself, a lanky teenager with Bambi eyes and a fuzzy buzzcut. It had been easier to think of him that way — less complicated than thinking of the young adult he had become before Derek left Beacon Hills for good, fierce and loyal and disconcertingly attractive...
All that potential had been fully realized now, Stiles’ body still lean but broad-shouldered. His hair was still fluffy and chaotic but the face beneath it was truly handsome now. His cheekbones had sharpened, skin tan under the scattering of moles and freckles, while his tip-tilted nose still gave him a young, mischievous appearance despite the faintest trace of laugh-lines at the corners of his eyes.
“Yeah, sorry. Um, this is CJ. CJ, this is —” Something in Stiles’ eyes seemed to soften. “This is Derek,” he said, the warmth and affection in his voice sending a pleasant shiver down Derek’s spine. Derek didn’t know what he had done to deserve that kind of tone, but it was...nice to hear his name spoken in that way. He hadn’t heard that in a long time.
CJ finally wriggled her way free, landing on her feet on the floor, only wobbling a little as she pushed her belly into Derek’s knee, leaning in to pat his face once again.
“CJ, what have I told you, we don’t touch strangers —”
“Good wuff!” CJ announced, turning to Stiles with a toothy grin, sparkly barrettes doing nothing to keep her fuzzy brown hair from sticking up in all directions.
“Whoa!” Stiles pulled CJ’s hand away from Derek’s cheek, scooping her up into his lap again. “Um…”
“Is she saying what I think she’s saying?”
“Yeah.” Stiles seemed uneasy all of a sudden, his scent colored a little with anxiety, and Derek was surprised at how much he hated it, how much he wanted to make it go away.
“How does she know?” he couldn’t help asking, and then frowned as the scent of anxiety intensified, a wash of bitterness overlaying the warm, clean scent that was purely Stiles.
The child was watching them both intently. “Park!” she said, patting her hands on Stiles’ forearms happily. “Like daddy.” She stopped patting and carefully put out one chubby index finger, touching it deliberately to one of the tattoos on Stiles’ forearm, a dark-inked line drawing of a raven. To Derek’s amazement the tattoo moved under the child’s touch, ruffling its wings and grooming itself with its beak before settling down again into a slightly different position.
“Whoa, now.” Stiles hurriedly pushed his sleeve down over his forearm. “Claudia Jean, you know the rule,” he said sternly, his voice so low Derek wouldn’t have been able to hear it without his werewolf senses. “Magic is only for in our house.”
CJ stuck out her lower lip. “Sowwy,” she said, her wide eyes looking up earnestly into Stiles’ face, and then Derek’s.
Stiles sighed, hugging her closer. “Swear to God, she learned those puppy eyes from Scott before she turned two,” he said. “It’s her go-to move.”
“She’s a spark too?” Derek wondered aloud. “So young?”
Stiles’ mouth twisted in a smile, a little too wry to be genuine. “Yeah, who knew, huh?” He looked around cautiously, but the gate area was more or less abandoned, and he seemed to ease a bit. “I mean, I’ve been working to develop my magic for ten years now, and she’s already got more in her little finger than I’ve got in my whole body.”
“That’s — that’s amazing.” Derek found himself smiling down at the child, who grinned back. The anxiety in Stiles’ scent cleared, a rush of warm affection replacing the bitterness.
“I’m glad — not everyone thinks so,” Stiles said, and something in his voice told the story as clearly as words.
“Her mom?” Derek asked, and Stiles bit his lip before nodding sharply.
“Understandable, I mean, I’m a lot to handle on my own, and —” He put his hands over CJ’s ears, ignoring the child’s cry of outrage and attempts to bat them free. “The pregnancy was kind of an accident. She thought she was dating a quirky grad student, she didn’t sign on for a magical husband and a baby who could make her stuffed dog come to life. We tried to make it work, but…we’re still friendly enough, at least.”
He released CJ’s ears, shushing her residual noises of protest absentmindedly before letting her slide to the ground. He unzipped the top of the Spider-Man backpack, CJ’s stormy expression clearing instantly as she started to rummage inside of it. “We visit, for a week in the summer and for CJ’s birthday. Yesterday, by the way, which is why we’re dumb enough to be trying to fly anywhere on Christmas Eve. What’s your excuse?”
“Oh.” Derek gathered his reeling thoughts. “I — I was careless. After I left, I just…” Derek felt his cheeks flush with shame. It had seemed like self-preservation at the time, but over the years he had come to regret it deeply, abandoning Beacon Hills and the vulnerable McCall pack. “I ignored a bunch of paperwork, and the county is finally going to take our land back if I don’t get the back-taxes all sorted out by the end of the year, and that means signing some papers in person. I — I don’t know, for a long time I thought I should just let it happen, but.” He pulled in a deep breath, letting it out on a sigh. “Something in me just can’t.”
“I getcha.” And Stiles seemed like he really did, his gaze knowing. “Beacon Hills and Hales..much as you guys try, there’s no getting away from it, is there?”
Derek hung his head in acknowledgement. “Yeah.”
“I tried too.” Stiles shrugged. “Went to grad school on the East Coast. The pack was stable, my dad was retired, things in BH had been calm for years. I didn’t think I was needed anymore, thought it was just Scott and my dad tying me there, but...yeah. I was kidding myself. As soon as things imploded with Paola I was back like a bad penny. And now I know, it’s something about Beacon Hills. For better or worse, it’s where I belong.”
Derek felt a trickle of cold run through him, a shiver not so much of foreboding, as of...prescience. It wasn’t something he had ever wanted to acknowledge to himself, how much he felt the draw of Beacon Hills. How even the comfortable, isolated life he had made for himself in West Virginia always felt just a little bit wrong. How the restlessness was always with him, something deep in his bones pulling him westward as much as he tried to ignore it, worse with every year that went by.
“I think that’s part of the reason why I’ve never been back,” he found himself admitting to Stiles, surprising himself with his own words. “I don’t know if it’s the Hale lands drawing me back, or — or something else, but I think I’ve always worried that if I go back again I’ll never leave.”
There was an intensity to Stiles’ gaze that made Derek feel a little vulnerable, as if Stiles could see right through him. “Well, I guess this’ll be the test,” Stiles said, his mouth curling up again in that slow, warm smile, and Derek found himself unable to look away.
“That is, if we ever get there,” Stiles said more lightly, and the spell seemed to be broken. Stiles looked down at the child at his feet while Derek looked away, pulling in a deep breath, surprised to realize that it seemed he hadn’t breathed in a while.
“I was gonna go get this monkey some dinner,” Stiles said, his voice sounding a little breathless as well. “Wanna come with us?”
CJ had pulled a little car from her Spider-Man backpack and was scooting it around the floor, making vrooming noises. Derek was amused to see it was a little blue Jeep. CJ seemed to feel Derek’s eyes on her. She looked up and then reached back into her backpack, tongue sticking out of the side of her mouth in concentration as she rustled around in it before pulling out a bright red sports car.
“Fuh you,” she said earnestly, putting it into Derek’s palm and then touching a finger to it. The metal seemed to shimmer for a moment before turning black. Derek felt his own eyes widening as he looked down at a perfect replica of the Camaro he used to drive so long ago.
“Jesus!” Stiles had turned back from gathering up his bag and was rubbing an exasperated hand over his face. He pulled CJ to her feet, dusting off her bottom with a practiced movement and zipping up the Spider-Man bag, avoiding Derek’s eyes. “I promise, she’s not usually so out of control, it’s been an emotional couple of days, seeing her mom and all — if you’d rather stay here, we can —”
“It’s fine.” Derek touched the little black car in wonder, before zooming it up CJ’s arm, making her giggle. “It’s...kind of really cool, actually.”
Stiles’ shoulders relaxed, a smile spreading across his face, bright and wide. The way he used to smile, back in the early days, before Erica and Boyd and Allison had died, before life had taken a bunch of stupid kids — and Derek was including himself in that category — and given them more than anyone should have ever had to deal with.
“Great,” Stiles said. “Some people get freaked out by it, so — “ He ducked his head, pulling the carry-on strap across his chest and then grabbing the rolling backpack in his left hand. “Awesome.”
He held out his finger and CJ grabbed it in one pudgy fist. Then CJ reached out and grabbed Derek’s finger as well, making Stiles snort suddenly in laughter. “Well, I guess that’s settled.”
There was only one food stall open but it was enough. Derek and Stiles caught up over dry airport sandwiches and coffee as CJ contentedly smeared a bagel and cream cheese all over her face, Stiles pulling wet wipes out of her backpack and wiping her up with a practiced hand on occasion without even pausing his conversation. Derek found himself staring, blushing a little when Stiles looked up and caught him watching.
“What?” Stiles asked, his brow furrowing.
“It’s just —” Derek felt his blush intensifying. “You’re a great dad. It’s kind of — strange to see.”
Stiles’ face eased, creasing into a tender smile as he looked down at CJ again. “Best thing that ever happened to me,” he said, running an affectionate hand over her disordered hair, and his heartbeat thumped slow and steady with no sign of a lie.
It was amazing, how easy is was to fall into conversation with Stiles. They finished up their food and returned to the gate, CJ playing at their feet as they talked about everything and nothing, touching on deep topics at times before shying away and discussing movies or comic books or the latest on the Beacon Hills pack.
CJ had been yawning and finally she climbed up into Stiles’ lap, sticking a thumb in her mouth, eyes blinking slowly at Derek until finally they closed. Stiles barely paused in his conversation, his body swaying a little seemingly unconsciously, before shifting her up a little higher as she started to snore gently against his neck.
The lights at other gates started to go out one by one, leaving theirs in semi-darkness. The few other passengers waiting for their puddle-jumper seemed to have chosen the other end of the gate to congregate, most of them focused on their phones or computers or already snoring.
“I checked out your website,” Stiles said, looking a little shy. “You’re — you’re really talented.”
Derek found himself blushing again, fingers tracing a fraying hole at the knee of his jeans. “It’s just a hobby.”
Stiles snorted, making CJ stir against his chest for a moment before quieting again. “Don’t be so modest. I mean, the furniture is amazing, but the sculptures — they way you take the wood and just seem to see what’s inside of it — it’s fantastic.”
“I didn’t think any of you guys even knew where I was. I mean, I didn’t think — I didn’t think you’d care what happened to me.”
He hadn’t meant anything by it but simple truth, and so the wave of hurt coming from Stiles caught him by surprise.
CJ whimpered against his chest and Stiles shushed her, seeming to consciously relax his set jaw. “We could understand you wanting to just leave it all behind,” Stiles finally said, his voice low. “That’s why none of us ever contacted you. But it doesn’t mean that we didn’t care about you. I mean, it was a shit time, for you more than for anyone, but — it was good too, you know? There was a lot of good mixed in with the bad. Maybe even because of it. You shouldn’t forget that part.”
Derek forced himself to meet Stiles’ piercing gaze. “Yeah,” he said, his voice rougher than he expected it to be. “I — I shouldn’t have let myself forget that part. I’m sorry.”
Stiles seemed to ease again, resting back into his seat. “Water under the bridge, I guess. I’m glad you’re here now, though.” Stiles smiled. “If we had to be stuck in this crap airport on Christmas Eve, we couldn’t have found better company.”
Something warm kindled in Derek’s belly at the sentiment. “Thanks. Me too — I mean, I’m glad you’re here too. You and CJ.” Their eyes met again over CJ’s sleeping form and the moment felt a little too heavy with emotion for a moment, before both of them looked away.
Derek cast about for something to say to ease the tension. “Besides, it’s not Christmas Eve anymore,” he said with a smirk. “It’s five past midnight. Merry Christmas.”
“Oh!” Stiles’ eyes went wide. “Here, hold her while I grab something.” Without hesitation he leaned over, tumbling CJ’s sleeping form into Derek’s arms. Derek instinctively cradled her to his chest the way Stiles had, CJ only snuffling into his neck for a moment before settling in with another soft snore.
It was amazing to him, that Stiles trusted him so easily with something so precious. CJ was soft and warm and vulnerable heaped against Derek’s chest, eyelashes dark against her red cheeks, her thumb back in her little rosebud mouth. Derek could hear the steady thump of her heartbeat and he smoothed his hand on her back, holding her close.
Stiles popped up again, triumphantly holding up an only slightly-squashed chocolate-chip muffin he had pulled from his bag. “It was the closest thing to cake they sold at that bagel place,” he said with a shrug.
He cast his gaze around the gate but everyone else was sleeping now. He closed his hand and then opened it again, a striped birthday candle appearing in his palm. He carefully stuck the candle in the center of the muffin. After one more cautious glance around, he snapped his fingers and the candle wick sputtered into flame, bright and merry in the darkened gate.
Stiles nudged Derek’s knee with his own. “Make a wish, birthday boy,” he said with a smile. “Quick, before the air marshals get us.”
Derek felt a lump growing in his throat. He couldn’t remember the last time anyone had even known it was his birthday on Christmas Day, let alone celebrated it. He leaned over and puffed out the candle. The wish that popped into his head, unbidden, was something he never would have thought when he woke up this morning, but it suddenly felt like all he had ever wanted without knowing it. It felt right.
Stiles pulled the candle off the muffin and enclosed it in his palm again, vanishing it back to wherever it had come from. Then they carefully made the exchange, Stiles taking CJ back in his arms while Derek took the muffin.
Derek looked around the gate himself before stealthily popping one claw, cutting the muffin in half and handing one half to Stiles.
“Cheers,” he said to Stiles, tapping the muffin halves together.
“Many happy returns,” Stiles said back with a grin. He seemed to hesitate but then leaned in, placing a chaste kiss to Derek’s cheek. “And a happy return to Beacon Hills," he murmured, his voice soft and warm in Derek's ear.
“Thanks.” Derek hesitated for a moment as well, but it was his birthday and Christmas all at once, and the expanding joy in his chest seemed to have nothing to do with either of those holidays and everything to do with the man and child beside him. He leaned in and placed a kiss on Stiles’ cheek as well, soft and a little more lingering, and then a quick peck to the top of CJ’s head as well. “I think it will be.”
Who knows how long they would have stared at each other, grinning stupidly over the sleeping child, if the exhausted-sounding flight attendant hadn’t finally announced the belated boarding of their flight, the gate lights flickering to full brightness around them.
Derek stood and stretched before reaching out a hand, helping Stiles to his feet as he hitched CJ up to rest with her head on his shoulder. Derek reached down, slinging the carry-on across his chest, gathering up his duffle bag and the Spider-Man backpack in one hand.
“C’mon,” he said, holding out the other hand to Stiles. “Let’s go home.”