When Derek Hale regained consciousness there was more smoke in his lungs than oxygen. He was pretty sure swallowing a handful of razor blades couldn’t have irritated or damaged his airways more, every breath a choking, rasping hurt followed by a violent dry, hacking cough that felt close to snapping a rib. Writhing on the ground, he struggles to breathe, his body curling in on itself one moment as it heals before arching up and out in the next, every part of him straining desperately for clean untainted air. Swallowing thickly, painfully, all he can taste are ashes on his cracked and swollen tongue.
Blinded by tangled, coated lashes and eyelids practically glued shut with grit and sweat, Derek squints, trying to see through the slits of barely parted lids. Nothing is distinguishable. A few blurry dark blobs moving around him, haloed by a revolving round of red, blue and white flashing lights that ratchet his defensive instincts higher and higher when he realises he can’t tell who they are. Can’t discern any identifying scents through the overpowering acrid smell of smoke.
Derek’s eyes water furiously mixing with the soot and dirt he can feel embedded in his skin, making his eyes sting and leak even more moisture in a vicious painful cycle. Lifting a hand to his face he tries to rub the burning itch out of his sensitive eyes, grinding his knuckles into his eye sockets, his breath hitching in surprise when a large callused paw of a hand gently wraps around his and firmly draws it away as though he’s a child.
“Stop it. You’ll make it worse.” The familiar masculine voice, calm and rock steady, settles the panicked beat of his heart at being so vulnerable and Derek blows out a small huffing sigh of relief as his fingers cling desperately to the other man’s warm hand. “Here…I’m going to wash out your eyes with some water okay?”
Derek nods, shivering uncontrollably when the man releases his hand to cradle the back of his neck giving it a reassuring squeeze as he supports Derek’s head, tilting it slightly. Before he can even think about the way his breath stupidly stutters at the intimate contact, the first splash of cool water hits his face. The relief is instant and he moans helplessly, pressing his head back into the long fingers that hold him so securely feeling them tighten momentarily, fingertips digging almost pleasurably into his scalp, tangling with his hair. Eyelids fluttering he lets the soothing liquid bathe his eyes, the water trickling down his temples to soak into his hairline as it removes the film of filth that had coated them. Blinking rapidly as his vision clears, the flow of water stops and a soft cloth is gently pressed to his face, the delicate skin around his eyes being patted and dabbed dry.
The fabric is slowly brushed over the sensitive skin one final time before it’s removed and Derek’s able to see properly for the first time since he’d woken. Eyes wide, he frantically searches the little group of faces surrounding him, all watching him with varying degrees of concern until inevitably they’re drawn to the one person who makes him feel so safe. Kneeling right beside him on the cool grass, still holding the cotton pad from a med kit, is the Sheriff.
Jordan’s hovering just behind him, hunched over with hands on his knees and a huge smile of relief on his good-looking face, eyes flaring red and orange which to anyone non-pack could be seen as a reflection of the fire, but Derek knows it’s not. Kneeling on Derek’s other side is an EMT, her head tilted watching him intently. Struggling to sit up, Derek easily bats away the EMT’s gloved hands that try to hold a clear plastic oxygen mask over his nose and mouth.
“Are they safe? Daniel…Diana…did I get them out?” His voice echoes rawly, hoarse yet so very hopeful in his own ears while fear and anguish rip through his chest. His hands reach out and clutch at the Sheriff’s jacket desperately, fisting the material tight. He feels the warmth of the older man’s hands covering his own, pressing them into his chest, hard enough that Derek can feel the Sheriff’s heartbeat thud steadily against his knuckles.
Worried pale blue eyes hold his for a long agonizing moment, before shutting briefly, and when they open again they’re dark with pain and sympathy. It’s like a punch to the gut, the fog of confusion lifts and reality brutally crashes back down, Derek is bitterly aware that nothing’s changed. His younger brother and sister are still gone. He still failed them.
“Yes…they’re safe. Adam and Samantha Hastings are safe. You got them out Derek.” The Sheriff winces and Derek knows it’s in reaction to the way his face twists and contorts, his breath stuttering as old grief wraps a tight band around his heart and lungs, the wound feeling as fresh and as gutting as it had that long ago morning. Hunching into the older man’s body, he lets his forehead drop to the Sheriff’s solid chest, his mouth falling open to silently cry out his pain as memories surface. Memories more recent than those of twelve years ago and another fire.
The night had been a pleasantly peaceful one, a crescent moon high above, as he patrolled the exclusive Heights area due to an attempted car theft the previous evening. Not unusual in itself, but the sports car was a McClaren valued at close to $300K and the security at the mansion was the latest high-tech, that they’d not been deterred by it indicated a not the average booster. It’d been pre-dawn, the sky revealing it's true colours, shifting from black to a deep navy blue, and he’d been working his way down to the more suburban Valley when he’d received the call on his two-way. Dispatch sending him to the Hasting’s residence, a neighbour reporting the house was on fire.
It had been well ablaze when he’d arrived, second on scene to the FD, to find Lorna and Brett Hastings in hysterics on their front lawn as they watched their house burn with their two young children inside. They’d staggered back and forth, clutching and pulling at each other in a bizarre dance of grief before what was no longer their home, but a funeral pyre.
Thick black smoke pouring out of the structure as huge flames flickered visibly through the windows had paralysed Derek for what felt like hours, but had really only been seconds until he could make his feet move. Several firemen stumbled out of the house, dragging each other along to safety, they’d shaken their heads at him in passing and Derek had heard the groaning creaking noise of the burning structure knowing that the second floor was going to come down at any moment.
Beyond the wounded noises the dying house made, Derek had clearly heard the whimpering of a child. He didn’t remember anything after that. Just vague impressions of pale piercing blue eyes holding his gaze for an eternity, clutching hands trying to hold onto him easily shaken off, voices calling his name sharp with fear, then hellfire and thick choking smoke, heat-damaged timbers cracking loudly as brightly sparking embers fell on his head and shoulders and then finally…the tiny fragile bodies he’d carried tucked against him as he prayed to God, any God that would deign to listen and answer his prayer, that this time he could get them out. That he would be there with them like he hadn’t been before. That he could save Daniel and Diana and if he couldn’t…well he’d be with them until the end.
Only, it wasn’t his 12 year old brother and his ten year old sister he’d brought out of the flames. The bodies that he’d held so tight to his chest had been smaller, the choked cries higher pitched and the feeble cries for ‘mommy’ and ‘daddy’ had sounded young. So very young that it hurt to hear them. Grief at the renewed sense of loss battles with the relief that he’d managed to save these children.
That he hadn’t let anyone else die.
Slumping weakly, Derek’s fingers slowly release the Sheriff’s jacket and for the first time he realises that the older man's been holding him tight, arms wrapped around his shoulders. He doesn't know what to do with that, the offer of comfort in stark contrast to the bewildering growing estrangement of the past year, all put on hold in the face of his grief.
He lowers himself back to the damp grass beneath him, John's hands falling away. He can feel the dew penetrating the fabric of his uniform trousers and he shivers at the chill, but can’t be bothered to move. Letting his eyes close, all he wants is to curl up and just let everything wash over him and leave him here, leave him behind like a piece of driftwood on the beach, all alone. Alone, so he can endure the agonizing ache that fills his chest to bursting without curious eyes watching him.
“We need to get going.” The EMT snaps, her words directed at the Sheriff, instinctively addressing the authority in the small group. “His lungs could be irreparably damaged if we wait much longer.”
Derek sits back up and catches the Sheriff’s eye. Shaking his head at the other man letting him know that his healing is well and truly kicking in. Each breath coming more easily than the last.
The Sheriff holds up his hand. “Just give us one moment please.” The EMT opens her mouth and snaps it shut at the quelling look he gives her. She snorts, blonde ponytail swishing angrily. Derek’s momentary relief dissolves rapidly as he receives the same fierce glare.
“Two things. First—“ The Sheriff lifts his hand and runs it over the crown of his head, smoothing the light brown hair and down to the back of his neck, his drawn features lighten, he says in a softer tone. “– you did good. You got those kids out, you saved them Derek. You saved them.”
A momentary burst of pleasure floods through Derek’s body at the praise, but the soft tone doesn’t last. The Sheriff’s face goes taut and his scent momentarily overpowers that of the fire, becoming sharp and bitterly pungent with anger and fear. It makes Derek’s nose twitch uncontrollably. “Second, you deliberately ignored the instructions of the FD and entered that building—“
“But Sir, I heard—“ Derek bites off the retort, he can’t finish that sentence when there are people around that don’t know about wolves. There’s a flash of something in the Sheriff’s eyes. Something that Derek can’t interpret, only knows his stomach tightens in response. The Sheriff’s stern expression darkens even more and Derek doesn’t know whether it’s because he almost gave away what he is or because he interrupted.
“You were lucky.” He grinds out harshly. “The roof collapsed only seconds after you got out. If you do anything like this again…if you disobey me or a directive from the FD like that again and if there’s anything left of you, I will put an official reprimand on your record and you will take a disciplinary leave of absence until I decide whether you’re capable of doing the job and following orders.” The Sheriff’s voice is cutting, sharp edged like a razor as he glowers at him and Derek can feel something inside him curl up and wither at the cold fury that the other man directs at him. He nods. Eyes lowered, chastened, fighting the compulsion to tilt his head back and bare his throat to the older man.
“Check him again, his colour looks better now.” The EMT startles at the abrupt order, flashing Derek a sympathetic glance, he’s just grateful that the Sheriff’s rebuke has given him long enough to recover from the smoke inhalation. His lungs and throat don’t feel as though they’re lined with sandpaper any longer, the raw abrasion of every breath is gone.
“Parrish get him home and Hale—“ The Sheriff says coolly, waiting a beat until Derek hesitantly raises his eyes to meet his. “–don’t come in for your shift tonight.”
“But, Sir—“ Derek begins only to break off when the Sheriff stands up giving him a long inscrutable look before simply turning away and walking to his SUV parked at a skewed angle on the road. Derek can’t take his eyes off the straight backed figure, who doesn’t glance back once, as he gets into the front cab of the vehicle. Can’t help the little sub-vocal whine that escapes him as he watches it disappear down the road and out of sight.
Well, shit. Derek frowns, ignoring the EMT who’s been listening to his chest with her stethoscope her eyes going wide in disbelief as she obviously hears that his lungs are perfectly normal now, like he’d never even been caught in the middle of a raging inferno.
Derek shivers uncontrollably in delayed reaction. He’d rather face that raging inferno any day than the Sheriff’s controlled icy fury.
John drives away from the Hasting’s home with his hands shaking uncontrollably as they grip the steering wheel. When he’s a good couple of blocks away he pulls over and parks his SUV and finally lets the overwhelming panic he’d felt when he saw Derek Hale run into a burning house crash over him.
Shuddering violently he manages to let go of the steering wheel, each finger stiffly releasing one at a time and buries his face in his hands. With his eyes closed it’s somehow worse as he pictures the look on Derek’s face as he stood on the front lawn watching the fire when he and Parrish had first pulled up. The horrifying blankness across his features was stark, as if he’d had to withdraw behind some mental barrier, protecting himself from the painful reminder of another family going up in smoke and flames.
Opening the vehicle door, John’s senses are instantly assailed with the scent of smoke irritating his nasal passages and the taste of ashes on his lips, the wail of sirens from more approaching rescue services vehicles and the hissing sound of pressurised water being directed into the heart of the fire is deafening.
He takes in the scene at a glance. Firemen frantically trying to extinguish the flames as a man in boxers and t-shirt simultaneously tries to restrain and comfort a woman in a yellow cotton nightgown who's crying brokenly, reaching out towards the house, fingers curled into scrabbling claws. Bile rises in his throat at the realisation that there’s someone trapped inside.
Backlit by the glow of the fire, John sees Derek’s head tilt slightly, the almost dog-like cocking of his head telling him he’s listening to something…something the rest of them can’t hear.
“Don’t.” John whispers under his breath.
Derek turns towards him instantly. A furious determination straightens his broad shoulders from where they’d been slumped in resigned defeat and it lights up his eyes turning them momentarily wolf blue as for one breathtaking, heartbreaking moment their eyes meet and John feels his throat catch because he knows. He knows Derek’s intentions as surely as if they were his own and Stiles was in that burning building and he starts to run, watching with his guts churning in fear as some of the firemen try to catch onto his Deputy’s arms and hold him back, but Derek slips through with a speed and strength that dazzles John to witness it.
“Hale…God damnit…Derek…Derek.” John runs. Runs towards that open doorway, that gateway to a fiery hell, intent on following the other man in and hauling him out, dragging him out and back to safety. The tackle that brings him down only steps away from the front porch is as much unexpected as it is unwanted. John growls furiously, the power of speech lost to him as he struggles to free himself from the strong arms that hold him tight. Looking over his shoulder he can see that Parrish is pinning his lower body down and Fire Chief Horler has his weight on his upper right side, keeping his shoulder and arm pressed tight to the ground.
“John…John stop this.” Gary Horler grunts as he grimly holds John in place. John had always considered the Fire Chief a close friend, they’d known each other for years now and always got along working together so closely, the traditional rivalry between their two Departments was always respectful of each other’s roles. That is until the annual charity baseball game, then all bets were off. Right now, however, John hates his guts. “You can’t go in. I can’t let you, it’s coming down.”
“Please.” Parrish pleads. “Stiles.” And right then at the mention of his son, John feels the strength seep away from his limbs like he’s a balloon that’s been pricked by a pin and he’s deflating rapidly. There’s no way that he can put his kid through the loss of a parent again and as the tension leaves his body drained and suddenly weak, he can feel the two men gradually ease their hold on him.
They let him go, hovering around him protectively, and John gets to his hands and knees before struggling to his feet, he bats away the hands that try to help and he knows it’s rude and ungrateful, but he can’t…he just can’t. What’s worse is the sympathy he sees in Gary’s eyes. The echo of understanding, of knowing what it’s like to lose a man in the field makes his chest ache and his gut knot. The agony is that he’s lost men and women before, good men and women, but this…this feels so much worse.
“I’m sorry.” Gary says bleakly, before turning away to join his crew. John watches the house burn. He desperately wants to throw up when he hears the loud warning creak of timbers starting to give way. The upper floor is coming down and he can’t turn away as much as he wants to, because the need to stand witness to the final moments of a good man’s life is all that he can give now.
He doesn’t believe in miracles or a higher power influencing events, not anymore. It’s something he’d given up on a long time ago maybe around the time his wife died, yet when he sees movement in the swirl of smoke billowing out of the open front door and a figure staggers out and down the porch steps, a part of him instinctively sends a prayer of thanks to a God that he’d long ago repudiated.
Derek sees him and his eyes shine brightly, starkly beautiful with triumph in the soot stained face as he moves unsteadily towards him, stumbling, and John’s moving. Moving towards him so incredibly fast because the weight’s gone from his chest and he’s never felt this light before nor this powerful, wrapping his arm around Derek supporting him, lending him his strength to keep him upright. In his arms John can see two tiny figures squirming within the Departmental jacket that Derek’s protectively wrapped them in.
“I…I got them John…I got them out.” Derek grates out hoarsely, voice wrecked, as he tries to smile. He sways dangerously and suddenly there’s movement all around them and the children are plucked out of Derek’s arms by the EMT’s and their parents. John holds him up and realises that Parrish has moved to his other side and between them they get Derek to the lawn area closest to the road and lay him down. For one terrible, terrible moment John thinks that Derek’s dead, he’s so still and unmoving until Parrish checks his pulse at his throat and says matter-of-factly ‘Passed out’. It’s only then that John sees his chest moving, rising and falling with each shallow breath. The relief is such a rush he feels dizzy.
A final death rattle from the house thunders loudly in the early morning air as it finally collapses in on itself, showers of sparks and embers leap into the grey sky to be caught in the soft breeze and carried away, leaving a fiery trail that’s almost beautiful. The flames rising higher and higher, devouring whatever’s left as the second floor abruptly disappears, swallowed whole. John shudders in horror at the thought of Derek and the kids being trapped in that conflagration.
Kneeling beside Derek, he feels a swell of tenderness throb almost painfully in his chest as he looks down at the unconscious man. He can’t help himself and his fingers lightly comb through the younger man’s dark hair, as much a caress as to reassure himself that he’s alive and okay. Derek looks so vulnerable, it’s almost painful to see how young he really is with his clean-shaven face so relaxed and John suddenly feels old in comparison. Too old, too broken. The silky strands wrap around his fingers enticingly, even as a little voice at the back of his head whispers ‘not too old or too broken to care’.
John lifts his head, hoping like hell no one saw the Sheriff of Beacon Hills sitting in his vehicle having some sort of emotional crisis. A crisis that he has to ignore or lose his mind. Pressing his fingers to his chest, he idly rubs at the lingering ache that sits there and tries to soothe the pain, but it’s not physical so it doesn’t ease at all and in some respects it hurts a hell of a lot more than any wound or injury he can ever recall.
Such a close call only reinforces the need for John to maintain his professional distance from Derek Hale. When Derek had first joined the Department at John’s invitation nearly four years ago he’d been so pleased. The two of them had worked well together a number of times unofficially on what he regards as the ‘spooky stuff’ and he’d not anticipated anything different in this capacity either.
He’d been right, the majority of the time they were rostered to patrol individually, but whenever John needed a partner he assigned Derek to himself, they gelled in a way that went beyond the normal bonds of those serving together within the ‘thin blue line’. They just seemed to click, working in tandem so well that they’d often not needed to speak a word to know what the other was thinking, moving together in sync so smoothly that John often felt that Derek was an extension of himself.
Much to John’s surprise and secret delight, working so closely together he’d gotten to know Derek, the real Derek Hale, and come to realise that he was more than a snarly, sometimes wolf. Sure there was sarcasm and much to John’s annoyance such a fierce need to protect that he frequently found the younger man trying to stand in front of him on the more dangerous call outs, but there was also a gentleness and a kindness to the other man that he’d witnessed that was endearing.
The almost bashful ducking of his head to hide his pleased smile when everyone rostered on his shift scrambles to get one of his giant choc chip muffins that he brings in to share, the hint of cinnamon and the dusting of sugar on the top is to die for. They’re almost as good as the cakes he bakes whenever it’s someone’s birthday in the Department. Derek Hale, a closet baker and a good one - who knew?
The interest free loan that he’d given to Tracy, their dispatcher, a single Mom who couldn’t afford insurance and certainly didn’t need the additional costs of roof repairs after a particularly violent storm last winter, before John could even offer the small amount of assistance he could personally afford himself. He's never failed to put money in a collection tin or buy cookies or chocolates for fund-raising to John's knowledge, as generous with his money as he is with his time.
When he'd first volunteered to put on the red suit they had tucked away in the evidence room and be Santa at the party that the Sheriff’s Department hosted each Christmas for underprivileged kids, John had been taken by surprise. That the kids adored him was not, how could anyone resist his wide smile, sparkling eyes and gentle manner as he sat them on his knee and patiently listened to all the Christmas wishes from every single child until they were done.
There were so many instances, that John wonders how on earth he’d misjudged the young man so badly, when he considers that only a few years ago Derek Hale was a fugitive on the run and on his ‘most wanted’ list as a killer and now he’s one of his most trusted and well-liked Deputies. There’s not another Deputy in his Department that he holds in as high a regard for their professionalism and dedication, it’s like he was born for the job.
Children and the elderly were a particular weakness for his Deputy and Derek’s sweet smile for them had John questioning whether he’d done the right thing by bringing him into a world where they were also so often its victims, but Derek hadn’t flinched. He’d hunted down perpetrators in these particular crimes with a ruthless viciousness that ensured many murderers, paedophiles, home invaders, drug suppliers, child and elderly abusers were now locked away behind bars because of his single-minded need to bring them to justice…and because John wouldn’t allow Derek to eviscerate them.
It wasn’t until one day almost a year ago, when he’d found himself staring across the bullpen from his office watching the younger man sitting at his desk. Parrish was perched on the edge next to him as they chatted, his hand clasping Derek’s shoulder as they laughed and smiled at each other, and as John’s pencil fell onto his desk, snapped in two, he’d realised he maybe getting in deeper than he ever anticipated. Something dark and ugly had risen inside him, even though John knows that Derek and Jordan are simply friends, he’d wanted nothing more than to storm out there and rip that hand away, but instead had somehow managed to sit there, tense and watchful. It was frightening feeling something that powerful, that out of control.
He didn’t assign himself with Derek again. The younger man had taken one look at the new rosters and the expression on his face, the raw hurt in his eyes as he’d held John’s, had him mentally wincing at the memory. But, he couldn’t back down, he daren’t.
It’s too much, feels like he’s being torn in two by what he desperately wants and what he should do and he lets go of the rigid control he’s held onto for nearly a year, lets it go for just one moment, slapping his open palm hard on the steering wheel over and over until it’s red and throbbing and his mouth is slack and gaping as he pants heavily from the exertion. Slumping over he rests his forehead on the cool rubber of the steering wheel and tries to get a grip.
Eventually, John turns the key in the ignition, fighting the dangerous urge to turn the vehicle around and head back to where the younger man is. To make sure he’s really okay, but he can’t. No matter what his feelings for Derek and truth be told he didn’t dare to examine them too closely and give them name, he can’t endanger both of their lives because of them. That he was willing to go up in flames, forgetting all that he is and all the responsibilities he bears, is proof of that.
He pulls away from the curb and drives down the street and though the sky is lightening, turning a soft grey with the rising sun, somehow John still feels trapped in darkness.