The Jeep is already parked in the turn-out. As Derek pulls in behind it, he spots Stiles and Scott up by the sand-colored boulder that marks the trailhead. They're engaged in some kind of play fight that seems to involve trying to smack each other in the nuts while avoiding the same.
“Hey, losers,” Erica yells as soon as the car slows enough to let her shove the passenger’s side door open, and they quit cringing and slapping at each other to turn in unison and whoop back. She leaps out and makes a beeline for them. Derek tunes out the ensuing volley of obscenities as he pushes the front seat down to let Isaac unfold his long limbs from the back.
Instead of heading toward the others, Isaac leans against the Camaro with his hands in his pockets while Derek pops the trunk. Hauling things out, Derek glances over to see Stiles jumping with exaggerated abandon for a tree branch. He misses. Erica laughs at him, does it easily. Her hair was set afire during the rescue and had to be cut to the scalp; two years later, she still keeps it short, a chin-length tumble of loose, dark curls that might be soft and pretty on someone else, but on her looks just this side of dangerous, lending a sharpness to her jaw. Sensing Derek’s attention, she casts a glance over her shoulder, lifts her chin briefly: ten-four.
He nods back, slams the trunk with an elbow.
“I can help carry,” Isaac offers. Derek starts to say he’s fine, but instead shifts the heavy duffel and hands off the cloth shopping bags. Isaac likes to have something to do.
He whistles between his teeth at the group by the boulder. Erica makes a face at him, laughs when he makes one back. It feels like a gift. He’s proud she got into the school she did, but he’s missed her. As he and Isaac draw near, Stiles and Scott finally break from the kind of significant-looking debate that could just as easily be about the illusion of consciousness, or whether it’s acceptable to do Jell-O shots where other people can see and judge you.
Stiles has one of his hoodie strings between his teeth, and his grin pushes his eyes up into happy semi-circles. Despite the smile, he looks tired; Derek remembers how Erica got toward the end of finals week, calling from a corner of the university library at six in the morning, distraught because she was too tired to study but too anxious to stay asleep for more than twenty minutes.
All Scott says is, “Hey,” but being here at all is good in and of itself; he’s close to Isaac and seems to have a complicated understanding with Erica, but he never gets much beyond provisionally civil with Derek, and Derek has long since stopped trying to push for more.
They follow the walking trail for twenty minutes before turning away, cutting northward into denser woods as the path begins its eastward curve toward Rio Vista Point. Daytime temperatures are still high enough to melt the frost by mid-morning, but the nights have been dipping into the mid-twenties, and by four in the afternoon, the light is already long and golden, the shadows chilly. Leaves crunch underfoot and jays chatter angrily as the five of them pass beneath the trees, further into the preserve.
Erica takes a running leap onto Stiles’s back without warning, cackling as he staggers and nearly goes down. He carries her for longer than Derek would have expected.
There’s a place almost two miles from the trail where a lightning-struck oak stands in a small clearing, its twisting branches stark against the sky. It happened during the storms of 1997, the ones that hit most of the West Coast like the end times and flooded the Klamath River so violently that its course changed forever. He still remembers the landslides that took out the 50 going east out of Sacramento, the curious mix of comfort and alarm in leaning against his mother’s side on the sofa watching news footage of the water breaching the levees in half a dozen towns.
On the day the Bear River rose past its banks and spilled a foot of muddy water into the streets of downtown Beacon Hills, carrying books off of the lower shelves of the library, Laura -- who was supposed to be grounded in her room for punching another fifth grader -- coaxed Derek out of the house and through the woods with her, to see if it was flooding nearer by. They were soaked to the bone before they’d even reached the trees, and it’s one of the most vivid recollections he has, the way it smelled and sounded and felt to run through the force of the storm, following the bright blue of his sister’s anorak while nearly blinded by the density and force of the rain hammering his face. Both of them were too exhilarated to be afraid, yelling to be heard over the roaring of water.
The lightning-struck oak seemed dead for half a decade, black and bare, until one February, an eruption of new leaves sprang from halfway up the trunk.
He had his first wet dream later that same spring. Twelve years old.
Lost in thought, Derek doesn't realize Stiles has dropped behind the others until he feels a shoulder bump his own.
“Yeah,” he says.
“Um, thanks,” Stiles says.
Derek raises his eyebrows.
“For letting me come.” Stiles’s cheeks are flushed from the walk and the cold, and the last of the amber light catches in his irises. College is changing him already. The way he talks, smells, carries himself. Today, he has tousled hair and a couple of days of stubble on his jaw. Stale coffee and pot smoke cling to his clothes, and he doesn’t use the same soap anymore. More than that, the scent of his sweat has shifted, rounded down from the high hormonal reek of pubescence. Even the way he looks at Derek is different -- steadier, maybe. Something.
Two days ago, over the phone, he said, all in one breath, “So Scott told me that Isaac told him that you told Isaac to tell Scott that he’s invited to help you celebrate the Christmas of your people.” He switched into some kind of stupid accent for the last phrase.
Derek frowned, trying to identify the background noise. “Are you on the phone and driving?”
“Nah, my roommate’s the designated road warrior until we hit, uh, where does your mom live?” There was a murmur in the background, and Stiles said, “Oh hell no, we’re not going all the -- I’m dumping you on the side of the road when the five splits. Where is that, is that Tracy?” There was another, louder murmur. “Dude, no, Friday afternoon at Christmas time? The 580 can suck --”
“Stiles,” Derek interrupted testily, switching the phone to his other shoulder. It had stopped raining for long enough to let all the swollen wood in the house dry out, so he’d taken the opportunity to lift the back door off its hinges and turn it over to plane and reseal the bottom, where it tended to stick against the threshold in wet weather.
“Sorry, sorry. Um. So, Christmas.”
“That’s not what it is.”
“Whatever! Festivus.” Stiles laughed. “Fur-vest-ivus.”
“Jesus,” Derek muttered, shaving off another sliver of golden wood that curled up and dropped to the ground, where green shoots poked through the limp tangle of dry grass.
They were both silent for a long minute. Derek picked up the sanding block, feeling like he was missing something important about the conversation, waiting to see what it was.
“Would you, uh, would it be weird if,” Stiles finally said.
“Would wh --” Derek stopped sanding and squinted at his own hands, perplexed. “You want to --”
“Is that cool? Like, is it not for vanilla humans, or --”
“No, I mean, yes, you... that would be fine.” What the hell did Stiles think the Hales had done before, take all the human family members to a Denny’s and make them stay there until they were allowed to come home?
“Yes, awesome,” Stiles enthused. “Should I bring anything? Food? Plastic reindeer headbands? Booze?”
Amused, Derek bent over and blew wood dust away. “If you want to, you can bring an item of personal significance. Not too big.”
“Huh,” Stiles said. “Okay.”
Derek ran his fingers along the bottom of the door. It felt smooth and cool, powdery from sanding. “Dress warm.”
Stiles seems to have listened. He’s stripped off the hoodie and flannel shirt and is carrying them slung over one shoulder, like some kind of stoner prep, but three different thermal shirts can be separately identified at his neckline, reminiscent of the way wallpaper peels down through the layers in an old house. The one closest to his body is a deep navy blue, stark against the glimpse of pale skin stretched over his clavicle. Derek makes himself look away. “You’re welcome.”
“It’s cool that you invited him,” Stiles says. “Like, I know he’s weird about it, but it’s kind of his thing now too, you know? He should at least be familiar with the culture.”
Derek feels a tiny smile pulling at the corner of his mouth. Erica says she’s pretty sure Stiles spends his free time getting high and reading Lévi-Strauss and Kristeva. He believes her. He’s also pretty sure Stiles gets laid a lot. Something about the way he...
Derek switches the duffel bag to his other hand, clears his throat.
“Anyway,” Stiles says. “That’s all I wanted to say.”
“That’s never all you want to say,” Derek says, and Stiles laughs, loudly enough that the three werewolves up ahead turn as one to see what’s happening.
The last tongues of sun are licking red streaks up the topmost branches when they reach the clearing with the lightning tree. Derek sets the duffel beside its charred trunk and starts tramping down the dead grey underbrush in a ten-foot circle around it. Isaac puts the bags down and follows suit, and the others catch on and help as well, at least to a certain extent -- Scott and Stiles quickly switch from actual contributors into human bumper cars, snickering and shoulder-checking each other into the high weeds -- so they end up with more of a twenty-five-foot rhombus.
Hunkering down beside the duffel, Derek unzips it and pulls out the blankets. Most are loosely folded, but there’s one rolled up into a lumpy, heavy bundle, secured with climbing rope. He pulls the draw-knot and unrolls the blanket to reveal a set of black-tailed buck antlers, thick shafts twisting up into eight sharp points. They’re bound together by sturdy strips of deer hide, criss-crossed and knotted to form an arcane latticework.
“Whoa-ho,” Stiles says.
Derek moves the whole jumble of bone and skin onto the ground and stands to shake out the blanket, refolds it into fourths and spreads it out on the earth. He’s aware of Erica and Isaac behind him, strong and tall at eight and four o’clock respectively. Stiles is muttering to Scott -- something about the Yaqui. Rolling his eyes, Derek arranges the antlers on the blanket and starts taking things out of the shopping bags. The fruit goes on the left: pears and pomegranates, sweet little oranges, apples in red and gold. There’s a fresh loaf of bread from the bakery on Los Robles, and nan-e gerdui and nan-e berenji, which he piles onto a paper napkin, faltering briefly as he’s flooded with the memory of his mother’s hands doing the same.
On the right, he places a Tupperware of cold chicken and a package of soft, rich cheese. Unwrapping a pair of knives from a dishtowel, he clears his throat and says, “If you brought an item, put it down here.”
“Oh. Um,” Scott says.
Stiles snorts. “Dude, he said ‘if,’ not ‘do it or get ready for a beatdown.’ I’m sure it’s not a big deal.”
“I didn’t bring anything either,” Erica reassures Scott, and snaps her -- Derek doesn't know where she got gum. He didn’t smell it on her in the car.
Wordlessly, Isaac steps up and drops something onto the blanket. It bounces once, small and flashing. A copper penny, rolled out into a long oval by one of those stamping machines. It has an otter on it.
As Isaac stands, Stiles kneels on Derek’s other side and carefully puts a cassette tape down, fingers lingering on it like he’s worried about its safety. Derek looks sideways at him. Stiles meets his gaze with a tiny, crooked little smile, stands without explanation.
Derek pulls two thermoses and a bottle from the duffel, setting them onto the ground next to the blanket, and then stands as well. “Food is for eating, starting at sun-down. There’s more in the bags. Extra blankets are for everyone to use and share unless there’s an argument, and then they’re mine no matter how cold you get.”
“Stiles excepted, I hope,” Erica says, snapping her gum again. “He’s feeble and human, he could lose a hand.”
“You could put ‘em in your clothes for warmth,” Stiles says immediately, and then, “ow, I thought you were concerned for my safety, ow, shit.”
Over the sounds of the scuffle, Scott says to Derek, “What do we do now?”
“Wait together until dawn comes. Longest night of the year.”
“That’s very poetic,” Isaac says, examining his nails. It's his second time doing this with Derek; he's comfortable where Scott's curious.
Finished twisting Stiles’s arms up behind his back, Erica comes and bumps Derek with her hip, nudges up under his arm. At the train station earlier, she rubbed cheeks with him and with Isaac, but now she’s going full contact, getting his scent on her and giving her own back. He wraps an arm around the small of her back and squeezes her against his side.
She leans her head on his chest. “Hey, boss."
Her hair tickles. He blows it out of his face, taps his fingertips on her hip. “How is he?”
“He’s good.” That’s the limit of what he’s allowed to actively ask about Boyd, but sometimes she volunteers a little more. He waits her out, and she adds, “He’s got an alpha girlfriend.”
“Hm,” Derek says, gratified. Boyd could be an excellent mate for a leader, if it’s what he wants.
The kids spread a couple of the blankets out and relax, exchanging news. Isaac and Scott sit with shoulders together, and Derek settles beside Erica, who leans back against him and sticks her feet in Stiles’s lap. Absently, Stiles cups her ankle with one hand as he continues to gesture with the other, that particular, enviable ease between them that Derek, despite how far he and his pack have come, still lacks.
Even after Isaac’s phone alarm chirps that the sun has officially set, everyone seems uncertain about the etiquette of being first into the food. Derek ends up doing the honors, splitting a bright green pear into slices that drip down his wrists as he hands them to Isaac and Erica. After that, it’s a free-for-all. Dusk falls around them; the caws and trills of daytime birds fade, replaced by late-season crickets, the plaintive, liquid call of a Poorwill.
“I have to say, this isn’t really what I was expecting,” Stiles says around a mouthful of walnut cookie.
Derek gives him a sidelong look. “What did you expect?”
Stiles swallows. “When you told me to be ready for an all-nighter in the woods, I kind of started picturing, like, ritual rabbit hunting.”
“Maybe group sex.”
“Group--” Derek flushes. “No.”
“It’s cool, I’m not dissing the significance and profundity of werewolf Christmas. Although honestly, for a holiday party, there’s disappointingly little ill-advised kissing.”
Rubbing the side of his face, stubble rasping beneath his palm, Derek looks away. “Well.”
In his peripheral vision, Stiles gapes. “No way. There’s kissing?”
Derek reaches over and picks up the bottle, shows it to Stiles. He brought it because of Scott and Stiles; if it had just been the three of them, like last year, he’d have gone with the more traditional substance. “You’ll be asked to accept an offering from the alpha.”
“You give everybody wine? Awesome, that’s the kind of tradition I can get behi--”
“From the alpha’s mouth,” Erica says behind Derek, breaking from a conversation with Isaac.
“From--” Stiles’s brows pull down briefly, and then his eyes widen. “Ohhh. Yeah?”
“It’s not obligatory,” Derek says.
“Hey, I’m down.” Stiles’s smile is crooked. “Legal and ready.”
Derek snorts. It’s one of the mysteries of humanity, as far as he’s concerned, those things of which he has a theoretical understanding, but which will never make intuitive sense to him. He remains fundamentally amused by the arbitrary thresholds by which their young people are measured regardless of individuality.
Then again, Derek had earned himself his adulthood ceremony just after turning sixteen, granting him all the rights and decisions of an adult pack member, and look how that had turned out.
Fingers snap in front of his nose, and Derek blinks, thoughts scattering.
“Welcome back to the present,” Stiles says, then turns around. “Hey, Scott --”
“I was listening,” Scott says, rolling his eyes. “Kissing, whatever. Sure.”
“It’s not kissing,” Derek says, which isn't quite true. He extends his claws, levers the cork out. The wine is a sweet red, heavy and rich, heat climbing up his sinuses as he takes a mouthful and holds it on his tongue.
“Straight from the bottle, I see we’re going classy tonight.” Isaac leans in without asking. A little spills out between them as the wine passes from one mouth to the other, dripping onto Derek’s jeans. Isaac presses their foreheads together as he swallows, whispers against Derek’s jaw, “I accept your promise to provide for me.” Derek’s throat closes, and he blinks rapidly as Isaac’s warmth leaves him. He wonders if it felt like this for Laura, if it'll ever stop being overwhelming and a little frightening.
After a moment, he takes another mouthful and meets Erica’s eyes. She launches her gum from her mouth with a puff of breath to land somewhere in the dark, then puts her hands on his shoulders and her lips against his. Her tongue pushes much further than necessary into his mouth as she accepts the wine, so he flattens a hand between her shoulder blades and lets her break the kiss on her own time, which turns out to be long moments after she’s already swallowed. Her eyes sparkle with wickedness as she murmurs, “I accept your promise to provide for me." She brats around so seldom these days that instead of chastising her, he presses a kiss to her temple, her hair soft against his cheek.
Scott switches places with Erica as Derek drinks. When their mouths meet, Derek tastes the same fake cinnamon as he did on Erica, which solves that mystery. Scott is steady against him; he pulls back and nods to Derek after swallowing, and then Stiles is there, grinning hugely as Derek fills his mouth again from the bottle.
Derek took the long night pledge from Laura for years, and from his mother before that. It’s platonic. He doesn't let himself think any of the things he can feel pressing at the back of his skull. Stiles’s lips are chapped, and he shakes a little, like he’s laughing -- he’s definitely laughing. Derek bites at a rough lower lip in irritation, and Stiles goes stiff, inhales through his nose. Derek takes the opportunity to let the wine spill from his mouth into Stiles’s.
Stiles isn’t smiling any more when they separate, mouth shiny and slightly open. Derek looks away, and the bodies on the blanket shuffle and resettle, like the brief restlessness that often passes through a flock of birds. Erica says something; Isaac replies. Scott laughs. Derek waits for his heart to slow.
“Derek,” Stiles says. When Derek looks, he’s waving a hand-rolled -- whoops, no, not a cigarette, Derek’s nose tells him. “You mind if I...?”
Derek shakes his head. “Go ahead.”
Stiles glances around. “Anyone else object?”
“Not as long as you brought enough for the class,” Isaac says.
Stiles lights up and sucks in a lungful, passes the joint to Isaac and turns to shotgun smoke into Scott’s mouth. It looks easy, choreographed, something they’re used to.
Derek puts a palm on Erica’s shoulder and leans close to her ear. “Patrol run. Back in half an hour.”
It’s been over a year since there was serious trouble in Beacon Hills, but if there’s one lesson Derek’s life circles back around to, it’s better safe than sorry.
These woods are starting to feel like they belong to him again. He feels good as he runs.
The shadows are long and indigo as he spirals back inward toward the clearing. Stiles is standing in the trees, pissing against a sycamore. He has his hood up, and the cherry-red end of a joint illuminates the curve of his lip as he inhales. It’s newly lit, not the one he had before. No wonder his hoodie smells like weed.
Derek waits until Stiles is zipped up before entering his field of vision. Stiles takes the joint out of his mouth and watches his approach, face shadowed.
“How are you doing?” Derek asks.
“Mellowww,” Stiles exhales happily, tilting his head back and shaping his mouth exaggeratedly around the oh as he blows smoke into the sky. “You?”
“I mean are you warm enough.”
“Oh.” Stiles clicks his tongue. “Probably? I mean, I feel warm, but I might not be the best judge of that right now.”
Derek puts his palm to Stiles’s cheekbone, which is cold, and then the side of his neck. The skin is soft, and Stiles’s pulse flutters against his thumb. When he glances up, Stiles’s eyes are intent on his face, dark and glimmering with reflected stars.
Stiles leans forward, and his mouth is warm inside. Derek makes a soft sound when he feels Stiles’s tongue against his lower lip, touches it with his own. His belly is tight, dick hard.
After a moment, Stiles pulls back, says quietly, “Is it all right that I did that?”
“Yes,” Derek says. He’s pretty sure that what he actually means is I hope so.
On a December afternoon the year of the fire, Laura leaned in, rapped her knuckles against the doorframe of their shared bedroom, and said, “Twenty minutes, boots on and in the car.”
“Why?” The heating in their shitty apartment was inadequate even for a werewolf metabolism, so Derek was hunched up on his single bed, the one under the window, in three layers of dirty shirts and a pair of pajama pants, with the blankets around his shoulders and a book in his lap.
He turned a page without raising his head. “I know that. I’m asking why.”
“Because the world didn’t end, kid,” she said, and came into the room without asking, sat down beside him on the little bed, springs groaning. When he finally gave up on pretending to read and met her eyes, she put a hand on his calf and gave him a little smile he could barely look at. “Even though it feels like it.”
She was nineteen that year. It’s strange to think about, that she was younger then than he is now. He doesn't have to ask himself whether he’d have done as good a job; his fuck-ups are arrayed before him each day, in Erica’s wider, graver eyes and Boyd’s absence.
Laura's college plans had been lost in the fire with everything else. She always looked and smelled tired from trying to cram night classes in around two part-time jobs while the lying fucks at State Farm lost paperwork in mysterious holes and dropped calls after two hours on hold. It made Derek feel like shit that she had to worry about him on top of everything else, so he pushed himself through the fog to get dressed by the time she got home, to eat in front of her whenever he could. He couldn't do much about the thick reek of unwellness that poured off of him, so he tried not to think about it.
And that afternoon, he got into her car and let her drive them up into the mountains, didn’t bitch about the singer-songwriter crap she had playing. When she parked off the road, he followed her into the trees, exhaling dragon steam into the cold. They ended up walking shoulder to shoulder, feet crunching in two-day-old snow, Laura’s heartbeat and his own the only sounds apart from the snap and rustle of the icy woods. A couple of miles of climbing brought them to a ridge, so they stopped there and watched the sun set on Rainier, let the dusk rise up around them. He kept waiting for her to make him talk, but she never did.
Finally, when the moon glinted on the snow, she shook herself, turned to him with her eyes lit red, and said, “Let’s get ourselves a new set of antlers.”
When Derek took the hot, coppery blood from her mouth, he felt clean inside.