Peter is oddly tentative in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Not unhappy but... withdrawn. He watches Derek intently when he thinks Derek won’t notice, and he gets worse as they day itself approaches. Only for Ellie does he put up a front, which is why Derek lets it go. Peter’s nervous as they gather to decorate the tree, and he smells odd, too. Traces of dust and vaguely chemical smells Derek doesn’t recognize. But he’s quiet, barely talking, and Derek shrugs and lets it go.
His uncle has come a long way from the power-mad tyrant that had emerged from the coma, Derek’s not about to push it. And Peter is calm, quietly sad in the same way Derek is, when they show Ellie the overgrown altar in the woods and explain Modranecht. Derek shows her his tattoo, talks about how it had been a celebration for the mothers and daughters of the family, leaving unsaid that because of Ellie perhaps it will be, one day, again.
It’s not until Christmas morning that Derek gets his answers about Peter’s behaviour. The Stilinskis have arrived, and damn, it had nearly killed Derek not to have Stiles with them on Christmas Eve, but the Sherriff had rights, too, and it was a pretty big concession to come out to the Hale house for Christmas day. Derek will take whatever he can get. He tries not to think too hard about that, about the end of Stiles’ high school years and what it will mean for all of them.
So now it’s a beautiful crisp morning and the house is full of family. They’ve shredded their way through a half-ton of brightly colored wrapping paper and Ellie’s squeals have attained a pitch Derek didn’t know human throats could reach.
And then Peter shuffles awkwardly into the lounge room. He glances at the Sherriff twice on his way to Derek’s spot on the couch, holding a large flat box that isn’t wrapped, and has more of those vague scents Derek’s been trying to ignore for weeks.
“I. Ahem.” Peter says.
Derek glances swiftly at the Sherriff, who is staring at Peter with his usual blank expression. It’s the real sticking point in the whole werewolves-pack-supernatural-concealment situation. Multiple murderer Peter Hale, not just alive and free, but sitting down to holiday dinners with family, cultivating a friendship with the Sherriff’s son, a relationship with Ellie.
Sometimes Derek thinks the only reason the Sherriff has accepted his place in Stiles’ life with relative ease is that Peter is such a freaking nightmare-slash-moral dilemma it makes even a hot mess like Derek look good. On that thought Derek slides the lid off the box without looking and his fingers have closed around the thick cover, lifting it, before he even registers what he’s holding. Which is an honest-to-God, old school, photo album. And then he sees the inset in the front cover.
It’s his parents.
Derek freezes. At his side, Stiles is pressed close already, and there’s a sudden inhale as the teenager realizes what he’s seeing. Derek just sits there, heavy weight of the book in his hands, and catalogues Stiles’ reactions. It’s a lot fucking easier than thinking about his own.
“Who’s that?” Ellie whispers.
There’s a long pause before Stiles says softly, “Derek’s parents. Your grandparents.”
Derek drags in a shaky breath. He can’t tear his eyes away from the cover because there they are – God, so many tiny details he’d forgotten. The feathering of crow’s feet at the corner of his father’s eyes, the way his mother’s smile was slightly crooked. He’d become resigned, sometime in the past few years, to losing their images, to their faces becoming fuzzy in his mind, since he had nothing to remind him. It had hurt, God, had it hurt.
It’s a wedding photograph, clearly a hurried snapshot, there’s nothing professional about the pose or the lighting but it’s them, Christ Almighty it’s his parents and the world is closing in for a moment and then he hears Stiles’ voice, sharp and firm, “Breathe. Breathe for me, babe. Derek.”
He tries, and he must manage something because Stiles’ grip on his arm relaxes a little and then Derek turns the page and there’s Emma, oh fuck, little Emma only about four years old at some kid’s birthday party, crowding in around the cake with one immaculate braid and one completely undone-
He flips again and it’s Laura as he remembers her last, at a college party, Ezra and her other friends in the background, in Halloween costumes-
Jacob, in his Little League uniform, staring off to the side while his team-mates jostle each other-
Dad, laughing on the edge of a group photograph, from college maybe, he’s so young, younger than Derek is now-
He keeps going, frantic, page after page...
Mom and Peter and Fay as sulky teenagers clustered around a car – Emma painting Laura’s toenails while the teenager reads a novel – Derek and Andrew, wrestling somewhere he doesn’t recognize, a park maybe or deep in the woods – Peter and Dad piggybacking the littlest kids across the lawn in the annual Memorial Day race –
When he finally looks up, Derek clamps a shaking hand over his mouth and stares up at Peter. He’s not- he’s completely unprepared for this.
Peter, too, is shaking, hands shoved into his back pockets but Derek can feel the racing of the other wolf’s heart and suddenly he is seconds away from completely losing-
She can’t see him wolf out. Derek flings the book off his lap and bolts out the door without a word, uncaring of the bitter cold outside or Stiles’ worried voice calling his name. He doesn’t shift until he hits the treeline, and then he runs in a tight circle, never far from the house but somehow, still, so very fucking alone.
“I wasn’t sure,” he can hear Peter saying when he finally slows his run enough to hear voices. Peter’s voice is clear, he’s outside on the porch, Derek thinks.
Inside the house he can hear Stiles, voice soft and smiling the way it always is for Ellie, “...must be Jacob. He was in the middle, between Derek and Andrew. Very independent, your Dad said.”
“It was a nice idea,” the Sheriff says neutrally. To Peter. How had that pairing occurred, Derek wonders? “Maybe warning him would have been smarter.”
“He looks like Daddy,” Ellie says to Stiles.
“Yes,” Peter says, low and sorry.
Derek closes his eyes, zooms in on the two inside the house and scrabbles for self-control. His twin anchors. Daughter. Mate. How has he gotten so fucking lucky? Wreck of a beast that he is, how does he have Ellie’s sunny smiles and Stiles’s smartass remarks when the rest of his family are dust and ashes?
“I’m possibly not very rational on this topic,” Peter tells the Sheriff. It’s not snarky, the way it would have been last year. It’s simple, devastatingly honest. “Tracking down those pictures-” his voice chokes off.
“Can’t have been easy,” Stilinski says slowly.
When Derek steps close enough to peer through the trees Peter has one hand over his eyes. “No,” he says without moving. “It was not.”
“So that’s my Grandma?”
“Uh-huh,” Stiles says softly. “Looks to me like you have her eyes.” Derek can hear the slow turning of the pages, pictures Ellie in Stiles’ lap, discovering the Hale family.
There’s silence, then, from inside and out. Then Ellie says, “It made Daddy sad.”
Peter flinches visibly at hearing that and Stiles sighs. “Oh, Ellie-bean,” he replies. “I think, eventually, he’ll be so, so happy to have these. But it was a big surprise, and he doesn’t-” Stiles stops and swallows. “He gets mixed up about it. That they’re not here... like I miss my Mom, sometimes,” he goes on, and Derek could kiss him for steering the conversation away from why they’re not here, because the freaking answer, of course: Kate.
“I think about her on Christmas,” Stiles goes on slowly. The sheriff has figured out what Peter is hearing, has moved close enough to overhear through the half-open front door.
“Good memories, like how much she loved the Christmas lights down Main Street and used to always trick Dad about his presents and wrap up like, an egg timer or something. But even the good memories make me kinda sad, you know? Because she’s not here to make any more memories.”
The Sheriff and Peter stand frozen as they listen, each trapped in their separate grief.
“So Peter didn’t do anything wrong, and Derek’s not mad. He just doesn’t know how to show that he’s sad without freaking everyone out. But he’ll be back soon, and we’ll eat and we’ll talk and we’ll be making new memories. And in a while, he’ll be glad again because I know he wants you to know about Andrew and Emma and Jacob and the others.”
Derek breathes in deep. I don’t deserve him, he thinks, for the nine hundredth time. He straightens and looks himself over to make sure there’s no sign of clawing on his clothes, then starts towards the house.
I don’t deserve him is as natural to Derek as breathing.
It’s the other part he’s still getting used to admitting. I don’t deserve him - but I’m not letting him go.
Once, maybe, there was a chance Derek would have pushed Stiles away in a fit of altruism, admitting Stiles deserves someone better. That chance disappeared when Ellie arrived in their lives. Because Stiles can give Ellie everything Derek fails at. Stiles makes it work for Ellie, and for that alone, Derek would adore him. It’s just good luck Derek was already helplessly in love with the guy. And now Derek will fight to keep what he has, right up until the very moment Stiles looks around and sees what else the world could offer. And when that happens...
Derek lifts his chin and takes another breath, thinking of his parents without flinching, for once. When that happens he will fucking cope, that’s what. Because Ellie will need him to. He’s a father now, and he knows what that means. It means going back inside and shedding the coat of sadness. It means making new memories today, with what family he has, and showing exactly how grateful he is to be sharing day this with people he loves.
“Uncle Peter,” he says, and stumps up the stairs. “Thank you.” He folds his arms around the older man and closes his eyes at the slight tremor that runs through the other wolf. “Thank you,” he says again, lower and rougher, and the Sheriff clears his throat and shuffles his feet.
“Daddy,” Ellie says, tentative as the door opens wider. Derek meets her eyes and drags up a smile.
“Hello baby,” he says. “Sorry I ran off. I was kind of surprised.” He shrugs, shamefaced, but opens his arms. She runs into them without hesitation, another small gift he cherishes every day, her thirst for affection.
He raises his eyes to Stiles, waiting with one hand on the door, worried but not too worried. So much more faith in Derek than is warranted. He’s going to start earning it.
“Let’s get in out of the cold,” Derek murmurs into Ellie’s hair. “I could use some hot chocolate, and I’ll show you a disgusting habit my brother Jacob had that you’re going to love.”
Ellie freezes for a second, then turns her head to watch his face as he carries her inside. “Yeah?”
“It’s called the TimTam Slam. He used to get these chocolate-coated cookies – they call them biscuits – from his pen-pal in Australia, called TimTams. You can buy them here, now, though. You dip them in your coffee or whatever,” Derek says, and he doesn’t try to hide the sadness, but he doesn’t falter either, “and you use the TimTam like a straw and suck your drink through it.”
“Yum,” Ellie says. “That sounds like the best.”
Stiles is already getting milk and a pan, just like the first time Ellie had come inside this house. Peter slides the chocolate down the counter and after a moment, the Sheriff steps up to the correct cupboard and retrieves mugs for four.
“Yeah,” Derek says, and deliberately catches Stiles eyes. “The very very best.”