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Smoke is Just the Air Remembering Fire

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Derek has cried three times in his adult life: when his sister died, when the alpha pack used him to kill Boyd, and when Stiles Stilinski broke his heart.

After the sheriff’s funeral, after Stiles shatters him, he picks up the pieces and cobbles himself into something whole but hollow, and gathers the few possessions that matter: his dad’s leather jacket; the centuries-old Hale Bestiary from the vault under the high school; Laura’s moon phase necklace and his mother’s wedding ring, both family heirlooms; the pewter wolf figurine with red crystal eyes that Stiles gave him right before they kissed for the first time.

In the middle of the night, Derek silently slips into the Camaro that still smells like Stiles, like them, and even though he’s putting Beacon Hills and its many despairs behind him for good, he keeps the windows rolled up so he can, for just a few more desperate moments, hold on to the last piece of him he’ll ever have.

~*~

Derek wanders. He immerses himself in experiences and cultures that captivate his intense intellect and expansive curiosity, that distract from the ache in his chest and that keep unbidden memories at bay.

It works. Sort of.

He spends a few months in Brazil with Cora and her girlfriend, perfecting his Portuguese before heading to Lisbon for a few weeks, and then drifts to Amsterdam, Belgium, Austria, Prague, Slovenia; he spends two sun-soaked months on Santorini, and then five weeks in Morocco.

Werewolf connections are global and stretch back for centuries, and the Hale name is well-known; he often finds himself welcomed into warm homes that smell like wolves and secret bars redolent with magic; he’s served delicious meals and treated like family, and always sent on his way with more food and the name of an alpha or emissary at or on the way to his next destination.

He walks the Siq to Petra in Jordan, and tries not to think about how Stiles would be freaking out if he knew Derek was where they filmed Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

He’s in Thailand for the Loy Krathong festival, and when he lights the candles in his orchids-and-incense filled basket and sets it afloat in the overflowing river with all of the other krathongs carrying wishes and whisking away bad luck, he wonders which one Stiles was to him.

He swims naked in bioluminescent water in the Maldives, and nearly weeps at the thought of how beautiful Stiles would look with his skin scattered with the tiny blue lights, and the only reason he doesn’t is because he pulls himself from the water, shifts, and spends the next two days running around the island as a wolf.   

He spends a lunar eclipse in Australia, and as his power drains in tandem with the moon’s disappearance, he wonders if this is what it feels like to be human, knows things would have happened differently if he were, and wishes the moon would stay away for good.

The moon returns, and so does Derek’s power, but he’s never felt weaker.

~*~

He reads voraciously, and becomes adept at more than a dozen languages. He writes too, at first just journaling to document his traveling, but then starts to develop some longer, more cohesive pieces about his experiences and the people he’s met that he posts anonymously to a blog, in multiple languages. He gains a decent following thanks to some popular bloggers and websites linking him, and it’s enough to leverage some freelance writing gigs that he publishes under a pseudonym. It gives him a much-needed sense of purpose.

Eventually, after five years wandering the globe, he returns to the States, having found something like peace, the pain dulled enough, the hollowness not filled, but no longer echoing so painfully. But he knows that the fire Stiles sparked inside of him has been forever extinguished. 

His fire his gone. He is smoke.

He picks the Camaro up from storage in San Francisco, changes the oil and gets fresh gas, and drives up Highway 101 to his dad’s hometown on the Oregon coast. The beach house is large craftsman on a ragged cliff that overlooks the mighty Pacific, passed down through three generations of his dad’s family and willed to him, Laura, and Cora. He removes the sheets from the heirloom furniture and turns one of the upstairs bedrooms into a writing room, hauling the antique desk from his great-grandfather’s den up to sit under the large window overlooking the ocean.

He devotes himself to writing and publishes a well-received and decently-selling book of essays based on his blog; he tries his hand at fiction, and gets enough short stories published to leverage a small advance for a novel.

At Cora’s repeated insistence that he not become a complete hermit, he gets a job bartending a few nights a week at a dive bar on 101 that’s a favorite of the town locals. The owner is a witch and she pays him in cash and has diluted wolfsbane on-hand, which Derek serves to the occasional werewolf who finds their way in and indulges in himself from time to time.

People hit on him often, even though his beard is usually out of control and he’s more laconic than ever. He always politely but firmly turns them down, completely uninterested. Even in when traveling, he never so much as kissed another person, although he almost, in Marseilles, went home with a lean-bodied boy with brown eyes, but thought better of it when he found himself unable to stop wishing he had moles and sly smile.

Some nights, when the moon rises and calls to his blood, he strips on the deck and shifts into his full wolf. He runs on the beach for miles, letting his mind go blissfully blank, feeling only the sand under his paws and smelling only the salt air and the rush of the ocean breeze against his dense coat.

On the nights when he can sleep, he dreams about mischievous eyes and a smart mouth, the taste of bitten lips; he dreams about strong, capable hands that save his life and tear him apart all at once; he dreams of a voice so comforting he never wants to wake up. 

But he does, and in the early morning hours, unable or unwilling to go back to sleep, he lets himself fall into the memories the dreams bring: hungry, feverish orgasms in the Camaro because they’re too eager to go to the loft; Stiles cleaning the already-healing slashes across his chest left by a strzyga, yelling at him the whole time about his self-sacrificing recklessness; the first time they have sex, the way Stiles clung to his neck as Derek entered him, shaking; lazy weekends on the couch strewn across each other while they watch Netflix, Stiles rambling about anything and everything and Derek loving every word of it; the first time he said I love you and Stiles’ answering smile; the anguish in his swollen, red-rimmed eyes after John’s funeral when he told Derek that he was leaving Beacon Hills and cutting out of his life for good the supernatural world that killed his father, even Scott. Even Derek.

On those nights, when the memories get to be too much, he gets out of bed and writes. It helps, a little.

It’s an uneventful, solitary life, and that’s how Derek likes it, resistant at first even to the one-eyed stray cat that lingers around the house until he relents and feeds him some of the fresh crab he brought home for dinner. He names the cat Xander and smiles while he pets him, knowing Laura would appreciate it, because she loved black cats and Buffy.

And then, a cold Wednesday night in December when the wind is howling and the rain pouring, six months after his novel is published and eight years after he left Beacon Hills, he’s reading a book behind the nearly-empty bar when the door swings open and he’s hit with a scent so devastatingly familiar it makes his stomach flip and his heart race, makes his knees go weak and his palms sweat, makes his wolf paw at his skin, in excitement or terror, he’s not sure. 

Stiles looks at once the same and almost unrecognizable. He was barely twenty the last time he saw him, so of course he looks different, but it’s still disorienting, trying reconcile the man standing at the door staring at him with the boy who haunts his dreams. His hair is longer than he’s ever seen it, almost shaggy, and under the patchy scruff on his cheeks, Derek can see that his cheekbones and jaw are sharper than he remembers, the last vestiges of youth all gone. Derek can tell that he’s still lean under the plain black tee he’s wearing, but he’s wiry now, his shoulders broader and arms more sculpted; he looks like someone who can protect himself, who doesn’t need a werewolf boyfriend or best friend to look after him.

He realizes that he boy he knew and loved a lifetime ago was just the outline of the man he was to become, this man who’s now walking toward him, coming to a stop across the bar directly in front where he’s standing. Closer, Derek can see that there are dark circles under his eyes and that there’s a tiredness to him, and his scent that he once knew as intimately as his own is now peppered with cigarette smoke and sour anxiety.  

“Hey,” Stiles says quietly, and despite his unfamiliarity, his voice sounds exactly like he remembers.

He hasn’t moved since the door opened; he’s not sure if he’s blinked, or even breathed. He can’t bring himself to speak, too stunned, too scared.

“Come on, Derek,” Stiles says, possibly a little desperate. “Say something?”

He has everything and nothing to say to him, so he says the only thing that matters.

“I love you,” he whispers.

The words hang there between them for a moment before Stiles smiles, beautifully, brilliantly.

Derek is fire again.