“Can we go now?”
Derek huffed a fond laugh, fixing Talia’s scarf despite how she impatiently squirmed. She looked like a fussy, frowning marshmallow in her light blue puffer jacket, her brows drawn in disapproval from somewhere beneath her knitted hat, but he took his time securing her scarf around her neck.
“We have to bundle up, my love,” Stiles explained from the other side of the room. He wore layers, bundled warm beneath a few long sleeves and a weather-resistant coat. He was wrapping up in his own scarf, the one with knitted wolves Talia had given him for Christmas the year prior. “Just because you don’t think you’ll get cold doesn’t mean the cold won’t hurt you.”
Talia puffed her cheeks and looked at Derek imploringly, but all Derek did was shrug his shoulders and say, “Papa’s right.”
“But Ken’s already out there!” Talia whined. “Uncle Scott and Aunt Kira are already outside and we’re still stuck in here! I can hear them!”
“That’s because Papa has lazy bones in the morning,” Derek explained easily. He smirked over his shoulder where Stiles’ eye twitched in annoyance.
“Me?” he asked. “You’re blaming this one on me? I hardly slept!”
Shrugging, Derek said, “You are the one who refused to get up when my alarm when off.”
“The sun wasn’t even up,” Stiles hissed, lips pursed indignantly. And with their daughter in the room, Derek knew he wouldn’t mention exactly why he hadn’t slept. Why they hadn’t slept.
Stiles’ unexpected literary success took him away from home more than either of them had ever expected it would—he was a full-time author and, consequently, a part-time parent. Derek didn’t mind how he raised their daughter alone more often than not, but the past few months had been particularly hard. Talia was getting older and becoming more aware of her Papa’s absence. Her feelings of abandonment, and her longing for Pack were getting harder for Derek to soothe alone. Derek only had so many vacation days, and with Talia in school, Stiles tended to go where neither of them could follow.
Sure, the Sheriff helped with Talia whenever he could, and sometimes Cora would fly into town just to help Derek out for a few weeks, but it wasn’t the same. Derek knew it, and most importantly, Talia knew it.
Stiles did, too. He did, and he hated it. Derek scented the misery on him every time he left for the airport, but once on a plane or in another city, he didn’t hear Talia’s howls or wipe her tears; Derek refused to burden him with it, but somehow Stiles knew, even without Derek breathing a word of how he struggled.
That perception was what brought them here to a secluded ski lodge in Colorado Stiles had reserved. Here, they unplugged and disconnected from all the influences and responsibilities normally pulling them apart. Stiles brought only his notebook and a few pens so he could write, and Derek didn’t bother with his laptop despite how overloaded his inbox would be when he returned home. Scott and Kira even came along with their son, Ken, for extra bonding and to help free up some alone time for Stiles and Derek.
In fact, Scott and Kira had done just that the night before—taken Talia so Derek could have his husband to himself—but Talia had forgotten her coat, and returned to the Hale-Stilinski cabin for it after breakfast. Neither of them had anticipated their daughter’s sudden arrival, and their lazy morning had been cut woefully short in favor of parental attention.
“Alright, alright,” Derek eased. He adjusted Talia’s hat and checked the buttons of her coat. “You’re good to go, kiddo. Have fun. Be safe. Don’t stray too far, okay?”
“Okay, Daddy!” she chirped, eyes bright and excited. She bounced on her toes so Derek would kiss her, which he did—a light kiss on the nose, then a quick scenting nuzzle. He opened the door for her, and she charged out into the snow with a whoop of joy.
Alone, Derek turned to his husband, who watched him with a soft, fond expression. His adoration wafted gently, and Derek knew he was loved.
“You gonna get dressed, Sourspouse?”
Rolling his eyes, Derek said, “I was a little preoccupied with making sure Talia was dressed. But I could stay this way, if it pleases you.”
Stiles’ laugh was hearty, the kind that had his back bowing and his cheeks flushing. “You’re such a dork,” he teased. “And as much as it would please me to have you in as little clothing as possible, I kinda feel bad dumping my kid on Scott and Kira. I mean, I’m already away so much. I feel like I should be out there with her, ya know?”
Derek smiled despite himself, struck, not for the first time, by Stiles’ utter devotion to him and their pup. If only he’d known—after the fire, after Laura, after everything—that he’d have this, he might have had more hope. If he’d known he would have Stiles, things might not have seemed so bleak for so many years.
“I love you,” he said abruptly, the words bursting through the damn of his teeth. And though his cheeks reddened from the suddenness of the declaration, Stiles’ easy smile and warm caramel eyes soothed his embarrassment.
“Love you, too,” Stiles answered. His snow boots were heavy on the wooden floor as he approached Derek, careful where they landed beside and between Derek’s socked feet. As he draped his arms over Derek’s shoulders, Derek’s wound around his waist. “I love you so much, Der, and I’m so sorry I’m always gone.”
“It’s okay,” Derek murmured, pressing his nose against his husband’s temple. “You always come back. For me. For Talia. You always come back.”
“And I always will,” Stiles promised, however unnecessary it was.
They swore vows in front of their friends and family. They were Talia’s fathers. Derek knew, down to the marrow of his bones, Stiles would always return; his wolf knew it, too. Derek’s waxing thoughts crashed when Stiles eased him into a kiss, slow and warm, like home.
“I’m gonna head out with the pup,” Stiles breathed against Derek’s lips. He smirked, and nuzzled their noses before pulling away and heading for the door. “Take your time getting ready. Join us whenever. We’ll be out there a while, I’m sure.”
Derek nodded, understanding too well his daughter’s love of snow, then chided himself for how his wolf whined at Stiles’ departure. He listened close to his husband’s boots swish through the fresh fallen powder, heard him call for Talia and their friends, and their answers back. This is good, Derek thought. This is perfect.
He rolled his shoulders and breathed deep in the quiet, then abandoned the foyer of the cabin in favor of the bedroom. Their time in the cabin was long enough to warrant unpacking, so instead of reaching for his suitcase under the bed, he found clothes from the provided wooden dresser. Despite how the drawers absorbed the scent of every cabin guest before them, the cacophony of smells was worth it for the sense of stability that came with tucking away their clothes.
Derek pulled a thermal long-sleeve shirt and ducked into it. He didn’t need to layer or bundle up to stay warm, but he did so to set the example for Talia, whose developing body hadn’t quite mastered adapting to the elements yet. So over the shirt went a light jacket, and then a thicker, warmer hooded coat. Wearing jeans and a pair of all-weather boots, he made his way through the cabin—their temporary home for their few weeks of peace—and stopped, suddenly, in the foyer.
“Talia? Not so far, baby!”
Stiles’ voice cut, sharp and worried, through the cabin. Derek hurried outside.
Their cabin sat alongside a large lake fed by a few rivers. The ice was thick enough to skate, but the night’s snowfall left the boundary between ground and lake difficult to distinguish. Certain areas near the river mouths were roped off to protect heedless guests, and given how well Talia and Ken had managed skating the day before, Derek hadn’t been too concerned. The building concern in Stiles’ voice and his scent, now that Derek was outside and caught it on the wind, had him second-guessing his decision.
“Talia!” Stiles called again.
“Papa, I’m fine!” she yelled back, and even turned to wave at him. Yards separated them, and Stiles fidgeted anxiously. “Ken and I skated here yesterday!” As if to illustrate her point, she twirled on her toes, enjoying sliding about even without blades on the bottoms of her feet.
“You’re gonna hurt yourself!” Stiles yelled. He took a few steps closer to the edge of the lake, and Derek slid in close to his side before he could take a misstep.
“I’ll heal!” Talia cheered, arms up in delight.
“She’ll be fine,” Derek assured, winding an arm around Stiles’ waist. “She was out there with Ken yesterday, like she said. It’s fine.”
“I don’t like it. She’s too far.”
Derek frowned, then nodded to where Scott, Kira, and Ken were skating on the ice. “Not really. Scott could get to her if she needed him.” Kira waved to where he and Stiles stood, so Derek waved back. “You know how she likes to be alone sometimes, have her own adventures.” He bumped shoulders with his husband, then said, “Come on. Let’s see what the McCalls are up to.”
Stiles shook his head. “You go ahead. I’ll watch Talia.”
He winced at Stiles’ sharp tone, his wolf cowering a bit beneath its mate’s wrath. Pulling away from how casually he touched Stiles, he said, “Yeah, okay. Um, I’ll be over there. If you need me.”
With a heavy, annoyed sigh, Stiles said, “Der, I don’t want to fight. I really don’t. But I don’t like her out that far, and you’re okay with it, and I’m not going to argue with you on it in front of her or anyone else.” His expression was pleading, plush lips pouting and soulful brown eyes desperate for reasons Derek didn’t understand. Maybe because he was away so often, he felt he had to overcompensate in protectiveness. Maybe he, like Talia, just wanted to be near Pack, and even the meager distance between where Stiles stood and Talia played was just too much. In any case, Stiles said, “I’m sorry. I just…I’m gonna keep a closer eye on her, okay?”
“Okay,” Derek breathed. He cupped the back of Stiles’ neck as he kissed his forehead. “You don’t have anything to make up for.”
“I know,” Stiles said. “I…” He swallowed and fell silent. “I’ll catch up with you later.”
Derek left his husband with a nod, and rounded the lake nearer to the McCalls’ cabin and, subsequently, where they skated. He stood on the edge of the shore, where the fresh powder blurred the line between ground and ice. His wolf helped tell him where to step, how far he could go before he risked slipping. From the corner of his eye, he watched Stiles trek along the far side of the lake, closing in on where Talia pranced in her imaginary world.
A loud crack resonated through the air, like shattering glass.
Kira scooped Ken into her arms, pressing him against her protectively as she searched for whatever the sound heralded. Scott, alpha werewolf as he was, zeroed in on its source almost as fast as Derek: the far side of the lake. Nothing new could be found in the air, aside from Stiles’ pungent and spiking fear.
“Talia?!” Stiles called. He picked up his pace to span the distance separating him from their daughter, panic barely contained in the swift, tight movements of his body.
“Papa…!” Talia sounded scared, hesitant, and her body froze in a typical fear response.
Derek and Scott shared a glance before Derek jogged along the edge of the lake while Scott skated a more direct path across the ice.
With another crack, the ice beneath Talia crashed into the water below, taking her with it.
For Derek, time slowed, even as the wolf took over without his conscious consent. He shifted, eyes flaring, claws extending. He dropped to all-fours and charged through the snow. But he wouldn’t be fast enough. He couldn’t be fast enough. He was too far. He was too fucking far away.
Scott, too, was still crossing the lake, and if where Talia had stood, well away from the roped off areas, was weak, anywhere could be weak. Scott could just as easily plunge into the water, had to be careful not to. But it wasn’t his pup suddenly sucked into a frozen lake.
Stiles, however, was close enough, thank God. He bolted through the snow, nearly lost his footing on the ice, but regained it quickly without losing speed. He shed his jacket, his layers, leaving a trail of clothing in the wake of his sprint, then dropped to the ice and slid the last few yards to the hole Talia’s body had made.
Even while Derek continued to circle the lake to get as close to the scene as possible, Stiles hesitated for only a moment before pushing down on the dislodged chunk of ice and tumbling into the water after their daughter. He disappeared, and Derek howled.
Scott reached the hole first, breaking hard and dropping to his knees at the edge. “Stiles?!” He shoved his arms into the water, feeling around desperately. “STILES!”
Derek was closer now, heart thudding with fresh panic. But then Stiles broke the surface of the water with gasp. In his arms was Talia, shivering and cold and crying loudly.
“Here!” Stiles coughed. “Scotty. Take her!”
Scott did, pulling his whimpering, shaking niece from the water and onto the thicker, sturdier ice. He stripped her of her freezing coat, and wrapped his warm, dry one around her to replace it.
Stiles, pale and trembling, scrabbled at the lip of the hole, and tried to hoist himself out like he would a swimming pool. Derek arrived just in time to hear the ice buckle beneath Stiles’ weight. He caught a single, terrifying glance of his husband’s face the exact moment he realized what happened. And then he was gone.
Stiles was gone.
Derek dug his claws into the ice for traction, and tuned briefly to Scott. “Can you—”
“I’ve got her,” Scott said. “Go! Get Stiles.”
With a roar, Derek slammed his fist into the floating pieces of dislodged ice, caps that sealed the lake despite its weakness. He shattered it into pieces, hoping Stiles would see the opening to the surface. But he didn’t. Stiles never came up.
Panic slowly consumed Derek. “What the fuck? Where is he?”
“The current,” Kira said as she arrived. Sans Ken, she collected Talia, who wailed, while Scott climbed to his feet. “He might have been taken by the current. Down river.”
Derek made to dive into the water, but Scott grabbed him by the sleeve. “You can’t go in there. You have no idea— ” He fell silent when they heard a dull thud. It repeated, faster, more urgently.
“Take Talia,” Derek ordered. Then, he scrambled across what solid ice there was to where the sound originated. “Stiles?! Stiles!” The knocking continued, faster still, as if answering. On his knees, Derek brushed aside the powder covering the ice, and there, beneath it, was his husband. Pale, terrified, but alive. “Can you hear me?”
Stiles nodded, strained as he held his breath. He knocked again on the ice with one hand, clinging to it desperately with the other. The loose fabric of his clothes and his hair fluttered quickly in the water; the current was strong, and Stiles’ grip was tenuous at best.
“I’m going to break the ice,” Derek said. “Just hold on.”
He slammed his balled fist into the ice. Stiles flinched away from the nearby impact, but he knocked on the nice again as if to tell Derek he was okay. The ice cracked, but didn’t break. So Derek hit it again. And again. And again. Every time, it cracked a little more, but didn’t give. He redoubled his efforts, struck harder and harder until the bones of his hands creaked.
With each passing moment, each of Derek’s failed attempts to break the ice, Stiles’ knocks weakened, slowed. His brows pinched with the effort to not breathe, despite the bubbles that eked steadily from his nose and mouth.
You know, when you’re drowning, you don’t actually inhale until right before you black out. It’s called involuntary apnea.
Derek remembered Stiles recounting how he’d explained the Nogitsune to Marin Morrell. It had been sometime while Stiles was in college, after they were well away from Beacon Hills.
It’s like, no matter how much you’re freaking out, the instinct to not let any water in is so strong that you won’t open your mouth until you feel like your head is exploding.
Another almighty smash, another feeble collection of cracks.
Then, when you finally do let it in, that’s when it stops hurting. It’s not scary anymore.
Frantic knocking drew Derek’s attention out of his memories, away from thinking about how his husband currently faced his deepest phobia. Through the ice, despite the cracks, Stiles tried to get his attention, and when Derek’s blazing eyes met Stiles’ brown, Stiles mouthed, I love you.
A stuttered breath filled Derek’s lungs, and he ignored the tears streaking his face. “I love you, too,” he said. “I’m getting you out of there.”
Not your fault. Stiles pounded the side of his fist against the ice for emphasis.
“I won’t lose you!” Derek growled.
Then, when you finally do it let in, that’s when it stops hurting. It’s not scary anymore. It’s actually kind of peaceful.
With a resigned, soft smile, Stiles mouthed, It’s okay. He pressed his palm flat against the ice, even as his eyelids fluttered. Love you.
Derek rested his palm against Stiles’, the snow, the ice, the cold separating their hands. The other, with extended claws, raked the ice weakened with Derek’s pummeling fist. He clawed, desperate, choking on wrecking sobs, but Stiles’ smile never faltered. “Stiles, please. Hold on. I need you to hold on.”
The ice thinned beneath Derek’s efforts. Just a few more seconds, and he could use brute force again.
Suddenly, Stiles’ face twisted in pain. His eyes clenched shut as he thrashed beneath the ice. His hands, weak and human and useless, pounded against the ice, his boots scrabbled for purchase, futile. Stiles heaved a sudden, deep, desperate gasp, and his eyes promptly rolled into the back of his head, his body limp.
Derek roared, the grief and terror and utter sadness welling inside him finally spilling over. He slammed his hand into the ice, forced it through despite how the bones shattered and splintered and…
The water was a numbing shock when his fist broke its surface. And once the initial hole was made, Derek swiftly chipped away at its weakened edges until it there was a big enough space to haul a body through. With his broken hand, Derek snared Stiles’ clothes in his claws and pulled him to the surface.
His husband was still, lifeless, face ghostly and lips blue. But somehow, buried beneath Derek’s heavy breathing and the singularity of his panic, he found the faintest, slowest rhythm. Steady. There. Stiles’ heartbeat.
Growling through the pain and pressure, Derek clasped his hands over Stiles chest and began compressions; thirty of them. He’d seen Stiles take a breath beneath, knew his chest was filled with water, but he tilted his head back and forced air into his lungs anyway. He repeated the cycle twice more before Stiles’ eyes snapped open, and he sputtered back to consciousness.
Derek eased him onto his side as he coughed and heaved lake water, his breath a weak, painful thing he struggled to catch. He rubbed his husband’s back until most of the water was coughed up; only when Stiles breathed a little easier did Derek let himself do the same. He pulled Stiles’ shivering body close and breathed against his temple. “You saved her,” he whispered. “You saved our daughter.”
“You saved me,” Stiles rasped.
“You’re the first one I’ve ever managed to save,” Derek answered. He flexed his healing hand until the bones snapped into place, then effortlessly gathered Stiles from the ice. His wolf needed its mate warm, safe, tended. Derek was too psychologically frayed to argue with it, though he knew he’d have to take Stiles to a hospital. Pneumonia could set in and—
“Hey,” Stiles said softly. He cupped Derek’s cheek and ran an icy thumb beneath his eye. Derek didn’t even know he was still crying. “I’m okay,” Stiles said. “You saved me. I’m gonna be okay, Derek.”
Whether it was his scent, or the pressing needs of Talia, Derek was grateful Scott and Kira merely acknowledged them as they returned to their cabin instead of engaging. He didn’t have the energy, and his wolf didn’t have the patience. Stiles was alive—they all knew that, and as long as Talia was cared for, Derek was satisfied. He all but kicked the cabin door down in his haste to get Stiles inside and warm. He helped him undress while he filled the tub.
“You gave up on me,” Derek said, “You just…” He forced a breath. “You said it was okay. You said it wasn’t my fault. You…”
“It was okay,” Stiles argued, even as Derek helped him into the tub. He shuddered, whimpered involuntarily, and looked incredibly fragile as he huddled his knees to his chest. He rocked a bit, forcing along the sluggish blood in his veins, then continued, “Talia’s safe. That’s what matters. It wasn’t your fault, Derek.”
“I should have listened when you wanted her closer,” Derek said. He sat down beside the tub and pressed his forehead against the porcelain edge, tucking his face into his folded arm. His injured hand still throbbed, slow to heal. “I almost lost you both, today. I almost lost my pack again.”
“You’re on the right side of almost,” Stiles murmured. “She’s okay, and I’m still here.” He clasped the back of Derek’s neck with a chilly hand and gently squeezed. “Derek, we’re okay. Please. You saved me.” His soft laughter was a little manic, and Derek scented his shock subside. “You saved me.”
“I love you,” Derek said, resting his chin against his forearm to meet his husband’s gaze. He pressed his warm hand, so warm compared to Stiles’ icy skin, against the side of Stiles’ throat, tracing the line of his jaw with an absent stroke of his thumb. “I can’t lose you.”
“You didn’t,” Stiles said, leaning into the touch. He held onto Derek’s wrist, as if he feared drowning in the tub. “You won’t.”
Once Stiles was well beyond the threat of hypothermia, Derek collected Talia from the McCalls. Briefly, he updated them on Stiles’ condition, informing them he’d take him to the hospital in the morning, and thankfully, they didn’t keep him. Scott knew Derek needed to be with his family, his pack, and was infinitely compassionate. If Derek noticed how Scott held Ken a little tighter, or hovered a little closer to Kira, he didn’t mention it.
Talia burst into tears upon seeing Stiles. “Papa!” She leapt from Derek’s arms and bolted through the cabin to the back bedroom, where Stiles laid bundled up in a nest of blankets. She abandoned all pretense as she scrambled onto the bed and into his arms. “Papa, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean it. I’m so sorry, Papa.”
Derek trailed after her and stripped off her boots and coat, still damp from her icy plunge. Her clothes were dry at least, probably borrowed from Ken. Then, he climbed into the bed, bracketing Talia between him and Stiles.
Stiles gently carded his hand through Talia’s hair, soothing her wolf where she hadn’t mastered it. She snuggled close, and Stiles wrapped her with him in his blanket nest. He only shushed her apologies and held her through her tears. The parental discussion would come later, Derek knew, once they’d healed a bit from the trauma.
For now, Derek settled with his family in the cabin’s large, cozy bed. With Talia in Stiles’ embrace, Derek curled around his husband and draped his long arm over the both of them, holding them fast where they would always be safest.