It was never the same after he lost them.
He had tried to rebuild the house after the fire, but the scars still showed through; scotch marks and odd patches where the new floorboards stuck out like pale scars against the charred boards. The wooden beams that ran across the living room ceiling were scored and withered.
But the clearest sign of the devastation was the man who sat in the room. He was a young man but his stern features and the sleepless shadows that darkened his eyes looks made him look older than he actually was. His hair was dark and thick and soft whiskers framed his square jaw. His aventurine eyes were pale beneath his dark brows, unfocused and dark as he let the shadows take over his mind.
He wasn’t a Scrooge; Christmas brought him joy. He took pleasure in watching the kids play in the sheets of snow that covered the streets. He would smile at the sight of Christmas lights, but he’d never decorate his own house.
It was the memories that hurt him the most the memories of the times he’d play in the snow with his sisters. He remembered Cora’s first time in the snow; she kept sinking into the drift and wouldn’t stop crying until Derek laid down with her and made snow angels. He remembered all the snowball fights he had with Laura. He remembered helping his parents string up the lights and decorations all over the house. He remembered all the things he had lost, things he’d never have again.
Ten years, he thought. It’s been ten years since they died.
There was a knock at the door, the sound startling him. Derek let out a heavy sigh and rose to his feet. He opened the door, looking at the man that stood on the porch in the fading light of dusk.
“Hello,” the man greeted. “My name is Deaton. We need to talk.”
“Look, I don’t want to be rude, but I’m sure there’s somewhere else you’d rather be, and I’d rather be left alone right now,” Derek said, shutting the door. He turned around gasping as the man appeared before him in the hallway.
“I said we need to talk, Derek.”
“How do you know my name?” Derek asked. “How did you get in my house?”
“I’m a spirit,” Deaton said.
“I don’t believe in ghosts,” Derek growled, shoving past the man and walking back into the lounge room.
“I’m not a ghost. I’m a spirit,” Deaton corrected.
“Please, just leave me alone,” Derek said, sitting down on the couch and dropping his head into his hands.
“I cannot do that.”
“Why not?” Derek snapped.
“Because you need help,” Deaton said, his voice level and calm. “You’re standing at a fork in the road, Derek. And the decision you make tomorrow will decide your future.”
“You sound like a fortune cookie,” Derek remarked.
“I’ll make you a deal,” Deaton offered. “If you let me show you three things and still wish to be alone afterwards, then I will leave you alone.”
Derek thought about it for a moment. He let out a heavy sigh. “Fine,” he agreed.
A blinding light appeared beside the man, blocking off the window. Derek winced, blinking as he tried to clear his vision.
“Come with me,” Deaton encouraged, stepping into the sliver of light.
Derek rose to his feet, his brow furrowed as he looked at the crack. He reached forward, letting his hand slide through the light. It was cool to touch, the light making the shoulder of his hand hazy. He took another step forward and pushed his body forward, stepping out into the open air.
He knew where he was instantly; he was standing outside his house in the light of the morning, but something was different. The paint of the burgundy walls and the white trims were pristine, untouched by fire.
“Where are we?” Derek asked breathlessly.
“The past,” Deaton said. “Christmas Day, eleven years ago. Beck when your family were alive and you had nothing to fear.”
Derek stood on the snow-covered yard, watching as the drifting snowflakes blew through him. He didn’t feel the cold, but he remembered it. He remembered the cool air that filled the house that morning; it was the only time when the three of them would get out of bed on a cold morning without complaints.
He stepped up onto the porch, peering in through the frosted windows. He could hear footsteps upstairs. He remembered waking up at dawn’s first light, running into Laura’s room to wake her up before running downstairs.
He watched as his younger self came bounding down the stairs two at a time, bare feet slapping the wooden boards. Moments later, Laura followed, carrying their three-year-old sister downstairs. Cora was still curled up in Laura’s arms, rubbing at her sleepy eyes with a fist as they made their way into the living room.
Derek watched as his younger self pulled their stockings down from the mantle and brought them over to where his sisters sat on the couch. He sat down next to Laura, passing her stocking to her before offering his younger sister hers.
“Youngest first,” Laura encouraged.
It was a rule they had made up themselves, mostly so Cora didn’t cry; if she opened her presents first, she would have something to play with while they opened their stockings. He remembered the toothy smile on his little sister’s face as they helped her open her presents: crayons, animal stickers, a plush dinosaur, a necklace with a wolf pendant, and chocolates.
Next, it was his turn.
“Cora, do you want to help me open mine?” the boy asked, but his little sister was distracted by the toy dinosaur in her hands.
He remembered his presents: a plush wolf, a book voucher, a pack of curly straws with superhero logos on them, a braided leather bracelet with a triskele symbol on it – that he had worn every day – and some chocolates.
Finally, it was Laura’s turn. Watercolours, a book voucher, a notebook with a matching pen, and chocolates—he counted them off as she opened them. She dug deep into the stocking and pulled out a small box with a silky ribbon.
Derek watched as she undid the ribbon and lifted the lid off the small box. Her dark eyes welled with tears as she stared down at her present.
“What is it?” he heard his younger self ask her, worried that something was wrong.
She pulled it out of the box to show him. It was a small silver locket with a triskelion carved into the metal lid. Inside was a small photograph of their family; Robert, Talia and the three kids. It was the locket she had worn until the day she died.
Derek felt tears roll down his cheeks. He sniffed as he wiped them away with his sleeve.
Deaton turned to look at him, to ask him if he was okay, but he didn’t get the chance: Robert and Talia made their way down the stairs and into the lounge room, wrapped in their dressing gowns and smiling at the sight of their kids curled up on the couch. They made their way over to the couch, leaning over the back and giving each of their children kisses and hugs before sitting down with them and opening the rest of their presents.
“Enough,” Derek growled, interrupting the memory. “Take me back.”
“Alright,” Deaton agreed, somewhat reluctantly. “Follow me.”
Another sliver of light appeared in thin air. Derek cast one last glance over his shoulder, looking back through the window at his family before he turned and followed the man through the rift, returning to the present, but not to Derek’s house.
“Where are we?” Derek asked, frustration adding an edge to his voice.
“We are in the present, only on the other side of town,” Deaton explained. “This is the second place I need to take you.”
Deaton walked over to the window of a house. Derek let out an exaggerated sigh, but followed nonetheless. He peered in through the window at the young man who has fallen asleep at the dinner table, surrounded by a mess of presents—some wrapped and some still to be wrapped, rolls of colourful wrapping paper, ribbons, decorative bags, and sticky tape.
“This is Stiles,” Deaton said. “His mother died the same day your family did. He has faced struggles as great as yours. He has loved and he has lost. He has been pushed to the edge and tried again and again until he thought there was no hope left, and yet, here he is.”
Derek looked at the young man, feeling his heart ache in his chest.
“His dad won’t be joining him for Christmas this year,” Deaton added. “His father’s comatose in hospital after being shot in the line of duty. So Stiles has bought toys for all the children in hospital and treats to hand out to all the patients and staff.”
“I don’t understand,” Derek said. “Why are you showing me this?”
“I told you, you’re standing at a fork in the road and the decision you make tomorrow will decide your future,” Deaton replied as if that explained everything. “Stiles will spend tomorrow sitting by his father’s hospital bed and praying he’ll wake up.”
“What am I meant to do about that?” Derek asked, anger and helplessness flooding his veins. “I can’t help his dad, I can’t give him back his family.”
“No, you can’t,” Deaton said quietly. “But you’re the difference between whether he spends tomorrow alone or not. And he is the difference between whether you spend the rest of your life alone or not.”
Before Derek could ask what the man meant, Deaton turned, beckoning Derek to follow as another rift of light split the air.
“Where are we going this time?” Derek asked, his feet planted firmly on the ground.
“To your future,” Deaton answered. “To the future you will have if you make the right choice tomorrow.”
Derek hesitated, looking back at Stiles. He felt a strange warmth settle in his chest as he looked at the young man’s face. Something made him want to stay there.
Slowly, he willed his feet to move. He turned and followed Deaton through the light.
There was a rush of cook air as he found himself standing in a well-lit living room, looking across at a Christmas tree decorated with colourful baubles, decorations and strings of lights. Presents were stacked beneath it, stockings hanging on the mantelpiece, and photographs covering the walls.
The sound of thundering footsteps drew his eyes to the doorway as he watched a little girl come running downstairs, giggling as she hurried into the room and over to the fireplace. She reached for her stocking – a pale blue stocking with white snowflakes sticked into it and a silky white and silver ribbon sewn around the top. She made grabby hands at it with her chubby fingers, not yet tall enough to reach it.
Someone followed her into the room, smiling at the sight as he crossed the room and took the stocking from the mantle. Derek recognised his own face, older but still the same.
He handed the girl her stocking and guided her towards the couch before grabbing the other two.
Moments later, a second man – Stiles – joined them. He and Derek sat down on the couch together/
“Youngest first,” Stiles said with a smile as he and Derek helped their daughter pull the presents out of her stocking and unwrap them.
Derek felt his heart flutter as he watched the scene play out before him. He watched as Stiles looked up at his Derek, watched the way the man’s dark eyes lit up, the way he smiled lovingly at him and watched as he helped their daughter unwrap her presents.
“Do you understand now?” Deaton asked, his voice quiet.
“Yeah,” Derek muttered, unable to take his eyes away from the scene. Tears welled in his eyes. “I think I understand now.”
“Good, let’s get you back.”
Derek tore himself away from the image of his future, his feet moving as he stepped towards the shimmering light and found himself back where this all began; his living room. He turned in circles, looking for Deaton, but the man was gone.
He practically ran upstairs as be began to search for something. He dug through the closets and pulled things down from shelves until he found what he was looking for, tucked away in a small wooden box.
⸙ ⸙ ⸙ ⸙ ⸙
The pale light of day filtered in through the slots of the blinds, lighting the room. It was pristine and white; the only colour in the room was the vase of flowers sat on the table beside the bed, a card nestled among the petals.
Derek stood by the door, looking in at Stiles.
The young man sat by his father’s bed. Everyone around them was smiling and cheerful, chatting as they walked up and down the hallway that had been decorated with wreaths and baubles. Stiles’ generosity had lifted their spirits; Derek saw kids playing with new toys, nurses and doctors talking about the small trinkets they’d been given. Everyone was smiling and laughing; everyone but Stiles.
He was so still, his hands resting atop his father’s as his dark brown eyes stared, glistening tears rolling down his mole-speckled cheeks.
Derek knocked at the door.
Stiles bolted upright, wiping away the tears on his face as he turned around to face Derek.
“Hi,” Derek said quietly.
“Hi,” Stiles repeated back.
“Can I come in?”
“Sure,” Stiles said, forcing a smile.
Derek stepped into the room, holding the small wooden box out to Stiles.
“I um… I saw what you did for everyone else, and I-uh… I just thought that you deserved something in return,” Derek said, stumbling over his words. “I know it’s not much and I wish I could give you so much more, but it’s something…”
Stiles looked from Derek to the box he held out, hesitantly taking it with a quiet thank you. He opened it, his eyes widening as he looked down at the braided leather bracelet with a small silver pendant tied into it. He brushed his finger against the pendant, looking down at the triskele symbol that was etched into the silver.
“This… This is very kind of you, but I can’t take this,” Stiles said, looking up at Derek. “It obviously means a lot to you.”
“It does, and that’s exactly why you should have it,” Derek said. “I got it for Christmas eleven years ago and I wore I every day. But my family died the next year and I couldn’t bring myself to wear it anymore. I kept it all these years so that I would have a way of holding onto my family and the memories of all the time we spent together. And that’s why I want you to have it. I get the feeling that you need that too.”
Stiles stared down at the bracelet, not saying anything. His eyes were wide, glistening in the daylight as tears fell past his lashes.
Derek bowed his head and turned to leave.
“Wait,” Stiles called after him, his voice halting the man’s steps. “What’s your name?”
“Thank you, Derek,” Stiles said softly. “And I, uh…”
His eyes darted towards the door for a second before looking back at Derek.
His voice was quiet, a mischievous smile lighting up his face as he said, “I snuck some food in here if you’d like to join me for Christmas lunch.”
Derek couldn’t help but smile. “I’d like that very much.”