"Laura won't be home until Tuesday, so I need you to do me a favor."
Mom only pulled out the I need a favor routine when it was something so awful she didn't want to order anyone to do it: that thing with the leprechauns last year, the groundhog debacle of 2012, taking Laura's kids to the zoo. There weren't any leprechauns or groundhogs at this time of year, and the kids were with Laura in Idaho, so what—
"Wait," Derek said, dropping his spoon into his cereal. This was the second Saturday in December, which was always the day Laura went to the hokey old tree farm off the interstate. "No. Come on, Mom, I'm not doing that."
"You'll have fun!" She gave him a soft, nostalgic smile, reaching over to ruffle his hair. Derek couldn't tell if she genuinely believed he was going to have fun or if she was laying it on extra thick so he wouldn't be able to say no. "You haven't been since you were twelve. You used to love it, remember?"
"You can take your mom's car," Dad said, as though driving his mother's station wagon were a legitimate incentive.
"I want a nice fluffy one," Cora said, making a big circle with her arms. "Big."
"Then why don't you go," Derek said, glaring at her. "Mom, why can't Cora go?"
"Because I asked you," Mom said, holding out her keys. "Handsaw is in the garage. Take your coat."
"Don't forget to take a picture with Santa, Derek," Cora said, smirking at him. Dad put his foot on Derek's, stopping him from kicking Cora under the table.
"I'm grabbing the first Charlie Brown tree I see," Derek warned them, taking the car keys. No, he would go out of his way to get a Charlie Brown tree, just to make sure they never sent him on this errand again. Two foot tall, scraggly branches, half-dead. Laura would cry. Christmas would be ruined.
"Whatever you think best, honey," Mom said, patting his arm.
"Welcome to — oh, okay, brought your own saw, that's very ... prepared of you. You look very — very prepared—"
"Just point me to the bigger trees," Derek said, looking around. The tree farm was pretty much as he remembered it from family trips when he was a kid. There was a petting zoo filled with goats, an enormous horse cart with bench seating masquerading as a sleigh ride, an open shelter with a concessions stand, and a long brick building that housed the gift shop.
When he was a kid, it'd all seemed magical. Now he saw cranky animals, peeling paint, and tacky Christmas decorations. He couldn't tell if the tree farm was showing its age, or if he was.
"What kind of bigger tree?"
Derek shrugged. "Around ten foot. The house has twelve foot ceilings."
"No, I meant—" The tree farm attendant made an aggravated noise. Derek glanced over at him for the first time, raising his eyebrows in question. "What kind of tree? Pine or spruce?"
Mom hadn't said anything about pine or spruce.
"Okay, let's back up a little," the tree farm guy said, clapping his gloved hands together. He was overdressed for the weather: heavy coat, thick scarf, wool hat pulled low on his forehead. Derek's human cousins were running around in light sweaters, and this guy had dressed for a blizzard. "Soft needles or pokey needles?"
"Soft," Derek said. He closed his eyes, trying to visualize the trees Laura always picked out. "Short needles, and—" He stopped, lacking the right word. Fluffy wasn't it, no matter what Cora said. "Dense."
"Let's try spruce." Tree Farm Guy pointed at a signpost a few yards out. "Signs will take you there, or you can hop on the sleigh ride and they'll take you out and pick you back up. Costs five bucks."
"I'll walk," Derek said.
"Cool." Tree Farm Guy tilted his head back, peering up at the sky. "You should grab your coat out of your car before you head out. It's going to snow."
"It's almost fifty degrees," Derek said, wondering if this was some tree farm magic of Christmas shtick. "But thanks, I'll keep that in mind."
"Yeah, I don't think sarcasm is going to keep you warm when the snow hits, but good luck. Don't forget to hit the gift shop on your way out." Tree Farm Guy waved, heading off to a family of four.
The children were bundled into snowsuits.
What was wrong with people? Did they think if they dressed for a white Christmas, it would appear out of nowhere? Those kids were going to melt in their tiny snowsuits.
Derek shook his head, heading for the tree line.
Derek stumbled into the gift shop, pausing on the threshold to brush snow off his shoulders before it could melt into his shirt.
A dozen smells assaulted him at once: cinnamon, apples, pumpkin, artificial pine, on and on. He sneezed, shaking his head to clear it. There, that was better, sort of. It was still a bit like someone had taken Christmas and shoved it up his nose, but all in all, he'd smelled worse.
He sneezed again. Someone laughed.
"Told you," Tree Farm Guy said, incredibly pleased by Derek's snow-covered state. "You thought I was nuts, when the truth is that I know how to operate a weather app. Next time someone who works outdoors tells you it's going to snow, go back and get your coat, dude."
Tree Farm Guy had migrated from the parking lot to the gift shop counter. His coat, hat, gloves and scarf were heaped on a chair behind him, leaving him in a bright red Christmas sweater with a big green tree on the front. His face was still flushed, cheeks and ears splashed pink, so he couldn't have been inside for all that long.
He was surprisingly attractive without his winter gear on. The sweater was too big on him and his hair was squashed to his scalp in the most unfortunate case of hat hair Derek had ever seen, but even so, Derek looked twice.
The second time, Tree Farm Guy caught him looking. He made a who, me? gesture at himself, surprised. Derek half-expected him to glance back to see if there was someone else Derek had been checking out behind the counter, but he only smiled faintly, mouth turning up on one side.
"I know what a weather app is," Derek muttered, running a hand through his hair. It was a lost cause; the snow had already melted, slicking his hair back like he'd been through a rainstorm and not a surprise blizzard. "It hardly ever snows here and it was almost fifty degrees out, I was supposed to expect snow?"
"Like I — no, forget it," Tree Farm Guy said, shaking his head. "Cider?" He jerked a thumb at the beverage dispenser on the counter. "It's hot. And free. Are Scott and Isaac wrapping your tree right now?"
"They sent me in to warm up," Derek said. They'd sent him in to make him spend money in the gift shop, more like.
The gift shop was the one place on the entire farm that had been given an upgrade. The barrels of cheap ornaments and boxes of tinsel he remembered had been replaced with blankets and books and fancy baking supplies, all bordered by displays of local art. No wonder Laura liked to come here every year; she probably dropped more money in the gift shop than Derek wanted to think about.
There was a display case full of pies. One of them looked suspiciously like the blueberry pie Laura made every year.
"Cider sounds good," Derek said, scowling at the pie case.
"Of course it does." Tree Farm Guy gave him a pitying once-over that got slower and more appreciative as it went on, his gaze lingering on Derek's biceps. "Cold out there in just your incredibly — um, shirt. Do you want me to show you how to install a weather tracker? Do you even have a smartphone?"
Derek sighed. "On second thought—"
"No, come on, cider it up," Tree Farm Guy said, waving a hand at the dispenser. "Self-serve. Take as much as you want. Oh, and," he squinted at a Post It stuck to the counter, "if you want to sample any of the pies or jellies, let me know."
The guy was reading off a script. Derek snorted, amused.
"I've never done the gift shop before," Tree Farm Guy admitted, watching Derek pour himself a tiny paper cup of cider. "This is my first year, they mostly have me in the parking lot, herding customers around."
"You're the greeter," Derek interpreted.
"I'm a welcomer," Tree Farm Guy said, gesturing at himself. "I make people feel welcome. I welcomed you, didn't I?"
"Was that what you were doing?" Derek smirked, crumpling up his paper cup and tossing it into the trash can.
"Hey, I tried," Tree Farm Guy said, tossing up his hands. "What can I do to make you feel more welcome?"
Was Tree Farm Guy hitting on him? He'd sounded more exasperated than flirtatious, but that was a cheesy pick-up line if Derek had ever heard one.
Tree Farm Guy was turning impressively red. That was probably a no in the flirting column, then.
Derek was surprisingly disappointed the annoying gift shop attendant in the dorky sweater wasn't flirting with him. Why the hell was he disappointed? The Christmas sweater alone should have sent any rational person running; the terrible customer service and delight in Derek's suffering were just icing.
"Oh my god," Tree Farm Guy said, pressing a hand to his eyes. "I swear I didn't mean that like it—"
The gift shop door swung open.
"Your tree is ready," the curly-haired guy — Scott or Isaac? — announced, glancing between Derek and Tree Farm Guy. "Hey, Stiles."
"Hey, Isaac," Stiles said, hand still firmly planted over his eyes. "Enjoy your tree, man. Merry Christmas."
Derek only hesitated for a moment before following Isaac out.
Isaac and Scott hefted the tree between them. Derek could've carried it out one-handed, but instead he trailed along behind them, shivering as the snow found him again.
The snowstorm was already beginning to ease up, turning into thick flakes that slowly drifted down over the tree farm like something off a postcard. Couples and families were everywhere, coming and going, and Derek was the sole grumpy outlier, there all by himself. Maybe that was why Derek had felt disappointed, before; maybe he was just feeling sorry for himself.
He had no idea why Mom had thought this would be fun.
"Which one's yours?" Isaac asked, nodding toward the parking lot.
"It's—" There were three identical red Subarus in the lot. Wait, there, only one had a GRANDMA KNOWS BEST bumper sticker. Thanks, Mom. "This one."
Maybe Cora would loan him her pickup next year. That would be an upgrade from Stiles seeing him step out of his mom's station wagon.
No. Just, no. Derek was not that desperate, and Stiles probably wouldn't work at the tree farm next year, anyway.
Even if he did, that would be Laura's problem; getting the tree was her job. Derek would probably never set foot on the tree farm again.
* * *
"Laura is running late," Mom said, the Subaru keys dangling from her hand. "She won't make it out to the tree farm before they close. Cora—"
"I'll do it," Derek said. He stared down at his cereal, clutching his spoon. What the hell had just happened? Why had he said that? He hated the tree farm. Going there was an exercise in killing his childhood, one sad-looking goat at a time, and last year he'd come home covered in tree sap that had never washed out of his clothes.
There was a conspicuously long silence.
"All right," Mom said eventually, setting the keys down in front of Derek. "See, honey? I knew you'd have a good time. Maybe next year—"
"I want to go, too," Cora said, narrowing her eyes at Derek. "We should both go, together."
"There isn't room," Derek said, grabbing the keys and sticking them in his jeans pocket before she could steal them. "We need a wreath. And pies."
"I'll hold a pie on my lap," Cora said, undeterred.
"That sounds nice," Mom said, before Derek could come up with another completely made-up reason for Cora not to go. "Make one of them blueberry."
Cora gave Derek a smug smile.
Dad stepped on his foot.
Cora blasted the heat, fiddled with the radio, and watched Derek with a calculating look that made him incredibly nervous.
"I don't know why you wanted to go so badly," he said, switching the station back to alt-rock. She switched it back to Christmas. He sighed, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel.
"I don't know why you wanted to go so badly," Cora said, folding her arms and leaning back, the better to give him a are you serious with this look. "If the tree farm is that much fun, it's my turn to go."
Oh. So she hadn't figured — not that he had some secret reason for wanting to go, he didn't, but it was good that she didn't think — something that wasn't true.
"It's horrible," he told her honestly, turning the station back to alt-rock. "You're going to hate it, and your childhood memories are going to suffer."
"You aren't lying," Cora said, glaring at him like he'd forced her to invite herself along. "You really do think it's awful. Why did you offer to go, then? Is this some emo beauty in the decay thing?"
"I'm not emo," Derek said, not for the first time.
"Is it masochism?"
"I'm not masochistic," Derek snapped, batting her hand away when she reached for the radio dial. "I don't know why I offered. Maybe I was trying to be nice."
Cora rolled her eyes.
"I'll bet it's fun," she said, changing the music back to Christmas before he could stop her. "Laura likes it. I'll bet you're just a joyless Scrooge."
"I'm not—" Her eyebrows leapt up as he reached out to turn the Christmas music off, again. "Fine." He left the music on, just to prove that he wasn't a joyless Scrooge. "Happy?"
"So happy," Cora said. She turned up the volume, deafening him with Jingle Bell Rock. Her smile dared him to turn it down and prove her right.
He tightened his grip on the steering wheel, resisting the urge to kick her out and let her walk home.
"Welcome to — oh, hey."
Werewolf memory was strange, sometimes; it catalogued things Derek would never have consciously deemed important and preserved them in perfect detail, long after human memories would have faded or vanished altogether. Derek remembered every shade of purple in his grandmother's lilacs, the exact smell of the cheap laundry detergent Laura had used in college, and he knew without having to turn around that the man behind him was the annoying gift shop guy from last year. He remembered the guy's voice, clear as if they'd spoken yesterday.
Stiles. His name was Stiles. Derek didn't know why he was pretending like he didn't remember that.
"Fancy meeting you here. I mean, obviously I work here, but you — hi," Stiles said, smiling as Derek turned around to face him. "Spruce, right?"
Stiles remembered Derek, too. Derek didn't want to smile back, but he felt his mouth curving up anyway, slow but steady.
"Wow," Cora said. Shit, Cora. Derek froze, his mouth twitching unpleasantly, not sure if it should turn up or down. "Stilinski!" What? "I didn't know you were working here." What?
"Cora Hale!" Stiles looked surprised to see her. Hadn't he noticed her walking up with Derek? "Yeah, Scott set me up with this job. Isaac is here, too."
"You know Stiles?" How was this happening to Derek? How. "How—"
"You remember my name," Stiles said, startled. Derek ducked his head, feeling oddly caught out. "And here I am, mentally calling you—" His mouth snapped shut. "Spruce ... Man." Derek didn't need to listen to his heartbeat to know that was a lie.
"Wow," Cora said again, slower. There it was. Derek was screwed. "His name is Derek."
"Derek," Stiles repeated, sounding like he was committing it to memory. Derek's face went hot, which he decided to attribute to wearing three layers and a wool scarf on a clear, sunny day. He hadn't wanted to get teased again, not that he'd thought Stiles would tease him — not that he'd thought Stiles would be there — not that he'd thought about Stiles — oh, fuck it. "I should—" Stiles waved a hand at the couple approaching from the parking lot. "You know where you're going, right?"
"I know where I'm going," Derek confirmed.
"Awesome," Stiles said. His gaze dropped from Derek's face and raked over him, his smile widening sharply as he took in Derek's coat and gloves. "And you're dressed for the weather and everything."
Cora smothered a laugh with her hand. Derek rolled his eyes, heading for the tree line.
"Don't forget to stop at the gift shop on your way out!" Stiles called after them.
"Oh, he won't!" Cora called back.
Derek shoved her toward the trees.
"So," Cora said, once they were too far into the trees for Derek to turn and make a run for it. "Stiles Stilinski."
"No," Derek said.
"Stiles Stilinski smells like a locker room and moons after people with 4.0 GPAs." Cora peered up at him. "Were you even in NHS?"
"He doesn't smell like a locker room." That was the wrong part to focus on, he realized that even as he was saying it. "This isn't high school, Cora."
"You're telling me," she said, openly admiring. "He has grown up. I can almost see why Erica was all about him back then."
Derek stopped short.
"Not that I'm into him or anything, ew," Cora said. She gave him a push to get him walking again. "Is that why we're here? Stiles?"
"We're here to get a tree," Derek said, refusing to have this conversation.
"My life is so strange," Cora sighed. "I thought you had secretly discovered the magic of Christmas. I didn't realize the magic was in Stiles'—"
"I have a handsaw," Derek said, raising his voice.
A passing family took an abrupt detour, hurrying away.
"Let's just get a tree and go," Derek said, picking up the pace.
"What happened to pies and a wreath?"
Shit. "We don't need pies."
"Mom wanted blueberry," Cora pointed out. "She specifically said—"
"Fine," Derek said, making a frustrated gesture with the handsaw. Another family took a sudden turn in the opposite direction. "You can get the pies while I get the tree wrapped."
"Uh-huh," Cora said. "Sure. That's going to happen."
"I'll take the tree over to Scott and Isaac," Cora said, waving at them. One of them waved back. The other one just looked confused. Derek couldn't remember which was which. "Don't forget Mom's blueberry pie."
She knocked him into the gift shop door, dragging the tree over to Scott and Isaac one-handed. Show-off. At least they looked impressed, not suspicious.
Too impressed. Derek eyeballed the curly-haired one, making a note to scare him off later.
A bell jingled when Derek opened the gift shop door. Stiles was at the register, hunched over with his arms stretched across the scored wood countertop. All of his attention was on his phone, thumbs flying over the touchscreen, lip caught between his teeth.
"I need to sample your pies and jellies," Derek said.
Stiles jumped, guiltily shoving his phone under the counter and jerking his head up. He relaxed when he saw Derek, bringing his phone back up into view.
"Sure, give me a sec," he said, resuming his frantic tapping at the screen. Was this what Stiles was like with all of his customers? No wonder they usually kept him in the parking lot. "Winter weather, delayed flights, you know how it is. I was supposed to pick up Allison after work, but now she isn't getting in until after midnight."
Derek turned away from the counter, casually inspecting a display case of hand-blown glass ornaments. His mom would love those. "Allison? Is she your—"
"Girlfriend?" Stiles finished. Derek moved on to a display of gift-packaged baking mixes, turning one to read the list of ingredients. "Nope. Were you fishing? It sounded like you were fishing."
Derek turned, eyebrows rising. "Fishing?"
"To find out if I have a girlfriend," Stiles said, putting his phone away under the counter. "Which I don't. Have a girlfriend. Or a boyfriend. In case you were fishing."
"I was going to say sister," Derek lied.
"Sure you were, buddy," Stiles said, unimpressed. "Are you thinking about buying the pumpkin cranberry muffin mix?"
"That sounds disgusting," Derek said, frowning. Stiles pointed at the shiny orange bag of mix in Derek's hand. Oh. Derek hadn't actually read a single word on the package. "I — no."
"Hmm," Stiles said, looking increasingly self-satisfied. He straightened up and stretched, his ugly red Christmas sweater riding up a bit. "Do you really want to sample the pies and jellies?"
"That was a joke," Derek said, trying not to stare. That looked like the same sweater from last year, but it sure as hell didn't fit the same; this year, it was plastered to him, stretching tight over his shoulders and stopping short of his wrists. Had he had a fucking growth spurt? Shit, how old was he? If he'd gone to school with Cora, he had to be at least — at least — anywhere from twenty-five to seventeen.
Not seventeen. Not seventeen.
"What — oh," Stiles said, following Derek's gaze to the cuffs of his sleeves, halfway up his forearms. "Accident in the wash. Mrs. H is knitting me a new one, they're kind of the uniform here."
Derek just barely kept himself from making an embarrassingly relieved noise.
"Allison is a friend from high school," Stiles said, tugging at the hem of his sweater. "She's at Columbia. She's kind of dating Scott, the dude who puts your tree on your car. She's also kind of dating Isaac. It's complicated."
That ridiculously small sweater didn't want to go back down. Stiles frowned, yanking on it. Derek was staring now, couldn't help it; thank god Cora was outside, because Derek's entire existence was humiliating enough as it was without her smelling exactly what that stupid sweater was doing to him.
"I went to high school with your sister," Stiles said, giving up on the sweater and returning to his half-sprawl across the counter. "You probably figured that out already. We both go to UCBH, but I haven't had any classes with her. Scott has, though. They're both doing biology."
Stiles was watching Derek expectantly. It was Derek's turn to keep the conversation going, wasn't it? He needed to say something. Something not about Cora or Christmas. Something about Stiles not having a boyfriend; Derek liked that, he could talk about that all day.
In some other universe, one where he knew how to make small talk or knew how to be smooth.
"I—" Derek was drawing a blank. Stiles tilted his head, waiting. "I need a blueberry pie. For my mom."
Stiles squinted at him. "You need a pie."
"You sell pies," Derek pointed out. This wasn't going the way he'd planned. Not that he'd planned this, but — damn it, anyway.
"True," Stiles said slowly, turning to the pie case and pushing his sleeves up to his elbows. "Just one?"
"And an apple," Derek said. He paused, trying to regroup. He needed, what, he needed a segue. "And a cherry." Maybe he didn't need a segue. Maybe he just needed to go for it. That was what people did, right? Hey, you're hot and funny and I'm free tomorrow night, why don't we get some dinner? No, not that, that was terrible. He should say something more like— "And ... rhubarb."
"Blueberry, apple, cherry, rhubarb," Stiles repeated. "Anything..." He looked up from the pie case, making a rolling gesture at himself, at Derek, at himself again. "Anything else?"
You're exactly my type and I thought about you for weeks last Christmas, do you want to—
"Pecan," Derek blurted out.
"What the hell," Cora said, staring. "Why do you have seven pies?"
"Can we please just leave," Derek whispered, jerking his head toward the parking lot.
"Did you strike out with Stilinski?" Too loud, that was way too loud; Scott and Isaac were looking over at them, eyes wide. "Sorry, I — yeah, we can go."
She didn't even fight him for the radio on the way home.
Derek hated Christmas.
* * *
"Derek, I know you're awake, open up." Laura knocked louder. "Derek." Louder. "Derek Hale."
Derek opened his bedroom door with extreme reluctance. Laura shoved Jess into his arms and turned away, clearly expecting him to follow her.
He wasn't awake enough to put up a fight. He fell in behind her, settling the baby at his shoulder and rubbing his eyes with one hand. Laura led him downstairs and into the kitchen, nudging him toward an empty chair at the kitchen table.
Mikey and Susie had abandoned their breakfast and were working on a cereal box puzzle, heads bent together as they marked up the box with a red pen. Derek and Laura had been like that — still were, really. There wasn't an obvious future alpha there, not like Laura bossing Derek around from the moment he was born, but they were only six and four.
"We did it wrong," Mikey said, holding the cereal box out to Derek. "Can you fix it?"
Cora took the box from Mikey, poured herself a bowl of Cheerios, and handed the box to Derek. It was a mess of red ink; he couldn't even see the puzzle underneath.
"Please tell me we have another box of Cheerios," he said.
Laura sat down across from him, handed the Cheerio box back to Mikey, and put a hand on Derek's arm, eyes wide and serious.
"Derek, I need a favor," she said.
What was going on? How serious was it? Should he call Mom and Dad home from their vacation?
"This had better be about leprechauns," Derek said. Laura already looked apologetic. "Or the zoo."
"Michael is stuck at work," Cora said around a mouthful of Cheerios. "We're taking the kids to the tree farm. Man up." She gestured with her spoon. "Besides, he won't be there."
"Who won't?" Laura glanced between them. "Are we avoiding someone at the tree farm?"
Derek kicked Cora under the table. She kicked back, twice as hard.
"A terrible employee," Cora said. It wasn't even a lie; Stiles was, in fact, a terrible employee. "Not a problem anymore, though."
Why not? Not that Derek cared. How did Cora know? (Not that Derek cared.)
"Okay," Laura said, patting Derek's arm and letting go. "We'll talk about that later. Right now, I need you to eat breakfast, put on some clothes, pack a bag for Jess, and get the kids into their snowsuits."
"Snowsuits?" Derek wasn't entirely sure how to get a snowsuit on a kid. "Since when is it supposed to snow?"
"Since at least yesterday," Laura said, exasperated. "Breakfast. Clothes. Diapers. Snowsuits. Go."
Mikey pushed his abandoned bowl of cereal toward Derek. Milk slopped over the side, leaving a trail of soggy Cheerios across the table.
"There you go, Derek," Cora said, gesturing. "Breakfast."
Laura stepped on his foot.
"This is important, so I want you to listen really closely, okay?"
Mikey and Susie nodded, leaning forward in their seats.
"If you want to sit in the passenger seat," Cora said, patting her armrest, "you have to call shotgun. Once you call it, it's yours, and no one else can take it, not even Uncle Derek."
"But not until you're older," Laura said, glancing back at them in the rearview mirror. "Only adults get to sit up front." Right, because that was what was wrong with what Cora had said.
"My legs are a lot longer than yours," Derek muttered.
"Then you should've called shotgun," Cora said. "Remember that, kids."
"Derek, you have Jess." Laura handed him the baby bondage gear that Michael used to carry Jess against his chest. Why did Derek have to get the baby? "Cora, you can take the handsaw."
"Giving her a saw is a terrible idea," Derek said, letting Laura strap the thing onto him and squish Jess into it. Jess was bundled up for the Arctic, and she always went to sleep when she was in motion; he had no doubt she'd be out cold before long. "How long is this going to take?"
"Goats," Mikey yelled, grabbing Susie's hand and pulling her across the parking lot.
"A while," Laura said, patting Derek's cheek and handing him the bag of baby supplies. "If you want to skip the goats, you can go wait in the gift shop. It's too cold for Jess to be out here for long, anyway."
The gift shop was the last place Derek wanted to go, but it wasn't like he had much of a choice when Laura was shooing him along.
"Come get me before you go for the tree," he said.
Laura kissed Jess' fuzzy hat. "See you in a few."
The doorbell jingled as Derek walked into the shop. He paused on the threshold, casting a wary look at the counter. The cashier was a brunette in a familiar red Christmas sweater. No sign of Stiles in the parking lot, no sign of Stiles in the gift shop.
Derek had half-thought Cora was just creatively lying, but Stiles really wasn't here, was he?
"You look lost," the brunette said. "Are you trying to find the concession stand? Did you misplace a child?"
"Just coming in to warm up for a minute," Derek said, absently rubbing Jess' back. He ventured further into the gift shop, battling back a sneeze. Cinnamon, apples, pumpkin, pine: it never changed.
The door jingled open, letting in a gust of cold air.
"Please tell me you have an extra pair of gloves behind the counter," Stiles said. Derek turned around, startled. "I just ruined my oh my god." Stiles gaped at Derek and Jess. Derek stared back, at a loss. "Derek."
"Hi," Derek said, looking him over. He looked good — dressed for subzero, but good. "What happened to your gloves?"
Stiles hesitated, then held out his bare hands, chapped pink. "A tree kind of ... ate them." He shrugged, jerking a thumb over his shoulder. "I do the sleigh ride now, I was hooking a tree up to the cart. Sleigh."
"That's why you weren't at the entrance," Derek said. Stiles made a low, surprised sound. "Not that—" What was the point in lying? He took a deep breath, started over. "I didn't see you."
"But you were looking for me," Stiles said, gaze flicking rapidly over Derek's face. "Is that what you mean?"
"Cora said you wouldn't be here." Derek shrugged, deeply uncomfortable. He made himself keep going anyway, watching Stiles carefully for a reaction, any reaction. "I guess I hoped she was lying."
"Huh," Stiles said, hands flexing in midair. "I thought you didn't like me. Scott said that Cora told him that you did, but I figured — last year, you didn't—"
"I like you," Derek said. There, that wasn't so hard.
"I'm getting that," Stiles said, which wasn't quite the response Derek had been looking for. "I mean — yeah, I like you too. I think. I won't swear to it until you tell me your television preferences over dinner, but—"
"Fascinating as this is," the brunette interrupted, "you're on the clock, Stiles."
"Right, right," Stiles said, flustered. "I still need gloves."
"I don't have any," she said, pointing at the door. "Try Scott or Isaac."
"Here," Derek said, pulling off his gloves. He'd never be good at small talk, but this? This, he could do. "You can borrow mine."
Stiles slid his hands into Derek's gloves, giving them a small, pleased smile as he wiggled his fingers. Derek flushed. Watching Stiles' hands move in Derek's gloves was almost as bad as the shrunken red sweater from last year.
"Huh," Stiles said again.
"Stiles," the brunette hissed.
"I'll see you later," Derek said, putting a hand on Stiles' arm to steer him toward the door before the brunette at the counter could yell again. "Laura's kids will want to take the sleigh ride."
"Not yours, then," Stiles said, gaze dropping to Jess. "Great. I mean, she's adorable, but I'm not ready to be a stepdad."
"I haven't even—" Officially asked him to dinner yet. Made it to the door. Derek hadn't even. Stepdad?
"Yeah, let's pretend I didn't say that," Stiles said, waving a hand. "See you later, Derek." The bell jingled as he escaped.
"Let me know if you want to sample any pies or jellies," the brunette said.
Cora wasn't the least bit surprised to see Stiles in the horse cart.
"Scott said you were working today," she said, not even trying to hide it. "I take it you already talked to my brother."
Stiles glanced back at Derek, shooting him a smile. "Sort of."
Derek tried not to smile back. If he was lucky, Laura wouldn't catch on until they were halfway home.
"The sleigh ride kid is wearing your gloves," Laura realized. So much for Derek's luck. "When did that happen?"
"About twenty minutes ago," Stiles said, wiggling his fingers again. He really needed to stop doing that in front of Derek's sisters.
"Oh, please," Cora said, huffing out a sigh. "We ate seven pies last year because Derek couldn't use his words, this did not happen twenty minutes ago."
Stiles' eyebrows shot up. "You — what?"
Cora shook her head. "Does this ride go anywhere?"
"I left you alone for five minutes," Laura whispered to Derek. "Is he even legal?"
"I'm twenty-two," Stiles said, because Derek's luck was officially the worst and always had been. "Arms and legs inside the cart at all times, please."
"This place is the best," Mikey sighed. He smelled like goat manure and peppermint, and his face was sticky with hot chocolate and cotton candy. Derek remembered being that age, here; it had been better then, but this wasn't so bad, either. The snow was starting to fall, big, thick flakes that scattered around the horse cart and settled on the trees, and Stiles kept sneaking glances back at Derek, his smile widening each time their eyes met.
"Yeah," Derek said. "I guess it is."
* * *
"Welcome to — oh, hey." Stiles smiled at Derek, making a broad gesture toward the trees. "Spruce, right?"
"Good guess," Derek said, leaning in for a kiss.
Cora only let it go on for a minute before she grabbed Derek's coat sleeve and pulled him along, casting a long-suffering look up at the sky.
"Don't forget to stop by the gift shop on your way out," Stiles yelled after them.