Stiles kicks a few more dull brown leaves up into the air in front of him and tugs fruitlessly at the freezing metal dangle of his hoodie's zipper. It's already zipped up as high as it will go, but the weatherman hadn't been talking completely out of his ass when he promised a cold snap late on Christmas Eve. He'd just been off by, oh, about six hours. Stiles is sure it's below freezing already, his hands reddening to match the pink glow of the setting sun whenever he pulls them out of his pockets to tug the front of his hoodie up over his chin and mouth.
The path he's following is nothing more than an overgrown rut, but the narrow stretch is clear of trees as far as he can see. All signs point to it being some kind of lane in the past, like the lazily demarcated drive that winds up to the Hale family home.
He's never had the chance to explore what's out here, and he's never gotten up the nerve to ask. Mostly because he doesn't want to remind Derek of the fact that the last time Stiles had gotten curious about something on the Hale land, he and Scott had dug up Laura's body. And yeah, that was almost two years ago, but some things should really remain in the past.
Today, though, he has a reason to be out here. A good one, he tells himself firmly, even if he does wish he'd brought a coat. If he doesn't find Derek soon, he's going to have to give up and turn around.
Just a little bit further, he bargains with himself, and crests one more hill.
"Yes!" he crows, the triumph of the word dragging his hoodie down off his face yet again. It doesn't matter; not when he's found his quarry's den.
The building that sits in the little valley below him is too small to be a barn. It's longer and sturdier than a simple tool shed. Wide, close-fitted planks, greyed with age and covered with yellow-green lichen, form the walls, and the sloped, cedar-shingled roof is heavily blanketed by twigs and leaves. A carriage house, Stiles thinks, even though it seems anachronistic.
His feet slide over damp leaves as he rushes down the slope. One of the double doors stands wide open, and Stiles arrows straight for it. The cold air has made his breathing harsh, burning in his throat. Even though there's no way Derek hasn't heard him tromping through the woods, Stiles still has the urge to stifle his body's noise, to quiet himself before he peers inside.
Derek is sitting on a low, three-legged stool, back to the door. The muscles of bare shoulders flex and flow as he rasps a wad of steel wool across the runner of the sleigh in front of him, the sweat on his skin gleaming in the light cast by the space heater behind him.
Stiles squints, but what he's seeing doesn't change. Yes, that is absolutely a sleigh. An actual two-man, horse-drawn, where-are-the-jingle-bells sleigh.
"What the heck?" he asks, because that's the kind of smooth he is.
"Stiles," Derek says mildly. He sets the steel wool aside, on top of one of those squat red tool chests Stiles is so familiar with from his own garage, and stands up. "What are you doing here?"
Stiles inches closer to the heater. The warmth is almost too much, rushing blood to his skin and making it itch. "You weren't at the party," he says. "You said you were going to come. I got worried."
Derek shrugs. "I said I might come. And there was no reason for you to worry. I sent Scott a text."
"Yeah, I know. But." He's not quite sure how to say he wasn't worried that some magical beastie had taken a bite out of Derek's thick hide. Derek's not the same ball of potentially explosive anger he was when they first met. That doesn't mean he doesn't go all stoic and brooding if certain things aren't approached delicately.
"What are you doing?" Stiles finally asks. "I mean, I can see you're what, restoring it? But you don't see many sleighs in these parts. Not outside the mall."
Derek actually smiles. "It was my grandmother's."
Stiles raises his eyebrows. "I'm sensing a story there."
"Maybe," Derek says, still smiling, eyelashes dipping coyly. Stiles hates when Derek gets like this, because there's no way he can control the telltale rabbiting of his heart. Derek peeks up at him again, like he's actually dying to tell the story but is holding himself back, waiting for Stiles to offer up some incentive.
Luckily, Stiles has plenty of incentive on hand.
"Look," he says, letting his backpack slide off his shoulder, catching the strap in his hand. "I get that you probably weren't up to the whole big Christmas gathering thing, and I don't blame you. But I thought maybe a piece of it wouldn't be so bad?"
Derek lifts his nose. "Gingerbread?"
"Ha! I knew there were limits to what you guys can sniff out." Stiles unzips his backpack to show off the industrial-sized thermos inside. "Mrs. McCall made mulled cider. I filled up before those pigs you call werewolves could suck it all down. Grabbed a few sugar cookies, too. So, you know, if you happened to feel like story time... ."
Derek rolls his eyes. "Come on," he says, climbing up into the sleigh. It's solid enough that it doesn't even shift under his weight, though the wood does let out an aged creak. Stiles passes up the backpack and clambers in beside him.
He quickly realizes that two-man sleigh is a slight exaggeration. It was probably built for a man and a woman. A slight woman at that, because he and Derek are shoved tightly together. Derek's thigh and bare shoulder press more heat into Stiles' body than the space heater ever attempted. Stiles hides his quickened breathing by snatching his backpack back and rifling through it.
"Here," Stiles says, passing the thermos over. "Na zdrowie."
Derek unscrews the cap and takes a long, nostril-flaring sniff. It reminds Stiles of a documentary on tea buyers he saw once, watching the connoisseurs waft the steam up to their noses. Apparently satisfied, Derek sets the lid-slash-cup on his lap and takes a big drink straight from the thermos.
It's a good thing Stiles isn't hung up on manners much. Or, really, at all.
Derek smacks his lips, then holds out a hand, palm up. "Cookies?"
"Story?" Stiles shoots back, but he pulls out the cling-wrapped bundle. Instead of taking the whole package, Derek worms his fingers in between the layers of plastic and grabs the grouchy-faced snowman on top.
"Thanks," he says, and then bites its head off. Stiles wants to say something about cannibalism, but he's too mesmerized by the crumb stuck to Derek's bottom lip.
Stiles licks at his own lip. Derek follows his lead, tongue flicking out to clean away every last bit of cookie.
"So," Stiles rasps. "Your grandmother's sleigh."
Derek takes another swig from the thermos, then hands it back to Stiles. "My grandmother was from a small resort town up in the mountains," he says. "She was human, originally."
Derek nods. "She took the bite not long before she and my grandfather got married." He laughs softly. "And immediately became an alpha."
Stiles gapes. "What, really? That can happen?"
"Rarely. But it does, obviously." There's something odd in Derek's eyes as he looks at Stiles, but his gaze drops before Stiles can figure it out. "My grandfather always said it had to do with strength of will. My grandmother said it was because she wasn't about to take anyone else's bullshit."
Stiles snorts. "Sounds like the same thing to me."
"She made it sound different." Derek brushes at a few crumbs that have fallen on his thigh. Stiles takes a quick swig of cider, trying not to think about whether their mouths have matched up on the rim, and then presses the thermos back into Derek's hand.
"So, she was human," Stiles prompts.
Derek nods. "She and my grandfather met when he and a bunch of his college friends went skiing over their Christmas break. She ran the front desk at the lodge they were staying at. One thing led to another, and I guess things got really serious, really fast."
"My mom and dad were the same way, apparently," Stiles says. "They met at a party in college, and 'just knew' by the end of the night. I'm pretty sure 'just knew' was code for 'made out like horny rabbits.'"
Derek snorts. "Nice."
Stiles shrugs, because yeah, it had been nice, the way his mom and dad had never shied away from showing affection around him. Nothing overtly sexy, but they'd brushed noses and shared kisses, and always pulled Stiles into warm family hugs.
"So where does the sleigh come into this?"
"The last night they were scheduled to be in town, my grandfather rented a sleigh to take her out for a romantic, moonlit ride in the snow." Derek breaks off the middle section of the snowman and passes it over to Stiles, then stuffs the last of the cookie into his mouth. Stiles kind of loves that his mouth isn't even close to empty when he starts talking again. "He knew he wanted to keep seeing her, but not if she couldn't handle what he was. Of course, Grandma was all nervous because she thought he was going to propose, and she didn't know what she wanted to tell him."
"Sounds like miscommunication city."
"Runs in the family," Derek says dryly, surprising a laugh out of Stiles. "Anyway. So they're halfway out of town, all snuggled up, and my grandfather finally gets up the nerve to tell her he's a werewolf. Grandma, of course, thinks it's all bullshit. She's getting mad, chewing him out for bringing her out in the cold to make up stupid stories, so he starts to transform."
"As you do." Stiles pulls out the second cookie. "I'm sensing a but."
"But my grandfather didn't think about the horse. It sensed a predator right behind it and bolted." He shakes his head, lips curling up like he's anticipating the punchline of a story he's heard told a hundred times. "They go careening over the snow-packed road, off into the woods, branches whipping at their heads and the sleigh bouncing over rocks and shit. My grandfather's freaking out, snarling at the horse to calm down, whipping the reins up and down. All the stuff you're not supposed to do. He finally leaps out, figuring he'll catch up to it on all fours and get it to stop. Well, of course, once he was out, the predator wasn't directly behind the horse anymore."
Stiles snorts. "Awesome planning skills also run in your family, apparently."
"Shut up," Derek says, knocking his shoulder into Stiles'. Stiles presses back into the touch. "Anyway. My grandma grabs the reins. She's almost got the horse under control, when my grandfather closes in and makes a grab for the horse's bridle. It rears back, dumps the sleigh and snaps the lead, then takes off back to the stable."
"Was she okay?"
Derek nods. "Yeah. My grandfather was really worried, though. He runs up to the sleigh, apologizing like crazy and telling her he'd understand if she never wanted to see him again. But she just sits up, laughing, and says, 'oh, no, there's no way in hell you're getting away without proposing to me now.'"
Stiles laughs. "So he did?"
Derek nods. "So he did."
"And they all lived happily--" Stiles cuts himself off, but Derek's face has already fallen. "Sorry. God, I'm such a jackass sometimes, and I don't even mean to be."
"It's okay," Derek says. "That's how the story's meant to end."
It's really not okay, but Stiles doesn't know what to say to pull his foot out of his mouth and erase that look on Derek's face. "So, uh, this sleigh is what, a memento?"
Derek nods. "It was kind of wrecked. The rental place was going to make him pay to get it repaired. Well, my grandma insisted he buy it instead, said it'd be perfect for their first Christmas together. He kept telling her it never snows down here, not enough to take it out, anyway, but she didn't care. So he bought it. Brought it down here, fixed it up, and here it sits."
"That's really sweet, actually." Stiles drops his hand down to the seat underneath his thighs, stroking the pads of his fingers over the cracked leather. "How come you're fixing it up?"
Derek shrugs. "I was going to come to the party this year, I really was. But, um."
Stiles arches an eyebrow. "But you chickened out at the last minute."
Derek scowls at him. "I didn't chicken out. I just figured Melissa didn't need one more body packed into her house."
"Uh-huh," Stiles says, but he doesn't press. They both know the truth.
"I got to thinking." Derek swallows. "Maybe, next year, we could have the party out here. There's more room, after all."
"We don't have to," Derek hurries on. "I just thought, well. I have the sleigh, and I thought it'd look nice all decorated up."
"I think it's a great idea." Stiles wants to hug him, maybe, or squeeze his hand, do something to reassure Derek that he's moving in the right direction. It feels wrong, like he'd be taking advantage of Derek's moment of openness to get something he wants for himself. He takes the thermos back instead, unsurprised when he finds there's only a swallow of cider left.
"Did everyone have a good time at the party?" Derek asks.
"Yeah, it was great," Stiles says, grinning as he remembers the chaos that had overtaken the McCalls' living room. "I was kind of wary of the whole Santa swap thing when Lydia brought it up, but man, it was totally hysterical."
Derek snorts. "I bet."
"You should see what Jackson got me," Stiles says, reaching for his backpack again.
Derek grabs it out of his hands. "Oh, yeah?" he says, pawing his way inside.
Stiles rolls his eyes. "You are so pushy."
"Alpha," Derek sing-songs at him--and then his hand stills. Stiles frowns, wondering what put that look on Derek's face, when he suddenly remembers what else he stuffed into his backpack before he left the party.
"Don't!" he barks, but Derek's already pulling his hand out.
The mistletoe is limp, pale green stems bent and bedraggled. Some of the white berries are crushed, smearing Derek's fingers with juice.
"Oh, look, mistletoe," Stiles says, forcing out a nervous laugh. "It's from the party. Erica insisted on it. Said it wasn't a Christmas party without some actual partying."
Derek nods slowly. "And it just happened to end up in your backpack.
Stiles nods, then shrugs. "You know Erica. She must have put it in there as a prank."
Derek's head comes up, eyes widening, then narrowing again.
Shit, Stiles thinks. He'd been doing so well, right up until his mouth had spilled out a stupid, totally unnecessary lie. He's been friends with werewolves for years, and he still hasn't been able to stop himself from lying when he panics.
"It doesn't mean anything," Stiles says hastily. "I just.... Okay, yes, maybe I had ulterior motives, but I admit it was a stupid idea. You know me and stupid ideas, we're kind of like magnets. North and south poles, just whoosh, snapping together--"
Stiles swallows. "Yes?"
Derek drops the wilted mistletoe into his lap. "You didn't have to bring that."
"Yeah," he says, sighing. "I got that."
Derek rolls his eyes. "No," he says. "You really didn't."
Stiles opens his mouth to ask what the hell Derek means by that--and that's when Derek leans forward and kisses him.
It's a little awkward at first, his own mouth too wide and angled wrong. Derek brings his hand up, lightly guiding Stiles by the jaw until they fit together perfectly. The tips of their tongues brush. Derek pulls away slowly, biting lightly at the flesh of Stiles' lower lip before he lets go. Stiles wants to chase his mouth, wants as much of that as he can get, but Derek rests his forehead against Stiles', and hey, that's really nice, too.
"Merry Christmas to me," Stiles murmurs, feeling the grin stretch his cheeks wide.
Just for that, Stiles ducks back in for another kiss. Derek lets him take control this time, lets him deepen the kiss until Stiles is groaning deep in his throat and Derek's fingers are digging into Stiles' shoulder. Then Derek pushes him back, gently, resting their heads together again.
"Thank you," Derek says softly.
Stiles raises his head. "What for? Kissing back?"
Derek smiles. "That too. I meant...." He shakes his head. "Just, thank you."
"Yeah, okay," Stiles says, because he thinks he understands. He presses in closer to Derek, as close as he can get in the tight little sleigh, and rubs their noses together. Just like his dad and mom used to do. "Tell me another story?"
Derek pulls back slightly, just enough that they can look at each other without going cross-eyed. "You sure you don't want to go inside where it's warm?"
"In a bit," Stiles says, because yeah, he really wants to curl up with Derek on his soft couch or, maybe, under the warm blankets on his bed. "But I kind of like it right here."
"Yeah." Derek smiles, then draws Stiles back into his arms. "Me, too."