"Daddy, who’s tha’ red man?" Teo asked.
A large someone, with the white beard and iconic red suit, sat on a platform in the center of a sprawling, over-the-top, mall-fabulous holiday display.
"That’s Santa Claus," Derek answered, providing no further explanation.
He held Teo in one arm; his free hand held Stiles’s. No way was Derek Hale letting go of his precious pup, not in a crowd of probably thousands of people. He wasn’t letting go of Stiles either.
The only reason they were even in the mall was Stiles had seen an ad for large multi-pointed twinkle-light stars, which Stiles deemed the perfect finishing touch to their outdoor decorations and which he had to have—and which apparently were available only at Sears. In the mall.
Of course Derek hated malls—for every possible werewolf reason. Stiles was thoroughly aware of that and was happy to face the shopping hordes by himself, but Derek quashed the very idea.
("We all go together." That’s how he’d phrased it, his voice calm but so serious.
"Geez," Stiles had reacted. "Make it sound like a suicide mission, why don’t ya."
Which earned Stiles a serious glare.)
The Stilinski-Hale trio moved along, parallel the long, long line of adults with kids waiting to see Santa. Many of the faces, young and old, did not convey the slightest hint of Christmas cheer.
When he caught the eye of someone in that line Stiles inquired, "How long you been waiting?"
"Stiles," Derek nearly growled.
"Feels like half my life," the random person told him.
Stiles acknowledged the quasi-threatening look in his husband’s eyes but proved himself the dutiful, devoted parent, asking his child, "Do you want to see Santa, Tay?"
Teo’s attention had been riveted on the "red man." Quite fortuitously, at that very moment a toddler freshly settled in Santa’s lap began loud bawling.
Teodor saw it, heard it; that was that. He shook his head emphatically side to side, involving every muscle in his neck. "No."
In his head Stiles thanked his lucky stars. But he smiled sweetly at Derek and said, "See, hon, just like his daddy."
No one was more relieved than Stiles.
Something Stiles had to remember only at this time of year was how much his mother had loved to celebrate Christmas. The forced and faux cheer, especially when it was all up in his face, had always helped him justify his long-term indifference to "the holidays."
After his mom died, Stiles and the Sheriff ignored Christmas. It just didn’t matter anymore. Stiles was still a boy but didn’t care about it because it hurt. The first year Stiles had some money of his own he gave his dad a gift on Christmas morning, at the kitchen table, and made chocolate chip pancakes and bacon. That became their tradition then, until Derek became part of Stiles’s life.
The Hale Pack, in keeping with werewolves’ ancestral ties to the earth, celebrated Yule. They burned a Yule log. Talia Hale lit candles by the score. Pack nights (read: parties) around bonfires happened once a week throughout December. The Hale house deep in the Preserve out of sight from passers-by still got adorned with lights.
Stiles happily embraced the Hale tradition of making a feast of light in the dark of the year. He and Derek festooned their house, once they’d bought one, in strands of colored lights from the roof ridge to the foundation. But there were lights only, no manger scenes, no inflatables. After Teo’s arrival they started putting up a tree, to dazzle their baby boy with shiny baubles and more pretty lights, and Stiles loved it. Through Teo’s excitement Stiles found himself with reawakening feelings that had gone dormant when he was a grieving youngster.
But Santa Claus they were leaving out. In time, Teo would learn about all the traditions associated with that particular time of year. He’d get his toys and presents, of course, just without the accompanying fiction of a magical corpulent old man who somehow visited homes all around the world in a single night.
It was counter to werewolf ways that a mysterious stranger should enter pack territory unchallenged; no amount of social convention was changing that either. Stiles had learned quite young that the whole Santa-thing was only an elaborate sham.
So, no Santa Claus for the Stilinski-Hales.
Teo seemed unable to take his eyes off the mall Santa though, still looking back at him over Derek’s shoulder all the way down the concourse to the Sears store. With his boy’s cheek right there Derek was about to break the somber-seeming spell with tickle-kisses but then Stiles spoke, somber also.
"We’re not grinches."
The remark provoked a puzzled look from Derek.
"We’re not grinches—are we? For not telling—" Stiles tipped his head towards Teo "—about you-know-who?"
"We’re not grinches," Derek assured.
Then Derek followed through with a noisy raspberry against Teo’s cheek. Instantaneously Teo was beaming, wriggling and giggling.
"Teo," Derek proposed, "can you make Papa laugh?"
Teo’s immediate response was to tilt back his head, open his eyes ridiculously wide, jut out his chin while pursing his lips, his body trembling with tension. Then he flashed a great big grin.
It worked. It made both his dads break out in laughter. Derek stopped walking and Stiles took the opportunity to kiss his kid—and his husband.
"Baby boy," Stiles said, "your comedic skills are top notch!"
Teo, understanding not a word of his papa’s compliment, just grinned wider.
"Let’s get this done," Derek decreed, inhaling at last, more than the thousands of strange scents around him, the return of happiness to his son and mate.
Derek practiced surgical shopping, knowing exactly what he sought and exactly where to find it in a store. He homed in on the outdoor decor department in the Sears and with a clerk’s help Stiles’s precious color-changing LED-light stars were located, the only extra effort required being the navigation of the in-store mob.
Then they were finished.
There was a line at the cashier counter, but it was moving quickly. The cashier seemed youthful and energetic—and cheerful!
Derek, with Teo still in his arms, stood with Stiles in the check-out line. (He really wasn’t letting them out of his sight or reach.)
As they got nearer and nearer the register, the knit cap the cashier wore caught Teo’s attention. It was striped red and white, with a large gold jingle bell on its floppy pointed top. Every time the cashier moved her head the bell tinkled, and Teo had never seen nor heard such a thing.
"What a darlin’!" the cashier cried, with a distinct accent, when she got a look at Teo. The scent of gladness and fondness poured from her, but if she thought about tweaking Derek’s baby’s irresistible cheeks she could just think again.
Teo glanced at the woman’s happy face only for a second then back up at her cap.
"Your headgear fascinates him," Stiles told her.
"This makes me one of Santa Claus’s elves!" the woman cheered, smiling brilliantly as she reached up to give the bell some extra shakes.
Teo really wanted to make the hat make noise too. He smiled at the sound of it.
"Oh lord, that sweet face!" the cashier cried again.
Derek subtly tightened his hold round his boy.
"Please don’t squash our kid," Stiles whispered, barely audible through nearly closed lips. Then, "Do those happen to be for sale here?" Stiles asked the cashier, somewhat surprised his query elicited no grumble or growl from his husband—not even when he was answered with directions to the children’s clothing department—on the second floor.
The twinkle stars were packaged in large, unwieldy boxes, and would be waiting for them at merchandise pick-up after they’d gotten Teo an elf cap.
Teo was getting an elf cap.
Stiles understood the protective instincts that surfaced in Derek when out amongst crowds with his pup, but apparently the instinct to provide had achieved priority because even riding up the shopper-laden escalator then entering the children’s department, a scene of mayhem, Derek maintained a calm, non-grouchy exterior.
(Stiles would reward him, later on, for keeping Sourwolf out of sight.)
Fortunately the elf caps were a seasonal item and so prominently displayed. The piles of them had been picked through but Stiles found one that appeared relatively untouched, near the bottom. Derek took it from Stiles and shamelessly sniffed it, discerning only the odor of dye, which, acrid as it might be, was better than the scents of strangers. He pressed the cap against the lower half of his face, to add his scent to it.
The check-out line was longer in that department, but still no Sourwolf ever appeared. Stiles was impressed—and more than impressed. (Derek’s being a good daddy always turned Stiles on.)
Before they returned to the parking lot Derek handed off Teo to Stiles and was carrying the stars’ chunky boxes to their car, with his usual supernatural aplomb. Holding his son it occurred to Stiles that Teo’s feet hadn’t touched the ground in a while.
"I know you’re tired of being carried, Tay. When we get home you can help Daddy and Papa put the stars on our house, OK?" Stiles promised. "You’ve been such a good boy today."
Teo would "help" by running around in the yard, hopefully burning off the energy Stiles was sure had backed up during their shopping excursion, while confined to his daddy’s arms. Otherwise bedtime was going to be significantly delayed.
After strapping Teo in his car seat Stiles retrieved the elf cap to replace the baseball cap Teo was wearing. (Teo had two baseball caps, one Mets, one Dodgers—not that he distinguished one from the other except by their colors. Stiles had dressed him for their outing that day, and so the Mets cap was the inevitable choice.)
Soon as he felt the new cap’s snugness, remembering what the lady had done before, Teo started shaking his head, delighted at the sound.
"OK, don’t sprain your neck, baby boy," Stiles advised.
Teo didn’t know what "sprain" meant but he assured his Papa, "I won’t!"
"Now you’re Teo the elf!" Stiles announced. "Can you say ‘elf’ for Papa?"
What Teo pronounced sounded like "ayuf."
"’Elf,’" Stiles repeated. "You’re an elf."
"I’m a eff!"
Stiles laughed then took his seat in front. As Derek negotiated their way out of the parking lot, Teo suddenly asked, "Papa, what’s a eff?"
"Oh," Stiles began. He hadn’t thought about having to explain that. "An elf is a little person who…" He stalled. He really wanted to avoid the association of elves with Santa Claus. He was stumped but Derek rescued him.
"An elf is a little person who helps other people make things, Teo," Derek explained.
Stiles responded, in a low voice, "Thank you, daddy," and made a kissy face.
Since they weren’t moving at that moment, Derek leaned over to complete the kiss.
They let it linger a little bit.
Teo watched. His daddy and papa kissed him all the time, all over his face, sometimes on his tummy, sometimes on the bottoms of his feet—and those kisses tickled even more than the tummy-kisses. But Daddy and Papa kissed each other mostly on their mouths, and they didn’t kiss anybody else that way. And sometimes when they kissed each other at home they smelled different, but always happy too along with the different smell.
There in the car his papa and daddy smelled mostly happy, and that made Teo happy, and so he swung his head side to side so his new hat made its sound. He wondered if other clothes an elf wore made sounds too.
A lot of times Teo fell asleep in his car seat, but not this time.
Not that it really mattered to someone with genetically-inherited night vision, but there was daylight left when they’d got home, so Derek wanted to get the new stars in their places across the house front. He’d already run plenty of cords outside (besides being an architect and architectural consultant, Derek had electrician skills and knew carpentry too.—Still, they were the least of Stiles’s reasons for calling his husband a "handy man.") All Derek had to do was mount the stars. Stiles commandeered supervision of that process.
But Teo, free at last, discovered that moving in bounding leaps kept his hat "jinging" (that’s what Papa called the sound.) A bounding Teo was keeping Stiles from his star-installation supervising but what better way to run down a toddler werewolf’s batteries than games of chase and being chased.
(Stiles’s batteries were more likely to run down before Teo’s, truth be told.)
By dusk’s descent the installation was completed and the Stilinski-Hale house was gloriously lit up. Light, turning red to purple to green to blue, radiated in concentric star-shapes from the centers to the points of the new decorations.
Derek lifted Teo high over his head for the best view, while Teo kicked his legs, waved his arms and laughed at—well, at everything.
At the sound of a rumbling engine Stiles turned to see the familiar cruiser parking.
"Big Poppa! Big Poppa!" Teo started to yell, even before the Sheriff left his vehicle.
Sheriff John stood in the street for a minute, admiring the light show.
"Ortiz told me you’d added more lights," he said.
Stiles had noticed a BHPD patrol car pass by earlier, but hadn’t seen who was driving.
"Big Poppa!" Teo clamored again. "I’m an eff!" To demonstrate his elf-hood he shook his head so that his special hat jingled in verification.
"He’s a what?" John asked.
"An ellllllf," Stiles clarified. "We got him an elf hat today. I pretty sure it’s going to become a night cap too."
Teo grabbed his grandfather’s hand. "Big Poppa, come see wha’ Daddy did!" He started tugging the Sheriff toward one of the showy stars. Strong as John was, his three year old werewolf grandchild pulled like a miniature tractor.
"Teo!" both Stiles and Derek barked at the same time. Stiles let Derek finish. "We don’t pull people. OK?"
John was about to dismiss it with an "It’s alright," but Stiles silently shushed him. "Better he learn now than dislocate your shoulder later."
After a micro-pout Teo politely repeated his request, "Pease come see, Big Poppa."
Everyone walked to the nearest star, casting its polychrome radiance.
"Really nice," the Sheriff assessed. "You did a great job, Derek."
Stiles had let it pass once, but not a second time.
"Ahem," he grunted. "I helped too."
Derek snorted—literally snorted.
The Sheriff jumped right in. "I’m sure you did, son. I’m well acquainted with your helpful observational skills."
"Careful, old man. I just might reconsider inviting you to dinner!" Stiles mock-warned. "We’ve ordered pizza."
"Pizza?" John tried to disguise his glee.
Derek had converted Stiles from junk food connoisseur to healthy eater, for the sake of their child’s well-being as well as Stiles’s own, plus it made Stiles less the hypocrite watch dog of his father’s diet. But not even Derek said "no" to pizza.
"Peeeeeet-sssaaa!" Teo cried, his head thrown back as if he were howling. He bounced in place, jingling away.
"Someone’s sure happy," the Sheriff said.
"Someone’s supercharged," Stiles corrected. "I think that cap might be magical.—Come on, little woof, let’s go in and get washed. Pizza’ll be here soon."
Right at the doorway Derek rested a hand on the Sheriff’s shoulder. "John." He spoke very softly, knowing where he was about to tread. "If you want—if you ever want, we can put some lights up on your house…"
The Sheriff answered with the same gesture, his hand on Derek’s shoulder. "Thank you, son. I’m gonna tell Stiles, I put candles in the windows this year. Electric candles."
Stiles and Teo had already disappeared into the house but Stiles had heard and come back, holding Teo’s hand as he neared his husband and his father.
"You did?" Stiles’s question was more like a statement of wonder.
"Yep," John replied. "It really seems enough… and means so many things. All the right things."
"Dad," Stiles nearly sobbed, hugging his old man. He reached out till he felt Derek, pulling him into the hug, comforted in the strong embrace around himself and his father.
Teo squeezed his way into the midst of them and hugged his Big Poppa’s legs. He scented sadness but also happiness too, which were strange things to smell together. And there was another scent also, which was new to him, and which he couldn’t name, but that was only because Teodor Stilinski-Hale did not yet know the word for relief.