Derek could not believe how long the line was. Santa’s grotto was outside the mall, in a corner of the parking lot that had been fenced off for Christmas. But the line was trailing almost back into the mall. Derek stepped outside with Talia in her stroller and stopped short. Jesus. He stopped to consider if he actually really needed a photo of Talia and Santa, but he couldn’t bear the idea of looking back in years to come and not having that photo. So he joined the line.
The temperature had dropped colder and before long Derek felt frozen. He had buttoned up his coat and was stamping his feet, cursing the fact that he’d only put his Converse on and not his boots. He leant into the stroller to make sure Talia was okay, but she was snuggled up in her cosy bag and her hat and mittens were still in place. She grinned up at him, gurgling.
She was almost a year old. She had been born on Epiphany right at the beginning of the year, announcing her arrival with complete silence. The delivery room had held its breath while the midwife looked her over, but then as soon as she was cleaned up she started to scream, angrily looking for her mother.
Lydia had lost a lot of blood in labor and had been rushed to surgery, leaving Derek holding the squalling baby. She had settled eventually, little hiccups racking her body as if to show her distress at being given to her father and not her mother. Even when Lydia came back she seemed upset with the world she now found herself in.
Maybe that’s why Lydia hadn’t settled. She lasted eight weeks, until the beginning of March, and then she took off to Portland, saying she wasn’t cut out for motherhood and didn’t know how to cope with a baby. Derek sympathised with the first part, sure, because maybe it just didn’t suit her and that wasn’t her fault, but he had less sympathy for the second part, because he didn’t know how to cope either. He was just muddling through as best he could. He couldn’t forgive her for that.
They talked a couple of times on the phone, but Lydia rarely asked after Talia. She and Derek weren’t married, so there wasn’t a divorce to sort out, but in October Derek had received a letter from her lawyer asking for Derek to buy her out of her share of the house.
For some reason that hurt more than when she’d left in the first place.
An elf was making his way down the line. He was dressed in a very jaunty green outfit with a red hat and red shoes with bells on the toes, but he was carrying himself in a weary way that Derek recognised.
It wasn’t until he was only a few people away from Derek that Derek could hear what he was saying.
“Hey guys,” he said, flashing a corporate smile. “Unfortunately Santa Claus has gotten a little behind schedule. I’ve got a coupon here for fifty percent off if you would come back tomorrow.”
A few people groaned. The front of the line had started to disperse, parents clutching the coupons and herding whining kids. A few people had stayed, but the line had thinned considerably.
Derek would stay. He didn’t care about the discount. He wanted to get everything that needed to be done done today so that he could hunker down with Talia until the new year. He didn’t want to leave the house again after he’d been to the grocery store, so it was now or never.
The elf smiled and offered him a coupon.
Derek shook his head. “I kind of need to get this done today…”
“Okay, no problem,” the elf said. “You’re looking at waiting for maybe thirty minutes?”
Derek nodded. “That’s okay.”
The elf shrugged like it was Derek’s funeral if he wanted to wait around. Derek pushed Talia to the back of the line and waited.
The elf went back inside the grotto. Derek wondered what the hold up was. How much time could it really take? Although, he wasn’t sure he’d seen anyone come out for a while. He hoped some kind hadn’t got sick inside or something. He would wait thirty minutes but the prospect of puke inside the tiny tent was a little too much to bear.
Talia grizzled a little after ten minutes and Derek pulled out a snack for her. He knelt down to help her with it. The sidewalk was cold through the fabric of his jeans, and by the time he stood up he was stiff with the cold of it.
The elf was walking down the line again. A couple more families took a coupon from him. His nose was red. He came to Derek just as Derek was standing up. “Are you sure I can’t persuade you to take a coupon?”
Derek shook his head. “Sorry man. My babe and I need to hunker down after this, you know?”
The elf looked down into the stroller. “Hey little one, is this your first trip to Santa?”
“Sure is,” Derek said, feeling the pride he felt in his daughter well up in his chest. “She’ll turn one in the new year.”
“Well, that calls for something super special,” the elf beamed. “If your dad would like to be in the photo too, I think we could swing a freebie…”
The elf nodded. “Someone else, too, if there was someone…” He shrugged. “They’d probably have time to get here.”
“It’s just me and her,” Derek said quietly, and then wondered why he was telling this total stranger that. “Talia.”
“That’s a pretty name,” the elf said.
“She’s named for my mom,” Derek said. “I think my mom would’ve liked it.”
The elf nodded. “That’s a good reason for her to have that name.”
Derek wondered if, from the way he said it, he was talking from experience.
The elf looked up at the entrance to the grotto, to where a family was just stepping inside. Then he turned back to Derek. “Does her dad have a name?”
“Stiles,” the elf said, and stuck out a hand for Derek to shake.
Derek wondered what that was short for, but the elf didn’t offer any more information, so Derek just shook his hand and smiled.
The line moved a little more. There was another elf just visible within the grotto, so Derek figured Stiles didn’t actually have anything to do. A family a couple of spaces ahead of Derek asked a question, so Stiles moved a few steps to talk to them.
“So, Derek,” Stiles said, rubbing his hands together. “We have a number of backgrounds to choose from, for the photo. There’s snow, obviously, and one with reindeer and a sleigh, and… Another, but I’m not sure…”
“Snow is good,” Derek said. “I like the snow.”
“Me too.” Stiles beamed. “It doesn’t snow enough here.”
“I dunno,” Derek said. “Where I live you know about it if there’s even a somewhat heavy snowfall.”
“You don’t live in Beacon Hills?”
“I live just north. Off of Highway 99? It’s kind of remote.”
“Pretty, though, I’m betting?”
“Way pretty. Especially in the winter.”
“So you’re hunkering down for the holiday with Talia in the pretty remote cabin in the woods…”
“You make it sound so romantic.”
Stiles laughed. “I’m jealous, I guess. Working here, you know. It’s crazy. I spend all of Christmas Day trying to not speak.”
Derek laughed too. The line moved a little more.
“Whereas sometimes I can go three days without speaking,” he said, pushing the stroller back and forth a little.
“We could exchange numbers and come to some kind of mutually acceptable number of words,” Stiles said, and while Derek hadn’t expected him to say that, he could see how his words sounded like an invitation.
“Okay,” he said easily, pulling out his phone.
“Really?” Stiles squeaked. “Shit, I didn’t think you were gonna say yes.”
“I can say no if you’d like.”
“Please don’t.” He took Derek’s offered phone and typed his number in. “I don’t often pick up guys in this line, you know?”
“I don’t often pick up elves,” Derek said, then felt stupid because he hadn’t been trying to pick up anyone, but now it was happening…
It had been a while. There hadn’t been anyone since Lydia and for a long time he’d felt like he would never feel like even flirting with anyone again, never mind anything else. Then a cashier at the grocery store had definitely been flirting while Derek was stocking up on diapers and milk, and Derek had started to think that maybe, just maybe…
And now there was an elf with a cute smile and a forward manner and Derek felt like maybe he could at least text the guy.
At the very least.
Stiles handed the phone back.
“Thank you,” Derek said. “Sometimes I don’t reply right away…”
“No problem,” Stiles said. Then the family in front of Derek had reached the grotto so Stiles moved away to help them. They had three kids between them, and Derek waved at the little girl who was just getting out of her stroller.
Finally it was Derek’s turn. Santa was really good, taking Talia and making sure she was comfortable with him before they posed for the photo. The snowy background was pretty so Derek had said it was fine. Derek went behind Santa’s big chair, and smiled at the other elf, who was taking photos. He was sure Talia hadn’t smiled, but she did look very cute in her green velvet dress and candy cane striped tights.
“Thank you,” Derek said to Santa, and waited with the other elf while the photo printed.
“I’ll message you,” Stiles said as Derek strapped Talia back into the stroller.
“You could come over on Christmas Day,” Derek said. “It’s quiet at my place, and I have enough food for two and a baby…”
“Come on, you just met me,” Stiles said.
“I did,” Derek said. “But I like to live dangerously.”
“Okay,” Stiles said. “Text me your address?”
Derek pulled out his phone. “I’ll do it right now,” he said, and did.
“My ass is vibrating,” Stiles laughed. “Thank you.”
“See you soon,” Derek said, and walked away, certain that Stiles was watching him the whole way.