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Where the Real Beasts Are

Chapter Text

The Crown Prince of Stellaris’ eighteenth birthday dawns blue-skied and sunny, the warmest day of the year so far. The capital is abuzz, fit to burst with those who have flocked from all corners to catch a glimpse of their Prince's procession through the city, to say they were there the day their Prince became a man.

The crowd has been forming for hours, the most avid among them staking claim to the best spots to stand before night even began to fall the previous day. Guards patrolled the streets through the night, settling squabbles of who was where first before anyone could resort to fists. Now, they line the route of the procession to hold back the eager crowd, no loss of enthusiasm despite the sleepless night.

Children sit on their parents’ shoulders or squeeze between legs to the front of the crowds, all carrying sticks tied with lengths of ribbon in the royal colours of blue and gold which they swish through the air.

At some point during the night, daffodils were passed through the crowd, ready to throw to the ground when Prince Stiles passes, a well-loved tradition. They clutch them eagerly as the procession advances amidst swelling cheers, the path behind already carpeted with the flowers.

Prince Stiles rides at the centre of a formation of knights, cutting a regal figure with his fur-lined cape draped from one shoulder and silver circlet sitting upon his head. It’s set with a yellow sapphire cut to the shape of a four-pointed star, symbolic of the four tribes that merged to create the country long ago. In the mid-morning light, it flashes like the sun.

The same symbol reflects back at Stiles wherever he looks, on the pennants fluttering in the breeze from every building and sketched in yellow chalk on every door for the occasion. It even features on the caparison worn by his palfrey, Roscoe, the floral carpet muffling the clop of his hooves as he keeps steady pace beneath him.

On his back, Stiles may make a princely figure to the eye, but he feels anything but. His cheeks ache from smiling and his arm is ready to drop under the weight of two hours of waving. Sweat drips down his back, heat locked in beneath the fur-lined cape, an extra weight he yearns to be free of. But his enthusiasm never falters.

A girl not much younger than he throws her daffodil a little too hard and it lands in Stiles’ saddle.

While the star is a sign of the Stilinski rule, daffodils are a symbol specific to Stiles, and not only because of his spring birthday. He was too young to remember, but he'd apparently become attached to the flower around the time he turned three, insisting on carrying one wherever he went. When he'd dropped it during the procession and seen it trampled by the horses, his three-year-old self had been inconsolable.

The next year, the people responded by each bringing a daffodil ready to calm the little Prince's tears, and so the tradition was born.

Stiles had been embarrassed about it once, a result of much scowling during the processions of his teenage years, but now he sees the joy his people take in it and wouldn't dream of denying them.

Grinning, he picks up the flower in his lap and tucks the thick stem behind one ear as the girl who threw it blushes and hides her face amidst raucous laughter from the crowd. He keeps it there for the rest of the procession.

The route they follow, the same one every year, leads them in a great loop through the city and back up to the castle where they’d started at its pinnacle. His father awaits him there, at the top of the castle steps beyond the open gates.

For all birthdays leading up to this one, the King had accompanied him in joining their citizens in celebration, and when he was too young to ride alone, he’d sat in front of him in the saddle. It was strange, leaving him behind after so many years of that tradition, but with his coming of age, it’s customary to make the procession alone.

With one last wave, the castle gates close behind him, though it still takes a while for the cheering to die down. He knows it will ring in his ears for hours to come.

Stiles grins up at his father and for a moment, the King looks like he might have tears in his eyes. It passes by the time Stiles dismounts Roscoe, but his voice is gruff when he wishes Stiles a happy birthday - for the third time that day.

Stiles can tell those aren’t the words he really wants to say, is sure they have something to do with the absence of the woman who should have been standing beside them. He forces a laugh and plucks the daffodil from behind his ear to hook over his father’s. The King frowns at it from the corner of his eye, but humours him all the same. The moment passes, though the sadness doesn't fade.

“Our guests of honour will be arriving shortly,” his father informs him, though the way his mouth twists over the word honour is a sign he views them as anything but.

Stiles can't help but smile at his father's overt distaste.

“I'll be ready,” he promises, already waving forward Virgil, his manservant, to assist in untying his cape. He finally shrugs it off with a sigh of relief, balance returned, and holds still as Virgil dabs at the sweat on his brow with a handkerchief.

The old man’s lips are pursed, but Stiles knows it isn’t a sign of displeasure. He’s always taken the utmost pride in his duties and it’s often said his stoicism is a counterweight to his charge’s energy. Stiles almost sees him as a second father with his perpetual fussing and nagging. It’s no surprise that even on his birthday it’s no different.

As Roscoe is led back to the stables, Stiles follows, intent on treating him to an apple for his good behaviour - though he doesn’t really need an excuse to spoil him. He pats the horse’s flank as he munches, soothing his hand over his chestnut coat. The quiet moment doesn’t last for long.

It’s barely any time at all until he’s summoned, and he rejoins his father at the head of the castle steps, the knights who had accompanied his procession standing behind. He holds still for Virgil to retie his cape, the manservant wrinkling his nose and producing a vial of sandalwood oil to dab at Stiles’ wrist and neck to mask the smell of the stables. When Virgil deems him presentable, his father signals for the gates to be opened.

A groan of wood resounds throughout the courtyard, sending up a swell of renewed cheering as Stiles stands to attention to watch the royal procession from Venatia trundle through the city.

A delicately gilded carriage is drawn by two horses at its centre, surrounded by men on horseback in their livery of red and gold. It's just a small force as the rest will have been left to make camp outside the city, no space in the Stellaran barracks to house them all. Stiles knows his father will see to them all being fed generously despite not being able to attend the feast.

Progress of the carriage is slow and Stiles’ mind begins to wander, though years of feigning decorum means his posture doesn't waver.

Their guests were meant to arrive two days ago but lamented ‘troubles on the road’ as the cause for their delay. Stiles is under no illusion that the whole thing was orchestrated to put their arrival after his procession and whip up greater fanfare. There had been a lot of eyerolling when a herald had delivered the news. It wouldn’t surprise him to learn the Argents had been camping beyond the nearest hill for the past two days in preparation for their grand entrance.

At long last, the carriage rolls between the castle gates and draws to a stop at the foot of the steps. A footman jumps down from beside the driver to open the door and the first of their guests of honour steps out.

King Gerard I was always a severe man, and the passing of time has done nothing to soften him. When Stiles was a child, Gerard had always scared him, with his quick, scheming eyes, and voice always on the verge of rising to a shout. It would be unbecoming to say he still feared him now, but he will at least admit the man makes him uneasy.

Stiles’ father too has spoken of his dislike for the Venatian king and it’s common knowledge that Gerard returns the opinion. It's no secret he still holds his grudge from when Stellaris remained neutral in the ongoing East-West War - only taking up arms when a family of their own nobles had been slaughtered and they could stand by no longer.

As King Gerard ascends the steps, his yellowed teeth flash at Stiles in an attempt at a smile that never reaches his eyes. He favours Stiles more than his father, a fact the Prince has always stayed wary of; he can guess Gerard would much prefer him to be on the throne, young blood he can mold to his own ends.

Stiles forces himself to smile back. He may loathe Gerard’s attention but it could one day be used to his own advantage.

“Forgive us our delay,” Gerard says, disturbingly unctuous. He directs another smile at Stiles, attempting the air of a doting grandfather.

“Of course,” Stiles’ father answers, achieving a much more successful smile as he lies through his teeth. He’d been more indignant about the manufactured setback than Stiles. “We are honoured to have you here to celebrate with us.”

Gerard moves aside in time for his daughter, Princess Katherine, to emerge from the carriage.

Unlike her father, Katherine - or Kate as she insists on being called - is fair and charming, and Stiles has long-wondered how she can bear such close relation to the unpleasant King. Her smile is a thing of beauty and the sweet fragrance of roses swirls in the air when Stiles takes her hand to greet the back of it with a kiss. His eyes are drawn to her wedding ring.

The last time he'd seen her had been not long after her husband's passing, a cruelly short marriage of only two months. Her late husband, Lord Harris, had been an unfriendly man, but he clearly adored her. Most had said it was because no other woman had looked at him twice, and Kate’s interest had served as fuel for the rumour mill for months. Now, her mourning is long since over but her wedding band remains faithfully on her finger.

“Princess. You are as radiant as ever.”

Kate throws back her head in a peal of laughter, gold ornaments glinting in her hair. “And you are still in possession of that silver tongue!”

“One day it will get him into trouble,” his father interjects, as eager to engage the Princess over Gerard as Stiles was.

Princess Allison is last to ascend the steps, genuine dimpled smile lighting up her eyes.

It had been thought that they would marry once, especially when it was widely known they’d grown closer after Allison’s mother had passed and Stiles had offered support drawn from his own experience. But it was clear to Stiles she and Scott were the ones who were meant to be. Perhaps he should have fought a bit harder for the strength that alliance would have brought Stellaris, but the decision to bow out of the race hadn’t been a difficult one.

“Ally,” he greets, kissing the back of her hand. “Scott’s a lucky man.”

“He knows,” she says, grinning, but it soon softens. “He’s sorry he can’t attend.”

Stiles nods.

As he thinks of Scott, his mood sobers for the first time that day. He’d been ignoring the absence of his best friend, but the ache has come back strong. He really does understand, though. It’s not been long since Scott’s coronation after turning eighteen himself and assuming the throne from his mother who had been acting as Queen regent since the death of Scott’s father a decade ago.

That was two months ago but he'll see him soon at Allison’s eighteenth birthday and then again at their wedding.

Gone are the days of spending summers in each others kingdoms, of causing mischief for the guards and sneaking into the kitchens. They’re men now and have their duties to their people to consider before their friendship.

“I received word from him yesterday. He said to tell you you look as beautiful today as you do all others and he’ll see you soon,” Stiles recites. He has the sneaking suspicion the note was more for Allison’s benefit than his own, but he’s glad of the sentiment all the same.

Allison blushes and ducks her head, swiftly changing the subject. “My father said to send you his regards and to have a drink for him.”

“Or three,” Stiles laughs. He's not surprised the Crown Prince has remained in Venatia to govern in his father’s absence.

With welcomes made, the Argent’s luggage is unloaded from the carriage and they’re shown to the guest quarters to settle in before the feast that evening. Stiles takes the chance to slip away to his own rooms, eager to strip out of his stuffy clothes and not move for a few hours.

 

*

 

Stiles arrives at the feasting hall to thunderous cheers. Fists and tankards thump on tables and boots stamp against stone, booming in the cavernous space already rich with the smell of roasted hogs and pipe smoke and mead. The din feels enough to shake loose the banners from their hooks overhead, but though the fabric sways, the fastenings hold firm.

Stiles waves to the room as he makes his way down the centre aisle between the tables spanning its length, to knights and nobles and the lucky citizens who won entry to the feast in the raffle held whenever there’s an event in the castle. The servants holding trays bow and curtsy as he passes, the women with mini daffodils braided in their hair and the men threaded through their top buttonholes. More decorate the tables alongside candles amongst the platters of food, loaves and meats and fruits and cheeses to name a few.

Their guests of honour are already seated at the great oak table set on a dais at the head of the room. It would be customary for King Gerard to sit at his father's right, but he’s insisted on leaving the spot to Stiles considering the occasion and has moved a seat along. Stiles would much rather Allison’s company beside him, but the Princesses sit on the other side of his father. He’d reminded Stiles it wouldn't be proper for her to be seen so close to him in light of her imminent marriage to Scott, despite widespread knowledge of his and Scott’s friendship.

With Stiles seated, the feasting begins. Between one blink and the next, his plate is piled with pork, chicken, pheasant and fish, and a platter of every cheese under the sun is set closer to him along with crusty bread, fresh from the oven. His cup is never empty and he’s soon pleasantly buzzed with a full, warm belly.

The hall is filled with chatter and spikes of laughter and by the time everyone has taken their initial fill of the food, the room is bubbling with excitement over a rumour that the Argents have brought Stiles an impressive gift. When King Gerard finally climbs to his feet and calls for it to be brought forth, a hush falls over those in attendance like a blanket of fresh snow.

The doors to the hall open and when the gift enters, flanked by two Argent men, those nearest scramble back, scraping the benches across the floor and scattering cutlery amidst yells of shock. Even Stiles at the back of the room quivers with a frisson of fear, hand twitching at his hip with the desire to reach for his blade. Even if it were present, he’s not sure it would protect him from the beast padding down the centre aisle.

They’ve brought him a direwolf.

It’s a magnificent creature, black fur like the glossy spill of an ink pot across a sheet of parchment, and its size is even bigger than that of the mastiffs who help guard the castle. Its pace remains unfazed by the tumult around it, paws as big as Stiles’ spread hands almost seeming to make the ground tremble. It draws to a halt in front of the dais, close enough to reveal the glint of a thick iron collar peeking out from the ruff of fur about its neck.

They were thought to have gone extinct years ago, until the Argents happened upon some parentless pups and became the only known breeders. Until now, Stiles has never heard of the Argents even allowing one beyond the boundary of their kingdom. To be offering one as a gift? He would never have thought it possible.

Stiles stands frozen, sure it will pounce, and after the initial outburst, the rest of the hall is silent too.

“Don't be alarmed. It’s quite tame!” Gerard declares, lifting an untouched chicken leg from his plate and tossing it forward. The wolf raises up to snatch it out of the air then sinks to its belly, deftly tearing off the meat and cracking the bone in two with one snap of its powerful jaws.

“Prince Stiles, if I could get you to step forward,” Gerard continues. “It would do well to get it acquainted with the scent of its new master.”

Stiles’ first instinct is to gape or snort or squeak, but with the rapt audience watching with bated breath, he reminds himself he is a man, a prince, and he will not show fear.

The wolf doesn't react to his approach, just keeps gnawing at the bone, though Stiles is expecting its lips to curl back in warning at any moment. But its eyes, green and gold, don't show any apprehension. They don't show much of anything at all.

At Gerard’s direction, Stiles holds out his hand and the wolf lifts its head to press its nose to it, cold and wet. Its nostrils flare as it breathes him in, a rush of hot, damp breath swelling over his skin with every puffing exhale.

Carefully, Stiles sinks to one knee and moves his hand until he’s stroking through the fur at the side of the creature’s neck. Perhaps it's not wise to bring his throat so close so soon, but the wolf doesn’t react to his touch in the slightest. His hand brushes the collar, surprisingly warm to the touch and etched with vertical grooves at even intervals around as much of the band as he can see. At the front is embedded some sort of gleaming yellow gem, carved into the shape of the Stellaris four-pointed star.

“It will answer to whatever name you give it,” Kate informs him and her voice makes him jump. He’d been so mesmerised he’d forgotten he isn’t alone.

Stiles stares into the animal's eyes, filled with wonder. He's struggling to fathom that this wolf is his and will be a companion in his life for years to come. The wolf stares back, seeming to look less pleased than Stiles of his new situation, but perhaps that's just his temperament. Perhaps he's proud and standoffish and doesn't want to admit that he secretly likes ear scratches and belly rubs. Perhaps he'll like going for runs alongside Roscoe, or maybe he's lazy and would rather lounge in the sun.

No matter what, Stiles looks forward to getting to know him. That is, once he's gotten past the fangs and the claws and is sure the wolf doesn't plan for him to become the target of either.

“Thank you, King Gerard. He is a generous gift.”

“Generous indeed,” his father agrees, but he’s smiling at Stiles instead of regarding Gerard with distrust.

Gerard lifts his goblet. “To the Prince!” he calls, and it's echoed by the entire hall amongst more stomping and banging.

As the feasting continues, the wolf is coaxed up onto the dais to lay at Stiles’ feet in front of the table with a leg of beef which seems to keep him occupied for most of the evening. Stiles can’t help peering over the edge of the table at him in wonder.

“One thing you need to know with these beasts,” Gerard leans over to tell him. “You never remove the collar.”

Stiles nods and Gerard pats his hand with what might be his version of an ingratiating smile. Stiles busies himself with buttering a new bread roll to move his hand out of Gerard’s reach.

He’s only taken a single bite when the table is approached by Sir Vernon Boyd. Lady Erica, his wife and Stiles’ childhood friend, hovers close behind, head bowed and a hand on her stomach.

“Happy Birthday, Your Highness,” Boyd says after bowing.

“Thank you. I’m glad you could both make it.”

“I’m afraid we have to cut our visit short,” he replies, stepping back to place a supporting arm around Erica’s waist.

Stiles sits straighter in his seat. “So soon?”

“Erica has been feeling under the weather for the past few days and it seems the excitement of the feast has been too much for her.”

“I apologise, Your Highness,” Erica begins, her gaze lowered. “I was sure I would be well enough.”

As jarring as her use of his title is, more jarring still is her demeanour. She’s usually bright-eyed and mischievous, but now she’s ashen-faced and her hands look to be trembling. Wide, fearful eyes flicker to the wolf at Stiles’ feet. The wolf stares back, eyes unreadable. By the hand on her stomach, Stiles wonders if she's with child once more and prays the shocking arrival of the direwolf has done no permanent harm.

“I understand. Please go and rest. If you feel you cannot make the journey, you know you are welcome to spend the night here in the castle. I can have a room set up for you in no time at all.”

“We thank you for the offer, Your Highness,” Boyd says with a bow of his head, “but we’d prefer to get back to our son.”

“Of course. Travel safely.”

Stiles watches them go with concern but doesn’t worry long. Boyd will look after her. They had been lucky enough to marry for love as well as status, an arrangement Stiles isn’t likely to share.

Turning eighteen himself with Allison and Scott the same age and already set to marry, it will only be a matter of time before the pressure to find a match of his own really starts to build. Scott has always looked forward to the prospect of marriage but the thought has never filled Stiles with much excitement. Perhaps if he’d found someone he could be so sure of as Scott and Allison had he wouldn’t be dragging his heels so much. Still, his birthday feast isn’t the time to think about these worries.

The evening passes in the blink of an eye and the moon is past its zenith by the time Stiles leaves the hall, now only sparsely dotted with lingering revellers. The Argents retreated to their rooms for the night over an hour ago, his father not much later.

Stiles is worried to be in control of the wolf alone but he follows obediently as soon as Stiles stands, coming up as high as his hip. With nowhere else to keep him, Stiles supposes he should stay with him in his rooms and he leads the way from the hall after bidding goodnight to those still left.

He pauses before heading deeper into the castle and looks back at the wolf.

“Do you need to go outside to… do your business?” he asks, feeling like a bit of a fool. Though Kate had said it would answer to any name Stiles bestowed, he’s still unsure of the beast’s intelligence.

Without a sound, the wolf heads for the main doors to the courtyard and Stiles trails behind, amazed that that even worked. He waits on the top step, between the guards standing watch either side of the main door, and doesn’t look as the wolf pads into the shadows.

He gazes up at the night sky and crosses his arms over his chest instead. Despite the warmth of the day, the night is still chilly and he’s looking forward to curling up in his bed and getting up long after the sun has risen.

When the wolf returns, Stiles pats his thigh. “This way,” he says and leads him inside.

As they make their way up flights of stairs and along corridors, the wolf’s shadow flickers in the light from the torches, growing and shrinking as the high sconces pass like something looming and inescapable in a nightmare. Whenever he looks back, he expects to see a flash of fangs descending on him, but the wolf just stares. Stiles wishes he could know what he’s thinking.

When they reach Stiles’ quarters, the wolf stands just inside the door, and Stiles marvels at how well-behaved he is. Still, he’s glad he gave Virgil the night off. There’s no saying how the wolf might have reacted to a new stranger appearing in Stiles’ rooms.

After casting about, he gathers some cushions from the little nook he usually curls up in to read and lays them on the floor beside the window to serve as a makeshift bed for the wolf until something more suitable can be found.

The wolf situates himself on the pillows as soon as Stiles steps back, resting his head on his paws. Stiles watches him for a few moments, feeling out of place in his own home. It’s like the floor is littered with needles as he moves to get dressed, scared of angering the wolf with too much noise. He tries to reason with himself that the Argents wouldn’t have gifted him if he was considered dangerous, but the reminder of fangs and claws outweigh his attempts to calm himself.

When he finally crawls into bed, it takes a long time to fall asleep despite the late hour, and even then he sleeps fitfully, sure he’ll jolt awake to the wolf’s fangs sinking into his throat.

Every time he lifts his head to check, the wolf is still awake, gazing longingly up at the night sky. The jewel in its collar gleams in the moonlight.

Chapter Text

Stiles is woken in the morning by a shaft of light lancing between drapes he forgot to close the night before. He groans and rolls over, groaning again when his throbbing head protests the movement. He’s hoping to go back to sleep but something shifts in the corner of the room and his eyes snap open, stomach lurching as they land on the wolf staring back at him. Still in the lingering cloud of sleep, he’d completely forgotten about his new pet.

Stiles is struck once more by how magnificent a creature he is, lying in a pool of sunlight lending a golden tint to his fur and dust motes swirling all around. He no longer feels the same trepidation he had yesterday, reassured knowing he survived the night — though any sense of danger is probably dampened by his hangover.

He lets his head fall to his pillow again, but though he’d love to get more sleep, he realises he needs water more. He reaches over to the bell pull beside his bed and gives it a tug with what energy he can muster. The wolf’s ears twitch, perhaps hearing the bell ring in the room below, calling for Virgil who should have started his day already. Stiles wonders just how good his hearing is.

Virgil arrives not two minutes later with another servant, a boy no older than fifteen, who carries a pitcher of cool water on a tray. The boy remains impressively stoic when he catches sight of the wolf and Stiles is pleased the wolf remains just as unfazed by the new additions to the room, thankfully not considering them intruders to attack.

Virgil dismisses the boy once he’s placed the tray on the bedside table and then pours Stiles a glass of water. Stiles could kiss him for thinking to bring it before he even had to ask.

“Your father has only just sat down to breakfast with the Argent royals,” Virgil informs him as he hands the glass over. “Do you wish to join them?”

The water helps freshen his mind as well as his mouth and awakens pangs of hunger that had been hidden beneath the stirrings of nausea, so he agrees to make an appearance at breakfast.

He glances at the wolf as he swings his legs over the side of the bed to find him watching the pitcher of water intently. With its long neck, it will be no good for him to drink from so Stiles casts about for something more suitable. He spots his fruit bowl across the room, easy enough to replace the apple and grapes and few pears with the water. The wolf acts aloof as it’s set down in front of him but Stiles isn’t fooled.

As the wolf deigns to drink and Virgil readies his clothes for the day, Stiles turns to the small basin in the corner of the room and washes his face. Virgil is waiting with a small towel when he’s finished and then helps him dress, fastening the elaborate clasps and buttons decorating his tunic with practiced motions. He turns him to the door when he’s finally satisfied with his appearance.

The wolf follows Stiles from the room without prompting, probably eager to be fed, and in the dining room where breakfast is being served — a more intimate space than the hall used for the feast — the entire raw hind leg of a cow is waiting for him, the kitchens already informed of his diet. The wolf tears into it with gusto.

The Argents and Stiles’ father are already seated and mostly finished eating, stifling smiles and feigning surprise that he managed to get up at all. He satisfies himself with a light breakfast of toasted bread with a smear of honey, and then manages to stomach a small omelette. When the server asks if he’d like it with cheese, his sensitive stomach cringes and his paling face is all the answer he needs to give, much to the amusement of everyone present.

The wolf finishes his own meal in what must be record time and when Stiles spots his tongue dangling from his mouth, he realises no water had been provided. He knows that the remnants of the pitcher earlier can’t have been enough for a beast that size, but when he asks the server to bring some, Kate waves away his request. “The trough for the horses is suitable enough.”

Stiles supposes it’s true the wolf isn’t going to care where he drinks his water from, but he at least needs to get something more permanent for his rooms so his fruit bowl can go back to serving its proper purpose.

“If we’re visiting the stables, let’s go for a ride,” Allison proposes, perking up. “I’d dearly like to see the Stellaran countryside again without being confined to a carriage. I don’t know when I’ll next get the chance.”

“I’m sure Stiles wouldn’t mind taking you out,” his father says. “Meanwhile, Gerard and I have much to discuss.”

And they’ve finally reached the real reason for the Argents’ visit.

With the threat of King Deucalion of Astran to the north of Stellaris’ border and his alliance with the Yukimuras to the east, the East-West War stretches on without an end in sight. Neither side is gaining ground or willing to agree to a truce, and it’s gone on for so long, Stiles can barely remember a time before it.

He’d been young, no older than four or five when it began and too young to comprehend the situation beyond the adult’s whispered conversations over his head. It wasn’t until he was older that he learned the catalyst for the war, of how one of the Astrani twin princes had been out riding with Gerard during a diplomatic visit — much like the one they’ve paid Stellaris now — when his spooked horse resulted in his unfortunate death. Gerard called it an accident, but Deucalion and his Queen, Kali, called it murder. It wasn’t long before they were at all-out war, born from grief and misplaced anger. Stiles knows those feelings well, saw them mirrored in his own father at the death of his mother, but he can’t imagine ever being so ruled by those feelings that he’d lash out and incite a war.

Stiles is only too keen to leave his father to strategise with Gerard and spend the day elsewhere. He knows the matters are important but he also knows that one day he won’t have the luxury of having his father to deal with them and wants to make the most of it while he can. He'll get the details from him later.

After the Princesses have changed into dresses suitable for riding and the kitchens have provided a hamper of food for lunch, they head to the castle stables where the Princesses’ horses are being cared for alongside Roscoe. After the wolf has drunk his fill from a trough in the yard, Stiles tells him to wait a distance away in the likely case that he’ll spook the animals and he obediently sits on his haunches.

Despite the precaution, Roscoe still catches sight of the wolf as soon as he’s led out of his stable and shifts his hooves with a nervous whinny. Stiles plans to carefully acquaint them but when he turns, he spots Finstock, the castle blacksmith, crouched down in front of the wolf without fear and peering at the collar.

The wolf is shying away from him in the first display of distress Stiles has seen from him yet.

“How did they get this thing on?” Finstock is muttering, reaching out a hand ready to touch. Stiles’ shadow falls over him and he snaps his hand back, turning his crouch into an impromptu bow.

“Your Highness,” Finstock greets. “Some beast you got here. Say the word and I could forge him some armour that would make him unstoppable against those Astrani scum! Straight to Deucalion himself to rip him limb from limb!” he declares, demonstrating the motions violently with his hands.

Stiles bites his lip to stifle laughter at the picture he makes, with his unruly mop of hair and wild eyes. “Thank you, Finstock. If I ever have need of some, I’ll let you know.”

The wolf follows as Stiles leads Roscoe away, the horse’s tail swishing as he eyes the wolf beside him. Stiles runs a soothing hand down his mane and leans close to murmur gentle assurances. That his master shows no alarm at the beast’s presence does much to calm him.

The Princesses are saddled and ready to go, their own horses already accustomed to direwolves. As soon as Stiles joins them, they set out at a trot, passing Finstock who’s yelling for Greenberg. Or at him. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell.

A cluster of Stellaran and Venatian guards make up their entourage, flanking them and bringing up the rear as they travel through the city. Chalk stars still decorate every door he can see and will probably remain that way for days to come, providing that they have no rain. The daffodils have mostly been swept up but a few stems and petals still litter the ground.

Civilians who step aside to let them pass stare open-mouthed at the wolf, crowds starting to form and children running alongside them. The wolf haughtily ignores everyone while Stiles and the Princesses offer smiles and waves until they reach the city gates, passing between travellers entering the city and skirting the small force that accompanied the Argents from Venatia camped against the city wall.

The fresh air is a relief against Stiles’ face, working to sweep away the last vestiges of his hangover, and they spend a pleasant morning tracing a path through the forest that Stiles knows well. He loves this time of year beneath the trees, the sun-dappled path and the vivid green of the foliage overhead swaying in a gentle breeze. A squirrel darts across the path ahead and up the nearest trunk and Stiles wonders for a moment if the wolf might give chase. Instead, he remains at Roscoe’s side, whether because he didn’t see it or isn’t interested Stiles can’t tell. For the entire ride, he never runs ahead or wanders off to explore the trees around them and though Stiles wants to encourage the wolf’s curiosity, he decides that with this being their first ride, it’s probably best if he doesn’t stray.

Allison and Kate are in high spirits, their laughter in tune with the surrounding birdsong and working as a balm to fully cure Stiles’ headache. The only time the mood is dampened is when Allison mentions pitying Gerard and John back at the castle poring over maps instead of enjoying the day. It brings the topic of their conversation to the war and Kate asks how long it’s been since Stellaris joined.

“Five years,” Stiles responds instantly.

Five years,” Kate repeats in disbelief. “Five years since the Hales. It’s a pity. The son was such a handsome boy.”

Stiles’ fingers tighten on his reins, wanting to tear them in two at a burst of white hot anger.

The Hales had been a noble family supposedly with ancestral ties to the four tribes Stellaris was formed from, though the line is now entirely wiped out. Slaughtered.

Stiles’ memory of hearing that news is a vivid one, of the silence sweeping the throne room so swiftly it pushed the air out with it as the herald’s cries hung above everyone's heads. Rumours had sprung up like weeds, but no matter which version of events were told, two things always remained true: that Deucalion’s emblem had been etched into the half-charred door of the Hale manor and that the bodies had been unrecognisable after the fire. All in retaliation for daring to host Kate when she made a detour through Stellaris on her journey from the front lines back to Venatia.

The Hales had been well-loved and it was but days before Stellaris declared they were joining the war.

The boy Kate mentioned was Derek, the middle child and only son, five years older than Stiles. The last time Stiles had seen him, he’d been a man of eighteen, his already-full beard making him look so mature to Stiles’ young eyes. He’d often heard the women of the court whispering behind their hands and tittering as he passed, and even Stiles had been taken with him in that innocent way of children. It makes his stomach squirm to think how obvious his wide-eyed affections must have been.

Not that it matters anymore.

The wolf is no longer keeping pace with Roscoe, instead standing stock still in the middle of the path behind. Stiles wonders what could have caught his eye but at Stiles’ glance over his shoulder, he trots back to Roscoe’s side.

“Let’s speak of lighter things,” Allison murmurs and Stiles silently agrees.

The path begins to loop back towards the palace and they stop at a brook they’d passed earlier for lunch, settling down to eat in the midday sun. The wolf is panting, great tongue lolling out of its mouth, and Stiles coaxes him into the shallow water to cool off while their entourage fans out into the trees to keep watch.

As they eat, the Princesses are eager to discuss Allison’s upcoming wedding and Stiles does what he can to act as Scott’s voice in the conversation, though he knows his friend will bow to all of his bride’s wishes. Before that though is Allison’s birthday, and at the reminder she bombards Stiles with every detail about the masquerade she’s been allowed to plan. He can’t help smiling with her infectious excitement.

When there’s nothing left but crumbs, they pack up their hamper while the wolf finally gets up from his spot in the water where he’d remained unmoving for the entire meal. He steps up onto the bank and shakes out his fur, showering their party in water. Stiles and Allison laugh, doing what they can to cover their faces, but Kate shrieks and spits out an unladylike curse.

“Filthy animal,” she hisses under her breath as she dabs her face dry with a handkerchief.

Stiles steers the wolf to the other side of Roscoe with a gentle hand, away from Kate in case her wrath turns physical.

The wolf’s steps seem lighter after that, like his soak in the brook helped soak up some of his strange mood.

Kate’s glower stays with them all the way back to the castle.

 

*

 

The Argents remain in Stellaris for four more days. Thankfully, his interactions with Gerard remain scarce while the time spent with Allison is plentiful; he’ll be sad to say goodbye.

He still doesn’t have a name for the wolf yet but he’s enjoying his company despite the enduring standoffishness, and that the wolf needs daily exercise is a nice excuse to get out of the castle. He’s been out alone with him a couple of times, leaving even his escort behind and taking it at a brisker pace than his lunchtime excursions with the Princesses. Though at first he’d been worried the wolf might see it as an opportunity to run away, he’s stayed as close to Roscoe as when they have company — and just as devoid of curiosity.

He spends every night on his nest of pillows, padded out with a few more that Stiles pilfered from some of the guest rooms, and he seems to like it despite Stiles never having caught him sleeping. He’s always awake when Stiles finally drifts off and he’s found himself beginning to think of him as a guardian instead of a potential threat. He’s just as alert in the mornings and eager for his morning meal. A basin is a new addition beside his bed of pillows, always ready with water whenever he needs it.

One night before bed, Stiles approaches him on his pillows and sits beside him on the floor. The wolf turns his head away but allows Stiles to spend a few minutes stroking a hand through his fur. More than once, Stiles spots his eyes drift shut in bliss that his turned head isn’t enough to conceal. Stiles can feel the beast’s strength coiled in the muscles beneath his hand and is reminded that, though he may appear tame, he should still consider him an unpredictable wild animal. Despite that, he no longer feels any fear unlike that first night.

As he scratches just beneath the corner of the wolf’s jaw, he takes a closer look at the collar, as wide across as his palm. He remembers Gerard telling him it should never be removed and wonders if it has something to do with keeping the wolf so docile. With the wolf’s head turned away, he can see the back of the collar and that there’s no visible clasp, just a single ring of iron with the vertical grooves all the way around. That must have been what Finstock had been muttering about, the blacksmith taking interest in the strange craftsmanship. When his hand drifts near it, the wolf’s head jerks round to look at him and Stiles decides that’s enough petting for one night.

Oddly enough, the wolf never tries to spend any of his time with the Argents, staying close to Stiles’ heel whenever any of them are present. Kate’s outburst at the brook implies she doesn’t have much love for the animals and since then, Stiles has noticed she only refers to the wolf as ‘it’ rather than ‘he’. The only time she shows affection is when it comes to goodbye at the end of their visit, crouched down and rubbing her hands on the sides of the wolf’s face.

“Are you going to miss me?” she asks, cooing like one does to a baby. “I’m going to miss you so much, yes I am!”

Throughout, the wolf stands stiffly, unresponsive and eyes unfocused. Stiles notes for the future that he doesn’t appreciate babying. He comes to stand beside Stiles as soon as Kate is on her feet and swinging herself into the saddle of her horse. Allison and Gerard are returning to Venatia in the carriage but Kate is heading to the front line.

“Thank you for my birthday gift,” Stiles says to Gerard who has just shaken hands with his father.

“Not at all. I’m sure you’ll take good care of it,” Gerard says, attempted grandfatherly smile back in place which turns to more of a leer when directed towards the wolf.

Allison’s smile is genuine. “I’ll see you again at my birthday,” she says after having thanked Stiles’ father for his hospitality.

“I wouldn’t dream of missing it,” Stiles promises, giving the back of her hand a final kiss farewell.

Aside from losing Allison’s company, he's actually looking forward to the Argents’ departure, and not just because he's more than reached his limit of looking at Gerard’s face. Having guests to constantly entertain becomes exhausting and he’s also eager to spend time with the wolf alone, to slip into his usual routine and to see how he might act without his old masters around. That’s not to say he isn’t nervous about the possibility of losing control of him now that those who have experience with the beasts have gone, but it has to happen sooner or later.

With farewells said and Gerard and Allison in their carriage, Stiles steps back beside his father to watch them go, returning Allison’s wave where she leans out of the window. He glances at the wolf beside him, wondering what he might be thinking as he watches the only masters he’s ever known leave him behind, wonders if he even understands what’s happening.

Stiles scratches gently between his ears. “You’ll see them again soon at Allison’s birthday. I promise.”

The twitch of the wolf’s ears is the only indication that he heard.

“Thank God that’s over,” his father says beside him once the castle gates have closed, heaving a sigh and placing his hands on his lower back as he stretches. “I’m glad that I won’t have to see them again so soon.”

“You’re going to miss the party of the year, if Allison’s descriptions are anything to go by.”

His father smiles. “And I’m sure you’ll enjoy yourself. I, however, will be glad of the peace and quiet,” he teases, gently tweaking Stiles’ ear before he turns and heads inside.

“Hey!” Stiles shouts after him and his father’s laughter drifts through the open doorway.

 

*

 

That night, Stiles shares dinner with his father, just the two of them for the first time in a while — except for the now permanent addition of the wolf, something Stiles still hasn't been able to truly comprehend. He’s actually surprised to see his father now that their guests have gone, used to him taking meals in his study which is often the most he can manage amongst the responsibilities piled on his shoulders.

His father takes this time to tell him of the talks he’d had with Gerard and their differing opinions on strategy. The war has been at a stalemate for months, no more than a few skirmishes here and there, and his father is loath to provoke further loss of life for their countrymen. He’d rather defend and protect their people where they failed when it came to the Hales, but Gerard is eager for blood and has no care for how much needs to be spilt to get him Kali and Deucalion’s heads.

His father looks weary once he’s finished and Stiles doesn’t envy him all the back-and-forths with Gerard he must have suffered for the past few days.

With business out of the way, his father is eager to turn the talk to lighter subjects such as how Stiles has been getting on with the wolf.

“What are you going to call him?” he asks, gesturing towards the wolf with his fork.

Stiles chews thoughtfully on a stem of broccoli. He's given it a bit of thought over the past few days but nothing so far has felt right. “I don't know.”

“How about… Henry? He looks like a Henry.”

Stiles pulls a face. “You know I don't like human names when it comes to animals.”

The wolf lowers his head to his paws and Stiles reaches over to offer him a scrap of roast chicken.

“I’ll come up with one for you soon,” he promises. The wolf looks up at him dolefully before breathing what sounds like a sigh and lifting his head to delicately pick the meat from Stiles’ fingers.

“You're going to spoil him rotten,” his father says, though it's less of a warning and more of a fond observation.

Stiles smiles. “That’s the plan.” He’ll win his affection no matter what it takes.

Despite Stiles’ attempts to dote on him in the coming days, nothing he does can shake the wolf from his bone-deep melancholy. He must feel like he’s been abandoned by his previous masters, or maybe he’s just unhappy under Stiles’ care. He’s unfailingly obedient but shows no signs of warmth, and Stiles is beginning to discover that what he’d originally thought of as aloofness is actually a missing personality. He remembers Gerard’s assurance that the wolf is tame and finds himself wondering what their methods might entail.

The wolf seems to show the most interest when they go out riding, so Stiles makes sure to set aside time amongst his duties to take him out everyday. Whenever they’re in the castle, whether during Stiles’ studies or at mealtimes or even while he practices the sword, the wolf remains by his side. He has permission to come and go as he pleases, as any pet usually would, but Stiles doesn’t know how to convey that without shooing him away, and he doesn’t want the wolf to think he isn’t wanted. It isn’t like Stiles minds having him around. He’s already gotten used to reaching out and running his fingers through his fur as he listens to his teachers, keeping his usually restless hands busy, and he’s come to feel safe under his ever-present gaze.

The knights he trains with can’t stop marvelling about how formidable the wolf would be in battle, just as Finstock had. Stiles can’t deny it would be a fearsome, almost magnificent, sight but he intends to do all he can to keep him away from the battlefield. He’d rather cut off his own arm than turn him into an instrument of war.

 

*

 

A week after his birthday, Stiles arrives at breakfast early enough to catch his father still halfway through his meal. He’s hacking away at a bread roll like it’s personally offended him, and at Stiles’ raised eyebrows, he sighs and lowers the knife.

“I just heard that a citizen went missing on the night of your birthday,” he begins to explain.

A city-wide celebration where alcohol runs like a river is bound to get rowdy and Stiles knows for a fact the city gaol welcomed many guests to the cells that night. At the risk of sounding callous, he's not sure why a missing persons case has rankled his father so, especially when he knows the city isn’t a stranger to murder; there must be more to his frustration.

“What happened?”

“The boy hasn’t been seen since the day of the feast but it wasn’t reported until yesterday by the farmer he worked for. The father is a drunk and didn’t even notice that his son was gone.”

“Could he have been involved?”

His father sighs again. “I don’t know. Judging by multiple accounts, he had no qualms over raising a hand to him, but those same people also say he was never sober enough to stand on two feet. Not since he lost his wife.”

Now his father’s anger makes sense. He’s seeing a possible self in this man, just as Stiles feels a sudden sense of kinship with the boy. After the loss of his own mother, a tumbler of whisky became a fixture of the desk in his father’s study, but with the responsibilities of his position, he could never drown his sorrows as he’d pleased. The weight of his title had kept him putting one foot in front of the other where it would have been so easy to slip if in someone else’s shoes. Stiles’ life could so easily have mirrored this boy’s experiences.

“Where’s the father now?”

“Gaol, which is where he’ll stay without a drop of alcohol for reprieve,” he says, a glint of grim determination to his eye.

“If the stories about the boy’s home life are true, maybe he just ran away,” Stiles points out.

“Maybe,” his father echoes, but a frown still creases his forehead.

He leaves Stiles to his meal not long later, still brooding as he goes to give audience to their citizens. It's something he does once a month as an opportunity to hear ideas and settle grievances, lending a touch of humanity to a figure so easily considered indifferent to the plight of the individual. Stiles accompanies him sometimes to experience what will become his duty someday and is even sometimes called upon to offer solutions of his own. This morning, he has lessons of Philosophy and Literature and will be confined to a stuffy room instead.

The story remains with Stiles throughout the day and come his afternoon ride with the wolf, it only takes a bit of digging to find out the location of the missing boy’s home. At the city gate, instead of heading towards the forest as usual, he steers Roscoe towards the city’s outer ward that extends beyond the wall, in the direction of the Lahey residence.

The road is well-trodden and dusty from the lack of rain, woodsmoke faint on the air but growing stronger as he approaches the patchwork of dwellings. All are built from wood with stone chimneys and most are only one storey, but with the directions he was given, the Lahey home is easy enough to find. From the outside, it looks to have no more than one room and even from afar he can tell there are no signs of life. The windows and doors are all shut, no washing hanging out to dry or smoke curling from the chimney like the other surrounding homes. He can imagine it would look much the same at night, cold and dark with no welcoming glow of candles.

He brings Roscoe to a halt outside, a gasp drawing his attention to two small boys crouched playing between the opposite houses. They look like brothers, the younger a whole head shorter than the older, and they stare in wide-eyed, open-mouthed amazement as Stiles swings down from his horse.

He smiles and reaches into his pocket to pull out the apple he’d brought along for Roscoe, sinking to a knee to hold it out to the children instead. The youngest, maybe five years old, steps out from between the houses, seemingly more courageous than his brother. Stiles smiles and waits patiently for the boy to take it, reaching for the apple with grubby hands. His smile widens when the older boy darts forward and pushes the younger down into a bow with a hand on the back of his head.

“T-Thank you, Your Highness,” the older stutters, offering a clumsy bow of his own.

As soon as his brother lets him up, the youngest dashes away. “Mama!” he cries, waving the apple aloft in both hands. Stiles chuckles as he watches him go, the oldest showing a sheepish, dimpled smile before he runs off after his brother.

With the boys out of sight, he turns back to Roscoe. The horse doesn’t look impressed by his disappearing treat.

“I’ll get you another when we get back,” Stiles promises with a pat to the horse’s neck.

He turns toward the Lahey house, no longer sure what he’d planned to do or hoped to find now that he’s here. The wolf is already sniffing at the door, following his nose around the side of the building, and Stiles has barely taken one step before the wolf’s tail stiffens and he whines like he’s been kicked. He bounds forward, across the grass and towards the forest treeline, faster than he’s ever run during one of their rides.

“Hey!” Stiles calls after him, no name to shout instead, but the wolf doesn’t stop. Stiles swings into the saddle and steers Roscoe in pursuit.

With the wolf’s head start, Stiles has no hope of closing the gap and can only follow the sound of him crashing through the trees, though the destruction he leaves in his wake is hardly difficult to track. Stiles keeps his head down to guard against low-hanging branches, perched above the saddle to absorb the impact of the pace he’s set with his knees.

After a quarter mile, the trees begin to thin and Roscoe bursts out onto the Farringway Road, thankfully empty of any nearby travellers. The wolf has stopped in the middle of it, facing west towards Venatia. Whatever scent he’d caught must have ended here but Stiles has no way of knowing if it was even the Lahey boy’s scent he was following. Whatever it was, he found something he didn’t like.

Stiles climbs down and approaches him slowly, placing a hand on his heaving flank. The wolf doesn’t tear his eyes away from the distance.

“You tried, boy.”

The wolf whines and no matter how much Stiles wants to believe the missing boy jumped on a carriage of his own free will to seek his fortune elsewhere, the wolf’s agitation has done nothing to put his mind at ease. If nothing else, at least this has roused a bit of emotion out of him.

“Come on, let’s head back,” Stiles coaxes, but the wolf doesn’t move until Stiles uses a gentle hand to steer him away.

 

*

 

Strange news is waiting for them when they get home.

Word has reached the city that the Boyd estate is empty, abandoned. No servants or gardeners can be seen in the grounds and there are no signs of the Lord, or his wife and child. With the way the front gates were found swinging on their hinges, they must have left in a hurry. Stiles wonders if Erica’s condition took a turn for the worse, but the nearest medical help would have been the city and it doesn’t explain the absence of all those in their employ.

There are whispers of Deucalion and the Hales, another punishment for daring to host the Argents again, though there’s no symbol of his handiwork this time to send a message, nor any bodies. Fear ripples through Stiles all the same.

It takes another week to hear news of the reason why.

Stiles is already eating dinner when his father arrives, and he can tell something’s wrong without needing to see the leaden expression on his face by the fact that he’s standing there at all. He’s been so busy this past week that Stiles can’t remember seeing him even once. He doesn’t move to sit so Stiles knows he won’t be staying.

His father wastes no time softening what he’s come to say.

“The Boyds have defected to the East.”

For a moment, the world seems to tilt, all sound muted in his ears behind the pounding of his heartbeat. He takes a breath through his mouth, more like a delayed gasp, and tries to form words with numb lips.

“But— They can’t—”

“They can and they have. One of our eyes in the Astrani capital spotted them seeking audience with the King and Queen.”

Stiles’ cutlery drops to his plate with a clatter, appetite vanished. His chair screeches back as he stands, palms flat on the table as he stares unseeing down at his half-eaten meal. He can feel his father’s eyes on him, betrayal and weariness and, beneath, the unbearable weight of pity.

Stiles strides from the room without knowing where his feet plan to carry him, where he could possibly go to escape this, but he ends up standing at the windows in his rooms with no real memory of getting there. He stares outside, running his fingers through his hair and tugging.

Erica’s pale face from the feast hovers in his mind’s eye, her look of fear beside Vernon’s stoicism, and he realises it couldn’t have been caused by the wolf as he’d first thought.

But why come if they knew they were about to flee? Were they taking it as their chance to say a final goodbye, some sort of remorseful obligation to the friendship and respect nurtured between them since they were children? He racks his brain trying to find a sign of guilt for the imminent betrayal, but he can’t remember the details of their farewell. He’d expected to see them again soon enough so the specifics of the apology they made for needing to leave early are hazy, smudged by his stab of worry for Erica’s health.

He cycles through denial and anger and disbelief, one moment consumed with a blind rage that makes him want to destroy something and the next feverishly trying to come up with any way they could have been coerced, wondering if there was something in their words, some sort of hidden message, a reason why. It’s pointless. He’ll probably never know, and he’ll definitely never understand.

Stiles doesn’t know how much time has passed when Virgil enters the room after knocking and receiving no answer. He takes one look at Stiles sprawled lifelessly on the bed and says, “I’ll prepare a bath.”

“I don’t want a bath,” Stiles murmurs, mouth half-muffled by his pillow.

“You’ll feel better.”

“No, I won’t.”

Virgil ignores him.

When the bath is ready, he pokes and prods at Stiles until he’s up enough to get at the ridiculous number of buttons adorning his clothes and then leaves him alone to bathe himself. Stiles’ first intention is to remain stubborn but he can see the steam rising from the tub and catches a whiff of the lavender and sandalwood oils Virgil has poured in and grudgingly admits that it might make him feel better.

He spots the wolf lying stock still on his pillows, watching as he steps out of his smallclothes. He’d entirely forgotten about him in his daze, but realises now he must have abandoned his dinner as Stiles had and followed him up from the dining room, as faithfully at his heels as always.

Stiles sinks into the water and though the oils Virgil has used would usually be enough to render him blissfully boneless, tonight they do nothing to warm the chill he feels.

He lost his mother when he was a child, his father is too busy to share even meals together, and Scott and Allison are about to start a new chapter of their lives he can’t be a part of. Even Virgil, getting on in years, can’t attend to him as he once had. For months now, Stiles has been waiting to hear mention of retirement, even though he knows the stubborn old man would serve their family to his last breath if he had his way.

And now, Erica and Boyd have abandoned him.

Loneliness that’s been draped over his shoulders like a blanket for almost as far back as he can remember is beginning to wrap him up tight, and when he climbs from the bath he can’t bring himself to get under the bed covers. Once dry and clothed, he collapses on his front, face back in his pillow.

Something touches his shoulder and he lifts his head to look at the wolf standing beside the bed, staring back at him with a depth to his eyes Stiles has never seen before. He runs his fingers through the fur of the wolf’s fluffy cheek, smiling sadly.

“That’s right. I have you, don’t I?” he murmurs.

The wolf stares back, silent as ever, then climbs onto the bed.

Stiles yelps in surprise and so does the bed frame, creaking under the sudden extra weight. The wolf settles half-draped over him, throwing him a haughty look with his nose in the air like he’s daring Stiles to complain.

Stiles laughs and throws his arms around his neck, burying his face in the wolf’s thick fur. His burst of delight sobers as quickly as it came, rushing out of him on a shuddering breath, and he allows himself a few minutes of quiet sniffles, soaking in the wolf’s warmth. The wolf noses at his hair, whining softly.

“I’ve hardly been a very good friend in return, have I?” Stiles asks when he finally sits back, wiping his eyes. His voice is choked with sadness. “I still haven’t given you a name. I’ve spent so long just thinking of you as ‘wolf’, I’ve forgotten that you need one.” He trails his fingers through his fur as he thinks, suddenly struck by an idea.

“Maybe I will just call you Wolf. I know it’s not very imaginative but…” He smiles, thinking back. “My mother would always tell me a story when I was younger, a bedtime story, about a princess whose steed was just called Horse.”

“I haven’t thought about that in such a long time. Probably not since— since she died.” A small trickle of memories filter through a haze of the long-forgotten, lit by candlelight and cloaked in the warmth of his patchwork quilt, his mother’s voice as soothing as a lullaby. A daffodil in a little vase on his bedside table.

“For as long as I could remember, she’d always tell me that belief was a powerful thing,” he says, eyes glazing over as he’s transported back to his childhood. “But no matter how hard I tried to believe she’d get better, it didn’t work. I blamed myself for a long time, thinking if I’d believed just a little bit harder, she might have lived. I guess I stopped believing after that.”

The wolf — Wolf — just stares back at him and though Stiles knows he can’t understand, his solid presence alone is enough to make him feel better. He keeps a hand in Wolf’s fur as he lays back and settles his head on his pillow. The loneliness has eased a little at the reminder of his silent, faithful companion.

“Wolf,” Stiles says quietly, testing the name.

Wolf breathes a short puff of air through his nose, but otherwise, there doesn’t seem to be any complaints.

He still doesn’t get under the covers but the heat Wolf radiates is more than enough to keep him warm. Surprisingly, despite the lingering sting of Erica and Boyd’s betrayal, it doesn’t take long for him to drift off to sleep and he doesn’t wake until past dawn the next morning.

For the first time since he arrived, Wolf is still asleep.

Chapter Text

Wolf sleeps on the bed every night after that, much to Virgil’s dismay. He keeps his muzzle held high in the face of Stiles’ manservant’s wrinkled nose and continues to lounge on the mattress at every opportunity. He’s like a furnace radiating heat and with summer looming, it will soon be warm enough to kick the covers to the floor. Come the winter months, he’ll no longer have need of a pan of coals beneath the mattress to warm his feet.

Since their moment of bonding, Wolf has become more engaged in their day to day, finally running ahead when they go for rides and steering them in whatever direction he pleases. It seems he’s even beginning to build the confidence to wander the castle on his own as, one morning after a night of heavy drinking, Stiles rises late to find him already down in the dining hall eating breakfast.

Despite the initial fright of waking up to find him gone, Stiles is pleased that he’s growing the confidence to go off on his own. He makes sure to praise him for it, hoping it will encourage further independence, though a part of him isn't so eager for that to happen. He's grown reliant on his presence in light of his heightening solitude and though he often wishes he had a companion that could talk back, Stiles is more than capable of doing enough talking for the both of them.

Despite Wolf’s improved temperament, Stiles will still often catch him gazing west towards his old home of Venatia and any mention of his old masters turns his mood quicker than the flip of a coin. Stiles can't help feeling a little jealous that Wolf still prefers them over his company. Still, the plan to spoil him has been going well so far, and so long as Stiles carries on as he has, perhaps Wolf's love for him will eclipse that of the Argent’s before the year is out.

Most recently, Wolf has grown so accustomed to him he’s even begun allowing Stiles to run a brush through his fur. He pushes into the bristles like a cat being stroked, encouraging Stiles to press harder and shuddering as they scratch deep itches. However, eyes that drift shut snap open as soon as the brush strays too close to his collar.

Stiles hasn’t once forgotten Gerard’s words on the night that Wolf was gifted to him, first, that Wolf is tame, and second, that the collar should never be removed under any circumstances. They begin to plague his thoughts and he finds himself wondering if the two could be related. If anything is known about Stiles, it's that he can never withstand his curiosity for long.

One night, encouraged by their burgeoning relationship, Stiles actually lays down the brush and dares to place a hand on the strangely warm metal encircling Wolf's neck. Wolf's head whips round to pin him with one watchful eye.

“I’m just going to look,” Stiles murmurs, brushing his fingers over the collar. Wolf holds deathly still and Stiles can’t tell if he’s even breathing.

He runs a nail down every groove around the collar, searching for any concealed joins or clasps that might be blending in, but no matter how hard he looks, he can’t find any possible way it could have been put on short of it being forged around Wolf’s neck. He runs his fingers over the jewel at the front, trying to press it in hopes it might work as some sort of release for a latch hidden inside, but that’s just as fruitless. He can’t even get his fingers beneath the band. In fact, when he tries, Wolf whimpers and jerks away, sinking to his belly. He’s panting and trembling, ears flat to his head, and Stiles holds up his hands in placation.

“Okay okay okay, I’m sorry! I’m sorry,” he babbles, freezing in place when Wolf flinches back again from his reaching hands. He sits there, arms held motionless in the air as he waits for Wolf's breathing to even out.

It takes longer than he’d like and Wolf's eyes remain fixed on him the entire time without even blinking. When he's stopped panting, Stiles tries reaching out once more and is heartened when Wolf holds his ground.

“There, you’re okay,” Stiles soothes. He inches forward until he can scratch him behind the ears the way he knows Wolf likes, but he snatches his hand back with a gasp to stare at his fingertips, at dark stains coating his skin. He holds his hand to the light of the candle on his bedside table and gapes as the marks are revealed to be sticky smears of blood.

He lunges for the collar, desperate to push it aside to find the wound, but Wolf lurches back.

“Wolf, please, I’m sorry, but I need to see! You’re hurt! Please let me help,” he begs, hands still held out in an effort to calm him.

Wolf snarls. His lips pull back to reveal the full length of his fangs and his fur bristles in warning. Stiles yelps and scrambles backwards, toppling off the side of the bed.

I’m about to die, he thinks, screwing his eyes shut and lifting an arm in some futile way to protect himself as he cowers on the floor. He waits for those fangs to plunge into his flesh and tear him open, but nothing comes.

The bed creaks and Stiles flinches, but when there’s still nothing, he cracks his eyes open to see Wolf slinking from the mattress and pressing himself into the far corner of the room. He makes himself as small as he can go, his sides heaving and muscles tense with what Stiles is dismayed to realise is fear.

“I’m sorry,” he whispers, uselessly. He wishes he could bundle Wolf up in his arms despite the impossibility of their size difference and offer him some comfort but he doesn’t dare approach him again.

Instead, he remains on the floor, eyes fixed on Wolf who stares right back, and while at first he feels like prey pinned in the gaze of a predator, it doesn’t take him long to realise Wolf feels just as vulnerable as he does. It spurs him to take initiative and break eye contact, climbing to his feet on limbs stiffened by the cold stone floor. He's become acutely aware of the thin, tacky coating of blood still on his fingers and he bravely turns his back to reach the wash basin. He keeps his ears strained for any movement behind, but still nothing comes. The muscles in his shoulders loosen and he dips his dirtied hand in the basin.

A thin, rust-coloured cloud swirls from his fingers, the colour almost indiscernible as he swishes his hand in the water. He wonders if it will be enough to leave a stained ring around the edge of the basin and hopes Virgil won't notice anything amiss.

With his hand clean and dry, there's nothing left for him to do but get into bed, the earlier light-hearted mood ruined. He sits up against the headboard and spares a glance at Wolf still in the corner who doesn’t yet show any signs of lowering his guard. His pillows are still on the floor even though he hasn’t used them for the last couple of weeks, but he makes no move to lay on them.

Stiles decides the best thing to do is to leave him to recover in his own time. He won’t be climbing on the bed tonight.

Settling down to sleep feels like that first night all over again, lying awake in the darkness expecting Wolf to change his mind and decide Stiles is a threat. But more than worry, he feels sick. What if Wolf has been in pain the entire time he’s been here, enduring it in silence? But if Wolf won’t let him look at it and he doesn’t know how to get the collar off, he’s not sure if there’s anything he can do.

He’s kept awake by his ticking mind for most of the night, and when he does manage to sleep, he drifts in and out, the hours passing in a haze. When the rising sun begins to glow through the curtains, he’s jolted from a fitful doze by Wolf climbing onto the bed. It’s tentative, keeping his eyes on Stiles as he carefully approaches, like the human is the easily-spooked animal. Stiles remains still, afraid even the slightest twitch of a finger will have Wolf bolting back to his corner, and allows him to settle on the other side of the bed. He gets the impression it’s Wolf’s way of telling him they should move on from the events of last night, but there’s no way Stiles can forget the blood that had been on his fingers.

He's distracted all through breakfast, which is a shame as it's the first time in a while his father has been available to eat with him. It's not until his father mentions Princess Katherine has sent word she'll be visiting on her way back to Venatia from the front lines that he really pays attention. At hearing her name, Wolf's head snaps up and by the time his father has finished delivering the news, he’s raced from the dining hall and out of sight.

“Did I say something wrong?” his father jokes.

Stiles bites at his lip, picking at a slice of bread on his plate and squeezing small lumps back to dough. “He probably just needed to go outside.”

It's the first place he checks once he's eaten and Wolf hasn't returned, but the guards outside haven't seen him. He returns to his rooms, the only other place he can think to find him, and sure enough, there he is laying on the bed with his head resting on his paws.

Stiles kneels in front of him. “I know you miss your old masters,” he says. “If it's really what you want, I can ask Kate to take you back to Venatia with her.”

Wolf's nostrils flare as he exhales, whining softly. Stiles isn't sure how to read it, especially when he knows Wolf doesn't understand him.

“It's time for my lessons. Whether you stay or accompany me is up to you.”

As he heads for the door, he's heartened to hear the pad of Wolf's paws as he steps down from the bed, but in the study where he meets his teachers, Wolf sits just out of reach of the hands Stiles would usually run through his fur as he listens. It stings, but he’s aware the memory of those same fingers inflicting pain while tugging on his collar is likely still raw. After his careful progress to make Wolf happy here, they’ve taken five steps back. All he can do is stick to their usual routine and hope he manages to regain some of the lost ground.

Thankfully, it isn’t difficult to coax Wolf out for their mid-afternoon ride, but where the pastime would usually be a welcome reprieve from his duties, he can only think about the collar all the while. He wonders if he should take Wolf to a groom at the stable when he returns Roscoe, or even a physician, to see if they can find the reason for Wolf’s injury. But he isn’t sure that’s a good idea. It might have been only his familiarity with Stiles that kept him from lashing out with his claws and he’s worried about the safety of a stranger attempting the same thing.

But the question is, what if he's right? What if it is the collar that guarantees keeping him tame? Wolf may have just been despising him all this time and would like nothing better than to sink his teeth into Stiles’ throat for the humiliation of being forced to be a pet, a magnificent wild animal who should be roaming free. The thought that Wolf might only be his companion against his will stings, but not enough for him to choose it over Wolf being allowed freedom.

Wolf trots along in front of Roscoe, seeming happy enough to be in the fresh air and sunshine, though Stiles is realising it’s probably because he gets to spend time in what should be his natural habitat.

A twig snaps to their right, pulling Stiles back into the moment, and his eyes dart to scan the surrounding trees. Twenty feet away between two small beeches stands a young buck, the beginnings of new antlers twisting from his head and covered in velvet. The deer stays frozen for a long second of hesitation, until his flight instinct wins and he bolts. Wolf howls as he gives chase.

This is his natural environment, Stiles thinks as he nudges Roscoe after him at a trot.

They emerge into a wide clearing, the grass dotted with daisies and forget-me-nots, while a waning sea of bluebells floods the inside of the opposite treeline. It’s towards this stretch of woods that the buck is headed, but his speed is no match for Wolf’s. If he’d remained in the trees, perhaps he would have been able to slip away, Wolf’s bulk unable to follow through the narrower gaps between the trunks. In the open space, it has no hope of escape. In fact, Stiles is just thinking they’ll be having venison for dinner, but Wolf’s final pounce is cut short and he slows. The buck disappears into the brush, the sound of his escape fading to Stiles’ ears. Roscoe trots forward until Stiles draws him to a halt beside Wolf, reaching down to ruffle the fur on top of his head.

“A direwolf with a conscience,” he marvels.

Wolf huffs and shakes off his hand, turning to plod back the way they came. Stiles watches him go, wondering what could have changed for him to lose the spring in his step of only minutes before. Perhaps he presumed too much by reaching out to touch him. He stifles a sigh before steering Roscoe to follow.

It seems they’re in for a gloomy journey back to the castle, but before they can even return to the trees, Wolf freezes. His head snaps towards the east, ears pricked.

“What is it, boy? Have you found another?” Stiles asks, squinting into the shadows beneath the trees in search of any fleeing white tails.

In answer, Wolf bounds back towards Stiles and plants himself between Roscoe and the treeline, body lowering to the ground like he’s readying himself to pounce as a fearsome growl rips from his throat.

Stiles’ hand flies to the pommel of his sword and he swallows hard. “What is it?”

Wolf’s growl continues, and no matter how hard Stiles strains his ears, he can’t hear any sound of what might have him so agitated.

“Wolf—”

There’s a flash of something red through the trees, something large disturbing the underbrush that his eyes, used to the sunlight of the clearing, can’t focus on. It moves closer to the treeline and Stiles gasps.

A woman is coming towards them, dappled sunlight falling on tan skin and long dark hair, framing a face he remembers well despite not having seen it for many years. The last time would have been before the war began, and an image from his childhood flashes through his mind of that same dark hair gathered up in an elaborate knot, of a sharp smile and low-cut bodice drawing scandalised glances from the nobles also attending the feast, and an arm held out to act as a support and guide for her husband, the Blind King.

“Kali,” he spits, and draws his sword, but he fumbles when she steps into the open and he realises she’s naked, no sign of a pack or any other belongings in sight.

His first thought is witchcraft, some sort of illusion meant to distract him, but he knows Wolf can see her too, unless he’s sensing the threat of whatever is behind the enchantment. But a quick glance shows Wolf has his eyes fixed on Kali still approaching, and though that brings a modicum of relief, fear still has him frozen in his saddle. If this really is the Queen of Astran for some reason part of a harebrained scheme to catch him off-guard, then that means there must be Astrani soldiers hidden in the trees. Where there’s a Queen, there’s an army after all, and he’s wandered straight into their clutches. He chances a glance over his shoulder but mentally curses when he finds he can see as little amongst the trees as he had when Kali had been approaching.

The Queen of Astran shows no embarrassment at her vulnerable state. In fact, she seems not to notice it at all, captivated instead by Wolf snarling in front of her.

“So the stories are true.” She takes a step closer and Wolf takes one back. Roscoe shifts his hooves.

She turns blazing eyes on Stiles. “We heard news you’d received a pet from the Argents, but it was Sir Vernon and Lady Erica who brought us the truth.”

Her words work as well as a punch to the gut.

“Vernon…” Stiles’ wrist weakens and his sword begins to falter, head spinning. To hear confirmation of the Boyd’s betrayal from Kali’s own mouth has his blood running cold. Any denial he’d tried to cling to in the days since their defection crumbles away and the simmerings of fury it had warred with takes its place, helping to bring the current situation into clarity. He isn’t the only one in danger right now. If Kali is here, then an army is probably advancing on the city while he's distracted, wasting whatever precious seconds he has left to warn his people.

While his thoughts have been occupied, Kali has crouched down in front of Wolf and is reaching out a careful hand. “You can come with me now,” she says to him, paying no heed to the growls still coming out of his mouth. Stiles doesn’t know why Wolf doesn’t just bite her.

“You’re not taking him anywhere,” he retorts, glad that his voice betrays none of the tremors that he feels.

Kali ignores him. Her fingers touch Wolf’s collar but she hisses, jerking back with the force of a static shock. She stares down at her hand, then back up at Wolf.

“What have they done to you?” she wonders aloud, staring at the collar. Her face hardens. “You need to come with me.”

“He’s not going anywhere!” Stiles repeats, spurring Roscoe forward.

Wolf swings his head towards him and roars, and Roscoe dances back a few paces. Stiles manages to hold him steady, the weeks he’s spent learning Wolf isn’t a threat making it easier to calm him. Stiles knows Wolf is telling them to run and he’s foolish to stay, but his curiosity — as always — is getting the better of him.

Kali ignores Wolf’s outburst and reaches for him again, but this time Wolf snaps at her fingers and retreats closer to Stiles. She rises to her feet.

“You would stay here? As a pet?” she sneers.

Wolf’s only answer is to remain planted in front of Stiles.

Kali’s eyes flash. “I won’t be offering to save you again.” And with that, she melts back into the trees. Stiles thinks he sees another flash of red but then she’s lost in the darkness, and he’s spurring Roscoe back towards the castle with Wolf at his heels. He doesn’t see any concealed soldiers or hear any telltale clinks of armour but he keeps low in the saddle in case of any arrows let fly. As soon as they reach the trail they’d been following through the woods before the buck, Roscoe increases his pace to a full gallop and Stiles prays they’re not too late.

When they burst onto the plain between the forest and the city, Stiles’ stomach clenches, expecting fire and smoke and screaming. But the city appears to be going about a regular day, oblivious to the danger lurking outside its walls. All of that changes at his approach.

“Close the gates!” he shouts, clutching the reins in one hand and waving the other wildly above his head. “Close the gates!”

After a second of dumbfounded gaping, the guards spring to action and obey without question. Roscoe charges through and a few travellers are ushered in before he hears the creak of the gates being winched shut behind them as Wolf takes the lead, clearing a path through bewildered citizens for Roscoe to follow. Whether the castle guards saw the city gates closing or just know something’s amiss by the speed of his return, the castle gates are already mostly closed when he reaches them, shutting the rest of the way with a resounding boom as soon as he’s safely inside.

His father is already jogging down the front steps, shadowed by the Captain of the Guard.

“Stiles, what—”

“Kali was in the forest,” Stiles gasps as he swings down from Roscoe’s saddle and leans over to rest his hands on his knees. His heart is hammering as if he ran back to the city on his own legs.

His father's spine stiffens and the concern of a parent is replaced by that of a King. “How large was her force?”

Stiles falters. “I— I don’t know. She was alone.”

“Did she try to attack?”

“No. She had no weapons. She—” She was naked. The words lodge in his throat. They’d be difficult enough to say without the look of utter disbelief beginning to cloud his father’s face. The Captain is silent, an intimidating presence at his father’s side.

“Son, are you sure—”

Stiles’ eyes flash. His cheeks are flushed but he raises his head defiantly. “I know what she looks like.” He just wishes Wolf could talk and confirm his story.

His father grimaces and doesn’t pursue the matter. “Did she say anything to you?”

“She was only interested in Wolf. She wanted him to go with her.” He knows how silly it sounds before it’s even out of his mouth, but he suppresses a wince and forces himself not to look away from his father’s scrutinising gaze.

“I’ll lead a force out to the forest myself and see if we can get an idea of where she’s headed,” the Captain says and the King nods. Stiles does his best to describe the exact location of their encounter and then the Captain salutes and marches back inside the castle.

“I know what I saw,” Stiles says before his father can say anything else. “I know how it sounds, but I’m not making this up.”

His father pauses, but not in hesitation. Instead, he holds Stiles’ gaze.  “I know. And because I believe you, you’re confined to the city for the foreseeable future and you will go nowhere without an armed escort.”

Stiles opens his mouth to protest, but closes it again with a sigh through his nose when he realises there’s nothing to argue. He supposes he’s lucky he isn’t being confined to the castle.

With his news relayed and the situation in the Captain’s capable hands, all that’s left for Stiles to do is wait. His father begins his confinement by ushering him inside and Stiles takes the opportunity to retreat to the comfort of his bedchamber. Inside the castle is an organised burst of activity, the Captain already beginning arrangement to tighten the security in the castle. When Stiles reaches his rooms, Wolf at his heel, it’s to find sentries have already been stationed directly outside his quarters in addition to the guards who usually patrol the halls.

Wolf is more at ease as soon as they have the door shut behind them, climbing up onto the bed to stretch out like he hasn’t a care in the world. Stiles sits on the bed next to him. Now his adrenaline is fading, he’s starting to feel shaky, different scenarios of how things could have gone racing through his head, battling a fresh unease as he wonders what the coming days might bring.

But even amongst all that, first and foremost is confusion over Kali’s interest in Wolf. She'd barely looked at Stiles once in the whole encounter, but to think she'd really been there just for Wolf as she'd have him believe is ludicrous.

To occupy his restless hands he runs his fingers through Wolf’s fur, scratching under his jaw and behind his ears.

“What could she have wanted with you?” Stiles murmurs, leaning forward to rest his forehead against Wolf’s.

When the Captain returns, the news is as Stiles feared. Though the scouts found some bare footprints where Stiles specified, Kali’s tracks become muddled by Wolf’s paw prints and give no hint as to which way she went. More scouts have been sent towards Astran and the front lines in search of any news that might not have reached them yet, perhaps of Astrani soldiers breaking through. If it really is as they all fear, they may have reached a turning point in the war.

Tensions in the city and the castle itself remain high for the next few days, and Stiles isn’t the only one who suffers with the heightened security. When the gates are opened again, all passage in and out of the city undergoes thorough checks in case Kali — travelling alone or lightly — tries to get inside. From his window, Stiles can see a line of people waiting to enter the city extending far beyond the wall. Despite all the inconvenience, he’s glad that what should be considered a tall tale is at least being taken seriously.

But more than his own discomfort, he hates that Wolf has to be confined in this way. Their daily rides have had to become walks through the gardens instead which he knows aren’t even close to the sort of exercise a direwolf needs. If Kali hadn’t made it so clear that Wolf is her primary interest, he’d be happy to allow him out of the city to run on his own, but he can’t take any chances. She may have given Wolf the option to accompany her, but if she encounters him alone, he wouldn’t put it past her to try and take him by force. Not that he has any idea how she might achieve that, naked and defencelessly human as she is, but with the strangeness of the situation, he doesn’t doubt that she’d manage to find a way.

“I wish you’d torn her throat out. Then maybe we’d be a step closer to ending this war,” Stiles says to Wolf one afternoon a few days after the incident. They’re sitting beneath a sprawling old oak near the centre of the gardens drawing out as much time as possible before he’s forcibly summoned to his afternoon lessons. He sighs. “Or maybe it would have made things even worse. Still, it would have been proof that I haven’t gone crazy. I’m not crazy, am I?” he asks, a hand on each of Wolf’s fluffy cheeks.

A slobbery tongue swiping up his face is all the answer he gets and he laughs through a grimace as he wipes it off on the shoulder of his doublet. If any good can come from their encounter with Kali, it's that Wolf seems more affectionate than even before the ordeal with his collar.

Stiles knows there are mutterings amongst the guards questioning whether he’s of a sound mind, and he tries not to think about how loud those mutterings might be amongst the rest of their people. They may have found footsteps corroborating his story, but from an outsider’s perspective they could have been left by anyone. He’s sure they’re thinking there’s a higher chance he encountered a madwoman with an uncanny likeness rather than the Astrani queen, alone and so deep in enemy territory. He’s sure even his own father doubts him despite his assurances to the contrary.

At the moment, he feels like Wolf is the only one he can rely on. With his spiritless disposition from when they first met, he’s always wondered how the animal really feels about him, and now his loyalty is confirmed. He put himself between Stiles and Kali, recognising her as an enemy just from the sound of her footfalls, or maybe her scent. He’s grateful to have him as a companion, and he’s grateful to the Argents too. There’s no telling what might have happened if Wolf hadn’t been by his side.

With the bond between them stronger than it had been, it has Stiles all the more eager to remove that collar. If it really has been keeping Wolf tame as he suspects, he’s confident he knows Stiles means him no harm, though all of that is useless if he still can’t work out how the thing is even fastened. Wolf’s reaction to Stiles touching it had been intriguing enough, but then he’d witnessed that strange moment where it seemed to burn Kali’s skin and now he just wants to tear it off any way he can. In the wake of the traumatic experience that was his last attempt to get his hands on it, he hasn’t yet mustered the courage to try again.

Even a week later he can still barely sleep for thinking about it, lying awake tossing and turning. The time of year is at the stage where he’s too hot for the covers, but soon gets too cold without them, and the discomfort is just heightened by his restless mind.

A few hours must have passed by the time he manages to reach the edge of sleep, mind ready to drift. Until he starts to shiver. He heaves a sigh and reaches out for the corner of the sheets to pull them back over himself, searching beneath with his feet for Wolf’s warmth and wiggling his toes to worm them beneath the weight of his body.

Wolf lifts his head and grumbles but shifts closer, stretching out beside him. Stiles’ half-shut eyes snap open. The gem on Wolf’s collar is gleaming just as it always is. But that isn’t possible. There’s no light in the room for it to be reflecting.

How could it have taken so long for him to notice?

Already trembling, he leans closer, mouth agape as he realises the jewel is acting as its own light source. All breath leaves him in a rush and he freezes as the light it’s emitting flickers like the flame of a candle.

He scrambles to his knees, not taking his eyes off the jewel for a second. His hand reaches out to touch, but Wolf’s head jerks up, an amorphous shape in the darkness. He must be worried Stiles is taking an opportunity to start tugging at his collar again, and Stiles doesn’t want to chance him lashing out on half-asleep instincts.

Instead, he snatches his hand back and rolls out of bed to light a candle. Wolf grumbles and tries to hide his face from the light but Stiles pokes him in the side.

“Come on. Up. Up. I just want to look,” he whispers.

Wolf lifts his head with a long-suffering huff and Stiles takes his opportunity to lean close to the collar, careful to keep his hands behind his back in a clear show of keeping them off.

With the room now lit, the light of the jewel is impossible to see no matter how close he gets, and he has no choice but to cup his hands around it despite Wolf’s quiet whimper.

“Shhhh,” Stiles soothes, treating him as he would Roscoe when spooked. “I promise I’m not going to hurt you again. I’m just looking. Just looking.”

Keeping his movements slow and deliberate, he manages to cup his hands around it, murmuring assurances all the while. The metal is as warm as ever, though nowhere near hot enough to cause the sort of pain Kali had displayed. He marvels as pale yellow light illuminates his skin, still flickering and dancing like a flame in a draft, and he finds himself holding his breath as he stares in amazement. His eyes widen further when the light stills between his hands as a candle might when shielded from a breeze.

He blows out a breath between his lips almost without thinking, sure what happened just now must have been a trick of the shifting light of the nearby candle.

The light sputters and he sits back on his heels in shock. He stays there for so long that Wolf starts to lower his head back to the mattress, out of patience for his master’s experiment. Stiles coaxes him back up, ignoring a grumpy glare, and tries blowing on the jewel again and again, and though it doesn’t seem to be getting him anywhere, he’s certain, down to his very core, that he’s on the verge of discovering something important.

After what must be ten minutes of no progress, Wolf huffs and finally pulls away from him, rolling over to curl up with his back towards the light. Stiles refuses to give in to defeat.

“No. No, I’m not finished yet. I’m going to get to the bottom of this if it kills me.”

He clambers off the end of the bed and scurries round to kneel on the floor at Wolf’s side. At Wolf’s dark look, he wonders how long he has before he starts baring his fangs again. He needs to solve this quickly.

This has to work, he thinks to himself. It has to. He closes his eyes and pictures the light going out, every fibre of his being willing it to be true. There’s no other way he can think of to get this thing off and he’s starting to get desperate.

With that image held in his mind, he opens his eyes, leans forward, and blows.

The light quivers like a flame clinging to life in a storm, and though he can’t see any difference from any of his other attempts, he holds on to the picture in his mind, trying to believe there’s a chance, against all possibility that he might will it into existence. The light flickers for so long he almost sits back to laugh at his own stupidity. He's ready to do just that, running out of air in his lungs to blow when—

The jewel goes dark.

Stiles can’t believe what he’s seeing. It has to be a trick of the light, or maybe his eyes, tired after so long of staring at one place. He lifts his hands to cup them around the jewel once more but gasps when his fingers touch cold metal. The collar shifts under his hand and he takes hold of it, watching as it comes away from Wolf’s neck. Whatever that jewel was, it must have been some sort of lock, or in control of an invisible clasp, or—

No. It isn’t the collar.

Wolf’s neck is shrinking. The collar is still a solid band, resisting Stiles’ attempts to pull it open, but Wolf is smaller than he had been only moments before, enough that Stiles can get the tip of his finger beneath the collar all the way around, and then there’s even a gap between his finger and Wolf’s fur. His finger brushes against something on the inside band of the collar, something sharp, and his stomach drops into his feet when he catches sight of half-inch long spikes dark with blood.

He lifts it free over Wolf's head and drops it to the floor with a heavy clank . Wolf’s eyes glow gold, so much brighter than the flicker of light from the jewel, and Stiles scrambles back as he starts to writhe and tumble off the edge of the mattress. On the floor, a nasty crack comes from his body, then another and another like the snapping of bone, and he starts to look misshapen, back legs a little too long and muzzle somehow flatter, the shape of his paws distorted with new protrusions. Worse still, his fur seems to be thinning, pale skin peeking through even though Stiles can’t see it falling out.

Dread sweeps through him so hard he thinks he might be sick. What if Gerard told him never to remove the collar because it was the only thing keeping Wolf alive?

What has he done?

Stiles presses his back to the wall, helpless to do anything but watch as Wolf shrivels up in front of him, the crack of bone becoming more infrequent as he gets smaller and thinner as if he has some sort of disease.

But his mounting panic starts to give way to confusion. He’s beginning to see familiarities in Wolf’s changing form, in the way his ears have moved down to the sides of his now dome-shaped head and how the strange additions to his paws are beginning to look more like fingers.

When the process finally seems to end, Stiles is sure he must have suffered a blow to the head because a man lies curled before him. Mostly a man, Stiles corrects himself hysterically as Wolf weakly lifts his head and reveals a fang-filled mouth and distorted, heavy brow shadowing still-glowing eyes. But he’s definitely no longer a direwolf.

“Holy shit,” Stiles gasps. “Holy shit, you’re—”

He turned him into a human! What kind of dark magic is this?

Wolf manages to get a hand beneath himself to sit up, his legs pedalling uselessly like a newborn foal in an effort to push himself back against the wall. He’s trembling as if from cold or fear — probably a mixture of both. If Stiles is at his wit’s end, he can’t fathom how overwhelmed Wolf must be feeling.

He swallows hard and carefully reaches for the bedsheets behind himself, numb fingers grasping as well as if they've been plunged into icy water for the better part of an hour. When he manages to get hold, he slowly drags the covers from the bed. With one look at the fangs and claws, Stiles decides he's not feeling brave enough to move closer so he throws the sheet towards Wolf instead, the fabric draping over him and at least affording him some modesty.

Wolf grips a corner in one hand, claws shredding the material as he pulls it closer, clutching it to a chest dark with hair, sparse remnants of the fur he’d had only moments before.

Stiles holds up his hands, shaking just as badly as Wolf. “It’s Stiles,” he tries. “Do you remember?” He has to dig deep for some courage, but he holds out a hand slowly, so slowly, hoping his scent might spark some recognition. Those gold eyes track his every movement and though he doesn’t relish bringing his hand so close to those fangs, he’s rewarded by flaring nostrils, a familiar Wolf mannerism even in human form.

Before Stiles’ eyes, Wolf’s angular brow melts away, along with the pointed ears and the thick sideburns, just like his fur had. The eyes don’t stop glowing, but Stiles can better see his sharp cheekbones, his black hair and his longer two front teeth where he pants through his open mouth.

If Stiles hadn’t already been on his knees, they would have buckled beneath him as those features register and he places a name to the person impossibly sitting before him.

“Derek?” he breathes, and just like the glinting jewel in the collar, the glow in the man’s eyes winks out, leaving familiar green and gold in its wake. Eyes Stiles thought he’d never see again.

“St—” Derek is overwhelmed by wracking coughs. “Stiles.”

His voice is so hoarse, Stiles didn’t realise at first that he’d been trying to speak. It sounds more like the growls he’d made when he was a direwolf, his human vocal cords rusty with disuse.

“You’re bleeding,” Stiles murmurs blankly, lifting a corner of the sheet to press to the wounds at his neck. But when he wipes away a trickle of blood, he only finds unmarred skin.

His head hurts, like his brain is a sponge that’s suddenly been tossed into a pool of water, absorbing too much information at once and unable to make heads or tails of it. He wants to bury his head in the bedcovers and pass out for a week, anything other than stop and unpack the fact that Derek Hale, dead Derek Hale, is sitting alive before him and has been his pet direwolf for the past two months.

The sheet falls from Stiles’ limp hand as he slides from his knees and sits heavily on the cold stone floor. Flurries of questions are racing through him, so many that the words become a jumble he can’t order inside his head, let alone voice out loud. Where to even begin?

A hand settles on top of his, warm and real and clawless, and though that should be enough to set his head spinning anew, the contact serves as a grounding weight for him to focus on instead, enough for him to find his voice.

“What’s going on?” he manages, almost slurring.

Derek clears his throat again but his voice still cracks and rasps when he speaks. “Tell me what you know.”

Disbelief sweeps through him and he manages to lift his gaze to Derek’s. “Does it look like I know anything right now?”

Derek’s hand tightens around his and Stiles slumps, the emotions draining as swiftly as they came. He takes a deep breath and lets it rush out of him as he racks his brain to put what he knows — or thought he knew — into order. It’s difficult to do even that with this new conflicting evidence.

“Deucalion burnt down the Hale manor with everyone inside it five years ago, and that’s why Stellaris joined the war,” Stiles manages eventually,  “Only, everyone wasn’t inside,” he amends. “You’re alive—”

“All of us,” Derek interjects.

“All of you?”

“The Argents keep us as wolves in an enclosure in the grounds of their palace.”

“The Argents?” Stiles echoes in disbelief. “But— How? Why?

Derek holds up a hand and Stiles watches as thick, curved claws grow in place of his fingernails, seemingly at his control. “I’m a werewolf.”

“A direwolf,” Stiles corrects. He’s heard of the werewolf myth before, but they’re supposed to be affected by the full moon and still retain some semblance of a human form and they attack people and livestock. They don’t turn into actual wolves.

“No. Direwolves don’t exist.”

“But you’re—”

“What people call direwolves have just been sightings of fully-shifted Alpha werewolves. They’re not a real species,” Derek explains, beginning to sound impatient with him. It’s hardly fair considering every word out of Derek’s mouth so far has been little better than gobbledegook.

“What’s an Alpha? And what does ‘fully-shifted’ mean?”

Derek growls in frustration and it makes Stiles jump. He immediately looks abashed. “I’m sorry,” he whispers, head thudding back against the wall in exhaustion. “There’s just too much to explain.”

Stiles stares at the drying blood around his bared throat, the wounds healed but the memory of them more than enough to churn his stomach. He presses the heels of his palms to his eyes in an effort to relieve some of the throbbing pressure behind.

“I’m going to clean you up and get you some clothes, and while I’m doing it, you can get the story in order,” he says, lowering his hands to stare at Derek with bleary eyes. “Then we’ll sit up on the bed and you’ll tell me everything from the beginning, whether you think it’s important or not.”

Derek’s shoulders are slumped but he nods and Stiles helps him to his feet. The sheet gets lost in the process, and though Derek shows no concern, Stiles keeps his gaze emphatically averted as they stagger over to the bed. He wets a cloth in the wash basin and makes a few trips back and forth, dabbing away the blood and wringing it out in the water, trying not to openly marvel at the disappeared wounds. The colour of the water won’t escape Virgil’s notice this time, especially not with the state of the sheets. Stiles will have to tell him that Wolf scratched himself in his sleep.

That thought makes him falter where he wrings out the cloth. He can’t think of him as Wolf anymore. As his pet. But how is he supposed to refer to him now? And what is he supposed to say when ‘Wolf’ doesn’t accompany him to breakfast tomorrow because the direwolf is now a human? He gives himself a shake. He doesn’t even know the full story yet. He needs to hear Derek out before he starts giving any thought to what to do next.

With the blood gone, Stiles finds one of his long nightshirts and pulls it over Derek’s head, helping to manoeuvre his arms into the sleeves when he fumbles with the material. It’s like helping to dress an infant and Stiles wonders how long it’s been since he’s had the need to wear clothes. Derek keeps his gaze lowered, but it doesn’t hide his pink ears or the glum set of his mouth.

With all that taken care of, Stiles passes him the glass of water from his bedside table. Derek guzzles the entire thing, water dribbling down his chin like he’s forgotten how to drink from a cup. He probably has. So much of this situation could be the first time in years that Derek has had to perform everyday motions. Stiles isn’t going to cause humiliation by commenting on any of it.

He pours Derek some more water from the pitcher and sits back as he takes a small sip.

“Tell me what I need to know.”

Derek starts by telling him more about werewolves, about ‘pack dynamics’ and ‘Alphas’ and what it means to ‘shift’. It isn’t what he’s most keen to know. He’s burning with curiosity over how Derek came to be a captive in the first place, but if Derek considers this ‘need to know’ he’ll have to try wrapping his head around this first. It’s all difficult for him to get a grasp of.

“So, you’re the leader of your pack. An Alpha,” he says when he’s sure he has a better understanding.

“No, my mother is the Alpha of our pack.”

Stiles flails his arms. “But you said direwolves are just ‘shifted’ Alphas!”

“Just— put that aside for now,” Derek says, looking like he’s two seconds away from pinching the bridge of his nose. “I’ll get to that in a minute.” He pauses to order his thoughts again and Stiles holds the inside of his lips between his teeth; he’s going to try not to interrupt anymore.

“Our pack was made up of my family and a few of our members of staff. We still don’t know how the Argents found out about us, but it was probably from a woman named Araya. She’s infamous among our kind as the hunter responsible for driving all werewolves from the south in her crusade to wipe us out. She found like minds in the Argents and saw she could make use of the reach their power gives them. She’s the one responsible for the lovely designs of our collars.”

Stiles looks at the collar out of the corner of his eye, like some sort of hunting trap sat in the middle of the floor.

“The Argents attacked at night. They knocked us out with wolfsbane, a poison that can be deadly to us depending on the strain used. When I woke up, we were already in Venatia, one to a cell in an unused dungeon beneath the palace. Most of it is hazy. They kept us weak with wolfsbane so we were powerless to fight back, but I do remember when they brought a woman to see us, a sorceress named Jennifer Blake. You might know her better as Julia Baccari—”

“The Lady Julia Baccari who blinded Deucalion?” Stiles interrupts. Derek looks pleased that that's at least one thing he won't have to explain.

Her name is known across the entire continent, the Astrani Royal Physician who, after years of loyal service, decided to make an attempt on King Deucalion’s life. She disappeared without a trace after succeeding at only taking his eyes. Hearing she’s a sorceress is easy enough for him to believe, but he had no idea that she’d surfaced in Venatia.

“The very same. With her magic, she created a specific strain of wolfsbane that can force a shift in any werewolf if it enters the bloodstream.” Derek holds out his human hands and stares at them. “They put Araya’s collars around our necks while we were still human.” His voice drops to a rasp once more and he starts to shake. “Then would come the wolfsbane and we'd lose control. It burns like nothing I’ve ever felt, and as my body grew, the spikes—”

Stiles grabs Derek’s hands, not knowing what else to do.

“But how could they do that to you?” Stiles whispers, barely able to find his voice. “To think you’d been bleeding all this time...”

Derek shakes his head. “We have accelerated healing. When it couldn’t push the spikes out, I healed around them somehow. When you were taking a look at it, it reopened the wounds, that’s why there was fresh blood when—”

“Don’t,” Stiles pleads, eyes squeezed shut and swallowing down bile. That situation had been awful enough, but to hear the reason for Wolf’s — for Derek’s — distress is more horrific than he ever could have imagined.

“With the size of my wolf body, they wouldn’t dig in as deep as you’d think.”

Don’t,” Stiles says again. To hear Derek trying to make little of it, even to make Stiles feel better, is too gross to comprehend. His heart is hammering in his chest, in disgust and horror and fury.

Derek stays silent for a while, mercifully, but eventually he continues.

Stiles didn’t think it could get any worse. He was wrong.

“Cora was first,” Derek murmurs. “They made us watch.” His voice is tinged with laughter and it sends a fresh wave of nausea through Stiles as he wonders if that was the reaction the Argent’s had, their equivalent of evening entertainment.

The laughter becomes a sob and Derek buckles before his eyes. Stiles flings his arms around him. He wants to offer the same grounding touch Derek had given him earlier, but he also just needs something to hold onto in a world turned upside down.

With Derek safely in his arms and free of his abuse at the hands of the Argents, first to the tip of his tongue are words of reassurance, reminders that it’s over now. But even though Derek is out of the Argent’s clutches, his family have still been stuck in the same hell for the past few months, most likely with no knowledge of what's become of him.

Instead, he stays quiet, not sure what else there is to say. He takes the opportunity to sift through everything he’s witnessed ever since Derek arrived at the feast, examining it through a new lens. The way the Argents referred to him as ‘it’, Kate even going so far as to refer to him as a ‘filthy animal’ while later acting like he was the apple of her eye, claiming she would miss him. He realises now that those were the actions of a tormentor, not a loving owner. And that doesn’t even begin to cover her sly mention of the Hales and their handsome son, right where Derek could hear her while being unable to say a word.

And Kali knew. She knew exactly what Derek was, and she’d come all that way to get him. Which leads Stiles to his most terrifying realisation yet.

“Deucalion had nothing to do with this.” It’s not even a question. It doesn’t need to be.

He feels numb as Derek shakes his head.

“Then— Then our part in this war has all been based on a lie.”

All this time, they believed the Hales were killed by Deucalion, but how easy it must have been for the Argents to etch his royal emblem in the Hale manor door, all that was left standing of their handiwork.

“The Argents wanted you as allies and wanted to remove a werewolf ‘threat’. They fear us. It’s that fear which started this whole war in the first place, when they discovered Deucalion and his family are werewolves.”

Stiles thinks of Kali naked and alone in the forest, her footprints becoming muddled by a direwolf’s prints belonging to her, not Wolf. “And Prince Aiden’s death, he—”

“Not a riding accident,” Derek confirms.

Everything is beginning to make sense, like he’d been looking through a distorted window and is suddenly on the other side of it — or more like the window has been smashed into a thousand, irreparable pieces.

“But why would they give you away in the first place? Weren’t they risking everything if anyone ever found out?”

“You weren’t supposed to have the spark. They never would have given me to you if they’d known.”

“Spark?”

Derek pauses to study him. “You don’t know? It’s the potential for magic, like Jennifer has. But it’s weak in you, so faint I couldn’t smell it until tonight when you managed to undo the magic in the collar.” Derek leans in to sniff him. “It’s faded from you even now.”

“But I had no idea!” Stiles exclaims, staring down at his palms in amazement — and a little bit of fear. “How did I even use it?”

“You told me your mother spoke to you about the power of belief. I think that has something to do with it. Perhaps she intended to explain it to you one day but just never had the chance.”

Stiles’ hands fall limp in his lap as he thinks about his mother, of how impossible it seems that she might have had any knowledge of sorcery or of ‘sparks’. If only she could have imparted some of that knowledge, he may have realised what Wolf was sooner. But more than anything, he just wishes she was here.

Derek must be wishing the same of his own mother, still in captivity along with the rest of his family, his pack. Stiles might not be able to see his again, not until his own time comes, but Derek still has that chance. He can still be reunited. But where are they even supposed to go from here?

“We’re going to fix this,” Stiles says, looking up from his hands to Derek sagging into the pillow propping him up.

“How?” Derek asks, all of his despair distilled into a single word.

“I don’t know yet,” Stiles says, shrugging. “But we will.”

Derek gazes down at his hands, and though his eyes speak of unfathomable sadness, a small smile still manages to curve his lips. “That’s more hope than I had an hour ago.”

Right now, it seems like an impossible task and though Stiles doesn’t have any answers yet, he’s sure they’ll be able to come up with something. The Argent’s don’t know that Stiles has found out the truth and that, at least, will work to their advantage. But before they can begin to formulate any kind of plan, there’s so much more that Derek needs to tell him, starting with why the Argent’s made him a gift in the first place.

“What about the reason for giving you away? You didn’t answer—” But Derek has already fallen asleep.

He looks fragile in comparison to the first sight Stiles got of him, clawed and fanged and neck ringed with blood. His features look delicate in sleep, eyes remaining still beneath his eyelids in what is hopefully a dreamless sleep, breathing softly through parted lips. He deserves a few peaceful hours of uninterrupted sleep.

As Stiles watches him, he marvels that he’s finally gotten his answer about the collar but it was the absolute furthest thing from what he’d been expecting. From just wanting his pet direwolf to live a free life, he’s unearthed a conspiracy and as good as brought someone back from the dead.

There’s still so much he doesn’t know, and though a part of him wants to nudge Derek awake to make him fill in all of those blanks, it’s not difficult to stay his hand. Derek must have been tired enough from the day before, let alone the addition of whatever exhaustion he might be feeling from his transformation and everything he’s had to relive.

There’s time for more talk in the morning. For now, Stiles will let him sleep.

Chapter Text

Stiles doesn’t think he sleeps at all that night. He has all this new knowledge swirling through his head, but even without that, he feels like he needs to watch over Derek, no matter the two dozen guards between them and the castle entrance. There's nothing else he can do. He’s the most powerful man in the realm aside from his father, and still he’s helpless.

Every time his eyes begin to droop, he jolts back up after only moments, sure it must have all been a dream. He expects to see Wolf curled up beside him, the collar around his neck, trapped once more. But there Derek still lays, unmoved from the moment he drifted off with his hands settled on his stomach on top of the sheets. Stiles can’t even imagine how it might feel for him when he’ll wake up to find that he really is free.

But that thought just starts his heart pounding in his chest. What are they going to do? To an outside eye, his direwolf has disappeared without a trace, and even if he manages to keep Derek hidden, there’s no way for him to explain it. How long can he keep it a secret from those in the castle, let alone those outside of it? It can’t become common knowledge that Wolf was Derek Hale, and it can’t get back to the Argents that the pet direwolf they bestowed hasn’t been seen for weeks. They have the advantage of their confinement to the city right now, but how much longer will that excuse last? Even that does nothing to explain why the cuts of meat prepared especially for Wolf will be going uneaten.

It's difficult to breathe under everything stacking up on top of him and he doesn’t have long to think up even a temporary solution. The dawning sun is glowing around the edges of the drapes and his mind is only moving in circles, listing their problems over and over as he wastes the time he has worrying over what little time he has left. It feels like only a minute more passes when Derek’s eyes snap open beside him a second before a knock comes at the door.

“Son?” comes his father’s voice, and Stiles’ topples off the edge of the bed. He scrambles to his feet and he and Derek stare at each other in horror.

“Transform!” Stiles hisses.

“I don’t know how!” Derek hisses back.

Stiles flails. “Under the bed!”

Derek rolls from the mattress with more grace than Stiles had, and Stiles gets a knee back on the bed before he spots the collar still sitting in the middle of the floor.

“Just a minute!” he calls to his father, diving towards it. He hates himself for it, but he shoves the collar under the bed with his foot, wincing as it skids from the rug and grates along stone.

He clambers under the covers, clearing his throat before calling, “Come in!”

The door opens and his father peeks his head inside like he’s double-checking Stiles is actually decent before opening the door fully.

“Good morning.”

Stiles forces the same pleasantry past his lips in reply.

“I thought you’d want to know we've just received word that Princess Katherine will be here tomorrow evening. If the scouts aren't back by then, I'm sure she’ll have the answers we seek. If all is well, I won't need to coop you up inside much longer.”

A pit opens up in Stiles’ stomach. Kate . Amongst the excitement, he’d entirely forgotten about her imminent visit.

“That's good news,” he squeaks.

His father raises an eyebrow then casts his gaze around the room. “Where's Wolf?”

Stiles is sure he can hear Derek holding his breath beneath the bed. “He, uh, must be outside.”

His father pauses, a suspicious squint to his eyes. “Is everything—” He cuts himself off and his eyes flicker to Stiles’ groin beneath the sheets and straight up to the ceiling. “Never mind,” he finishes, clearing his throat. “I'll see you downstairs.”

Stiles would cringe at the conclusion his father has come to, but it’s honestly better than the truth of the alternative. He smiles tightly as his father backs out of the room, but before he can close the door, in bustles Virgil, and Stiles has no choice but to get out of bed and scream internally as his manservant fusses over his choice of clothing for the day. Like it even matters right now.

He’s entirely forgotten about the blood until Virgil gasps and snatches up his bedsheets, horrified.

“Your Highness, what—”

“I’m fine!” Stiles hurries to assure him. “Wolf scratched himself in his sleep, that’s all.” He should have known that would do nothing to assuage him.

“‘That’s all’?” Virgil repeats, incredulously. “That could so easily have been you! You can’t share a bed with him any longer. I’ll not have it!”

“Wolf would never hurt me.” Even before he discovered Wolf was actually a person, he wasn’t afraid for his safety, and definitely not since Kali. With Derek listening, he feels he has to defend him, especially considering Virgil is getting worked up over a fabrication.

His manservant purses his lips and remains silent, but he tugs all of Stiles’ laces tighter, either to demonstrate his displeasure or out of the hope that the more layers he smothers him in, the more protection it will offer.

Once he’s buttoned and trussed, Stiles has no choice but to leave the room for breakfast as he always has.

“I’ll bring you some food,” he mutters to Derek under his breath as he heads out the door. Thankfully, Virgil exits too and shuts it behind him. Hopefully that means he doesn’t intend to return with a team to do some cleaning. Stiles doesn’t want to even imagine the situation if the old man and some servants happen to encounter a mostly-naked man hiding beneath their Prince’s bed.

In the dining hall, a cut of beef is waiting for Wolf and Stiles has to tell the staff that he seems to be feeling under the weather and so probably won’t come down for it. That excuse will work for today, but what can he do going forward? It will soon be noticed if the direwolf who had been attached to his hip never accompanies him for meals anymore and doesn’t seem to be eating at all. Even his confinement to the castle isn't going to last much longer, if Kate’s news is as he expects. He knows now how and why Kali slipped past the Stellaran and Venatian defences and that there is no Astrani force of soldiers heading their way as they'd feared.

But as worrying as all of that is, that's the least of his problems right now. It's Kate’s visit he needs to focus on. What is he going to do when she arrives and he’s unable to produce a direwolf when she asks after him? She’ll discover that he knows about Derek. That’s the only outcome he sees in this. And then what? He takes her hostage, as the Argents have with the Hales? Every possible route he can fathom only leads to disaster.

He’ll need to tell his father. That’s the best option open to him right now; he can't deal with this alone. But the more people that enter the equation, the higher the chance of something being let slip. Piquing Kate’s suspicion is the last thing they need, especially when the Argents have the rest of the Hales in their clutches.

Breakfast is spent jumping at every little noise, and for once he’s thankful his father isn’t eating with him to witness his strange behaviour. He’s just expecting an alarm to sound at any moment, to hear guards rushing around outside and up to his rooms to apprehend an intruder. He has half a mind to leave before he’s even finished his meal, but he doesn’t want it to get back to his father and have him start asking if Stiles is feeling well. He does his best to eat at a measured pace, and then he plates some of the many leftovers arranged on the table – bread and cheese and bacon and a cooked tomato – and carries it from the room with his head held high. He walks with purpose, nodding at the familiar faces of the guards and servants he passes who all smile in return and are quick to bow their heads.

When he opens the door to his rooms, he almost leaps out of his skin.

Wolf is laying on the bed, tongue lolling out of his mouth in a grin like he’s pleased with himself, and Stiles might think he’d dreamed the whole Derek thing if it wasn’t for the fact that he isn’t wearing the collar.

“How did you do it?” Stiles asks, foolishly expecting an immediate reply.

He averts his gaze as Derek starts to go through his terrifying transformation again before him, wincing at the crack of bone and the memory of the grotesque shapes he’d twisted through, but it's mainly to give him some privacy at the moment it’s complete. He only turns back after the rustle of sheets as Derek pulls them over his hips. There’s no disorientation this time, and he’s gotten a hold of his human side immediately, experiencing no trouble when he talks.

“I could feel something different about my normal beta shift,” he explains, his eyes glowing gold as thick sideburns sprout on his face and his ears sharpen to points. Stiles wonders if it will ever not make him jump. “It was like there was something beyond it that I just needed to stretch to reach. Whatever Jennifer did, it looks like it’s permanent,” he says, looking down at his hands and clawed fingertips.

Stiles’ worry eases slightly at this shred of good news. If Derek has control over his shift, then perhaps they'll be able to keep up the façade just long enough to emerge on the other side of Kate’s visit unscathed.

“At least that’s one of our problems solved,” he says, approaching the bed with the plate of food. “But for now, eat. You must be starving.”

As soon as Stiles sets the plate on the bed beside him, Derek falls upon the food like he's ravenous. He pauses, though, at the first mouthful of bread, his eyes closed and his jaw working slowly, savouring. When was the last time he ate food like this? Could it have been the full five years of his captivity?

“I suppose it’s nice to enjoy a proper meal,” Stiles says, sheepishly, thinking of the diet he’s had him on since he arrived here.

“You don’t need to worry about that,” Derek assures him, voice thick around a mouthful of tomato, probably cold now but he seems to be enjoying it all the same. “My palate is different as a wolf, so this sort of food was never appetising. You couldn't have fed me better.”

It doesn't assuage the guilt. 

While Derek eats, Stiles notes the bed covers have been changed, the blood no longer in sight and sheets neatly tucked in around the edges. Belated panic courses through him, but Derek obviously got through it undiscovered so he's quick to calm himself. He’s got enough to worry about without letting himself be consumed by all the what-ifs of any close shaves.

When the plate is empty, Derek licks his finger to pick up every crumb and smear of bacon grease, and Stiles fetches an apple for him from his fruit bowl. Derek accepts it with a grateful smile but doesn’t take a bite straight away, instead turning it over slowly in his hands. He doesn’t take his eyes off it as he speaks.

“Kate will be here tomorrow.”

“Yes.”

Something changes in Derek’s expression. Settling, hardening. “I’m free now. Without the collar, I can hunt. I can kill. She won’t be leaving alive.”

“You can’t!”

At his outburst, Derek’s eyes narrow, mutinous, his hand squeezing the apple tight. Stiles almost takes a step back. 

He understands Derek’s thirst for vengeance, but the idea of killing – of Derek killing – fills him with intense revulsion. He doesn’t want to see him reduced to that, to have that be the culmination of all he’s had to endure. Derek would never accept that reasoning, but there’s another argument he can use that he knows Derek won’t be able to ignore.

“If we want any chance of rescuing your family, she can’t know that I’ve removed the collar. If you kill her, that will put us at war with Venatia, and this will become a hostage situation.”

Derek’s jaw sets and Stiles knows he sees the sense in his words even if he’s not happy about it. 

“When all is said and done, she’ll meet her end, whether it’s by my hand or someone else’s," he vows.

Perhaps Derek would be justified after the ordeal he and the rest of the Hales have been through, but it’s not going to be that easy. The Argents are royalty. Their deaths would throw their country and the continent into turmoil. He doesn’t want to imagine what might happen if anything was traced back to Stellaris, or if it was discovered that the Hales are alive and were the perpetrators.

He wonders if Derek has killed before. He wonders why Derek hadn’t killed her already.

“You said you can hunt now without the collar.” Now it’s on his mind, he’s sure he can feel the weight of it still lurking beneath the bed.

“They prevent us from attacking living things. Araya came up with the idea for the spikes, but Jennifer is the one who wove them with magic.”

Stiles remembers the buck that escaped to live another day and supposes he was right that the collar was keeping ‘Wolf’ from living as he would like. He thinks about all the times they went riding without an escort, how he thought ‘Wolf’ would be able to protect him. It turns out he wouldn’t have been any help in a fight at all.

“The spell wasn't entirely successful, but it didn’t do us any good.”

“What happened?”

Derek stares at his hands, at the apple he’s still holding, and Stiles waits for him to order his thoughts. “We can’t attack with the collars on, but we realised an indirect approach might work, so we wore away at one of the tree trunks in our enclosure. When Araya came to feed us, we threw our weight against it to bring it down on her, but she had better reflexes than we’d planned so we only managed to break her leg. The door was still open though. We thought we were free if we could just get to some mountain ash.” Derek pauses at Stiles’ questioning look and explains that it’s a powder people without magic can use to take the collars off. “Jennifer would give it to the Argents, and I knew Kate had a supply in her rooms. I was the only one who knew where they were, but I was caught before I could get there and was unable to fight back.

“It’s why I’m here. A warning to never try something like that again. They did threaten to send Cora, but she’s worth too much leverage for them to get rid of her. I almost wish they had, though, just to get her out of that place. At least then she'd be safe with you, here. Though I don't know if she would have coped without my mother." Derek shrugs. "They wanted to send away one of the Alpha's children though, and in the end, I think it was decided I was the most dangerous for the Argents to keep around. Kate liked the idea. Even though they think of us as beasts, the fact that we could understand them was at least acknowledged in some small way. Here with you, I was just an animal. Sent back to my own country as a pet to my Prince.” Derek offers him a humourless smile. “It made a fool of you too. It was so funny to them.”

Stiles feels numb, even as there’s a sharp pain in his chest. “I’m sorry,” he murmurs, voice hoarse, rasping in his throat.

That shadow of a smile slides from Derek’s lips as his face hardens. “Don’t. Don’t ever apologise for something you had no way of knowing. I don’t blame you for any of this. If it wasn’t for you, I’d still be stuck in that collar and I would have remained that way until I died.” The fire drains out of him and his shoulders hunch, like he’s shrinking under the futility of it all. “I don't even know if my family know where I’ve gone. I’m probably being used to keep them compliant, but they may even think me dead.”

“You will find your way back to them. This isn’t over.”

Derek’s head is still bowed, but he nods. He considers the apple in his hands once more and then finally takes a bite, wiping at a trickle of juice at the corner of his mouth.

“For now, we need to think about what we’re going to do tomorrow,” Stiles says, trying to be gentle. “Being able to transform solves one problem, and maybe we’d be able to get away with it for a little while, but Kate will probably notice instantly that you’re not wearing a collar.”

He wonders if Derek would still be able to transform at will if they were to put the collar back around his neck minus the enchantment, but he stamps that idea out as quickly as it crosses his mind. He'd rather put the collar on himself than ever ask that of him. But they do have another option.

He sinks to his knees on the rug and reaches beneath the bed, pulling the collar out gingerly, marvelling at the heft of it and cringing at the sight of all the dried blood. A glance up at Derek shows his eyes squeezed tightly shut and his nostrils flared. Stiles’ stomach clenches with shame and disgust. To Derek’s sensitive nose, the collar has probably been stinking the room out with the stench of his own blood, a reminder of all the pain and fear he’s had to endure so far.

He snags the silk runner from the end of the bed and wraps it up in it, hiding it from Derek’s sight.

“I’ll take this to Finstock and see if he can forge us a replica without spikes.” Stiles doesn’t like the idea of putting him in a collar again even if he can shift back at will and remove it, but Derek nods. “I don’t know what he’ll do about the jewel, but he’s not the castle blacksmith for nothing.”

Stiles moves for the door and Derek sits up straighter like he intends to come with him, half-eaten apple still in hand. He doesn't want Derek to have to spend any more time with this collar than he needs to, so he waves him back. “Stay here and get some more rest. I’ve got this.”

He leaves Derek to enjoy the rest of his apple and carries his bundle through the castle under one arm, walking as he had when carrying Derek’s plate of food. He knows no one will stop him to ask what he’s carrying or where he’s going, but looking furtive will just stick out in people’s minds. The last thing he wants is for this to get back to his father. For now, at least. Now that they know Derek can shift, the urgency has diminished, and Stiles thinks it would be best to inform his father after Kate departs through the castle gates. It’s another layer of stress Stiles doesn’t want to place over him.

He makes it to the main doors and steps outside, almost blinded by the early morning sunshine. It would have been the perfect morning for a ride beyond the city, if only he were still living in ignorance. He descends the steps into the shadow of the castle gates and traces a path towards the stables, stepping back out into the sun along his way, basking in the simple warmth of it.

He hears the forge long before he reaches it, the rhythmic clanging offset by cursing that grows louder the closer he gets. Smoke billows from the chimney and the scent of burning charcoal tickles his nose, turning acrid when he steps inside and is hit with the full force of it. It takes his eyes a moment to adjust to the interior of the smithy after the bright sunlight outside. And what a sight it is.

Finstock is intent on his work, his eyes wild and hair on end. With his face lit from beneath by the glow of what might be a fire stoker he’s working on and shimmering in the haze of heat, he looks half-crazed and locked in a trance. It’s no wonder he sends children running.

When Finstock spots him, he sets the tool he’s working on in a bucket of water, steam billowing up as it sizzles. Stiles knows if he doesn’t head him off, he’ll launch into some scatter-brained tirade or other, so he unwraps the collar before he has a chance to begin and drops it on his workbench.

“How soon do you think you could make a replica, without the spikes?”

The crazed glow intensifies in Finstock’s eyes as he looks it over, already calling out to his assistant. “Greenberg! Get me my whistle!”

Greenberg’s head pops out from the doorway leading into the back room, all colour drained from his face. His gulp is audible. “Your w-whistle?”

Finstock snaps his fingers at him and he leaps a foot in the air before scurrying out of sight. Stiles doesn’t even want to know.

Finstock has lifted the collar to the end of his nose and is muttering to himself as he examines it, turning it in every direction. Stiles is apprehensive to interrupt, but urgency weighs on him. “Finstock? I need it by tomorrow.”

Finstock shows no indication that he heard him, but with his flurry of activity, it at least seems to have taken precedent. Stiles picks up the silk runner and backs out of the stifling heat into the sunlight, taking a refreshing breath of clean air. He knows it would probably have been easier to just ask Finstock to remove the spikes from the original, but all he can think of is the way Derek’s nostrils had flared when faced with it again, and he knows that no amount of cleaning could ever get rid of the stench to Derek’s sensitive nose.

He's slow to return to the castle, mulling over their remaining problems and which of them is their next to worry about. He feels lighter, at least, than he had this morning. But there’s something that's been steadily brewing at the back of his mind since discovering the Argents’ involvement in the Hales’ disappearance, something growing like a tangling knot in his stomach, taking root. 

Allison.

Has she known all along? Is she involved, a perpetrator? He knows he should have asked Derek already, but he's afraid, so afraid, of what the answer might be. He doesn’t know how he could face it. And what of Scott? Of their marriage? He feels so lost.

When he makes it back to his rooms, Derek is on the bed with one of Stiles' books in his hand, closed on his thumb to mark the page, and he's only just gotten the sheets over his hips in time for Stiles’ return.

“Finstock will have it ready in no time,” Stiles says, forcing a smile at the good news, but Derek doesn’t return it. How could he, when Stiles is talking of another collar he has to wear?

Stiles stands at the window, staring unseeing at the city sprawling below as he steels himself. He takes a deep breath. “I need to ask you something.”

Derek remains unmoved from when Stiles entered, as if he’d sensed there was something on his mind. Stiles wonders if it was his werewolf senses or just plain old intuition. He almost asks, but that would just be avoiding what he really needs to say. 

“I'm not sure I want the answer to this question, but I need to know.” He swallows hard. “Is Allison…?”  The sentence dies on his tongue, so unthinkable to even put into words. But Derek knows what he’s trying to ask.

He stares down at the back of the book in his hands, frowning. “I don’t think she knows,” he says, though it's grudging, like it physically pains him to say it. “She was barely a teenager when they took us, and it doesn’t seem like they’ve told her what we really are. She was always accompanied when she visited the enclosure, and didn’t have much interest once she discovered we weren’t as cuddly as she’d been hoping.” Derek finally looks at him, gaze sharp. “But maybe it's an act. Considering she shares the blood of Kate and Gerard in her veins, it wouldn't surprise me.”

Relief courses through him despite Derek’s final warning. “I have to believe.”

Derek shrugs. “It's your funeral.”

“I just don't think I could take it if another friend revealed themselves as—” Stiles’ eyes go out of focus as it hits him, almost making his knees buckle. Why did it take him so long to realise? “Erica and Boyd didn't defect,” he says in wonder. “Well, they did but—”

Derek waits, watching him piece the truth of it together. Erica’s pale face at his birthday feast, her fear, their desire to get back to their son, every member of their estate disappearing overnight.

“They knew what you were.”

Derek nods. “They're werewolves. The Lahey boy too.”

“Lahey?”

“The one who was kidnapped.”

The one with a drunk for a father. “So he ran too.”

“No. Perhaps he tried, but the Argents got to him. Of that I'm certain.”

He remembers Wolf's – Derek’s – distress when following the scent trail, how it led towards Venatia. How Kali came all this way just to take him back with her, Erica and Boyd doing what they could to help Derek by informing her and Deucalion. He's been blind, to everything.

He joins Derek on the bed, needing to sit down.  “And they took their entire staff. All werewolves?”

“Probably some, but not all. Though I imagine they would have all known. Human relatives of werewolves perhaps. The Boyds may have acted as a haven for werewolves in these parts, as my family used to.”

“Human relatives?”

"Humans can be bitten to become a werewolf, though it's usually only used to save a life."

"So you could bite me and make me one too?”

“No,” Derek says sharply. “Only an Alpha has that power, and you especially would do well to be wary if one ever offered it.” At Stiles’ confusion, he elaborates. “A werewolf made by a bite is tied to the Alpha that made them until the Alpha decides to release them from it, if they ever do. They have a different level of control over those betas, able to bend them to their will if they really want to. As a Prince to become King one day, the danger of a situation like that can’t be understated. That’s why it’s usually reserved for saving someone’s life if they’ve suffered a mortal wound.”

“But couldn’t that sort of power be abused?”

Derek looks reluctant to follow the course the conversation has taken, but he does anyway, and Stiles appreciates the transparency.

“There have been cases of that happening, or of werewolves losing control, usually those newly-turned. It’s rare,” Derek says, emphatically, and Stiles nods his understanding. “But it’s cases like those that Chris Argent fears.”

Stiles had forgotten about the Venatian Crown Prince, so shocked he’d been over Allison and Kate. “You haven’t mentioned him yet. Is he the worst of the bunch?”

Derek shakes his head. “He’s not like his sister or his father. He takes no pleasure in torture. But he’s still not opposed to locking up all werewolves just to be safe.”

Stiles frowns, roused by that ridiculous way of thinking. Just from this short time he's spent with Derek, let alone everything he knew of the Hales from when he was young, he doesn’t believe them to be dangerous. He doesn't understand how anyone could have considered them a target for evil. It’s still so strange living with his memory of the day the news came that the Hales had been massacred and how it wars with Derek here in front of him.

“Humans are responsible for plenty of atrocities. By that logic, we should all lock ourselves up and throw away the keys.”

Derek smiles, a hint of gratitude in his eyes.

“Just look at the Argents,” Stiles continues, coming to a new realisation that makes his stomach churn with nausea. “When we learned that your family had been attacked, my father went to your manor. There were bodies, burned beyond recognition in the fire, the exact number of your household.” It makes him shiver at this new discovery. “Who were they?”

Derek looks stricken. “I don’t know. More innocent victims of the Argents, no doubt." He shakes his head. “We always wondered how the Argents would have covered it up, the fact that we’d gone missing. I had no idea that was how they’d done it.”

And it had all been disguised under Deucalion's symbol. The deeper Stiles digs into the layers of that event, impossibly worse the knowledge becomes. Deucalion and Kali are as much victims, their son murdered by the Argents and then the atrocity that befell the Hales blamed on them. Stiles doesn’t understand why Derek had shown Kali such animosity that day in the woods.

“Why didn’t you go with Kali when she came for you? She knew what you were. She must have been able to take you to Astran and find some way to get your collar off.”

Derek scowls. “They might be werewolves, but we’ve never considered Kali or Deucalion friends, and definitely not allies we can turn to. They knew what we were before the Argents took us and yet they’ve done nothing. To come here now to rescue the werewolf given as a gift was too little too late as far as I'm concerned. I’d rather be here with you.” Derek’s gaze is hard and clear. “I made the right decision.”

Stiles is heartened by Derek's faith in him. He feels like he's been stumbling in the dark ever since he blew out the light in his collar. For now, all he’s able to really do is face one hurdle at a time, and when they find space to breathe, they can maybe start thinking about what they should do moving forward. How they can even begin to face the impossible task of a rescue.

Derek’s thoughts seem to have drifted in the same direction and they sit in silence, weighted by the enormity of it and sick with worry. Stiles wishes they could just stay there in his rooms, forget about the rest of the day, about Kate’s visit. But his schedule beckons and the time soon comes for them to head to his lessons, to go on under a façade of normalcy. At least with Derek’s discovery that he can achieve his transformation on his own, the rest of the day is able to pass as it usually would, with the other people of the castle none the wiser.

 

*

 

Their next morning follows the same routine, except his father doesn't make a surprise visit and Derek doesn't need to dive under the bed. Stiles promises to bring him food and heads down to the dining room for breakfast, but he doesn’t make it. While passing the doors to the entrance hall, the voice of one of the guards standing just outside carries towards him.

“It sounds like Princess Katherine has arrived early.”

Stiles’ feet root themselves to the floor as he stares wide-eyed out of the open doors, expecting to see her at the bottom of the steps, swinging down from her horse. She's nowhere in sight and the castle gates are shut, but now he's focused, he can hear the far-off hail of a trumpet. She's at least within the city walls. 

There’s no time to lose.

He tears out of the doors and leaps down the steps, knowing he’s creating a spectacle, but it can’t be helped. If Kate sees Derek without that collar…

He’s running so fast it feels like the ground is rushing up to meet him, that he’s barely staying up on his feet, about to go head over heels. He skids around the corner and grabs the post supporting the roof outside the smithy to swing himself inside.

“Is it ready?” he asks, frantic.

Finstock turns to the bench behind him and unveils the collar with a flourish, a glint to his eyes like he can’t wait for Stiles' awe. But Stiles has no time for praise. He snatches up a burlap sack on the workbench behind him, shaking it upside down to empty it of horseshoes before stuffing the collar inside.

“Thank you!” he shouts over his shoulder before he’s racing back the way he came and almost trampling a chicken. He tears around the corner and skids to a halt so hard he almost ends up flat on his back on the cobbles.

Kate is already through the gates, riding the same horse she’d left on after their visit for his birthday, and she’s dismounting to greet his father who’s appeared at the top of the steps.

Stiles scrambles back and dives behind the nearest wall, allowing himself a moment to hiss fuckfuckfuck before darting the few steps towards a small servant entrance that will take him to the kitchens. He bursts inside, startling a maid heading to the well with a bucket who shrieks in surprise, but Stiles doesn’t have time to pause and offer an apology. He needs to get across the entrance hall and up the staircase before his father can lead Kate inside.

The kitchen passes in a blur, and though he doesn't collide with anyone else, he does hear a tray clatter to the floor behind him, but he doesn't know if it was because of him and can't stop to look. He's out the door and through the dining room where his breakfast sits on the table untouched, pausing a few steps towards the entrance hall to listen and make sure Kate and his father aren't already inside. He can't hear words, but he thinks he catches the tinkle of Kate’s laugh. He's glad the expected rules of age-old propriety mean their greeting has bought him some time. He dashes across the entrance hall and gets a foot on the staircase just as the voices outside begin to grow louder, and he has no choice but to duck down behind one of the thick balusters before he can reach the top.

He holds his breath, heart hammering in his chest where he's clutching the sack to it, their footsteps echoing on the stone below as they step into the entrance hall. With the angle of the staircase, his view of them is obscured by the other balusters running the length of the stairs, and he just hopes it means they can't see him in return. 

“I’m not sure where Stiles has gotten to,” his father is telling Kate. “He should be eating breakfast, but it seems he hasn't risen yet. I'll send someone to fetch him and perhaps we'll eat together.”

“That sounds wonderful. It was the thought of a Stellaran breakfast that made rising so early this morning easier to bear.”

They head towards the dining room and Stiles creeps up the few remaining steps and around the corner, safe. He springs to his feet and hurries on, not stopping until he’s bursting through the door to his rooms. Derek is already alert on the bed, about to pull the sheets back with one foot on the floor.

“What is it?” he asks warily. His book lies discarded on top of the covers.

“Kate’s here,” Stiles pants, and there’s the sound of ripping cloth where Derek’s hands have clenched in the sheets.

Stiles drops the sack on the bed and is at Derek’s side and wrapping his arms around him before he's thought about what he's doing. Derek is rigid, finding no comfort in the embrace, but nor does he flinch away.

“I’m sorry, Derek. I’m so sorry,” Stiles whispers into his ear.

After a few moments, Derek lifts his hands to Stiles’ shoulders and eases him back. “It’s okay,” he murmurs, but there’s no feeling to it and his gaze remains blankly in his lap. “We knew this was coming.”

Stiles bites his lip as he reaches for the sack and pulls out the collar. The first thing he notices is that it's cold, and though Derek’s body heat may warm it a little, it won't be enough to match the warmth the other collar had had when imbued with its spell. When it emerges, he's relieved to find it's indiscernible from the original, the spacing of the grooves identical and even with a matching jewel set into the centre. It's so well done, Stiles might even think Finstock handed him the wrong collar if it weren't for the missing spikes. 

“I’m sorry, but I have to put this on you.”

He holds up the new collar and Derek’s eyes rove over it.

“I’m sorry,” Stiles says again, this time barely more than a whisper.

“It’s okay,” Derek says again, but his voice is hoarse and his hands tremble as he pulls back the sheet to shift.

Stiles hands it over and turns away, to give him privacy but to also wipe his eyes. He doesn't want to see Derek put the collar over his head. 

“Try not to let her touch it,” Stiles says, quietly.

Derek’s quiet exhale of a tiny sigh is the only indication he heard him before the shift begins.

When it’s over and Stiles turns to look, Derek looks limp, his tail and ears flat and no spring to his step as Stiles came to expect after some distance from the Argents. If nothing else, he takes comfort in knowing those spikes are no longer embedded into his skin. It makes his stomach roil to think of the months he’d been living with that constant torture while Stiles was blissfully unaware.

“Are you ready?”

Derek doesn’t nod but he leads the way from the room.

“I think they’re in the dining room,” Stiles murmurs to him as they make their way down the passage towards the main staircase. “Your daily meat will probably be waiting for you, but you don’t need to eat it if you don’t want. I can sort you out a proper meal after.”

He hates that Derek can’t respond.

Downstairs, Stiles takes a deep breath before heading into the dining room, though Derek shows no such hesitation. He pads inside and straight over to his usual position on the floor before anyone has time to react. Stiles is the one who needs to put on a show.

“Princess Katherine,” Stiles greets, feigning surprise. “We weren't expecting you until this evening.”

“We made good progress,” she explains as Stiles approaches and takes her hand to kiss the back of it as he always has done in the past. It takes everything he has not to squeeze her hand in his and break her fingers, and they’re lucky he’d already let go when she turns to Derek or it could have become a reality. Her voice takes on the same tone he remembers from her goodbye last time, as if she’s talking to a baby. “And what do we have here?”

She rises to her feet and glides over to him without apprehension and immediately cups his face, scrubbing her hands roughly back and forth over his cheeks.

“Oh, how I’ve missed you!”

With the undeniable evidence of seeing Derek Hale alive in front of him, transformed from the skin of a wolf, Stiles had accepted without question that everything Derek told him was the truth. But even then, it had all had a sense of detachment, warring with his own experiences with Princess Katherine Argent, of her beauty and warmth. Having her before him now, seeing the way she treats Derek with what could easily be considered affection but that Stiles now sees is barely-restrained glee... He’s overtaken by rage so potent that he actually goes dizzy with it. He wants to tangle his fingers in her immaculate flowing locks and smash her face into the table edge, over and over and over, until she’s choking on her own blood, until her face is unrecognisable, until he cleaves her head in two. The fantasy is so vivid he has to clench his fists at his sides to keep from falling into a trance and actually carrying it out, nails digging into his palms and close to breaking skin.

But worse than Kate’s grating delight is how Derek’s eyes have glazed over, the same expression he’d had for the first few weeks they knew each other. To know now what it means – that he’s escaping inside himself from his tormentor – cuts to the bone, to remember that he’d once assumed it was just the temperament of an animal.

They take their seats at the table and Stiles is glad of the one Kate had already chosen. It means Stiles is sat opposite, a barrier between her and Derek lying on the floor behind him. Throughout the meal, he smiles and laughs in all the right places and exudes the same charm as he normally would in Kate’s presence. He would say it’s his upbringing that's forged the façade, but really it’s that image of her face mangled beyond recognition that’s getting him through this. He’s honestly considering revoking the reasoning he made to Derek for not killing her and telling him to pounce. He takes satisfaction in knowing that Derek could do it now he’s out of the old collar’s binding spell and she doesn’t even realise it. The shock on her face as Derek’s fangs would tear her apart would no doubt be a thing to behold. With the way Derek is tearing into the meat he’s been provided, it seems he’s having similar thoughts. He does need to remind him frantically under his breath at one point to stop his eyes from glowing gold, a new danger now the collar isn’t there to keep it at bay.

Once breakfast is out of the way, they listen to the news Kate has brought of the state of the front line – unchanged from the stalemate of the last few years – but the most interesting development came from here in Stellaris with Stiles’ sighting of Kali. 

“We received word from our eyes in Astran that the Queen hadn't been seen in the capital for days. Now we know where she went.”

“But how would she have gotten past our defences, alone and entirely defenceless herself? And why?” his father asks. 

“Your guess is as good as mine,” – Stiles wants to wring her lying neck – “But I don't doubt that it was her. Stiles would know what he saw.”

Before finding out Kate’s true colours, he would have appreciated someone showing faith in him. Now, he wishes he'd found out about Derek earlier so when he encountered Kali in the woods, he could have kept his mouth shut about it. Kate would have visited them on her way back to Venatia regardless, but at least they wouldn't have had to endure this sort of scrutiny.

“Thank you. I'm aware of how impossible it sounds to have seen her here. I've questioned myself many times over the past couple of weeks.”

“I'd like to see the place where you encountered her, to see what I might glean.”

“Not a lot, I don't think. She vanished without a trace,” his father warns.

Kate doesn’t back down. She waves off his father’s invitation to rest a while before she heads out on her horse again, but she won’t hear of it. Stiles is only too happy to be getting rid of her for a few hours, but then she turns her sights on Derek.

“Why don’t I take you out with me?” she coos. “Just the two of us, for old time’s sake.”

Stiles’ blood runs cold. “I’ll come with you,” he announces, about to reason that he’s not been for a ride for days what with this Kali situation, but his father cuts him off.

“Come now, son. She’s travelled all this way. She can spend a bit of time with him. God knows it might do him some good to detach himself from your hip.”

Stiles has never wanted to murder his father before this moment. He’s about to insist the three of them go together when Derek pads to her side and turns to look back at him. His stomach drops into his feet.

“We’ll gather some guards to accompany you,” he says, desperate.

“Oh, that won’t be necessary. My own will be more than enough.”

“Stiles is right,” his father agrees and Stiles’ desire for blood abates slightly. “Our men know these lands and they'll show you where Kali was sighted. It's my duty to make sure you're protected within our borders.”

Kate smiles and thanks him for his consideration, but Stiles can tell she isn’t happy. Who knows what she planned to do to Derek when she got him alone?

They follow Kate to the gates to see her off, Stiles’ heart just about pounding out of his chest. He feels sick. What if they don’t come back? What if this is just a simple ruse to restore Derek to her possession and whisk him back to Venatia? Derek could stop her now if he really wanted, but that’s hardly a comfort. It would mean she’d discover that they know.

As soon as they’re through the castle gates, Stiles heads for the entrance hall staircase, racing to the east wing of the castle to the topmost window of the tallest tower facing towards the forest. He feverishly traces the path through the city Kate and Derek will be taking, seeing nothing for a few minutes and wondering if he’s already missed their passage. But then a group of horses trot through the city gates, disappearing behind the wall. A minute later the party rides back into view, heading towards the treeline, and he can make out the dark blot of Derek moving alongside the lead horse. He’s comforted by the presence of the guards on the other horses, gladder still to see them accompany Kate and Derek into the trees. He’d half been expecting to see Kate order them away as soon as she was out of the city walls. It doesn’t mean she won’t find some way to lose them in the trees, but there’s nothing he can do about it. It’s just made all the worse knowing that whatever dread he’s feeling, it’s nothing compared to the hell that it is for Derek.

He remains at the window long after they’ve disappeared, hoping for just one more glimpse or some sort of sign that Derek is okay. At this distance, his eyes keep playing tricks, a shadow of the swaying foliage becoming Derek tearing from the treeline. Or is that the sun glinting on a drawn sword? And is that a howl he hears carried towards him on the breeze?

He doesn’t know how long he waits there, chanting It’s nothing, it’s nothing in an attempt to put himself at ease, but his father must hear of his whereabouts because there’s no other reason for him to climb this tower. He joins Stiles at the window, eyebrows raised in dismay.

“Come now, son. She’ll return him in one piece.” He actually sounds worried, like Stiles is overreacting, like it’s another point of concern after the doubt over his sighting of Kali.

Stiles can’t help the laugh that bubbles up, tinged with hysteria. Derek wasn’t whole when he arrived. Who knows what else she might carve off by the time they return.

He opens his mouth and imagines telling his father everything: that his wolf turned into Derek Hale, that the Argents have the rest of the Hales held in captivity, that Kali is a werewolf too. But the words turn to ash on his tongue. He could scarcely believe it himself when it was happening before his eyes. To tell him now would, to his father’s eyes, be the final nail in the coffin of Stiles’ sanity. But he can’t leave his behaviour unexplained.

“I have reason for my concern,” he says, and continues when his father tries to speak. “I can’t tell you why right now. But once Kate has gone, I’ll show you.”

“Stiles...” The tone of his voice is like someone imploring a child to be reasonable.

Stiles can’t bear to hear it. “Do you trust me?” Stiles’ tone stops his father short.

Only a beat passes before his father sets his shoulders, steadfast. “Yes.”

A burst of affection flares in Stiles’ chest, alongside relief, and he nods once before turning back to the window. He can feel his father watching him for a few long seconds before retreating without a word.

He remains there for hours, so long that his father sends a servant to bring him his lunch, the boy showing clear bemusement at the request and the position he finds Stiles in. Still he doesn’t move, and the sun is crawling into late afternoon by the time the party emerges from the treeline, the formation exactly the same as when they entered it. He waits until the party has entered the city and he can be sure Derek is returning instead of being forced to spend the night out with Kate and the Venatian soldiers – or worse – before finally making his way down from the tower to meet them back at the castle gates.

Derek pads immediately to his side and Stiles runs a reassuring hand through his fur before he can really stop and think. Is it an offensive gesture now he knows the ‘direwolf’ isn’t a pet to be coddled? Either way, it’s a comfort to him to have Derek back within his reach.

“Did you find anything?” he asks as Kate hands the reins of her horse over to a stablehand. He’s using his curiosity as an excuse for being so eager at their return.

“Nothing, though that isn’t surprising.”

Stiles nods, at first taking what she says at face value, then reminding himself he can’t trust a word she says. He’ll have to ask Derek later if the outing was as fruitless as she wants him to believe.

With the beautiful weather and presence of the visiting Princess, dinner is being held out in the gardens, a feast of five courses. It had been planned as a way to greet her when she’d originally been expected to arrive in the evening, though her early arrival doesn’t mean it will go to waste. Stiles curses the idea. He’d give anything to snatch some supper from the kitchens and then retreat to his rooms for the night, Derek with him. He’s just glad that the wrought iron table outside is arranged in the same way as it had been at breakfast, with Stiles opposite Kate and Derek as far away from her as they can get him.

As the day creeps into evening, Stiles is glad of the sun sinking behind the castle and casting them in shade, offering a little bit of relief from the heat of the day still lingering. Red and yellow and deep pink flowers that he’s never learned the names of surround them in the shrubbery and trees, butterflies fluttering from perch to perch, and the burble and splash of a fountain deeper in the gardens just about reaches their ears. It’s a shame the company couldn’t be as soothing as their surroundings.

His father is as accommodating to the princess as ever, showing no sign of Stiles’ mysterious warning, not even a glance of curiosity in Stiles’ direction even though he knows it must be thrumming in his veins.

Even though Stiles tries to go through the motions of eating, he can’t conjure an appetite, not when Kate is sat opposite him with a smile on her face. He remembers Derek’s earlier words to him, about how the Argents wanted to make a fool of Stiles and his father by gifting them a subject they presumed dead. How they would laugh. That’s all he can see in her smile. Her enjoying their little joke. It makes him sick, all their layers of cruelty. 

The courses of food pass one after the other at a snail’s pace, though when dessert is over, he thanks God that it isn’t only him that seems to want to finish the night early.

“If you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll retire for the night. It’s been a long day,” Kate says, gracefully draining the final sip of her wine as soon as she finishes her last bite of strawberry tart.

His father doesn’t show any surprise at the abrupt request. “Of course. And you’ll have an early start in the morning?”

“Yes. I must return to Venatia before the week is out.”

Stiles takes a sip of his own wine, a solitary toast to the idea of getting rid of her so soon.

She gets to her feet and Stiles and his father stand too, bidding her goodnight. She rounds the table and crouches in front of Derek, Stiles making an aborted move to plant himself between them.

“How about you join me, hm?” she asks Derek, running her fingers through the fur on top of his head. “For old time’s sake.”

And Stiles thought what he’d felt earlier had been terror.

He has to do something.

“You get grumpy if I don’t let you sleep on my bed, don’t you?” He hates himself as the words come out of his mouth, but Derek starts wagging his tail, joining the act. His father doesn’t rule in Kate’s favour this time, even when she turns her imploring gaze on him. Stiles is glad he planted a seed of distrust with him earlier, to have saved Derek from this.

“I think the beast will have to decide where he lays his head tonight.”

Stiles cringes inwardly at his father’s use of the word beast, but he doesn’t have time to dwell on it.

“Bed,” he says sharply, like it’s a command to a dog, and Derek climbs to all four paws and trots away from the table and into the castle. Kate’s expression twists into a sneer disguised with a smile, an expression to fool everyone except Stiles’ knowing eyes.

“Well. It’s heartening to know he’s in such a loving home. He's gotten quite lively.”

“He's really come out of his shell,” Stiles agrees, smiling his first genuine smile of the day to have bested her. “Thank you for entrusting him to me.”

“The pleasure is all ours.”

And there it is again. That amused smile. Genuine this time, reminding herself that Stiles is a fool treating a human like a mutt.

He holds his own smile though, reminding himself that he’s the one getting the last laugh.

They say their final goodnights and Stiles’ tension drains away as soon as she’s inside.

His father takes his seat again, eyes fixed on Stiles, his curiosity no longer masked.

“Tomorrow,” Stiles promises, before leaving the table to join Derek in his quarters. He pauses just before the castle doors. “Goodnight.”

“Goodnight, son.”

To his dismay, Virgil is waiting for him in his rooms when he gets there, a steaming bath drawn for him, and Stiles tries not to fidget as he waits for Virgil to loosen the ties of his clothes. He thanks him and says he’ll see to the bath himself, discomfort draining from his shoulders when the door finally closes behind him.

Derek starts to shift and Stiles turns away, taking off his doublet the rest of the way so he’s left in his undershirt. When he turns back, Derek is sat on the edge of the bed with his back to him, lifting the heavy collar over his head.

His shoulders are hunched, and Stiles wants to fill the silence, but the air feels taut, like any sound will cause something to snap. He holds his tongue, choosing to settle a blanket around Derek’s shoulders instead, but Derek doesn’t move or make any sign of acknowledgement. Seeing his glazed expression as a wolf was bad enough, but now he knows how it looks when human: empty and fragile, like the shell Stiles had so proudly told Kate he’d come out of.

Stiles regards the bathtub behind the ornate wooden screen, steam curling upwards, and decides Derek is probably more in need of it. He steels himself with a careful breath before he dares to speak.

“You can take the bath. The warm water will do you good.” His voice is hoarse, barely more than a whisper. It feels like that’s all Derek will be able to bear.

Derek says nothing but he does get to his feet, blanket still around his shoulders as he moves to the bath in the corner of the room behind the screen like he’s in a trance. The blanket, carefully folded, gets hung over the top of the screen and then it’s followed by the gentle splash of Derek climbing into the tub.

Stiles takes a seat on the edge of the mattress, drained. It’s been the longest day of his life. He doesn’t think his heart has stopped beating double-time since the moment he heard the guards speculating over Kate’s early arrival that morning. And even now it’s hard to breathe, knowing she’s still here, one floor and a wing between them. It’s stifling.

He sits staring at the wall, his thoughts blurring in his exhaustion, so it must be minutes before he realises only silence is reaching him from behind the screen. There’s no movement, no disturbance of water. He should have noticed it sooner.

“Derek?” he asks, approaching the screen, staring at the swirling pattern of the pearl inlay as he strains his ears.

There’s no answer.

“I’m coming round, okay?”

After a few beats more of silence, Stiles inches his head around the screen and what he sees stabs an ache into his chest so vivid he can’t breathe.

Derek is sat motionless in the water, staring unseeing straight ahead, but instead of the blankness he’d displayed as a wolf, now he looks like someone paralysed by grief. It’s a haunted expression, like he has his greatest fear displayed before his eyes but can’t look away, and Stiles supposes that isn’t too far from the truth. Derek’s hands are clawed where he grasps the sides of the wooden tub, embedded in deep gouges.

The throb in Stiles’ chest draws him forward and down onto one knee, reaching out with a shaking hand to clasp one of Derek’s, paying no heed to the lethal-looking claws. As soon as Stiles’ hand closes over his, Derek crumples, his head tilting down as his eyes screw shut and he’s racked by silent sobs.

Stiles envelops him in his arms, like he might work as a shield to protect him from all he’s had to endure, or perhaps even hold him together.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Derek,” he whispers. He doesn’t know what else he can say.

It’s so difficult to fathom that this one day of torture was something Derek had to endure for five years. And his family are still in captivity, without even this much to comfort them. At least here, he can offer Derek an escape from the nightmare that wouldn’t end. A place where he can be safe.

“It’s okay, I’ve got you. I won’t let her get to you. I’ll keep you safe.” He doesn’t know how much comfort those words will give him, or if all Derek hears are empty promises, but he repeats the phrases over and over anyway, helpless to do anything else.

Derek still doesn’t speak, and Stiles doesn’t push him to. He’ll hold him for as long as he needs.

Chapter Text

In the same way as the past two days, the morning arrives much too soon. Stiles suffers another fitful night’s sleep, this time shivering with dread at the thought of facing Kate again, at what fresh damage she might do. His only consolation is that she’ll be leaving today and he’ll finally get at least one night without imminent danger looming in the morning. Though he’s sure Derek needs that even more than he does.

He looks over at Derek in the bed beside him, expecting to find him as a wolf and already awake, like he had been for all those weeks when he’d first arrived, still enduring the echoes of his trauma. Instead, he’s still asleep and Stiles hopes it’s because he trusts his promises of safety. His condition last night had been terrifying, broken into so many pieces, seemingly beyond repair. Stiles never wants to see him like that again.

In the end, it had been exhaustion which quieted him, his head sagging onto Stiles’ shoulder, finally still from the sobs that had racked him. Stiles had picked up a sponge and gently wiped down his shoulders and torso not covered by the water, before coaxing him out to carefully pat him down with a towel and help him into bed. Stiles poured him a glass of water and watched him guzzle the entire thing, sure that his tears had stopped only because there was nothing left in him to cry. His eyes were red-rimmed, face pale, and panic spasmed across his face when Stiles started to stand.

“I’m just going to wash up,” Stiles said, keeping his voice at a gentle murmur, “but I’m still here, okay?”

Derek nodded, clutching at the sheets where they were pulled up to his chest, and settled his head back on the pillow. He was still awake when Stiles returned, his breathing only relaxing into slumber after Stiles had blown out the light.

He hasn’t stirred all night, even for a change of position. Stiles knows it should be strange to see Derek sleeping there, no matter that he’d been using it as his bed when as Wolf. But it seems unnecessary to draw attention to it now, especially when their only alternative is some pillows and the floor. He wants to give Derek comfort, as much as he can.

Derek wakes not long after he does, perhaps disturbed by the change in Stiles’ breathing. He remains staring up at the canopy of the bed, and Stiles makes no move to say anything just yet. His blank stare speaks of a still-fragile state and Stiles has no intention of rushing him, no matter the urgency he feels to know the sorts of things Kate might have said to him during their time alone on their excursion past the city walls yesterday. With the knowledge that Kate is still here and his ordeal isn’t over, it’s no wonder he’s yet to recover. And if he makes Derek face her again, the scene in the bathtub will just repeat itself. Stiles can’t do that to him again.

“I’ll be roused for breakfast soon,” he says, finally breaking their silence.

Derek sits up and reaches to pull back the covers.

“No, stay here.”

Derek pauses, eyes raised to his in question.

“I’ll not give her the satisfaction of seeing you again. I’ll say you’re in a strange mood this morning so I left you to sulk.”

Derek sags backwards onto an elbow, the resulting wave of relief enough to make him crumple.

“I’ll bring you back something to eat, but if I get roped into any duties and you get hungry, just help yourself to the fruit.” he says, gesturing to the bowl of grapes and apples on the cabinet across the room.

Derek nods, and then his limbs start to seize with the sound of now-familiar cracks. Stiles is ready to tell him he doesn’t need to transform, but then comes a knock at the door and he understands. In comes Virgil to get him ready for the day, casting ‘Wolf’ a pursed-lip glower of disapproval where he lays on the bed. He holds his tongue though, dressing him in short order, and then Stiles is on his way downstairs to the dining room.

He wishes he’d done this in the first place, pretended Wolf was refusing to come out. He could have avoided the night before if he’d just used his brain and saved Derek from having to endure being in Kate’s presence. There was no need to put Derek through that. There was no need to rush around to rectify the missing collar if he’d just told Derek to hide around the castle for the day.

Stiles sighs and tries not to dwell on the regret. He can’t go back now, but he can at least spend time with her in Derek’s stead. He’ll suffer it so Derek won’t have to.

He’s the first to arrive for breakfast but he’s followed by Kate before he’s even sat down. His stomach sinks at the prospect of spending time alone with her. As expected, Wolf’s whereabouts are enquired after immediately.

“He was a little out of sorts so I left him to it,” Stiles explains, spearing a tomato on his fork and wishing it could be one of her eyes. “I think he must sense that you’re leaving. It must be hard for him.” Hard not to tear out your throat while he has the chance.

Kate smiles but there’s no hint of humour and she shows too many teeth. “You spoil him. A firm hand is what those beasts need.”

“Or a skipped meal,” Stiles replies, lightly. He hates himself for what he’s implying but Kate’s eyes sparkle with unconcealed glee. “He needs to understand this is his home now.”

Thankfully, his father arrives then, saving Stiles from feigning further kinship. Though it’s left him with a squirming sick feeling in his stomach, appealing to Kate's hidden interests can only serve them well. He has to go over the situation once more when his father asks after Wolf, but he changes the subject before any more abuse can be implied. He remains politely interested for the rest of the meal, trying to stay bright-eyed and not allow himself to sink into his thoughts – or his violent imaginings. As Kate is finishing the last of a fried mushroom, he grits his teeth, ready to offer to accompany her on a turn about the gardens, when he learns her horse has already been saddled and her entourage are waiting out on the forecourt. An early start, indeed. She gets to her feet as soon as they’ve all finished eating and Stiles inwardly rejoices, tension already ebbing from his shoulders at the discovery that they’ll be rid of her so soon.

“It really is a shame Wolf isn't here for my departure,” Kate remarks, disappointment thick in her voice. It just makes Stiles wonder how many double meanings he’s missed over the years.

“He can’t be encouraged?” his father asks Stiles. An innocent question, but Stiles doesn’t hear it the way Kate will. In light of Stiles’ mysterious behaviour yesterday, it seems his father is being careful not to push anything. He couldn’t have known the repercussions when he’d insisted Derek spend some time with Kate alone, but Stiles is glad he’s being cautious now all the same.

“No.” Stiles forces a rueful smile and says to Kate, “It seems it’s difficult for him to say goodbye.”

“Well, no matter. I’ll be seeing him in Venatia soon enough. You will be bringing him, won’t you?”

Stiles stares at her, icy fear gripping his heart, spreading outward into his veins. It sets his mind racing. What does she mean? Are they expecting Derek to be returned to them?

Kate elaborates at his bewilderment, her own confusion plain on her face. “Allison’s birthday. You are still attending?”

Stiles almost sags under the sudden weight of realisation. “Yes, of course! You know, with all of this excitement over Kali, I’d quite forgotten. Though don’t tell Allison that,” he chuckles.

“Your secret is safe with me,” Kate obliges, with what feels like genuine humour. It’s a return to the Princess that Stiles had been so fond of for all these years and it leaves him feeling caught off balance. Another reminder of how blind he’d once been. He allows himself some relief that his explanation was satisfactory and hopes that it had only been confusion showing on his face and no trace of his sudden terror. Though it wasn’t exactly a lie. It would have been more accurate to say with all of this excitement over Derek. He had forgotten Allison’s masquerade ball she’d been planning and so enthusiastically telling him all about when she’d visited him for his own birthday all those weeks ago. Now it’s just something else to keep him up at night.

They accompany Kate outside and each kiss the back of her hand in a gesture of farewell, though it’s more in Stiles’ instinct to want to spit on it instead. They wait as she mounts her horse and castle servants fix last-minute saddle bags of provisions provided by the kitchens, and then they’re waving farewell as Kate’s horse trots out of the gates and out onto the cobbles of Stellaris’ main road.

The gates have barely closed behind her when his father turns to him.

“My study,” he orders, before striding back inside.

“I’ll meet you there,” Stiles calls after him, and his father whips round, impatience on his face. “All will become clear. I just need some time.” With the silent state Derek was in when he woke up this morning, he can’t just drag him off to his father’s study and subject him to an interrogation. He’s also yet to eat breakfast, and a hearty meal will do him good after the draining of emotion last night.

But there’s somewhere else Stiles needs to go first: Finstock’s smithy. He’d been in such a rush yesterday with Kate on their doorstep that he’d left the original collar in Finstock’s care and it would be valuable now to show to his father. A worm of apprehension grows in his gut as he gets closer. He’s been worrying about anyone catching on that there’s something wrong with his direwolf, but he may have already inadvertently done so. Finstock had to have known exactly what that ring of metal was that Stiles brought to him, considering the interest he’d shown when he’d first laid eyes on it. But Stiles didn’t have any other option. Finstock isn’t going to have guessed the truth of it all from that one object, or even that his direwolf is actually a person, but his curiosity is going to have been piqued, especially with Stiles’ frantic appearance coinciding with Kate’s arrival. Hopefully he’ll have just chalked it up to the discovery of animal cruelty. Greenberg too. Stiles groans when he remembers the apprentice. But there’s not much he can do about it now. Requesting they keep his visit quiet will just draw further attention.

As soon as he steps into the smithy, Finstock lays down his tools and disappears into the back room before Stiles has a chance to say anything. Greenberg is nowhere in sight. Probably on an errand if Finstock didn’t yell for him immediately. The eccentric blacksmith returns with the original collar, which he fits into a spare burlap sack. Finstock holds it out to him, saying nothing, and though his eyes are just as wide and wild, he’s somehow solemn. Animal cruelty it must be.

“Thank you,” Stiles says, for returning the collar, but for the replacement one too and the speed with which he prepared it. For everything.

Finstock seems to understand that there’s more than one reason wrapped up in the words and gives him a single nod. Then he picks up his tools and returns to the breastplate he’d been repairing.

It was such an uncharacteristic encounter with him that Stiles feels a little bit dizzy when he steps back out into the daylight. He’s not sure he’s ever seen the man so silent. He’s certainly a strange one.

Next, he heads to the kitchens, intent on fetching Derek some freshly cooked food. He uses the excuse that with Kate’s rush to depart he hadn’t gotten to eat his fill and allows the kitchen staff to pile a plate with cold meats left over, a wedge of cheese and a bread roll fresh from the oven. One of the kitchen girls offers to carry the plate for him, but Stiles insists with an easy smile, shifting the collar to carry it under one arm to hold the plate with his free hand. He exudes the demeanour all the way up to the wing of his rooms where he can finally let it slide from his face.

He opens the door to find Derek is still lying in bed, now propped up against a pillow, book in hand once more. It amazes him that Derek is able to detect that it’s him approaching and not Virgil or any other member of their staff. What does he use to identify him? His breathing? His footstep rhythm? Heartbeat?

“She’s gone?” Derek asks as soon as Stiles has the door closed behind him.

“Yes.” He’s heartened that Derek’s voice has returned to him.

He hands over the plate of food which Derek gratefully accepts. He pointedly doesn’t look at the sack under Stiles’ arm, though he tucks into the food with enthusiasm. Stiles pauses for only a moment of hesitation before he speaks.

“While you were out yesterday, I told my father there was something I needed to tell him when Kate was gone. He wants me to explain it to him now.”

Derek speaks around a mouthful of bread. “It makes sense for him to be informed.”

“After you’ve eaten – and once you’re ready – we can go to him.”

Derek nods and Stiles moves to stand at the window to stare out at life in the castle below as Derek eats, at the horses being led across the stables, at knights practicing their swordsmanship on the training ground. He clasps his hands behind his back, anxious to know if Kate may have said anything of importance during Derek’s time with her yesterday, but he’s reluctant to bring it up while Derek’s eating. He’s reluctant to bring it up at all. But Derek must be able to sense his unease just as easily as he can listen for his approach.

“If there’s something you need to say,” Derek begins, leaving the sentence hanging. It’s like he’s so used to bad news that it’s all he’s prepared for.

Stiles turns to him slowly, chagrined. “I was just wondering if the Princess said anything to you when you accompanied her yesterday.” He shakes his head. “But I don’t want you to have to talk about it twice. I’ll wait until my father is present.”

“No. I’d rather you asked me here.” Derek finishes chewing his mouthful and stares down at his plate. “She said nothing that your father will need hear of. And nor did she do anything, not with your men present.”

Stiles is so grateful for his quick thinking yesterday when he’d suggested it.

“She could say things though, that only I would hear. Things about my family that she knew would hurt.”

Derek closes his eyes and Stiles almost shakes him, to stop whatever images he might be reliving behind his eyelids, but thankfully Derek opens them again before he has the chance.

“She said that Cora is sick. That she’s dying. She said she hopes you’re bringing me with you for Allison’s birthday because otherwise she might not live long enough for me to see her again.”

“Derek…” Stiles doesn’t know what to say.

“She was lying. At least, that’s what I have to believe. I know her, and the rest of her kind. Just snakes with forked tongues, ready to spread their poison.” He shuts his eyes again and takes a deep breath, but it’s calming, purging. He seems to become refreshed before Stiles eyes, no trace of the crumbling shell of the night before. “In my heart, I know it isn’t true. When we were kept together in our enclosure, our pack bond manifested like a mental link between us in our new forms, allowing us to sense vague emotions from each other. It weakened for me with the distance between us, but I can remember the joint distress we all shared when we were separated. I don’t feel that now. At least, none of it fresh. I just hope my family can feel the same of me, that they know I’m alive, if the Argents haven’t kept them updated. Maybe they can even tell something about me has changed. Maybe they can feel the hope.”

Stiles heart wrenches all over again at everything the Hales have been through. How must it feel if they can sense this tiny light after living so long in darkness?

“You will see them again. Kate won’t be the one to get the last laugh.”

“No. She won’t,” Derek agrees. There’s a glint in his eye, that same glint from when he’d promised Kate’s murder. After the past two days, Stiles is more inclined to be on his side in the matter. The idea still weighs heavy on him, and he wonders if, ultimately, ignorance might be bliss on the outcome. If the options are either the Hales freed and the Argents slaughtered (minus Allison, a non-negotiable condition) or the Hales are held forever in captivity, he’ll gladly seek the former. He wonders what his father will say. Remembering Derek’s determination and recalcitrance in the face of Stiles’ dismay, he doesn’t think anything his father can say will change his mind on the matter.

“I know it’s hard for you too,” Derek says, breaking Stiles from his musings. “To face her and smile. Worse, in a way, when you have to pretend you don’t know. You possess more restraint than I ever could.”

He can feel Derek’s gratitude, but it’s hard for him to accept his words as a compliment. It almost makes him feel like he’s able to accommodate her and laugh in her presence because he doesn’t feel Derek and the Hales’ plight enough, no matter that he knows it’s all that’s keeping Derek safe right now. He should be doing more. He can only hope that by sharing this with his father, a plan can begin to form that will actually make a difference.

“I imagined staving her face in on the edge of the dining table yesterday morning. It was so vivid, for a moment I thought I’d actually done it. I could feel her skull crack, and feel the warmth of her blood between my fingers.” It had felt good.

Derek smiles wryly. “She has that effect on people.”

Stiles returns it, though it’s pained. He wonders if they’d been alone – and if so much didn’t hang in the balance – if he would have been capable of actually doing it. That white hot flare of rage is unlike any he’d felt before. It’s reduced to a simmer now, but he knows the flames are ready to leap back up again at a moment’s notice.

“She was at least being truthful when she told you she didn’t uncover anything new about Kali.

“I didn’t expect that she would,” Stiles says. “Kali could be anywhere by now.”

He leaves Derek to finish eating, stirring from a book when Derek breathes an invigorating sigh and sets his plate on the bedside table. “I’m ready.”

Stiles’ first instinct is to ask if he’s sure, tell him he can take his time, but Derek doesn’t need to be coddled. Instead, while Derek transforms, he busies himself with digging out some clothing for Derek to wear after he’s revealed his true form to his father (the realisation that this is happening is enough for him to need to catch his breath, stomach somersaulting) and he gathers a sheet from the bed too. Something to preserve Derek’s dignity the moment his transformation is complete. He hides the original collar as best he can between the two bundles, aware that it’s touching and tainting something Derek will later have to wear but knowing there’s no helping it.

As they traverse the castle corridors, Derek trotting as Wolf by his side, his palms begin to sweat; his father might not take this as well as he did.

They arrive at his father’s study to find him at the window, turning to face them like he’d spent the last half an hour pacing back and forth. His eyes are alert with guarded curiosity, brows deepening into a frown as he takes in the assortment of objects in Stiles’ arms. The image might not be doing much for how his father is perceiving Stiles’ sanity thus far, but it will all become clear to him soon enough.

“Take a seat,” Stiles says, remembering how the strength had left him when he’d been the one to find out. He sets the items on the desk as his father lowers himself into the high-backed oak and leather chair behind it, gaze catching on the collar emerging from between the fabrics Stiles carries.

“Why do you have a torture dev—” He straightens in his seat, almost standing. “That's Wolf’s collar. They told you not to take it off!”

Stiles throws him a dark look. “You just called it a torture device yourself. No one should have to wear such a thing. And anyway, if I hadn’t, I never would have discovered this.” Stiles unfolds the sheet and settles it over Derek’s back, ignoring an exasperated huff, sure he’d be rolling his eyes if human. Instead, he turns back to his father, but words dry up on his tongue. Now that he’s here, he doesn’t know how he’s supposed to even begin broaching the subject. If he tries to explain what he’s discovered, he can already picture the look on his father’s face: sorrow at furtherproof of unravelling sanity, perhaps even resignation. Maybe in a case like this, ‘show’ will be better than ‘tell’.

He takes a deep breath.

“Do you remember Derek Hale?”

 

*

 

His father sits stunned, staring at Derek shifting uncomfortably in a chair in front of his desk. He’s now clothed in the garments Stiles had brought with them, tugging awkwardly on the sleeve of the shirt and looking like shifting back is becoming more appealing by the second. His father has a tumbler of whisky held firmly against his desk, like he’s stopping it from rattling in a shaking hand.

“You’re not dead.”

Derek’s head is bowed. “No, Sir.”

“You’re— You’re a wolf-man.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“A werewolf,” Stiles corrects. “His whole family.”

“And how long have you known?” his father asks, speaking to Stiles but not taking his wide eyes off of Derek.

“Just a few days. The night of the day I met Kali in the woods.”

“She knew what Derek was. She’s a werewolf too.”

Stiles is impressed – but not surprised – by the speed with which his father is slotting all he knows into place. The fact she managed to get into Stellaris alone, how they found only direwolf footprints, that she came to take Derek away with her.

His father shakes his head, either still in disbelief and denial, or trying to shake off the masked reality he’s been living under for the past five years. 

“But why didn’t you show yourself to us until now?”

“It was the collar,” Stiles explains. “It had magic which stopped Derek from transforming.” He describes the light in the jewel and his attempts to blow it out and Derek’s eventual reveal. “I got as big a shock as you just did.”

“But why would you think of doing a thing like that?” his father asks, staring at the aptly dubbed torture device sitting in the middle of his desk, his features set in a grimace. The dried blood is still present, and Stiles isn’t sure if he’s glad of the added dramatic flair or if he wishes he’d thought to clean it off. For Derek’s sake, he should have gotten rid of it.

“Because— Because of mother.”

For a moment, his father looks like something large has gotten trapped in his throat, but then a hint of a smile catches at the corner of his lips, however painful, and his wrist finally relaxes where it was still gripping his drink. He takes a sip, and when he puts the glass back down, he manages to release it.

“Tell me everything.”

Stiles looks to Derek, experiencing just what a gargantuan task Derek had had to face when Stiles had asked him the same thing three nights ago. He doesn’t know where to start either, but with Derek to help, they manage it, piece by piece: the Argent attack on the Hale Manor, their captivity, even about Erica and Boyd, and the disappearance of Isaac Lahey from the night of his birthday feast. With all of the facts laid out, his father reaches the same first conclusion that Stiles did.

“So we’ve entered a war we don’t even need to fight.” There’s a far off look in his eyes, like he’s considering and calculating every little thing this war has needlessly cost them. It’s too much to keep track of. He leans his elbows on his desk and rests his forehead against his hands steepled in front of him. “I knew Gerard was a foul, loathsome gutter snake, but this! Taking us for fools all these years. The laughter they must have shared!” He shakes his head. “Though it’s the thought of Princess Katherine’s true character that my mind is reeling against. And yet, with you sat here before me, I have no means to refute it. I can only apologise for what I must have put you through during her visit yesterday.”

Stiles can only commiserate that he had mirrored his father’s disbelief over Kate’s villainy, as Derek tries to assure his father that he couldn’t have known. Perhaps his father should have known. Perhaps they should have informed him prior to Kate’s visit like Stiles had considered then discarded. But it’s no use to wonder about it now.

“The main cause for concern now is Allison’s upcoming birthday celebration,” Stiles says, and his father jerks up in his chair.

“Well, you shan’t go!” he exclaims. “An illness, or— or injury, but there’s no way that you can attend!”

“I can’t withdraw!” Stiles argues his voice rising alongside his fathers. He tries to rein in his emotion, needing his father to see reason here. “I’ve just confirmed to Kate that I’ll be there. We can’t do anything that will raise any suspicions.”

“And what if you weren’t as careful during Kate’s visit as you thought and she’s just biding her time until you’re in the heart of Argent territory with no hope of escape? At least here they can’t touch you, or Derek.”

“But they can use the rest of the Hales, and that’s enough.”

His father’s indignation deflates at that, the reminder of the rest of the Hales as effective as a physical blow. It takes him only a moment to recover. “Then I will accompany you.”

“You’ve already declined. The Argents will wonder what’s changed.” Even as his father’s brow furrows and his mouth opens to argue, Stiles knows he sees the sense in his words. Stiles continues. “I’d feel better if you were there, but if we’re going to keep them convinced that nothing’s changed, we need to continue as we have been.”

“Should Derek at least stay behind? Perhaps they just want to get him back into their clutches.”

Stiles can’t deny the thought had crossed his mind. But—

“I’ll not let Stiles go alone,” Derek interjects, straightening in his chair. He blanches. “I mean, His Highness—”

Stiles talks over Derek’s attempt to address him by his title. “If this is a chance for Derek to see his family again, I’ll not deny him it. And the Argents will know it’s not a chance he’d give up.”

His father looks between them with desperation, searching futilely for any alternative. But every avenue leads in the same direction. Stiles knows because he’s agonised over it himself. The desperation becomes helplessness and then vacant resignation – at least for now. There’s plenty of time between now and when they leave for his father to conjure up more objections and more cautious alternatives. He knows they’re facing a terrible risk by going, and maybe even Derek’s family would rather he wouldn’t endanger himself like that, but Stiles would do exactly the same thing in Derek’s situation. Anyone would. 

His father decides to press a different matter. “We need to at least consider bringing some others in on this secret.”

“It’s too risky,” Stiles says immediately. “We don’t know who we can trust. We don’t know who else might know about werewolves and view them in the same way the Argents do. I’m not comfortable bringing anyone else into this.”

“Perhaps I would consider it if I could believe that you won’t attempt some sort of rescue while you’re there,” his father accuses.

Stiles doesn’t try to deny it. “We have no idea when we’ll get another chance.”

His father seems to wither under the confirmation, complexion turning grey, perhaps even a little green. “And how do you plan on doing that?”

“I don’t know. But we’ve got time to think of something.”

His father starts to shake his head, leaning back in his chair, but he doesn’t say anything. Stiles knows his father is thinking the same thing he is, that putting this off will just prolong the Hales’ suffering when they’ve already failed them long enough. It will be months before Stiles will have an excuse to visit Venatia again. He can’t face that.

“This discussion isn’t over,” his father continues. “And I insist that Virgil at least should know. He’ll be accompanying you anyway and is so adept at avoiding notice that he won’t come under any scrutiny. And with the concern he’s shown over how close you are with—” He glances at Derek here, “what he believes is a direwolf that the Argents had perhaps trained for some ulterior motive, it would do his heart some good to know you’re in no danger.”

Stiles traps his objection that Wolf meant him no harm under his tongue. He’d never considered the Argents could have trained and bestowed a direwolf with unsavoury intentions, and he knows Virgil has his best interests at heart, even if it does grate that he went to his father with his concerns. He knows that his father speaks sense. Virgil’s staunch stoicism won’t leave any trace in his expression and he’s unshakeable to the core, in his nerves and his loyalty. Stiles does wonder what his reaction might be when he discovers that it’s been another man sharing Stiles’ bed all this time. He wonders if Virgil will try to insist on different sleeping arrangements for Derek, and his stomach twists at the realisation that that thought is chased by disappointment.

He shoves the feeling aside and allows his father the permission to inform Virgil, but strictly no others. His father doesn’t look satisfied but he at least agrees, the displeasure still present on his face when the time comes for them to leave him to business. He stands to see them to the door, pausing to address Derek before he transforms. “Though there is still too much misery for me to take real joy in this situation, to see you standing before me and to know the rest of your family didn’t perish is like being witness to a miracle. I won’t stop until they are returned safely home to us.”

Emotion seems to choke Derek’s throat for a moment, and he has to settle with bowing his head and a hoarse, “Thank you, Your Majesty.”

Affection blossoms in Stiles’ chest for the two men standing in front of him, for his father’s heart and Derek’s strength. He knows his father is just trying to keep his head up above everything that’s suddenly been thrust upon him, reeling at the truth of the war, and the Hales still being alive, along with every little thing between. He can’t fault him for it. It has bolstered Stiles’ perspective though, courage already beginning to build within him in preparation for what they must do when they visit Venatia. He’s no closer to knowing how, but he has to believe they will succeed. He does wish that his father could be there, a fragment of his younger self resurfacing with the desire for him to take control and make this all go away, fix it with the wave of a magic wand. But this isn’t something that can be healed like a kiss to a bruised knee. His father is only human, and Stiles is going to have to handle this himself.

Derek transforms for them to make the journey back to their quarters, much to his father’s shock and amazement, and he’s quiet when he shifts back, though it’s not the same sort of quiet as the one he’d been swathed in last night. It’s contemplative instead, mulling over everything that’s happened.

“I’m glad we told him,” he eventually says, and Stiles has to agree. It’s good to hear, easing some of his swirling worry. It is better to feel the burden shared, and to know they have one person on the outside who will know the truth should anything go awry in Venatia.

“I wonder how Virgil will react,” Stiles says, and Derek’s face actually brightens with a grin.

“I won’t be sleeping in your bed much longer, that’s for certain.”

The fact that that’s where Stiles’ thoughts had first gone too makes his stomach tie itself in knots. He swallows hard. “I don’t know if there’s much he can do to stop you. It would look too strange to set up another bed in here, and you can’t go sleeping in a guest room.” He feels like he has a flush creeping up his neck and into his cheeks to be discussing this. It’s been easier to ignore it and go on as they have been, never mind that their current living arrangement isn’t exactly respectable. Now that Virgil’s face is sure to be fixed in a new kind of disapproval every time he looks at them, its just going to remind Stiles of that fact.

“Good. It’s much comfier up here than on the pillows on the floor,” Derek says, shifting on the bed like he’s testing the bounce.

Stiles’ mouth goes dry and he has to turn away, taking a seat on the bench at the end of the bed. “I wouldn’t make you,” he says, then shuts his eyes tightly. What is he saying? This sort of talk is heading them in the direction of things he’s been trying to ignore out of respect and shame and decency. Derek is so vulnerable right now, returned to human after years forced living as an animal, trapped in fear and worry for his still captive family. Whatever Derek’s presence in his life might be making him feel, in the face of such hardships, it won’t do to even allude to such things. He needs to steer them away from this dangerous territory.

“If we’re to put my father at ease over our stay in Venatia, it might help if we can formulate some sort of plan in advance,” he says, shifting in his seat to look at Derek behind him.

“We’ll have no hope of sneaking anyone out while they’re still as wolves, which leaves us the only options of you breaking the enchantment on each collar, or the mountain ash the Argents have in their possession. Or there’s Jennifer,” Derek adds wryly. “But I don’t think we’d be able to appeal to her sensibilities.”

“And relying on me would be foolish.”

“We probably won't have much time to remove them all,” Derek agrees, both of them remembering the prolonged struggle it took for Stiles' to manage only Derek's.

“Do you think if we get the collars off, your family will be able to shift back to their Wolf form like you do? Just in case we need to bide our time between taking off the collars and getting them out? Could they go for any period without it being noticed the collars are missing?”

Derek pauses to think. “I think that could be possible, if need be. There are trees in the enclosure, a wooded area that we can retreat into. It would be enough to hide it, as long as no one decided to visit. Though,” a small flame of anticipation lights in Derek’s eyes, “if they did, the collars would be no more. It would be easy enough to silence them.”

That isn’t something Stiles is looking forward to, however necessary it will be to keep the escape attempt a secret. His discomfort at the idea lingers, even as they move on to discussing the palace layout and the location of the mountain ash, and when he climbs into bed that night – not thinking of Derek lying in the dark beside him – it only grows as he wonders where it might end. Once the Hales have gained their freedom, will they only be satisfied once they’ve wreaked havoc through the entire palace, or will they be cognitive enough to reserve their revenge for only those directly involved?

He tries to turn his thoughts to other things, but all that leaves is their tentative plans for the rescue. His mind is fuzzy with some of the particulars of the Argent palace, and he can’t picture where the enclosure is, no matter how much Derek tries to explain. They’ve surmised that the final night of their visit seems their best option for carrying it out, but would that be expected if any vague suspicions have been raised, palace guards on higher alert? And what if anything goes wrong beforehand? They’re going to have to survive two weeks in the Argents’ palace – no better than a pit of vipers – without a single slip up. If they manage it and make it to the enclosure to put a plan into action, are they going to have to steal away in the middle of the night? It will reveal to the Argents that they know the truth and impact their alliance in the war, perhaps at the expense of Stellaran citizens. On the other hand, if they get the Hales out and remain in Venatia themselves to say their goodbyes as is expected of them, feigning ignorance, surely that the escape occurred when Derek happened to return will be all but confirmation of their guilt? Even if everything goes as planned and they have a perfect window to get them out of the palace, he already knows from constant remarks by Derek that they won’t be going quietly.

Stiles heaves a sigh and rolls onto his back. He gets the feeling that no matter what plan they concoct, it will fall to pieces as soon as the first collar comes off. With emotions heightened and predator instincts lingering, he’s not sure there will be anything he can say as a voice of reason – or to even have himself be heard.

Chapter Text

The remaining weeks until they’re due to depart for Venatia flit by with the speed of heartbeats. He spends the time torn between anticipating its arrival and wishing it would never come, suffocating under the building enormity of all that will be required of him the moment they set foot outside the city walls. Hosting Kate for that one day and one night had been exhausting enough, and that had only been for a few hours. There will be no reprieve from the act he’ll have to put on during the weeks that they’ll be spending in Venatia, and it will probably be too dangerous for Derek to even shift back to human, with the threat of discovery looming around every corner. It’s going to be lonely, unable to have even Scott for real company, and he worries about the mental toll it might have on him. That it will have on Derek.

Virgil at least has been let in on the secret so Stiles won’t be completely alone, but he’s hardly someone Stiles can rely on for company, especially not in light of his newfound knowledge. Even before knowing about Derek, he hadn’t been subtle about his displeasure of the wolf sleeping in Stiles’ bed, and now he knows he’s actually a man – a very gorgeous and eligible and usually naked man – his pursed lips and furrowed brows have just reached new lows. He’s had a chaise longue introduced to the room, a substitute for Derek to sleep on without raising the questions the appearance of a second bed would bring, but it’s just gone unused which hasn’t escaped Virgil’s notice.

After the very first night, Derek had sat on the chaise in time for Virgil’s arrival but the manservant’s gaze had fallen immediately on the other side of the bed from where Stiles was sitting beneath the covers, zeroing in on the rumpled sheets. His lips had disappeared into a bloodless line and Stiles wonders if it’s another issue Virgil will raise with his father. It makes Stiles’ stomach flip to remember how they hadn’t even discussed Derek using it. He’d just climbed under the bedcovers as he had all the nights before and Stiles hadn’t stopped him. He hadn’t wanted to.

They continue as they have been though, despite Virgil’s disapproval, their days passing just going through the motions, keeping up the appearance of nothing having changed. With Virgil now privy to the secret, Stiles no longer needs to find excuses to bring food up to his rooms and more appropriate sets of clothes have been found for Derek.

During his lessons – and any other time ‘Wolf’ accompanies him in public – he’ll often find himself start absently stroking Derek’s fur as he always used to and has to keep snatching his hand away; he’s not a dog to be petted. But Derek will nudge at his hand, every time, and Stiles hesitantly continues.

Despite being rid of Kate, her presence still haunts their day to day, with Stiles learning very quickly things he should never mention. The worst is when he returns to his rooms after breakfast one morning when Derek had stayed behind to find him looking at himself in the mirror, hand stroking over the beard forming there. He hasn’t groomed it since his return to human form, and Stiles crosses the room to stand by his side. At eighteen, he used to have stubble that Stiles can remember making him look so manly and mature to his twelve-year-old gaze. At eighteen now, Stiles doesn’t feel half the adult Derek had looked.

Stiles picks up the straight razor from beside his wash basin. “You can shave if you want.” He thinks of the amount of time that has passed since Derek has had to do this and his shaky coordination when he’d first turned back to human. “Or I could help you—”

“No,” Derek interrupts. There’s a note of panic there. Of fear. “That’s how K—That’s how she liked me.”

Stiles stares at him, and as all the implications wrapped up in that single sentence unravel themselves, his blood runs colder and colder. He thinks of Kate’s attempts to get Derek to her quarters the night of her visit, her comments all those months ago where she’d called him handsome, of the tiny detail in Derek’s account of his family’s escape attempt that he was the only one who knew where Kate’s rooms were. At the time, he hadn’t thought to ask why.

Derek’s hands are on his in an instant, gently prying his hand open to grab the razor and toss it in the sink. Stiles looks down at a trickle of blood that has welled from a slice in the skin across the back of his index finger where he’d been squeezing the razor closed in his building rage. There are tears of fury in his eyes and he turns away, hoping he can play it off as just the pain of the cut.

“I’m fine,” he says, sucking on the wound.

He isn’t fine. He feels like he’s about to be sick. Derek doesn’t call him on it. He doesn’t say anything at all, and Stiles is relieved to put distance between them and the topic. He isn’t steady enough right now to ask him about it, and he’s sure it’s not something Derek even wants to elaborate on. It’s a bleak reminder that even when this is all over, he’s going to have to accept that there will be lasting damage, for all of them. He’s not going to be able to fix everything.

Derek leaves the mirror and Stiles glances at his retreating figure, noting that, for once, Derek isn’t naked. Clothes that actually fit him may have been provided, but that doesn’t mean he always remembers to wear them. Stiles has returned to his rooms many times to find him lounging on the bed or standing at his bookshelf without a care, and it always takes Derek a moment to realise. Even then, he makes no haste about dressing or climbing under the bedsheets, and even while sitting in bed he remains unabashed and leaves his chest bare.

And Stiles isn’t a saint. He’s never been around such casual nudity before, especially not with someone of Derek’s physique. He has muscles Stiles doesn’t think his own body has, perhaps a product of his supernatural genes. Maybe that should be fuelling his insecurities over his own gangly body for life, but mainly he finds himself wondering how they might feel beneath his hands. The strength he might find there, and the warmth, so much more potent than what he’s already felt radiating from him when they lay together side by side.

It makes his stomach twist, especially in light of this new revelation of cruelty suffered at the hands of Kate Argent. Derek has had his body used against him enough as it is, but despite those sobering thoughts, Stiles doesn’t know how to conduct himself and he isn’t sure how aware Derek may be of how flustered he gets upon seeing him like that. He knows he has superior hearing and it makes Stiles wonder once again if he is able to hear his heartbeat, but he doesn’t know if that means anything. He’s also aware of how powerful his sense of smell is, had seen it in action when he managed to track the missing Lahey boy for a mile, two weeks after his disappearance. But again, he doesn’t know what that means, and if it can really tell him anything about Stiles’ emotions beyond the fact that he’s present, and though his curiosity since learning of the existence of werewolves has known no bounds, that’s one topic he doesn’t think he ever wants to touch on. It might reveal knowledge it’s best to live without.

As the days pass and the nights lengthen, they spend most of their time discussing plans and talking about the war, and even reminiscing over the past, sun-dappled memories still mostly intact, if a little singed around the edges. There are still too many unknowns for them to form a proper plan but still they retread the same ground, going in circles all they have until they can actually get into the Argent palace to get the lay of the land, see if anything has changed in Derek’s absence. It somehow becomes a comfort though, and Stiles tries to ignore how he thinks the reason for that is probably how close he and Derek sit to murmur about it despite Derek being able to tell if anyone were to get close enough to eavesdrop.

One worrying new possibility that Derek brings to his attention though, is the potential for Jennifer to sense immediately that Derek’s new collar has no magic in it. Even if they managed to make sure no one touched it to keep them from discovering its wrong temperature, it will be ultimately pointless if all it will take Jennifer is to walk into the same room.

“So, you want me to trick her somehow?” Stiles asks, sitting up from where he’d been sprawled on the bed at Derek’s side. His fingers are already twitching to give it a go.

“I don’t know. And like I said, the spark is weak in you. You managed to break through an enchantment, but I don’t know if you’ll be able to create one.”

Stiles raises his eyebrows, unable not to take offense. “We’ll see about that,” he sniffs, rolling from the bed and rummaging for Finstock’s collar replacement underneath. It might not be as hideous to look at as the original, but Stiles still wishes it could forever be hidden from view.

It’s much more difficult than he imagined, worse than undoing whatever enchantment was on the original collar in the first place. This is creating something out of nothing, not sweeping away something already there, and he doesn’t know the first thing about making magic work. Even Derek can’t be of any help to him in this.

It takes him hours spread out over almost a week, excruciating hours as their departure date edges ever closer. He tries with his eyes open, his eyes closed, sat cross-legged, standing in the middle of the room, chanting in his head, talking out loud. All he knows is to use the same method that dispelled the enchantment in the first place, his imagination, picturing how the collar had looked and felt those months before he knew what Wolf really was. In the end, it’s only aiming for something simpler that manages to bear fruit, the task of warming the collar and lighting the jewel at once perhaps too complex for him to manage yet, or even something that will forever be beyond his abilities.

A yellow glow eventually emits from the jewel, watery and pale, but just that small feat leaves him feeling drained. It makes him wonder if some of the fatigue the night he found out about Derek had something to do with whatever mental toll undoing the magic had taken on his mind. Despite his achievement with the light, it does nothing to warm the collar, and so Stiles continues.

“That’s enough,” Derek chides him after another evening of hunched over staring.

“You can’t know that, Derek,” Stiles grumbles, not lifting his eyes for a second. “Jennifer is a practiced sorceress. What if she can sense the magic isn’t right with just one glance?”

“If that’s the case, then no job that you do will ever convince her that it’s still her handiwork. I just don’t think you should do anything more in case you mess up what you’ve already achieved and then can’t get it back.”

Derek has a point, but Stiles’ shoulders still slump as he stares down at the heavy collar in his hands. It just feels like defeat, or failure.

“You’ve done an incredible job,” Derek encourages him, shifting closer on the bed behind him to put his hands on his shoulders. “You should be proud.”

Derek’s mouth is so close to his ear, his voice and the ghost of his breath against his skin sending a shiver down his spine. Stiles uses the excuse of leaping up to put the collar away to disguise how his body shuddered.

“I won’t be proud until you slip right by under Jennifer’s nose.” He sits heavily back on the bed when the collar is discarded with a sigh. “Until this is all over and we have your family back here and we’re throwing a feast in their honour. Until Laura is drinking all the Lords under the table again, and Peter is back to make all the Ladies swoon, and you’re recoiling from every single request you get for a dance.”

“I’d forgotten about that,” Derek snorts but he’s smiling. “And maybe you can steal the last slice of cake in the entire castle right off my plate again,” he accuses.

Stiles stares at him, marvelling at the dusty memory Derek has just unearthed in his mind, of crawling between legs under tables and reaching up with a searching hand for his prize. “Wait—How did you know that was me?” he exclaims, flailing his arms.

Derek flares his nostrils in explanation and Stiles runs a hand down his face as Derek laughs. The sound is so unexpected he forgets his embarrassment for a moment, glad Derek can still look back on that time with fondness.

“You were so little.”

“Hey! I was like, ten!”

“You had such a crush on me.”

Stiles splutters at the turn in conversation, his stomach doing somersaults as Derek laughs again. He manages to cross his arms, aiming for nonchalance despite the heat building in his cheeks that Derek had known about that. “I think you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who didn’t.”

“Laura always teased me about it.” His eyes grow sad and his smile wavers, but it doesn’t disappear. He should be able to smile at the past. It isn’t fair that it should all be painful.

“She’ll be able to tease you about it again soon,” Stiles promises, and his heart jumps when Derek lifts his eyes to his, realising what that sounded like. He’d just meant it as a mark of confidence that they were going to succeed in their rescue. He hadn’t meant to imply that he still…

Derek’s smile softens around the edges, his sadness dulled. “Yeah,” he says quietly, and Stiles is glad he understands his meaning. Derek looks down at his hands, twisting his fingers together until they turn white. “Seeing you for the first time since we were taken, standing at the head of the banquet hall as a man… It was my first real indication of how many years had passed. It was hard to picture the world still turning on the outside.”

Stiles wants to put his hand over Derek’s but he doesn’t have the courage. “I can still remember the day when we were brought the news,” he says, staring down at the bed sheets instead. “My father went to your manor to see for himself. He wouldn’t let me go.”

“I’m sure it was something you didn’t need to see.”

“It’s strange. I still feel that same aching emptiness whenever I think of it, even though you’re sitting in front of me now.”

“Others still lost their lives for the Argents’ plan to go ahead.”

Stiles nods. There were bodies in that fire. They know now they didn’t belong to the Hales, and the true names of those poor victims are likely fated to never be known. Poor souls without families, or perhaps other werewolves exterminated in the Argent name of justice. They’re still buried in the Hale mausoleum in the cemetery of Eichen Cathedral, and Stiles just hopes that one day, when the Hales can be revealed as alive and well, those people can be given the resting place they deserve.

“We’ll make sure that—”

Derek bolts upright and Stiles nearly leaps out of his skin. “What is it?”

Derek’s gaze is fixed on the window, body frozen. “Wolves.”

“Actual wolves or—”

“My kind of wolves.”

“Kali?”

“I think,” Derek confirms, head cocked. “And I think Deucalion has joined her.”

“Then—Then we have to warn my dad—”

“No.”

Stiles is already halfway off the bed when he turns to Derek, eyes clouded with doubt.

“They wouldn’t be here to attack. Perhaps they’re following Kate.”

“Do you think they’ll move on? Keep going after her?”

“They don’t yet know that you’ve discovered what I am.”

Or that they’ve discovered the truth behind the war. Should they make contact? Will they even be interested in moving forward as allies?

“We can’t leave the castle now,” Stiles says, shaking his head. “It would stand out too much. But they’ll probably have moved on by morning.”

Derek gets to his feet and crosses to the window, cracking it open. He takes a deep breath and howls.

They wait a few seconds and then Stiles thinks he hears a response on the breeze, so faint that it could just be the wind, but Derek turns to him. “They responded. They may still move on, but we can try and make contact tomorrow.”

“I’ll have to tell my dad. Perhaps he’ll want to come with us. Or forbid us from going.” The idea fills Stiles with displeasure, but he knows he still needs to tell him despite the possibility of that outcome; this sort of meeting isn’t something he should handle alone.

It turns out that Stiles needn’t have worried. As soon as they inform his father the next morning, he sends for his horse to be saddled and rides out alongside them – ahead of a retinue of guards much to Stiles’ chagrin, though he knows it can’t be helped. Not only is it his first time out riding since the incident with Kali, but his father, the King, is present. They can’t be seen doing something as reckless as riding without an escort. They have planned to leave the guards behind once they’re in the cover of the trees under the guise of wanting to spend some quality time alone, and he just hopes it’s enough to draw Kali and Deucalion out if they’re still in the area. A part of him is apprehensive, wondering if they might attack despite the discovery that they’re now on the same side. Derek has assured them that he can fight now his collar is off if something does happen, but that’s hardly the solace Derek seemed to think it would be; Stiles doesn’t want him doing anything that might get him hurt.

It turns out that he needn’t have worried about that either. They’ve ridden barely more than five minutes from the escort posted by the stream where he’d eaten lunch with the Venatian princesses the day after his birthday when Derek halts and begins to shift. Sharp cracks sound in the trees ahead of them, perhaps easy to be mistaken for the crack of branches if Stiles hadn’t grown so used to the sound of shifting bone.

Kali and Deucalion emerge from the trees and with so much nudity on display, Stiles doesn’t know where to look. His father shows no such unease, and Stiles makes sure to keep his own expression just as impassive.

He has a vague memory of meeting the Blind King once, years ago, before the war began, his sight already lost to Jennifer. His milky eyes set in a face of sharp angles and glaring eyebrows had frightened him in a way he’d never been frightened before, and he'd clung to his mother's leg to hide his face. At the oldest, he must have been four years old, and he’s often wondered if it was just a warped memory, manufactured by all he's learnt of him in the years since: of his involvement in the war, for being responsible for the deaths of the Hales, and not to mention the rumours of all the assassination attempts he's survived – which Stiles now supposes weren’t rumours at all and were only thwarted because of his werewolf healing. 

It still set him up as a kind of bogeyman in Stiles’ mind, and seeing him now finally proves that at least a little of that impression had always been true. He’s still unsettling, with his eyebrow scowl and gaunt cheekbones and lined face, but it’s now made all the worse by the way his eyes are a cloudy, simmering red. His Alpha eyes, Stiles supposes, remembering how Derek explained the colour to him before. He isn’t sure why Deucalion is showing them now. Is it a display of power? Or is this just the norm in a meeting amongst werewolves?

“Derek Hale,” is the first thing Kali says, but it isn’t a greeting. It’s coloured by surprise and curiosity instead, and Stiles realises she didn’t know who the direwolf was that she met in the woods that day. “So the Argents really did keep you all alive.”

Derek doesn’t answer, and Stiles can see some of the same distaste on his face as when he’d explained to Stiles how the Astrani royals have never been considered friends of the Hales.

“John,” Deucalion says, his deep, dangerous voice somehow exactly as Stiles remembered it. It sounds like a greeting and reprimand and taunt all rolled into one, but his father doesn’t flinch, even in the face of the slight of addressing him without the respect of his title.

“Deucalion.” His father’s tone seems to mirror the other King’s, even with a faint hint of added sarcasm, and something inside Stiles settles. He’s so glad his father is here beside him.

The shadow of a smirk lifts Deucalion’s cheek, seemingly impressed by his daring. “You understand we share a common enemy at last. Let’s skip the formalities and discuss destroying them.”

“Our first priority is the Hales,” his father declares. “They’ve suffered at the hands of the Argents long enough.”

“We all want the Hales returned safely,” Kali agrees, but Derek’s lip curls.

“Revenge is what you’re looking for, not a rescue. You don’t care about saving my family. You’re only out for yourselves.”

“You’re right,” Deucalion confirms, unwilling to even play at having a conscience. “I won’t be satisfied until I have the Argents scattered at our feet and I don’t care who gets in our way. Too long I’ve waited to feel Gerard Argent’s skull shatter beneath my claws.”

“You’ll have some competition,” Derek retorts, and Stiles internally winces. “And with you unable to get into Venatia, I wonder who will get there first.”

Deucalion’s eyes flare to a piercing red like they’re lit by a flame from within, his voice layered with an unearthly growl. “Take this prize from us and I’ll see it’s your skull I turn to pulp, boy.”

Derek snarls, eyes flashing gold in return. “You’re not my King. And you're not my Alpha,” he bites out through extended fangs. It seems like there’s some sort of internal battle of wills, Deucalion holding his stare for longer than is comfortable, only letting his eyes fade back to dull embers when Kali puts her hand on his arm.

“We want Gerard,” she tries to bargain.

“And Jennifer.” Deucalion growls.

Derek’s fangs are still on show. “Like I said: we'll see who gets there first.”

“These circumstances are so much bigger than who can beat who to their revenge,” Stiles’ father begins, heading off the chance for bloodshed here and now where Deucalion has already flicked out his claws. “Eradicating the Argents has a high chance of throwing Venatia into civil war. There is more to consider here.”

Deucalion turns to him, a dark chuckle rasping around his still-sharpened teeth. “Ever the diplomat.” He doesn’t mean it as a compliment. “This will be a bed of the Argents’ own making. I will watch their cities burn and use their bones to stoke the fires. Let the Venatians fight amongst themselves. Our border will finally be free of them.”

Stiles’ father shakes his head. “We are all victims of the Argents’ deception. The Venatians too have been misled in the true nature of this war, in flagrant disregard of Gerard’s responsibilities as their King. Those that are left should at least be given the chance to rebuild.”

Deucalion’s jaw is clenched tight, a fire still simmering in his eyes. Stiles’ father has cleverly wedged him into a corner, any of his desired responses only able to either sound petulant in the wake of Stiles’ father’s compassion, or draw unpleasant similarities between his conduct and Gerard’s.

“The Argents won’t be permitted to live,” says Kali in the wake of her husband’s silence. “That is non-negotiable.”

“At least we agree on something,” Derek growls.

It looks like it pains him, but Stiles’ father doesn’t argue. “With the Hales returned and revealed as victims of the Argents, there will be no more reason to fight. This war has gone on for far too long.”

“How do you intend to get to them?” Stiles asks, finally speaking up. Deucalion’s eyes turn to him for the first time and Stiles wonders if that glimmer of red is somehow giving him the ability to see. He doesn’t back down despite a frisson of unease. Their extended silence in response to his question is telling. “You keep talking big about what you intend to do to them, but do you have a plan? Because it’s been nearly fifteen years and it doesn’t seem like you’ve made any progress.” He knows he probably shouldn’t sound so antagonistic, but every word out of their mouths has rubbed him the wrong way, from their indifference towards the Hales, to the scorn they’ve shown his father. But that is all he’s heard from them: talk. They’re quick to speak of violence and outline their disregard for others but it seems they have absolutely nothing to back it up. “The truth is that you need help reaching them, especially now they’re soon to all be behind the Venatian palace walls, all in one place for the first time in a long while.”

“We have a way in,” Kali declares, her eyes starting to simmer red just like her husbands.

“You don’t sound too sure about that,” Derek says, his werewolf senses seemingly picking up on something Stiles’ human ones miss. Stiles trusts in Derek’s instincts.

“I think you need us,” he continues, fingers tightening on his reins in spite of himself; the Astrani royals are looking more and more murderous by the second. “You must know of Princess Allison’s upcoming birthday celebrations. You must know that I will be attending, along with Derek. It will also probably be our only feasible chance to attempt a rescue for the Hales.” And that’s what’s really important here. Not revenge or who gets there first. The Hales are relying on them to see this done, whether they know it yet or not. “I won’t stand in the way of the Argents getting what they deserve, but I’ll not see the Hales suffer further at the expense of your lust for vengeance.”

“Give us access to the Argents and you won’t have to worry about a rescue plan.” Deucalion growls.

“Our causes are intrinsically linked,” Kali reminds them. “Achieve one and we achieve the other.”

That’s all well and good, but the addition of Kali and Deucalion to whatever fragile plan they’ve managed to concoct so far sets the whole thing on fire and sends it crumbling down around their ears. How is he supposed to get the Astrani royals into the city, let alone into the palace and through to the Hales’ enclosure? He wants to run a hand over his face, but his father’s impassive mannerisms even now help to hold him in place.

The meeting continues in much the same way, back and forth with murder and distrust, and it ends in a way that feels like it’s mirroring the state of the war: a stalemate despite their tentative new status as allies. Kali and Deucalion promise that they’ll be following Stiles and Derek when they set off on their journey to Venatia, his father requests that they take a message to Erica and Boyd promising them a place to return to when this is all over, and then the two of them disappear into the trees and away.

Derek doesn’t move for a long while, listening to their retreat.

They return to their escort posted at the stream, unable to discuss what just occurred in case Deucalion and Kali are listening. Derek must have waited until the two of them were far enough away, but there’s still a feeling that the forest has ears and Stiles won’t feel safe until they’re back behind the city walls.

They accompany his father to his study when they return but there isn’t a lot for them to say except rehash old ground. His father laments that they’re even going at all, Stiles reminds him they have no other choice, and then there’s a lot of grumbling and swearing about Deucalion’s sneering face.

“Kali saying they have a way in wasn’t a total lie,” Derek informs them. “But whatever the method, they’re not certain of it.”

“So we’ll be a fallback plan if they can’t get in to deal with things on their own terms.” The idea of that makes Stiles’ stomach swoop, of Kali and Deucalion getting there first and the Hales becoming collateral damage.

His father’s face is still set in a frown when they leave him, and Stiles knows his face doesn’t look much different. It plagues him for the rest of the day, all the way into the evening when they’re back in their – his – rooms getting ready for bed. His brain is swirling with all the what-ifs and unknowns and he sinks onto the mattress with a sigh, rubbing at his eyes. “I hate that they’re involved.”

Derek’s hand settles over his nape, giving a supportive squeeze. Stiles jerks at the touch but softens immediately, scared his reaction might make Derek withdraw. He doesn’t. He starts rubbing soothing circles instead, a massage, and Stiles almost gargles out a moan at the strength and warmth of his touch. That warmth continues to spread through him, down, down, and Stiles leaps up. Dangerous, dangerous territory. He can’t even look Derek in the eye where he’s starting to pull back the covers to climb in, mentally cursing at Derek’s need to remove his clothes to sleep, squeezing his eyes shut tightly at the rustle of his shirt hitting the floor beside the bed. Does he not know what it’s doing to Stiles in this very moment? He must do. His werewolf senses.

Stiles’ teeth tear at his lip as he follows suit and climbs in beside him, but blowing out the light isn’t the reprieve he’d hoped it would be. Instead of the darkness settling over him like a pillow that might smother his imagination, it’s like a blank canvas instead, ready for his mind to fill with image after image of Derek in varying stages of undress, of biceps and abdominals and the hair on his arms and chest and—

He pushes the thoughts back, recoiling from them, but all that can take their place are the memories of earlier, their meeting with Kali and Deucalion in the woods, of Derek standing there, a vision of tan skin and rippling muscle, broad shoulders and coiling strength, facing down Deucalion, an Alpha, his fangs sharp and lethal and so easy to imagine grazing against his throat, down his chest, lower. 

He throws back the covers, sweltering heat radiating from his very core like a furnace. Derek shifts beside him and he freezes. Perhaps that was a mistake. Perhaps he’s just released all the evidence into the air that Derek needs to know exactly the kind of thoughts Stiles is wrestling with right now. But Derek’s deep breaths continue, and after a minute or two, Stiles relaxes.

Misery starts to well up in him, ashamed that he could be having all these thoughts when there’s so much more to be thinking about, so much at stake. It makes him feel dirty to be lusting over Derek the way he is, hyper aware of Derek lying three feet away, in the very same bed. It wasn’t so bad when it first started, when Stiles was still in shock and then when he felt the need to protect, but now, tonight, it’s like a dam has burst, one that Stiles is frantically trying to shore up. Derek deserves better. It doesn’t help that he can still hear Derek’s admission that he’d known all about Stiles’ silly childhood crush, that that blushing little boy is all Derek must see in him even now.

He slams his head back in his pillow with a muffled thwump. That should be the very last thing on his mind considering everything else on his plate. That that selfish thought is the one rising to the surface out of everything brings another burst of white-hot shame. Like it’s even important.

He knows that it’s just the stress of everything that’s going on, the mounting responsibility that he’s not even sure he’ll be able to live up to. He knows it will be better in the light of the morning. Derek will need his support in the coming days and weeks more than ever, and that’s what’s really important. He’ll be here for him, unwavering.

He pictures holding Derek in his arms, much like that time he’d found him in the bathtub and held him together, only this time Derek stands tall and proud, bolstered by Stiles’ presence and support. That’s how he falls asleep, sinking into the comfort of the fantasy and missing how, somewhere along the way, Derek’s arms wrap around him in return, enveloping Stiles in his warm embrace.

Chapter Text

“I don’t like this.”

Stiles looks down at his father from his seat in Roscoe’s saddle, mirroring his unease. “Neither do I.”

Their departure day has finally come, the retinue of guards assigned to accompany him to Venatia already in formation around him in the castle’s forecourt. A carriage has also been prepared, Virgil already sat inside to spare the elderly manservant the long rides each day will bring; Stiles will even see to it that he sleeps in there on the plush cushions in the highest amount of comfort possible. Stiles is supposed to be riding in it alongside him but he’d much rather sit astride Roscoe instead and take some enjoyment in their journey. The rest of the caravan that will be escorting them already waits outside the city walls, a large armed force for protection, as well as an assortment of carts carrying gifts and belongings and a body of servants. 

Derek is beside him, already shifted with his fake collar around his neck, an ugly sight that Stiles is unfortunately going to have to get used to.

“I should be going with you,” his father continues, voice low enough that no one else will hear. “You shouldn’t be going at all!” His eyebrows are drawn together into one frustrated line. “Promise me you won’t do anything rash.”

“I promise.” It’s easy for him to say it with so much conviction; after having spent so long agonising over every little detail that could go wrong, there’s no action he could take that could possibly be considered ‘rash’.

It does nothing to alleviate his father’s worry. He turns his stare to Derek next, the wolf’s bright, intelligent eyes watching him in return. His father only hesitates for a second before putting his hand on top of Derek’s head, between his ears. Derek closes his eyes and pushes against the touch in acknowledgement, like some sort of promise.

“Look after each other,” is the last thing he says, a whisper, and then they’re on their way.

Stiles feels like he leaves his stomach behind as he spurs Roscoe forward, clutching at his reins as a sudden surge of terror floods through him. His father has always been at his side when navigating all matters of diplomacy and politics, and though what Stiles has ahead of him is going to be so much more than meetings in war rooms and hosting important guests, to be leaving him behind now feels like cutting off a limb.

His vision starts to darken around the edges, and he takes a deep breath to draw it back, thinking about the last thing Derek said to him earlier that morning, likely the last thing he’ll say until they reach Venatia.

“We’re going to do this, you know. I’ve never doubted you.”

Stiles doubts himself enough for the both of them. But that wasn’t what Derek needed to hear.

“This time a month from now, it will all be over.”

Derek had looked up at him with a small smile, sad but eager but terrified, and pulled the collar over his head and started his shift.

Derek is here. Derek will be with him. The two of them will see this done.

His hands are still shaking where they grip the reins, but his body loosens, relaxing into the rhythm of Roscoe’s familiar gait as they leave the castle walls behind them. They wind their way through the city to the main gate and out onto the Farringway Road, the one Derek had tracked Isaac Lahey’s scent to all those weeks ago. It will take them all the way to Venatia, the same road followed by all travellers journeying between the kingdoms.

The rest of the carts and soldiers fold in with their party, and then they’re leaving the city behind them. Stiles focuses on the gentle breeze ruffling his hair, the watery warmth of the sun overhead and miles of open countryside between them and Venatia. This at least he can allow himself to enjoy.

Derek stays at Roscoe’s side for maybe the first hour of the journey, but once they’re far beyond the city walls and well into the countryside, he takes off running like a bolt of black lightning streaking along the ground where he weaves between their escort. Shouts of surprise go up from the men the first time he does it, and then it becomes something of a ceremony to cheer whenever he comes bounding back after disappearing for five- to ten-minute intervals at a time, circling Roscoe before he’s off again. On occasion, he doesn’t even bother with the return journey, sprawling at the side of the road to wait for them to catch up instead. He’s careful to always return to Roscoe’s side whenever they’re soon to pass travellers on the road, which is a wise move considering every person they pass is sure never to have seen a direwolf before. They have all heard of the Stellaran Prince with a wolf for a pet, so though the sight of Derek doesn’t spark any alarm or fear, there’s always open-mouthed amazement when they encounter him.

Stiles is glad Derek can enjoy his wolf skin when it's his choice, and wonders if this is the first time he’s really been given free rein to roam as far and wide as he pleases. He marvels at Derek’s speed and stamina, sure there’s no animal in the kingdom that could match him. If they could only remove the collar, the picture would be perfect. Derek must be in his element like this. There’s a spring in his step, like he’s rejoicing in the wide-open air, but it’s more likely it’s because each step takes him closer to his family, closer to that pack bond that had stretched so thin this far away from them. Stiles hopes Derek’s family can feel him coming.

“You must be exhausted,” Stiles says to him when they finally stop for the night, running his fingers through the fur around his neck and scratching behind an ear. Derek's tongue is lolling out of his mouth where he pants, but his eyes are bright. He lifts his head slightly to drag his tongue up the side of Stiles’ neck and Stiles squawks, leaping back to scrub at the wetness with his sleeve as he laughs.

A couple of their scouts brought down a deer while travelling ahead, and a cut of the meat is provided to Derek for dinner – who devours it with relish despite Stiles’ indignation that Derek should have to eat in such a way – and the rest will be divided between Stiles and the accompanying highest-ranking officers amongst their company. 

While the meat cooks on spits over the fire, the royal tent is erected for Stiles in the centre of their camp, deep blue with the Stellaris four-pointed gold star emblazoned on each wall. The rhythmic clang of the four corner posts being hammered into the ground wars with the hiss and spit of the cooking meat dripping into the fire. It's a pleasant sound, spurring the rumbling in his stomach along with the smell of the woodsmoke, and he falls upon it ravenously as soon as it's ready. The hot meal after the long day pleasantly fills his belly and draws out his exhaustion. He sits on his stool by the fire once he’s eaten, licking the juices off his fingers despite the napkin Virgil provides for him, much to his manservant’s dismay. He washes it down with a beaker of spiced wine, toasting their journey with his men.

It’s not long until Virgil is ushering him off to his tent to sleep. Derek trots inside after him, but even though it’s tall enough to walk without stooping and the size of a small room, Derek’s bulk seems to take up almost three-quarters of the space. It’s immediately stuffy and he soon backs out again to stretch out under the stars. It only takes a minute for Stiles to join him. He’d tried settling down on his bedding but he’s so used to the weight and warmth of Derek curled up next to him – human or wolf – that he quickly can’t stand to be without it.

He settles down beside him, lying on his back, and Derek ends up draping a foreleg over him, providing welcome warmth against a growing chill in the night air. Looking up at the stars like a blanket overhead, he finds himself wondering if Derek knows any of the constellations, and his heart skips a beat as he imagines if Derek might be able to sit beside him as a human on the return journey. He absently tangles the fingers of one hand into Derek’s fur with a contented hum, and lets his eyes drift shut, smiling to himself. Getting to cuddle with Derek like this is pretty great.

Virgil scolds him in the morning for sleeping out in the open air, but Stiles can’t do much more than blink sleepily up at him. Derek has shifted even closer in the night, blanketing him almost completely, and the safe weight of him is so cosy he’s ready to doze straight off again.

The next few days pass in much the same manner, Derek exhausting his boundless energy during the day and the two of them sleeping under the stars at night. They're able to bathe in the Kitsun River that runs parallel to the road for a good chunk of their journey, Derek splashing around and finding the deepest part of the river so he can fully submerge himself. He bursts back up onto the bank in a deluge of water, shaking his coat and showering everyone standing nearby.

Stiles hasn’t seen hide nor hair of Kali or Deucalion, though he supposes that’s to be expected. He doesn't ask Derek if they’re following, but he’s sure they must be, perhaps lying low during the day and using the cover of night to catch up. If their speed is anything like Derek’s, it can’t take them long.

When the halfway point of the journey passes behind them, it stops feeling so endless, the Argent threat clearer, more present. He’s not sure if Scott will already be there when they arrive. It’s been months since they saw each other last, but it’s hard for Stiles to look forward to it.

Derek had asked him about Scott during one of their many nights discussing plans, trying to imagine all the things that might go wrong and possible solutions.

“Are you going to tell him about me? About the Argents?”

Stiles ran a hand through his hair and sighed. “I don't know. He thinks Allison’s hair is spun from fairy dust and her laughter the sound of sunlight. Even if she isn’t involved in this, he won’t believe she could even be related to anyone capable of such a thing.”

Derek had frowned at him. “That doesn't sound like a very good quality in a king.”

Stiles opened his mouth to unleash an automatic defence of his best friend, but he closed it on another sigh. Derek did have a point. He can only hope Allison’s wit and instincts will be enough to protect him in the future – as long as she’s as innocent as Stiles hopes.

He’d been so against his father informing anyone else of Wolf’s true identity – even Virgil – that he managed to convince him to keep the secret between only them. He still feels that way even now when he thinks about Scott. He might be Stiles’ best friend but he’s not sure where Scott’s loyalties might lie with this. Allison is his betrothed and he has his own kingdom that must come before all else. Stiles doesn’t know if he might have to decide that one family isn’t enough to outweigh the greater good for his people. In his heart, Stiles knows the real reason he doesn’t want to tell him is because he’s scared of what his response might be.

In the end, Derek had deferred to Stiles’ opinion on the matter, trusting his judgement. Stiles has decided to leave Scott in the dark. He’ll only bring someone else into the fold if it’s vital, though it doesn’t make him feel any better about not being able to be open with him, even if it is for Scott’s protection too.

When they reach their last night, scheduled to arrive in Venatia at some point in the afternoon tomorrow, Derek is restless, pacing up and down like he doesn’t want them to stop, eager to keep going until morning. Stiles soothes a hand down his flank, worrying at the way his muscles tremble beneath his fur, but his touch does nothing to calm him. The distress simmers and in the end reaches a boiling point when Derek throws back his head and howls. It’s long and low and mournful, casting silence over the entire camp like it’s struck a chord of grief within each of them.

Goosebumps spread up Stiles’ arms and tears spring into his eyes at the sound of answering howls. They’re so far off they could almost be mistaken for an echo, but the voices are layered, Derek’s whole pack singing their response.

“Derek,” he whispers in wonder, tangling his fingers in the fur of Derek’s ruff.

Derek keeps his head pointed west in the direction the voices had come from, his gaze watchful. Stiles wonders what he’s thinking, what else he might be hearing on the breeze.

Are Kali and Deucalion nearby? Did they have to fight a desire to join in?

Derek blankets Stiles’ body a little tighter when he finally gets him to lay down to sleep, and Stiles strokes what he can reach of Derek’s foreleg.

“Not long now,” he whispers. “Sleep, Derek. You’ll see them soon.”

Derek’s muzzle presses to his throat, his warm breaths swelling over Stiles’ skin. Stiles repeats the motion of his hand, listening to Derek breathe until he’s sure he’s drifted off before closing his eyes to attempt sleep himself.

The Hales know Derek’s coming. They must have felt him getting closer through the pack bond over the past week. They know he’s alive. Stiles just hopes they know he’s safe.

 

*

 

The last leg of their journey seems to stretch on and on despite being able to glimpse the Venatian capital in the distance. Derek still runs ahead but he doesn’t run as far, returning quicker like he’s urging them to hurry. Virgil makes them stop before they reach the city to make sure Stiles is presentable and Derek doesn’t stop running circles around them, the interruption testing his patience. Stiles hold still as Virgil ties a cape around him and fusses until it drapes perfectly over one shoulder so the Stellaris star insignia is visible to all, and then he places Stiles’ crown on his head, the silver circlet an unwelcome weight. They continue only once Virgil is satisfied with his appearance.

The Venatian capital is so different to Stellaris’. The buildings are mostly half-timbered with steep gables, usually white with black or brown painted wood, with the occasional tavern or official building with timber painted green or red. Gévaudan Cathedral dwarfs the city to the left, the impressive structure of stained glass and lofty spires almost constantly visible from every street.

An envoy had ridden on to inform the palace of their imminent arrival and the citizens have since flooded the streets to greet them. Stiles was advised to ride in the carriage for the procession, but he insists on staying on Roscoe instead to have Derek walk alongside him. The citizens here look as amazed as his own had been to see a direwolf, though he supposes it isn’t surprising that the Argents don’t take the Hales out for pleasant rides through the surrounding countryside.

Those lucky enough to have been granted a space on the promenade leading up to the palace have been provided daffodils to throw for his arrival in a nod to his birthday tradition. These blossoms are all orange instead of his signature yellow, a late blooming variety they don’t have in Stellaris that they’ve gathered for the occasion. He smiles, touched by the gesture, but then it freezes on his face. This would have been arranged at the Argents’ behest; their involvement just taints the display of respect.

The palace sits at the head of the city, a beautiful building of white brick, portico spanning the whole front façade and surrounded on three sides by pristine lawns. They’re lined by trees, but it’s a cluster towering above the palace at the back left of the estate that draws his eye, wondering if it marks the location of the Hales' enclosure. The palace itself is gated, wrought iron tipped with gold, but they’re open now for their party to pass through, Roscoe’s hooves clopping on the uniformly patterned white paving stones. At the top of the palace steps between two of the pillars, waits the Argent family.

Gerard stands with his hands clasped behind his back, his usual oily affectation of a grandfatherly smile in place, and Chris stands at his side, expression politely attentive. Kate’s grin makes Stiles' skin crawl, though his heart swells at the sight of Allison’s beaming smile in spite of himself, lifting his hand to return her wave. He’s buoyed by the sight of one friendly face even as he tries to remember caution. He dismounts from his horse and steels himself to accept Gerard's handshake as he ascends the steps to meet them.

"Young Prince Stiles," Gerard says, warmly, and he actually manages to sound genuine, but Stiles notes how his gaze has dropped to Derek behind him and understands the real reason for his delight.

"King Gerard, thank you for the warm welcome. I am honoured." He releases Gerard's hand and turns to Chris, eager to put distance between himself and the King. 

The Venatian Crown Prince takes Stiles’ proffered hand in a firm grip, a benign smile on his face. “I apologise for missing your own celebrations back in the spring.”

While Derek has detailed at length the crimes of Gerard and Kate, Chris is more of an unknown quantity, still culpable but not as much of a target for ire. Stiles for some reason feels more wary of him than his other family members.

“My father sends his apologies in return for not attending Allison’s. It’s nothing personal, I assure you,” he jokes.

“It can’t be easy being so much closer to the Astrani border,” Kate sympathises.

And who’s fault is that? Stiles wants to ask but busies his mouth with kissing the back of her hand instead as he always does.

“He still deserves some time to rest!” Allison complains. “When was the last time he stepped away?”

“I’ll see to it that he finds some time to come and enjoy your wedding,” Stiles assures her, and at the mention of that special day, her indignance melts away completely, dimples blooming on her cheeks.

Gerard leads the way inside once their greetings are behind them, Allison falling into step with Stiles. He checks over his shoulder to make sure Derek has been allowed to follow and Allison traces his gaze.

“I can’t believe you named him ‘Wolf’,” she admonishes, and it’s just a stab in the gut.

Derek has never brought up the choice of name and Stiles can’t really blame him. Sent back to my own country as a pet to my Prince. It made a fool of you too. That’s what Derek had said. How right that was.

“I’m looking forward to seeing your other ones. He howled for them last night and we could hear the response all the way at our camp.”

“I’ll take you in the morning,” Allison promises, and Stiles is pleased at how easy that was. What would he have done if he was told it was forbidden? “Scott will be arriving around lunchtime, so we’ll probably be too busy after.”

“Too busy, hmm? Doing what, pray tell?” he teases, and Allison gives him a shove.

“Oh, hush,” she scolds but her cheeks are pink.

The entrance hall is light and airy, all marble and gold filigree and strips of red carpeting. A troop of servants wait in neat rows by the open heavy double doors leading to the west wing, all smartly identical in their red and white uniforms. The head servant, a gold lion embroidered on his left breast to mark his higher status, steps forward with a bow, ready to lead Stiles to the quarters he’ll be staying in for the duration of his visit so he can make himself at home. The delay in their journey to make Stiles more presentable, along with the procession through the city, took up more time than he’d realised; they’re already well into late afternoon and it won’t be long until he’ll be summoned for dinner. He knows a great spread will be put on for him in welcome, and though the prospect of good food is appealing, the prospect of the company is not.

Allison leaves him reluctantly to settle in, promising to see him at dinner, and then Stiles is being led to the west wing of the palace to the rooms he’d also used on his last visit a few years ago. They’re situated in their own little hallway, two guards already stationed where the main corridor branches, just far enough away to offer Stiles a little more privacy.

The door opens on a spacious living area, high-ceilinged with tall windows on each side of the opposite wall to allow in streaming sunlight, glinting off ornamental gold picture frames lining the walls amongst a couple of bookshelves. A red and cream Aubusson rug covers most of the floor, muting the thud of his footsteps as he moves further into the room towards a red velvet sofa and armchair at its centre, arranged around an ornate fireplace. It’s all a little ostentatious for Stiles’ tastes considering the more utilitarian approach of the castle he calls home, but it offers luxurious comfort all the same which he’s sorely looking forward to after his days in the saddle – though how much comfort he might enjoy while trapped in this den of vipers remains to be seen.

Virgil is in charge of Stiles’ personal effects, in his element directing a contingent of servants from Stellaris, along with the team from Venatia that he’s been put in charge of for their stay. There’s a pitcher of fresh water waiting for Stiles on a small round table beside the sofa, and also one of wine, so he helps himself to a drink while he waits, taking a seat on the plush settee, Derek sitting on the floor at his side. Once his belongings are in order, Virgil dismisses the staff and beckons Stiles into the adjoining bedroom.

The colour scheme matches that of the living area, with a wardrobe of dark polished wood and one window, the curtains already drawn. It will be best to keep them that way at all times considering the danger posed if anyone were to somehow glimpse Derek moving about his rooms. At the centre of it all is a bed that isn’t quite as large as his at home, and he can see Virgil casting it furtive glances like he’s desperately calculating any way he can prevent Derek from sleeping in it. Stiles will see to it that he won’t succeed.

Virgil assists him in changing into fresh clothes, deciding on a rich red tunic embroidered with gold thread in respect to the Argent colours. It reminds him of the red of Deucalion’s eyes, Alpha eyes, and it feels like it will be a bold, secret statement to wear it in front of the Argents. Virgil retrieves his trusty vial of sandalwood oil to apply the heady, fresh scent to Stiles’ wrists and neck, promising him a bath will be ready for him after his meal. Once Virgil has made sure his black leather boots shine to his satisfaction, Stiles dismisses him to see to his own comfort. His manservant continues to fuss and Stiles ushers him back into the living area and out the door, laughing.

As soon as he’s gone, Derek finally shifts back to human, sinking down onto the sofa and stretching out lengthways with a groan. Stiles’ mouth goes dry and he busies himself with pouring some water.

“How are you feeling?” he asks him; that’s the longest Derek has been a wolf since Stiles first changed him back. It’s been unsettling being unable to see him every day, hearing his voice now feeling like months have passed since he heard it last.

“I ache,” he moans, his eyes closed.

I’m not surprised with all that racing about, Stiles doesn’t get a chance to say because Derek’s head whips up to stare at him, his eyes widening in horror. Before Stiles can ask, he’s diving over the back of the sofa, just as the door opens. Allison squeaks and claps a hand over her mouth, darting back out of the room, and Stiles’ body drains of every drop of blood. Derek’s head pops up over the back of the settee, eyes still wide, and they stare at each other for a beat. There’s no way Allison could have seen Derek’s face from that angle, though she definitely, definitely saw his bare ass.

Stiles scoops up the collar and practically throws it towards him with one hand, whipping his other towards the bedroom mouthing Go! As soon as the bedroom door is shut, he stumbles over to the one to the corridor on knees that have stopped working and opens it to find Allison standing outside still with her hand over her mouth, pink-cheeked. He casts a furtive glance at the guards stationed a few metres away, mind whirring with excuses and escape avenues in case Derek needs to—

But Allison starts to giggle.

Stiles,” she accuses, like she’s pretending to be scandalised. “Couldn’t you wait until after dinner?”

“Wha—?” Stiles’ mouth falls open as he realises what she’s implying, the only logical conclusion she could come to after having spied a naked man in his room. “That’s not—!” He cuts himself off. It’s so much better that this is what Allison thinks she saw, no matter how painful this might come to be for him.

“I suppose there isn’t much privacy when out on the road,” she continues slyly, then bursts into laughter and slaps him on the arm. “I can’t believe you! What else have you been getting up to since I saw you last?”

Stiles laughs nervously. He should be playing along to help cover this up, should be bragging and shrugging his shoulders like it’s nothing in order to satisfy her, but this is Derek and he can’t bring himself to joke over something that isn’t happening and probably never will despite how much he wants it to.

“I just came to fetch you for dinner, but if you want me to come back—” She makes to retreat back down the corridor but Stiles reaches for her.

“No, just—just give me a minute.”

He edges open the door and peeks inside to make sure Derek hasn’t reappeared.

“I’ll make sure to knock in future.”

“That’s probably for the best,” Stiles says over his shoulder, laughing weakly and wondering how many years of his life might have been shaved off by the panic of the past two minutes.

“Give your friend my apologies.” She stops him before he can close the door, leaning in to whisper, “Nice ass.”

“I know,” Stiles hisses back, his misery swelling, but then he blanches, realising there’s no way Derek didn’t just hear that. But he doesn’t think he can really be blamed; this is the first time he's been able to commiserate with someone over Derek’s ridiculous physique.

He shuts the door and rests his forehead against the varnished wood, silencing a sigh. He was just playing up an act to convince Allison. That’s all he needs to say if Derek brings it up. He takes another moment to steady himself. Not even one hour and they’ve already had a slip up. This doesn’t bode well for the future.

In the bedroom, Derek is perched on the edge of the bed with the sheets thankfully pulled over his hips.

“I’m sorry!” he says as soon as Stiles pokes his head round the door frame, voice hushed. “She just approached so quickly—I wasn’t prepared to listen—” Derek shakes his head. “I just thought anyone who approached would knock. You’re a prince!”

“Don’t worry, she’s learnt her lesson,” Stiles says, grimacing. “At least there’s an extra layer of protection if you’re in here. It’s probably best if this is where you stay when you’re human.”

“I’m wondering if perhaps I shouldn’t change back at all.”

Stiles’ heart grows heavy at that idea, but he doesn’t argue. “It’s time for dinner now so you’ll need to shift anyway. If you don’t want to change back after that, it’s entirely your choice. Unless you want to stay here?” he adds. He hadn’t really considered that alternative, but he remembers the time of Kate’s visit when Stiles had saved him the torment and wonders if Derek had hoped for the same option. But Derek shakes his head, mouth twisting.

“We need to show them that you’re still enjoying your gift.”

Nausea coils in Stiles’ stomach as Derek puts the collar over his head, but he holds his tongue. He knows that barb wasn’t meant for him, but it still makes him uncomfortable for Derek to be referred to in that way, worse when it comes from Derek’s own mouth.

“Are you sure you’re ready?”

“Yes. I can do this. If I do start to seem off, don’t worry. The Argents need to think this is still torture.”

Stiles’ mouth pulls down in the corners at that but he nods and waits for Derek’s shift to complete before leading him back out to Allison in the hallway. She’s still smirking and Stiles knows this is something she’s never going to forget.

“So, what's his name?” she asks, slyly, as they trace their way back to the entrance hall, Stiles trying to remember how to walk like normal on still-weak knees.

Derek. Wolf. “Miguel,” Stiles blurts out. He has no idea where it came from but it’s out there now. This is the charade he’s living. “But don't tell anyone,” he murmurs, and Allison’s playful grin disappears.

“I wouldn't! You know I wouldn’t!” She’s so earnest and wide-eyed; at least with this, he knows he can trust her.

They reach the main wing of the palace, Allison leading the way to the dining room as the memory of its location slowly unearths in Stiles’ mind. He opens the door for Allison to pass through, smiling at her exaggerated curtsy at his chivalry. It’s not much different in size and design to the dining room in Stellaris where they’d hosted Kate on her visit, though the Argents’ signature decoration style is still in full force.

The other Argents are inside, Kate already seated in one of the ornate chairs of dark wood, polished to a shine, and Chris and Gerard stand at the head of the table. Gerard has a goblet of wine in his hand, and it conjures an image of one of the last times Stiles had seen him, standing at the head of the feasting hall, the flourish of his arm as he’d ordered his men to bring in Derek.

It made a fool of you, too.

Stiles plasters on a smile.

Gerard directs him to sit in the seat at his right as they greet him, a servant ready to pull out his chair and push it in as he sits. Chris takes the seat opposite.

“I trust everything is to your liking?” he asks as the servant who tucked Stiles’ chair in pours him some wine and retreats to stand back against the wall.

“It’s perfect, thank you.”

“You must be looking forward to a good night’s sleep. We promise not to keep you too long,” Kate sympathises, but Stiles can’t stand to receive any concern from her.

The first course arrives then, a deliciously light and rich beef consommé, piping hot and seeping warmth into his bones. Allison and Kate drive much of the conversation and laughter at the left side of the table, and Stiles joins in where he can, though as more courses pass, exhaustion slowly creeps up on him despite the danger he’s surrounded by.

The courses pile up, six in total, his favourites aside from the consommé ending up being the roasted pheasant in a port and chestnut sauce and the baked honeyed pears. He wishes Derek could be sat alongside him to enjoy such good food, though he is at least being fed with a cut of beef. It’s smaller than what was always provided in Stellaris, but Stiles is sure Gerard and Kate are taking great pleasure in seeing Derek eat in such a way. The two of them cast him frequent glances that Stiles’ enlightened eyes would label gloating. Chris on the other hand doesn’t spare him a single glance, and Allison only seems to look if she spies Stiles getting distracted by him.

Gerard finally asks after Wolf when the meal is winding down, the final course of the pears just syrup on their plates. Stiles had been offered a small glass of brandy and he cradles it now against the table, only a sip left.

“How are you finding your new pet?” Gerard asks him with a wide smile which becomes an openly sinister laugh. “I call him new but I suppose it’s been many months now.”

“He’s incredible! His intelligence really is astounding," Stiles gushes, hating himself even as he knows he needs to sell this. Perhaps it isn't wise to allude to Derek's heightened understanding, but he thinks it would be strange not to mention it, so unlike any other animals. His obliviousness just makes Kate and Gerard smile wider.

"It makes them hard to tame," Gerard concedes. "But it's easy if you know how."

The collars. That's a topic Stiles isn't going to allude to. He doesn't want to give the Argents any inkling that he’s inspected Wolf's a bit too closely.

“You and your direwolves,” Allison grumbles, almost fondly.

“I’m sure Stiles has had more than his fill for one night,” says Chris, and Allison perks up.

“That’s right! Why don’t you go and rest? You must be exhausted!”

Bless Allison and her thoughtfulness. Stiles could kiss her, though that twinkle has returned to her eye; it seems she thinks she’s doing him a different sort of favour.

“I’ll fetch you in the morning for breakfast,” she promises as he finishes his final sip of brandy. “Or maybe we can meet here,” she hastens to add, remembering what happened when she turned up to get him for dinner.

“Fetching me will be fine.” It’s not like she’s actually going to be interrupting anything, or seeing anything else she shouldn’t if Derek stays sequestered in the bedroom. “I’ll see you all tomorrow,” he says to the room at large. “Thank you for dinner. It really was lovely.”

After a chorus of sleep well and pleasant dreams, Stiles retreats from the dining room, shoulders tensing. He’s half expecting Kate to offer Derek her room for the night and he’s not sure he’d be able to refrain from snatching a steak knife from the table and running her through with it if she tried. Thankfully, they escape unscathed, but Stiles is sure they’ll have to dodge at least one advance during their stay. He’ll need to tell Derek to run straight back to their rooms and out of reach if she tries it.

Back in their rooms, the drapes have been pulled over the windows in the living area and Virgil has prepared a bath as promised, the tub a new addition in the bedroom behind a screen. Virgil stands beside it, staring at wolf Derek and then pointedly turning his gaze to the door back to the living room. Derek leaps up on the bed and sprawls there, ignoring him.

Virgil clamps his mouth shut and manages to hold his silence all through assisting Stiles down to his smallclothes, until it comes time to leave him to take care of the rest himself.

“Perhaps Wolf should accompany me outside.”

“It’s fine, Virgil,” Stiles assures him. “I’ll be behind the screen. And anyway, I feel safer with him here.”

They both know that Derek has already seen Stiles naked, back before Stiles knew what Wolf really was and bathed in front of him without a care. It’s probably a big reason why Virgil is so appalled by Derek’s presence in Stiles’ rooms and bed, considering Stiles’ virtue to have been compromised, no matter that Derek had no way to know he’d eventually get turned back.

With his work done, Virgil has no other choice but to leave, and as soon as he’s gone – with one last purse-lipped glance – Derek shifts back. It seems he finds Virgil easier to deal with if he stays as a wolf in his presence, preventing the meddlesome manservant from addressing him eye to eye as humans.

“Are you sure you don’t want some privacy?” Derek asks, sitting on the edge of the bed in all his naked glory. A smirk is tugging on the corners of his lips. “You know, seeing as it’s so hard to come by on the road?”

Stiles shoves at his shoulder but just rebounds off Derek’s immovable strength as the other man laughs.

Shaking his head, Stiles huffs and squeezes behind the screen, Virgil having angled it around the bath so tightly to prevent peeking of any kind. As he undresses, he can’t help thinking about how he hasn’t had that sort of privacy for a few months now. With Derek’s aversion to clothes, it’s a constant simmer under his skin. Even now he has to will the thoughts away.

“Can you feel your family?” Stiles asks him once he’s lowered himself into the steaming water, the first chance he’s gotten to ask since they arrived.

“Yes,” Derek’s voice sounds breathless, almost dreamlike. “It’s—I’d forgotten how— whole it feels to be with them. Or perhaps I just never realised, never having been so far from them since this bond manifested.” The bed creaks on the right side, the side Derek always sleeps on at home. Stiles pictures him stretching out on top of the covers and swallows hard.

“We can see them tomorrow. First thing.”

“I feel better just being near them.”

Stiles has noticed. He’d been expecting Derek to withdraw in on himself again now that they’re here, at the source of all his trauma, but he seems lighter somehow. Even now, after having spent just over two hours in a room with the entire Argent family, he hasn’t lost his speech like he had after Kate’s visit. In fact, the first thing out of his mouth had been a joke. To know being so close to his family gives Derek this much strength boosts Stiles’ own morale.

“Can you communicate anything to them?"

"It doesn't work like that. It's just a presence letting me know they’re there.”

"How about tomorrow? Will you be able to let them know that we’re here to help?”

“No. The sounds we can make as wolves aren’t a language as humans know it. We can only communicate the most basic concepts. You could speak quietly to them though. They might even be listening to us now if they’re trying hard enough, if there aren’t too many walls to keep the sound from carrying."

Nerves flutter in Stiles belly as he thinks about arriving at the enclosure tomorrow, despite it being the moment this trip has been leading to. The Hales can finally see Derek again, finally know that help is here. But that isn’t the main reason for the anxious tingles spreading outward all the way to his knuckles. It’s a thought that’s been building and building as they’ve gotten closer to this moment, one that he doesn’t think he could voice without this screen between them to block him from Derek’s gaze. He licks his lips and when he speaks, his voice is barely more than a whisper. “I’m scared to face them.”

“Don’t be,” Derek says, firmly, sounding almost like anger. Stiles thinks he’s even sat up on the bed. “We know none of this is your fault. Or your father’s. You didn’t know what we are, or what the Argents are. We’ve never blamed you for thinking we were dead.”

It doesn’t help, not really, but he can picture Derek’s expression, his great eyebrows furrowed, mouth set in a grim line, green and gold eyes piercing him straight through, and the image helps, if only a little.

Seeing the Hales tomorrow won’t be the last difficult situation he’s going to have to face in the coming days. He thinks about Allison’s smiling face, how excited she’d been telling him all about the masquerade when she'd begun planning it all those months ago. She’d been ecstatic to see him arrive today. What might these next two weeks have in store? No matter what happens, it’s going to be a birthday she’ll remember. Perhaps a birthday that she’ll come to curse.

Chapter Text

It’s only Stiles and Allison at breakfast the next morning. It seems the other Argents are seeing to arrangements around the palace, either in preparation for Scott’s arrival or for Allison’s masquerade, which suits Stiles just fine. Not only does it save him from forcing smiles in their presence, but a part of him had been worried Kate or Gerard might get wind of his plan to go to the direwolf enclosure and conjure some excuse to stop him.

He eats light, partly because of nerves and partly because he wants to get going already, but Allison is completely oblivious to his impatience. She takes her time buttering her bread, spreading jam, slicing all her bacon into bite-sized pieces, every painstaking action accompanied by incessant chatter. Stiles feels bad for thinking it, because he loves Allison. He loves her humour and her storytelling manner and her bright smile and, really, he should be making the most of this time they get to spend together when it’s always so brief, but there’s too much else on his mind right now. With how long Derek has already had to wait, he tries to tell himself a few more minutes can’t hurt, but in this case, he’s not really sure how true that is.

Derek’s tail keeps twitching where he lays on the ground by Stiles’ chair, claws flexing, and Stiles has to give him a nudge more than once to make sure he doesn’t rake marks in the carpet. They’d really be in trouble if he gives the Argents a reason to ban him from wandering the palace. He’s reminding Stiles a little of how he’d been on the final night of their journey here when he’d howled, though his eagerness at least feels more positive.

Stiles gets to his feet as soon as Allison pops her last bit of toast into her mouth, standing behind her chair to pull it out for her as soon as she’s ready, and Allison gives him a look of surprise as she swallows.

“I’m just too excited!” he says in explanation, laughing even as he cringes inwardly. He shouldn’t draw attention like this. He’s just lucky she’s the only one here to see it. “And can’t you see how restless Wolf is? I don’t think I’ve ever seen him like this.” It’s a lie, but he needs to play this up as much as possible.

“Fine, fine,” she huffs, but then laughs herself. “Let’s go.” She sets her napkin on the table and eyes him curiously as she gets to her feet. “The two of you are so in tune with each other. I can’t believe how much you’ve bonded.”

Stiles would get flustered at the remark, but there’s an easy enough explanation. He shrugs. “It’s been kind of lonely these past few months. It’s been great having him around.”

Allison’s expression softens, a small smile pulling up the corners of her lips. “I’m glad.”

He smiles back, trying not to look too sad as he remembers that pang of loneliness he’d felt after he’d learned of Erica and Boyd’s defection. What would he have done without Derek by his side?

Allison leads the way through the palace, beyond what might be the way to the kitchens and past the ornate double doors of the library he vaguely remembers from when he was younger. The route takes them briefly outside, a sunny day on the cusp of autumn, with the soothing rustle of a light breeze through the trees, leaves soon to fall. But Stiles can't enjoy it for long. Just as they're approaching another wing of the palace, he almost jerks to a halt, his knees weak.

There’s whining on the air, faint to his human ears, but the sharp, plaintive sounds still have the hairs on his arms standing up. Derek lets out a whine of his own at Stiles’ side and surges forward to outpace them, disappearing through an open door ahead that leads into a new wing of the palace.

“Come on,” Allison says, quickening her steps, and they catch up to Derek not far inside, pacing in front of a set of double doors that he can’t open. Allison unlatches the left-most door, and Derek tears through the gap as soon as he’s able, just as they’re buffeted by a cacophony of whines and whimpers. Stiles’ stomach swoops as he steps through after him.

He finds himself in a courtyard, larger than he’d been expecting, but most of the space is taken up by a wooden fence, curving in a great circle. It’s more like a frame than a fence, made up of thick beams of wood serving as posts spaced at metre intervals, twice the height of an average human, with more beams spanning the gaps between each post: at the base, waist height, and across the top. A small, dense thicket takes up the back two thirds of the enclosure, the trees taller than the palace buildings surrounding them. But it’s the front of the enclosure that Stiles can’t draw his eyes away from.

Direwolves swarm at the fence, a writhing mass of black, grey and white fur, too difficult to count the individuals as they leap and twist around each other. Though they jump up at the fence, they never touch it, no matter that they should be able to squeeze under the waist-high beams or even jump over them. Derek’s size has always been a sight to behold, but to see so many of them in one place is astounding. The enclosure might be bigger than Stiles had expected, but it shrinks next to the size of them, so many forced to live in that insufficient space.

It’s a cage. A prison.

Of course Stiles had always known that, despite the way Derek had always referred to it as an enclosure. But seeing it hammers the point home harder than any of Derek’s descriptions ever could, seeing a few bones of past meals littering the ground, the water trough, the mountain ash so simply and effectively preventing their escape. Derek has joined them at the fence, just as unable to touch it as they are, though it does nothing to stop his attempts. He hates that Derek is trying to get in. 

Stiles has to breathe deeply to stave off tears so close to welling in his eyes, unable to breathe. It’s like he’s been scooped out, hollowed, and it takes everything he has to stay on his feet. This is no place to let himself feel this. Allison is entering behind him, and he’d have enough of a job explaining the sudden swell of emotion to her, let alone to the woman stepping out of a door to their left which leads to an extension that looks like some sort of shed. She’s small, with tan, leathery skin and short brown hair, and from that alone, he knows she can’t be Jennifer Blake, widely known as a raven-haired beauty. It must make her Araya, the woman responsible for the collars that each of the wolves inside the enclosure is wearing. How many spikes is that?

Stiles tries not to buckle anew at that thought, letting his face light up with a bright smile instead under her guarded, curious gaze as she limps closer and Allison introduces them.

“This is Araya, the direwolf handler,” she says, confirming his deduction.

“Your Royal Highness,” Araya greets him with a stiff bow, and a flash of smugness sparks within him at the show of deference where it never has with anyone else before. It’s ultimately meaningless, but it’s at least some small power that his status means he holds over her.

“How do you do?” It’s difficult to voice the pleasantry whilst the distressed noises all the wolves are making cut right through him. He wishes Araya would hurry up and open the gate. She’s taking pleasure in drawing this out. She must be. Stiles is tempted to do it himself.

Only when the door they entered by is closed does Araya allow the enclosure to be opened, and Derek streaks inside, bowled over instantly by a rush of furry bodies. Every inch of him gets concealed from view by the pile of other wolves swarming over him, and Stiles is reminded of a tangle of puppies, though his mind recoils from the thought immediately. It must be humiliating, but this is the only way they can express themselves in these forms. The only way they can shower Derek in much-needed affection. He clenches his jaw, as he fights fresh tears all over again, unable to truly fathom that they’ve been forced to live like this, no matter that it’s now right before his eyes.

One wolf is hanging back, a pale tawny colouring to his fur, shifting back and forth like he wants to join in but lacks the confidence. Stiles wonders if this could be Isaac Lahey. All the other wolves appear to know Derek well, would have missed him, but he and Isaac have never met.

Stiles steps into the enclosure, ignoring Araya who takes half a step like she might try to stop him. The front third of the space is just a flat stretch of grass, worn away in places, and he sinks down on one knee beside the wolves, holding steady when the largest of them all untangles from the pile and approaches him. Her fur is as black as Derek’s, and she has warm, deep brown eyes, eyes Stiles can remember from his childhood, shining amongst feasting and candlelight. Stiles smoothes his fingers through the fur of Talia’s neck like he might pet a dog, how he’d petted Derek before he knew what he was. He hates to do it, it’s shameful to treat the respected Talia Hale in such a way, but he must.

Derek presses up beside his Alpha, his mother, and licks at Stiles’ neck, the rest of his family gathering round, and Stiles strokes a hand over each of their heads in turn. Their whining is now directed at him as they brush up close. If he were still in ignorance, he might interpret it as wanting to be petted, but he understands so clearly that they’re trying to tell him who they really are, pleading for help.

Under the raucous whimpers and with Araya at his back, he feels confident to use his voice.

“We’re going to get you out of here,” he whispers.

The wolves all surge forward at once and Stiles crumples under the weight onto his back, laughing even as he has to fight back all of their fur to breathe. Their whines continue, and Stiles hopes it just looks like increased desperation.

He manages to battle his way back up into a sitting position, looking over his shoulder at Allison and Araya still outside the fence, smiling as widely and foolishly as he can. “This is amazing!”

Allison is smiling, but Araya still looks guarded. He wonders if she’s worried he might somehow realise exactly who these wolves are. He looks forward to the moment she realises that’s already come to pass, when it’s too late for her to do anything about it.

He turns back to the wolves to find Isaac closer now, though still separate from the rest.

“You too, Isaac,” he whispers.

The wolf nervously dips his head closer and Stiles ruffles the fur between his ears before bouncing to his feet and returning past the fence.

His hands and cheeks are wet with slobber and he’s glad when Allison asks Araya to fetch him a cloth. Once he’s cleaned up, he leans on the waist high beam of the fence beside Allison to watch Derek and his family, Isaac having been welcomed into the fray. He wonders if Isaac's addition to the pack had been the Argents wanting a replacement for Derek after giving him away.

A broken tree trunk catches his eye on the left side of the enclosure, and he’s reminded of Derek’s story of their escape attempt, the reason for Derek being sent away in the first place. They broke Araya’s leg, Derek told him; that explains her limp.

“They’re really friendly with you,” Allison says, pulling Stiles’ gaze away from the splintered wood.

He makes a show of patting away any dirt from being knocked to the ground, grinning smugly. “I have a way with animals,” he says airily, lifting his nose. “They must be able to smell how much Wolf loves me.”

Allison scoffs a laugh and gives him a shove, though she sobers when she turns back to the wolves.

“They must have really missed him.”

Stiles has to bite down on his tongue before he answers, to hold back all the things he really wants to say. “Yeah, looks like it.”

Throughout their visit, Derek spends a lot of time curled around the smallest wolf of the pack, fur a deep brown, most likely his youngest sister Cora. Stiles knows Derek considered Kate’s comment during her visit to Stellaris about Cora’s health just to be a lie meant to hurt and worry, and he hopes that really is all it was.

A white wolf keeps draping over Derek’s back, nipping at his ears and growling whenever he playfully snaps his jaws at her, and Stiles knows it must be Laura, the oldest Hale sibling. The remaining two wolves are both grey and lie pressed up either side of him, most likely his father and uncle, though Stiles is unable to differentiate between them. Stiles is content to watch them, taking comfort in the sight of Derek swathed by his family despite their hideous surroundings.

He draws the visit out for as long as he can, until Allison’s building restlessness becomes longing glances at the door behind them. She probably has last-minute preparations she wants to make to her appearance for seeing Scott, and Virgil will no doubt be looking for Stiles soon to pester him into his crown ready to receive Scott’s procession - and probably a new set of clothes considering the state he’s now in after his tumble on the ground.

He ventures back into the enclosure, heart heavy enough to weigh down his steps. The wolves all turn towards him at his approach and he crouches in front of Derek, stroking at his cheeks and performing for Araya.

“It’s time to go, I’m afraid.”

Derek’s ears wilt and it’s like a stab in the chest, catching his breath at having to do this to him. He forces a laugh even as he hates himself, even as his throat tries to constrict.

“Come on, you can see them again tomorrow,” he promises, though it’s more for the rest of the Hales’ benefit than for Derek’s. “We’re here for a couple of weeks yet.”

Derek retreats out of his hold, and Stiles wonders with trepidation what he’d do if Derek were to refuse to leave. But he needn’t have worried. Derek rises to all four paws and turns to Talia, draping his neck over hers and resting his muzzle on her back in a sort of hug, nuzzling. He returns to Stiles’ side, ears still drooped, even as his family keep crowding close to brush up against him. Stiles scratches at Derek’s ears as he draws him away in what he hopes is a soothing manner, keeping a hand on his back as Araya closes the gate and they say their goodbyes. He doesn’t take his hand away even when the door is shut behind them and they begin retracing their steps back towards the dining room.

“That was really sad,” Allison says in a small voice, sounding almost miserable, and Stiles marvels not for the first time at how she could possibly be related to Kate and Gerard. How has she remained so untarnished by their influence?

“Yeah. I’ll bring him back tomorrow.” Warm midday sun is streaming through the high windows of the corridor, dust motes swirling in gold, but Stiles feels cold regardless.

They pass back outside and the fresh air seems to help sweep away Allison’s gloom because by the time they reach the palace’s main building, a sparkle has returned to her eye.

“So,” she begins, and Stiles recognises the sly tone in her voice.

He steels himself.

“How are things going with you and Miguel?” she asks, wiggling her eyebrows.

“They’re—” Not going at all, he wants to say. “Going okay.”

Stiles registers distantly beyond swirling anxiety that, oh no, that’s curiosity in her eyes. The last thing they need on their hands is curiosity about a man who doesn’t actually exist but is really his pet direwolf. But Allison is drawing away from him before he has a chance to reverse it. They’ve reached a fork in the corridor, Allison’s destination taking her left with Stiles’ rooms branching off the entrance hall beyond.

"Will he be attending the masquerade?"

“I don’t know if that would be a good idea,” Stiles hurries to say, then tries to back up as she raises an eyebrow. “I don’t think he’d have anything to wear, anyway.”

“It’s starting to sound like you’re trying to keep him from me,” she says, with playfully narrowed eyes, but she doesn’t press. Not now, at least. “I’ll see you at the palace entrance when Scott arrives. I’ve arranged for the three of us to take lunch in the gardens after. A picnic like we always used to.”

“Okay, that sounds lovely,” Stiles says, glad of the subject change. He really should be more prepared for when she brings Miguel up again. Stiles is sure she will; she must consider the whole thing to be so exciting. Illicit and romantic.

Stiles watches her go, fighting the urge to bite his lip. It’s only when Derek’s fur draws away from his fingertips still resting on his back that he’s spurred to continue. Stiles follows him back to their rooms, and once inside, Derek squeezes by him and heads straight for the bedroom with a swish of his tail. Stiles finds him curled up on the bed, a paw thrown over his head like he’s hiding from the sun. Stiles sits beside him, soothing fingers through his fur, and then leans down to drape himself over Derek in the best kind of hug he can manage in this form. Stiles doesn’t know if Derek even wants to be touched right now, but he feels like this is something he needs for himself.

He squeezes his eyes shut as the emotions he’d so tightly bottled away spill over, a fresh wave of that heart-rending anguish bursting in his chest and building behind his eyes. He clamps quivering lips together to stop any sound escaping as the tears fall, but his breathing still trembles, shuddering inside him no matter how hard he tries to remain still.

Derek’s body jerks in his arms along with the familiar sound of his shift, fur becoming smooth skin beneath Stiles’ hands. He shucks his collar as soon as he’s able, tossing it aside and then manoeuvring them until they’re properly embracing, tucking his face into Stiles’ neck where he breathes.

Stiles’ quaking chest is now pressed against Derek’s and he’s quick to wipe away the tears that fall before they have a chance to land on Derek’s bare skin.

“Thank you,” Derek whispers into his neck and Stiles jolts with surprise, a choked sob escaping that he’s not prepared to hold back. He’d been expecting Derek to maybe withdraw in on himself like he had before, glassy-eyed and too devastated for words. He hadn’t expected gratitude.

“You have nothing to thank me for,” Stiles mutters awkwardly, voice stuffy around his mostly-blocked nose.

“I have everything to thank you for,” Derek corrects him, pulling out of his hold to look him in the eye. His eyes are wet and a little red, but so clear. “Everything.”

Stiles is conscious of the tear tracks on his own face, feeling exposed and like he should hide how he’s been crying even though he knows it’s already much too late for that, but Derek wipes away the trails for him, his thumbs leaving sweeps of warmth over his cheeks. They’re so close, Derek’s eyes like jewels under the sheen of lingering tears, and Stiles’ heart skips a beat in his chest.

They both sit back at once. Stiles swallows and takes a breath in an effort to clear the sudden strange air between them.

“I’m sorry I had to pull you away. I’d leave you there with them all day if I felt like there was any guarantee I’d be able to get you back out at the end of it.” Who knows what he'd be subjected to if Stiles let him out of his sight even for a minute? What if Kate turned up while Stiles was gone?

“It’s okay.”

None of this is okay, but Stiles doesn’t say it. Within the confines they’re working with, it’s the best they’ve got right now.

“Was that Isaac in the enclosure with them? At the back?”

“Yes. He’s been accepted into the pack. My mother is his Alpha.”

Stiles is glad he didn’t get that wrong. “And Cora, she was the smallest? Is she well?” he asks, after Derek’s nod.

“There’s nothing wrong with her,” Derek confirms, but then he laughs, humourless and cutting, rubbing at his face in his hands. “‘Nothing wrong’,” he quotes himself, scornfully, shaking his head. “I don’t know if that will ever be the case after this. She’s the one I worry about the most, when the time comes to take her collar off.” When. Like Derek has no doubt that they’ll achieve it. “It was enough of a struggle for me, but I was an adult when we were taken. She was still so young.”

“You’ll all be there for her,” Stiles reminds him. “It won’t be like with you, having a clueless idiot throwing a sheet at you and telling you you’re bleeding.”

Derek laughs at that, a real laugh, breaking from his sadness for a moment to gaze at him fondly as they both remember. “You were terrified.”

“I thought I’d killed you. I thought you were shrivelling up into some sort of bloodless husk.” It feels like so long ago now. It’s like he almost can’t remember what it was like not to have Derek there with him, lounging in his rooms and sharing his bed.

“Instead, you brought me back to life.”

Stiles’ heart skips a beat at the look in Derek’s eyes as he lifts his gaze to his, filled with gratitude. It sends goosebumps rushing up and down his arms, and he’s almost glad when Derek curses and turns away.

“Virgil,” he says in explanation, scooting back from him. He begins his shift and Stiles has to take a breath to calm his thundering heart.

“You don’t have to hide from him, you know.”

When the shift is over, Derek still manages to throw him a dark look even as a wolf.

Virgil bustles in after Stiles’ permission at his knock, informing them word has arrived that Scott’s delegation has just reached the city gates. His brow furrows in disapproval at the rumpled and dirt-streaked state he finds Stiles in - as expected - and he’s bundled into fresh clothes, Virgil in such a hurry to get him ready in time that he forgets about Derek laying there watching as Stiles is stripped down to his smallclothes. Once he’s redressed in a clean tunic and breeches in complementary shades of deep blue, Virgil fixes him with a matching cape and his crown, and then escorts him and Derek to the palace steps to stand alongside the Argent family.

They only had a couple of minutes to spare, Scott appearing at the far end of the promenade amongst a swell of cheers from adoring Venatian citizens. He sits astride his horse, chestnut with a splash of white on its forehead, leading a procession of knights all the way up to the palace steps, face lit with his usual sunny smile. Stiles waves along with the Argents, even though he’s sure Scott doesn’t even notice him standing there, so entranced by Allison beside him. He has to greet the other Argent family members first once he’s dismounted, shaking the Venatian King’s hand much as Stiles had the day before. It’s interesting to be on the other side of this, to analyse the way each of them treat Scott and having it come up genuine, whereas Stiles is all too aware of their duplicity when it comes to himself ever since his enlightenment over Derek.

When Scott can finally get to Allison, he sweeps her off her feet and spins her around, in a display that goes against expected decorum but has every person present smiling regardless. When he’s finally able to put her down, he turns to Stiles to draw him into a backslapping hug.

“It’s good to see you,” he says, and Stiles returns the sentiment.

“It’s been too long.”

They all head inside the palace, following the same pattern as Stiles’ arrival yesterday, the younger generation trailing behind the older. Derek pads after them and Scott looks at the wolf over his shoulder.

“I can't believe they gave you one!” he whines. “Do you think they'd give us one as a wedding present?” he asks Allison, who slaps him on the arm.

Stiles manages a smile, but the idea that Derek was ever anyone’s to give in the first place has bile rising in his throat.

Another phalanx of servants is waiting to lead Scott to the rooms he’ll be staying in, and Stiles steps back to let Allison accompany Scott to get him settled, giving them a bit of privacy to reunite. They promise to fetch him for the picnic in the gardens as soon as they’re ready.

“I’ll be waiting in my rooms,” he tells them, waving as Allison leads Scott by the hand down a different wing of the palace, his retinue in tow. Stiles slips away into the west wing before Kate or one of the other Argents has a chance to engage him in any conversation.

“I’m sorry about what Scott said,” Stiles says to Derek once they’re back in their rooms and Derek is human again. “If he knew—”

“I know,” Derek cuts him off, with a sad but reassuring smile. “It’s okay, Stiles.”

Derek’s use of his name catches Stiles off guard, makes his heart do something strange in his chest. He thinks he can count the number of times Derek has said his name on one hand. In fact, on only two fingers: his first word when Stiles turned him back, and then that time in front of Stiles’ father. It’s unusual to hear his name from most people’s lips, at least without a title to accompany it. From Derek it sounds intimate, like a thread has wrapped around the two of them, the loop tightening and drawing them closer together. He takes a reflexive half step back like it might help to fight the strange sensation.

Thankfully, Derek doesn’t seem to notice the strange action. “I think I’ll stay here when you go to lunch. If you don’t mind.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah. After this morning—I just feel like I need some time.” He smiles wryly. “And staying here will keep me out of everyone’s way.”

He’s right. The less people he comes into contact with, the better chance they have of keeping his collar out of reach.

“Anyway,” he continues, “I think this should be your chance to enjoy some time with your friends.”

Stiles thinks of Allison’s joke yesterday, about him having no privacy, and he wonders if Derek has been thinking about that, thinking Stiles needs some distance.

“I don’t want time away from you, you know? More than anything, I wish you could sit beside us.”

He imagines Scott and Allison, Stiles and Derek, the two of them sat beside the betrothed sweethearts. What will they be when this is all over? Friends, forever tied by this shared ordeal? Or just acquaintances who had been drawn together during incredible circumstances, exchanging nods of acknowledgement if their paths cross but nothing more? He hadn’t really considered what might happen to them after, but now that an end is in sight, it fills him with trepidation. He can remember so easily the lonely place he’d been in around the time Derek was first given to him, missing Scott, and Allison, and Erica, and his mother, his father. Derek started to fill that void as Wolf, and since changing back, he’s become a presence Stiles relies on. What will happen when he no longer has that?

A hand settles over his on the mattress, guiding him back from his bleak thoughts, and he turns his gaze to Derek who’s looking at him with curiosity.

“I’ll sit beside you soon,” Derek assures him. There’s no trace of doubt, and Stiles marvels once more at Derek’s trust in him.

When his friends finally come knocking, Stiles leaves his rooms without Wolf in tow and neither Scott nor Allison seem to even think to ask after him. It’s so strange to Stiles, that they could be living in ignorance of this, so unaware of what’s going on beneath their very noses. Derek consumes his every waking moment - fear of his discovery, worry over how he’s doing, imagining his future - and it’s so difficult to comprehend Scott and Allison’s lives continuing as normal. He knows that’s the way it should be, but it’s stifling, leaves him feeling like he’s on the outside looking in. 

They take a leisurely stroll out to the gardens to where a white, quilted blanket is already arranged beneath an old oak, just like one of the trees in the Hales’ enclosure. Stiles wonders if it had been part of the same stand of trees once, long ago.

The centrepiece of the picnic is fresh bread mixed with sun-dried tomatoes and herbs, a staple of Scott’s homeland that’s always been a favourite of Stiles’ on his past visits. Sandwiched with cheese and sweet, fresh tomatoes, it tastes like a meal of the Gods. He eyes the slices still left as he eats, wondering if there’s a way he might be able to smuggle some back for Derek.

They spend most of the lunch reminiscing about when they were younger, the bright sun and blue sky and lively green of the gardens conjuring cheerful memories. The topic is a mercy; he’s in no danger of tripping himself up with any mention of Derek when immersed in anecdotes of their childhoods.

He’s just laughing with the two of them over a tale of he and Scott getting stuck in a tree in the castle gardens back home, when a lady passes nearby on the path and Allison pauses to greet her.

“Good afternoon, Jennifer,” she says, and Stiles’ stomach clamps down on all the food he’s just eaten to stop it bubbling back up his throat.

“Princess Allison,” Jennifer returns. “Your Highness, Your Majesty,” she continues, addressing Stiles and Scott respectively with an elegant curtsy. Stiles studies her closely while her head is bowed. Jennifer is supposed to have suffered horrific scars during her attack on Deucalion, burns and other injuries, perhaps a result of claws. There’s no hint of disfigurement now, most likely concealed by some enchantment.

“It’s a wonderful day for a picnic.”

“We’ve been lucky,” Allison agrees, and then Jennifer’s smile turns on Stiles.

“I was hoping to see that wolf of yours once more,” she says, looking around as if hoping to spot him nearby.

“He seemed to want to stay in my quarters. He’s been a little out of sorts since I took him to see the other direwolves this morning,” Stiles replies, making sure to inject befuddled concern into his voice.

Jennifer grins like it’s the best thing she’s ever heard and Stiles knows he pulled it off.

“I heard about all the excitement from Araya. They are such dear creatures.” She sounds so fond, but it doesn’t quite match up with her gleeful smile.

“It looked like they missed him so much,” Allison adds, but she doesn’t sound amused. In fact, she’s frowning. “I don’t know if we should have taken him away from them.”

“Oh, nonsense!” Jennifer reassures her, sounding almost motherly. “I’m sure it’s done him a world of good. It might even be time for a few of the others to go to new homes.”

“I’ll happily take one off your hands,” Scott pipes up, his offer met with Jennifer’s tinkling laughter, even as Allison hits him and Stiles fights off a second wave of nausea.

“I’ll keep that in mind, Your Majesty. With your upcoming wedding, who knows.” She excuses herself with another graceful curtsy to leave them to enjoy the rest of their lunch, and Scott turns to Allison, ecstatic.

Stiles stares down into his beaker of cider, unable to look at the expression on his face. It’s harder to smile after that, any joy he’d taken in reminiscing now far away. He excuses himself as soon as he’s able, insisting on giving the two of them some time alone; he has a feeling it’s an excuse he’s going to be using a lot over the coming days.

It’s tempting to drag his feet on his way back to his rooms, worn down and feeling sorry for himself, but the longer he takes, the more chance he’ll have of bumping into someone else he’d rather he hadn’t. When he’s safely back, he finds Derek laying on the bed on his front, reading one of the few books he’d brought with them from Stiles’ personal library back home. He turns his head over his shoulder to look back at him as soon as Stiles enters.

Nice ass.

Stiles flushes. There’s something in Derek’s eyes. Like he knows. Though of course he knows, Stiles reminds himself, of course he’d been listening to what Ally said yesterday, to what Stiles said. He should never have had to hear that.

“I met Jennifer,” Stiles says without preamble.

Derek shifts over onto his front, alert, and that—really doesn’t make things better. “What happened?”

“Nothing much,” Stiles is quick to assure him. “She just asked after you, and I had to tell her you were acting strange since seeing the other wolves, which she absolutely loved to hear.” He rolls his eyes, then pauses, wondering if he should tell Derek the next part, but he doesn’t want to start keeping things from him, even if it is something that will never come to pass. “She implied that maybe they were going to start giving away some of your other family members.”

Derek’s claws pop out at that, eyes flashing gold, and Stiles hurries forward to stop him tearing the bedsheets.

“It’s not going to come to that,” Stiles reminds him, sitting beside him on the bed and squeezing both of Derek's hands in his until his claws smooth back into human fingertips. He cups his cheek until Derek looks at him, eyes fading back to green. “This will all be over before they get the chance.”

Derek drops his forehead to Stiles’ shoulder and takes a deep shuddering breath.

Stiles cradles the back of his head, voice dropping to a murmur. “I’m glad you weren’t there. I’d prefer it if we could go the entire visit without you seeing her.”

“I don't know how much longer I can last holding back,” Derek says, hoarsely. “Knowing I have the ability now to tear them apart and they wouldn’t even see it coming—” He shakes his head against Stiles’ neck, trembling with repressed aggression.

Stiles can’t imagine how torturous it must be, surrounded by all these monsters and still have his hands tied despite being rid of the collar.

“You can do this, Derek,” Stiles says, quietly, rubbing a hand over his bare shoulder blades. “I know you can.”

Derek shudders with a deep breath. “You still smell like them,” he whispers, and Stiles holds him tighter.

He can give Derek this much. He’ll sit here as long as Derek wants him to, content to let him breathe in whatever scent is still lingering, imperceptible to Stiles’ human nose. This, at least, is something he can do for him.

A hush comes over them as they sit there embracing, listening to the noises outside, beyond their haven. Birds are singing, gardeners are at work, and there’s the far-off chatter perhaps from those seeing to the outside decorations for the masquerade.

Derek’s head shifts every now and then, switching shoulders, chasing the scent, rubbing his soft beard over Stiles’ skin. It tickles and makes Stiles laugh; Derek smiles against his neck.

If he closes his eyes, he can pretend that they’re back in Stellaris, safe, content, perhaps even celebrating that all of this is over. He breathes a quiet sigh, rubbing his own cheek over Derek’s temple and praying fervently that that scene in his imagination could be a vision of the future.

Chapter Text

Dinner that evening is easier to bear than it had been the night before. With Scott the new arrival, he draws the brunt of the attention, and Stiles is only too happy to sit back and enjoy the spread of food, just as high a quality as yesterday’s. They all move to the sitting room after dinner, Scott assuring them all he isn’t yet tired despite his journey, and Stiles has to suffer almost an hour of it before he can reasonably escape to bed.

Derek shifts straight back to human as soon as they get back to their rooms, just like he has every other time despite his initial unease after Allison had nearly caught him. It might be selfish, but Stiles doesn’t remind him of it. He feels like he needs to be able to speak with him to keep himself sane, and he’s sure it’s something Derek needs too.

The next morning at breakfast, only Gerard is at the table when Stiles arrives with Scott and Allison. There’s no sign of Chris, and Kate is said to have had a late night, continuing to drink long after the rest of them had departed and still in her rooms nursing her head. Two out of three isn’t bad, Stiles supposes.

Allison has told Scott about Stiles’ intention to revisit the direwolf enclosure after breakfast and he eagerly agrees to come along. Stiles’ hands start to sweat at this being brought up in front of Gerard, but the smile doesn’t falter on the old man’s face.

“A little bird told me you might be interested in having one of the animals as a pet for yourself,” Gerard mentions to Scott, leering at Derek lying on the floor as he says it. Of course he’d relish bringing this up in front of him. Stiles tries to remind himself that it doesn’t matter what Gerard says – they won’t get the chance, just like he told Derek yesterday – but that isn’t the real issue here. In this moment, Gerard’s aim is to inflict hurt. At that, he will have succeeded.

Scott is immediately flustered. “Well—I definitely wouldn’t turn it down,” he stutters, eyes wide, like he can’t believe Gerard is about to say what he thinks he’s going to say.

“Then take a look when you visit the enclosure and let me know if there’s one that strikes your fancy.”

“Thank you, Sir,” Scott says, awed, and Stiles has to fight not to roll his eyes. Scott is a king. He has no reason to refer to Gerard as ‘sir’, no matter that he’s soon to be his grandfather-in-law. Gerard doesn’t deserve the respect.

He braces himself as he follows Allison and Scott from the dining room once they’ve eaten, ready for Gerard to decide to invite himself along. Thankfully, they leave him behind, and Derek leads the way to the enclosure, just as impatient as the day before.

“I really don’t like the idea of giving another one away,” Allison says with a frown as they watch Derek trotting ahead of them. “Does he really have to go back with you to Stellaris? Maybe it will be better for him if he stays with his family.”

Stiles doesn’t want to even pretend to agree to that idea. “Or how about I take them all?” he jokes, except he’s not actually joking one bit. Scott and Allison laugh at his cheek and Stiles holds his smile even though he fails to find it even remotely funny.

There’s less urgent whining when they arrive at the enclosure this time, but just as much eagerness. Scott takes half a step back when the gate opens like he’s expecting the wolves to come tearing out to attack, but Stiles walks straight on through after Derek like he had yesterday. He’s sure Araya isn’t happy about it, but she’s lost her chance to stop him.

He greets all the wolves with a head pat as they swarm around him, and Scott inches his way into the enclosure behind him, emboldened by Stiles’ lack of unease. He pets all of the wolves like Stiles had, hands lingering on Talia like he’s instantly enamoured. Of course Scott would be drawn to the biggest one. She doesn’t look pleased to have him stroking her, but Scott doesn’t seem to have noticed.

“I want this one.”

If they do give Scott one of the wolves, they’d never let him have the Alpha. Stiles has to bite his tongue to keep from saying it, sure he’s not supposed to know that Talia holds that position in the pack, no matter that she’s the largest amongst them.

“My wolf’s the best,” Stiles declares, crouching down and hugging Derek’s neck. “Aren’t you, boy?” he asks as Derek licks him on the cheek.

He backs out of Stiles’ hold to trot over to one of the grey wolves, but before Stiles can stand, Cora takes his place.

“Oh, hey there,” he greets, lifting his hands to the wolf’s cheeks and wobbling on his haunches under the sudden new weight. She keeps pushing until he’s forced to sit, dropping back with a small oof, and then she’s draping herself over his lap as best she can with her considerable bulk despite having the smallest stature amongst her family. Her muzzle presses to his neck, snuffling in his ear, and Stiles shudders at the way it tickles, laughing. Her great head rests as best as it can on his shoulder, and he strokes a hand from her ears down her back. She doesn’t seem to mind. She seems content to just lie there and breathe. Or is she smelling him, he wonders? Perhaps he smells of home somehow, a scent of Stellaris lingering on him.

His mind wanders as he sits there, absently stroking Cora all the while, watching Derek curl up amongst the rest of his family. He thinks back on what Allison said on the way here, about if he could leave Derek behind. If freeing the Hales wasn’t possible, would Derek choose to stay if given the option? Would he remain at his family’s side in spite of the torture, even if they urged him to go?

Stiles pushes the musings from his mind, trying to breathe around an ache in his chest. It doesn’t matter. It’s never going to come to that.

Scott regroups with Allison outside the enclosure and Stiles knows it won’t be long until they’ll want to leave. Without Scott’s looming arrival to hurry them away this time and with nowhere else to be, Stiles is going to try to draw this out a little longer, even if his friends leave to go elsewhere.

“Stiles?” Allison calls not even a minute later. “We were thinking of going to take a look at the masquerade decorations.”

“I’m just going to stay here a little while longer,” he says to them over his shoulder. “I’m not sure I can get up right now anyway,” he laughs, patting at Cora still lying on him. 

“Are you sure? We can wait if—”

“No, go ahead,” Stiles cuts Allison off, waving them away. “Don’t worry about me.”

He has to insist a couple of times that he’ll be fine on his own, but he’s sure it’s just politeness on their part. They’ve shared a look, like they’re relieved and excited to be able to spend some time alone together, even while looking guilty at leaving him behind. In different circumstances, perhaps that would have made him feel lonely, before Derek. As it is, he feels relief of his own when they finally relent and wave their goodbyes.

Once they’re gone, he grins at Araya lingering in the doorway to the shed, watching him. “It’s a lot more fun to sit here than be a rusty wheel between the two of them.”

“They should really have a chaperone.”

She’s probably right, especially now that Stiles isn’t there to fill the position. It nearly makes him laugh, how much like Virgil she sounds. He’d probably love to take up that position between Stiles and Derek to keep an eye on them at every minute of the day and night, as if there’s anything he’d need to interrupt. He probably would if he thought he had any hope of getting away with it.

“Perhaps. But I won’t tell if you won’t,” he says with a wink.

Araya smiles at him, the sort of smile that doesn’t even come close to reaching her eyes, but then she disappears inside the shed and Stiles wonders if his act has been good enough that she’s decided leaving him unsupervised can’t do any harm. He doesn’t lower his guard though; he has no doubt there are still eyes on him.

His gaze lingers on the shed a moment longer. He wonders what’s in there, if it’s where she sleeps so she can keep a constant watchful eye on her beloved charges. And that’s the problem, isn’t it? Araya is always here.

He studies the enclosure from his seat on the ground, trying to apply their flimsy plan, but no matter which way he twists it, it’s like trying to thread a needle with rope. But he knows what needs to be done.

If he allows just one extra step – kill Araya – then a dozen of their problems are solved. It would delay the alarm being raised. It would buy them the time they need. When Derek first changed back, he couldn’t even walk, human limbs weak and uncoordinated. Will taking the collars off transform them back automatically like it had Derek? Will they be able to achieve their wolf shifts again like Derek eventually managed? How long will that take? If they’re stuck as humans, he can’t expect the Hales to walk out of the palace, let alone run, and that doesn’t even take into account the revenge that Derek is so eager to deal out.

Derek has always told him that’s what it will come to. There will be a time, and soon, when Stiles will have to get his hands dirty, when one of his actions will directly lead to the death of someone else, and it’s something that he’s going to have to own. It’s not often in life that the myriad repercussions of a single action will lay themselves out so plainly. If this is the route they end up taking, eliminating Araya will start a domino effect that, if they’re successful, will impact the governance of an entire country. It’s something he’s trying to come to terms with, knowing that if he doesn’t, his hesitation will be their undoing.

He squeezes his eyes shut, pressing his face to the side of Cora’s neck. She makes a quiet sound, anguished, or perhaps questioning, and Stiles wonders what it is she might be sensing from him. He strokes a hand up and down her back in reassurance and stifles a sigh.

“Five more minutes, Derek,” he whispers, his mouth hidden in Cora’s fur. “I don’t want to push our luck.”

Cora climbs out of his lap at that announcement and trots over to Derek, leaping onto his back. He shrugs her off and pounces with a playful snarl, rolling them over in the grass, and then Laura joins in. The two girls gang up on their brother until Derek has been forced onto his back, paws up in surrender.

Stiles smiles as he watches them, genuine despite that lingering ache of sadness. He can almost pretend this is somewhere in the grounds of the Hale manor, the three Hale siblings enjoying their wolf skins on a sunny morning.

Talia approaches him, touching her muzzle to his neck where Cora had just been resting, and then she pulls back to look him in the eyes. He doesn’t know what she’s trying to say, if she’s saying anything at all. She doesn’t stay any longer, turning instead to rejoin her family, her children now lying in a panting heap after their playfight. She nuzzles Derek’s cheek, the rest of the family crowding in, and then Stiles is climbing to his feet, telling him it’s time to go.

Araya re-emerges from the shed as soon as he’s out of the gate to make sure it’s firmly shut, and he waves his goodbye with another foolish smile on his face.

Back in the palace corridor, Derek’s tail hangs limply as he pads alongside Stiles on their way outside. Stiles settles his hand between Derek’s ears.

“How about we go out for a ride?”

Derek looks up at him, eyes alight with eagerness.

They haven’t left the palace since they arrived and Stiles thinks it’s high time they got away from this place, even for just an hour or two. Derek had been in such high spirits during their journey here when he could run and explore as he wished. He could probably do with that bit of freedom now, and even Stiles feels like he needs to breathe.

He has to skip forward to catch up to Derek almost tearing off in the direction of the stables. They wait for Roscoe to be saddled and then are quick to get going before anyone can think of insisting on an escort. They pass through the palace’s gate and head in the direction of the city’s north exit, the quickest route to the stretch of Margeride Forest between the capital and the next nearest town. There’s a lot of pointing and amazement from the citizens at seeing a direwolf again, which Derek greets with the same stoicism he always has, pace quickening whenever a braver child strays too close to try to pet him.

As soon as they’re past the city gates, Derek takes off running, racing around Roscoe in a great arc as Stiles guides them across the open plain towards the trees.

Once the leafy canopy is overhead, something inside him settles. There’s something slightly foreign in the birdsong all around, a new species that he wouldn’t be able to name weaving amongst the familiar trills, and he spots an occasional spike of white, bell-shaped flowers which he knows are native to Venatia. With only these small differences, he can still pretend they’re back in Stellaris on one of their normal daily rides, the illusion of safety a comfort after the past few days of ever-present danger.

It doesn’t last.

They’ve barely been in the trees for five minutes when Derek skids to a halt in front of him, whole body stiff and ears pricked. Stiles draws Roscoe up behind him, a simmer of unease beginning in his gut.

“What is it?”

He starts to wonder if it could just be that he’s heard a deer nearby, but then Derek starts his shift back to human and Stiles’ stomach plummets; that can’t mean anything good. He whips his head around them like there might be someone to witness his transformation despite knowing Derek wouldn’t do this if it wasn’t safe.

“It’s—” Derek stops and looks off into the distance again, then breathes a curse. “Kali and Deucalion are out here. And they’re not alone.” He purses his lips, jaw clenched, and then he starts to walk, lifting the collar from around his neck. “They’ve told him we’re here. That you know. There’s no use hiding.”

“Told who?”

Stiles spurs Roscoe to follow, and though Derek doesn’t reply, Stiles soon gets his answer. A gap eventually opens up in the trees ahead, leading to a small clearing where Kali and Deucalion stand side by side just as they had when he’d gone to meet them with his father. And there, waiting opposite them wearing a simple tunic and brown woollen cloak like an ordinary commoner, stands Chris Argent.

Stiles’ blood runs cold as he rides into the open, pierced by Chris’ icy blue eyes. Conflicting thoughts clash in his mind in a matter of seconds: that the first thing Chris will do after this is tell Kate and Gerard and whoever else that Stiles knows, but that he’s also standing here conversing with Kali and Deucalion, Venatia’s sworn enemies.

“He’s your way inside,” Stiles says as soon as the realisation hits him.

All that time Chris spent on the front lines. Is this what he was really doing? No wonder Derek had sensed uncertainty when Kali told them they could get inside the palace; their contact is an Argent.

“That remains to be seen,” Deucalion remarks, eyes that unsettling simmering red where they’re fixed on Chris.

“You’ll get your revenge,” Chris says, sharply. “I will hold up my side of the bargain.”

“You do understand what their revenge entails?” Stiles asks, perplexed. How could Chris possibly agree to go along with this?

“Yes.” His shoulders are squared, no sign of indecision. Grim resignation. “But I do this for Allison. She has no knowledge of any of this. I won’t let her suffer for the mistakes of my father and sister, or my own. Someone needs to govern this country the way it should be, and Allison is far from ready.”

Chris’ face has remained impassive since they arrived, but Stiles is wondering how he really feels. Does he feel like the ground is crumbling away at his feet at this revelation, just like Stiles? Does he feel like he’s never going to be able to catch his breath again?

Kali and Deucalion seem content to just stand back and watch their exchange, probably enjoying these new seeds of distrust they’ve sown. Stiles remembers how Deucalion had vowed to watch Venatia burn, though he’s sure Chris doesn’t need a warning to know he can’t trust them. Stiles hasn’t even been here one minute and it’s obvious even to him that their alliance dangles by the flimsiest, tattered thread. Even though they all share the same goal, Stiles doesn’t think he’ll offer to join them. Though apparently, Chris has no intention of extending an invitation.

“I’m sure you must be here for the Hales, but my advice to you would be to keep behaving and return to Stellaris. Things are already in motion. Their freedom will be granted when it’s all over.”

Derek’s lip curls. “We’re not leaving here without them.”

Stiles can only admire Derek’s boldness, the unshakable way he carries himself – has always carried himself – despite being in the presence of royalty. He’s faced with some of the most powerful people in the surrounding kingdoms, but he shows them no deference, like it doesn’t even occur to him that he should. It’s not really a surprise; Stiles knows Derek doesn’t hold any respect for these people. They’ve not done anything to earn it.

“You’d put Allison in danger?” Chris asks Stiles, looking past Derek completely. It seems he understands that Derek won’t offer any sympathy, that beseeching Stiles is his only option.

It doesn’t take much for Stiles to imagine Kali or Deucalion have already threatened Allison’s safety if they don’t get what they want. But it isn’t just his decision anymore. Free from his collar, Derek’s choices are his own. Stiles isn’t going to use his status to give him an order. He’s not sure Derek would listen anyway.

“That isn’t a decision I can make for Derek. And I made a promise.”

From that very first night that Derek was revealed before him, he vowed that they’d get his family out. He’s not going to renege on that now, especially not at the request of someone he trusts about as much as a fox in a hen house.

Chris studies him for a moment and then starts to shake his head, a quiet sigh through his nose his first sign of any inner turmoil throughout this whole encounter. “They were so foolish to give him to you.” 

Stiles’ gaze slides to Derek at his side, standing tall with his feet parted and his arms crossed. Chris is right. Hubris is what it was.

“If things are already in motion, what’s your plan?” Derek asks, ignoring Chris' remark.

“It’s about time you fill all of us in,” Deucalion finally speaks up, but Chris doesn’t even look at him, directing his answer at Stiles and Derek.

“I’m not staging this coup alone. There are others who want an end to this war just as much as we do. But if you won’t agree to sit this out, it doesn’t matter what I’d been planning. If you’re going to free the Hales before you leave, that’s sooner than when we’ll be ready.”

Deucalion growls at that, low and dangerous.

“Then when will you be ready?” Kali asks. “We don’t like feeling like we’re being led around on leashes.”

“You’ll know as soon as I do.”

Kali and Deucalion share a look, then start to turn away.

“We’ll be waiting, but for only so much longer,” Deucalion promises, ominously. “If this gets taken away from us, there’s no telling what we might do.” And with that warning, they disappear into the trees. The crack of their shifts reaches Stiles’ ears, and after a flash of dark fur alongside a blur of grey, their footfalls fade into the distance.

Silence settles in their wake until Chris shakes his head.

“I have to return. I’ve been gone long enough.” He turns back towards the city, but Stiles stops him with a question that’s been burning in the back of his mind since they arrived in Venatia.

“Do your family have any inkling that I know?”

Chris pauses to look back over his shoulder. “None. I never would have guessed.” The admission is grudging, and it heartens Stiles, but only a little. He has no way of knowing if Chris is even telling the truth. It remains to be seen if it will even stay that way now that Chris knows and can have them strung up by their ankles with just two words to his father or sister.

With Kali and Deucalion still close enough to eavesdrop, he has no choice but to swallow down any more questions, no matter that he has so much more he’d like to ask. He climbs back into his saddle as Derek shifts, and they leave Chris to make the walk back alone. They return straight to the palace, their ride over before it had really begun.

“I don’t trust him,” is the first thing Derek says as soon as he shifts back.

“Neither do I.”

Is he really going to step aside and allow the deaths of his own family members? If he’ll go that far to save Allison, then he won’t bat an eye if he has to sacrifice Stiles or Derek to do it. One misstep and Chris can hand them over to Kate and Gerard just to get them out of his way. They’re at his mercy now.

He didn’t miss the way Chris neatly sidestepped telling them his plan, but he can’t blame him. He has enough of a job trusting Kali and Deucalion without baring everything to Stiles and Derek who he only found out about just two minutes prior.

“I don’t like sitting here doing nothing. We need to get that mountain ash from Kate.”

Stiles nods. “Tomorrow. She wasn’t at breakfast and might still be feeling under the weather.” And Chris wasn’t at breakfast because he was preparing for a meeting out in the woods, Stiles realises. Had Gerard known? Chris’ attire meant he’d snuck out of the city unseen, but that doesn’t mean Gerard and Kate aren’t in on his deception, planning to draw Kali and Deucalion into the open, into the palace where they can easily dispatch them with Jennifer on their side.

His heart flutters in his chest at the thought, lifting his hands to rub at his temples. He and Derek are already in the palace. If Chris really is deceiving them, they’re easy pickings.

“If anything happens from here on out,” he begins, the weight of what he’s about to say dipping his voice to a murmur. “If you hear guards approaching or a sword being drawn or an arrow being nocked, you need to run. All the way back to Stellaris and don’t stop.” Stiles has seen his speed. He knows they’ll never catch him.

“I can’t just leave you—”

Stiles fixes him with a stare so intense it kills the words in his throat. “You can, and you must. I’m a Prince. I’m not like Isaac, a poor peasant boy who wouldn’t be missed, and the Argents wouldn’t think twice about imprisoning you again. Maybe even killing you this time. If you get back to Stellaris, my father will listen,” Stiles reaches out and presses his palm to Derek’s collarbone before he realises what he’s doing, right where the collar would sit. “I couldn’t live if they captured you again.”

Derek covers his hand with his and squeezes. He’s frowning, like it pains him, but he doesn’t argue, and Stiles is grateful.

 

*

 

Stiles never thought he’d be relieved to see Kate at breakfast, but that’s exactly what he feels upon entering the dining room the next morning to find her already seated at the table. Chris is there too, the first time Stiles has seen him since leaving him in the woods. He doesn’t look at Stiles any more than is necessary, but Stiles is sure he keeps feeling his eyes on him, no matter that he can never catch him looking.

By setting up a visit to the Hales as a daily morning routine, he’s thankfully managed to reach a point already where Scott and Allison guiltily decline accompanying him again. Araya seems to have begun to expect the visits, and it’s no problem gaining access despite not being with Allison this time. 

He stands inside the enclosure, leaning back against the waist high beam of the fence and stroking any of the wolves that feel like approaching. Mostly, he just watches them cuddle and roll around on the grass, drawing the visit out for almost as long as yesterday before coaxing Derek away. It hasn’t gotten any easier to do.

Back outside, he runs a steadying hand down Derek’s back.

“Let’s go,” he murmurs, and follows as Derek steers him in the direction of Kate’s rooms.

They go slowly, like they’re just taking a relaxing stroll or perhaps even exploring, those excuses ready on his tongue in case they happen upon anyone he’d rather they didn’t.

He has a small vial with him that he brought from Stellaris, small enough to fit into an inner pocket without leaving a visible lump to anyone looking too closely. Derek had told him it only takes a pinch of the ash to remove one collar, so it will give them more than enough to take care of the entire pack while also making sure not to take too much from Kate’s supply and have her notice any is missing.

Their journey to the Royal Quarters goes smoothly, the guards stationed either side of the entrance their first potential for failure. Stiles walks forward with his head held high, confidence key, and a chirpy good morning rolls right off his tongue as he strides on by. The guards hold a salute as he passes and make no move to stop him. They round a corner, Derek continuing to the second door down the hallway where he stops outside.

Derek looks calmly up at him, enough of a signal to let him know it’s safe, and Stiles takes a breath before reaching for the door handle with a hand starting to sweat. He eases it down until the latch retracts far enough and slips inside, leaving Derek in the corridor to keep watch and pushing the door to behind him. The main living area is larger than that of his guest room, with an identically arranged seating area and an extra door to the right that seems to lead to a dedicated washroom. Derek had said it was the door to the left and Stiles hurries straight for it; he can’t be so long that the guards start to wonder what he’s doing. The door is slightly ajar and he makes sure to squeeze through it without touching, not wanting to disturb its position.

Derek had described the jar of mountain ash to him, like a silver urn with a band of gold around its shoulder, usually kept on her bedside table.

It isn’t there. Just an ornamental, dagger-shaped letter opener and an empty goblet. He breathes a curse, his stomach shrivelling as he wonders if its absence is because she’s had no need of it without Derek within her grasp. He pushes the thought aside and casts about the room, wondering if he’s going to have to start searching cupboards and drawers in desperation, but there on a high shelf opposite the bed, he spots the urn just in reach.

He crosses the room on legs trembling with relief and studies the placement of the jar before reaching for it, ready to replace it exactly the way he found it.

“Please don’t be your husband’s ashes,” he whispers as he lifts the urn from the shelf. As soon as he takes off the lid, he knows he’s found the right one. This ash is black, almost glittering, unlike anything he’s ever seen before. He scoops his vial through it, glad the urn isn’t made of glass so it can hide any obvious shift in the level of its contents. With any luck, she won’t even have any need for it over the next few days.

With his vial stoppered, he’s just replacing the lid of the urn when there’s a crack from the sitting room, and Stiles leaps out of his skin, almost scattering ash all over the floor. It takes him a second to realise he knows that sound, that it’s Derek, shifting back. What is he doing?

Stiles,” Derek hisses, the urgency in it sending Stiles’ heart shooting up into his throat. This isn’t supposed to be the signal!

He rushes to place the urn back on the shelf as he found it just as Derek’s head peeks in through the half-open door.

“Is she coming back?” Stiles whispers, eyes wide in panic.

“It’s not that, it’s—There’s another werewolf, somewhere nearby. Outside. But it’s not right. I think someone’s just been bitten. It’s like how I could sense Kali and Deucalion, but this one just appeared out of nowhere. But it’s fresh—New—”

“Okay,” Stiles cuts through Derek’s agitation. “Okay, we’ll go.”

Stiles rushes towards him and that’s when Derek’s gaze slides from him and around the room, his breath catching. Stiles shoves him back with a hand on his chest and squeezes through the door after him, pushing him again, once, twice. He shouldn’t have come in here.

“Derek,” he says, hand cupping his cheek in an effort to draw his unfocused eyes. “Let’s go and investigate that other werewolf, okay? Let’s get out of here.”

Reminding Derek of that urgency seems to help coax him back to the here and now. He nods, finally turning away, pausing to speak before he shifts.

“There’s no one coming. It’s safe to leave.”

“Lead the way.” Stiles slips his little vial of mountain ash back into his inside pocket and waits to follow a shifted Derek out the door.

He pulls the door shut behind him with even more care than when he’d opened it, edging the handle all the way down so the latch slips home without a sound. When they return past the guards, he makes sure to pause long enough to deliver the excuse he’d already planned, an innocuous explanation for his presence there.

“You don’t happen to have seen Princess Allison, do you?” he asks. Allison has come along to his rooms to call for him many times during his visit; there shouldn’t be any reason to consider anything strange about this.

“Apologies, Your Highness, but not since she left for breakfast.”

“Not to worry,” he says over his shoulder with a smile, keeping his pace measured as he ambles away. He doesn’t speed up even when they’ve rounded a corner out of sight. There are still other guards and servants around, and who knows who else they might bump into.

He’s expecting Derek to take him in the direction of the enclosure, towards Talia, the nearest Alpha, even though he can’t understand how that could make any sense. But they end up at the stables instead, and Stiles remembers Talia isn’t the only Alpha in the area right now.

Kali. Deucalion.

What have they done?

With Roscoe saddled, he leads him in a trot past the palace gates, following Derek to the same city exit they’d used the day before. Instead of the direct route towards the trees that they’d taken yesterday, Derek’s path curves to the left, approaching the stretch of forest closest to the city wall, towards the back of the palace.

They don’t even go far enough into the trees to hide the view of the plain behind them before they come upon who it was that Derek must have sensed.

There’s an open space amongst the trees, so small Stiles doesn’t think it can really be classed as a clearing, the ground sloped like a bowl and carpeted with those bell-shaped flowers. He has vague memories of it from visits past, much like the picnic spot by the stream back home in Stellaris.

Allison is there, in the middle of wrestling Scott up into his saddle, the both of them struggling where Scott is cradling one arm against his chest, the bone clearly broken.

Allison spins round with a gasp, planting herself between Derek and Scott who’s now grasping one-handed at his reins. The horse whinnies, nervous. Allison’s horse is nowhere in sight.

“Get that animal away from him, Stiles, or I swear to God—”

“What happened?” Stiles demands, leaping down from his horse.

“What do you mean, what happened? He was attacked by your wolf!”

Scott speaks up before Stiles can argue the impossibility of her accusation. “It was different,” he says, face ashen. “That wasn’t the one.”

“But—”

“It wasn’t wearing a collar, Allison.”

“What happened?” Stiles asks again. Derek is pacing back and forth behind him, cursed to silence. 

“It knocked me out of my saddle,” Scott explains, voice tight, gesturing to his broken arm. “Bit me too.”

“We need to get him back to the palace—”

“No.”

Allison whirls on him. “Stiles.”

If Allison could have mistaken the wolf for Derek, then Stiles already knows exactly who it was who did this. But why would Kali...?

He answers his own question before it can even form. 

Derek told him when he’d first explained werewolf hierarchies that turned werewolves are at the mercy of the Alpha that bit them. They can order them to do whatever they please. He’d warned him that being a prince in line for the throne was reason to be wary of it ever happening. Scott is already a king.

“Derek,” Stiles breathes, the name springing past his lips in defeat and desperation. He’s so far out of his depth with this. He doesn’t know the full extent of what this means, or how to even begin to explain what’s going to happen now. Scott’s life will never be the same again.

Familiar cracks sound behind him and Stiles squeezes his eyes shut. There’s no going back from this, but what other choice do they have? This isn’t a time where Derek can just remain silent.

Stiles!” Allison and Scott warn him at once, and he knows they must be going through the same thing he had the first time he watched Derek transform.

When the shift is over and Derek climbs to his feet, Allison staggers back and catches herself on one of Scott’s stirrups. Scott had been pale before, but now it looks like he might be sick, swaying in his saddle as his good hand clutches at his reins with a white-knuckle grip.

“You’re—You’re Miguel,” Allison breathes, and Stiles is reminded of his own words when he first witnessed Derek’s shift. You’re bleeding.

“This is Derek Hale.”

Hale, Allison mouths, her voice completely failing her.

“What’s going on?” Scott asks, coming out almost like a moan, of pain and confusion.

“You’re turning into a werewolf,” Derek says without preamble. The statement sounds completely ludicrous, but coming from Derek who just transformed from a wolf right before their eyes makes it a whole lot more compelling than if Stiles alone had been the one to try to convince them.

“We can’t—We can’t talk right now,” Allison breathes, in a daze. “We have to—His arm—”

“In just a little while longer, it will have healed,” Derek explains.

“It doesn’t really hurt anymore, Allison.”

“Because your body’s going into shock or—or turning off your perception of pain or—” She’s almost hysterical, floundering for something to focus on, something normal that she can take control of and fix. But Scott’s arm is going to take care of that itself.

“So that’s it? I’m just a werewolf now?” He sounds almost sarcastic, like he can’t even believe the combination of words that just came out of his mouth.

“Not quite. You’ll start to heal faster and your senses will slowly improve, but your transformation won’t complete until the next full moon.”

“And I’ll turn into a wolf like you.”

“Only if the Argents decide that’s how they want you.”

Scott’s gaze darts over to Stiles like he’s waiting for someone to break into laughter, but Allison is staring at Derek.

“What does that mean? Only if—if my family—”

“It means your family abducted mine and force us to live like animals,” Derek says, hotly, and Stiles lays a hand on his arm.

“Derek,” he says gently. “She doesn’t know.” This is going to be hard enough for her to wrap her head around without the air of an attack.

Derek’s nostrils flare, his jaw clenched, but he takes a step back and half turns away, glaring off into the trees.

Stiles isn’t sure they should even be the ones to tell her about this, though who else are they going to trust with it? Their least terrible option would be Chris, but even then, who knows how he’ll choose to spin it.

He studies Allison before him, her eyes wide and frightened, bottom lip caught between her teeth.

“Have you never noticed anything strange about the direwolves your family keep?” he asks, carefully. “About the timing of their captivity? Or why your family never even let them out? Or what about the new addition to the pack despite there having been no pregnancies?”

Allison just stares at him, stricken.

“What he said just now is true, Allison. Your family are holding his captive. All those direwolves aren’t really animals. If you think back, you’ll realise your family have had them ever since the Hale fire five years ago.”

She starts shaking her head. “That’s—That can’t be—” Her denial is weak, but whether because of the evidence of Derek standing before her or a niggling doubt that’s rested at the back of her mind over the years, he can’t tell. The best way for her to believe is for her to hear this from someone else.

“You need to speak with your father about this. Him, and only him. If you speak to anyone else, Scott will be collared and Derek will probably be killed. And who knows what they’ll do to me.”

Stiles doesn’t know what the Argents would actually do to Scott. He’s a king. They can’t just make him disappear like they did Isaac or fake his death like they did the Hales. Stiles just wishes he could be sure that that would stop them.

“I think he’s already coming,” Derek says, eyes glazing over as he focuses his hearing. “Did he know you’re out here?”

“No,” Allison says, voice small. “He forbade me from leaving the palace while we had guests, so we snuck out.”

“This was why, Allison!” Stiles almost snaps, exasperated, feeling like Derek had sounded just now. He tries to remind himself she couldn’t have had any idea of the consequences, but it’s hard, especially when he looks at Scott, now almost back to his usual pallor. Everything is going to change for him now, beyond what Stiles can even fathom. There’s no taking this back.

Stiles returns to Roscoe’s side, smoothing a hand along his flank in a subconscious motion. He’s trying not to think about how things could have gone even more wrong, how they could have both been killed. Allison especially was at their mercy. The war started with Gerard taking the life of Kali and Deucalion’s son. It would have been so easy for them to have repaid the Argents in kind.

When Chris arrives, he takes in the scene with a single glance and then his eyes narrow and come to rest on Stiles and Derek. This probably looks like they brought Allison and Scott out here to tell them everything.

“Scott’s been bitten by Kali,” Derek says immediately, and Stiles whips his head round to stare at him.

He’d been considering keeping that a secret from Chris in case he really can’t be trusted. There’s a challenge in Derek’s eyes where he unflinchingly holds Chris’ gaze, like he’s asking him what he’s going to do with that information. Daring him to prove their mistrust of him to be well-placed.

“Kali?” Allison echoes, and Stiles winces. They hadn’t got around to telling them that part. Stiles doesn’t envy Chris all that he’s going to have to explain.

“The two of you go back to the palace. I need to speak with my daughter and Scott.”

Stiles hesitates before he climbs back into Roscoe’s saddle. He doesn’t particularly want to be present for this, but nor does he feel comfortable leaving them.

“If any harm comes to him—”

Chris pins him with his steely gaze. “I’m not my father.”

They’ve yet to see real evidence to the contrary, but Stiles finds he believes him anyway.

With one last look at Scott and Allison, he steers Roscoe back through the trees, Derek walking alongside him, his collar in hand.

“Kali and Deucalion are nearby,” he murmurs as soon as they’re out of earshot.

Resentment pulses through him at the mention of their names. “Take me to them.”

Derek leads the way on foot, following the treeline left and then heading a little bit deeper.

The Astrani Royals are waiting for them. Stiles swings down from his horse, almost getting his foot caught in the stirrup in his haste, his vision narrowing down to Kali in front of him. His fingers tremble and curl into fists, nails biting into his palms as he stalks towards her.

“What the hell have you done?”

He doesn’t even know what he intends to do when he reaches her, but Deucalion steps in front of her before he can get too close with a warning growl. Derek is at Stiles’ side in an instant with a roar.

Kali puts a hand on Deucalion’s arm to draw him back, taking a step forward herself, ignoring Derek’s enraged warning.

“You didn’t think the Argents already had it in their plans to turn him themselves?” She laughs, but then her eyes harden. “You naïve little boy. One bite from that Alpha they own and his kingdom would have been theirs. He would have been under their control.”

“And now he’s under yours.” Stiles’ voice shakes, with outrage and disbelief.

Kali grins, sharp and wolfish, as she looks at her husband. “What shall we do with him, I wonder? Make him call off the wedding? Switch his side in the war?”

“You can’t—”

“We can and we will, if Chris Argent doesn’t deliver what he promised,” Deucalion interrupts. “It’s just a little incentive. A guarantee that he doesn’t spring a trap as soon as he gets us to set foot inside the palace. He’s lucky we didn’t bite his brat too.” His red eyes flare a little brighter. “Or kill her.”

Fury bursts open in Stiles’ chest, spreading outwards like it could fly down the length of his arm into a fist ready to draw back and strike. But he doesn’t. Looking at them now, he understands why they didn’t. If Chris is already going this far to secure Allison’s safety, if anything took that away, he’d hunt them to the ends of the earth. Kali and Deucalion might have super strength and senses and the ability to turn into wolves, but Stiles would bet his claim to the throne that Chris would best them, and he’s sure the two of them know it.

“And what if you’ve just ruined any chance you had of him helping you?”

Deucalion looks entirely unconcerned. “If he doesn’t, you will be the one we turn to next.”

Stiles stares at one, then the other, words completely failing him at their total and utter indifference to what they’ve done. But not Derek.

“Try it,” he dares. “That threat will have no hold over me. I don’t care what you do to Scott, or Allison, but if you even dare attempt to manipulate Stiles, I will come for you.”

“You think you’d stand a chance against two Alphas?” Deucalion laughs. “My boy—”

Try it,” Derek snarls again surging forward into Deucalion’s space. The Blind King actually falters, jerking back, and even Kali looks unnerved by whatever they see in Derek’s eyes. Stiles has never heard him sound so much like a wolf, so dangerous. “I’ve been itching for a fight.”

Stiles holds his breath, the scene before him teetering on an edge, ready to fall one way or the other.

“You had better hope Chris keeps to his word, or we’ll be finding out.”

“You’re the ones who should be hoping.”

The both of them stand their ground, looking like they’re not even going to wait to see how things play out before they start tearing chunks out of each other. In the end, Deucalion smiles.

“Come, Kali. I’m sure our Argent friend will want to have a little talk with us.”

“I’m sure he will, and we’ll need to have a talk of our own. Perhaps we’ll give him until the full moon?” Kali muses, as they retreat far enough until they’re comfortable to turn their backs, wandering into the trees in the direction of Chris.

“Yes, I like the sound of that.”

Stiles stands numb as he watches them go. He’s been exposed to so many despicable people over these past few months, but in this moment, he’s struggling to remember anyone who could be worse than the two of them and their callous disregard for any consequences of their actions. Even reminding himself of the loss of their child does nothing to engender sympathy. He’s not sure the two of them were much different even prior to that event.

Derek is the one who finds words first, but they’re not ones Stiles was expecting to hear.

“She had a point about the Argents.”

“That doesn’t make it okay,” Stiles snaps, fury rising like a tide in his chest.

“No, it doesn’t,” Derek growls in return at Stiles' tone.

To be the target of Derek’s anger is like being doused in cold water and he turns his head away, ashamed. Being unable to take his fury out on Kali and Deucalion made Derek his only outlet. He hugs his elbows, shoulders hunching at a sudden chilling emptiness that leaves him deflated.

“I’m sorry,” he whispers. “This is just all too much.”

“I know.” Derek’s hand lands on his shoulder, his warm, strong palm leeching out some of the tension there. “Come on. We should head back. We shouldn’t talk here.”

Stiles sighs and turns to Roscoe, Derek steadying him when he fails to make it into his saddle on the first try, something that hasn’t happened to him in years. He waits for Derek to shift once he’s seated, staring unseeing down at his reins. The journey back to the palace passes in a blur, Stiles unable to even muster a smile as he hands Roscoe over to a stablehand. Only following Derek stops him from wandering the corridors of the palace, lost.

His thoughts are too jumbled to order, head spinning with everything that just happened: Scott’s broken arm, Allison’s pale face, Chris’ arrival, Kali and Deucalion with their smug smiles. Derek transforming, their secret known to two more people. It won’t be long until everyone knows about his direwolf’s identity, and Stiles’ own knowledge of it.

When he comes back to himself, he’s pacing up and down beside the bed, Derek sitting on the edge watching him.

“What do we do if Kali and Deucalion really carry through with their threat?” Stiles asks. “How are we supposed to get them in here?” He hates that he’s even thinking of bowing down to their demands, but what other choice does he have? “I could—I could get Kali in. She’d look like you to anyone who didn’t know, if we left the city and put your collar on her and then came back inside but—”

“Stiles,” Derek interrupts, catching him by the wrist and drawing him to a halt in front of him. Stiles hands are shaking, vision swimming a little in his brewing panic. “I meant what I said. I won’t let them threaten you. That wasn’t just me talking big.”

“But it isn’t that simple, and you know it! What they’ve done to Scott changes everything!”

“They’re Chris’ problem right now. And by the time they learn if Chris will really pull through or not, we’ll have already made our own rescue.”

“That doesn’t change what will happen after.” Their hopes of ending the war and calling a truce will go up in smoke if Kali and Deucalion don’t get what they want. They’ll prolong the war just to get back at them, perhaps make the Hales the focus of their revenge instead. He really wouldn’t put it past them.

“I’ll face whatever happens after when it comes, with my family by my side.”

Getting rid of Kali and Deucalion would make everyone’s lives so much easier.

He lowers himself onto the bed next to Derek. “Do you really think you could take on both of them?” he asks weakly, almost joking. “It would be great if I never had to see their faces ever again.”

Derek shrugs. “They’re both getting on in years,” he says, like that’s the deciding factor. “I would if you asked me to.”

Stiles throws him a dark look, not amused. “I don’t want you to fight, especially not for me.”

“A fight is coming whether you want it or not.”

Stiles does nothing but sigh and stare down at his hands. One of Derek’s hands clasps his shoulder.

“I know you’ve been hoping that we’ll just walk out of here, but that isn’t going to happen. This is going to end bloody. All of my family might not even make it out, but I know we’re all at peace with that. Even suffering that sort of loss will be better than what we’re suffering now.”

“I can’t lose you.” The words are out of Stiles’ mouth before he can hear the deeper implications wrapped up in them, but he doesn’t try to take them back. The idea of riding away from Venatia back home to Stellaris without Derek by his side has his throat tightening, panic freezing his blood. He’s always imagined he and Derek together in his rooms again, able to look at each other with pride and happiness thinking we did it .

Emptiness opens up before him, ready to swallow him whole. Derek’s arms wrapping around him jolt him out of it, enveloping him in warmth as he rubs his cheek against Stiles’ neck. He doesn’t try to make any promises though, even to make Stiles feel better, no matter how empty they’d sound. Stiles squeezes him tightly in return like it might do anything to keep him safe, but they both grunt with pain, drawing back.

Stiles reaches into his inner pocket to pull out the hard vial of mountain ash that had just been pressed between them, a lingering ache pulsing over his ribs. He’d forgotten all about it with everything else that had just happened. There’d been no time to take pleasure in the victory of obtaining it unscathed, or to let it really sink in how dangerous their quest had been.

“This is it, isn’t it?”

“That’s the stuff.” Derek takes the vial in his hand, weighing it in his palm. “With this, we don’t need anyone else. We can get them out at any time.”

Stiles doesn’t feel the same optimism. Before everything that just happened, maybe, but he has no idea where they stand now. Derek might be unconcerned, but there’s no way this thing with Scott isn’t going to affect them.

Seeing the vial in Derek’s hand has the mountain ash starting to give life to the reality that Stiles had been dreading.

“Araya’s going first, isn’t she?”

“Most likely.”

Stiles nods his understanding but says nothing else. He takes the vial back from Derek and slips it to the bottom of a luggage chest brought with them from Stellaris that’s been settled at the foot of the bed. Just a few more days and they’ll know how all this plays out.

 

*

 

Neither Scott nor Allison show up to dinner that evening. Allison is said to be complaining of fatigue from the past few days and Scott has apparently decided to dine with her privately before they each turn in for an early night. Kate coos over the young lovers obviously just wanting time alone, and Stiles is glad that’s the reasoning she’s assumed.

Their absence means he’s left alone with his three Argent hosts, and though the realisation has his stomach plummeting, conversation thankfully remains light. Discussion of Scott and Allison’s relationship takes up most of the dinner – how much happier Allison has been to have Scott here after so much time apart, the perfect picture they make, their upcoming wedding – and even from there, the topic doesn’t stray much further than the masquerade being held in two days’ time.

He spends most of the dinner wondering if what he's been told is really true or if Scott has already been forced to transform with a collar around his neck. If an evening visit to the direwolf enclosure had no chance of drawing suspicion, he’d head straight there after dinner to check.

As it turns out, he needn’t have worried. He and Derek have only been back in their rooms for ten minutes when Derek cocks his head and announces that Scott and Allison are approaching.

Stiles opens the door as soon as they knock, much to Allison’s surprise.

“He heard you coming,” Stiles explains quietly. “Come in.”

Allison steps inside with her head ducked, face pale. Scott looks healthy, back to his usual self, and Stiles takes great comfort in the fact that he’s even standing there at all.

They hover awkwardly just inside once the door is shut, Allison twisting her fingers together.

“My father told us everything. What Kate and my grandfather have done. What he’s done.” She casts Stiles a nervous glance. “And we met Kali and Deucalion. That was—” She breaks off like she’s searching for a word to describe a meeting that must have been rife with animosity and fear and confusion, intensified by the sight of a side of her father that she never would have seen before.

“A lot of nudity?” Stiles asks, and it’s enough to shock a laugh out of her and Scott, though it’s short-lived.

“We know you’ve been keeping this hidden for a while now,” Scott says. “We wanted to know how you were doing.”

“And we had questions for Derek,” Allison adds, shooting a look over Stiles’ shoulder.

Stiles turns to see Derek leaning against the bedroom door frame with his arms crossed, now dressed in a long-sleeved, loose white shirt and dark breeches, his calves and feet bare. His expression is guarded, almost hunted. It’s such a strange sight to see him in clothes, ones Virgil insisted on bringing for him to wear as if Derek was going to make any use of them. Virgil will be smug if he ever learns they did come in handy. Stiles tries not to marvel at how effortlessly handsome he looks waiting there, with his neat beard and strong forearms. Now is hardly the time.

“Come and sit down,” Stiles says, directing the two of them to the sofa, lowering himself into the adjacent armchair. Derek stands at his shoulder, one hand gripping the back of the seat. He’s radiating unease, like he’s tempted to shift back to a wolf much like he does in Virgil’s presence.

They ask Stiles how he came to discover the truth and how long he’s been living with the secret, lamenting how they were unable to be there for him. He’d thought finally being open with his friends would have been like sharing a burden, but even now, he doesn’t feel comfortable telling them everything in detail. How much of this will they relay back to Chris? Whose side will they ultimately come down on? It’s like balancing on the tip of a knife, a perilous drop all around and the threat of being run through at just a little too much pressure.

He’s eager to turn the conversation away from himself.

“Do you feel any different yet?” he asks Scott at the first opportunity.

“I don’t know about my senses yet, but the healing is obviously already working,” he says, holding out his arm and staring down at it in amazement. “I—” He gives Stiles a sheepish glance. “I cut myself with my knife at dinner, just to see what would happen. It healed, almost instantly.”

If anything, perhaps that at least will be a silver lining in all of this. That healing helped Deucalion survive who knows how many assassination attempts – though he doesn’t think there’s another king in history who’s had more attempts on his life than Deucalion, and Stiles fully understands why.

“What else will I be able to do?” Scott asks Derek. “You said I wouldn’t turn into a wolf like you do, so what will happen?”

“The most you’ll achieve is this,” Derek says, and then his face transforms into his beta shift, fanged and pointy-eared and heavy-browed, fingers tipped with his claws. Scott and Allison both jump back. Even Stiles has rarely seen it. “You’ll be able to turn into a wolf if you become an Alpha, but the only way to do that is to either kill one or inherit it from the Alpha of the pack you’re in.”

“But you can do it because of Jennifer,” Allison adds, nervously, almost a question.

Derek nods, stiffly, and all Stiles can hear is how Derek first explained it to him.

Cora was first. They made us watch.

He suppresses a shiver.

“But I’ll be able to control it? Chris used that word a lot. He said it will be the hardest on a full moon.”

“It will be worse for you, without a real pack. You’ll want to run, be outside, give into animal instincts that will be completely foreign to you right now. You’ll want to hunt and defend your territory, perhaps go on a rampage if you feel threatened by anyone you encounter. That’s where the control comes in, balancing your values as a human with that of the animal.” Derek shakes his head. “It’s not something I can explain how to do through words. Ultimately, it might not even matter. Did Chris tell you about the power Alphas have over the ones they’ve bitten?”

Scott grimaces in confirmation.

“She won’t have any power over you until after the first full moon.”

“Which is next week,” Scott points out.

Silence settles over them at that announcement. It feels a little like they’re hurtling down a path in a carriage at full speed with no driver and no reins, knowing there’s a gaping chasm up ahead. Kali has them in the palm of her hand, no matter how much Derek might try to declare otherwise. Stiles doesn’t want to be the one to tell them that Kali threatened their marriage.

“Chris said an Alpha can release a werewolf they’ve bitten if they choose to, but I don’t suppose Kali will be too amenable to that, even if they do get what they want,” Scott says, glumly.

“And you know what they want? You know that your father has said he’s going to give it to them?” Stiles asks, tentatively.

Allison eyes him warily. “He said it’s what you’ve come here to do too.”

Stiles wonders if she considers it some sort of betrayal, arriving under the guise of celebrating her birthday but really here with this ulterior motive that will most likely destroy her life as she knows it.

“We aren’t going home without Derek’s family.” His wording softens the reality behind it, but Allison isn’t fooled.

“No matter the consequences?”

“The ‘consequences’ are of your family’s own making,” Derek growls and Allison straightens, raising her head defiantly even as two blotches of pink bloom on her cheeks and her lips start to quiver.

“There must be a way to resolve this without bloodshed. If we could just have peace—”

“If you truly believe that, go and reveal to them what’s happened to Scott. See how peaceable they are then.”

Stiles lays a hand on Derek’s, urging him to back down, but it’s already too late. Allison’s face crumples, the emotion she’d been battling down since she arrived finally spilling over. Scott settles an arm around her shoulders as she tries to rein in her sobs and gives Stiles a look, wide-eyed and helpless. Stiles understands. In all the ways he pictured this going, he’d always imagined Allison not finding out until after the fact. He never imagined he’d be around to witness it.

Derek’s face doesn’t soften, but his jaw clenches, great eyebrows drawn together in a frown and his arms crossing defensively over his chest. He looks guilty, but then furious at himself for feeling that way.

“I’m just s-so confused by everything,” Allison hiccups, wiping clumsily at her cheeks. “They’re my family. I can’t believe that they’re capable of—I thought you were just pets. But you’re not pets, you’re people and—and I just don’t understand.” Her voice turns small and fearful, gaze lifting to meet Derek’s. “I thought they loved you. You, especially. I never understood why they gave you away. I thought you were Kate’s favourite—”

Derek barks out a laugh at that, ragged and cutting, and Allison shrinks back.

“Her favourite. Yeah. I suppose I was.” His stare goes blank and haunted, an expression Stiles has seen once already today. Stiles is on his feet immediately, reaching for him even as he turns away to lean both palms on the table against the wall behind him, the ornamental vase displayed there rattling from the sudden jolt.

“Derek,” Stiles says, continuing to his side and placing a hand on the back of his shoulder, rising and falling with Derek’s heavy breaths. He turns into the touch like he’s starved for it, but it doesn’t seem to do anything to calm him.

Allison has a hand over her mouth, staring at Derek, wide-eyed. Her gaze drops to Derek’s hand on Stiles’ wrist, his grip warm and grounding. Stiles hadn’t even realised Derek had reached for him.

A few long seconds pass of Derek just breathing, until he releases Stiles’ wrist, gently shrugs off the hand on his shoulder and then disappears into the bedroom. The door shuts behind him with a quiet click.

Silence reigns in his wake, but it’s Allison who eventually breaks it, her voice almost a whisper, forgetting that Derek will still have no problem hearing her even through the closed door. “She’d let him sleep in her rooms with her. I thought—What did she—”

Stop, Allison,” Stiles interrupts, urgency spurring his voice to come out too loud in the quiet. He forces a sad smile to show he isn’t angry with her and holds a finger to his lips, shaking his head.

Allison’s face dawns in slow, terrible realisation, more tears leaking down her cheeks. Stiles wonders what she might be imagining. Maybe worse than what really happened, or perhaps even not bad enough. Stiles knows that well, too afraid to press Derek for any details, waiting for the day he might be ready to offer them himself. He’ll wait as long as he needs, and respect it if he never does.

“You should probably go,” he murmurs, gaze trailing to the closed bedroom door. He strains his ears, but he can’t hear any sound from within. In a way, it’s worse than if Derek were smashing things. The silence conjures an image of a bath, gouges in the wood. Allison and Scott need to be gone.

He ushers them to the door, and when Allison pauses to look back at him, he knows she can’t leave just yet. Her eyes are red and puffy, her cheeks still wet.

“It’s all just—” Allison can only shake her head, mouth working but unable to find any words.

“Impossible to believe even though the evidence is right there, staring you in the face? Yeah, I know.”

He would pull her into a hug, but Scott is there with an arm around her shoulders again, and Stiles knows that will be enough.

“Come on,” he says gently, wiping away one of her tears with the back of a finger. “I know it’s hard, but you can’t be seen looking like this.”

She sniffs hard and dabs at her eyes. “I don’t know how you’ve managed it.”

There hasn’t been a choice; Derek is relying on him.

They leave as soon as she’s able to pull herself together enough, and Stiles pauses when the door is shut, letting out a breath he didn’t realise he’d been holding.

He hates that this has reached Allison. Just hours ago, she’d been light and happy and carefree, face lit with that same beaming smile she’d given him the afternoon he arrived. She’d looked smaller than he’d ever realised, seeing her sitting there, hunched and pale. Even with her misery, though, they still don’t know what she’ll decide to do. She might discover that standing aside to watch Kate and Gerard meet their end is something she can’t allow, and what then? Either she’ll turn Stiles and Derek over, or share their fate. That route leads to no other way out.

It enrages him. Her family are like an infection, poison, worming its way across countries and spreading their sickness. Now, it’s spread within.

He’d been a fool earlier when he was riled by Kali and Deucalion into thinking he was struggling to decide who was worse amongst them all. How could he have forgotten? This new incident with Derek is just a painful reminder. At least Kali and Deucalion don’t try to hide who they really are behind honeyed words and beatific smiles. Kate is a demon in disguise.

Stiles makes sure to knock on the bedroom door before easing it open. Derek doesn’t answer, but instead of finding him sitting staring blankly on the bed, he’s pacing back and forth beside it instead. His shirt is off, tossed in a crumpled heap on the floor like it was an annoyance, his fists clenching and unclenching with pent up aggression.

“I want—I want—”

The appearance of Derek’s claws tells Stiles exactly what it is that he wants. It’s similar to the violence he’d been ready to direct towards Deucalion earlier, but now it seems it’s close to boiling over, nowhere else to go.

“Not yet, Derek—”

“All I’ve been doing up to this point is ‘not yet’! ” Derek snaps, and Stiles stills. “But what if after all this waiting we’ve already missed our chance? What if I should have torn out Gerard’s throat yesterday morning at breakfast, when he dared to tell Scott right in front of my face to choose one of my family to keep as a pet? You have no idea how close I came to doing it. You—You have no idea. I should have torn Kate apart when she was at our mercy in Stellaris. I shouldn’t have listened to you!”

Derek’s expression is devastated and accusing and terrible, but Stiles knows he isn’t angry with him. This is just a result of everything piling and piling up, the unprecedented events of the past two days compounding it all into this eruption. It’s a wonder this didn’t happen sooner, a testament to Derek’s control.

Stiles has felt it too, almost lost himself to it earlier after their encounter with Kali and Deucalion. It’s like it’s all weighing them down and down, trying to drive them apart when they need each other most. But Stiles won’t let it.

He approaches Derek slowly and reaches up to cup his cheek.

Just like that, the tension in Derek’s face disappears as he blinks in shock, his eyes going rounded, his brow flattened out and lips slightly parted from the jagged sneer of moments ago as all the air leaves him in a shuddering breath. It’s almost like he wilts, the fury flooding out of him for guilt to take its place.

“I’m sorry—”

“There aren’t many people who can speak to me as you just did.”

Derek flinches and half turns away, the beginnings of a frown forming. “I’m sorry,” he says again, an ashamed murmur. “I’ve forgotten my place.”

“There aren’t many people, but I think you’ve earned the right to be one of them.”

Derek meets his gaze again, eyes still round but now with surprise, and maybe even awe. He swallows hard. “I didn’t mean what I said.”

“I know,” Stiles says with a small smile.

“You haven’t led me wrong yet. You know better than anyone what I’m going through.”

“I know. I’ve never been closer to anyone before.” He means it. He’s always considered Scott his best friend, that status earned during childhood and never since questioned, but the two of them have never been bonded like this. His father is the only other person in his life who could even come close, but even without the stress of his duties leading to absence, the dynamic of parent and child will always be a barrier between them. With Derek, he knows it’s mostly to do with the proximity they’ve been forced to live in, but he feels such a deep connection to the man before him, so powerful he’s almost surprised it hasn’t manifested as a physical thing, an unbreakable thread binding them together.

He’s sure Derek can feel it too, going by the way he’s looking at him now, raw, cracked open. His hand is still on Derek’s cheek, and they’re standing so close. There’s a hush over the room now that Derek’s peaked emotion has drained out of it, wrapping around them, sheltering.

Derek licks his lips, drawing Stiles’ eye—

“Virgil’s coming,” he whispers.

Stiles drops his hand, the words a reminder that the rest of the world still exists outside their little room of it. They draw apart and a strange sensation lodges itself in Stiles’ chest behind his thundering heart, one that lingers all through Virgil readying him for bed and even once he’s climbed under the covers. It doesn’t go away even after he’s blown out the light, growing every time Derek shifts on the mattress beside him, with every one of their shared breaths.

It had felt like he’d been ready to dive from a cliff, stomach swooping with fear and anticipation, only to be pulled back at the last moment. Like Derek had been at the top of the cliff beside him. Interrupted. He can’t forget that look in Derek’s eyes, the way his lips had parted. He tries to put it out of his mind and think about all that will be required of him tomorrow, and the days after, but just before he drifts off to sleep, he’s finally able to name the feeling making a home in his chest: disappointment.

Chapter Text

When he wakes in the morning, he and Derek are lying closer together than ever before. Derek is still sleeping, eyes closed and lips slightly parted, at peace. It’s difficult to stop himself from reaching out and tracing his relaxed brow, the scene dampened by the knowledge that Virgil will be along any minute.

When they get back to Stellaris – and they will, they will – he’ll have to give his manservant the month off, give them a chance to be Stiles and Derek without the constant threat of interruption.

But that’s not going to happen, is it? If they get back home, Derek’s family will be with them. It will be revealed that they’re all alive and Derek won’t need to hide anymore. He’ll be with his family, either given rooms in the palace until they can get back on their feet or going straight to the Hale manor to begin its restoration. No matter what, the life they’ve been sharing will end.

It’s that thought which has Stiles rolling away, swallowing down a sigh and feeling ashamed of himself. It should be a happy thing, the thought of Derek getting his life back. And it is, but he still can’t help longing for it, bittersweet.

Allison and Scott are both at breakfast, along with the rest of the Argent family. Allison looks tired, which at the very least helps to sell the story of her fatigue. When Stiles mentions he’ll be taking Wolf to the enclosure again, her brow puckers, the corners of her lips turning down as she stares into her porridge topped with fresh berries, swirling her spoon. Stiles wonders if she’s thinking about the first time she’d accompanied him there, realising that what she’d witnessed was more of a family reunion than she’d first thought.

He excuses himself once he’s eaten and Chris rises and follows him to the door.

“I’ll accompany you. We haven’t yet had a chance to discuss the news from the Stellaran border.”

“Of course.” Stiles hides a grimace behind a benign smile. He supposes this is a better method of hiding communication than sneaking a meeting in Stiles’ rooms or Chris’ study, but he’s not looking forward to this. What does Chris want?

They walk in silence until they get outside, Stiles feeling more at ease in the open air, less chance for a murmured conversation to be overheard.

“How’s Allison?”

“Better than expected. I apologise for being so short with you yesterday. If you hadn’t found them when you did and she managed to get Scott back here—” Chris shakes his head, and Stiles understands. He doesn’t want to imagine what they’d be dealing with right now.

“Our—friends told me you would have planned to do this to Scott yourselves once he was married to Allison.”

“That was the plan, yes. We need to get this sorted before they realise they can no longer do that.”

Indignation rises up inside him. “You would have—” This isn’t the time to raise his voice. He bites his tongue instead.

No. I wouldn’t. I would never have allowed that to happen. It’s one of many other reasons why I’m standing at your side right now. I can’t allow them to continue.”

“How long have they been planning that for?”

“Years. Just a little longer than the ones I’ve been making on my own.”

“And what do those plans entail?”

“It no longer matters. Our friends have seen to that.”

Stiles throws him a quizzical look, but they reach the door to the enclosure before he can question him further. Derek streaks inside and Chris follows Stiles in after him.

Araya is standing in the enclosure with an empty pail that she must have just emptied into the water trough. She greets them with a stiff bow and moves to the fence to open the gate once the door is shut, allowing Derek in before she steps out with her pail. Stiles follows him after a chorus of good mornings and Chris enters behind him, closing the gate. Allison had never come inside, and Stiles wonders if that was because she hadn’t known at the time that the collars render the wolves entirely harmless. With Chris at his side, all of the Hales keep their distance, eyeing them both warily where they’re curled up around Derek.

Araya leaves the way they’d come in to fetch more water and Stiles turns to Chris as soon as the door is shut.

“Why are you really here?”

“Why were you in the Royal Quarters yesterday?”

Of course Chris would have eyes and ears inside the palace, probably one of the guards at the wing entrance, perhaps even both. Maybe that’s why they got inside so easily, the guards told to keep an eye on him and not interfere. He just hopes they aren’t loyal to Kate and Gerard too. 

Stiles looks back at him, saying nothing. He must know about the mountain ash, about what they eventually intend to do with it. He doesn’t know when, though, and that’s why he’s here.

“Does anyone else know we were there?”

“No.”

“Do you know whose room we went into?”

“I can guess.”

Fury coils in Stiles’ chest at that reminder, digging his nails into his palms. “You can guess?” he repeats, dangerously.

Chris’ features tighten.

Of course he’d known all about what Kate was doing to Derek. Even Allison knew that Derek had spent time in her rooms. It isn’t much of a stretch to infer that Chris had known the truth. Undoing what’s been done to the Hales may have taken years of delicate planning, but what was happening to Derek should have been something he prevented before it could even begin. He isn’t blameless in all of this, no matter that Derek had once allowed that he’s the least dangerous and depraved of the lot. He’s still complicit.

Araya chooses that moment to return with another pail of water, and Stiles has to shift away from him, his skin crawling. He watches her progress towards the gate, the bucket swaying with the weight as she heaves it inside and upends it into the trough. She sets it at her feet once it’s empty and pauses to dab at a sheen of sweat on her brow. Laura trots over to take a drink and Derek joins her, Araya regarding them both almost fondly, a white wolf next to black. She croons something in her mother tongue – pequeño lobo – and runs a hand from between Derek’s ears and down his back before he can duck away.

She freezes, eyes going wide as she stares into Derek’s.

She’s touching the collar.

Stiles’ back stiffens, lurching forwards like he might get between them, might be able to distract her from it somehow, laugh it off with that foolish smile he’s shown her so often, but Araya is already turning, panic showing the whites of her eyes.

Chris—”

Derek tears out her throat before she can say another word. He just rears up, clamps his jaws around her neck, and rips.

Stiles chokes on a startled cry, unable to do anything but watch as blood erupts and Araya’s head drops back at an impossible angle, the wound so deep she’s barely held together. She drops to the ground and Stiles recoils, backing up until he hits one of the wooden beams behind, flailing out with one hand to catch himself on it to stay upright. He stares at the blood, at Araya’s hand trying to cover the wound – the gaping hole – at her blood-splattered face, mouth open and working uselessly.

The wolves are growling, whining. In surprise? Joy?

The fur around Derek’s muzzle is dripping, even darker than usual, and Stiles’ stomach heaves. He clamps a hand over his mouth, squeezing his eyes shut as he fights to hold his breakfast down. He takes deep breaths through his nose, jolting when hands grab him by the shoulders. He’s expecting Chris about to tackle him to the ground or run him through with a dagger, and he shoves at the hold, but it’s Derek, Derek who is now human and dripping in water. The water trough is still sloshing, the froth tinged pink. Derek shakes him again, and Stiles tears his gaze away to look into Derek’s eyes.

“Stiles.”

Stiles lifts a trembling hand to Derek’s wrist and holds on tight. He looks to Chris standing beside them with his arms crossed, expecting shock or fury or even grief, but instead he only finds exasperation. The expression reminds Stiles so strongly of his father that it almost bowls him over, planting a seed of warmth in his stomach that finally allows him to catch his breath, steady himself, think past the fog that had drawn in.

The wolves are swarming around him, planting themselves between him and Chris, knocking him back, all except for Cora who’s cowering in the treeline, the source of the whining.

Chris allows himself to be herded a few paces away, shaking his head in disbelief. “And what do you intend to do now?”

Stiles stares at Derek. What is the plan? The mountain ash is still back in their rooms at the bottom of that chest, but even if they did have it, what would be their next move? They didn't prepare for this.

“I can make this go away,” Chris offers while Stiles is still flailing for an answer.

“And what’s your price?” Derek snarls. There are still traces of blood between his teeth.

“All I ask is that whatever you plan to do, you wait until after the masquerade. Give me that, and I’ll cover up what’s happened, at least long enough for your rescue.”

“So you can undermine us?”

“So Allison can enjoy her celebrations. I want to give her that much.”

The reasoning is unexpected, but Stiles shouldn’t be surprised. Chris has already said he’s doing all of this for Allison. This has been planned for months now, the most important nobles in the surrounding kingdoms most likely already in the city in preparation for tomorrow night. It might be Allison’s last chance for a moment of happiness for a long time to come.

“I have a way to make sure everyone gets what they want, but I need that extra time. Do this, if not for me, then for her.”

Stiles is tempted. Chris had been truthful during their talk on the way over here, more truthful than he’d had any need to be, and he has a point about Allison, though any mention of her to Stiles will probably always be enough to sway him. Perhaps that will be his downfall. Ultimately, Derek is the one who has the final say on this.

“Derek?”

Stiles knows Derek is able to see the agreement in his eyes.

He gives Stiles a long, scrutinising look before nodding. “Okay. But if you go back on your word, you had better be prepared.”

Chris nods his understanding and then gazes around the enclosure. Stiles’ eyes return to Araya’s body, still and sightless. The grass around her head is dark with blood.

“You saw Araya in the morning as usual, and she was here when you left. She asked to speak with me, and I remained behind. That’s all you know. Don’t mention her unless someone mentions her to you. Now go.”

Derek turns away from them, dropping to his knees in front of Talia, hands on her cheeks. “Just a few more days and we’ll be away from this place. I promise.”

Talia licks his cheek once in understanding, and then butts her head to his chest, pushing. Go, she seems to be saying. Derek pauses long enough to touch each of the other wolves in turn, except for Cora who is still cowering in the shade of the trees. She shrinks away when Derek tries to approach her, and Stiles wishes he didn’t see the unhappiness on Derek’s face at the rejection. He turns away from her, and after one last stroke of his mother’s cheek, he snatches his collar from the ground where Araya’s body had been, puts it on, and shifts.

Araya’s body. Where—?

Stiles casts his gaze around the enclosure in time to see the soles of Araya’s feet sliding into the trees, dragging through the dirt. A pair of golden eyes are glowing out at them through the underbrush from sun-dappled grey fur.

“I can’t let you keep her, Peter,” Chris says as Derek nudges at Stiles, urging him to the door.

They walk back to their rooms at a leisurely pace, Stiles wanting to keep his gaze fixed on the ground, but he knows that would be so unlike him, would just draw attention and stick in people’s memories. Lifting his eyes to look off in the distance is all he can manage, like he’s appreciating the surrounding scenery or the high architecture of the palace, but really, he’s seeing nothing.

When they make it back, he crosses the bedroom to his side of the bed and sits with his head in his hands, his back to Derek. Closing his eyes doesn’t really help the images trapped in his head, but then he’s not sure seeing would either.

The bed dips behind him, moving closer, and then Derek’s hand lands on his shoulder. He flinches. Derek recoils and Stiles feels awful.

“I just need a moment,” he says, hollowly.

“She discovered the collar. What was I supposed to do?”

“I don’t know, Derek, maybe not rip her throat out with your teeth?”

Derek’s voice retreats back to the other side of the bed. “I had to do it.”

“You wanted to.” It’s out of his mouth before he can think to stop it, but he knows in his heart that it’s true.

“Of course I wanted to,” Derek grunts, like he’s sick of having to remind Stiles of it, over and over.

“No, I mean—You wanted an excuse to. You could have stopped her even touching you, but you didn’t. You—You didn’t.” Derek didn’t care to find another way, he’s sure of it. He’d wanted a fight yesterday. He probably saw this as his chance.

“You knew that she was going to be first. You knew that this was going to—”

“But not right now!” He spins round to face Derek’s back where he’s sat on the other side of the bed. “What would we have done if Chris wasn’t there? I’m not even sure if it’s better that he was!”

“I wasn’t thinking,” he admits, grudgingly. “She just came closer, and after everything—last night—You’re right. I wanted the excuse.”

Stiles buries his head in his hands again. Knowing everything that Derek’s been through, he can’t even be angry with him, not really. It’s mostly helplessness, so aware how out of control everything has spun since they got here and that he isn’t enough to fix it. He remembers the way he’d felt back in the enclosure when Chris asked what their plan was now. He still doesn’t have any of the answers. He’s cowering away and letting Chris take care of it. Of Araya’s dead body.

He almost laughs. He’d been trying so hard to prepare himself for the moment that time would come, when he’d have to give the go ahead, get involved. But Derek did it of his own accord. It was nothing to do with him.

He glances at Derek still facing away from him, his shoulders hunched miserably. It’s like they’re slipping away from each other again, just like yesterday. Even this small distance between them across the bed feels like it’s expanding. He needs to bridge it before it can get any bigger. No matter what Stiles just witnessed him do, this is still Derek.

He slips off his boots and clambers onto the bed putting his hand on Derek’s shoulder like Derek had done to him. He’s expecting to be shrugged off in return, but Derek turns his head to look at him, pained.

“You were afraid of me.”

“No.” Is that really what Derek thought? Stiles’ heart might have been beating out of his chest and he was definitely scared, but it wasn’t of Derek. “Not of you. Just of what I was seeing. I wasn’t prepared.” He hadn’t wanted to see that. He doesn’t want to see what might happen to the others. He gives Derek a gentle shake, reassuring. “She won’t collar another wolf ever again.”

The misery in his eyes slowly fades, a small smile lighting him up as he drops his forehead to Stiles’ shoulder in relief. That thought heartens Stiles too. It helps to focus on it. No matter what happens next, they’re still one less source of evil in the world.

“It won’t be long until the others follow suit,” Stiles promises.

“If Chris keeps his word.”

That’s unfortunately true. “I thought you didn't trust him.”

“I don't. But I trust you. We'd always planned to wait until the end of our stay here anyway.”

“But what if we wait until the end and miss our chance?” That's what Derek had been so afraid of yesterday, chances slipped through their fingers. 

“I thought this is what you wanted. Why are you trying to convince me otherwise?” Derek asks, a teasing lilt to his voice.

“I'm just nervous.” What Derek said yesterday has somehow put even more pressure on him. You haven't led me wrong yet. 

But also, I shouldn't have listened to you.

What if that's how it ends up? That terrible expression on Derek's face last night genuinely directed at him instead of just out of anger and panic?

“Chris has had more than enough time to turn us in twenty times over,” Derek points out. “I need to let that count for something.”

Stiles thinks about all the sacrifices Chris is making to try and give Allison the life she deserves. It’s commendable, but he doesn’t see how going through with her masquerade can be such a priority. Does Chris really think Allison will be able to take any enjoyment in it with everything she now knows?

“From now on,” Stiles begins, clambering from the bed and digging around in the chest at the foot to retrieve the mountain ash. “This stays with me at all times. I was so foolish to leave it here. Who knows when we might need it.” He should have learnt by now to expect the unexpected. Nothing else about this trip has gone to plan, so why should the timing of the escape?

First everything with Scott, now this, and they’re relying on Chris Argent to protect them. He’s not sure how things can get much worse. He takes that thought back as soon as it crosses his mind. Of course everything can get worse. They’ll be lucky if this is as bad as it gets.

“I’ll try not to do anything else rash,” Derek promises, wryly.

Stiles sits back beside him on the bed. He wonders what the Hales must be feeling right now. They may have been promised a rescue, but what happened to Araya is hard evidence that it’s so close to being a reality. It’s perhaps the first time they’d seen Derek human since they were first captured. Irrespective of Stiles’ displeasure, this should be a joyous moment to them. He doesn’t understand Cora’s reaction.

“What happened back there with Cora?” he asks, and Derek hugs his arms around himself, shoulders hunching, head lowered.

“I don’t think she understands. She’s been like this from so young, I don’t know if she even remembers that she’s human. She probably thought of Araya as an owner that took care of us, someone kind and giving.” He takes a shuddering breath, eyes shut. “What colour are my eyes?” he asks, barely more than a whisper.

His eyes open but he keeps his gaze fixed down in his lap. Stiles swings his legs round so he’s sitting beside him on the edge of the bed, leaning down to get a better look at his flared wolf eyes.

“Gold,” Stiles tells him. Just as they’ve always been, bright and beautiful. “Why?”

Derek whips his head up to look in the mirror, reaching a shaking hand up to trace beneath them.

“Derek?”

“If a wolf takes the life of an innocent, their eyes turn blue,” he explains, hoarsely, eyes wet with tears.

“There’s no way that woman would be an innocent,” Stiles says immediately.

“The Argents keep us here because they think we’re monsters. As the years went by, I started to wonder if they were right.”

Stiles touches a hand to his shoulder blade, a protest ready on his tongue.

“I imagined killing them so many times. I always wondered what would happen to my eyes after. If I’d look into a mirror and see they were right all along. If I was some sort of cursed abomination and everyone was considered innocent in comparison.”

Stiles turns his touch into a hug and Derek clutches at his clothes. “That’s not true, Derek. You’re not a monster, and I didn’t need to see your eyes just now to know it.”

Derek breathes a sigh and sags into his hold. Stiles rubs at his back. He can’t imagine how much of a relief this must be to him, to have undoubtable proof that this is right.

“Come on. I’ll summon Virgil,” Stiles murmurs. “Get you some warm water to wash up.”

Derek nods his agreement and draws away from him, Stiles giving one last rub of his shoulders.

He hates that they’re in this position, at Chris Argent’s mercy, though it’s not much of a change from how it’s been since Chris discovered that Stiles knows the truth. All they can do is wait and hope and have Derek ready to run if Chris moves against them. For now, he’ll take as much solace as he can in the fact that they’re one step closer to their goal. 

 

*

 

He spends the next two days trying not to jump at every noise. He doesn’t hear anything about Araya until the next morning, Allison’s birthday and the day of the masquerade. Kate comments how much of a shame it is that she’s had to return home in light of a family illness and will miss the evening’s festivities. Allison looks gloomy at that, though because she knows the truth of Araya’s absence or is just no longer looking forward to this evening, he can’t tell. He hasn’t seen her much since she’d visited his rooms with Scott, only at mealtimes, and even then, it’s like she’s having trouble looking him in the eye, having trouble being around Derek at all, either through guilt or fear or misery. Probably a mix of all three.

Chris tells him he can still take Wolf to see the other direwolves and Stiles takes it as encouragement to carry on as they have been. There’s a man hovering in the doorway of Araya’s shed when they arrive, someone Stiles thinks he might recognise from his brief visits to the stables. He’s probably one of Chris’ men, though whether Chris’ alone or allied with his other family, Stiles can’t be sure. It’s safe to assume he must know the direwolves are actually werewolves, and Stiles decides it’s best to continue playing up his own ignorance.

The ground is wet where Araya’s body had lain, though it looks more like the water trough had been upended. It could be construed as an accident, but Stiles knows it was to wash away the blood. With any luck, Kate, or Gerard, or even Jennifer won’t have been by to visit, and nor will they until all of this is over.

The wolves seem more energetic than they have been, restless, even Cora, though maybe that’s more to do with whatever disquiet might be bleeding through the pack bond. This must be the most exciting thing to happen to them over the monotonous years of being trapped here.

They stay as long as they usually would and then return to their quarters. With everyone so busy in preparation for the masquerade that evening, they take a quiet lunch alone in their rooms, Derek transforming to eat Wolf’s provided meat, and Stiles shares some of his own food with him as well. They spend the rest of the afternoon there, whiling away the hours until Virgil will come to dress him for the ball. The only other person they see during that time is Scott, knocking on the door almost an hour after they’ve eaten their lunch.

“I smelled blood yesterday,” Scott says as soon as the door is shut, before Stiles even has a chance to ask how he’s been feeling. It seems his sense of smell is definitely getting stronger. “I didn't tell Allison,” he adds at Stiles' look of consternation.

“Everything’s fine, Scott,” Stiles sighs.

“That direwolf woman hasn’t returned home because of a family illness, has she?”

If Scott doesn’t know the truth, then it’s a safe bet Chris is keeping Allison in the dark over this too. It’s probably best that it stays that way, at least until after tonight.

“It’s better that you don’t know anything.”

“I’m worried, Stiles. You shouldn’t be dealing with all of this alone!” His voice is hushed, imploring.

“I’m not alone.” He has Derek. He doesn’t dare let himself believe he has Chris Argent too.

Scott tries to press him for answers, and Stiles almost brings up his other loyalties, of his engagement and his duty to his own people, but he holds his tongue. He doesn’t want to imply to Scott that it’s because he doesn’t trust him. He doesn’t want to hurt him or start an argument or deal with the pain when Scott ends up having to prove him right if everything goes wrong and he’s forced to take a side that isn’t Stiles’.

“Now isn’t the time, Scott,” Stiles interrupts, softening his voice at Scott’s wounded expression. “It’s Allison’s birthday. She’s been looking forward to this for months. Both of you need to enjoy tonight.”

Scott looks like he’s wondering if that’s because the time for them to enjoy themselves is dwindling, but he says nothing, and Stiles closes the door after his retreating back with a heavy heart. Keeping all of this a secret when Scott had been completely ignorant was one thing, but this is worse. Now Scott is aware of the rift between them, can see it growing wider before his eyes. He knows they’ll be able to get back what they had when all of this is over, but it doesn’t make it any easier in the meantime.

That weight stays with him for the rest of the day, lingering even while Virgil readies his clothes for the masquerade. The other guests are already arriving and being gathered in the ballroom. It will soon be time for him to make an appearance, for his presence to be announced to the revellers as an honoured guest before Allison makes her own entrance, alongside Scott.

There’s an underlying current of panic swirling inside him as Virgil buttons his doublet – deep blue with gold embellishments stitched into the front panels and buttons and peeking from slashes in the sleeves. He’d requested some food to be delivered to his rooms prior to the start of the event, something to tide his stomach over until he could eat at the masquerade, but really, it had been for Derek. Chris had warned him earlier that bringing his direwolf wouldn’t be acceptable, and Stiles isn’t looking forward to attending alone, no matter that Derek would only have been a silent companion. He supposes it’s better this way. It saves Derek suffering through an evening trapped, but a selfish part of him is still glum.

He holds still as Virgil secures his mask over his eyes – midnight blue velvet with small, glittering gold stars – and ties the matching gold silk ribbon behind his head.

He’d informed Virgil of all the new developments involving Chris and Scott earlier that morning – though nothing about Araya – and he assisted Stiles in writing a coded letter to send to his father by one of their own trusted messengers. He hated to do it, but Derek had argued in its favour. His father deserves to know what’s happening, no matter how much more it might make him worry. If anything goes wrong over the next few days, he wouldn’t want to regret not informing him when he had the chance.

When his mask is positioned to Virgil’s satisfaction, his manservant retreats to the sitting room to wait for Stiles to be summoned, and Derek shifts back. He has one of Stiles’ books beside him on the bed sheets, and Stiles wonders if he’s looking forward to whiling away the next few hours escaping to another world. Stiles wishes he could join him.

He stills as Derek’s gaze trails over him and tugs at the tapered hem of his doublet self-consciously. He’s used to wearing such finery but something about the way Derek is looking at him sets off flutters in his stomach. That fidgeting gesture flicks Derek’s eyes up to his face.

“Are you nervous?”

“A little. I’m just wondering how soon I might be able to excuse myself without appearing rude. Hopefully I’ll be able to slip away and no one will even notice.”

“You are allowed to enjoy yourself,” Derek reminds him.

“And how am I supposed to do that?”

Derek doesn’t have an answer.

Stiles looks at himself in the mirror, into eyes shadowed by his mask. It’s like a representation of how he’s been living these past few days, these past few months, hiding what he really knows behind his foolish smiles and usual charm. He wonders if this physical mask is going to make it easier.

“You’re about to be summoned,” Derek warns.

Stiles heaves a sigh. “I’ll see you later.”

“Have fun.”

Stiles gives him a look and then joins Virgil in the sitting room. A knock comes at the door a few seconds later and Virgil opens it to reveal a Venatian servant, wearing a white uniform with the Argent lion embroidered in gold on the left breast and a matching white mask with gold ornamental curlicues across the brow and beneath each eye. The servant bows and directs Stiles to follow with a flourishing gesture. Virgil accompanies him. He isn't attending the masquerade, but he’ll no doubt want to fuss over his clothing right up until the moment Stiles is introduced to the ballroom and he’s dismissed for the evening.

They follow the servant up to the first floor where Gerard, Chris and Kate are already waiting outside a pair of great, golden double doors that will open onto the ballroom once everyone is ready. There’s the chattering of voices from within, rumbling above an undertone of quiet music.

“Good evening, Stiles,” Kate greets him from behind a mask of black and gold lace, diamonds studded along the upper curve of each eye. Her dress is all gold, the bodice cinched tight and flaring out at her waist, the skirt overlaid by gold embroidered tulle. It’s galling to admit that she looks beautiful. He just hopes she isn’t going to end up outshining the birthday girl.

Gerard and Chris wear almost matching doublets of red and gold, embellished in a similar manner to Stiles’, their masks more angular and reaching down their cheeks in the outer bottom corners.

Allison and Scott arrive a few minutes later, and Stiles sees that he needn’t have worried. Allison is striking, in a bold red dress with alternating panels all around the skirt decorated with gold embroidery and beading, in a match to the pattern on Kate’s tulle. Scott’s doublet and breeches are coordinated in colour, and they’re both wearing masks of gold filigree, Allison’s daintier in shape, while Scott’s is similar to the one worn by Chris and Gerard.

Kate glides towards her niece, and takes both her hands in hers, marvelling at how beautiful she looks. Allison manages a watery smile, just enough that one of her dimples comes out. Luckily, it can easily be attributed to nerves.

Stiles wonders if this is how Allison will always remember Kate when everything is said and done, if she’s committing the way she looks to memory. Perhaps this is one of the reasons Chris wanted to give this night to her, to give her these memories of how much they love her despite their faults, to think of this as a goodbye.

Gerard enters the ballroom first, the doors being opened for him once the herald has announced the King’s arrival. He’s followed by Chris, and then Kate.

While they wait for Stiles to be announced, Virgil uses the time to fuss with the way the ribbon falls at the back of his head where his mask is tied, stepping away after one last tug on the back of his doublet. Stiles offers Allison a fleeting smile as the herald begins to introduce him as an honoured guest and the doors open at the top of a wide, red-carpeted staircase with gold banisters sweeping down to the ballroom floor. He steps inside to enthusiastic applause. 

“His Royal Highness Prince Stiles of Stellaris, Royal Knight Companion of the Most Noble Order of the Stellae, Duke of Caer, Earl of Aculei, Lord of the Narcissi and Defender of the Beacons!”

He lifts a hand to wave at the guests gathered on the dance floor below in all their finery, a sea of extravagant masks looking up at him. The doors spanning the wall to his left are all open, gold-fringed red curtains drawn up like a valance above them. There’s a stage to his right where the musicians wait, and a second floor for dancing has been erected outside amongst cosy lanterns and braziers.

He descends the stairs and accepts a little glass of champagne from a servant waiting with a tray at the bottom in preparation to toast Allison’s entrance. He takes up a position beside Kate as Scott enters the ballroom and then Gerard steps forward in place of the herald to introduce Allison.

“Her Royal Highness Princess Allison of Venatia, First of the Royal Order of the Arc Doré, Second Lady of the Cœur de Lion, Duchess of Fossire, and from today, Duchess of Charou!”

Allison glides to the top of the stairs as Gerard speaks to stand beside Scott still waiting for her there. She actually manages a smile as she stands at the top of the stairs, brightening to her usual beam at the surprise announcement of a new title.

“To Princess Allison!” Gerard cries, chorused by the guests before they all drain their small glasses in Venatian tradition.

Servants filter among the guests to collect the glasses as Scott holds his hand out for Allison to take, and they descend the stairs together. The crowd parts to allow a path to the centre of the floor while dividing into couples, and Stiles’ stomach twists, but he smiles and holds out a hand to Kate with a respectful bow. She accepts with a tinkling laugh and he leads her out onto the floor with her hand held high. He draws her into his hold, the musicians begin the opening bars of a waltz, and then they all move as one.

There’s a magical sort of quality on the air as they all dance around the floor, each face obscured by a sparkling mask, all lost in the hypnotic rise and fall of the dance. He could almost pretend his partner were someone else if it weren’t for Kate’s wide, toothy smile. He hates that she’s enjoying herself.

After the final few steps as the music ends, Stiles kisses the back of Kate’s hand in thanks and is happy to see her go, off to mingle with their other prestigious guests. He vacates the dance floor and descends the steps outside. The second floor is already filled with dancers too, the stage inside seating the musicians placed with the acoustics in mind to allow the music to flow beyond the open doors. He’s glad for the fresh air clearing his nose of Kate’s perfume.

The heat from the braziers helps to fight off the growing autumn night chill, though the slight nip in the air is pleasant after the exertion of the dance. He spies Allison nearby, Scott at her side and surrounded by well-wishers. She actually looks like she’s enjoying herself, like she’s forgotten, if for a moment, her worry of things to come. A woman Stiles is sure is Jennifer is standing at her other side in a mask of purple and black, and Stiles makes sure to give them a wide berth.

He’s drawn to one of the tables laden with food, eyeing the spread of canapés and vol-au-vents, crème brûlées and miniature fruit tarts, when some chatter catches his ears, focusing in on the gossip. It’s some Ladies of the Argent court speculating on his relationship with Princess Katherine after seeing them dance together.

Her husband died years ago, one is pointing out in response to someone tutting.

And who could blame her for having an eye on that handsome Stellaran Prince?  titters another.

He promptly loses his appetite.

Choosing ignorance, he ambles away in the opposite direction, accepting a young Lord’s stuttered request for a dance. It’s easy to smile warmly at him as Stiles leads him around the floor, glad that he seems too nervous to hold a conversation; Stiles’ mind is elsewhere, wishing this could be someone else in his arms.

He’s still wishing Derek could be at his side, even as a wolf, though he’s sure that Chris is right that the other revellers wouldn’t be so pleased. If only they knew of the monsters they consider their rulers. There are beasts here, but they’re not the ones in the cage.

When the dance is over, they bow to each other and go their separate ways, and Stiles politely declines his next request to dance from an older woman in lilac, laughing that he needs a moment to catch his breath. He accepts a glass of wine from a passing servant and finds himself standing by a table where Allison’s tiered birthday cake is displayed. It sits at the centre of an elegant arrangement of red roses and fresh red fruits, some of the apples painted gold.

He thinks of Derek, wondering if he should sneak him back a slice in repayment for the one he stole all those years ago when—

“May I have this dance?”

Shock ripples up Stiles’ spine at the familiar voice and it’s a wonder his glass doesn’t slip through his fingers. He spins round, his mouth hanging open and Derek’s name trapped under his tongue as he stares into green eyes shining under the overhead lantern light from beneath a mask of black and forest green.

“You shouldn’t be here!” he breathes, his heart beating twice as fast as the tempo of the current waltz.

“Probably,” Derek concedes, but still there he stands, in a black and green doublet to match his mask, breeches the same deep shade of green. It’s the most extravagant outfit Stiles has seen him wear over the past few months; he blends in perfectly. The mask he wears comes down in the centre and on each side to hide the shape of his nose and cheekbones and his beard covers everything else. Kate always kept him clean shaven; she would never recognise him.

Stiles is still terrified.

“But where did you—?”

“Allison,” he explains. “She dropped by with them just after you left.” He holds out his hand. “May I have this dance?” he asks again.

Stiles is still staring. He can’t believe Derek is here, human. That he’d dare. But Derek’s gaze is unwavering, beginning to dance with humour.

“Are you going to refuse me in front of all these people?” he teases, but Stiles hears what he really means. There must be so many eyes on them, more pairs being attracted every second he keeps Derek waiting. There will be enough attention on them as it is, with Stiles being a prince.

He accepts Derek’s hand, lightning passing between them at the first brush of skin. This is a Derek he doesn’t know, one who doesn’t have to hide, who can walk in the light and have his voice be heard. It’s like even Stiles doesn’t recognise him in this mask, still not able to comprehend that he’s really here.

Derek’s smile widens as they dance, like he’s pleased he can still remember how. How long must it have been since he’s done this? Had it been at some sort of feast in the castle back home? His steps are graceful, leading Stiles with confidence, which is just as well because Stiles is still completely scrambled. He feels like he’s floating in a dream, unable to take his eyes off Derek in front of him, no matter the voice in his head reminding him that his moon-eyed stare is just going to draw the curiosity of the other guests. Perhaps even of Kate. It’s the thought of her that snaps his gaze away. It lands on Chris at the edge of the floor instead and his heart lurches in his chest to see him watching them, but the Crown Prince just raises his glass in a toast.

“Even if we can’t trust him, he’s not going to do anything here,” Derek whispers.

He’s right. Chris had been so determined that Allison get this night of celebration; he’d never do anything to jeopardise it.

When the dance ends, the musicians are applauded and then they begin a piece with a slower tempo, and Derek takes him immediately back into his arms. Stiles lets himself be swept away, twirled around the floor beneath the waxing moon. He stops thinking about the footwork, consumed instead by the warmth of Derek’s hand around his, the strength in the shoulder under his palm, the way Derek is looking at him. It steals his breath. Stiles isn’t the only one rapt with wonder. The mask does nothing to hide the longing in Derek’s eyes and Stiles is lost in him again, this time unable to draw himself back.

When the music ends, Derek still holds him close. “I should go.”

“Have a drink, something to eat—” Stiles knows he shouldn’t be encouraging this, but Derek at least is still able to think sensibly.

“I think I’ve stretched my luck as far as I dare. Perhaps too far already.” He steps back with a small smile and a sound of protest gets caught in Stiles’ throat, so close to chasing his touch. “Besides, I can't monopolize your time all evening. I’ll see you in our rooms,” he murmurs, and then he’s weaving through the crowd, neatly side-stepping some women who look eager to be his next dance partner with an elegant half-bow and averted eyes. 

Stiles watches him go until he’s lost amongst the other guests, his heart hammering at the way Derek had said ‘our rooms’. It was like there was a declaration of ownership there, and not just of the space they’re sharing. He flags down a passing servant for a much-needed glass of brandy, and has just taken a steadying sip when Allison appears at his side.

He glances at her and back into the depths of his glass. “You probably shouldn’t have done that.”

“I know it was dangerous, but I just wanted to—I don’t know.” The glum set of her mouth and lowered eyes speak of a frown beneath the mask, but it fades as she looks up at him, resolute. “You love him.”

Stiles’ heart leaps in his chest and he looks across the party, gaze subconsciously drawn in the direction Derek had taken only minutes ago. The direction that his heart is being tugged in, back to Derek. Always back to Derek. He’d been trying not to name this feeling that’s been growing in his chest for weeks, months, swelling far enough to choke into the back of his throat. But now, with the magic of the dance still lingering, the serenity, it’s so easy to let that emotion swell to a bubble and rise up to emerge as a simple truth.

“I do.”

Allison takes his hand and gives it an encouraging squeeze and then she leaves him, cutting across the floor to stand at Scott’s side where he’s conversing with one of the many Lords present, drawing close to accept his arm around her waist.

It feels wrong for Stiles to still be standing here, utterly pointless to not be where Derek is, to have even this small distance between them. He follows the tugging in his chest, putting down his glass, skirting the floor. With the guests behind him, he ducks into shadow cast by the lantern light and sneaks along the side of the building to cut into the entrance they use when returning from the enclosure. The music gets quieter as he treads the corridors, the sounds of revelry fading, and he doesn’t let himself breathe comfortably until he’s leaning back against the door to their rooms with it closed behind him.

Clothes are strewn over the sofa, a couple of other outfits Ally must have brought as a selection for Derek to choose which fit best. There’s no sound coming from beyond the closed bedroom door, but Stiles knocks before he opens it anyway.

Derek is sitting on the edge of the bed, his mask beside him and the top few buttons of his doublet undone and showing off the hairs on his chest. His calves and feet are already bare. The drapes have been disturbed, the window probably his route to and from the masquerade undetected.

Derek is looking up at him through his eyelashes and something in his eyes pins Stiles just one step over the threshold, the air in the room gone thin and stifling, his heart racing.

Derek rises to his feet and Stiles wavers at his approach. Fear and anticipation. A cliff. He opens his mouth. He feels like he should say something, direct them away from this as he has every other time, but there are no distractions, no one else on their way to interrupt as Derek reaches behind Stiles’ head to pull at the ribbon holding his mask in place. Derek’s other hand is there to lift the mask away before it falls, slowly, so slowly, not taking his eyes off Stiles, like he can’t. 

He feels exposed, like removing his mask has revealed more than just his face, so different to how it had felt when they were dancing, hidden in plain sight. Without their masks in the way, this is the Derek he’s come to know so well, in this space made just for the two of them.

The mask hits the floor where it falls from Derek’s fingers and then Derek is kissing him, his hands cupping Stiles’ cheeks, the stark heat and cautious softness of it drawing a gasp through Stiles’ nose. He presses closer, clutches at his shoulders like he’s drowning but will suffocate if Derek stops.

Derek,” he breathes into his mouth.

Just with that one kiss, he's achingly hard in his breeches, and Derek draws back, nostrils flaring. And that right there is all the confirmation Stiles needs that Derek has known all along. Every errant heartbeat, perhaps even every wayward thought, signalling to Derek’s ears and nose just how much Stiles feels for him.

It’s Derek’s turn for his control to waver this time, surging forward to take Stiles’ mouth in a searing kiss. Stiles’ knees tremble, on the verge of buckling beneath him when Derek pulls back, panting, his thumb tweaking the top button of Stiles’ doublet, hands poised there and mouth hovering over his as he whispers, “Is this okay?”

Stiles can only nod, every word of consent that’s racing through his mind tangling on a tongue still muddled from Derek’s kiss, and Derek sets to work on the ridiculous column of buttons. Stiles has always resented the number of buttons on his clothing, but never has he cursed them more than in this moment. Derek is taking his time anyway, licking his way into Stiles’ mouth who is only too happy to surrender to every one of his whims as his hands continue their methodical journey downwards. He slips it from Stiles shoulders once it’s undone to leave him in his undershirt and then moves to the buttons on his breeches. When they pool at his feet, Derek ushers him slowly backwards until he’s sitting on the edge of the high bed and only then does Derek break their kiss, sinking slowly down onto one knee.

Stiles watches in awe the way Derek undresses him, careful, reverent. He removes one of Stiles’ buckled shoes and then the other before moving onto his stockings, easing them down his calves with feather-light touches, gaze intent on his task, on every stretch of skin revealed to him. He keeps Stiles’ foot lifted once the second stocking is discarded and leans in to press a kiss to his ankle, tilting his head to look up at him through his lashes again, and Stiles’ entire body jolts. He’s never been touched like this before, here, had no idea that such a simple touch on his ankle of all places could feel so intimate. It’s almost too much, almost jerks his leg from Derek’s hold, but he doesn’t want this to stop.

Derek rises higher, to the inside of his knee, his leg quivering in Derek’s grasp at each press of his lips and prickle of his beard. He leans up to Stiles’ lips once again and Stiles wraps his arms around his neck, something to cling to as phantom tingles shoot up and down his leg, each patch of skin where Derek kissed him flared with heat.

Derek scoops him up and lifts him effortlessly to the pillows, both of them ignoring the clatter of his own mask toppling from the bed. It’s a display of strength that has Stiles’ stomach swooping, a small moan escaping his throat that has his cheeks flushing hot. Derek breaks the kiss to sit back where he’s settled over his hips, his hands smoothing down the planes of Stiles’ stomach through his undershirt.

He reaches for the buttons of his own doublet, undoing it the rest of the way, just as slowly as he’d undone Stiles’. He isn’t wearing an undershirt, each button revealing a new inch of tan skin and solid muscle and dusting of dark hair. And Stiles can look now. He doesn't need to hide his appreciation as he always has done before when he was afraid to make Derek uncomfortable, afraid he would notice the lust in his eyes. He skims shaking hands up Derek’s clothed thighs, delighting in the way it makes him shiver.

He shrugs the clothing from his shoulders and tosses it aside before scooting backwards with a graceful roll of his hips to land lightly on the floor at the foot of the bed. The rest of his clothes follow his doublet and Stiles props himself up on his elbows to take him in.

He’s seen Derek naked countless times before, but never like this, with his cock hard and foreskin pulled back and precum already leaking and trickling down the shaft. Derek seems to think so too. He’s not embarrassed, but not as bold as he always has been about being naked in front of him before. Unsure.

Stiles has never seen anyone so gorgeous. “Come here,” he urges, sitting up the rest of the way and reaching for him.

Derek obeys, climbing onto the bed to settle in Stiles’ lap again and reach for the hem of his undershirt, Stiles lifting his arms as it comes over his head. He kisses Derek as soon as it’s out of the way, a quick peck on the lips. Derek looks shocked for a moment before it turns into a quiet laugh, almost bashful, and Stiles cups his cheek, smiling. It always feels so good to see that expression on Derek’s face, the crinkles at the corners of his eyes, the crooked line of his teeth.

Derek brushes their noses together and kisses him again, pressing him back down to the bed. He trails his lips down Stiles’ neck to his chest where he sucks a mark into the skin just below his collarbone, biting carefully. Stiles gasps, encouraging, and further down Derek goes, leaving another mark on his ribs, his stomach, sweeping his tongue over each one as he finishes and pausing to look over him, gaze so intense it’s like he’s committing him to memory. Stiles reaches for his cheek again, and Derek nuzzles his palm, sweeping his beard against his skin.

His hands find the buttons at the front of Stiles’ drawers, and then slide lower still to untie the drawstrings above the knee. Stiles lifts his hips as Derek pulls on the hems, and then props himself up again, keeping his gaze fixed on Derek’s face as he’s bared to him.

Derek discards the clothing at the foot of the bed and just stands looking at him, making Stiles squirm. Next to Derek’s body sculpted by gods, he’s sure he leaves much to be desired, but Derek looks like he's drinking in the sight of him stretched out on the bed, no trace of disappointment. His eyes are following a path across mole-dotted pale skin, up to his cock curving up towards his belly, head flushed pink, higher still, from bite to bite. This isn’t the first time Derek has seen him naked but it’s the first time Stiles has been conscious of his gaze, has known it was Derek and not just a wolf.

Derek’s hand grazes his ankle, his other leg this time, skimming upwards as he climbs back on the bed. If the earlier kisses had felt intimate, it’s nothing compared to this, to being completely open for him, to every graze of his palms and press of lips. When Derek sucks a kiss to the inside of his thigh, his entire body vibrates, fingers clamped over his mouth to stifle a keening cry. Candlelight dances in Derek’s eyes where he glances up at him, amused, and Stiles whimpers as he laves his tongue over the mark he’s left, satisfied.

“Wanted to do this for months,” Derek murmurs and Stiles’ eyes almost roll back at just the words alone.

“Wanted you to,” he manages to pant in return, hands lowering to the bed to twist and clutch at the sheets.

Derek looks up at him steadily with a quick flash of a smile. “I know.”

Stiles groans and drops his head back onto the pillow. “That’s so unfair.”

Derek breathes a laugh, his hot breath rushing over Stiles’ thigh and almost to where he wants it most.

“I tried to hide it from you.”

“I know,” Derek says again, but there’s no amusement this time, and when Stiles lifts his head to look down at him, all he sees in his eyes is gratitude.

Derek leans up to kiss him again, hovering over him. Stiles puts a hand to the side of Derek’s neck, drawing him back just far enough to say, “This isn’t just—I don’t just want—”

“I know,” Derek whispers, noses brushing. “Me too.”

Stiles pulls him closer, groaning as the head of Derek's cock brushes against his belly, hanging low with its weight and smearing precum across his skin. He rocks his hips up searching for more, and then Derek’s hips are flush against his, slotting them together, and Stiles makes a sound like he’s dying.

Derek groans against his lips, nips at them. “Is this okay?” he asks again as Stiles clutches at his shoulders, every panted breath punched out of him with a noise like a sob.

“Don’t stop,” Stiles breathes, and Derek obliges.

He starts to rock his hips, precum slicking the way, and Stiles’ body jolts with a cry at the slow drag of Derek’s cock against his own. His eyes keep fluttering shut, overwhelmed by every sensation that comes with having Derek this close to him, but whenever he manages to fight them open, Derek’s are always intent on his face. Stiles wants to see him unravel, ruffle his composure even just a little. He reaches for them both to wrap his hand around—

No,” Derek gasps, tinged with panic, catching him by the wrist and pinning it to the bed. He’s gone deathly still, eyes squeezed shut.

Stiles’ stomach drops through the bed to the floor, dread pooling outwards.

“We don’t have to—” he starts to say, just as Derek takes a breath.

“Just let me,” he murmurs, breathing shakily. “Just me.”

“Okay,” Stiles whispers, swallowing hard. “Whatever you want.” He lifts his other hand to carefully cup Derek’s cheek, coaxing his eyes back open. “Whatever you want,” he says again. He needs Derek to understand. If Derek needs to be the one in control here, he’ll gladly let him. He’d do absolutely anything for this man. “Tell me if there’s anything you need.”

Derek releases his wrist with a steadying breath and shifts from between Stiles’ thighs until he’s straddling them instead, just below his hips.

“Need to hear your voice.”

“I can do that,” Stiles says, tentatively returning his hands to Derek’s thighs, allowing Derek to manoeuvre them where he wants them, drawing them higher towards his hips, showing him what’s okay. He starts to move again, hesitant at first, rocking them together in careful thrusts as he leans down to kiss him again. They’ve both flagged slightly, but it doesn’t take much to get them back to where they were. Unlike earlier when he’d trapped any sounds he made behind his fingers, he lets them free into Derek’s mouth, lets him hear how good he's making him feel. 

When Derek eventually sits back, he’s looking down at him with parted lips, eyes glazed.

“Thought about seeing you like this,” Stiles murmurs, and Derek gasps, eyes fluttering shut as a flush starts to rise in his cheeks. His hips haven’t stopped moving, aided by the corded muscles of his thighs. Stiles runs his hands down, feeling the solid strength coiled there, feeling him shiver at the touch. He’s a vision come to life.

“You’re so beautiful, Derek.”

The rhythm of Derek’s hips stutters, and when his eyes open again, there’s a new vulnerability there. That look settles in Stiles’ chest like an ache and he levers himself up for another kiss, gently cradling Derek’s head.

Derek’s hand wraps around them both and Stiles cries out into Derek’s mouth, racked by a full-body shudder. He stares down at Derek's hand, at the sight of the heads resting above the curl of his fingers. Derek is darker than he is, slightly thicker, leaking so profusely that they’re wet with it. He can’t take his eyes away from how good they look together.

Each of Derek’s strokes feels like it’s drawing him higher and higher, a shivering, tingling warmth pooling in his gut and spreading all the way to the tips of his fingers. It’s soon close to being too much.

“Derek,” he gasps, urgently, and then he’s being pressed back down to the bed, Derek shifting to settle between his legs again, trapping them between rocking hips and ridges of hard muscle. He’s keeping the same pace but his breathing is heavier, like it’s taking all of his control not to turn frantic. Stiles clings to his shoulders, prepared to hang on for the ride.

“Come on, come on,” he pants, grabbing at the curve of Derek’s ass, and Derek lets go until he’s rutting hard and fast. Stiles’ toes start to curl and uncurl where he’s hooked his legs over Derek’s hips, grasping at nothing, calf muscles tensed and clinging to Derek’s back.

“Derek, I’m—”

Stiles,” Derek breathes, and that’s all it takes.

Stiles convulses, pierced through by the sound of his name in that ruined voice. He shakes apart with it, back arching, distantly aware of the jolt of Derek’s hips, of warmth splashing over his belly, sliding down the side of his ribs.

When he manages to flutter his eyes open, Derek is gazing down at him hazy-eyed and loose-limbed, breathing heavily. He reaches a weak hand towards him, urging him closer until Derek is a blanket of pleasant warmth enveloping him, even where he’s still sensitive. Derek kisses him lazily, once, twice, and then he’s sweeping his cheek up the side of Stiles’ neck, rubbing back and forth, tickling. It's a pattern Stiles has noticed.

“You keep doing that,” he murmurs.

Derek stills, then continues more slowly, hesitantly. “It’s a wolf thing.”

“I like it,” Stiles says, slipping into a yawn as he rubs at Derek’s back.

He feels Derek smile against his skin and holds still as he continues, slow and lethargic, listening to him take quiet puffing breaths all the while. He can tell that this is something Derek associates with comfort and safety, understands how important it is to him. He’s content to lay there and let Derek explore and mark as he wishes, letting himself focus only on the peace of the here and now for the first time since they arrived. He shuts his eyes, continuing the motion of his hand as he sinks into a doze and Derek moves down further.

He's brought back to consciousness when he feels Derek's tongue on his skin, licking at his stomach. It takes a second for him to realise why. 

"Is that a wolf thing too?" he asks, and Derek pauses in licking him clean to guiltily look up at him. Stiles starts to giggle and Derek joins in, resting his cheek against Stiles' quivering belly. He runs his fingers through Derek's hair, heaving a contented sigh as Derek starts to absently rub his cheek back and forth once again. He wriggles upward until his head is resting on Stiles' chest, and that's where he stays with a pleased hum as Stiles' hand returns to tracing patterns across his shoulder blades. 

Stiles closes his eyes again and lets himself drift, lulled by the soothing sounds of Derek's quiet breaths and the far-off murmur of ongoing revelry.

Chapter Text

Stiles wakes in the morning to lazy kisses trailing across his chest. He hums and cracks his eyes open to look up at Derek propped up on an elbow, hovering over him.

“Good morning.”

“Morning,” Stiles replies as he lets the memories of the night before trickle over him, marvelling. He can still feel the ghost of Derek’s touch against his skin, the pressure of every soft and biting kiss. All of it had been real.

Pale sunlight filters around the edges of the drapes, fringing Derek in soft gold, and Stiles’ heart leaps in his chest as Derek leans down and kisses him sweetly on the lips.

So this really wasn’t just a one-time thing.

The bedsheets are settled low over Stiles’ hips, but Derek as usual has made no move to cover up, lying on his front on top of the sheets in all his glory. Stiles can’t stop his gaze from trailing down the arch of his back to the curve of his ass. It’s not far off the view he’s been waking up to for months now, but it’s the first time he’s felt permitted to admire it.

“‘Nice ass’, huh?” Derek asks with a teasing lilt.

Stiles freezes, staring at him wide-eyed as he hears the echoes of Allison’s words and his own agreement, thinks about the way he’d found Derek on the bed that time he’d returned from the picnic in the gardens, showing off his body. Perhaps being without his clothes feels like a more natural state to Derek, but has it partly just been for Stiles’ benefit?

“You’ve been torturing me,” he says as the realisation hits him.

Derek’s lips twitch. “A little.”

“No, Derek, not ‘a little’. A lot! ” Stiles exclaims, throwing a pillow at him. “And you knew, you bastard!”

Derek sets the pillow aside, laughing now, and catches Stiles’ hand where he’s casting about for something else to throw.

“Okay, I was. But I like that you never reacted. You never looked at me like—” He sobers and squeezes Stiles’ hand. “You were so patient. It’s what I needed.”

“Patient?” Stiles repeats, incredulously. “Patience had nothing to do with it. I didn’t think—” Words fail him, only able to shake his head in amazement.

“You didn’t think I wanted to?” Derek asks, surprised. “I owe everything to you.”

Stiles sits up at that, a nasty, sick feeling blooming in his stomach. Is that what this is? Had Derek just sensed his desire and gone along with this out of some sense of obligation? A duty to his Prince?

“Derek—If this is you—repaying me—”

“Repaying?” It’s Derek’s turn to sound incredulous. “Stiles, that isn’t what I meant.” He twists until he’s sitting up beside him, tilting Stiles’ head with a gentle finger against his jaw to look into his eyes like he needs him to understand the importance of what he’s about to impress upon him. “I love you.” His eyes are clear, certain. “You’re full of so much compassion. You feel the grief of my family like you’re part of our pack. If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t even be able to put one foot in front of the other right now, and I’m not talking about what you did with the collar. Any strength I have to face all of this is because of you. When it’s all over,” he pauses, looking vulnerable, suddenly small, “I want to stay by your side. Whatever that entails.”

Stiles is left speechless by Derek’s words, still searching his eyes for any hint of reluctance or dishonesty, finding none.

“How could you not realise how I felt?” Derek asks, gently.

Stiles finally manages to find his voice. “It was too much to hope for,” he almost whispers. “You’re so strong, Derek, so strong that I can’t even fathom it, and you’re full of so much bravery. You’ve been stuck with me because you’ve had no choice, when I’m just that little boy with a silly crush, reaching up to steal that last slice of cake.”

Derek laughs softly at the memory and even Stiles cracks a smile, Derek clasping his hand in his and bringing it to his lips to kiss the back of it.

Stiles shakes his head in amazement. “I thought that’s the only way you’d ever be able to think of me.”

Derek’s gaze softens, his awe seeming to match Stiles’. “If only you could see what I see. The man you’ve become. You speak of my bravery, but what about you? The way you’ve carried yourself since we’ve been here. All those times you faced down Deucalion and Kali.” He turns Stiles’ hand over and sweeps his thumb over Stiles’ blunt fingertips, highlighting his lack of claws. “Foolish, perhaps. But it never stopped you speaking up for me and my family, for Scott.”

The reason for all of that is simple. “Because I love you. It—All of this has been for you.” He feels suddenly weightless to have allowed those words past his lips, watching as a slow smile spreads across Derek’s face, ducking his head and closing his eyes like he’s basking in it. He’s so beautiful. Stiles reaches out to stroke a thumb over his cheek, sweeping away a stray eyelash as Derek looks back up at him, eyes wet.

“Did you—Did you hear me with Allison? Last night?” Stiles asks, but Derek’s blank expression is enough to say he doesn’t know what Stiles is talking about. “She knows. She guessed. How I felt, at least.”

“I realised that when she brought the clothes. I’m not surprised she saw the way I was looking at you. Virgil has noticed, though I think he saw something more in my eyes than just adoration for my Prince.”

Stiles’ cheeks heat at the look Derek gives him, bordering on indecency.

“It’s probably why he’s been so keen to step between us,” Derek continues. “I probably should have let him. Allowing me to stay in the room while you bathe is hardly proper.”

Definitely not proper, Stiles thinks, licking his lips. “I think he would have much preferred we waited to court each other once this is all over.”

“Is that what you want?” Derek asks, and Stiles raises an eyebrow, fighting a smile.

“I think we’re long past courtship.”

Derek grins at him. “Perhaps. But I would, if it’s what you wanted.”

He wants everything: chaperoned walks through the castle gardens, secret rides beyond the city walls, hosting Derek and his family in their dining room back home. He wants it all so badly. But right now, the uncertainty of it just makes him ache. There’s no guarantee that they’ll—

He can’t let himself even think about that. “I want you by my side, but I don’t want to make plans for the future when we’re still balanced on the edge of a knife.”

Derek brushes their noses together. “You’re right.” He leans closer for a slow kiss and then lays down beside him, tugging Stiles closer until he has his head on Derek’s chest. Stiles lets the peace of it wash over him, Derek’s warmth, the steady rhythm of his heartbeat.

“I can’t believe you went outside,” he murmurs.

“Neither can I. It was nice to walk amongst people again, even if it was beneath a mask.” He breathes a quiet sigh. “Now the fairy tale is over.”

“We’re still going to deal with the evil witch and evil Queen,” Stiles points out. “Or Princess in this case.”

“And soon,” Derek says, rubbing a warm hand up and down Stiles’ back.

Stiles hums his agreement and bliss, arching into Derek’s touch for more. But Derek jolts, scooting away from Stiles with a curse.

“Virgil’s coming.”

Stiles’ eyes go wide. “Virgil—” He looks around the room, at the state of it, the duvet half off the bed, red velvet runner on the floor amongst their two masks and clothes strewn all over, not to mention the bites and blotches all over his chest. There’s no time to put this right!

Derek rolls off the side of the bed away from the door and sinks down like he just intends to hide there, but that does absolutely nothing to help Stiles’ situation.

There’s a knock at the door and a panicked, “Uhh,” escapes Stiles’ mouth as his gaze darts around the room looking for some sort of escape. But the door is opening, Virgil perhaps mistaking his noise of hesitation for a hungover groan, because he steps through the doorway with a pitcher of fresh water on a tray. Stiles yanks the sheets up to his shoulders but the damage is already done.

Virgil freezes in the doorway, taking in the mess of clothes on the floor, the rumpled sheets allowing for only one conclusion. Stiles waits there, craved from stone, hardly daring to breathe. But then Virgil heaves a monumental sigh and raises his eyes to the heavens.

“His Majesty warned me something like this would happen.”

Stiles’ mouth drops open. His father? Derek’s head pops up over the edge of the bed in shock at that announcement, and they both turn to stare at each other. He thinks of the way his father had treated Derek since he was revealed to him, with care and affection; like a son. Now, Stiles reads it as approval. It’s starting to seem like everyone knew about this but him.

Virgil sets his tray down on the nightstand and then sets to work around the room to make it more presentable, pursing his lips between muttering to himself. Stiles would climb from the bed to help – anything to make this excruciating situation end quicker – but Virgil doesn’t need to see his state of undress – and definitely not the state of his thighs.

“You’ve no time for a bath but—you can’t go amongst company like—” An affronted shudder ripples up Virgil’s spine. “I’ll prepare the wash basin.” He turns and marches stiffly from the room.

“I’ve defiled a prince,” Derek says from his spot on the floor and Stiles bursts out laughing.

“Defiled?” he repeats, but then he turns considering, letting the sheets pool at his hips again as Derek climbs to his feet and he can look him up and down. “Hmm, I suppose you did.”

Derek’s eyes go dark, looking like he’s thinking of rejoining Stiles on the bed, but he turns away with a quiet growl to begin his shift.

Stiles reaches out for him across the mattress before he can. “I don’t regret what we did.” He feels no different now they’re in the light of day, even beneath Virgil’s scrutiny. “I—” He gets caught staring into Derek’s eyes, his tongue twisted by the perfect memories.

Derek puts one knee on the bed to lean in and leave him with one final peck on the lips. “Neither do I,” he murmurs.

As soon as he’s shifted, Derek leaps back on the bed, sprawling out on the corner between Stiles and the door, head alert, watchful. Stiles pulls the sheets up to his chin when Virgil returns with a few other Stellaran servants bringing warm water for the basin. They leave the room once it’s filled, and Virgil follows them to the door. He looks like he might coax Derek away out of habit, but then he seems to remember how futile that would be considering what so obviously happened between them last night, and he retreats from the room with a hand to his brow like he’s on the verge of a faint.

“Poor Virgil,” Stiles murmurs once the door is shut, and it seems to startle a laugh out of Derek mid-shift, coming out as a sort of wheeze.

They stand together in front of the basin and mirror, Derek’s expression turning pinched as Stiles wrings out the sponge and starts to wipe over his chest and stomach. He liberates the sponge from Stiles after only a few seconds.

“I’ll do it.”

“You need to do a better job than that!” Stiles laughs as Derek just grazes the sponge over his skin.

Derek scowls at him. “I want you to smell like me.”

“Like you?” Stiles repeats, but then he corrects himself. “Like yours?”

Derek’s gaze flickers up to his where he’d been focused on running the sponge over one of Stiles’ forearms, eyes going dark again, hooded. He manages to tear his eyes away, but Stiles felt the effort.

“Don’t tempt me,” Derek murmurs. “Carry on like that and I won’t be able to care about what Virgil will walk in on.”

Stiles swallows hard, trying to remain unaffected even as his pulse accelerates. Derek’s nostrils flare with a deep inhale, punctuated by a quiet groan at the back of his throat. Stiles tries to avert his thoughts. There will be time for that later, maybe even as soon as after breakfast. And if not, tonight at least will belong to them.

They continue washing in silence, Stiles not trusting himself to speak, and Derek perhaps feeling the same way. He dresses in his underclothes and Virgil returns, Derek already back to being a wolf.

After the merriment of the night before, a late breakfast has been planned for everyone in the usual dining room. As soon as he’s dressed, he and Derek head straight there to find they’re the last to arrive, all members of the Argent family and Scott already seated. Allison makes a valiant attempt at a smile at his entrance, but he can still see straight through her. It’s no surprise the magic of her birthday night has already broken.

It seems to be a subdued affair all round, Kate the only one still animated and eager to discuss the masquerade, all the dances she shared and the gossip of the attending nobility.

“I heard that even you found yourself a worthy partner, Stiles, dancing with a handsome stranger,” she comments casually, gaze sharp, and Stiles’ stomach clenches.

He focuses on finishing spreading butter on a crumpet, ready to sigh wistfully and say that he wishes he could know who it was, but Chris beats him to it.

“Did Derek enjoy himself?”

Silence reigns in the wake of Chris’ question. It takes a second for Stiles to register what he just said, lifting his gaze slowly from the food on his plate to stare at the other prince. He’s expecting panicked realisation at what he’d just let slip, but Chris is staring calmly back, eyes cold and cruel. Triumphant. Kate and Gerard are smiling, Allison and Scott avoiding his eyes.

Stiles drops his cutlery with a clatter, rising to his feet to—to do what? But blackness blooms behind his eyelids before he can straighten, pain pulsing at the back of his head. He goes down hard, crashing into the table before crumpling to the floor, Derek’s whimper the last thing he hears before the blackness swallows him.

 

*

 

He comes to only minutes later, the ground rushing up to meet him once more, but this time it’s hard earth and patchy grass. The enclosure. He rolls onto his back, squinting up at the sky, bright above his head. Chris is looking down at him, his face grim.

Derek is lying a couple of metres away, still a wolf, Jennifer standing over him, watching him intently. His body is trembling but he can’t move, held in place by her magic, the strength of her belief. His fake collar is off, now in Jennifer’s hand.

“This time, I’ll make sure this one never gets to be human again,” she promises, and the ring of the collar crumples impossibly, just from the force of her mind.

Stiles gets lifted to his knees and held in place by two men standing either side of him, one of them the stablehand who had taken over in Araya’s absence. The world spins, pain pulsing at the back of his head as he locks eyes with Allison standing on the other side of the fence, her eyes wide with fear. Was her gesture last night with the clothes for Derek just borne out of guilt for what she knew would happen to them in the morning? It wasn’t her being given one last night of happiness, but Stiles, he thinks, bitterly. Looking at her is enough to manifest a physical ache in his chest, but it’s making eye contact with Scott at her side that pierces him straight through.

“Allison, fetch Stiles’ manservant,” Chris orders. “He needs to be taken care of before he can catch wind of this. Scott, go with her.”

“Leave Virgil out of this!” Stiles shouts, struggling against the hands holding him in place, but he goes ignored.

“Come now, son,” Gerard wheedles. “She’s proved that she’s ready for this. She proved her loyalty to this family when she came to you. It’s long been time that she learned our ways. Let her watch.”

Allison,” Chris says again, ignoring his father.

Allison looks at Stiles kneeling on the ground. “I’ll stay,” she says, face pale, lips barely moving.

“Good girl,” comes a voice, and Stiles’ eyes narrow as Kate steps into the enclosure. “Oh, darling, there’s no need to look at me like that.”

“I’ve got a lot of lost time to make up for,” Stiles grits out, glad at least that he no longer has to act in front of her. The lump on the back of his head throbs at her tinkling laugh.

“How long have you known, I wonder? After my visit? Before,” she answers herself at Stiles’ defiant glare. “Of course. You so wanted to stop Derek and I spending any quality time together.”

He doesn’t want to kneel here and listen to her talk about Derek. “Do what you want with me. Kill me. But my father knows everything.”

“Sweetheart, we’re not going to kill you. No, I’m much too fond of you for that,” she says, in a voice like she’s speaking to a small child she’s trying to comfort. “We’re going to turn you.” She grins, taking far too much enjoyment in the expression that comes over Stiles’ face, his jaw going slack. “Did Derek tell you about the Alpha bite? With us in control of Talia—”

“Stellaris will be ours,” Gerard finishes. “John will have to go, of course – a real shame,” he adds, though it’s clear he thinks it would be anything but. “I’m sure we’ll be able to convince you to help us with that.”

Stiles’ strength fails him. Where the men at his sides had been holding him down, now they’re the only reason he’s staying upright, going dizzy at the thought of what Gerard is implying. Could they really order him to do something like that? Kill his own father? Will he just be trapped in his body, helpless to do anything but watch as he raises his own hand? Will he black out until the order is complete, the deed done, standing over his father’s body? This outcome is something he’d never considered, but with everything the Argents had planned to do with Scott, why is this such a surprise?

Scott.

Stiles stares at him standing outside the enclosure, his own breath rattling in his ears, eyes wide with fear. How can he stand there and watch this? He’s a werewolf, or is at least becoming one. Chris and Allison know it. Do Kate and Gerard? Surely he wouldn’t still be standing there if they did? He’d be in the enclosure, alongside Stiles.

Scott has an arm around Allison’s shoulders, his other hand held in her vice-like grip. He looks desperate. Imploring. Is it with guilt? An apology? No. Something else—

Stiles is drawn back to Kate in front of him grabbing at the collar of his doublet, tugging it down. He tries to recoil from her touch but can barely move two inches. He’s lost a couple of buttons somewhere since the breakfast table, the grip of the men either side of him tugging his clothes tight across his chest. Above Kate’s hooked fingers, a bite mark just below his collarbone is now on full display for everyone to see.

Stiles,” Kate admonishes, playfully. “Did you develop a taste for a wild side? Though I can’t say I blame you. We can all agree that one grew up in all the right places.”

Stiles surges forward like he might headbutt her, his eyes blazing as she laughs. He wants to hit, to punch, to destroy, but he can’t move, can’t reach her. Derek is roaring in the background, still held in place and powerless by Jennifer’s intense stare. Rage boils inside him, narrowing his vision down to Kate’s smug, insufferable grin. He should have run to fetch the mountain ash after Derek killed Araya. Derek should have shifted back their very first night here at the dinner table and savaged them all.

Restrained as he is, he does the only thing he can: he spits in her face.

She rears back, mouth twisted in disgust and eyes wide with shock and fury, but Chris speaks up before she can retaliate.

“That’s enough playtime, Kate. There will be plenty of other opportunities to make him sorry.” He turns to Jennifer, taking half a step back towards the gate. “Bring forward the Alpha.”

“Come out here, Talia. You know what will happen if you don’t.”

Derek whimpers under Jennifer’s stare and Stiles dreads to think what sort of torture she might be threatening him with. Pressure on his bones? Stealing his sight? Is there any end to what she could do to him?

Stiles still has the vial of mountain ash in his pocket. He can feel the lump of it, but it doesn’t do him any good. He can’t move. He can only listen as Talia pads from the trees behind, gaze into her dark, solemn eyes as she draws up alongside him.

Chris is standing outside the enclosure now, his jaw clenched tightly as he watches the proceedings. He looks at Kate, then Gerard, and Stiles puts a name to the expression on his face, his darting eyes: hesitation.

Stiles looks to Talia, at her collarless neck. Chris’ hand is on the gate. He swings it shut.

Wolves burst out of the trees all around him with roars of fury, Talia streaking towards Gerard nearest the gate, two of them tearing across the enclosure to Stiles’ right, lunging straight at Jennifer.

Time seems to hang suspended, the wolves to his right – Kali, Deucalion – half in the air, Talia with her muscles coiled ready to spring, Derek still held on the ground. But it isn’t time standing still. It’s Jennifer.

Her face is tight with concentration, her eyes wide and unblinking where she’s bending so many to her control, hands clenched to trembling fists. All the wolves are still snarling, trapped in place, as cries go up from Kate and Gerard – terror, confusion, betrayal – “Chris!” – but Jennifer doesn’t answer, can’t answer, her concentration already stretched so thin.

Stiles fixes her with his stare, the rest of the enclosure falling away, willing his vision not to blur as tears prick at his eyes. He lets his rage and fear and desperation well up inside him, funnelling it, letting it flow down into imaginary hands – thinking of a collar, of warmth and a small, glowing yellow light – and with those imaginary hands, he reaches out—and shoves.

Jennifer staggers. Just half a step. But it’s enough.

Kali and Deucalion spring forward, knocking her to the ground. And then the screams begin.

Stiles’ world spins from just that small exertion on his weak spark, but he’s being hauled forwards by the two men who had been holding him down, flailing with his legs to keep up as they reach the fence and crawl beneath the mountain ash beams, pulling him through behind them. He rolls onto his back and struggles upright in time to see Derek and Talia tear off both of Kate’s arms at the shoulder.

He squeezes his eyes shut, breathing heavily through his nose, stomach churning, but it does nothing to mute the sounds, the screaming, every wet rip and crack of bone, Allison sobbing behind him. He looks back at her where she’s trapped tightly in Scott’s arms, shaking and struggling like she’s trying to watch what’s happening.

Don’t you dare look,” Scott is telling her, fiercely, hand clamped on the back of her head to keep her face turned into his throat.

“I have to, I have to,” she sobs, beating at his chest with her fists.

He understands now Chris’ displeasure that she’d stayed; this was his plan all along. He should have insisted harder. She shouldn’t be here.

“Take her, Scott,” Chris orders from where he’s still standing at the gate, eyes ahead and stance firm, resolute. How is he able to stomach watching this? Stiles knows he must have seen some terrible sights while on the front lines, but this is his family. His father, his sister. Perhaps it’s penance for his choices. It seems Allison shares the sentiment, the reason why she’s fighting so hard to see what’s happening despite her tears. But at Chris’ command, Scott lifts her easily even as she starts kicking with her legs, perhaps aided by his new building werewolf strength, and carries her away, the door closing on her broken cries.

Stiles wishes he could follow, but he has a duty to see this through. He winces as he turns back to the enclosure, but he forces himself to look, to accept this consequence. The bulk of all the swarming wolves hide most of the carnage, but Stiles still sees flashes, and that’s more than enough.

Gerard has been torn in two. Blood bubbles at his lips as Laura and Isaac feast and tear at his spilling innards, and a wolf that could be Derek’s father or uncle tosses his legs across the enclosure. The other grey Hale wolf is with Kali and Deucalion seeing to Jennifer, Stiles spying a hand with missing fingers clutching at the air amongst a mass of fur, before jaws clamp around the wrist and it disappears from view.

Derek and Talia are still taking care of Kate, now with one leg missing from below the knee and her dress clawed through across the stomach, soaked with blood but seemingly not too deep. One side of her face is blood-soaked, her hair matted like she’s also missing an ear. As Stiles watches, she loses her other foot to a great crunch of Derek’s jaws and his resolve to watch this immediately dissipates.

He flinches away, but his gaze falls on Cora, cowering at the edge of the arena, ears flat to her head. She’s still collared.

It spurs him onto trembling knees, crawling towards the gate. “Cora,” he says, calling out to her, and she jolts at the sound of her name, ears pricked as she stares at Stiles, eyes widened. When was the last time she heard her name spoken? He eases the gate open, just enough to show her his intent, and she streaks towards him, squeezing through the opening and diving at him as soon as it’s closed behind her. He wraps his arms around her neck, letting her settle into his lap as they have done over the past few days. She presses her muzzle to his throat, huffing panicked breaths, whimpering.

Over her head, he spots Kali and Deucalion now with Gerard in payment for their son, Jennifer in pieces behind them, still.

Derek and Talia haven’t left Kate’s side. She isn’t screaming anymore, just moaning incoherently like she’s sunk into delirium, and Derek hovers over her, lowering his blood-soaked muzzle to stare into her face. Stiles wonders if he’s planning on watching her die like this, making sure he’s the last thing she ever sees.

Peter strays too close and Derek snarls at him, furious. He shies away, pacing; it seems that even in their bloodlust, they can all agree that this kill is Derek’s. Kali and Deucalion look like they might try to get in on the fun, Kate now the last one living, but Talia bars their path with a warning growl. Gerard and Jennifer were the ones they’d wanted, after all.

Kate’s moans go muffled and Stiles’ eyes snap back to her in time to see Derek's jaws have closed over her head, a perverse imitation of a kiss. And then he twists

Stiles clamps his eyes shut, turning his face into Cora’s fur, squeezing her tightly.

“I’ve got you,” he tells her, over and over, as much for his benefit as for hers. “We’re going to get you out of here. You’re going to go home. You’re safe. You’re safe.”

She doesn’t stop trembling, whining quietly, and he becomes so engrossed in trying to settle her that he doesn’t notice it immediately when the sounds inside the enclosure turn to silence. There are a few quiet scuffles and heaving panting, and then comes a howl of victory.

Talia stands in the centre of the enclosure, her muzzle thrown back, and the rest of the wolves join in, even Kali and Deucalion. Laura stands out amongst them all, her beautiful white fur soaked almost head to tail in blood. Stiles’ eyes find Derek, watching his lifted head. It sounds so different to that one of mourning he’d howled on their journey here.

Derek is first to transform, climbing to his feet and standing tall and proud amongst the carnage. Kali and Deucalion join him, and then Talia. She’s an Alpha. Returning from her wolf shift is something she would have known how to do before any of this happened. She’s too weak to stand though, human limbs uncoordinated with disuse. She holds her hands out in front of her, staring down at her human body with an expression on her face Stiles doesn’t think he’ll ever forget. It’s an expression he imagines someone might make when laying eyes on a person they believed dead for years who they’ve never finished grieving.

Derek is on her just as her tears start to fall, drawing her into his arms and nuzzling their cheeks together fiercely. Her claws are still out, dimpling the skin on his back as she clutches at him. The other Hales gather round, Derek’s father, Joseph, achieving his shift first, followed by Peter, both joining in on the hug, their backs heaving with the force of their own tears.

Isaac is next, fair-haired and about the same age as Stiles, Talia welcoming him into the hug.

“What’s your name?” she asks him, voice rusty and thick with tears, wiping at a streak of blood on his cheek. Stiles feels it like a punch to the gut. All this time, and they had no name to put to him.

“Isaac,” he tells her, and she presses a kiss to his cheek with a laugh of joy.

Laura is still pacing back and forth, making a sound of frustration, and Derek reaches for her.

“You can do it, Laura. Find your way back,” he urges through tears streaking the grime on his face. “Reach for it.”

It takes a few long seconds more, but then begin the familiar cracks and Laura is scooped into the family hug. They’re all splattered with blood and gore, surrounded by it. It pains him to see a scene of such joy tainted by so much ugliness.

“Cora,” Derek calls, holding out a hand for her.

She climbs from Stiles’ lap and edges towards the gate, Stiles allowing her inside and wiping at tears he didn’t even realise had fallen. She still looks flighty, her steps dainty and hesitant as she picks her way among the slaughter.

Chris is quick to close the gate again, and Stiles feels a stab of fear, like he might still be planning to keep them locked in there. But then he sees the look of apprehension on his face and understands. Chris has no guarantee that any of the people in the enclosure won’t decide that he should pay as well. Stiles doesn’t trust that they won’t either.

“I’ll take it from here,” he tells him and Chris studies Stiles for a moment before giving him a curt nod. “Where can I take them?”

“I’ve made arrangements for them to stay in the guest rooms beside yours. I thought they would want to be near Derek. There are clothes and shoes in the storage shed for them to use to get there.”

“That might take a while,” Stiles notes, looking to where they’re all still a heap on the floor.

“I’m going to gather all of the staff, tell them for now about a potential enemy intrusion while we iron out the story we intend to tell everyone about what happened here today. It should allow you all to cross to the guest rooms unseen. I’ll send for you later. There’s much we need to discuss.” He pauses before turning away. “I am sorry for the deception, but it was necessary. I did tell you I had a way of making sure everyone would get what they want.”

It almost makes Stiles laugh. In the end, they didn't need to bother with a plan. They were at the whims of Chris Argent. Pawns. But Stiles can’t be angry about it, looking around at all the Hales. It had worked out as the best possible outcome. 

Chris steps closer to the fence, gaze fixed on Kali and Deucalion sharing an emotional moment of their own. Stiles’ heart could almost ache for them, but too much has passed between them for him to manage any real empathy.

“Use the clothes you arrived in and the same way you got in,” Chris tells them. “Return to Astran.” They all hear the unspoken And don’t come back.

“Before you do,” Stiles interrupts, “release Scott from your power or I’ll see to it that you never get out of here.”

Kali’s lip curls with a building growl, her fangs lengthening. Deucalion’s eyes blaze red alongside her, but before either of them have the chance to voice any sort of threat, Derek snarls and the rest of his pack join in.

Kali vibrates with barely restrained rage, but then her eyes flare their glowing red and fade back to their deep brown. “It’s done,” she grits out.

Stiles looks to Derek, waiting for his nod of confirmation. Satisfied, Chris gives Stiles one last look of acknowledgement before heading to the door, his men following behind him.

Kali and Deucalion disappear into the trees, emerging dressed in Argent servant uniforms, and Stiles holds their gazes as he opens the gate and watches them pass. The door shuts behind them, finally gone from their lives, hopefully forever.

He turns back to the enclosure, the gate still open – never to be closed again – spotting Derek’s proud smile, probably for having faced down Kali and Deucalion once more.

He retrieves the clothes Chris had had prepared from the shed, long tunics and woollen cloaks folded next to a pile of simple sandals. He shudders at the sight of a couple of spare collars hung on the wall inside – perhaps in case of any additions to the enclosure – and retreats as quickly as he can.

When he returns to the gate, Derek hurries to meet him.

“Don’t come in here,” he says sharply, and Stiles keeps his eyes on his, trying not to look at the ground between them, the earth dark with blood and littered with entrails, torn off limbs, a jaw. He hesitates a moment with Derek in front of him, but his need to embrace him outweighs his disgust at the blood he’s covered in. Derek holds up his hands to stop him before he has the chance.

“I don’t want you to touch me. Not when I’m like this.”

“I would,” Stiles tells him, and Derek’s smile says that he knows.

He hands over the clothing for Derek to distribute to each member of his pack instead, wanting to help, but even without Derek forbidding him to enter, he feels like this is something Derek needs to do himself.

Cora returns to Stiles while Derek makes his round and dresses himself, and Stiles rubs a hand between her ears, eyeing her collar.

“Why are you still like this?” he asks her quietly, crouching down to get a better look.

“She won’t let anyone take it off,” Laura tells him, and Derek looks at Cora over his shoulder, his eyebrows drawn down.

“Hey,” Stiles says to Cora, gently. “How about we take this off? Then you can come out and say hello,” he tries, but she shrinks away from him, her body lowering to the ground.

Derek comes to sit alongside him, drawing her between his spread legs and stroking at her cheeks where he’s forcing her to look him in the eye.

“Cora,” he coaxes. “As soon as it’s off, you can go back to being a wolf if you want. It doesn’t have to hurt anymore.”

Her ears flatten again but she doesn’t back out of his grasp this time and Stiles takes that as a good sign. He fishes in his pocket for the mountain ash, listening as Derek instructs him to pour some into his hand, feeling like a handful of cold sand. Derek keeps stroking her head and murmuring words of encouragement, and at his nod, Stiles blows the ash onto the collar and steps back to give her some space.

The collar starts to loosen as her shift begins, exactly the way Stiles remembers. She shrinks down just enough that Derek is able to get it free, but then she makes a terrible noise and returns to a wolf after having only gone halfway. Derek tosses the collar aside as she curls up on the ground, trembling, breathing hard.

“There, that’s better,” Derek encourages, running his hands up and down her back, but he still looks heartbroken that staying as a wolf is what she’s chosen.

Stiles lays a hand on his shoulder, squeezing through the cloak. He wants to remind him of their conversation before, that she has all of them there for her when she’s ready. It seems by Derek’s grateful look up at him that the touch is enough of a reminder.

With his family clothed and Cora’s collar off, there’s nothing more keeping them here. Derek returns inside the enclosure one last time to help his parents to their feet, standing between them as support. Cora follows him in, letting Laura and Isaac pull themselves up and use their hands in her fur to stay upright.

Derek helps Peter up, but he insists on walking by himself. He'd always been a proud man; Stiles can’t imagine how excruciating it must have been to be forced to live like this. He stumbles when he reaches the gate and Stiles is there to catch him, but Peter snarls, eyes flashing.

Peter,” Derek snaps in warning, but he needn’t have. Peter looks immediately ashamed of his reaction, his eyes going wide.

“Don’t ever apologise,” Stiles says before he has a chance to say anything.

He watches as Peter sags, passing a shaking hand over his eyes. He looks suddenly weary, and Stiles remembers how tired Derek had been when he first shifted back. His eyes have softened when he lowers his hand and Stiles holds out his arm again; Peter takes it gratefully.

Leading Peter to the door, Stiles turns his back on the enclosure and everything discarded inside it. He doesn’t look back.

It’s slow going escorting their ragtag group across the grounds of the palace. There isn’t another person in sight, as Chris promised, and the Hales keep looking all around at their first change of scenery in six years.

When they reach the guest quarters, Virgil is standing outside the room one door down from the one Stiles and Derek have been staying in, spurring into action at the sight of them. He turns to the doorway, clicking his fingers at whoever is inside, and then scurries up the corridor towards them to help Stiles with Peter.

“Baths have been prepared,” he informs them, as unflappable as he probably would have been even if he hadn’t already known the Hales were alive beforehand.

Stellaran servants are waiting inside amongst steaming bathtubs, four placed in the living room for the men, and three set up in the bedroom for the women to be attended by some female servants, though it seems that third bathtub will be going unused for now.

Most of the servants are wide-eyed and open-mouthed, the older amongst them recognising the Hales immediately. Even the ones who don’t are astonished by the sight of these blood-soaked people, and they’re soon just as bewildered when their identities are revealed to them. The Hale name is known far and wide, had been even before their ‘murders’ spurred Stellaris to join the war.

Stiles knows Virgil will only have chosen the most trustworthy amongst them to be worthy of this task, but he understands why he wouldn’t have warned them beforehand who these baths were for. Having the Hales alive in front of them is the only proof they would have believed.

Virgil claps his hands to encourage them into action when they’ve gaped long enough and they become a flurry of activity, helping support the Hales into the room and preparing sponges to wipe them down.

Virgil turns to Stiles, fussing immediately with taking a look at the bump on the back of his head, but Stiles waves him off.

“We need to send word to my father,” he says, quietly, numbly. “He’ll have been worrying. He doesn’t need to worry anymore.”

Stiles has never wished he were here more than in this moment, but he’s still over a week away, so out of reach.

“It will be done. The washbasin in your room has been filled with fresh water, but I can arrange a bath of your own if—”

“No, the basin will be enough. Thank you, Virgil.” He starts to retreat from the room as the Hales begin removing their clothes to bathe, wanting to offer them as much dignity and privacy as he can. “Look after them.”

“Of course, Your Highness.”

He gives Derek one last look where he’s helping his father out of his cloak, his heart warming at the sight of the focused expression on his face, then he returns to his own rooms next door.

He stands over the basin in the bedroom, spreading out his fingers beneath the water. He presses his palms to the bottom, his eyes losing focus as he stares. Had it really been only two hours ago that he and Derek had stood here together, so unaware of what stepping into the dining room would have in store for them?

And it’s all over now. The months of worry and waiting, fear and anger. Kate, Gerard, Jennifer, Araya. All dead. The Hales in the very next room.

It’s strange to be alone here, to be alone at all after months of Derek’s constant confined presence sprawled on the bed behind him. It’s quiet, but if he lets his mind drift, it’s like he can still hear the far-off sounds from the masquerade. It feels like a world away now.

He dries off his hands on the towel beside the basin, unseeing, and then lowers himself to the floor, his back sliding down the cupboard beneath until he’s seated there and can let his tears overflow.

He thinks of Derek, of his family and Isaac, of their blood-splattered elation, of Cora too afraid to turn back, of the years they’ve lost. He cries with relief and joy and anger, but amongst it all, he finds himself crying for Kate. Not for the end that waited for her – that was a consequence of her own twisted making – but he finds he still needs to mourn the woman he knew long before learning of her true nature. Perhaps the way she treated him had always been an act, or perhaps she had held some affection for him, but no matter the truth, it had been real to him.

After months of hearing about her wickedness from Derek, today had been the first time she’d truly been unmasked before him. He wishes she could have been better, at least for Allison’s sake. Will Allison ever recover from what happened here today?

He wonders where she is now, if he should go to her. But will she even want to see him? She might consider his bringing Derek here the catalyst for what’s happened here today. Her father and Scott will surely be with her. He’ll give her some time yet.

Derek finds him there a short while later, appearing in the doorway like he knew what he was going to find. And he probably did, Stiles reminds himself, probably heard him crying.

He’s clean now, hair still wet and wearing a soft-looking green tunic, and Stiles smiles up at him through his tears. Derek smiles back, stretching into a grin. He’s bright-eyed and happy but looks exhausted, sagging as he comes closer and kneels down in front of him like it’s taking the last of his strength not to just let himself collapse. Stiles throws himself into his arms.

He lets more tears fall as he holds him, breathes him in, rubbing a hand over Derek’s back as it trembles with tears of his own.

“It’s over now,” Stiles tells him.

“We’re going home,” Derek agrees, voice thick.

They draw back from the hug and Stiles looks into Derek’s red-rimmed eyes before their lips meet in a simple kiss. It’s clumsy and wet with their tears, but somehow it feels like spring.

Stiles sweeps his thumb slowly across Derek’s bottom lip once he’s pulled away, marvelling at how he’d kissed him without a second thought despite all the tearing and ripping this mouth was just responsible for, the blood and gore it had been filled with. The thought had never even crossed his mind. Perhaps he should have been disgusted, but this is Derek, a man. Not a monster.

“Show me your eyes,” Stiles whispers, already smiling at what he knows he’ll see.

Derek smiles back, small and proud as he flashes gold eyes at him, and Stiles laughs, joyous. He kisses him again and then wipes at the remnants of his tears.

“I love you,” he murmurs.

“I love you, too,” Derek’s sighs, pressing their foreheads together so they can savour this moment, this victory.

With one final sniffle, Derek leans away from him, tilting his head back towards the door. “Come,” he says, almost a request, eager, tentative, and Stiles lets him pull him to his feet and lead him from the room. His stomach still swoops as Derek steps out into the hallway alongside him, human. But Derek can do this now. He doesn’t need to hide, won’t need to hide ever again.

Back in the guest room given to the Hales, the servants are gone and the bathtubs have been moved aside. Another sofa has been fetched from elsewhere, his family all sitting comfortably in luxury they could probably barely remember. Cora is on the floor in front of them, draped over Isaac who’s stroking her gently. 

“Your Royal Highness,” Talia greets him, straightening in her seat. “Forgive me, I would stand but—”

“Please don’t,” Stiles urges, his palms raised. Her words almost start his tears anew. Formalities should be the last thing on anyone’s minds.

Derek leads him to the sofa where Talia and Laura are sitting cuddled up together, leaving plenty of room for them to fit. They’ve barely sat down when Talia is inhaling deeply and fixing Stiles with glistening eyes.

“Oh, Derek,” she says, almost a sigh, full of emotion.

Stiles glances nervously at Derek beside him, not really sure what’s happening, but Derek is smiling, ducking his head. He takes one of Stiles’ hands in both of his, squeezing, and Stiles understands, his cheeks going hot. Derek looks up at him almost shyly, and then leans closer to sweep his cheek over his neck.

“You already reek of each other!” Laura cackles, nudging at Derek with her foot, and Stiles’ cheeks just get hotter, watching as Derek – unbelievably – pokes his tongue out at her.

Cora gets up from her place in Isaac’s lap and crowds in close, resting her head on Stiles’ shoulder, and then the rest of Derek’s family are gathering around them, coming together in another pack hug that this time Stiles is a part of. Isaac is hanging back as he seems to often do, but Stiles understands. He’s Isaac’s prince, they’ve never met. Stiles reaches out a hand to Isaac’s shoulder, pulling him in, and Isaac follows with a tentative smile.

He looks to Derek over Cora’s head, drinking in the sight of his crinkled eyes and carefree smile, wanting to capture his expression – this moment – in his mind forever.

Derek leans over Cora between them, tilting his head to kiss him right there at the centre of his family’s hug, and Stiles closes his eyes to savour this feeling of warmth and absolute peace.

“I knew he always had a crush on him,” Laura mutters, and Stiles and Derek laugh into each other’s mouths.

Chapter Text

With the Hales bathed and dressed, the Stellaran servants fetch a dining table and chairs from elsewhere and food is brought to the guest room for a late lunch. For the Hales it may as well be considered a feast. 

They fall upon it ravenously, on cooked meats and cheeses and pies and candied fruits, delighting at the taste of spiced wine and apple juice and tea in equal measure. They insist on Stiles eating with them, and he readily accepts, though not much of the food passes his lips. The scenes he’d witnessed this morning are still enough to turn his stomach, and there’s still so much to worry about for the future: the announcement of the monarch’s death, Chris’ accession to the throne, announcing the Hales are alive. He’s infinitely glad to not be in Chris’ position at the centre of all this.

“I’m going to eat until I pop,” Laura groans around a mouthful of roast chicken. “I’m going to eat everything.”

“Not if I eat it first,” Isaac says around a mix of salad and some sort of stew, and then the two of them partake in some strange battle to see who can fit the most food in their mouths at once. The whole table laughs at their antics, until Isaac nearly chokes on a whole cherry tomato and Talia puts her foot down.

Stiles tells them of the beef consommé from the night of his arrival, and Derek leans forward in interest, agreeing that it had smelled delicious even to him as a wolf. He knows it takes time to prepare, so he puts in a request for it to be served come dinnertime.

“Though I’m not sure you’ll have room at the rate you’re eating now,” he jokes.

“I’m sure it will manage to trickle into the gaps,” Peter remarks, building an impressive stack of ribs beside his plate.

As they continue to eat, Derek tells them everything that happened since he was taken from the enclosure and given to Stiles as a birthday gift. The look on his family’s faces at that new piece of knowledge makes Stiles flush hot and cold with shame even though he knows their outrage isn’t directed at him. 

Derek is lighter in a way Stiles hasn’t seen since the Argents happened to him, lively as he tells the story, almost making it sound like an adventure, like Stiles was some sort of hero. Derek looks at him with eyes warm and fond, and Stiles can feel his cheeks pink even as he tries to set the record straight, but Derek rolls his eyes and hushes him, taking one of his hands in his to squeeze it.

“Everything that happened today happened because of you,” Derek tells him solemnly.

Stiles wants to point out that it was all to do with the plan Chris had concocted, leaving Stiles to be swept along like he was drowning in a raging river. But as he gapes around the table, everyone is looking back at him with gratitude, like they don’t doubt for a moment that everything Derek says is true.

“You used your spark. Without that, we probably would have failed,” Derek reminds him, and the rest of his family are nodding.

Stiles doesn’t know what to say to that. Using his spark was something he didn’t even think about in the moment. It just exploded out of him in desperation, responding in a way he’d never managed before, and it makes him shake to remember even now. That terrible moment is still a frozen image in his mind, every wolf held in place, that unknowable extent of Jennifer’s power almost their undoing.

Derek continues the tale, and when he mentions Kate’s visit, it sounds like he almost relishes saying her name, like he can still taste her blood in his mouth. When he reaches the part where they discovered Scott had been bitten, Talia is amazed – and outraged – that the Queen could do something so irresponsible so shamelessly. She immediately offers to help Scott through the coming full moon, and though her benevolence doesn’t surprise him, he’s touched by her consideration all the same.

With his story finished, Derek asks what he missed while he was gone, but it seems the only incident of note was Isaac’s arrival, already a wolf and forced into the enclosure.

Stiles hears then what happened to him on the night of his birthday feast, how some of the Argents’ men seemed to know what Boyd and Erica were, how they were followed from the feast and how Isaac bought them time to escape. Stiles assures him that they managed to get to Astran, how it was because of them that Kali came for Derek and inspired Stiles to inspect his collar.

Isaac sags under the weight of his relief. “I always feared that the next time I’d see them would be in that cage.”

“We’ll see them again in Stellaris,” Stiles promises. He’ll see to it that they’ll have a way to return, that their name will be cleared.

Talia tells them of how Chris came to visit yesterday evening, informing them of his plan before returning to the masquerade. Kali and Deucalion arrived in the dead of night, and Chris’ man who had taken Araya’s place was prepared with mountain ash ready for the morning. Kali and Deucalion refused to enter the enclosure until they could hear the Argents bringing Stiles and had a guarantee the gate would be opened again, and for the rest, Stiles was a witness.

Though the meal passes in mostly high spirits, it isn’t all smiles and laughter. One moment Laura is smiling at Derek as he tells them about Stiles’ father’s reaction to seeing him shift back for the first time, and the next, she’s crying into her custard tart, lashing out with a snarl when her father tries to comfort her and looking immediately terrified of how she just reacted. Another time, Peter’s stare goes vacant, and when he comes back to himself, he looks lost, staring around the table like he’s sure it’s just some sort of trick. Some new torment of Jennifer’s, perhaps. How many times must they have dreamed themselves in a situation like this? How long will it take until they no longer wonder if that’s just all it is?

Stiles goes to excuse himself more than once, sure he should give them some time as a family, as a pack, but is always encouraged to stay. It never takes much convincing. Though he’d been grateful for the quiet moment in his room while he left them to bathe, he doesn’t relish the idea of being left to that quiet now. He’s not sure he’d know what to do with himself if left to his own devices.

He finds himself glancing at Talia often as he sits there, watching the way she watches Derek, a barely there smile on her lips which radiates in her eyes. It’s so easy for him to understand what she sees. Next to the rest of the Hales, he’s reminded of how Derek had been when he’d first transformed back, showing just how far he’s come, how much healthier he looks. At home in his own body is how Stiles would describe it, something he knows the rest of his family will regain in time.

He thinks of his memory of Derek from when he was younger, when Derek had been eighteen and looked so mature. He looks that way now with his full beard and strong forearms extending from the rolled-up sleeves of his tunic, making requests of the servants whenever someone breathes a wistful sigh for a certain food, or reaching down to stroke Cora between the ears, feeding her a scrap of meat from his plate. Capable is the word that springs to mind, and it’s hard for Stiles not to just lean an elbow on the table and rest his chin in his palm and watch him, almost stunned by just how attracted to him he is.

It shouldn’t fascinate him so much, but this is the first time he’s been able to see Derek like this since he came to him: interacting with people other than Stiles, the first time he’s worn clothes in a social situation and – though it pains Stiles to think it – looking like a functioning member of society.

Eventually, Derek rests his cheek against his own hand, his thumb scratching idly at his beard as he turns to watch Stiles in return. There’s a lazy kind of looseness to him, except for in his eyes. His gaze is intense instead, like a mirror of the way Stiles had been looking at him just now, and his skin goes hot, realising it’s the same look Derek had been giving him last night.

Derek smiles in a way that says he’s trying not to laugh, and he flares his nostrils in explanation. It doesn’t take much to guess it’s a curl of arousal that Derek must be sensing from him, and Stiles playfully narrows his eyes and kicks him gently under the table, turning back to the food to find the rest of Derek’s family watching them with smiles on their faces. Thankfully, no one comments on it.

They continue to eat, pausing on occasion to try and coax Cora to join them, but she stays resolutely as a wolf lying on the floor. She shows the most interest when Peter holds a strawberry out to her – apparently always a favourite when she was younger – but all she does is tilt her head to give it an experimental sniff and then retreats again to lay her head back on her paws.

Eventually, miraculously, they all start to lose steam, sitting back with swollen stomachs and satisfied smiles. Laura looks longingly around at all the food she can’t manage and Derek gives her shoulder a reassuring shake.

“It’s not going anywhere,” he laughs.

“But I want it now,” she says, mournfully, eyeing a slice of fruit tart.

It’s not long after that that eyes begin to droop, and Laura, Peter and Isaac migrate to the bed in the next room to sleep while Stiles and Derek stay on the sofas with his parents who have both started to doze, leaning against each other. Cora is still lying on the floor, still awake. Stiles supposes she isn’t facing the same exhaustion as the rest of her family, not having gone through her transformation.

He and Derek sit in silence, in peace, Derek cuddling close to lay his head on Stiles’ shoulder, nose to his throat, until Virgil enters the guest room in the late afternoon, waking Derek’s parents from their nap.

“Your Royal Highness, the Argent King is requesting your presence.” That phrase sends a jolt through Stiles and Virgil elaborates at his momentary shock.  “It’s my understanding Prince Christopher was proclaimed King by members of his Privy Council. It’s yet to become public knowledge.”

Stiles takes a breath to settle his suddenly pounding heart. “Thank you, Virgil.”

Derek rises to his feet before Stiles has a chance to excuse himself.

“Derek, stay—” Stiles tries to implore, but Derek interrupts.

“No. We’ve tackled all of this together. I’m going to see it through.” He holds out a hand to help Stiles up and Stiles accepts it gratefully. He shouldn’t have expected anything less from him.

Talia looks like she’s considering coming with them, but Derek puts a hand on her shoulder to hold her in place, pressing a kiss to her forehead.

“Let me take care of this,” he tells her. “Stay with the others. They’ll need you here if they wake up.”

Talia squeezes his hand in acknowledgement. “Take care.”

“I will.”

They step out into the corridor where a Venatian servant waits for them. Stiles is sure none of them have been told who they’re hosting in this guest room, and this servant shows no recognition at all upon seeing Derek, though that isn’t a surprise. Every person in Venatia must know the Hale name – made famous by their ‘murders’ – but it makes sense that they wouldn’t know them by face. No other servants they pass pay Derek much attention as they move through the palace beyond vague curiosity, probably at seeing this unknown man at the Stellaran Prince’s side.

The air around the palace is quiet, the sort of hush that comes with fear of upsetting a particularly strict teacher. Everyone seems to be intent on their tasks, moving with purpose, their heads down. They know something has happened, but perhaps not what. They pass a side corridor at one point where a cluster of servants are standing close and whispering, but they snap to attention, wide-eyed, when they see who it is that’s passing and then hurry on their way.

The servant they’re following leads them up the same flight of stairs they’d taken to reach the ballroom on the night of the masquerade, but they continue down the corridor past the branching hallway that had led to the ballroom doors. As they near their destination, he wonders if Derek feels any trepidation at facing Chris after what he did to his sister mere hours ago, but a sideways glance shows no worries on Derek’s face.

The servant knocks on a heavy door further down, and at Chris’ cue to enter, she holds it open for Stiles and Derek with a bow, closing it behind them.

Chris’ study is simple compared to the rest of the palace, a solid oak desk carved with roaring lions up the legs the most ornate thing in there. Bookshelves line the walls to the left and right, and red curtains half-drawn across the window opposite the door block out most of the already failing light. They leave the room to be mostly lit by candles in the fixture overhead and a lantern sat on the desk. Chris stands behind it in front of a high-backed leather chair similar to the one in Stiles’ father’s study. He doesn’t look surprised to see Derek has accompanied him.

“Your Majesty,” Stiles says with a tilt of his head in acknowledgement of Chris’ new title. Derek, of course, offers no such greeting.

“I trust your family are having their every need seen to?”

“They are.”

There’s space for a ‘thank you’ on the end, but Derek doesn’t utter it, which surprises neither of them.

His bluntness hangs in the air for a moment, stifling, but then Chris shuffles some papers on his desk and gets down to business.

“Deucalion and Kali have agreed to put an end to the war. When news of my father’s death begins to spread, both sides will be ordered to lay down their weapons, and eventually a truce will be called. I’ve been in correspondence with your father since you’ve been here and he’s ready to withdraw your soldiers from the fighting at the signal.”

“You think they’ll hold to their word?” Stiles asks, and Chris gives a short nod, though it looks like it’s as much to convince himself as Stiles.

“They have no reason to continue to fight. If they had any intention to transfer their revenge to me, they would have taken their chance this morning. They’ve long passed beyond the city walls and will be well on their way to Astran.”

Stiles takes that mention of their revenge to question him about the plan he’d concocted that led to the Hales being freed.

“Originally, I’d planned to use Scott to draw them to the enclosure, when the time came for my father and Kate to turn him after he’d wedded Allison. Kali saw to the end of that.”

With Scott just days away from fully becoming a werewolf at Kali’s mercy, along with Stiles and Derek adding pressure with their vow to rescue the Hales before they departed – and what happened to Araya – it forced Chris’ hand.

He explains what happened at the masquerade, how Allison giving Derek the clothes had been of her own accord but turned out to be a happy accident when he realised he could use it as a way to reveal to Kate and Gerard that Stiles knew the truth. That was the reason for Chris’ toast while he and Derek had been dancing: a thank you. He hadn’t intended to spark the confrontation the morning after Allison’s birthday, but with Derek out in the open, he didn’t have much of a choice, unable to risk doing nothing in case Kate realised who Derek was on her own and sent his plan up in flames. He used it to set in motion the events at the breakfast table, needing Stiles’ reaction to be genuine.

It’s of no consequence now, but Stiles still takes heart in knowing Kate didn’t recognise Derek at the masquerade without Chris to reveal him.

Before they leave Chris to all that he now needs to deal with, they work out the story that they’ll tell the public, the one they’ll stick to if the need to speak of it ever arises.

The vague idea they agree on is that the Hales were being held captive in an old, secret dungeon beneath the palace guarded by the direwolves, and Chris didn’t find out until only a few months ago. He allied himself with Stiles and his father, and they were working to free the Hales during his visit, but Kate and Gerard discovered the plot. There was a confrontation, the direwolves became agitated, and the King and Princess met with an unfortunate accident.

Derek grudgingly agrees to allow Chris’ role to be downplayed in the story in order to hopefully ease any tensions that might arise when the rest of Stellaris finds out the Hales’ ‘deaths’ were just a manipulation. Stiles knows it isn’t going to go that smoothly; the Argents name will still be disgraced once their story comes out.

But ultimately, the details won’t even matter. Within a few hours, the original story will have been lost in that usual way of rumour, until the only constants are that the Hales are alive and Kate and Gerard are dead.

They make no mention of Deucalion or Kali. That the King and Queen of Astran were somehow present is a truth that should never be shared.

With their story straight, they return to Derek’s family to relay the meeting. Chris told them to remind the Hales that they don’t need to stay cooped up in the guest room, but Stiles is sure it’s because he wants them to be seen by palace staff so that the news that they’re alive can start to trickle out beyond the palace walls. The more they’re seen, the better, particularly if it’s clear they’re free to go where they wish.

Dinner is served, including the consommé Stiles requested which is met with much enthusiasm, and then the Hales are ready for sleep again, this time hopefully more than just a nap. Stiles knows Chris has provided more than just this one guest room for them, but he wonders with an ache if they intend to sleep curled together like they maybe did when they were kept in the enclosure. It must be so natural to them now. Safe.

He can see Derek hesitate, torn between staying with his family and following Stiles, but Stiles makes the decision for him.

“I’ll see you in the morning,” he tells him, giving a gentle squeeze to his wrist and a kiss to the corner of his mouth.

Derek looks almost guilty, like he’s abandoning him, spurring Stiles to kiss him on the lips and offer a reassuring smile. It’s okay.

Derek pulls him closer to sweep his cheek back and forth over his neck before he steps back and Stiles lets his hand fall from his wrist.

It’s immediately lonely setting foot in their room without finding Derek already lounging on the bed or trotting inside as a wolf to make his shift back. That’s been their routine for months now. With the chaotic memories of the morning, it almost starts to blur, and he has to remind himself that Derek is safe, that nothing bad has happened to him. But this hovering anxiety of his is inconsequential. It’s Derek who has been through hell and back; he needs this time with his family.

Despite still only being early evening, Stiles has Virgil ready him for bed and he climbs under the covers in the hope that sleep will come for him soon so he can pass the night in the blink of an eye.

No such luck. Hours pass but sleep still eludes him, even after trying to while away the time reading one of the books Derek brought, the words turning to a blur on the page that he just can’t focus on. He doesn’t blow out the candles; he’s terrified of what he might see in the shapes that darkness brings, the way they always press in on his eyes. At least this way he can draw upon his memories of last night if his mind gets too heavy, can remember the way he’d found Derek seated on the edge of the bed in this same candlelight, the sight of Derek hovering over him.

He’s not sure what time it is when the door out in the sitting room clicks open, and he lifts his head from his pillow, listening hard. His heart leaps into his throat when the bedroom door opens, but it’s just Derek. He strips off his undershirt and pulls back the covers to crawl in beside him.

“Is this okay?” he whispers, scooting closer.

Stiles accepts his arm around him, humming as Derek’s warmth plasters against his back. “Always.” He lifts one of Derek’s hands to kiss the back of it. “Couldn’t you sleep?”

“I could hear you awake. Thought maybe you couldn’t sleep without me by your side,” he teases.

Stiles sniffs, airily. “Maybe.” It’s probably a sign they’ve spent too much time together if Derek can read him that well just by listening through a wall.

“Sleep, Stiles. I’m not going anywhere.”

“Perhaps you should follow your own advice,” he yawns, and Derek laughs quietly, pressing a kiss to the back of his neck.

It is easier to drift off with Derek’s warmth beside him, as he’s grown so accustomed to, and he wonders if it’s because of Derek’s presence that he sleeps without any bad dreams. He still wakes up some time before dawn, Derek now sat up against the headboard with one of Stiles’ hands in his.

“Go, if you want to be with them,” Stiles whispers, but Derek tilts his head to look down at him, smiling softly.

“I am with them.” He rests his head back against the headboard and closes his eyes. “I’m listening to their heartbeats.”

Stiles watches him for a minute or two, tracing his gaze over the line of his cheekbones and delicate eyelashes. He wonders if Derek is here with him because it’s Stiles who he’s used to sleeping with now, if it’s here where he feels the most at home.

Derek opens his eyes again and reaches over to sweep his thumb over his forehead. “Go back to sleep,” he murmurs, and Stiles does, the touch so soothing he sinks straight back down into comforting darkness.

He wakes again to sunlight peeking past the edges of the curtains, Derek easing himself from the bed and scooping up his undershirt to tug on as he hurries from the room. When Stiles scrambles into some clothes of his own and follows, he finds him in the guest room with his family, standing over them where they’re huddled around Cora on the floor.

“She started to turn back on her own but got scared again,” Derek explains at Stiles’ hand on his arm.

“Laura, pass me that blanket,” Talia says between murmured encouragement to Cora, stroking her hands down her neck.

They all have a hand on her in some way, like each of them is lending their strength or hoping to ground her from the fear she must be feeling.

“And what about Isaac?” Talia is saying. “You can come out and meet him properly, and we’ll get some more strawberries and apple juice, all your favourites. Whatever you want.”

“Perhaps this is too many people,” Stiles murmurs to Derek. “I’ll just—”

Derek catches him by the wrist as he starts to back away, the crack of bone reaching their ears, and Stiles halts, holding his breath, watching as Cora’s wolf body starts to shrink before their eyes. She doesn’t stop this time, and Talia sweeps her up in the blanket, cuddling her to her chest, and Stiles can just catch glimpses of Cora’s human head taking shape between the rest of the Hales crowding in close to hug her. Big, frightened brown eyes peek out over the top of the blanket.

“My beautiful girl,” Talia says, her voice wobbling, and Cora bursts into tears.

“M-Mommy,” she croaks in a small wavering voice, and Stiles didn’t realise his heart could break any further.

Peter climbs to his feet and turns away, running his hands through his hair and standing with his hands on his hips at the window, breathing hard. Derek looks like he wishes he had Kate Argent in front of him so he could kill her all over again. Stiles gives him a nudge, urging him to join Cora on the floor and Derek does, letting her wriggle out of their parents’ arms into his to rub her wet cheeks against his neck.

Joseph fetches her water and she guzzles down the entire glass, then Talia carries her into the adjoining bedroom to dress her, Laura close behind. Derek engulfs Stiles in a hug in Cora’s absence, a tight squeeze of happiness and sorrow, and Stiles feels helpless to do anything but rub a hand up and down his back.

She eventually emerges back in her mother’s arms, now wearing a pale pink dress that’s probably too long for her. Wrapped in the blanket, Stiles hadn’t gotten a very good look at her, but now he can see how small she is. She’s not as small as when she was eleven, but it still looks like her time in captivity has stunted her growth. She should never have been kept as a wolf that long. 

“It’s good to see you again, Cora,” he says, gently, as Talia takes a seat with her on the sofa.

She looks up at him with startled eyes, her cheeks pinking as she turns into Talia’s side, and he’s reminded of the way a child might try to hide behind their mother’s skirts.

Isaac takes a seat beside them and he’s barely gotten out a Hello when Cora is throwing her arms around his neck in a hug. He laughs and squeezes her tightly as Talia strokes a hand down her back.

“Are you hungry?” she asks her. “What do you want to eat? There must be something.”

Cora thinks for a moment but then shakes her head, and when she talks, her voice is scratchy, the sound falling away in places. “I’m not allowed cake for breakfast.”

“Oh, darling,” Talia laughs, looking like she might cry again as she tucks a lock of hair behind Cora’s ear. “You can have whatever you want.”

Cake is requested and an entire Victoria sponge arrives complete with fresh strawberries, much to Cora’s wide-eyed delight. She eats the entire thing and Stiles decides her stomach must have stretched to a bottomless pit during her time as a wolf; he doesn’t understand where she might be storing it.

The rest of the Hales inhale the food just like they did yesterday, in even greater spirits to have Cora sat at the table between them. Stiles manages to eat a little bit better today, amused by the way Derek keeps reaching over to load his plate up like he’s trying to make sure he eats well enough.

Virgil is there to help him dress once he’s eaten, and Derek accompanies him to their rooms to change into some of the clothes they brought for him from Stellaris. Stiles asks Virgil if he might request more clothes to be provided for Derek’s family; they have no belongings to their name, but clothes should be a good place to start.

“It’s already being seen to, Your Highness.”

Stiles thanks him, and when he’s presentable, he sends Virgil to ask if he might visit Allison.

“I would offer to go with you, but I doubt she'll want to see me,” Derek says once Virgil has left the room. 

“I’m not sure she’ll even want to see me.”

“She will. She’s not going to hate you. Even I know her well enough to know that much.”

Stiles looks at Derek with gratitude, taking strength from his encouraging squeeze of his shoulder.

Virgil returns shortly to announce Allison has agreed to see him, and he steps out into the hallway to find a Venatian servant waiting to lead him to the sitting room where they’d gathered after dinner on occasion. He’s almost expecting to find Kate and Gerard there too, Gerard standing by the crackling fireplace, Kate perched primly in an armchair with a glass of honeyed wine, those memories of being forced to endure time with them still so vivid. Instead, he finds only Allison and Scott sat together on the sofa, the grate as cold as the silence that seems to press in from all sides.

Stiles’ stomach clenches as if grasped in a fist as his and Allison’s eyes meet, terrified of what he might find there. She looks tired and wan, plagued by a poor night’s sleep, if she managed any at all. But she smiles, albeit small and tentative and a little pained, and it settles him to see that look of welcome. He strides into the room as Allison rises to her feet to draw her into a fierce hug. Her embrace in return is tight but steady, and when Stiles pulls back, her eyes are dry, though he’d guess it’s because she has nothing left to cry.

“How are you?” he asks.

“Tired. I—I just want to sleep.” Her voice is hoarse, and Stiles tries not to hear the echoes of her cries from yesterday as Scott carried her away.

Scott pulls him into an embrace, his solid strength heartening; Stiles is glad that Allison has had him by her side.

“I’m so sorry we couldn’t tell you what was going to happen,” Scott says, pulling back to look him in the eye. “Seeing you kneeling there—” He shakes his head like he can’t find the words.

“I’m sorry I doubted you.” Betrayal must have been so clear on his face when he’d been looking out at them standing past the enclosure fence; he’s ashamed to remember it now.

“Don’t be. You should never have been put in that situation.”

“How is Derek, and his family?” Allison asks, sounding frightened.

“As well as they can be. They’re enjoying good food and they managed to get Cora to shift back this morning. She had cake for breakfast,” he tells her with a smile

“That’s good,” she says, quietly. It’s weak and wistful, but he can tell that she means it. Her lower lip starts to quiver and she heaves a frustrated sigh, dropping her head into her hands.

“It’s okay, Ally,” Scott tells her, rubbing a hand across her shoulder blades. “It’s okay to cry if you need to.”

“But I don’t want to cry over them,” she says weakly, lifting her head to look at Stiles. “Not after what I saw them do. After what they were going to get you to do to your father. But all I can think of is when I used to play cards with grandfather when I was younger, how he always used to let me win. And all those hours Kate spent teaching me archery. You know it’s because of her that I wanted to learn in the first place. And then I just keep seeing her dancing with you at the masquerade. How beautiful and happy she looked.”

“They did love you, Allison,” Stiles reminds her gently. “I’m not going to think any less of you for mourning that part of them.” He’s been trying not to think about that revelation, that Kate and Gerard’s plan after Scott had been to make Stiles their puppet too. If Chris had wavered, found himself unable to close that gate and take the step to destroy his family, that’s a future Stiles would be living right now. It makes his stomach lurch.

“My father’s angry with me for staying. But I had to. I had to see—to know it was real.”

“I understand.” He does. More than once, he’s used his memory of what he saw yesterday to remind himself the people who put the Hales through so much torture really are no more. He’s loath to call it closure, but he can understand how she might need those memories herself to accept her new reality. “But you didn’t need to see any more of it than you did.”

Allison’s voice still sounds painful, and Stiles is glad when Scott calls for some tea and honey to be brought to them. It’s soothing to sit there cradling a steaming teacup with two of his closest friends. There’s a new bond between them, unspoken, but he’s sure they can feel it too. It’s similar to the bond he feels with Derek after the months they’ve spent living together so intimately, this new event in their lives tying them together, possibly forever.

“I didn’t know my father was going to use Derek being at the masquerade as part of his plan,” Allison tells him. “I really did just bring Derek the clothes so he could be with you.”

“I know,” Stiles assures her. “I’m glad you did.”

His words cut through her sorrow, just a little, and she gets the beginning of a twinkle in her eye, a ghost of all those times she’d teased him about ‘Miguel’.

“There were a few murmured questions when it came time to cut the cake and you were nowhere to be found,” she teases, a flash of her usual playful self bleeding through for the first time. It’s wonderful to see.

“I was busy.”

“I’m sure you were,” she agrees, as Scott actually laughs.

Stiles’ hand rises to his collar without thinking, and he’s taken back to the enclosure when Kate had tugged it down in front of everyone present. His stomach twists, sickened by a tendril of shame worming its way outwards that he knows he has no need to feel. He thinks of Derek instead, of how beautiful that night was. He’s not going to let her taint it, even now from beyond the grave. The way Scott and Allison are smiling at him helps push that feeling away.

She takes his hand, squeezing warmly. “I’m so glad that you have him.” 

“Me too.”

It’s so strange to think back on those years where he believed Derek and his family dead. It scares him to think about if that were really the case, to think about what he would have lost. What he would never have even found.

It gives him that tug in his chest again to be where Derek is, and perhaps his friends can see that longing on his face, because they get to their feet, pulling Stiles with them. Before he leaves, he tells Scott of Talia’s offer of help on the full moon and Scott sends his shocked gratitude. They hug once more, Stiles so glad that things haven’t changed between them, and then he leaves them in the sitting room to return to Derek.

When Stiles reenters the guest room, Derek is on the sofa with Laura and Cora cuddled up either side, all three lost in slumber. Stiles is glad to see it after Derek seeming not to get any sleep last night. His head is tilted back over the headrest, lips parted, with Laura’s fair hair cascading down his chest and Cora’s dainty hand clutching loosely at the collar of his tunic, and Stiles can’t help his smile at the heart-warming picture they make.

He dithers in the doorway for a moment, unsure if he should stay with Derek asleep, but Talia approaches him, placing a hand on his cheek and a solemn kiss to his forehead.

“Thank you, Your Royal Highness,” she says, her eyes full of emotion. “For the part you played in our rescue, but also for taking care of my son. If only we’d known he’d been delivered to you, I would have had no cause to worry.” Her voice is thick with unshed tears. Stiles can tell they aren’t going to fall, not here, and he’s glad. Too many tears have been shed already over this past day, no matter that most of them have been borne out of happiness.

She returns to her seat at the dinner table before Stiles can say anything in return, but he’s not sure what he would have said if given the chance. He doesn’t know how to accept their gratitude.

They’ve accepted him with open arms. They’d seen Derek kiss him, of course, but Stiles realises now that they would have heard their confessions of love when Derek came to fetch him after they’d bathed. They understand the depth of Derek’s feelings for him, unconditionally. Perhaps they’ve been able to sense the depth of Stiles’ feelings just like Derek did, after spending only a half a day in his presence. Perhaps they already understood it, needing only the visits to the enclosure to read how Stiles felt about him.

“I’ll leave you to rest,” Stiles says to the room, but he’s barely moved one step when he hears Derek’s voice, rough with sleep.

“Stiles?”

He turns back to see him with his eyes cracked open, lifting his head from where it was resting.

“Sleep, Derek.”

“I slept,” he assures him. “Stay.”

Stiles doesn’t bother pointing out that he was barely gone an hour. He can’t blame Derek for not wanting to miss a single moment of this reunion with his family.

“How was Allison?” he asks.

“Better than expected.”

He knows she was putting on a brave face, but he’d thought he was going to witness a lot more tears, that he’d find her much like she’d been upon discovering the truth about Derek and her family’s villainy.

Derek’s talking stirs his sisters, Laura speaking even with her eyes closed.

“Is there food?” she asks, probably still asleep.

Derek laughs and rolls his eyes, then rouses her fully, declaring to the room that perhaps they should take lunch outside in the open air. It’s met with equal parts eagerness to nerves. Stiles can understand it. There’s something about this guest room that feels safe, even to him, but taking some time in the gardens will do them a world of good.

Cora is still unsteady, so Derek carries her on his back, racing across the grass with her as soon as they get outside, her shrieking laughter carrying across the lawns and drawing the curious stares of the palace staff. The others follow more slowly, Stiles at their side, looking around almost warily like they’re noting the position of every gardener and passing servant, nervous of this open space after so long confined.

They let Cora pick the place for them to sit and wait for food to be brought out to them, Virgil conducting a team of both Venatian and Stellaran servants. Stiles instructs him to sit with them and eat once the food is laid out, a firm order the only reason he actually relents.

Stiles does worry about what might happen if any of the Hales accidentally let the wolf come to the surface, but thankfully the most that happens is the occasional blank stare around at the gardens, and Cora forgetting herself more than once and flicking out her claws to eat with.

It’s a blustery day, but it doesn’t dampen anyone’s spirits. The only downside is that Derek is careful to keep a bit of distance between him and Stiles as they relax there, unable to display the familiarity that they can when behind closed doors.

It’s from that lunch on that the Venatian servants seem to have learnt who the Hales are, and it’s later that afternoon that the palace seamstresses come to take the Hales’ measurements so they can provide clothes befitting their noble status. The news that they’re alive will start to spread now, and Stiles wonders how long disbelief at the rumours will last.

The full moon arrives two nights later, but it passes thankfully without issue, the Hales taking their first secret trip beyond the city walls with Scott to make sure he’s kept away from people as he finally makes his first transformation. Derek wouldn’t let Stiles accompany them, adamant that it would be too dangerous, and Stiles had to grudgingly agree.

It was tough to spend the night without him, but Derek returned in the morning extra loose and cuddly, crowding Stiles back onto the bed to sleep until noon. Stiles doesn’t mind. He might have gotten a better night’s sleep than that first night trying to sleep alone, but he still considers it making up for the time they lost. He dozes here and there, but mainly lays soaking in the peace that he knows is only going to continue.

He hears from Derek later that he managed to encourage his family to enjoy part of the night in their wolf skins, and Stiles is delighted to hear it. He knows how much enjoyment Derek takes from it; it would be such a shame for his family to link it forever with their fear and trauma. Cora apparently took the most convincing, scared that she might not change back again, but eventually she too joined in. Stiles just wishes he could have seen it.

Virgil arrives at his usual time in the morning, but retreats at the sight of Derek passed out with his face mashed against Stiles’ neck. His expression actually softens at the sight of them, much to Stiles’ amazement. He probably isn’t used to finding Derek as a human considering he always used to shift in preparation for his arrival. He’s never seen them together like this, or even how close they were before they confessed their feelings. If he ever did see Derek as a human, he was mostly lounging naked in Stiles’ bed, completely inappropriate. Over the past few days, he's been witness to so many easy touches – a squeeze to his shoulder or a held hand – the way Derek takes care of him, even making sure he eats. Virgil has probably been filing away all of these little things in an endeavour to see if Derek is worthy. That Derek has already brought him so close to a smile speaks volumes.

He visits Scott later in the day and is astonished to find him bright-eyed and energetic, declaring that it’s the best he’s ever felt in his life. He says it was scary at first, feeling something new and foreign and powerful rising up inside him like something else was taking over his body, but Talia instructed him how to take control.

In the morning, she gave him the name of a trusted werewolf family living in his kingdom who he can contact upon his return home, a family who were already known to him – though obviously, not what they really are.

When Stiles mentions it to Derek later, it only serves to sour his mood, and Stiles can understand why. They’d once considered those people their friends, and yet they did nothing when he and his family were captured. They let them down in their greatest time of need, along with any other werewolf packs they might have been close with.

Stiles wonders if other werewolves could have approached him or his father with the truth about the Hales, if they would have believed them. An Alpha would have just needed to transform in front of them, but then there was no guarantee that his father wouldn’t react as the Argents did. Stellaris stood with the Argents in the war. They may have given the reason it was because of the murders of the Hales, but how would werewolves have read it? All they would have probably seen was Stiles’ father handing the Hales over and declaring war on the Alpha King and Queen in Astran. And then when Stiles was given one as a pet… Even Erica and Boyd didn’t trust confiding in them, and Erica is Stiles’ childhood friend.

It’s a difficult situation, but Stiles won’t blame Derek if he feels that betrayal runs too deep to ever forgive.

His dark mood doesn’t last though. He brightens up considerably later that afternoon when he’s sat with Stiles on the sofa, Cora perched in his lap, waiflike, half-asleep. She’s watching the way Stiles and Derek are holding hands, linking and unlinking their fingers, and at a lull in their conversation she asks, “Are you getting married?”

Stiles and Derek share a look of surprise, but for Derek it immediately seems to turn to nerves. He turns back to his sister.

“We haven’t talked about that yet, sweetheart. Stiles is a prince. We’d need to speak to his father and get permission and—”

“Yes,” Stiles interrupts, and Derek whips his head round to stare at him in awe. Stiles meets his gaze, unwavering. Something settled inside him as soon as the word was out of his mouth, like he knows it to be true with every fibre of his being. “I’m going to marry you, Derek Hale.”

It takes a moment, Derek searching his eyes like he’s trying to work out if he really means it, but then a small, amazed smile blooms on his face, growing swiftly to overjoyed. He dives forward to kiss him, but they’re both smiling too hard to manage it properly. Peter makes a gagging sound from the next room, and they break apart, laughing.

Cora is beaming at them, and Derek’s parents are standing in the bedroom doorway with Isaac behind, Laura on tiptoes to look over their shoulders.

“You have our blessing,” Talia says, her eyes flaring red.

Derek’s eyes glow gold in return and he looks like he might burst with happiness at having his Alpha’s approval.

Dinner that evening really is like a feast, the food and laughter lasting almost until midnight with Derek’s family calling toast after toast. It’s a floaty kind of happiness that lasts for days.

 

*

 

The time comes for the announcement of Gerard’s death to be made official, and Stiles is there on the palace balcony when it happens. He stands alongside Scott behind Chris and Allison, listening to the cry go up after the herald’s proclamation.

The King is dead! Long live the King!

Long live the King!

Stiles doesn’t join the chant. He stares out at the sea of people instead, keenly aware that he’s living history. He’s shaped it. The Prince they’d encountered out in the woods in commoner’s clothes is now a King.

He wonders when Chris might hold his coronation. A couple of months from now? A year? A period of mourning for the previous king will be expected, especially considering Gerard was his father. He supposes it will depend on the public’s opinion of Gerard once all is said and done, if he’s considered worthy.

Over the next couple of days, Virgil sends some of their servants out into the city to visit a few of the taverns and gauge the current mood. It seems the public have been fed the rumour that the dead King and Princess met their end by the direwolves they kept, just as discussed, though there are rumblings of Chris having done the deed himself, or at the very least having pushed them into the enclosure out of greed for the throne. Some utter it resentfully and others with pride, some seemingly out of a widespread dislike of Gerard, and others because of a widespread love for Kate. Chris is in a precarious position. It remains to be seen which way public opinion will sway. They can only hope that when the war is announced to be over it will go a long way to steady him.

Over it all though has settled unwavering disbelief that the Hale family could still be alive, held captive all these years. It endures even in the face of eyewitness accounts from the palace. Stiles wonders if it would even be believed if the Hales were to be paraded in front of them.

The servants also bring news of how many of the citizens were fearful of the howls that came from beyond the walls on the night of the full moon, especially in the wake of how Kate and Gerard died. It’s a shame that the story that they have to tell only paints direwolves as dangerous, but it mainly just leads to the question of what they're going to do about the noticeable absence of Wolf.

He briefly considers saying Wolf has been left in Venatia if asked, but he doesn’t want to imply it’s because he’s too savage to remain as his pet. He knows that Derek has come to enjoy his wolf form, and it would be a shame to restrict him should he ever wish to shift and pad about the castle as he always used to or sprawl out in the gardens on a warm summer’s day. Another solution would be for Derek to make the journey home as Wolf, but Stiles would never ask that of him, not when having Derek as a human by his side for their return was part of the reason for all this, and not to mention it would hardly go unnoticed that Derek is missing from their party.

It’s Virgil who ends up giving the solution, revealing he’s informed the rest of their men that Wolf has been left to roam free and return to Stellaris as he chooses. Stiles is sure it will raise many whispered questions, but he’s a prince; it’s not like he has to answer them. Regardless, they’ll quiet in time if Wolf makes an appearance.

In the days following, the Hales start to venture out into the palace more and more, though they always move as a unit, none of them trusting their hosts enough to go anywhere alone. Only Derek is comfortable enough to part from them, but even then, he never goes anywhere without Stiles.

They take walks outside, visit the library, and even go to see the ballroom. Their footsteps and voices echo around the now empty space, both marvelling and blanching at Derek’s daring to have attended the masquerade. It’s bittersweet to think of now, knowing Derek could have stayed for longer that night seeing as Chris convinced his family not to act until the morning.

He barely sees the new King from that point on, which is no surprise considering how much work he now has to do, but Stiles does learn that the bodies of Kate and Gerard are lying in state at Gévaudan Cathedral for the public to pay their respects. That the caskets remain closed lends credence to the rumour of death-by-direwolf. He wonders how much of the bodies are even inside, if any.

They don’t stay for the funerals. Stiles in particular should perhaps at least be one to make an appearance, but Chris doesn’t request it when Stiles announces their date of departure. They’ve already remained in Venatia longer than their visit was initially supposed to last, and Stiles is loath to make any further delay. The Hales have been here long enough and, selfishly, he can’t wait to get home. He just hopes that having been present for his accession and not the funerals will combine to send the message that Stellaris approves of Chris and not his predecessor.

The Stellaris retinue lines up outside the palace in preparation for their departure, the citizens pressed right up against the palace gates in an effort to catch a glimpse of the Hales. This is an important moment, for them to see the once-captive family bidding the new King an amiable farewell. Stiles shakes Chris’ hand as is customary, as do Talia, as the matriarch of the Hale family, and Derek, in acknowledgement of all that passed between them during this visit. The rest of the Hales divide themselves between two waiting carriages as Stiles turns to his friends.

They said their proper farewells in private, so here Stiles just shakes Scott’s hand and kisses the back of Allison’s as is expected of him. Derek follows suit, though there’s a pause as he faces Allison. After a beat of hesitation, she holds out her hand and Derek takes it to kiss the back. Derek’s once-grudging admission of Allison’s innocence has turned into respect, and even gratitude for the things she did for him, manifesting towards her even while refusing to display the same feeling towards her father.

Stiles turns his back after one last smile, descending the steps to climb into Roscoe’s saddle. Derek has elected to ride a horse behind him instead of joining his family in the carriages. Stiles considers it a sacrifice, showing his face to the people they pass so his family don’t have to go through that overwhelming ordeal. He knows it’s different for Derek. Even if he’s not been human, he’s still been out amongst people, been present at other processions and walked at the heart of them. The sight of him alone will have to be enough to prove that the rumours are true.

Their company begins to move, taking them beyond the palace gates and amongst the people. Some stare open-mouthed at Derek, but most show no recognition; Stiles supposes they don’t have any real evidence to prove he’s really who he says he is. The crowd still makes a lot of noise, some cheering to see a prince, but Stiles isn’t sure what the most prevalent emotion is, and he’d guess that the crowd isn’t either. Venatian guards follow their procession to keep the people back, leaving them at the city gates when they’re free at last to begin their journey home.

Derek spurs his horse forward to ride at Stiles’ side now the decorum of the procession is behind them, and Stiles is glad to see that riding isn’t a skill Derek has forgotten. If he were human, he’d definitely feel the ache of the long ride this evening when they stop to make camp, but his werewolf healing will no doubt eliminate any soreness. He feels as light as the breeze ruffling his hair to have Derek riding by his side, still getting used to the fact that he doesn’t need to hide anymore.

Well, mostly. He still has to stay hidden the very first night of their journey, when he sneaks into Stiles’ tent at bedtime. The sight of him there makes Stiles’ heart race, pounding faster still as he wonders if they might be casting shadows on the wall of the tent for everyone outside to see.

The first thing Derek does is sweep him into his arms and greet him with a deep, knee-weakening kiss. Stiles tries to chase after his lips when he pulls back far enough to whisper, “I’ve always liked watching the way your hips move whenever you ride.”

Derek!” he squeaks, wide-eyed. “Your family are outside!” His cheeks are surely glowing.

“They don’t care.”

I care!” he hisses.

Derek chuckles, brushing his nose against Stiles’ cheek as he inhales.

They haven’t been intimate since the night of the masquerade, and it’s been simmering beneath Stiles’ skin, worse now than it had been when he’d just had Derek to look at, now that he knows what it’s like to have him under his hands. What it’s like to be under Derek’s. And there’s so much more he wants to explore with him, but there’s never been a good time with his family always just next door, just like they are now.

Despite his playfulness, Derek doesn’t push, but he still coaxes Stiles onto the bed that’s been erected just so they can lay together.

“The very first night we’re home, I’m going to have you all to myself,” Derek murmurs, so close their noses are brushing. “And Virgil isn’t coming in in the morning, and we’re going to eat breakfast in bed. Strawberries, and honey, and champagne.”

“Champagne?” Stiles laughs, quietly, trying to focus on the humour to distract himself from the image Derek is painting, from Derek’s lips so close to his, from his dwindling resolve. The guest quarters of the castle where Derek’s family will stay are far away from Stiles’ own. He’d already planned to coax him up there and is pleased that Derek is just as eager.

“Why not? I think we deserve a private celebration,” Derek says, his voice dipping to a whisper as he closes the last inch between their lips and kisses him languidly, thoroughly, a promise of what Stiles can expect when they get home. Stiles lets him, starving for at least this much. It’s still so new for Derek to kiss him like this, to kiss him at all, and it shivers through him like they’re being charged by lightning. He crowds forward to keep their bodies pressed together even as Derek pulls away.

“After all,” Derek adds, pouting playfully, “I didn’t get to drink any at the masquerade. Or get another dance.”

“You can once we’re home. I know my father will arrange a feast in honour of your return. We can dance as many songs as you like.”

“I look forward to it.”

“I seem to remember you avoiding every request for a dance when you were younger,” Stiles teases.

“And I still will,” Derek vows, brushing their noses together. “There’s only one person I want to dance with.”

His words make something in Stiles’ stomach go quivery, his cheeks immediately starting to ache with how hard he’s smiling, and Derek breathes a laugh through his nose, leaning in for a kiss. They sleep like that, face to face, and Derek is the first thing he sees in the morning when he opens his eyes.

One of the nights they spend outside under the stars, but it’s the only time they do. Being out in the open, the most they can do is lay side by side with just enough distance between them to be considered appropriate, and it makes Stiles’ fingers twitch being unable to even reach out and take his hand. They wake in the morning to find the rest of the Hales have migrated around them during the night, Cora next to Derek with her face in his neck, and that moment at least makes it worth it.

One morning, when Derek goes off to wash in the river a little way from the camp, Wolf comes trotting out of the trees and straight over to Stiles where he’s saying good morning to Roscoe.

There’s a wave of alarm at Wolf’s appearance, the story of the supposed savagery of the direwolves spreading even amongst Stiles’ men like they’ve forgotten ‘Wolf’s’ easy temperament from the time they spent with him before. The Captain of their guard even goes to draw his sword.

“Your Highness—”

“Calm yourselves. I’m in no danger,” Stiles assures them, kneeling down to pet Derek. “You’re never to attack these creatures. And you’d do well to pass that order on to every guard once we return.”

“Understood, Your Highness,” the Captain says, though he still looks unsure.

Stiles turns back to Derek, ruffling the fur on his cheeks. “Go on. I’ll see you back home.”

Derek pauses long enough to drag his slobbery tongue up the side of Stiles’ face and then he’s trotting back into the trees, leaving Stiles to groan and scrub at his cheek.

On one rainy morning, Stiles elects to ride by carriage instead, and Derek slips in with him just before they depart, perhaps hidden by the rain, but probably seen by at least one of their party to spread the rumour amongst their company like a flame to oil. Not that they’ve done much to keep their closeness a secret. Derek might have been sneaking into his tent under cover of darkness, but there was nothing to hide him whenever he emerged in the mornings.

Derek sits beside him and holds his hand, no matter that Virgil sits across from them. Though the old man doesn’t comment, Stiles is sure he can see him hiding a smile.

On the final day of their journey when they’re finally approaching the city, Stiles asks Derek if he’s sure he doesn’t want to ride in the carriage with his family, but Derek is resolute.

“If we’re granted permission to marry, I want everyone to remember how I returned by your side,” he tells him, quietly, steering his horse close.

If they are given permission, Stiles supposes things like this are something Derek is going to have to get used to.

“Whatever it entails, remember?” Derek reminds him when Stiles mentions it, smiling fondly. “I haven’t changed my mind.”

He rides behind Stiles once again when they make it to the city, keeping in front of the carriages and even waving at the astounded citizens as he passes. The cheers are almost deafening to see the Hales returned, open-mouthed amazement from many despite the fact that they would have already heard the news.

Just to be inside the city walls settles something inside Stiles, and he just wants to spur Roscoe onwards, gallop up through the city to the castle gates where he knows his father is waiting for him. It’s so difficult for him to keep pace with their escort.

He looks over his shoulder more than once to smile at Derek, glad to see him smiling in return. He even spots a hand or two waving out of the carriage windows and it pleases him that the Hales are able to manage even that much in the face of the overwhelming clamour.

The road curves, slowly revealing the open castle gate and his father standing inside at the top of the front steps with his hands behind his back, and Stiles can imagine how he must have been wringing them together waiting for their arrival. He’s barely drawn Roscoe to a halt before he’s swinging down to engulf him in a hug where he’s descended the steps to meet him.

They both sag with relief, would probably have dropped to the ground if they didn’t have each other to lean on.

Derek alights his horse and Stiles’ father draws him into a hug with just as much intensity, and then the carriage doors open, and Stiles laughs to see his father’s face flooded with so much amazement to have the Hales alive before him. He stands beside Derek to watch the reunion, greeting them with hugs and handshakes.

“And you must be Isaac,” his father says, releasing a heartfelt handshake with Peter and turning to the last person he needs to meet.

“Y-Yes, Your Majesty—” Isaac begins, preparing to bow, but his eyes go wide as the King envelops him in a hug.

“Welcome. Welcome home to you all.”

His father ushers them inside, and servants are already waiting to lead the Hales to the quarters that have been prepared for them. He’s sure that they need it, need some time to get settled and take a breath after all the excitement outside. Derek goes with them, but he throws Stiles a look of longing over his shoulder as he goes. Stiles shares the feeling even though he knows they’ll be back together soon.

A hand claps him on the shoulder and he turns to his father who draws him in for another hug.

“I’m so glad you’re home.”

“So am I,” Stiles says, allowing himself to feel like a child again for just a few moments.

They head to his father’s study to talk privately, Stiles already trying to order in his mind everything that happened since they left, everything he couldn’t tell in the space of a letter. He doesn’t mention what happened the night of the masquerade, but he can’t keep secret the fact that Derek did attend. He wonders if his father is able to read between any lines.

“I’m proud of you, son. Always have been,” his father tells him solemnly when he finishes the story, and Stiles feels his eyes grow wet, as they always do upon hearing those words from him.

He hears about the goings on in the castle in his absence but learns that it was mostly just a lot of waiting and worrying.

“Though Virgil did send me a few letters,” his father says, and Stiles’ heart skips a beat.

Here we go, he thinks to himself.

“I hear you and Derek have grown even closer during your time away.”

“We wish to marry,” Stiles says simply. His father’s eyebrows go up and his stomach clenches, hurrying into persuasion, to beg if he has to. “I know it won’t bring an alliance, or—”

“I’m not sure I want an alliance with any of the surrounding kingdoms,” his father says, darkly, and Stiles is inclined to agree. “Regardless, I think your friendship with Scott and Allison is more valuable than any other alliance we could hope to make, and you’ve already achieved what was thought to be impossible by securing peace.”

And not to mention, after everything, Chris owes them. He owes them big.

His father sits back in his chair, and butterflies churn in Stiles stomach at the beginnings of a smile on his face. “I think the public would look upon the union kindly. The Hales were always well-loved, and Derek especially was known to send hearts swooning.”

Stiles tries to hide a laugh behind his hand, but then the full extent of what his father is saying starts to hit home and his smile spreads too wide to cover. “So that’s a yes, then?”

“I believe it is.”

He darts around the desk to leap on his father for another bone-crushing hug, trembling with relief and sudden nerves and he doesn’t even know what.

“Thank you,” he breathes, and he feels his father shaking his head.

“Who would have ever imagined the two of you would...?”

Stiles has thought about that more than once. If Derek’s life had continued how it should have, would they have ever found themselves drawn together in this way? Or would Derek long have already married, this possibility never discovered?

There’s a knock at the door not long later, after they’ve parted and Stiles has retaken his seat, and at his father’s cue, a servant announces Derek’s presence.

“Derek,” his father says in greeting as soon as the door is shut behind him. “I trust your family have everything they need?”

“Yes, thank you, Your Majesty. You’ve been extremely generous.”

“I hear that you wish to marry my son,” his father says out of nowhere, and Derek’s eyes widen, but only for a moment. He glances at Stiles and then faces the King, his back straight and shoulders squared.

“I do.”

His father regards Derek sternly, and Stiles has to hide a laugh again, knowing he’s just trying to make Derek squirm.

“Well, you have my blessing,” he finally relents with a smile, and Derek’s resulting look of wonder and growing joy is a sight to behold.

Stiles rises to his feet as Derek reaches out to draw him into a kiss, and Stiles sighs into it, soaking in the warmth of Derek’s palm against his cheek until—

Get out of my study.”

They break apart on a laugh and Stiles looks to his father standing with his arms crossed, but he’s still smiling.

“Thanks, Dad.”

“Thank you, Your Majesty.”

His father jerks his head towards the door. “Go on,” he says softly, and Derek follows Stiles out into the hallway.

“Let’s go,” Stiles tells him, and leads Derek in the direction of his own rooms.

They pass many servants on the way, all happy to see him home, welcoming him with bows and curtsies, and Stiles can’t wipe the grin from his face. His father agreed. They’re getting married. He can’t stop glancing at Derek at his side, smiling wider still every time their eyes meet.

A sigh of contentment bursts out of him just from crossing over the threshold into his bedroom – their bedroom, he supposes, if Derek wants it – looking around at everything exactly as they left it. The clothes he’d worn while in Venatia will already have been taken to be laundered, but his other belongings like the books Derek took are already back in place, along with fresh figs and pears in the fruit bowl.

He turns back to Derek still standing in the doorway, taking in the room and Stiles standing in the middle of it.

“This feels like home,” he says, and it makes Stiles’ stomach flutter.

“It is. If you want it to be.”

Derek smiles at him, small and fond. “You know I do.”

Maybe, but that doesn’t mean it can’t still fill Stiles with delight to hear it.

He watches Derek step inside and close the door behind him, his hand lingering on the handle.

“A room has been prepared for me too, with my family,” he says, hesitant.

“I’m sure you’ll have no need to use it,” Stiles teases, but then he sobers, straightening. “Unless you want to be closer to them, then—”

Derek strides forward to silence him with a kiss. “I think I’m going to be quite comfortable—” He starts to walk Stiles backward, kisses him again. “—right—” The back of Stiles’ knees hit the mattress and they topple onto the bed, another kiss. “—here,” he finishes, grinning and brushing their noses together.

Stiles stares up at him, reaching up to trace a finger along the line of his beard, down to the angle of his jaw. His future husband. He surges up for another kiss at that thought, spreading his legs a little for Derek to settle more comfortably between, but he’s barely coaxed Derek’s tongue into his mouth when Derek is groaning and rolling away from him to drop his face to the covers.

Virgil’s coming,” he all but whines, muffled in the material, and a laugh bubbles up Stiles’ throat, reaching over to rub at Derek’s back as he faces the door and waits for Virgil’s arrival.

Virgil knocks before he enters and doesn’t look surprised at all to see Derek already there with him. He sets the tray he’s carrying with a pitcher of water and two glasses on the bedside table and asks if there’s anything they need.

“No. Thank you, Virgil, that will be all.”

“I’ll have a bath prepared for after you’ve eaten dinner.” He heads for the door, but Stiles stops him before he can leave.

“Virgil? Take a few days to yourself. It’s been a long month for all of us.”

Virgil glances between them with a knowing look, and with a resigned smile he says, “Understood, Your Highness.”

“Thank you, Virgil. For everything.”

“Thank you,” Derek says, and Virgil dips his head in a combination of a nod and a bow, and then he retreats from the room and closes the door behind himself with a quiet click, leaving them alone once more.

“You should have told him a few weeks, not a few days,” Derek murmurs, dragging his nose up Stiles’ throat.

“Is that how long you want to keep me here?”

“Longer, if I could,” he says, kissing Stiles’ cheek, and then he lays back on the pillows, coaxing Stiles’ head onto his chest.

He’d love to pick up where they left off before Virgil arrived, but they’ll be called for dinner soon. He wants to wait until they can close the door and know that it isn’t going to be opened again until at least tomorrow morning.

They lay in silence, warm and comfortable, until Derek is the one to ruin it.

“Isaac received some bad news. His father passed while he was gone.”

Stiles props himself up on an elbow in shock to look down at Derek staring up at the ceiling.

“Choked on his own vomit while he was sleeping,” Derek elaborates.

So, he went straight back to his ways and drank himself to death.

“How’s Isaac?” Stiles asks.

“I don’t think the two of them had a good relationship, but it was still a shock. I think he still needs some time to work out how he feels.”

Stiles’ expression must be full of worry, because Derek lifts a hand to stroke his cheek.

“Hey, he’ll be okay. He has more family now. We’ll look after him.”

That at least is perhaps one good thing to come of all this, if nothing else.

They’re called to dinner not long later and find Isaac has still made an appearance. He’s quiet, doesn’t say a word, but Stiles can understand why he wouldn’t have wanted to stay behind alone in his room. He ends up seated between Talia and Joseph, and Stiles realises it was a conscious decision on the part of the others when he sees how the two of them are with him. They touch his shoulder and squeeze his hand and keep his plate filled, gestures that he’s noticed amongst all the wolves. It is heartening to see that they will all be there to care for him even now that they’re home.

Dinner ends up feeling just like an extension of all the ones they shared in Venatia, just with Stiles’ father present and perhaps even more cheerful now that they’ve left that country behind. It’s strange to be back here and not have Wolf on the floor with his usual cut of meat, but it’s so much better having Derek finally at his side at the table.

His father reveals that repairs have already begun on the Hale Manor, had started as soon as Stiles and Derek left for Venatia. That he’d been so optimistic they would succeed fills Stiles with a fierce fondness.

The Hales express their heartfelt gratitude, but his father waves them away, assuring them that it’s the least he could do. The Hale land was never bestowed to anybody else in light of their ‘deaths’, what was left of the house remaining untouched as a constant reminder. Stiles knows his father always saw it as a personal failure to protect his subjects, no matter that he couldn’t have known. Even in his own mind, the skeletal remains of that house continued to lurk over the years, despite never having seen the wreckage with his own eyes.

They migrate to a sitting room once they’ve eaten, already with a fire crackling in the hearth, and it’s here that Stiles’ father raises his glass and announces the happy news of their engagement. It’s met with cheers and more congratulations and hugs from all of Derek’s family. Even Isaac cracks a smile, Stiles is glad to see.

“Now you’re home, I’m sure you’re looking forward to finally getting some more alone time,” Laura teases, and his father pinches the bridge of his nose.

“I don’t even want to know,” he says.

Stiles’ cheeks must be a rosy pink, but when he and Derek are excused a minute later, he’s extremely grateful for Laura’s lack of tact. He and Derek would never usually be permitted to spend any time alone together before they’re married, but it’s hardly a secret that it’s already much too late for that.

They return to their rooms to find a bath has been prepared just like Virgil said it would be, but there’s a second tub beside the first. Stiles wonders how Virgil might have explained that to the servants who assisted him.

Derek reaches for him as soon as the door is shut, helping him out of his clothes with a kiss here and there, to the back of a shoulder or the inside of a wrist. It makes his heart pound despite it feeling entirely chaste instead of a promise of things to come. It’s impossible to hide how it’s affecting him though once his clothes come off, even if it wasn’t already completely obvious to Derek’s werewolf nose. It’s gratifying to see Derek is just as affected when he joins Stiles in his nakedness.

He’s tempted to usher Derek to the bed instead, use the baths for after, but Derek is already pulling him towards the wash basin and Stiles reminds himself there’s no rush. Much like the night of the masquerade, this is another moment just for them, and it’s with a jolt that he realises there are so many more waiting for them in the future. They might have been making do with stolen moments until now, but there's no need for that anymore.

They wipe each other down before Derek leads him to one of the baths – the one he’s always used, not the new addition – and steps inside. It’s only now that Stiles realises Derek intends for them to bathe together.

It’s a tight fit, Derek with his knees up and Stiles resting between with his legs over the rim of the tub, but it’s so peaceful to lay there in the warmth with his head resting on Derek’s shoulder, listening to his quiet breaths and the gentle lap of water.

There’s a lot of laughter when it comes time for getting out, Stiles struggling to manoeuvre himself and unable to get any leverage to stand. Derek ends up having to use his strength to lift him up into his arms as he gets to his feet. He's intent on carrying him straight to the bed, but at Stiles’ squawk about wet sheets, he deposits him by their towels with a huff.

Once they’re dry enough, Stiles eagerly lets Derek manhandle him onto the bed, sighing into his kiss when their bodies align for the first time since the night they were first together. It feels so safe to be blanketed by him, even while knowing he has no need to feel unsafe, not anymore.

They kiss and kiss, Derek slowly rocking his hips even though there’s no intent behind it like the last time they’d been together. Stiles knows they both have more in mind.

“How do we…?”

Derek pauses a moment before reaching beside Stiles’ head to his own pillow, sliding his hand underneath and pulling out a small vial of oil. Stiles stares at it, face flaming at the thought of Derek procuring it.

“I got a hold of it in Venatia,” he admits, shyly, and Stiles stares up at him in shock. “Just in case. But then there wasn’t really any chance of getting away from my family,” he laughs.

“You’ve been thinking about it that long?”

“Of course,” Derek says in surprise. “Longer.” He sweeps his thumb over Stiles’ bottom lip. “But we can do this however you want. If you want to. Or we can just do exactly what we did before—”

Stiles shakes his head. “I want to. I want you to,” he breathes, 

He’s long been fascinated with Derek’s sturdiness and strength, long wondered what it might be like – craved – to be at his mercy. He’s never played with inserting anything inside himself before, but it’s supposed to feel good, and he wants to know. He wants Derek to be the one to do it. His legs are already spreading a little wider, lifting his knees, and Derek nods.

“Okay. Like this.” He puts his hands to Stiles’ knees to lift them higher still until he’s bent nearly in two, and then he stops to just look down at him, down his chest to his cock resting heavy against his belly, down further still to where he’s tight and waiting.

Stiles starts to squirm, self-conscious under his gaze, and he tries to close his legs, but Derek exerts some of that immovable strength Stiles has fantasised about to hold him in place.

“You know, if just looking at you was all I was allowed, I’d happily take it,” Derek murmurs, sliding his hands down Stiles’ calves, disturbing the coarse hairs, making his skin tingle.

“I’m allowing you to have it all.”

Derek smiles down at him, leaning in to kiss the inside of one of his knees, scraping his stubbled cheek there and making Stiles' cock jump against his stomach. He opens up the vial and slicks up two of his fingers, the oil sliding down the side of his palm.

“If you want me to stop—”

“I know.”

Derek nods again and swallows hard, before reaching down between Stiles’ legs and swirling the tip of his middle finger over Stiles’ hole. Stiles draws in a short breath at the strange sensation, but relaxes, lets Derek rub against him there, circling. As Derek works his fingers inside, first one, and then two, he goes from squirming at the foreign sensations to gasping as Derek crooks them just right inside him and moans choking off in his throat every time Derek strokes a hand from base to tip.

He looks up at Derek hovering over him, struck by the look of wonder and hunger in his eyes.

“Stop looking at me like that,” he laughs, breathlessly, lifting a hand to push at Derek’s face.

“Like what?”

“Like—It’s too intense,” he whines.

“I don’t want to miss a moment of this.”

That isn’t something Stiles can argue with. He turns his face into his pillow instead, lets Derek continue until he’s open on three of his fingers and panting.

“I want—I want you,” Stiles chokes out, but Derek keeps going until he’s really sure that Stiles is ready.

When he withdraws his fingers, Stiles does his best to draw in a deep breath, looking down at where Derek is slicking more oil over the length of his cock, jutting outwards with the weight of it when he lets go.

Stiles swallows hard and licks his lips at the sight, but then Derek is settling between his legs and he has to take another deep breath to prepare himself for this. The head of Derek’s cock notches against him, and Stiles drops his head back to the pillow, breath catching in his throat as Derek starts to push, taking his time, pressing deeper, slipping in further still until he can sink all the way to the hilt with a sigh of relief. A broken moan tumbles from Stiles’ lips at the way it feels, his mouth dropped open and unable to close it. 

Stiles,” Derek breathes, holding himself there, letting Stiles feel it. “Stiles, I need to—”

“Okay, okay,” Stiles gasps, making a sharp noise when Derek starts to thrust, drawing his hips back slowly and sinking just as slowly back inside until Stiles is urging him on, needing more.

Derek manoeuvres Stiles how he wants him, ending up with his palms flat to the bed and Stiles’ knees hooked over his elbows. He leans down a little more, bending Stiles further in two as he speeds up his thrusts. The angle makes Stiles cry out, his toes curling as he fumbles to grasp at Derek’s shoulders, needing something to hold on to.

Yes,” he gasps in encouragement, drinking in the sight of Derek over him, of his muscles rippling with every powerful, steady thrust even as his eyes try to roll back.

“Touch yourself. Let me see how you touch yourself,” Derek orders, sounding just as wrecked, and Stiles whimpers, reaching for his neglected cock bouncing on his belly with each of Derek’s thrusts.

It heightens everything, draws sounds out of his mouth he didn’t realise he was even capable of making, and he reaches for the discarded oil to help slick the way and make it even better. Derek growls at the sight and Stiles’ eyes go wide, his cock jumping in his grasp at a sudden spike of pleasure. He whines out a moan at the sound, and Derek must realise exactly how it’s affecting him because his eyes flare gold and then his fangs grow to their razor-sharp points with a snarl, and that’s all it takes.

Stiles’ body convulses as he comes with an almost sob, and it draws a whimper out of Derek, his hips losing their rhythm entirely as he thrusts once, twice, and then stills deep inside him with a stifled cry.

Stiles’ eyes almost roll back at Derek’s heat filling him, still stroking his cock to ride out the last of his orgasm. He finally stills with a shudder as Derek lowers his legs to collapse forward onto his chest, and they lie there, breathing heavily.

“That. That was. We are so doing that again,” Stiles announces, breathlessly, amazed that he even managed to string together a full sentence after what Derek just did to him.

It seems all Derek can do is laugh. He lifts his head to kiss him eventually, and then he climbs from the bed despite Stiles’ protests to fetch the washcloth to wipe them both down. After, he bundles Stiles into his arms and smoothes his hair back from his forehead.

“I love you, Stiles,” he murmurs, and in the warm glow of the candlelight, it sounds like a promise.

“I love you, too,” Stiles says in return, tilting his head for a sweet, simple kiss.

 

*

 

He wakes in the morning to the sight of a tray of strawberries and honey and champagne just as promised. His laugh turns to a sound of interest at the sight of Derek’s naked body which wakes him up immediately, all over.

“Who brought this up?” he asks, propping himself up on a pillow.

“I did.” He catches Stiles glancing at his state of nudity and laughs. “I did get dressed.”

“You should have woken me. I would have come with you.”

“I wanted to do something for you for once,” Derek says, holding out a strawberry for him to bite into and then eating the other half himself.

“You did something for me last night,” Stiles tells him around his mouthful, wiggling his eyebrows.

“And I’m going to do something else for you right now.”

“Oh?” Stiles asks, slyly, but his eyes go wide as Derek settles a knee either side of his hips, reaching back to lightly grasp Stiles’ cock at the base to line him up. “Oh,” he breathes, hands flying to Derek’s hips and mouth dropping open as he starts to sink down. “Did you already—?” he chokes out.

“Yeah,” Derek breathes, gasping as the head of Stiles’ cock slips inside where he’s already slick and stretched, and Stiles might be miffed that he didn’t get to see Derek do that to himself if he wasn’t so overwhelmed by tight and hot and holy fuck.

He stares wide-eyed up at Derek hovering over him, taking in everything: his heaving chest, his trembling thighs, his eyes out of focus like all of his attention is on the feel of Stiles sliding inside him. Like he’s never felt anything so good.

He sinks slowly all the way down until Stiles is fully sheathed inside, and Stiles knows with absolute certainty he isn’t going to last more than ten seconds. It doesn’t seem like Derek intends to let him. After a couple of tentative rocks of his hips, his movements grow in strength until he’s bouncing on Stiles’ cock. He’s a sight to behold, the sheer power of his muscles to move himself the way he is, his solid thighs, his cock bobbing with each downward thrust.

“So close, Derek,” Stiles chokes out, his toes ready to curl.

“Yeah? Come on, come on,” Derek encourages, leaning back on his hands to get better leverage, and Stiles can’t believe what he’s seeing.

“Want to come inside,” he babbles. “Want to show every wolf who you belong to.”

Derek’s eyes flash gold with a burning intensity at those words, his mouth dropping open on a startled cry as his entire body shakes, and then he’s coming untouched in great spurts, shooting as high as Stiles’ chest. Stiles reaches for his cock, the motion clumsy, unpracticed at this angle, but Derek whines, his hips hunched where he shudders out his release, and Stiles can’t handle the sight of him falling apart. His hips jolt, thrusting him deeper as he comes, filling Derek up just as he promised.

Derek eases himself forward until he can drop his head to Stiles’ chest and stretch his legs out behind, the two of them sucking in deep lungfuls of much-needed air.

“Wow,” Stiles breathes, and Derek shakes with a quiet laugh.

He lifts his head and gives Stiles a peck on the lips. “Good morning.”

“Great morning,” Stiles corrects, still breathing heavily, his mouth hanging open as he stares up at the bed canopy.

Derek recovers before he does, climbing off of him to reach for the champagne. He tips a glass to Stiles’ lips a little too enthusiastically, leaning in to lap up the trickle that runs down his chin, which is innocent enough, but then he’s completely overt when he scoops up a spoonful of honey to drizzle all over Stiles’ chest.

Derek!”

“Oops,” Derek says, deadpan, and then leans down to begin the slow, thorough task of cleaning him up with his tongue.

 

*

 

For nearly two days they stay in Stiles’ rooms, having food brought to them and left by the door, lying and dozing and sleeping tangled up in each other. And having sex. A lot of sex. They completely forget about the world that exists outside, until Derek lifts his head in the middle of the afternoon on the second day. He has his head cocked like he’s listening to something, and then he meekly half-buries his face in his pillow.

“What is it?”

“My mother says we’re expected to attend dinner,” he mutters, voice muffled. His ears have even gone a bit pink. Stiles starts to giggle; he’s never seen him look chastened before.

Derek begins to laugh too, and then neither of them can stop, wondering what everyone else must be thinking that they haven’t emerged, how much they must smell like each other after this, what the servants might think when they eventually enter the room to change the sheets. Hopefully not that Stiles has just been having some very happy alone time. 

When the time for dinner comes and they eventually emerge to make their way down to the dining room, they’re the last ones to arrive. Isaac tries to hide a laugh behind his hand as soon as they enter, while Laura outright cackles into her wine and Cora’s eyes go wide. Peter raises one impressed eyebrow while both of Derek’s parents look like they don’t know whether to laugh or hide their faces in their hands.

Stiles holds himself proudly even as his cheeks heat, infinitely glad that his father isn’t in possession of superhuman senses.



*

 

In the following weeks, the Hales slowly adjust to life living in the castle and Stiles can see a marked difference in them now that they’re out of Venatia. They’re hundreds of miles away from that foreign land, back amongst people who love them. Stiles just wishes they could have made their departure sooner.

He does wonder if any of the servants might have noticed the familiarity Derek has with the castle, if they might think it strange. They’ll probably just chalk it up to him having more confidence than the rest of his family, never imagining that it’s because he’s already been living here for months.

He does shift into a wolf occasionally, and the castle staff don’t bat an eye to see him. Either the full extent of the way Kate and Gerard died somehow hasn’t reached them, or they’re just so used to his easygoing presence from the months he spent living with them that it hasn’t changed their opinion of him. The kitchens ask if food needs to be provided for him, but under the ruse that he’s free to come and go as he pleases, it’s easy enough to pretend that ‘Wolf’ is happy fending for himself.

They go out riding a few times, either with Derek as a wolf so he can stretch his legs and run and run, or he’ll be on a horse beside him so Stiles can enjoy some conversation. Cora accompanies them once or twice, riding in the saddle in front of her brother, quietly taking in their surroundings with her quick, dark eyes and seeming content to just listen, to just be.

After almost being home for a month, Stiles receives a letter from Allison one afternoon and learns that her and Scott's wedding has been delayed. He just hopes that a delay is all it is and that Scott won’t face pressure to call it off entirely. He doesn’t believe Scott would ever agree to that, but it can’t be denied that the remaining Argents are probably going to heavily rely on the marriage going ahead.

Their relationship with Astran – for all of them – will probably remain rocky for years to come, but Stellaris will stay Venatia’s ally. They’ll be the most important country to do so in light of the fact that they’re the ones who should exhibit the most animosity.

With Stiles and Derek’s engagement still a secret from the public, he doesn’t include mention of it in his return letter. He also doesn’t want it to seem in any way like he’s gloating, even though he knows Allison would never read it that way. He knows she’ll only be happy for them.

With the Hales settled and better adjusted to life amongst people again, Stiles’ father calls for a feast just as Stiles guessed he would. He’s hoping that having them in the feasting hall surrounded by joy and laughter will finally be able to dispel the dark memory he still has of the moment six years ago when the herald announced the fire.

Places for the Hales are set at the top table in their honour, Isaac included, and Stiles makes sure Derek is sat at his side. The atmosphere is jubilant, almost giddy, laughter and cheers and toasts rising up to the rafters.

As soon as they’ve eaten their fill, they reach the most important part of the evening as the music begins, and Derek rises to his feet and holds out a hand.

This time, they dance without masks, song after song, and even when Stiles tires from the exertion of it, Derek slows them to no more than a gentle sway, no matter the lively pace of the music. He doesn’t part from Derek even when his father tries a bit of gentle prodding to get him to share his time with some of their other important guests. He did that already at Allison’s masquerade, danced with others when only Derek was on his mind and relegated him to just those two fleeting dances, a secret. He’s not doing that again. That the two of them are even standing here at all is a miracle after everything they went through; he’s not going to give into any pressure or squander a second of this.

He knows they’ll be the talk of the city come the morning, the Prince and the handsome Hale Lord inseparable from each other’s arms. He wonders how long it will take for predictions of marriage to begin.

More than once, Derek sways towards him like he might kiss him right there in the middle of the floor, and it’s only Stiles’ father’s amused intervention that stops them from conspicuously leaving the feast for the night at the same time. Their dancing may have made their feelings obvious to everyone present, but it will probably be best to keep it quiet that Derek is already warming their Prince’s bed.

As expected, the city is abuzz with gossip as soon as the sun rises, and tales of their time in Venatia have already entered the mix. His father was right that their people adore the idea of him and Derek together. They make it sound like a fairy tale, the way love blossomed between them at first sight when he laid eyes on Derek alive before him in the Argent palace, how he daringly rescued Derek and his family from the Argents’ clutches, how he shoved the evil King into the pit with the direwolves with his own hands. It gets more outrageous as time goes on, more glamorous, more heroic, doing nothing to capture the true fear and uncertainty they’d been living. It becomes the subject of song and poetry, and that’s still without any confirmation of their engagement. Somehow, a rumour of the masquerade even joins the others, about the handsome stranger Stiles had danced with, a talented partner who had borne a striking resemblance to Derek.

Their relationship only drops from being the most popular topic of conversation when the announcement of peace a few weeks later miraculously goes exactly to plan. But though their soldiers can finally return home, there’s new tension in the air now at any mention of Venatia. The peace they’ve secured is of little comfort to those with loved ones lost so unnecessarily, the manipulation with the Hales unforgivable. It might have been relayed that Kate and Gerard were the ones responsible, but it does nothing to assuage the resentment and suspicion that falls onto Chris and Allison, which will probably continue for years to come.

The peace may bring the return of their soldiers, but it also brings with it the return of old friends. Erica and Boyd have journeyed back to Stellaris in the hope of regaining their old life, currently on their way to visit the castle under the pretense of being due an audience with the King.

Standing at the top of the castle steps with his father, Stiles watches the carriage trundle through the gates, and is already descending before it rolls to a stop. The footman opens the door to reveal Erica’s pale, nervous face, but Stiles holds out his hand to help her down and folds her straight into his embrace.

“I’m sorry you couldn’t trust us to protect you,” he whispers, and she goes limp in his arms with a quiet sob.

“I’m sorry we didn’t come to you,” she cries, voice trembling. “We should have known that you could never be anything like them.”

He holds her tightly, resting his head on top of hers, looking over to see Isaac embracing Boyd.

To any onlookers, this will just seem like a tearful reunion after so much time away, which is exactly what everyone has been told occurred. 

It’s been declared that their supposed defection was under the King’s orders upon learning from Chris that the Hales were alive, and that their sacrifice was invaluable in negotiating peace with Astran, which isn’t too far from the truth. It’s because of them that Kali came to Stellaris and inadvertently prompted Stiles to inspect Derek’s collar.

Even still, Stiles knows it won’t be easy for them. Despite his father vouching for them, seeds of distrust have already taken root, particularly amongst the other Knights of Boyd’s Order, that sting of betrayal still lingering.

When Isaac moves to greet Erica, Stiles goes to welcome Boyd, but the Knight holds up a hand to stop him.

“I can smell the claim on you from here, Your Highness,” he says, wryly. “It’s probably best I keep my scent off you.”

Erica giggles into Isaac’s shoulder, the other wolf laughing too.

“Is Erica’s scent going to be a problem?” Stiles asks.

“You’ll thank me for it later,” she says, mischievous even while dabbing at her tears.

He files that new piece of knowledge away as he welcomes Boyd and Erica into the castle for tea, leading them to one of the sitting rooms. He’s decided that they can hear the true account of what happened, a story to be passed secretly amongst werewolves. He introduces Derek to them too, watching in amazement the way his gaze zeroes in on Stiles’ neck as soon as he steps into the room, nostrils flaring.

Stiles definitely does make a mental note to thank Erica later that night when he lays spent and boneless and panting after some incredible sex that involved a lot of growling and licking.

“She really wasn’t joking. Erica.”

Derek grunts, his head flopped onto Stiles’ chest.

“Do you really not like it when I smell like other people?”

“Just werewolves.”

“But Cora hugs me all the time and you don’t react like that.”

“That’s different. She’s family. Pack. I know she doesn’t have any intentions on you. And I know your friends don’t either,” he continues over Stiles’ attempt to reason with him, lifting his head to look down at him with a grumpy frown. “But it’s not that simple to my wolf instincts.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

Derek narrows one eye at him. “You’re going to use it against me, aren’t you?”

“If it gets us a repeat of what happened just now, are you really going to complain?”

Derek can only groan.

 

*

 

For just over three months the Hales stay with them in the castle, and Stiles has gotten so used to how lively it is to have them there. Meals are always full of laughter and good cheer, and it seems they’ve really made themselves at home, grown comfortable and content enough to even venture around the castle on their own.

He often spies his father with Derek’s parents, regaining the friendship they’d had in days past and the future marriage between their children bonding them closer still.

Now that Derek isn’t living under constant threat of discovery, Stiles thought that clothes would become more commonplace. Much to his delight, he finds that Derek always being naked when in their private quarters is something that never stops, only now, Derek makes sure that Stiles always joins him. He’ll reach for him as soon as the door is closed and strip him down, and more often than not it will end with them either rutting frantically or grinding lazily on the bed, and Stiles has no complaints whatsoever.

Though they're living in perfect bliss, there are still times when Derek will look haunted, when he’ll wake up gasping and Stiles will have to soothe him as best he can. You killed her, she's gone, tore off her head, she's not coming back. He lets Derek press his nose to his neck, breathe him in until he stops shaking. Your family are here. You’re all safe

On one of those nights, Derek lifts his head from Stiles’ throat, looking to the door.

“Cora’s outside,” he murmurs in explanation. “Come in, sweetheart.”

The door opens to reveal the shape of her hovering in the doorway in her nightdress, and Derek beckons her inside.

“Come on,” he says, pulling back the corner of the covers as Cora closes the door. “Did I wake you?”

“You felt scared.” She climbs into the bed beside him and curls close, Derek tucking the covers in at her back.

“I’m alright.”

“I know. Stiles always helps.”

Stiles can hear the smile in Derek’s voice even through the darkness. “He does.”

Stiles reaches over to stroke a hand over her head in a way he knows she still likes even as a human, and the three of them fall asleep like that, sleeping peacefully through to the morning.

When Derek brings up a need to talk later the next day, Stiles understands why Cora appeared at their bedroom door and it only serves to make his heart heavy.

“I’ve told my family that I won’t be staying with them once we can visit the house.”

“Are you sure? If you want to stay with them even until they get settled—”

“No. I’m sure. I’ll still be able to feel them in the bond, but if I’m apart from you, I won’t be able to tell if anything happens. I’m not ready for that.” He shrugs. “They’re not happy I’ll be leaving them, but they’re happy for us.”

“As long as they understand.”

“They won’t be far. It won’t be like when they were in Venatia and our pack bond was spread so thin we could barely feel each other.”

The Hale Manor is three hours from the city by carriage, faster on horseback, and faster still if Derek were to make the journey as a wolf.

 “I’ll be able to visit them anytime.”

“And they’ll be able to visit you whenever they feel like it,” Stiles reminds him. “You know they’re always welcome here.”

Derek kisses him in thanks.

 

*

 

It’s drawing to the end of winter by the time the house is ready for them, and though his father extends the offer for them to stay until the weather warms, the Hales respectfully decline, eager to finally be home.

Stiles and his father accompany them on the journey, and it’s bittersweet to be leaving the city with them after all the time they’ve spent there together, but Stiles knows it will be bitterer still when they reach the manor to find it immaculate and empty. It might have been built to the same specifications, but their possessions were all destroyed, and that special scent of home – so much more important to them than anyone else can realise – will be but a memory.

When Stiles returned home from Venatia, he had people here to welcome him, friendly, familiar faces he’s known all his life. The staff the Hales employed and housed on their property are long dead, more Argent victims, and it seems the Hales don’t want to replace them yet. Living as such a close-knit unit during their time in the enclosure, Stiles can understand why they wouldn’t be ready. He also understands Laura’s feelings when she says, “I want to wash linens and hang them out to dry, and I want to cook, and scrub floors. Normal, menial, human tasks.”

The rest of the Hales seem to share the sentiment.

Isaac comes with them. Stiles has a feeling he still would have even if his father had been here for him to return to. Isaac might not have been held captive for as long as the rest of them, but it’s affected him just as much, making him just as reluctant to part from all of them as they are to part from each other. An honorary Hale, Derek calls him, and it makes Isaac shyly glow with pride.

They follow the road southeast of the city, an easy journey to make despite the chill weather.

Stiles has memories of visiting the Hale Manor once, the house surrounded by forest like a secret lurking within. He’d always thought it strange that they didn’t show the building off like other noble families, choosing instead to stay shielded from the road, but with what he knows now, it makes perfect sense for them to favour the privacy.

They leave their escort camped further up the road, far enough away that the Hales will be able to shift and inspect the state of their land without fear of being seen. The men aren’t happy about leaving the King so far from protection, but little do they know he’s the safest he could be, surrounded by a pack of werewolves who would no doubt love any excuse to destroy any intruder in their territory.

They round a curve in the path and the house emerges from between the trees, its limestone façade lit a soft, warm gold by the midmorning sun. It looks pristine and so obviously new, nothing homey about it at all. Not yet at least. He hopes they can get there one day.

In his mind’s eye, he can still see the beautiful Victoria creeper that covered most of the left half of the house, turning the most striking reds and oranges in the autumn months. It will take years for that to return to its former glory, if they decide to grow it again.

The Hales are silent as they approach the front door and step inside, stranded somewhere between happiness and sorrow. It almost feels like they’re intruding stepping into this big empty house, furnished only simply for now.

Derek takes his hand and pulls him tentatively up the stairs, leading the way to where his bedroom was in the back left corner of the upper floor.

Stiles is planning to stand back and let Derek take in the room, let him work out how he feels to be back here – the same but so different – but Derek bundles him straight onto the bed against the right-hand wall. Stiles can tell it’s just to spread his scent here, to make this place as much of the home it can be in such a short amount of time. He rubs a comforting hand up and down his back, but Derek makes a displeased noise.

“I don’t want to be sad anymore,” he murmurs.

Though his words feel like a knife in his chest, Stiles smiles up at him, thinking of all the things he has to be grateful and happy and excited for, hoping the emotions will filter into whatever scents it is that he gives off. He watches Derek’s expression lighten before his eyes and lets his positive feelings manifest into laughter.

The Hales spend their first night there scouring the property and surrounding woods, reclaiming territory. It’s the first time they’ve explored their land as wolves apart from Talia, and it’s like it isn’t only the house that they’re seeing with new eyes.

Stiles sits out by the front steps with his father and Virgil, the only member of staff to have accompanied them up to the house. Derek and his sisters carried armchairs out for them to sit comfortably on, lifting them like they weighed no more than a glass of water. A brazier is lit to fight off the lingering chill of winter, and they wrap themselves in blankets with steaming mugs of tea. It’s so pleasant to sit there, surrounded by the simple peace of nature with the city far away. It’s something he hasn’t done with his father for many years now; he’s glad to be there together.

The wolves drift in and out, Derek returning the most often to wedge himself between Stiles and his father, tongue lolling out of his mouth in what looks to be a happy grin. Stiles will reach out to scratch at his ears whenever he comes by, and even his father pets him every now and then, lifting a hand to stroke once or twice down his neck. Derek is happy to let him, closing his eyes in bliss each time. Stiles loves how affectionate he can be like this, allowing them to be closer in a way where any human equivalent would just be considered strange.

Derek even lets Virgil give him a stroke every now and then, brushing up close to his chair and nudging at his hand with his nose. He’s warmed to Derek a lot more since learning of their plans to marry, mollifying his old-fashioned values. Derek had revealed a few days before their journey to the manor that Virgil had even smiled at him, a great feat indeed.

When his father begins to yawn and Stiles starts to follow, Derek nudges at them both with his muzzle, pestering them to go off to bed. Stiles directs Virgil to attend to his father and watches them head for the guest room that’s been prepared. No one has bothered to arrange one for Stiles here, even for appearances sake; everyone knows he’ll just sleep in with Derek.

Derek follows after him not long later, leaping up on the bed to sleep as a wolf as he always used to, but this time, Stiles can cuddle up close to him like they did back when they journeyed to Venatia. They stay on top of the covers, Derek’s warmth more than enough to keep Stiles cosy even while still being on the edge of winter.

Stiles strokes a constant hand down his side, near his belly, listening to Derek’s occasional contented rumble as he noses gently at Stiles’ cheek, tickling his skin with his whiskers. He sleeps soundly, only roused in the morning by Derek as a human pulling the covers over them both from either side to wrap them like a cocoon. Stiles squirms over to snuggle against his chest, pressing his feet against Derek’s calves to keep his toes warm and humming as Derek’s hand rubs up and down his back.

It ends up being how he and Derek spend most of their time while they stay there, wrapped up in each other on the rug in front of the fireplace in the sitting room or even in a blanket outside the house next to the brazier. They end up the subject of a lot of gentle teasing and fond smiles. Back in the castle, they can’t yet advertise what they are to each other like this, forced to keep it confined to their rooms instead. Stiles does enjoy the intimacy of that private space that’s been theirs to share for months now, but it is still nice to not need to hide.

His father and Virgil stay for a week, and Stiles a few days longer, wanting to give Derek as much time with his family as possible. Their own departure looms ever closer, a moment Stiles has been dreading, but it isn’t something they can put off.

He’d been expecting Derek to begin to waver as their time to leave grew closer, wondered if he might elect to stay for just a little bit longer and rejoin Stiles at the castle later. Stiles wouldn’t fault him for it, not after the separation they’d already been forced to endure, but he shows no signs of hesitation.

“But do you have to go?” he overhears Laura ask Derek when the time comes to say goodbye, sounding small and almost scared. “Can’t you stay, just for a little while longer?”

“Stiles has his duties, and I can’t part from him. You know I’m not ready.”

She heaves an unhappy sigh of defeat and throws her arms around his middle in glum acceptance.

“I won’t be as far away this time,” Derek assures her. “Our bond won’t spread so thin. We’ll still be able to feel each other there.”

She’s just as gloomy when it’s her turn to say goodbye to Stiles but she wraps her arms around him with as much force as she had her brother.

“I’ll look after him,” Stiles says, and she squeezes him tighter.

“I know you will. Make sure he visits.”

“I promise.”

He receives a hug from each of Derek’s family in turn, letting them rub one of their cheeks against his, like they’re layering their scent to give Derek something to remember them by.

Peter fetches their horses, and they descend the front steps to take the reins from him, Derek accepting a final hug and slap on the back. They swing up into their saddles, and with a final wave, they nudge their horses to a walk and leave the Hale Manor behind them.

“Are you sure?” Stiles asks, just before the house disappears from view.

Derek smiles at him, happy, no trace of doubt in his eyes. “I’m sure.”

The remaining escort left by his father awaits them at the main road, their camp already dismantled and ready to go. They fall in with the retinue for the return journey, battling a chill wind in their faces the entire way. Derek appears mostly unaffected by the cold despite a pink nose, but Stiles does manage to get him to shriek once they get home when he pulls icy hands out of his gloves and slips them up under Derek’s shirt right there in the entry hall.

The casual time spent at the Hale manor has led Stiles to forget himself, to act so familiarly outside the privacy of their rooms, but the gathered servants are all smiling, despite their averted eyes.

“Will Lord Hale require rooms to be prepared, Your Highness? We were unaware he would be returning to us.”

It’s not only the servants who were surprised to see Derek again so soon. The citizens too had been brimming with curiosity to see him returned and riding at Stiles’ side, but he supposes it will just be more fuel for the marriage rumours.

“That won’t be necessary, Matthew,” Virgil says, descending the stairs from the direction of Stiles’ quarters. “Lord Hale already has a place to stay.” He gives Stiles his usual bow. “I’ve prepared a bath, Your Highness, to warm you up before dinner.”

“Thank you, Virgil. I’m in great need of it.” He almost says we but catches himself at the last moment. Not that he really needed to bother. The fact that Derek is following him straight up the stairs leaves no illusion to the servants below exactly where he’s going.

Dinner feels almost lonely that evening with just the two of them, his father swamped with important correspondence. The table has been lined with candles with a small glass vase of two winter roses between them, and it looks suspiciously like the servants have conspired to make this as romantic as possible.

He can’t help casting furtive glances at Derek as they eat, wondering if he’s missing his family already, if he’s going to change his mind.

Stiles,” Derek eventually laughs in reprimand, “I’m okay.” He reaches for Stiles’ hand where it rests on the table, squeezing. “I have a life ahead of me again after so long of seeing no way out. After so many years lost. I’m going to live without regret, and that course leads here. With you.”

Stiles looks back into Derek’s eyes, so full of certainty and trust, filled to the brim with the love he has for the man in front of him.

“I can’t wait to marry you,” he says, simply, and Derek’s answering bashful smile might be the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen.

 

*

 

Their engagement is announced to the public the very next week and more outrageous verses sprout on the end of the already existing songs and poems.

Stiles would love to have their wedding on the same day as his birthday, the day Derek came back into his life even if it wasn’t known to him at the time, but his father puts his foot down there, adamant that those celebrations must remain separate. Stiles grudgingly agrees, but only if the wedding can happen before his birthday rather than after; he wants to be married to Derek as soon as he possibly can.

When they decide on the date of a month before Stiles’ birthday, the invitations are sent, including one to Chris and Allison. Stiles does want Allison to be there with all his heart, but he’s sure Derek is less than enthused to have Chris be invited. Unfortunately, there’s no way around it. In light of current events, this is a perfect opportunity to display their continuing alliance.

They both agree to attend, and Stiles, his father and Derek ride out to meet their party at the city gate when they arrive, an act to deter any abuse that might be aimed their way and exhibit support for their Argent guests.

Stiles wouldn’t have blamed Chris if he’d made the decision to decline the invite, even to keep Allison in particular out of potential harm’s way, but ultimately, that would have just sparked further hostility. This was the best choice he could have made.

The greeting from the Stellaran citizens is noticeably more muted compared to their reactions to processions past, and Stiles wonders if that might change by the time it comes for the Argents to leave. 

He looks back at Derek riding beside Chris, involved in what appears to be a cordial exchange of words, and gives him an encouraging smile when he catches his eye.

“I’m so happy for you, Stiles,” Allison says to him later that night when they catch a quiet moment just the two of them after dinner.

“Thank you.” A smile tugs at the corners of his lips, and he doesn’t bother trying to fight it.

“I have to admit, I never thought you’d be getting married before me,” she teases, and considering she and Scott have been betrothed sweethearts for years now, Stiles can’t believe it either. It’s sobering to remember the reason why their own marriage was delayed, but though there’s a flicker of sadness in Allison’s eyes, her smile doesn’t fade at all.

Scott arrives a few days later to a much warmer reception than the Argents, not needing an escort up through the city. He has a beaming smile where he’s giving a final wave to the citizens nearest the castle gates, and when he draws his horse to a halt, he dismounts in an agile leap that has Stiles laughing. It looks like being a werewolf is agreeing with him tremendously.

He greets Stiles with a hug, and Stiles can feel an extra weight to it, that same new bond he’d felt between them before. Allison waits inside the entry hall to reunite with him, deciding it was best to remain hidden from the public eye.

Derek’s family have come back to stay with them too in the lead up to the wedding, and both parties do their best to avoid each other, taking separate meals. Stiles does manage to get Scott and Allison together to dine with him and Derek more than once, and he’s so pleased and relieved to find that, after a bit of initial awkwardness, they get along just fine.

The night before the wedding, Derek’s family are there to whisk him away as soon as they’ve eaten dinner, taking it upon themselves to keep the two of them separated until it’s time for the ceremony tomorrow.

Scott offers to join him in his room, to reminisce about old times and partake in a kind of sleepover like they used to when they were children, but Stiles knows having another werewolf – probably even just another person – in the room they share on the night before their wedding will wreak havoc on Derek’s senses. He might enjoy invoking that possessive streak, but unleashing it on their wedding night isn’t the way Stiles wants to go.

Instead, he spends a lonely and fitful night in a cold bed, but this time, it isn’t only Derek’s absence that keeps him awake.

He’s getting married tomorrow. Derek is going to become his husband.

He knows that Derek getting cold feet is hardly something he needs to worry about, but he still panics about everything else that could go wrong. What if it rains? What if he falls on his face walking down the front steps to climb into the carriage and breaks his nose? What if the cathedral roof caves in overnight and they have to push back the wedding?

Stiles isn’t sure he gets a single wink all night.

He does hear from Scott in the morning how Derek had tried to slip away many times during the night but was thwarted at every turn. It makes him feel slightly better to know Derek was just as affected by the distance as he was.

Virgil is there to dress him after he’s turned down even the thought of managing breakfast, helping him into a gold doublet with a white filigree design covering the torso. He stands staring at himself in the mirror, tugging on the hem and taking short gasping breaths. Virgil reaches up to smooth his hands over the shoulders to make sure it sits just so.

“All will be well, Your Highness,” Virgil tells him, earnestly, with a gentle smile. “It’s going to be a beautiful day.”

Stiles can’t remember the journey from his rooms down to the entry hall. He’s only snapped out of his daze by cheering that erupts from the gathered castle staff at the sight of him. His father holds out his arms to draw him into his embrace, but Virgil holds up his hands to usher him back, not wanting anything to upset his handiwork.

He rides in a carriage to the cathedral with his father, Virgil taking a seat out beside the driver, but the journey is slow going. The city is bursting with people, more than Stiles thinks he’s ever seen, filling the roads that should have been kept clear. There’s no need to worry that he might be late; he knows that Derek will be departing after him.

Thankfully, they reach the cathedral without incident. He looks up at the magnificent building as he climbs from the carriage, needing to take a deep breath as the dizzying height of it makes his head spin. His father directs him to turn and wave to the citizens at the gates when he reaches the top of the steps, a gesture Stiles would entirely have forgotten if on his own.

When they step inside, every guest has risen to their feet, and Stiles isn’t sure if he manages to smile or not as he looks blankly around at all their beaming faces as his father steers him up the centre aisle. Virgil is following behind, and he goes to take a seat in one of the rows near the back. Stiles grabs him by the sleeve and forces him all the way up to the altar with them, directing him to take a seat in the front row to the right despite his protests.

His father gives Stiles’ upper arm an encouraging squeeze before he takes a seat beside Virgil, and Stiles is sure he’s laughing at him. He’s too nervous to care, licking dry lips and letting his eyes dart around the guests in attendance.

Chris and Allison sit behind his father, Scott beside them, and amongst the other familiar faces he spies Erica and Boyd with their young son, holding him up so he can wave. Derek’s family sit in the front row on the other side from his father, though Talia is missing. It makes his hands shake to know that the next time he sees her will be the moment that he sees Derek.

Cheering outside starts to grow louder and louder, and Stiles’ stomach somehow ends up in his throat as it reaches a crescendo. The guests rise to their feet again and two men open the cathedral doors, revealing Derek ready to step over the threshold.

He’s wearing a doublet to match Stiles’, but instead the colours are inverted, gold on white, and it brings out the warmth of his tan skin. The sight of him snatches Stiles’ breath, but he can finally feel his face again, smiling so wide it’s barely contained on his cheeks as Derek walks down the aisle to meet him, his mother and Alpha at his side to give him away. Stiles is infinitely glad not to be the one doing the walking. He can’t feel his legs. It’s like focusing on Derek shrinking the distance between them is the only reason that he’s managing to stay upright.

They reach the altar and Talia kisses her son’s cheek before taking a seat with her family, then Derek is holding his hands and the ceremony begins.

The next few minutes all turn to a blur in his memory, all except for Derek’s smiling face, for Derek’s shaking hands in his, for Derek’s eyes brimming with joy and awe and love as Stiles says I do and they slide the rings onto each other’s fingers, simple gold bands with the Stellaris four-pointed star engraved once in the centre – and a crescent moon engraved on the inside.

At the permission to kiss his husband, they both lean in, slow and sweet. When they part, he looks to his father who has tears in his eyes, to Virgil whose tears are streaming down his face, and he laughs, bright and light as air.

With Derek’s hand in his, they make their way back down the aisle amongst cheers and applause, down the front steps of the cathedral to their waiting horses draped in caparisons of white and gold to take the processional route through the city to greet the citizens.

Since he entered the cathedral, daffodils have appeared seemingly from nowhere in the hands of all the citizens in attendance, just like they would be at one of his birthday processions. But this time, amongst all the yellow is a white variety: a symbol of their wedding day, but also a symbol for Derek. It represents the peace that Derek and his family’s return brought to the country and, as Stiles has been informed by Virgil, the pure love that Derek has for him. To Stiles it represents the colour of the moon.

There’s a bit more order on the roads now, a path cleared for their horses amongst the hundreds of people who came to congratulate them on their wedding day - though Stiles is sure more than a few of them are here to see the Hale Lord back to life.

Bombarded by cheering and whooping and whistling, Stiles’ cheeks ache almost immediately from smiling so hard, but he knows he wouldn’t be able to wipe the grin from his face today if he tried. Derek is smiling just as widely, and Stiles watches as he reaches out to pluck a stem from the air with his werewolf reflexes and rides closer to tuck the white bloom behind Stiles’ ear.

The whooping gets louder at the sight. Stiles knows the public loves Derek’s ready affection for him, the way it always makes their Prince blush. But he isn’t one to be outdone.

He waves to an older gentleman by the side of the road holding a yellow daffodil, and the man tosses it up for Stiles to tuck behind Derek’s ear in return. Derek grins at him, and then makes Stiles stomach swoop by leaning in to kiss him right there in the middle of the procession. Cheering roars in his ears as Derek tilts his head to kiss him more deeply, probably delighting at being able to make this ultimate claim in front of the world.

Warmth flutters in his stomach, marvelling that he could possibly be this lucky. They’ve a night of feasting ahead of them, of more dancing, and Stiles is going to take great pleasure in retiring together at the end of the evening and leaving no doubt in anyone’s minds exactly where they’re going.

Derek pulls back to brush their noses together, sunlight sparkling in his eyes of green and gold, the shadow of a daffodil petal falling on his cheek. Stiles’ heart is so full that he can feel it beating in his chest, tugging him forward like perhaps it always has, leading him where he was always meant to be, straight into the arms of his beautiful, tender-hearted wolf.