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The Weight of an Enchanted Heart

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"By the Goddesses of the Earth and Moon, what was that?" Scott exclaimed as the will-o’-wisp glowed faintly before exploding into a blinding kaleidoscope of colors in the distance.

Stiles swore under his breath. "That was an ignis fatuus."

"I know it was supposed to be an ignis fatuus, but it was more like a barrel of gunpowder you lit on fire." Scott’s eyes narrowed as he stared at Stiles carefully. "That’s the third time tonight your magic went haywire, Stiles. And this time, you can’t blame it on some new spell. You’ve been able to do magical light shows since you were twelve."

Stiles thought back to a time when he and Scott would camp out on the palace grounds by the west gardens. The grass would tickle their backs, the air sweet with the scent of honeysuckle, and Stiles would add more lights to the heavens until it was a blanket of twinkling stars. 

He looked down at his hands, betrayed. Scott was right; Stiles wasn’t sure what was happening, but nowadays it seemed as if he couldn’t manage even the most basic of spells.

"Look, I just need to try one more time," he insisted. Stiles brushed the back of his hand against his forehead and trembled as it came back slick with his sweat. When did it get so hot out here? "Just a small, easy one." He took a deep breath and wiggled his fingers as he directed a simple levitation spell at the half-empty bottle of mead at Scott’s side.

Scott whipped around, his nostrils flaring. "Wait!" he shouted, taking several steps back as his eyes widened in horror. "Stiles! Stop!"

Stiles couldn’t pull the spell back, as much as he wanted to. The wave of magic pulsed against his skin, white hot and ashen at the edges as it sizzled through the air unchecked, the direction of its path beyond Stiles’ control. There was a thunderous sound as it struck the heart of the large oak tree over five hundred feet in the distance, cleaving it straight down the middle.

"Circe," Stiles croaked. His knees buckled under him as he slid to the ground.

*

"It’s too much for him to handle, with the level of his innate abilities."

"I can’t break my promise to him!"

"What will happen? If things continue as they are?"

Stiles fought the lassitude that was keeping him down. He could make out several of the voices surrounding him: Deaton, his father, and Scott, though that combination never boded well.

He tried to open his mouth. After several agonizing tries, Stiles croaked out something half-intelligible.

"Dad?" Fuck, everything felt so dry. 

His father’s hands were on him in a second, their calloused warmth a familiar and reassuring sensation. "Stiles? Thank the goddesses, you’re awake." His voice, usually steady even during times of political upheaval and strife, trembled. 

"‘M okay," Stiles slurred as he tried to force his eyelids open.

"Hmmm." Deaton murmured, his footsteps growing closer. If Stiles could roll his eyes, he would have. Deaton was knowledgeable, but he spoke in riddles half the time. Stiles would prefer to unpack what was happening to him without having to wade through a pile of Deaton-isms. "Can you tell me your given name?"

Seriously? "Mieczysław Stilinski," Stiles rasped out, his tongue tripping over the words.

"How old are you?"

"Eighteen."

"Can you tell me where you are?"

Stiles frowned. He was definitely not outdoors, and the bed underneath him felt too neat to be his own. "The Isle of Brenna," he said eventually, choosing what he hoped was a safe answer. "I’m okay." He repeated. "I’m just tired."

"You’re more than ‘just tired’." His father muttered, his worried countenance coming into focus as Stiles finally opened his eyes.

"What, can’t a guy take a little nap around here without everyone going crazy?" Stiles tried to joke, but as he sat up, his vision grew blurred and the world spun around him. "I don’t get it," he said, biting his lower lip. The last he remembered, he was out in the fields by the west gate of the kingdom with Scott. "It was just a simple spell."

"Yeah. A simple spell that knocked you out for nearly forty-eight hours," Scott said with a snort. "Yeah, buddy," he added as Stiles’ jaw dropped.

"Dad?" Stiles hated how small his voice sounded.

His father scrubbed his face. In the early morning light of Deaton’s chambers, Stiles could see the dark circles under his dad’s eyes and the way his smile didn’t quite reach them. As king, his father had seen the best and worst in men, and the only time Stiles had seen his father look so defeated was when his mother’s grasp on reality became progressively fleeting.

Fuck. Whatever happened to him, it couldn’t have been good. "Can someone please tell me what’s going on?"

What Stiles really meant was for his dad or Scott to tell him. Of course, it was Deaton who stepped forward.

"Life is about balance, Stiles. Birth and death, creation and destruction, light and dark, give and take are concepts that transcend culture and religion. Magic is no different. And the need for such balance is even greater when we consider the extremes."

Understanding Deaton’s point was difficult enough on most days, and certainly worse when Stiles felt like he’d been hit over the head with a pallet of stones. He shook his head gently, trying to clear away the fog.

"Are you saying my magic is unbalanced?"

"Your mother was one of the most gifted and instinctive mages I’ve met. I never expected to find another with such promise. That is, until you came along."

"I still don’t see what this has to do with the whole balance thing." Stiles groused as his father huffed out a laugh. He didn’t fool Stiles one bit; Stiles knew his dad was just as impatient for Deaton to get to the point as he was.

"Patience, Stiles. Everything has a time and place." Deaton turned and walked towards the window. When he next spoke, he was not facing Stiles, yet his words were just as compelling. "Magic creates a change in the physical world through force of will. A mage acts as a conduit, and the greater the change, the more it requires of the user. Do you know what designation—alphas, betas, or omegas—have had the most mages?"

Stiles furrowed his brow. "I want to say they have equal numbers but I have a feeling you’re going to tell me something different."

The corners of Deaton’s mouth quirked. "Your statement is not far from the truth."

"Medea and Morgana were alphas." Scott mused, sitting straighter.

Stiles rolled his eyes. "And Nicolas Flamel was a beta, while Abe no Seimei and Merlin were omegas. All were brilliant mages, with different designations. Biology doesn’t dictate ability in any field of study, and certainly not the ability to perform magic." He thought about his mother, who was not only a wise and compassionate ruler but also one of the most brilliant mages Stiles had ever known. She had been every bit his father’s equal, without any regard to her omega status.

Deaton gave a slight nod. "Your designation doesn’t dictate ability. But the truth is, it dictates affinity. Because of their inherent sensitivities and intuitiveness, omegas have an easier time acting as conduits between the supernatural and physical world. There are comparable numbers of alpha, beta, and omega magic users throughout history, but when we look at the percentages of mages to each population, omegas are more than double the ratio for alphas and betas combined."

"That may be, but what does that have to do with Stiles’ loss of control over his magic?" Scott asked, echoing Stiles’ sentiment.

"It’s a balance," Deaton reiterated. "You’ve been practicing magic since you were eleven, and now your talents are coming to the fore. If I remember correctly, you presented as an omega at fifteen."

It was a statement rather than a question. The memory made Stiles’ cheeks heat. It had been his first, and last, heat. He’d thought he would be an alpha like his dad or Scott, or at least a beta; omegas were exceedingly rare, and male omegas even more so. He was inexperienced and unprepared, and by the time he had stepped out from his rooms after five agonizing days, he had ordered the royal apothecary to concoct a suppressant, which he’s taken ever since.

"What does my status have to do with anything?" Stiles asked, steering the conversation back to whatever the hell went wrong.

His father rested a hand against Stiles’ shoulder. Stiles leaned against him, drawing comfort and reassurance from his dad’s touch. "Are you saying there’s a connection between Stiles’ use of magic and his physical well-being, Lord Deaton?"

"Yes. I understand Marin has been supplying you with your suppressant for the past three years. My sister is skilled, but even the most experienced potions mistress can’t completely suppress biological drive. Suppressants were never meant to be taken for long periods without respite, especially for omegas entering their most fertile years. It is why the first heat after coming off suppressants is unusually intense. The longer the suppressant is used, the more vigorous the drive to address your body’s needs. It’s about the body trying to regain balance.

"It’s not just about suppressant use, however. You’ve been performing a lot of magic recently, including some intricate and powerful spells. You’re asking a lot of your omega nature—"

"This is ridiculous!" Stiles cried. His eyes prickled as overwhelming anger and sadness washed over him. His mother had taught him that anything was possible. "Are you saying I can’t do magic anymore unless I come off my suppressants?"

"Stiles, that… " His father’s voice trailed off, his face etched with regret. "Of course you can do magic. Your magic is a part of you, just as your omega nature is part of you. Just as they were a part of your mother." He smiled, and Stiles saw a wistful fondness in the way his dad’s eyes crinkled. "You can’t compartmentalize them, because they’re intrinsic to who you are. Ignoring either is akin to depriving your body of sustenance. Eventually, it will rebel."

"And by ‘sustenance’, you mean succumbing to my heats," Stiles said flatly.

"Eventually, you will have to address your drive to procreate," Deaton said. He sounded apologetic, but Stiles was so angry he couldn’t even appreciate the fact that something finally broke his tutor’s usually unflappable expression. "It might be tempered by the company of an alpha. Again, to restore the balance."

Stiles chewed on his lower lip. "Well, I have Scott and my father. Surely that—"

Deaton’s face turned a deep red. "My apologies. I should have been more clear: your magic has grown powerful and unruly, and both it and you, as an omega, are seeking an anchor. The best thing would be to bond with someone equally powerful. A true alpha mate."

Stiles sputtered. "That’s… Are you telling me that the most powerful omega magicians in history have been biologically required to mate?"

"You know Merlin was an omega. As Scott mentioned previously, Morgan le Fay was an alpha."

"Nimue was an alpha, too," Stiles said sourly. He didn’t have to add that Merlin’s love for Morgana and the Lady of the Lake led to nothing but heartache and downfall. By the sound of his father’s sigh, the distaste in Stiles’ expression was telling enough.

 

Lunansholt

Two months later

"Circe, it’s cold," Scott said, drawing his woolen wrap around him as their caravan entered the forest. "This is even worse than when we had to visit your cousins for the winter solstice. Oh, or when we had to go to Prastovnia for Kira’s engagement to Malia. That was horrible; I couldn’t feel my fingers for a week."

To be fair, most climes seemed cold compared to Brenna’s temperate environs. But as Stiles and Scott and the rest of the contingent from Brenna made their way north, the heavens seemed to mirror Stiles’ mood; the atmosphere turning gray and sharp.

"Seems apt. Have to keep the balance, right?" Stiles snarked, unable to keep the bitterness from his voice. He patted his horse’s neck gently as she seemed to snort in agreement.

"You don’t have to go through with this, Stiles. If King Derek is a jerk, or dull, or, I don’t know, he can’t pronounce your real name, just… if there’s any reason you can’t go through with the marriage, I’d be willing to help." Scott took a deep breath. "It would be an honor."

Stiles’ heart warmed at the declaration. He loved Scott, but they’d been like two peas in a pod since diapers. There was no way Stiles could look at Scott as anything but his brother, and he knew Scott felt similarly. 

"Thanks for the offer. And because you’re the best friend in the world, I promise to never take you up on it. Because I’m pretty sure we’d be scarred for life." Stiles smiled under the scarf that was pulled up covering the lower part of his face when Scott heaved a sigh of relief. "It can’t be that bad, right? I mean, both Lydia and my dad vetted the king."

Derek Hale, ruler of the northern kingdom of Lunansholt, was six years older than Stiles and a shapeshifter who was renowned for his prowess on the battlefield—and his aversion, at least until now, to matrimony. Stiles knew little about his husband-to-be, aside from the gossip that had leaked in from other kingdoms. Brenna sat considerably south of where most of the fighting had taken place over the past century, and its island geography afforded a physical barrier that allowed it to remain isolated from the turmoil that plagued the mainland. The island was rich with farmlands and the fruits of the sea, and culturally replete with magic and the arts. But such things were not the bounties a war-torn country sought, and Stiles couldn’t fathom what the Hale clan would gain through a political alliance brought by marriage, unless Lunansholt’s king was the type of domineering alpha who viewed a rare, royal omega as a trophy. In which case Stiles would actually consider Scott’s offer, because… 

Just, no.

Stiles pulled his fur-lined cloak closer. He resisted the temptation to use magic to fight the chill that settled into his bones, a coldness that had nothing to do with the frigid temperatures of the north.

*

Stiles stared at the man who greeted them at the castle’s gates. He was dressed in heavily embroidered clothes in the Hale colors of red, blue, and gold, and was undeniably striking, even with the scars that marred the side of his throat. His eyes were intelligent and a piercing blue, his face stern but not unkind. He was handsome, if a bit older than Stiles had imagined.

"Your Royal Highness." Stiles began.

The man laughed. It was deep and coarse, as if his throat was unused to producing the sound.

"I am not your betrothed, Prince Mieczysław, although I am flattered to be mistaken for him. I am Peter Hale, Royal Advisor and King Derek’s uncle." Peter craned his neck to take in the rest of the delegation and the carriages filled with gifts and Stiles’ dowry. His eyes widened briefly as he appeared to stare out at something at the edge of the forest, before returning his gaze to Stiles, with a decidedly wolfish grin. "Follow me, please. My nephew should be joining us soon."

*

Stiles wasn’t sure what he expected from his first meeting with Derek. He knew theirs was a political alliance; he had given up on the childish notion that he could marry for love, as his parents had, but there had been a part of him that had hoped he and Derek could at least grow to respect one another and maybe become friends. Sitting with Scott, Lydia, and Peter in the antechamber as he awaited his betrothed’s arrival, his expectations for a civil union faded with each passing second. The snow had long melted into a puddle around Stiles’ boots and his skin was growing heated and itchy under the collar of his robes.

Stiles picked at the edge of his cloak as his nervousness slid into anger. "Lord Hale," he began, addressing Peter, "I understand if the king has been detained. But our group has been journeying for seventeen days, through occasionally inhospitable conditions. Perhaps it would be better for us to refresh ourselves in our rooms until he is ready to meet us."

Peter cocked his head as if he were listening to something faraway. Stiles strained to hear, but all he noticed was the loud ticking of the mechanical clock that echoed off the stone walls.

"I apologize, Prince Mieczysław. I believe, however, that Derek has finally arrived." True to his word, the front door slammed open behind them, and Stiles turned around, curious despite himself.

The greeting he had prepared fell from his lips as he laid eyes on Derek for the first time. Lunansholt’s king was tall and broad, his heavy brows set in what appeared to be a permanent scowl. His stride was angry and purposeful, and as Derek tugged off his mud-caked bracers, Stiles noted his eyes were wild and bloodshot. Derek looked more like a wolf than a man, and as Stiles took in the rest of Derek’s appearance, with his long and matted beard and the briars in his unkempt hair, he felt the flush of indignation spread across his cheeks.

"Your Royal Highness," Stiles said with a small bow. He had failed to keep the mockery from his tone, if Peter’s smirk was to be relied on. 

"I apologize for my tardiness." Derek’s voice was low and gravelly, as if his throat were abused. Before Stiles could reply, Derek had already turned and was addressing his uncle. Lydia, bless her, let out an indignant huff. "The Beserksyrrs were carrying this," he said as he withdrew a seax from its sheath and tossed it onto a small table. Peter picked it up gingerly by the hilt. "Careful. It’s coated in Nordic Blue."

Stiles craned his neck to peek at the blade. Someone had meticulously crafted it, its silvered edge more finely honed than any he’d seen in the royal collection back home. There appeared to be something carved into the metal where the blade met the hilt, but Stiles couldn’t make it out, not from his distance. It seemed to have significance, however, since Derek’s brow furrowed more deeply and Peter’s lips thinned.

"We will deal with this later," Peter said. "However, we have kept our distinguished guests waiting long enough."

The seax was worrisome, apparently. Perhaps it explained Derek’s surly and impolite behavior. Stiles took a step closer, willing to start with a clean slate. "Mieczysław is my birth name, although my friends and family call me ‘Stiles’." He motioned to Scott and Lydia, who were standing at his side. "I’d like to introduce you to Sergeant Scott McCall and Lady Lydia Martin, royal advisor for the House of Gajos-Stilinski."

That was what finally created a change in Derek’s previously immovable brow. Stiles watched as it slowly lifted, arching nearly to the top of his forehead as his mouth drew into a smirk. "A sergeant? I thought your country had maintained its neutrality for nearly a hundred years."

There was no mistaking the disdain in Derek’s voice, and after the arduous journey, the unfortunate circumstances leading up to the betrothal, and their less-than-stellar reception, Stiles’ patience snapped and he lashed out at the rejection of an alpha he’d already gotten accustomed to thinking of as his own. 

"The reports of your bluntness precede you, King Derek. However, I never knew that you were also cruel." Hurt and anger propelled him further, and Stiles stepped into Derek’s space, not caring that Derek’s eyes went wide, or that his fangs began to drop and irises had turned bright red. "Brenna has been fortunate enough to avoid the loss and devastation that comes from war, but it does not mean we remain idle and unprepared. And for your information, Scott is a corporal of the horse, the second in command for the Royal Cavalry. I would be confident in pitting his skills against anyone in your own army."

Stiles expected a reaction, but not the one he received. Instead of reprimanding Stiles with a tongue lashing or worse, Derek backed away, his face filled with shock and confusion. "You… you’re an omega," he said, his expression pinched and nostrils flaring.

"And you’re an asshole if you think that makes you better than me," Stiles retorted. He felt his magic gather around him as his indignation grew. Scott made a move to reach out to Stiles as the priceless vase on the table rattled, but must have thought better of it as Derek began to growl.

"I’m not… They never said…" Derek began helplessly. He looked from Peter to Stiles, his shoulders drooping as if the weight of his armor were suddenly too heavy. Stiles was only familiar with werewolves through stories, but if Derek’s ability to shift between his human and wolf forms was like Stiles’ use of magic, he appeared to be on the verge of losing control. "My apologies. I did not intend to insult you," Derek added between gritted teeth, right before running out of the room.

Stiles, Scott, and Lydia watched the king disappear with equal looks of confusion.

"Well!" Lydia snapped after Derek’s retreating figure. "How incredibly impolite! If this is the type of diplomacy Lunansholt is used to, no wonder your country is—"

"Despite the stories propagated by humans, wolves by nature are sociable and not inclined to attack unless goaded." Peter interrupted, his eyes turning an unnaturally bright blue. "However, the past has shown us that politeness means little when surrounded by those who want nothing more than to see us dead."

"There’s a difference between being blunt and being insulting," Stiles said, answering Peter’s defense with a sally of his own. "And I thought wolves were not only sociable but familial as well. My father supported our betrothal because you cherish your mates. I’m not expecting sonnets and flowers, but the least His Royal Highness could do is to be polite." He tilted his chin defiantly, although his cheeks heated at his boldness.

"Ah." Peter remained quiet for a moment as he regarded Stiles with renewed interest. "Touché, young prince. But as for your second point, perhaps this will mitigate your opinion on my nephew." He withdrew the seax, wrapped the point of the blade in his handkerchief and showed it to Stiles carefully. This close, Stiles could make out the initials ‘K.A.’ etched into the metal. "My nephew fancied himself in love once. This is how he was greeted today by his ex-lover."

*

Despite Stiles’ relatively short lifetime, there were few obstacles that he viewed as insurmountable. Perhaps it was the thrum of magic that ran through him, a precious gift from the fae on his mother’s side. Or maybe it was his ability to look at a problem from multiple angles, a process of logic that was handed down to him by his father. It was why, after he had moved past the initial shock of Deaton’s assessment, he agreed to find an alpha to bond with. He allowed himself to mourn the loss of finding someone he would fall madly, deeply, and irrevocably in love with; convinced his father that marrying King Derek was truly his decision; then promised himself that he would do what he could to make their union as worthwhile as possible.

Stiles tried to bolster his spirits as he prepared for dinner. Peter had reassured him it was a small affair, and that only Derek’s closest friends and advisors would be invited. Still, Stiles had wanted to make a good impression, even though it seemed to make little difference to the shapeshifter king. He had dressed in his royal robes. They were made of the finest wools and silks, the embroidered floral designs that lined the cuffs and hems were exquisitely detailed, and they draped over the lines of his body impeccably. 

Yet even his heaviest clothing was no match for the cold that seemed to penetrate the castle as soon as the sun disappeared behind the horizon. Stiles glanced at the fur robe Derek had left for him. It wasn’t as prettily decorated as his current dress, but a small part of him longed to wrap himself in the lush wrap, to envelop himself in the smell and touch of his alpha.

Wait. Derek wasn’t his alpha, not even in name. Stiles chided himself for such thoughts. They weren’t married yet, and already his omega was swooning from the idea of being provided for.

He left the fur robe untouched, as much a reminder to himself as well as a symbolic gesture of his independence, and made his way to the Great Hall. The torches flickered, casting long shadows against the walls, and there was a dampness in the tunnels that he felt in his bones. As he approached the main dining room, Stiles heard the sounds of music and laughter, along with the clinking of silverware. He had refused the help of Boyd, one of Derek’s trusted lieutenants, in escorting him to dinner, and he felt a pang of regret at his stubbornness. 

"It is not a show of weakness to accept help when you need it." His father was fond of reminding him.

"Too late now," Stiles muttered to himself. He tried to smooth out his robes, but the dank cold of the tunnels made the material cling unbecomingly. He sighed and squared his jaw, then stepped into the room where dinner was already in progress.

The tables were heavy with roasted meats and the goblets overflowing with wine and mead. There was a huge hearth near the front of the room, the wood inside it crackling while the fire’s flames danced merrily. But as enticing a sight as that was in Stiles’ state, it was the appearance of Derek sitting at the head of the table that stole his breath.

The shapeshifter king bore little resemblance to the disheveled, grotty person who stalked into the anteroom that afternoon. Derek’s expression was still troubled, but the long lengths of his hair were now washed and clipped and his beard trimmed, outlining the magnificent angle of his jaw and highlighting his sharp cheeks and the straight line of his nose. His lips were full and wide and, for a moment, Stiles imagined they would be so soft. When Derek smiled at the woman to his right, Stiles nearly gasped at his beauty.

Derek looked up at that moment, his eyes locking with Stiles’. Stiles felt a dull flush crawl upon his face under the intense scrutiny. He took a step forward—and promptly stumbled.

There was a flurry of activity from the table as someone moved with superhuman speed. A powerful pair of arms wrapped around him, holding him steady. A firm, broad chest supported him from behind, and to Stiles’ horror, he found himself burrowing into the warmth, taking several deep huffs of intoxicating alpha musk before coming to his senses.

"Are you all right?" Derek asked, the deep rumble of his voice nearly making Stiles purr.

This wasn’t characteristic of Stiles, not at all. He was the son of Noah Stilinski and Claudia Gajos: a powerful mage and someone who was consistently at the top of his class. He wasn’t the star of some trite alpha-omega fairytale romance of old, and he definitely did not want to be an omega cliché. 

"Put me down," Stiles hissed. 

Derek shook his head, appearing as befuddled as Stiles until his breathing settled and the red of his eyes faded to a bottle-glass green. As his eyes cleared, his brows drew down further into a vee, and his mouth settled into a frown.

"As you wish," Derek said. His lips twisted into a smirk as he slid out from behind.

Stiles squawked as he felt his legs twist from under him, his arms flailing in a Herculean effort to stop from landing in an undignified heap. He managed to stay upright—barely—before collecting himself and taking his seat to the left of Derek with as much grace as he could muster.

Lydia leaned over from where she was sitting to Stiles’ left and straightened the neckline of his tunic. "The days are shorter in Lunansholt," she whispered. "The stone walls of the castle do not keep the level of heat that we’re used to in the south. You will catch a cold if you don’t dress appropriately."

"I left you a robe for that purpose." Derek looked at Stiles, his eyes intense and challenging.

"I didn’t feel the need at the time."

"Oh?" Derek’s gaze slid down until it stopped at Stiles’ chest, his face breaking out into a slow grin.

Stiles followed the path of Derek’s gaze. His face flamed when he saw the way his clothes clung to his chest, his nipples undeniably erect under the fabric. "At the time." He wanted to add that it was rude to listen to other people’s conversations, but he remembered werewolves had superior hearing. It would do him well to keep that in mind. "I will remember, next time."

"Are you looking forward to the bonding ceremony?" The question came from the young woman sitting between Derek and Peter. She had Derek’s darker coloring, although her eyes were a golden brown. Like both of them, she was beautiful. 

Though the woman’s words were casual, there was something in her sullen expression that made Stiles choose his words carefully. "I am looking forward to learning more of your customs," he said as he reached for his cup.

"Well, in that case, you should know that our ancestors used to strip naked and chase their mates in the forest like prey."

Derek growled. "Cora! That’s enough."

"What?" Cora said, her eyes flashing gold. "He said—"

"Um… Well, seeing that sex and fertility rituals have been integral to many human civilizations for thousands of years, it’s not like you’ve cornered the market on slightly feral hedonistic ceremonies," Stiles said, resolutely not thinking about what Derek would look like naked and on the prowl. He still wasn’t sure he was completely successful, however, when Derek’s stare intensified and Cora let out a huff.

"It doesn’t matter, anyway," Cora said crossly. "You’re an omega. All you have to do is bat those pretty lashes and everything falls into place."

"Bat my—Are you serious?" Stiles exclaimed. He was halfway out of his chair before he felt Lydia’s hand on his arm, restraining him. The Hales ruled Lunansholt for over five hundred years, and had sired an exceptional number of alphas, but there was no reason for such ignorance, even if it came from the mouth of a teenager. "Omegas do more than bat our eyes. We are your neighbors, your allies, your enemies, and your equals. Circe, if you consider us as anything less, it’s not only an insult but a dangerous way of thinking."

"For the second time today, I find myself apologizing to you. You are correct that my sister’s statement was ignorant," Derek added as Cora shrunk back in her seat, visibly chastised, "although her opinions are based on experience and her desire to defend me. Whether I need it or not." He shared a look with Peter; when Peter nodded, Derek stood. "Your country is famed for its records and rare scrolls, Prince Stiles, but there are some things you are not privy to. Since we are to be bonded, we should start rectifying that now."

Stiles gawped at the sincerity, entirely unexpected given the alpha’s previous brusque behavior. After he regained his bearings, he accepted the hand Derek held out.

Derek’s hand was large and strong. The contrast had Stiles shivering at the touch.

"Lead the way, Your Highness."

Derek nodded. "We’ll fetch you a cloak on the way out."

*

The moon was nearly full as Stiles and Derek walked down the path that wound through the northern gardens of the castle. They were unlike the ones that Stiles grew up with. Instead of the delicate blooms of roses or the fragrant scents of orchids and hibiscus, the grounds were terraced and lined with stone and brick, and filled with berry-laden branches of hawthorn and dogwood. They were just as beautiful as the ones on Brenna, however, and Stiles felt his magic stirring as he breathed in the crisp night air.

Even though Derek must have walked the same path a thousand times, he also seemed mesmerized. He looked up to the heavens, his eyes lingering on the moon, bright and silver and a pregnant weight in the sky.

"There will be a full moon in two days." Stiles mused. "On the day we are to be bonded."

"Marriages are considered fortuitous if they occur on a full moon. As a werewolf, it satisfies all three parts of our person."

"How so?" Stiles asked.

"Our biology focuses on our ability to procreate, to sustain our lineage. The human part of us is more complicated. We may choose to marry for a multitude of reasons: convenience, love, loneliness, safety, or companionship."

Stiles swallowed and stared at his hands. He didn’t miss the fact that Derek listed ‘convenience’ as the first reason, nor that he hadn’t weighed in on his desire to start a family.

He pulled the fur cloak Derek had lent him around him more closely. It was the same one he had been wearing that afternoon and it smelled strongly of his scent. "And what about your wolf?"

"Our wolves look for all those things. Factors such as attraction and the desire for family are important in our choices of a mate, but we also consider bravery, loyalty, and a sense of pack. A full moon is the point in the lunar cycle when we are closest to our wolf. And it is the part of myself I trust the most."

Stiles wondered if that’s why the Hales were so insistent that the bonding ceremony take place at the end of the month. To coincide with the full moon.

"You trust your wolf but not your alpha’s instincts." Stiles thought out loud. "I mean, both you and Cora seem to harbor a distrust of omegas. Not that either of you has said so outright," he hastened to add as Derek arched a brow, "but I’m not a fool."

Derek hesitated. "It’s not that I distrust omegas. Rather, I distrust myself."

The argument Stiles had been building in his head dropped as Derek’s voice wavered. "Oh?"

Derek dragged his eyes from the moon reluctantly. "I wonder what you and your father thought my reasons were for seeking your hand in marriage."

Stiles thought back to when he and his father had combed through the offers that flooded the palace once news of his marriageable status was known. Despite the volume of candidates, there were few that Stiles considered seriously. He had chosen Derek based on his age, his alpha status, and Lunansholt’s acceptance of magic and their statesmanship. Admittedly, it wasn’t much to go on.

"I know that the fighting has escalated between you and King Gerard of Arnarhvall. History has shown neither you nor your parents were interested in expanding Lunansholt’s borders; rather, you were fighting to defend your territory. And while that is a policy I find personally agreeable, your enemies have no compunction about putting their neighbors on the sword. I assume a marriage with me would strengthen your political position at the very least. And my country could provide yours with the required resources."

Derek nodded. "Three hundred years ago, the Argents were more known for their potion skills than their fighting abilities. King Henri was a leading botanist and spent many years cultivating plants for medicinal use and crop enhancement. Because of our shared border, he also studied plants that could be used against werewolves: mistletoe, mountain ash, and wolfsbane, for example.

"His daughter, Princess Marie-Jean, had fallen in love with Pierre Valet, the son of a skilled hunter. She became Pierre’s student and later his wife, and soon exceeded his skills with a bow. When a rogue werewolf began terrorizing the countryside, killing large numbers of livestock and, later, people, she and her father put their knowledge of hunting and plants to use. It was Princess Marie-Jean who killed the Beast of Gevaudan. When the beast died, he reverted to his human form: that of the king’s son and Marie-Jean’s brother, Prince Sebastian. It is not known how Sebastian was turned, but King Henri firmly laid the blame on a were from Lunansholt. For the next two hundred years, his accusation embroiled our countries in a devastating war," he said bitterly as Stiles nodded. "We had been feared and targeted before, but never with such hatred and fervor."

"The fighting between your countries. Has it never relented?"

Derek gave him a sad smile. "We came close. Twenty years ago, there was hope for a marriage between the Hales and the Argents."

The thought made Stiles’ blood run cold. He knew some marriages were arranged before the ink on the birth announcement had the chance to dry, but twenty years meant Derek was only four. If the idea of an arranged marriage at eighteen was unpalatable, Stiles couldn’t imagine what it felt like to grow up knowing your entire future was already planned.

Stiles recalled the initials on the seax, and how Peter said it was from Derek’s former lover. Gerard had a daughter Kate, who was famed for her cunning and beauty. They could have been matched at a young age, even though Stiles believed she was five or six years older than Derek.

He hazarded a guess. "You and Princess Kate?"

Derek’s entire body stiffened. He let out a wounded sound, and both the human and omega sides of Stiles ached to reach out and console him. Stiles sought Derek’s hand, and when Derek didn’t pull away, he gave it a gentle squeeze.

Derek took a deep breath as the lines next to his mouth deepened. "I’m referring to Peter and Gerard’s son, Christopher," Derek said, without removing his hand. "My older sister Laura thought it was romantic, our very own version of Romeo and Juliet. When Christopher presented as an alpha and Peter as an omega, we were even surer. But when Peter was nineteen, Chris ceased all communication with him. The next thing we knew, he was married to Queen Victoria of Guodalir. Arnarhvall gained a powerful military ally and my uncle lost his mate. To this day, he refuses to talk about Christopher."

"Poor Peter." Knowing Peter’s designation while also seeing the clear central role he played in the kingdom's politics, Stiles could understand Derek’s insistence that he didn’t distrust omegas. But it still didn’t explain why Derek found it hard to trust himself around them. He said as much, at which point Derek hung his head, embarrassment coloring his features, noticeable even in the moonlight.

"There was another time when our families were nearly bound. However, it was hardly romantic." Derek appeared restless and ill at ease as he removed his hand from Stiles’. Stiles held his breath, knowing that whatever Derek had to say was likely even more sordid. "I was head over heels when I first met Kate. She was beautiful, smart, and challenging. She is a bit like you, in that way," Derek added as Stiles’ heart beat faster at the compliment. "I told my parents that I would bring our families together; they indulged me, even as my mother pulled me aside and conveyed her reservations. Perhaps it was her alpha’s instinct, but she never trusted Kate, not like she had Christopher. I was sixteen, so of course, I thought I knew better.

"The next time I saw Kate, it was at a midsummer’s ball, hosted by someone our families were both trying to forge an alliance with. Kate—we don’t know for sure, but I’m fairly certain she slipped something into my drink to trigger my rut. Peter found us, and if he hadn’t stopped me, I would have knotted Kate and claimed her for my mate. I struck out at Peter while in the haze of my rut. He still wears the scars around his neck to prove it."

"Derek… What Kate did to you is a punishable offense. She stimulated your rut. That’s forcing you into something without your consent."

"I know. We tried to find traces of the potion, but I must have burned through most of it. There was nothing detectable by the time my parents brought me to the Council’s physician. We later learned Kate planned to accuse me of giving her a claiming bite against her will. She wanted to show that werewolves couldn’t be trusted. That even young werewolves were extremely dangerous. She may not have been able to charge me as she’d wished, but the seed had been planted. The Argents brought more families onto their side, and in the battles that followed, I lost both my parents and my older sister."

Stiles was inconsolable after his mother had passed. He couldn’t imagine what it must have felt like for Derek to lose so many, so quickly.

"I’m sorry," Stiles said, knowing it was wholly inadequate.

Derek gave Stiles a wry smile. "I apologize for Cora. I’ve been far too lenient with her. She’s without our parents, and all she has to guide her is Peter and myself: two bachelors with no children of their own."

"You won’t be a bachelor after Saturday," Stiles reminded Derek as he gave his shoulder a nudge.

"And neither will you." Derek agreed. He turned toward Stiles, taking both of Stiles’ hands in his, his face open and earnest. "You’re eighteen. Based on the urgency in your father’s letter, I doubt marriage to me was something you’d planned, let alone desired." When Stiles didn’t disagree, Derek’s face twisted into a wry grimace. "And I could say the same, no matter how much my family wished it for me. I am not an easy person, Stiles; I was cocky and impulsive when I was younger, and now I’m distrustful and bitter. But I will do my best to be good to you."

The confession Stiles was prepared to divulge died in his throat. He’d wanted to share a piece of himself with Derek, too. To confess his inexperience, his fear that their connection wouldn’t be enough to control his magic, that he longed for the love his parents had shared. That his father’s promise to allow him the freedom to marry whomever he chose was ripped away by the caprice of his magic. But it didn’t seem as if that was the closeness Derek was seeking, especially since he’d all-but-confirmed his disinterest in their marriage.

Stiles didn’t realize his magic was responding to his emotional turmoil until the air grew sharp and bitter and the wind picked up, bending the trees.

Derek sucked in his breath. "You’re cold," he murmured, placing his arm around Stiles as Stiles shivered.

At least the spell didn’t end in an explosion or knocking Stiles unconscious. He leaned ever-so-slightly against Derek, and as he drew solace from the alpha’s strength, he noted his omega grew content and his magic eventually settled. 

Derek said he would do his best to be good to Stiles. Stiles just hoped that it would be enough.

*

By the light of day, the castle was no less foreboding. Stiles’ bedroom was high in the keep, and despite its exquisite furnishings and the warmth of the morning sun, it still felt cold and impersonal. 

Stiles looked around his chambers. "This is so not going to work," he said, marching over to his trunk. He threw open the lid and dug through its contents, taking out a package he’d carefully wrapped in cloth. His fingers shook as he lifted the corners of the soft wool, revealing the miniature painting inside. 

"Hey, Mom," Stiles said, his lips curling softly at the corners as he stared at his family’s portrait. He traced a finger along the frame, gaining comfort from its well-worn edges. "Remember when you used to tell me stories of shapeshifters and creatures of the night? Well, it turns out I’m going to be married to one. He’s a bit rough around the edges, but he cares about his family, and he’s got a decent side to him, too. And, uh, I guess he’s not hard on the eyes. If you’re into the whole tall, dark, and mysterious kind of thing," he added, his cheeks heating as he remembered how it had felt to be cradled in Derek’s arms.

Stiles placed the painting on his nightstand. Embarrassed by his flight of romantic fancy, he turned back to his trunk and busied himself with unpacking the rest of his belongings. The book of elemental spells he had been working on with Deaton before his magic grew too uncontrolled was placed on a shelf, along with a book of healing charms. His father’s star-shaped medallion rested next to the portrait, and a chess set with mythical creatures carved out of rare woods earned a place on the small table by the window seat. Stiles was so engrossed in his task that he didn’t realize what time it was until the clock chimed the eleventh hour.

"Shit," he said as he looked down at his clothes. He was supposed to meet Peter, Lydia, and Derek half an hour ago to discuss the details of the marriage ceremony, yet he was still dressed in the simple tunic and trousers he’d slept in last night. For a moment, he debated the merits of changing into something more formal versus the censure he’d invariably receive for his lateness. But he remembered his outburst after Derek had kept them waiting yesterday, so he grabbed the nearest robe and sprinted down the stairs.

"Ahh, Prince Mieczysław," Peter said as Stiles skidded through the library doors. "How nice of you to join us. I trust you’re now suitably refreshed?"

Stiles didn’t miss how Lydia’s cheeks were bright with displeasure or that her lips were pursed. Nor did he miss the fact that Derek’s arms were folded over his chest and his eyebrows were drawn into a vee.

"Yes. Very well rested, thanks," Stiles said with a sheepish grin. He pulled his robe closed and knotted the sash once he saw Derek’s eyes raking over him with disbelief. "I’m saving my energy for the big day tomorrow."

Lydia pulled Stiles toward the table as Derek let out a choked sound. "Stop playing around," she hissed. "We have a lot to get through today."

"Sorry, Lyds." Stiles gave her a quick kiss on the cheek as Derek grunted. "I’m all ears."

"As the Hale emissary, Peter will be the officiant for tomorrow’s ceremony," Derek said as he came to a stand next to Stiles. He wore a woolen maroon shirt trimmed with gold braid at the cuffs, and his fitted trousers showed off the trim line of his waist. Dressed as he was, out of his formal robes or armor, he would have seemed almost soft if not for the severity of his expression. "Have you familiarized yourself with our customs?"

Stiles thought back to the sheafs of documents he’d read through until his eyes felt like they would fall out of their sockets. "I received Peter’s communication," he said, looking at Derek. In the sunlight, he could see the flecks of gold in Derek’s irises, which this morning were a pale green. "I brought an heirloom—my father’s medallion—to pin to my robes, and also my family’s sword to exchange." He made a face as he remembered the meaning behind Lunansholt’s handfasting ritual. "I’ll admit, I like the idea of wearing something as a reminder of my past, but I won’t have the exchange of swords be anything more than a vow of protection and strength that’s transferred equally."

"Stiles—" Lydia warned.

"I know what you’re going to say, Lydia, but it’s not just about the act. It’s about intent." Stiles stood to his full height and put his hands on his hips, meeting Derek’s increasingly furious gaze. "My sword was my great-great-great grandmother’s, the first Gajos to come into their magical powers and who brokered peace between the denizens of the forest and the seas. I’ll be damned if I reduce her legacy to a mere wish for my fertility."

"Raising a family isn’t a sign of weakness." Derek huffed.

"Fine. Then you raise our family and let me protect you."

"As an alpha, not to mention a werewolf and a king, protection is built into my nature!"

"Well unbuild it, oh mighty King of the Alphas, because there’s no way I’m going to be relegated to a footnote when I have something equally worthwhile to contribute!" Stiles said, pushing up into Derek’s space.

"Boys," Peter said with an exaggerated sigh, its sound barely cutting through the tension. "The exchange of swords will address both wishes. May your defenses be impenetrable and your loins unequivocally fertile. Now, if we could continue with the rest of the items? I have some filing I’d like to get back to."

Stiles took a step back as heat crept up his face. "Fine. I’ve also prepared my vows," he said, rubbing the back of his neck.

Derek worked his jaw as his eyes lingered on Stiles’ hand. "Did you want to incorporate any of your own traditions into the ceremony? Before the mating bite?"

Stiles shook his head slowly. Brenna’s weddings often took place outdoors, but its traditions of music and merrymaking, followed by a cleansing swim in the open sea, were about as different from Lunansholt’s rigid customs as could be. "No," he said, "I don’t think so, unless—wait. What mating bite?"

Derek’s expression grew pained. "The vows and symbolic exchanges take place in both human and lupine ceremonies in our kingdom. But as a shapeshifter, the mating bite is an important part of furthering our bond."

Stiles looked at Lydia, who gave him a slight nod. He wasn’t sure how he’d missed that in his readings. He turned back to Derek. 

"And by bite, you mean…" Stiles bared his teeth and mimed biting down on something unappetizing.

"No. Like this," Derek said, his mouth opening as a pair of fangs descended slowly from his gums.

Shit. Stiles winced. "That looks painful."

Derek’s fangs receded. When he closed his mouth, his expression was almost disappointed. "I’ve been told it’s quite pleasurable, when done properly."

"Sure. Maybe if you’re the one doing the biting."

Derek’s look shuttered. "Are we done here?" He asked as he turned on his heel and stalked out.

Stiles let out the breath he hadn’t known he’d been holding. "I guess one of us is," he grumbled.

Lydia wrapped her arms around Stiles and gave him a squeeze. "It’s not too late, if this isn’t what you want. There’s no reason to commit yourself to a lifetime of unhappiness."

Stiles hesitated. It was true; it wasn’t like he didn’t have a pile of offers from others vying for his hand.

Peter frowned. "I would be careful with such overt displays of affection, Lady Martin. Even though you and the prince are friends, Derek might feel a bit territorial, especially this close to the full moon."

Stiles shook his head. "Derek doesn’t want to get married to me, Peter. He’s made that quite clear. If all he was seeking was an alliance, my father would have entertained different terms."

"Derek wore his heart on his sleeve as a boy," Peter said, stepping closer. "He wasn’t without his faults. He was brash and entitled—unsurprising for an only son, who was also second in line to the throne. But he was also fiercely protective and caring, and well-loved by his family and the populace in return. An accident of misplaced trust unfortunately stripped him of his innocence.

"However, you should also know that Derek meant every word when he said raising a family was a sign of strength. Pack is the most important thing to a wolf and, for an alpha, there’s no greater responsibility than their pack’s safety. His mother came from a large family and raised a large family of her own. She also was Derek’s alpha."

Peter watched Stiles carefully, his blue eyes unwavering. "Perhaps it was her alpha’s sense, but I think my sister knew Derek would end up one day as king. She had extracted a promise from Derek that he would marry. It was important—for Lunansholt’s future, our family’s lineage, and the pack’s well-being. But I don’t think she would have requested it so desperately of him if she also didn’t feel that a mate would allow him to find happiness once more."

Stiles remembered the moments of thoughtfulness and consideration Derek had shown him last night. Nor could he forget how it felt when both his omega and magic had responded to Derek’s touch. He nodded his agreement, praying that both his and Talia’s instincts held true.

*

The Prince of the Isle of Brenna and the King of Lunansholt were wed the next night under the protection of the full moon. Stiles was dressed in his best robes, fashioned out of the silk of a thousand silkworms and dyed a brilliant ruby red. He wore a circlet in his hair, inlaid with precious emeralds and sapphires, and rubies and gold pearls—the official colors of Brenna and Lunansholt, and a symbol of their union. An ermine-lined cloak, a gift from Derek, was unfathomably soft against his skin, its collar highlighting the curve of his neck where Derek would place his bonding bite.

The alpha king looked handsome, despite his severe countenance. His long hair was pulled into a braid, its length tamed by gold and silver cuffs, and his beard was thick yet neatly trimmed. The broadness of his body was clearly visible beneath the stretch of his black woolen tunic, his muscular legs encased in a pair of well-fitting breeches. He wore a cloak as well, but whereas Stiles’ was lined in white fur, Derek’s was black, reminding Stiles of the coat of a wolf. 

Stiles glanced at Scott and Lydia. His closest friends were the only people he’d invited to the ceremony. His father had remained on the Isle of Brenna, reluctant to leave the country’s rule in the hands of his consul for such a long time and on such short notice. Stiles’ dad also knew him better than anyone, and he knew his father would have been able to sense the disquiet in both Stiles’ magic and his omega.

Derek looked up at Stiles sharply, as if he could suddenly sense it, too. 

"May the Goddess of the Moon bless our union with strength and courage and guide us with her knowledge. May our ancestors make us fast and fierce, and our swords and claws unerring." Derek held out a small sword, a ring of white gold balanced along the fuller of its blade.

"May the Goddess of the Earth bless our union with the strength to do what’s right and the courage to acknowledge our mistakes. May she guide us with growth and learning. May our ancestors… " Stiles choked on his next words. He was sure his face was turning splotchy. He took in a deep breath as Derek nodded in encouragement. "May our ancestors make our love fierce and unerring." Stiles held out his sword as well and carefully placed the ring on top.

"May your prayers be heard. Blessed be," Peter said as Derek and Stiles exchanged rings.

Stiles sucked in his breath as the circle of metal slipped over his left ring finger, warmed by Derek’s touch. Now, there was only one thing left to do.

Derek moved closer. His body was a line of heat against Stiles’, the fragrance of earth and cedar overwhelming to the senses. Stiles trembled, and his legs threatened to give way.

"I’m sorry," Derek whispered, his words curling hot against Stiles’ ear. "But the pain should only last a second." He nosed along the line of Stiles’ neck, hesitating when he reached the point where the nape met the collarbone. For a brief moment, Stiles imagined the phantom touch of Derek’s lips, his mouth pressed against Stiles’ skin in a kiss.

It was gone in a flash. Sharp fangs tore through Stiles’ skin, but as quickly as the pain began, it was soon replaced by the rush of endorphins and pheromones as their bond began to form. Stiles felt a warmth spread throughout him, a tingling that unfurled from the pit of his belly through his chest and out to his fingers and toes. The flood of emotions that traveled through the bond—sorrow and joy and pride and hope—and the satisfaction of being accepted by an alpha mate nearly bowled him over. 

"Are you all right?" Derek asked, his eyes wide. He gently traced the pad of his thumb along the line of Stiles’ lower lid, brushing away a tear.

Stiles nodded numbly. Derek was concerned, but for the wrong reasons. Stiles wasn’t crying because the bite had been painful. Rather, he was crying because it had felt so right.

*

Stiles stared at the ring on his finger. The brushed gold felt warm against his skin, its weight foreign yet not unwelcome. Still, he thought he would have felt differently. That things between them would be different, somehow. Once the ceremony was completed, however—after the rush of pleasure from Derek’s bite had receded and the roar in Stiles’ ears faded into words of polite congratulations—Derek had headed back to the castle, gracing his new husband with nothing more than a curt nod.

"Stiles—" Scott said, but Stiles shook his head. He didn’t want Scott’s pity. Even worse, he didn’t want Scott running off to his dad like some well-intentioned savior.

"It’s been a long day." Scott appeared to be gearing up for another argument, so Stiles leaned over and whispered, "I promise, if Derek’s an asshole, I’ll give you first dibs after I’m through. But tonight’s been exhausting so… Just let it go, Scotty."

Apparently, Stiles wasn’t as quiet as he’d thought. Or maybe he didn’t care to be, since Cora and Peter whipped around at his words.

He rubbed over his bond bite, then stopped, his cheeks heating. "Come on," Stiles said, tugging Scott along. He could feel Cora’s judgmental gaze as it bore holes through the back of his head, as well as Peter’s smirk. Right now, Stiles wanted to be back in his chambers, among the familiar things that reminded him of home. Away from the evidence that this was only a marriage of convenience and the alpha king who continuously reminded Stiles that it was.

"

Stiles heaved a sigh of relief when he finally entered his room, only to discover that someone had emptied it of all his belongings. There was only one person in the castle who would be so inconsiderate—so driven by their presumptive, alpha hindbrain—and Stiles stalked down the hallway, fuming with every step.

He entered Derek’s chambers, slamming the door behind him. "What did you do with my things?"

"These things?" Derek asked, waving his hand with an arched brow.

Stiles gaped when he saw his books lined neatly on Derek’s shelves. His trunk was in the corner, many of his clothes were visible in the partly open wardrobe, and the cloak he’d brought from home hung neatly on a hook. The priceless miniature, thankfully, rested safely on Derek’s desk. 

"It would have been nice if you asked first," Stiles grumbled. A quick sweep around the room found only one bed. "Where am I supposed to sleep?" he asked, frowning.

"We are married now, Stiles," Derek said after a moment. "We sleep together."

"And by sleeping, you mean…?"

"Consummation of the marriage is necessary to seal the rites of the ceremony. And to strengthen the bond with our mate," Derek said, his expression growing more pinched even as his ears reddened. "I thought you knew. When you mentioned yesterday that you were ‘saving your energy for the big day’."

"I was referring to the ceremony itself," Stiles said faintly.

Derek’s frown was back in full force. "Consummation of the marriage is not only part of the ceremony, it’s necessary to seal our bond. And the alpha in me and my wolf are more likely to view you as my mate once I’ve knotted you."

Circe. Stiles gripped the fabric of his robes. He knew enough about Lunansholt’s rituals to know many newlyweds took special baths and aphrodisiacs before the bonding ceremony to stir their lust and increase an alpha’s chances of knotting. When neither was made a part of theirs, however, Stiles assumed Derek wanted no physical intimacy, although in hindsight, given Derek’s history with Kate, he could understand why his husband had avoided such stimulants. "We’ve known each other for only three days."

"It’s just sex, Stiles. If the idea of lying with me bothers you so much, think of me as just another heat partner."

"It may be just sex to you, seeing as you’re the ‘King of the Alphas’ and all, but it’s actually a big deal to me since I’ve never had a partner," Stiles lashed out. "So you can take that big old alpha knot of yours and tuck it back behind your drawers, because if you think my first time is going to be—"

"You’ve never had sex with anyone before?" Derek blurted. "Not even during your—?" He stopped, the tips of his ears tinged pink.

Derek’s unexpected awkwardness tempered Stiles’ anger. "I’ve never had a partner," he repeated with a loud sigh. "And I’ve only been through two heats. The first was when I presented as an omega. And the second was when I went off my suppressants two months ago; I had to stop taking them because they were interfering with my magic. It was probably the most miserable I’d ever been, at least physically. It took me a full week to recover once it was over, which is why we delayed the wedding until I was well enough to make the journey."

"I did not know," Derek said, looking stunned as he sat on the edge of the bed. "I’m sorry. And it wasn’t right of me to push you, whether or not you had. I know that this—that I’m not—what you signed up for."

"Hey. I’m sure I’m not what you signed up for, either."

Derek cocked his head and gave him a bemused look. "What do you mean?"

"Well, I might be an omega, but I know I’m—" Stiles thought back to the things he’s heard whispered about him, especially from the alphas whose advances he’d spurned over the years. "I don’t exactly fit the omega archetype. I’m tall and ungainly, and I speak my mind too freely. I’m happiest with my nose in a book or when I’m out in the woods. My friends will always be an important part of my life; that won’t change, even though I’m married. I know you’re fulfilling a promise by bonding with me, but other than that…" He gave a careless shrug and sat down on the bed next to Derek.

Derek frowned. "Peter told you." He guessed as Stiles nodded. "It’s true I made a promise to my mother, and I won’t deny that an alliance with your father didn’t factor into my offer for your hand," Derek said with a sigh. "But it’s not like I lacked other opportunities. I still had plenty of suitors who were eager to mate with a Hale king."

"Of course you would," Stiles said, unable to keep the petulance from his tone.

"You misunderstand me. There were others, but you were the one I asked Peter to send an offer of betrothal to. I chose you because, as a wolf, I thought I might understand your mage’s connection with nature. I’d heard stories about your exploits from Lady Kira, and admired your intelligence and loyalty. And now that we’ve met, I can say I believe I made the right choice."

Stiles’ breath hitched, his heart beating faster from Derek’s words. He licked his suddenly dry lips as Derek’s eyes darted down to his mouth. "Yeah?"

Derek’s gaze grew dark. He cradled the side of Stiles’ face with his hand and ran his thumb along the line of Stiles’ jaw. "Mmm," he murmured. "When it comes time to consummate our bond, I believe we’d be quite compatible."

Stiles sucked in a deep breath as he felt the heat rise high on his cheeks. "I might not be ready to have sex just yet," he said slowly. "But if it’s all right with you, I’d like to kiss you. You know, when I’m not in the throes of my heat or being watched by a crowd."

"That’s definitely all right with me. More than." Derek’s lids lowered, the fan of his lashes nearly brushing his cheeks as he angled his head and moved in.

His lips were as soft and warm as Stiles had imagined. The kiss was chaste—a small, gentle press on the side of Stiles’ mouth, respectful and almost sweet. As Derek lowered his hand, his fingers curled around the nape of Stiles’ neck, his touch and scent making Stiles dizzy with want.

Stiles had enjoyed a few stolen kisses in the past, but none were ever like this. He let out a small whimper that seemed to please Derek; Derek’s mouth spread into a slow grin, and he tilted his head, his thumb pressing against the angle of Stiles’ jaw and coaxing it open. A low rumble escaped his throat as his tongue slipped into Stiles’ mouth, his fingers teasing the sensitive skin behind his neck as their kiss deepened, turning hot and slick.

"Fuck," Stiles gasped when Derek finally pulled back. He fisted the front of Derek’s shirt, desperately clutching at the fabric. His magic was an undercurrent beneath his skin as the surrounding air crackled, sharp with the mix of power and desire.

Derek rested his forehead against Stiles’, his ragged breaths and sharpening nails letting Stiles know he wasn’t the only one affected. "Fuck, Stiles," he whispered. When Derek finally looked up, Stiles noted his pupils were blown, rimmed in a thin circle of alpha red, his face filled with yearning. 

Stiles couldn’t help the rush of pleasure he felt knowing he reduced an experienced alpha to incoherence with just a kiss. He grew bolder, slotting his body between Derek’s legs as he wrapped his arms around Derek’s shoulders. Then he dragged his nose along Derek’s neck, worrying the cord of muscle there with his teeth.

"Let’s try this again," Stiles said as Derek’s eyes flashed in agreement. His satisfied growl reverberated between their chests as Stiles’ omega yipped happily in response.

*

"I’m going to die, Lydia," Stiles groaned.

Lydia looked up from the book she was reading and pursed her lips. "Don’t be silly, Stiles. You and Scott spent most of your lives making daring escapes for the pranks you pulled, plus you’re skilled with a staff. It’s not a stretch for you to train with a polearm."

Stiles understood why Derek insisted he learn one of the traditional fighting techniques. The attacks from the Berserksyyrs were growing more frequent and brazen, and it was wise for Stiles to learn another way of defending himself, especially since his magic was still unpredictable.

"That’s not why, Lydia. It’s Derek," he explained as Lydia’s brow climbed higher. "I’m dying of frustration!" The memory of Derek walking around their bedroom without a stitch of clothing that morning invaded his mind once more. Stiles couldn’t scrub the image of Derek from his mind: his rippling back muscles, the delicious curve of his ass, and his brawny arms and powerful legs. And, goddesses above, his cock—thick and uncut, and so beautiful it made the dildos Stiles used during his last heat look pitiful in comparison. "You have no idea how hard it’s been, waking up next to him. And yes, pun intended," he added, cradling his head in his palms.

Lydia put her book down, turned toward Stiles, and pulled away his hands. "It’s been two weeks since you were married. Are you telling me you still haven’t fully consummated your bond?"

Stiles bit his lower lip. "Not yet."

Lydia began packing up her belongings as she stood. "I’m going to have words with him. I don’t care if he’s king—"

Stiles grabbed Lydia’s wrist, stilling her movement. "It’s not Derek who’s been refusing, it’s me."

"Oh." Lydia frowned as she sat back down. "Why would you deprive yourself of something you wanted?"

"It’s not like we haven’t done anything," Stiles protested. He thought about how Derek had explored his neck and chest with his lips and tongue last night, leaving Stiles panting and aching for more. Stiles had been holding Derek at bay, but it was becoming increasingly difficult, since their moments of stolen kisses and frantic groping in the dark recesses of the castle had left Stiles increasingly frustrated. In the interim, he’d become well-acquainted with the various privy chambers of the castle. "We’ve kissed."

"You kissed," Lydia said flatly. "You have a husband who you find attractive and who seems to reciprocate those feelings, but you refuse to do anything more than kiss, even though you clearly want to. Why?"

It’s just sex, Stiles. "That’s the problem, Lydia. I’m not sure Derek reciprocates my feelings; at least, not in the same way. You know I don’t stand on ceremony and I’m all for biological freedom and sexual exploration, but for me? I just want my first time to mean something. I don’t want to do it because I have to."

"You’re married. You are attracted to your husband—physically, at the very least. I’m guessing he’s been respectful of your decision, because I know you wouldn’t put up with anything less. And while proximity and your developing bond go a long way in stabilizing your magic, you know it would be much better for you to set the seal on the bonding process. Aren’t those reasons enough?"

Stiles felt a flush creep up his neck as he looked away. From their vantage point, he could see Derek and Cora walking along the path toward the training grounds. It was unusually warm for autumn, and Derek was clothed only in a loosely fitting overshirt and deerskin breeches. His face was drawn into its usual severe expression, but when Cora pointed out something in the distance, Derek’s face broke out into a blinding grin, his laugh stirring something warm and fond in the pit of Stiles’ belly.

Lydia’s face went soft with sympathy. "I see. You have reason enough. And you’re worried because of it."

"I’m away from my father, my country, and everything familiar. You and Scott will head back to Brenna at the end of the month. Derek’s made it clear this has always been a marriage of convenience for him. I’ve already lost the freedom to freely choose my mate. I don’t want to lose my heart, too."

Lydia held out her arms, and Stiles fell into them. "I just want to have what you and Jackson have," Stiles said, as she ran soothing circles along his back.

"Have you forgotten how many times Jackson and I broke up before we finally bonded?" She chuckled. "Relationships are a lot of work, even for true mates."

Someone cleared their throat. Stiles lifted his head from where it was resting on Lydia’s shoulder and saw Cora watching them, her lips pursed, while Derek’s gaze was fixated on the hand Lydia was resting on Stiles’ back.

"Good morning, Your Highnesses," Lydia said. She was slow to remove her hand, taking the time to brush her fingers over Stiles' shoulder.

Stiles’ eyes widened as Derek let out a long and throaty growl.

Cora gave Stiles a look of disapproval. "Finished practicing already?"

Stiles reminded himself that Cora was angry and scared, and that he needed to carefully tread the line between supporting her and establishing himself in the Hale pack hierarchy as her brother’s mate. "I’ve already worked on my drills," he said, motioning to the hoops and cutting posts on the field. "Your lieutenants said I did exceptionally well. I’m just taking a break."

"A break," Cora said, rolling her eyes. "So marriage into our family and the defense of our country is like a game to you."

"What? How could you even think that? I’ve been working with the rest of your troops every day!"

"With that?" Cora sneered, pointing to the club lying by Stiles’ side. "The Berserksyyrs are bear shifters. Their claws will tear through you before you’ve had the chance to take the first swing."

"I have my magic," Stiles insisted. While he’d mostly used magic for healing and defense, he had worked on an arsenal of offensive spells, too. He pointed to a large stump in the distance and gathered his magic, murmuring an incantation. A breeze picked up around them, rustling the grass and leaves. As the spell gathered in strength, he felt it release from his fingertips, until the stump exploded in a spray of wood dust.

"Your magic. Great." Cora said with disbelief as Derek and Lydia gawked. "You can’t fight and you can’t control your magic. How are you going to keep Derek from being killed like everybody else?"

She took off, running back towards the castle as color drained from Derek’s face. "Fuck," he said, turning to head back after Cora.

Stiles grabbed Derek’s hand. "Wait." Derek looked down pointedly at where Stiles was holding onto his wrist, but didn’t wrench free. "I… It’s not you she has a problem with, it’s me. Let me talk to her."

Derek looked torn. "Cora was ten when our parents died. We lost Laura a year later. Peter and I are all that’s left of our family."

"I’m her family now, too. I’ll never replace what either of you’ve lost, but I want her to know that I’ll be there for her. That I’ll do my best to earn her trust." Derek still looked divided, but he wasn’t staring at Stile’s grip like it was shackling him anymore. "Give me five minutes." Stiles pleaded, grateful when Derek finally relented.

*

He found Cora near the stables.

"I don’t think this is a game," Stiles said quietly, sitting down on the bench beside her. "And I take your brother’s well-being seriously." As soon as he uttered the words, Stiles was surprised at how true they were. He pushed away at the shock of his omega settling on the idea of Derek as his mate. 

Cora snorted. "Just wishing he were safe doesn’t make it so. I’ve seen you on the training grounds. You’re clumsy and weak. And your longsword is practically as heavy as you."

Stiles pushed down the urge to defend himself. He might not have been as fast or strong as the shapeshifters, but he was no slouch on the field. Even Boyd was impressed with his progress.

"I may not have grown up wielding a sword like you or your brother, but I’m learning and I’m getting better. And I know you don’t know me well enough yet, but you’ll find I’m not a quitter. I won’t give up on the things I care about."

Cora seemed to mull over his words. The chirping of the field crickets in the pasture filled the silence, and Stiles sat back, giving Cora time to gather her thoughts.

"I don’t want to lose Derek." She sighed, not looking at Stiles. "I only have him and Uncle Peter left, and Peter’s… Well, he’s just so old," she added as Stiles laughed softly. He supposed someone in their late thirties could appear ancient to a teenager. "And I don’t just mean losing Derek in battle, although I worry about that pretty much every day. He’s busy all the time. I hardly see him anymore."

"There may be things going on in his life that are equally important, but I can tell you there is nothing more important to him than you."

"Even you?"

Oh. Stiles looked up, the question taking him by surprise. The pieces started falling in place: Derek’s history with Kate, Cora’s distrust of omegas, and her fear of being left alone. 

"Definitely not me." The answer hurt him more than he was willing to admit. 

Cora cocked her head, her eyes drawing down to Stiles’ chest. "You care for my brother," she said, surprised. When Stiles stared at her, she tapped the side of her nose and then her ear. "Werewolf senses. We can hear the pattern of your heartbeat. We can also scent your emotions," she added, scrunching up her face.

Stiles felt the blood rush to his head. "So Derek knows that I… When I…?" Goddesses above, he’d never be able to face his husband again.

Cora let out a small laugh. "He would, if he let himself pay attention to such things. Just because we can use our senses, doesn’t mean we’re always in tune with them." She sighed. "Some people are so dense, sometimes."

"Somehow I have a feeling we’re not talking about your brother anymore."

Cora picked up a small pebble from the dirt and flung it toward the gate. It hit the iron latch with deadly accuracy, and Stiles let out an appreciative whistle. "It’s Isaac," Cora confessed.

"The tanner’s apprentice?" Stiles asked. Last week, Derek had insisted that Stiles be fitted for a fresh pair of boots and the leather armor that most of the pack wore into battle. Stiles remembered the young beta who had taken his measurements. Isaac was perhaps a year or two younger than him; he was tall and kind, with bright blue eyes and cheekbones that could cut glass. He could see why Cora would fancy the boy. "Have you let him know your feelings?"

"Have you told my brother yours?" 

"Fair point." Stiles retrieved a pebble from under the bench and threw it. It landed at least a hundred feet short of the gate, and he grimaced as Cora laughed.

"You need to use more of your arm. And it doesn’t hurt to have some werewolf strength." She pitched another stone to demonstrate. This one sailed past the fence and into the woods.

"Show off," Stiles said with a grin. He rolled up his sleeves, used his magic to levitate a small rock, and focused on the gate’s lock, only to sigh in exasperation when it shot past his goal and disappeared into the woods as well.

"We’re a pair, aren’t we?" Stiles said as Cora nudged his shoulder.

"A pair indeed," Derek said. Stiles looked up in surprise to discover that Derek had been watching them from behind the corner of the barn.

Stiles turned toward Cora, who gave him a devilish grin. "You knew he was there this whole time!" he accused her with a groan.

"I only arrived a minute ago. But I’m not sorry I did." Derek confessed. His gaze was fond, and if Stiles allowed himself to be fanciful for a moment, he’d almost consider it loving. 

Cora looked back and forth between them. "I’m heading back to the training fields," she declared as she stood and gathered her things.

"Cora—Is everything all right?" Derek asked, his eyes filled with concern.

Cora looked at Stiles and nodded. "I think we’ve come to an understanding."

Derek’s eyes followed her as Cora walked away, humming an off-key tune. "It’s time for you to return to your training, too," he reminded Stiles gently.

Stiles let out a loud groan. "Do Erica and Boyd want me back already?"

Derek’s grin was wicked and filled with promise. "You’re not training with Erica and Boyd; you’re having a private lesson with me. And it starts right now."

*

Stiles looked at Derek as they headed west. They’d already passed the turnoff for the training grounds long ago, and his arm was growing tired from carrying his polearm. "This isn’t a guise to drop me off in another country and leave me to fend for myself, is it?" Stiles joked.

Derek let out an exasperated huff. "Yes, Stiles, that’s exactly what I’m doing, even though it would be much easier to send you with someone else and forgo carrying all this." He pointed to the large leather satchel and cloth rucksack he’d been transporting since they left the castle.

"How do I know what’s in there? Maybe it’s to get rid of the evidence of your dastardly plan. Maybe it’s part of your alibi."

Derek rolled his eyes. He made a sharp right, toward the space in the thicket where the light was more visible, then unsheathed his claws, clearing away the vines and brush that blocked their way with a quick swipe of his hand. When he finished he stood back, bending his head in a mock bow before holding out his arm and indicating for Stiles to proceed.

It was such a cocky alpha move. Stiles also found it ridiculously attractive.

"I’m still not convinced this isn’t part of a plan to—Oh!" Stiles stood stock-still. A beautiful meadow was spread out before him, the tall grass dotted with yellow-and-white buttercups, petals staining pink alongside beautiful purple patches of field gentian. The Guodalir and Gunnarsholt mountain ranges were visible to the north and the east, their tall peaks standing in sharp contrast to the bright blue sky, and at the far side of the meadow was a lake, its crystal-clear surface glassy and still.

The landscape and fauna differed from anything Stiles had ever seen, but an overwhelming sense of home suddenly hit him . "It’s beautiful," he breathed.

"I used to come here with my family. Cora’s too young to remember, but it was a place where we picnicked and swam and ran while shifted in our full wolf forms." Derek smiled wistfully. "It’s been a place of celebration for my family for many generations, especially during the full moons."

Stiles thought about the path they took to get here. It had been overgrown, impossible to see at points. "Why did you stop?"

Derek hung his head. "How could I continue? It was my fault the war had escalated. I couldn’t control myself around Kate, and it was enough to shift the balance of power, so we were being attacked from the north, east, and west. It’s because of me we lost my parents. And then, Laura." His voice grew hoarse and choked. "This was supposed to be a place where we could feel closest to our loved ones and our wolves. Coming here felt like spitting on their memories."

Stiles’ polearm clattered to the ground, forgotten, as he grabbed Derek’s shoulders. "It was not your fault," he said, pouring his conviction into every word. "No matter what happened, the Argents would have found another means of securing those alliances. And most of those countries were probably speciesist assholes, anyway, because whether or not they were able to conclusively find traces of the potion on you, you were only sixteen. Sixteen, Derek! That’s so near Cora's age. If that happened to her now, would you ever have placed the blame on her?"

Derek didn’t answer, but his breathing grew less ragged. More measured.

Stiles suddenly felt like an intruder in this sacred space. "Do you want to…?" He sucked in a deep breath. "You could pick it up again, you know. Maybe shift into your wolf like you used to? I could leave you alone." He didn’t know how he’d find his way back to the castle, but he knew the general direction, and he could always wait for Derek further out along on the path to give him his privacy. 

"I’d like that. To run as my wolf, that is." Derek closed his eyes, and his body shuddered, as if it were already fighting the shift. "But I want you here with me."

Stiles swallowed the lump in his throat. "Are you sure?"

Derek opened his eyes. In the bright sun, Stiles could see the flecks of gold that circled the light-green rims of Derek’s irises. It was as if a cloud had been lifted from Derek’s visage. "I brought you here because you’re part of my pack. And not just my pack; you’re part of me as well. Being here with you makes me feel stronger. It feels… right." He leaned over and cupped Stiles’ face gently, before claiming his mouth in a kiss.

"What about our lessons?" Stiles murmured against Derek’s lips when they came up for air. He couldn’t keep the smile off his face.

Derek answered with a smile of his own. "It appears we’re working on life lessons. And the day isn’t over yet."

After two weeks of watching Derek walk around their bedroom stark naked, Stiles knew wolves didn’t share the same sense of modesty as humans. Still, seeing Derek transform into his full wolf was breathtaking and otherworldly. Stiles couldn’t tear his gaze away as Derek slowly slipped out of his clothes, then stretched, his muscles seeming to loosen under the warmth of the sun. In that moment, the guilt and worry that seemed permanently etched into Derek’s face was erased, and Stiles caught a trace of who he must have been as a boy: someone playful and carefree.

Derek spared him a look, as if to ask whether Stiles would be all right. When Stiles nodded, Derek dropped to the ground, his weight supported on his hands and knees. His face changed: his brow grew broader, the hair on the sides of his head lengthened, and his jaw elongated as fangs dropped. The muscles in his back rippled along with the sound of snapping bones, but before Stiles could express his worry, they had reformed, fur filling in their new shape until the only thing left of Derek were his familiar green eyes.

As a human, Derek was one of the most beautiful people Stiles had ever seen. As a wolf, he was magnificent.

Derek trotted over, lowered himself toward the ground and butted his head against the side of Stiles’ leg. He was incredibly large—even bigger and taller than the Irish wolfhound Lord Finstock had brought to the palace one summer, and his head, held upright, nearly reached Stiles’ chest. Stiles had no doubt that Derek could kill most prey with a powerful snap of his jaws. But as Derek nuzzled against Stiles, dragging his nose along Stiles’ thigh, Stiles felt safe. Cared for.

"Is this okay?" Stiles whispered, reaching out a hand but stopping before he touched Derek’s head. When Derek whuffed his consent, Stiles let his fingers sink into the thick mane. It was plush and incredibly soft, and as he ran his hand from the top of Derek’s brow to the back of his nape, Derek let out a contented rumble.

Still, Stiles knew Derek needed to let his wolf out fully. "Go ahead," he said, giving Derek a nudge. 

Derek took off, looking back only once before breaking out into a full run. His paws pounded the earth, his head occasionally just visible from behind the shrubbery. As Derek circled the perimeter, Stiles marveled at how graceful his movements were, at the sleekness and power of his body. 

After Derek had finished rounding the area for the fourth time, he trotted over to Stiles, his tongue lolling and his lips pulled back into a smile. There were several briars stuck in his coat, and as Stiles picked some of them out, he remembered their first meeting.

"You were watching us from the woods!" Stiles exclaimed, recalling how Peter had looked past their caravan when they first pulled up to the castle. "Were you in your wolf's form then?"

Derek hung his head guiltily, then licked Stiles’ palm.

"You’d also just found the seax with Kate’s initials in it," Stiles said as Derek let out a low whine. "I don’t blame you for being wary of someone you’d never met. Even if it’s someone as outstanding as myself."

That seemed to perk up Derek’s spirits, as he let out a snort.

"You know I’d never hurt you, right? Never intentionally. Because I… " Stiles’ words trailed off. It shouldn’t surprise him so much, the intensity of the feelings he’d developed for Derek, even after a few short weeks. He was always an emotional person—empathy was an important characteristic for both omegas and magic users, not to mention the intuition brought on by his fae heritage. Plus, they shared a bond, however incomplete. Still, now was not the proper time for a massive, heartfelt confession of love. Today was about Derek reconnecting with his past, and Stiles would prefer to have that talk when it wouldn’t be a one-sided conversation, anyway.

Once again, Derek butted Stiles’ side. This time, it was stronger, with purpose.

"What?" Stiles asked as Derek yipped. Derek bounded off and then returned, cocking his head. "No way. Didn’t Erica and Boyd give you their report? I tire after running the shortest distances, there’s no way I can keep up with you—Hey!" 

Derek growled, then latched onto the hem of Stiles’ shirt with his teeth. Stiles heard something rip as Derek gave him what was undeniably a smirk. As Derek tugged more forcefully, the cloth tore in two.

"You… Give that back, I can’t walk back to the castle like this!" Stiles cried as Derek pulled the shirt off completely. He gave Derek chase, but it was futile; Derek was so much faster, especially as a wolf, and it wasn’t long before Stiles lost sight of him completely. He let out a sigh of frustration and was about to use his magic to call out to their bond (it wasn’t cheating, considering Derek was a wolf) when something made the hairs stand up on the back of his neck.

Stiles turned around slowly. He glimpsed the hem of his shirt behind a bush, and when he bent down to retrieve it, he discovered it was being held in place by two gigantic paws. Derek was eyeing him carefully, but where his actions had been playful moments ago, the look he gave Stiles now was hungry and almost feral.

Stiles took a small step back, his heart racing faster as Derek rose into a half-crouch, his weight settling over his front paws.

Fuck. "Come on, Derek," Stiles said in his most winning voice as he held up his hands. "Who’s a good—?"

Derek snarled, his lips curling and teeth bared as he stalked closer to Stiles.

"Okay, maybe that wasn’t… I meant alpha. Who’s a good alpha?" Stiles tried to course-correct, his heart pounding against his ribs like a bird caught inside a cage as Derek’s eyes narrowed and flashed a crimson red.

It was enough to send Stiles into a panic, all feelings of safety fleeing him as his survival instinct kicked in. He ran, his feet pounding the earth as he headed toward the lake. His magic gathered in strength, reacting to his emotions—the wind picked up, the blades of grass whipping against his ankles as Derek let out a long howl. He could hear Derek behind him, getting closer, then dropping back before darting out again. A hysterical laugh bubbled inside Stiles’ throat as he remembered Scott’s mother admonishing him and Scott, telling them not to play with their food. If only there was some way to buy himself time, just enough to cast a spell to stun Derek, to snap him out of whatever was taking control of his wolf.

The polearm. Stiles made a sharp turn to the left, ignoring the stitch in his side as he ran for his weapon. He heard Derek’s bounding gait as the wolf changed direction and drew closer. Stiles was almost there: forty feet… thirty… twenty… ten. He threw out his hand with just enough force for his fingers to curl around the shaft of the pole before something slammed into him from behind.

"Ooof." Stiles exhaled as the wind was knocked out of him. He could feel Derek’s heavy weight on his back, pinning him down. The alpha wolf’s breath was hot against his neck as saliva dripped onto his skin, and Stiles tensed, even as he instinctively bared his throat, awaiting the painful pierce of Derek’s fangs.

Each passing second seemed like an eternity, but while Derek still breathed heavily, the pain never came. Instead, Stiles felt Derek’s weight redistribute, along with the sound of cracking bones, until the arms and legs that held him were smoother, more muscular, and the teeth that nipped the vulnerable area at the side of his neck were blunt and human.

"Mine," Derek rasped as he bit down hard, but not enough hard to break Stiles’ skin.

The possessive nature of the single word and the weight of Derek’s nakedness made Stiles’ heart race again, this time for an entirely different reason. His belly warmed; the air grew perfumed with the sweetness of his arousal as Stiles felt the beginnings of his slick form, but he wasn’t about to let Derek continue, at least not yet.

Stiles reached behind and slapped Derek’s buttocks and the back of his leg. "Get off me," he grumbled. 

Derek lifted himself up slightly, but kept Stiles caged between his arms. Once Stiles could flip onto his back, he took several gulps of air and caught his breath.

"What was all that about?" Stiles asked, peeved.

"Do you remember what Cora said that first night at dinner? About werewolf mating rituals and chasing prey?" Derek’s eyes, which were still red, burned brighter.

If Stiles weren’t already heated from running, he was sure he’d be pink all over. "I thought we were both supposed to be naked for that," he said, his voice breathless and reedy.

"That’s easily corrected," Derek said as he slanted his head and captured Stiles’ mouth with his own.

The kiss was sloppy and heated. Stiles whimpered as their lips touched; Derek teased his lips apart slowly, his tongue pushing forward as he licked into Stiles’ mouth. It was quiet save for the sounds of their breaths and the occasional moans as the crisp, clean fragrance of the grass that was crushed under their bodies gave way to something spicier and sweeter. Stiles wound his arms from under Derek to pull him closer, the rise and fall of their chests synchronized with each other’s breaths.

Derek fumbled with the drawstring of Stiles’ pants, cursing when the knot refused to give way.

"Hold on," Stiles mumbled. He twisted his body and lowered his arms, but before he could tackle his fastenings, he felt the sharp edge of a claw slice through both the tie and his pant leg.

"How am I supposed to get back home now?" Stiles complained as Derek pulled off the remains of his tattered clothes.

"You can wear mine. I’d prefer that," Derek said as he rutted slowly against him. "I like my scent on you."

"Goddesses above," Stiles swore, as he grew even more aroused at the thought. He saw the golden glow of his eyes reflected in Derek’s own, and the air grew thick with the smell of peach and honey. Derek dug his fingers into the sides of Stiles’ hips and ground down, and Stiles arched up to meet him.

"You smell so good. I want to taste every inch of you." Derek lowered his head along the curve of Stiles’ neck and inhaled deeply.

Stiles wriggled his hips, trying to get some friction as his cock swelled and hardened. "Yes, please."

"Tell me if you want to stop," Derek said as he slid down Stiles’ heated body. When Stiles didn’t answer, Derek stopped.

"What…? Fuck yes, of course I’ll tell you," Stiles said, arching and twisting impatiently. "Just—"

Derek nuzzled the inside of Stiles' thigh, the scruff of his beard pleasantly rough, the scrape of his teeth certain to leave their marks on the pale skin. His nose brushed against the soft skin of Stiles' balls, and when he buried his face in the wiry hairs surrounding the base of Stiles' cock and inhaled, Stiles let out a gasp. 

"Derek." Stiles groaned as Derek cupped his ass. As the tip of Derek’s finger slid into the space between his cheeks, Stiles shifted his hips, trying to get it to sink deeper.

"Fuck. Please, Derek…" Stiles’ words cut off as another shudder wracked his body and more wetness seeped between his legs. "Please, please, please." A moan escaped him, filthy and needy, and he cried out as Derek relented, the tip of Derek’s tongue flicking out and tracing a circle around his finger.

"That’s it, Stiles," Derek said. His voice was husky and his eyes half-lidded as his lower body rutted against the ground. "You’re so beautiful. So perfect for me." He rested the blunt pad of his finger against Stiles’ hole, and Stiles nearly sobbed from his need to be filled as another trickle of slick dripped between the plane of his skin and Derek’s wrist.

Stiles closed his eyes. It was too much: he was too hot, his cock ached, and he felt so empty.   

"Look at me, love," Derek said, the hint of an alpha’s command making Stiles’ eyes fly open. Derek’s mouth was swollen, his cheeks pink, and his irises nearly swallowed up by his pupils. Stiles watched as Derek grabbed the shaft of his prick, then sucked at the head, licking the circumference of it lovingly before swallowing him down.

Stiles was certain he had died and entered the afterlife. Or, he was going to, because how could anyone survive this: the pressure of Derek’s plush lips, or the sinful, wet sounds he made as he took Stiles deeper? Heat coiled in the pit of Stiles’ stomach as Derek continued to worship him, sucking him all the way from the root of his cock to the tip, his finger teasing circles around his hole until he pressed forward, pushing past the ring of muscle as Stiles let out a whine.

Stiles hooked his hands around Derek’s shoulders—he may have drawn blood as his nails raked across Derek’s skin—but if anything, that made Derek redouble his efforts, sucking with an intensity that was almost blinding. His cock was a heavy weight against Stiles’ leg, and as Derek rutted slowly, Stiles felt his balls draw up high and tight in response.

"I’m… Derek!" Stiles cried out frantically. He keened, his hips jerking uncontrollably as he exploded, coming inside Derek’s mouth. 

Derek swallowed it down greedily, then sat up, resting his body on his haunches as he took himself into his hand. As he fucked into the circle of his fist, Stiles could see the pre-come oozing from the tip, the head of his cock bloated and red. The muscles in Derek’s forearms contracted as he jerked his cock furiously, his thighs tense and the sharp lines that defined his belly straining from the effort.

"Do it," Stiles urged, knowing instinctively that Derek wanted to mark him as his. Stiles wanted it, too, so he tilted his head, baring his neck as he reached under Derek and stroked his balls. They were heavy and swollen with Derek’s alpha seed.

Derek’s eyes flashed. He lifted himself onto his knees and straddled Stiles, holding him in his gaze as he came with a howl, striping his release across Stiles’ chin, his chest, and his belly. When the last drops of Derek’s orgasm were wrung from him, he swirled his fingers in the cooling liquid and rubbed it into Stiles’ skin.

"You’re mine," Derek said as he dropped his head and pressed an exhausted kiss against Stiles’ lips.

"Yours," Stiles agreed. He wasn’t ready to make the same claim, to irrefutably state that Derek was his, but he’d felt the thrum of their bond and took solace in the fact that it was stronger than ever.

*

Stiles’ eyes widened as he stepped into the library. There was a new cabinet, its glass doors holding several rare books and ancient scrolls. He walked over and ran a finger lovingly over their spines, marveling at the titles. The Guardian’s Manual, Compendium of Beasts, and Magiae Naturalis were among the selections. He selected the grimoire and opened it, as his eyes scanned its contents greedily.

"Interesting selection, don’t you think?" Peter asked, standing from his chair. He had a book of his own in his hand. It did not surprise Stiles to see him. On most days, he occupied the library with Peter and Lydia.

"Where did Derek get all this? I thought every copy of Compendium of Beasts had been lost. And Magiae Naturalis… " Stiles shook his head. Despite Brenna’s extensive library, he’d never expected to see some of these titles in his lifetime. "These are incredible."

"This was in our family’s vault," Peter said, pointing to the book of spells. "As for the rest, well, Derek can be damnably persuasive when he chooses to be. How has the accuracy of your casting been, by the way?"

"It’s been better, lately. I haven’t destroyed anything in the past week," Stiles said with a wry smile.

"I know you and Derek haven’t fully completed the bonding ceremony yet."

How would Peter know? Unless he… Stiles felt the color rise high onto his cheeks. "Ah, yes. Cora told me about your superior sense of smell."

To his surprise, Peter laughed. "Well, yes, that too. But I was referring to our pack bond. Your presence as Derek’s mate hasn’t been as secure as I would have expected."

"How do you know that’s because of me and not Derek?"

Peter looked at Stiles, his gaze so sharp and suddenly knowing that Stiles squirmed under the scrutiny. "Because I see the way my nephew looks at you."

Stiles’ face flamed further. "Physical attraction isn’t all that’s required for a strong bond."

"Hmm. But it certainly helps. And how would you know what kind of relationship you’ll have if you’re determined to prevent it from happening? Sometimes, relationships where two people seem destined for one another don’t work out. There are also relationships that start off inauspiciously, but only get stronger with time. But you will never know if you hold yourself back."

"The risk of a broken heart is not to be undertaken lightly," Stiles said, slowly. He knew Peter understood that, perhaps better than anyone.

"Yet all the splendors in the world pale compared to the beauty of one that’s enchanted by love." Peter removed the compendium from the shelf and leafed through its pages. "I would suggest you begin your readings with what’s on page ninety-seven," he said as he returned to his seat.

Stiles watched Peter, bemused, but did as he’d suggested. 

"The Tradition of Werewolf Courting." Stiles read out loud as Peter gave him a wink.

*

"It seems silly, going with me on a small errand when your time could be better spent elsewhere," Stiles groused as he and Derek made their way through the village. He had hoped to use the excuse of picking up his armor from the tannery to allow Cora some time with Isaac, but Derek’s insistence that he accompany Stiles scuppered the plan.

Derek gave him a pained look. "I wanted to make sure it fits correctly. It’s important for you to have the proper armor, no matter your offensive skills."

"Wouldn’t a trip to the blacksmith’s be better, then? For a byrnie or a lamellar, or something else made of steel?"

"You weigh thirteen—perhaps fourteen—stones at the most. Steel armor might be customary in the south and west, but we battle in close combat. Your speed is an advantage, and it would hamper your movements, especially for a mage such as yourself." Derek’s lips thinned, his expression troubled. "The Berserksyyrs also prefer fighting in close quarters."

"It is the way of those descended from hunting magic. For the three shape-shifting warriors: the bears, the boars, and the wolves," Stiles said, recalling the information he’d read in the Compendium of Beasts, "although I am not aware of the boars choosing a side."

Derek nodded. "The boars were a much smaller clan whose numbers dwindled over the years through intermarriage and minor wars. They were hunted to near-extinction by one of Pierre Valet’s ancestors, Jean-Claude Pelletier. There are rumors that several groups survived the genocide, but they’re too scattered to be considered a threat, especially without a larger pack."

"The Berserksyyrs draw power from their bear forms. I can’t understand why they’ve allied themselves with Arnarhvall, given the Argent’s long history of hunting shapeshifters."

"Werewolves have been targeted by the Argents more than the rest, but I am as lost as you." Derek confessed. "My only thought is that the Berserksyyrs drive for blood lust is so strong, the thought of conquering another shapeshifter overrides any concern of bedding their natural enemy. Although I suspect they would as soon fight the Argents, once their war with us is done."

"Will you be gone long this time?" Stiles asked. "The winter solstice is in two weeks and I’d prefer not to lead the wild hunt as your pack’s only human." They had been apart more often than not, as Derek had been busy scouting rumors of unrest in the northeast, hoping to foster an entente or to squash any signs of a burgeoning rebellion against Lunansholt. It was not unexpected, but he’d been feeling unusually restless lately.

"You’d be fine, even if you had to. And I won’t be long. Two, perhaps three, days. It is a quick reconnaissance, nothing more."

"Famous last words," Stiles said, feeling peevish as Derek lifted a brow. He sighed and put his feelings aside. He knew he was being unreasonable.

"Let’s not think about tomorrow right now." Derek wrinkled his nose as they approached the tannery. It was on the outskirts of the village because of the stench of smoke and fat and dung, which was even more acrid to a werewolf’s sensitive nose. A pile of manure and discarded hooves lay near the entrance, which Derek made his way around carefully. "Lahey," he said with a nod, addressing the young man Cora had taken a fancy to. "Do you have the prince’s armor ready?"

"Yes, Your Royal Highness," Isaac said, his eyes darting to Stiles'. He wiped his hands, red and cracked and dirty under their nails, on the front of his apron. "I’ll be right out with them."

Stiles looked at the various hides that were spread out over wood beams, at barrels filled with wood ash and lime. Isaac was talented, with an eye for design and function, and Stiles was certain he returned Cora’s affection. However, the life of a tanner was grueling, and he could understand Isaac’s hesitation in making his feelings known, given the differences in their stations.

The first item Isaac brought out was a pair of leather boots and bracers. Derek stood back, leaning against a corner post as Isaac slipped them onto Stiles’ feet, adding straps of coarsely woven wool for added warmth in the winter months ahead. Next, he brought out a helmet fashioned with metal, wood, and leather. There were intricate patterns tooled into the leather, and the materials were expensive and exquisite.

"It is beautiful, Isaac," Stiles said, awed by the craftsmanship.

Isaac bowed his head. "Thank you, Your Highness. I am glad you are pleased."

Stiles glanced over at Derek. He leaned closer to Isaac, under the pretense of investigating the triskelion designs more closely, and whispered, hoping Derek wouldn’t hear. 

"I was hoping Princess Cora could accompany me today, but she couldn’t be pried away from her lessons. And I couldn’t be pried away from… " Stiles cocked his head toward Derek, who’s gaze intensified as he watched them and scowled.

Isaac’s cheeks turned pink. "I understand. The princess has much more important things to do than to visit a tannery."

"I don’t know about that. She seems to enjoy her time here, and I don’t think it’s because of my charming company."

Isaac failed to hide his smile. It was both pleased and hopeful, and Stiles was determined in that moment to facilitate things between the young man and Cora since it was apparent they were both enamored of each other. "I would like to have a belt and satchel for my herbs, too. Perhaps the next time I come by—"

"Prince Mieczysław," Derek barked out, the sharpness of his words causing Stiles to startle. "We need to get to the weavers if we’re to finish our errands on time."

Stiles stared at Derek as his jaw dropped open. "I haven’t finished trying on everything."

"There are only two more items, Your Royal Highness," Isaac added. "I’m sure I could fit the prince quickly—"

"There’s no need. Wrap everything up for me. I will send someone to retrieve them."

Stiles barely had a chance to give Isaac his thanks before Derek had grabbed his arm and pulled him out of the tannery in a huff.

"What’s wrong with you? We were there for less than ten minutes!"

"We have a lot of things to do today and I don’t have time to exchange meaningless pleasantries." Derek snarled. His face was set in a scowl that reminded Stiles so much of their first meeting he almost laughed, although thankfully, he thought the better of it.

"It wasn’t meaningless pleasantries if our conversation was about the pieces. Isaac is very talented."

"He’s young and still has a lot to learn." 

Stiles rolled his eyes. He was going to have a hard time convincing Derek to let Isaac woo Cora if this was his attitude. "Isaac’s innovative and skilled, and time will only further them both." He increased his strides as Derek walked even faster. "Circe, what is wrong with you today? Do you need to go back to the meadow and have some alone time with your wolf, because seriously—"

"We’re here," Derek said flatly, pushing open the door to the weaver’s shop. He crossed his arms over his chest and glared into the distance.

A young woman with a cheerful countenance came running from the back room, carrying a bundle of woolen cloth. When she unfurled the material, Stiles let out a gasp. It was a cloak dyed in the precise apple-red of Brenna’s royal flag, embroidered in thread that matched the colors in Brenna and Lunansholt’s coat of arms, and trimmed in a thick, white fur. The material was too fine to be utilitarian, and despite its extravagance, Stiles couldn’t help but be touched at Derek’s thoughtfulness despite his current, surly behavior.

"It’s beautiful," Stiles whispered as the weaver draped it over his shoulders. Truly, he’d be hard-pressed to find another of higher quality.

"The jeweller has some lovely pins and brooches if you’re interested in a fastener. I believe he has some with agates and topaz that would match the shade of your eyes."

"Perhaps another time," Derek said before Stiles could answer. "If you would give me and the prince a moment." It was not phrased as a question. 

Stiles watched as the woman gathered the rest of her materials. Derek walked over to Stiles, picked up the hem of the cloak, and rubbed the fabric between his fingers.

"It really is exquisite," Stiles said softly, puzzled by the wistful look on Derek’s face.

"It suits you." Derek colored, as if forgetting himself. He reached into his satchel and pulled out a box, then handed it to Stiles. A large brooch sat atop a square of silk cloth. It was engraved with a wolf’s head that was tilted up as if it were looking up at the moon, and its likeness resembled Derek’s wolf so much that Stiles did a double-take. "It’s for your cloak," Derek said roughly. He took the brooch out of the box and pinned it to the garment. It gleamed a beautiful gold against its red backdrop. "You can go back to the tannery to retrieve the rest of your belongings if you wish," he said, resigned in his tone.

"Without you?" Stiles frowned. It seemed a quick change of heart for Derek, especially after he’d been so insistent on accompanying Stiles to the village to begin with. "Why would I want to do that?"

Derek bit his lower lip. It caused his front teeth to be more prominent, and in that moment he looked less like a fierce warrior leader and more like a young boy. "In case you want to spend more time with that tanner’s apprentice. Although you’ll have to bathe when you get home, since it will saturate your clothes with the stench."

"First, his name is Isaac, and second, that’s rude considering he just made the most beautiful leatherwork I’ve ever… " Stiles’ voice trailed off as Derek scowled. "Wait a minute, do you have a problem with Isaac?" he asked, his mouth gaping.

Derek’s fists were clenched by his sides. "The two of you appeared overly familiar with one another."

"He’s been taking my measurements for the clothes you’d ordered for the past month!"

"And he—" Derek huffed, looking equal parts embarrassed and angry. "I sensed his interest while you were talking. And you didn’t appear to be doing anything to discourage it."

Stiles sputtered. "Derek, I promise he’s not interested in me at all. He has an affection for Cor—" His face heated. "—uh, someone else in your court, and was pleased to hear that he may not be alone in his feelings. This was nothing more than an errand for me, I… " Stiles stopped mid-sentence as Derek looked away with a hurt expression. Suddenly, everything made sense: the rare books, the brooch, the cloak, the chase. "You’ve been courting me."

The look Derek gave him was pure exasperation. "Of course I’ve been. I thought you knew that already."

"But… We’re already married." Stiles looked around. Thankfully, most of the surrounding people were focused on preparing for the upcoming Yule and paid them little heed. "You’ve no need to court me," he added in a lower voice. 

"Stiles, we didn’t meet under the best of circumstances. I’d spent the last eight years of my life thinking love would never be in my cards. So I… I asked Peter to draft the letter to your father," Derek confessed. "I was angry—angry at being placed in the position I was in, guilty for feeling angry, and ashamed of not wanting to do what was expected. After I finally agreed to marry, it was Peter who chose you after learning of your beauty and intelligence and because he knew your father would make an honorable ally. But now, I find myself wanting something more."

Derek took Stiles’ hand in his, the gloved touch still making Stiles’ nerves sing. "I love that you stand up for your beliefs, even if it means standing up to me. And especially if it means standing up to Peter," he added as Stiles chuckled. "I love that you try your best, and if things don’t work, you find another way. I love that you value your friends and family, and that you care for mine. I love your intelligence and wit. And I can’t deny that I love your scent, or how you feel in my arms." Derek ducked his head. "I guess what I’m saying is that I’m falling in love with you. And that I no longer want this to be merely a marriage of convenience."

Stiles swallowed, his heart beating wildly. He reached out with his free hand and cupped the side of Derek’s face, and tried to pour his heart into his words.

"I grew up thinking I’d make a love match like my parents. Things may not have unfolded the way I’d envisioned, but I’m not disappointed in how they’ve turned out. I’m lucky because I found a partner who’s principled and strong. I’m grateful to have a husband who respects my wishes and decisions, even if we don’t always agree. I’m honored to sit next to a king who treats his citizens as well as he does his family, and who inspires great loyalty. And I’m glad to have an alpha who anchors me but who isn’t afraid to show his vulnerability." Stiles lowered his hand and rested it against Derek’s chest before fisting the edge of his cloak. "I’ve been an absolute idiot, because you totally make me weak in the knees and I'm so in love with you, Derek Hale."

"Stiles," Derek rasped as Stiles pulled him in for a kiss. His lips were soft and sweet, but as Stiles moaned, Derek slid his tongue into Stiles’ mouth, turning the kiss hot and filthy. When they parted, Derek’s eyes were flickering between green and red, and the air was strong with the scent of their mutual arousal.

"Come on," Stiles said, licking his lips. "Let’s see how quickly our horses can take us home."

"Off," Stiles gritted out as Derek slammed him against their bedroom door. Some of their clothes were already littered along the halls of the castle in their haste, a fact that had the maids scurrying after them while Peter greeted them with an exaggerated applause. "Circe, why are you wearing so many fastenings?"

Derek tugged off their clothes, practically ripping the fabric. Not that Stiles minded. All he knew was that he needed to see Derek—to feel the weight of his broad chest against his skin, to have Derek’s cock inside of him, knotting him, sealing their bond. Derek's mouth was resting against the silvery scar on Stiles’ neck, the sharp points of his fangs teasing the imprint of his wolf’s bonding bite as he fought against his shift.

They stumbled toward the bed, entangled in the remains of their trousers and each other’s limbs. The air was thick with the sharp and spicy scent of Derek’s musk, its cedar and pine notes reminiscent of the forests of Lunansholt and the earthy grass of Brenna, its sharpness tempered by Stiles’ sweetness. Derek stopped after every few steps to devour Stiles’ mouth, to suckle his neck, or shoulder, or throat in a way that was sure to leave a trail of bruises. He nibbled Stiles’ ear, whispering tender, sweet, filthy words of adoration that made Stiles’ toes curl in response.

"Goddesses above." Stiles wrapped his legs around Derek’s waist as Derek hoisted him up, groaning as his cock brushed up against Derek’s belly. "Hurry." The hot length of Derek’s prick was pressed against the curve of Stiles' ass as he wriggled against him. 

Stiles hit the bed, falling backward as he pulled Derek down on top of him. Derek’s hair had loosened from its braids, the strands fanning his face, softening the razor-straight line of his nose and severity of his cheeks. He was a contradiction of hard and soft, like the sharp teeth that filled his wide, lush mouth, and Stiles arched his hips, wanting Derek’s hands on him, inside him.

Derek cupped the side of Stiles’ head. "Your hair is so much longer now," he said, pleased. He carded his hand through the strands, letting their lengths fall between his fingers. "Soon it will be long enough to braid."

"You’ll have to buy some ornaments for me to put in it," Stiles teased.

"Anything. Everything for you," Derek husked, his voice thick with desire and promise. He bent down and nibbled on Stiles’ lower lip before teasing his mouth apart with his tongue, its rough sweep pressing into the heat of Stiles’ mouth. His hips moved in tantalizing circles as the hot, fat length of his cock brushed against Stiles’ prick, the sensation causing Stiles to go mad.

A whine built in Stiles’ throat. "Derek, please. We’ve waited so long. Don’t tease me now."

Derek wrapped a large hand around the shaft of Stiles’ prick. "Shh, soon," he murmured. He gave Stiles’ cock a few strokes as he lowered his head to Stiles’ chest.

"Fuck." Stiles gasped, bucking his hips as Derek took a nipple into his mouth. Derek flicked the rapidly hardening nub with his tongue, causing hot flashes of pleasure to zing through Stiles’ body as Derek suckled the sensitive flesh. "Circe," he moaned as Derek moved onto the other nipple, teasing it until Stiles gasped and writhed. "Seriously, Derek, I need you inside me now." His cock was painfully hard in Derek’s grip. "I swear, if you don’t fuck me, I’ll find some other way of getting myself off."

Derek raised his head, his eyes dark and challenging. He shimmied up Stiles’ body and kissed him, slow and deep. "I know you want it, love, but I have to get you ready first," he said when they broke off the kiss. "It’s the first time you’re taking my knot." His words were slurred through a hint of fang, and Stiles felt a stab of satisfaction in knowing Derek’s control was also hanging by a thread.

Derek’s eyes narrowed as if he knew what Stiles was thinking. He grazed over Stiles’ mating bite with the points of his teeth, giving Stiles a wicked grin as Stiles keened.

Stiles dug his fingers into Derek’s shoulders in retaliation. Derek lifted one of Stiles’ hands and brought it to his mouth, grazing its knuckles with his lips. He repositioned himself between Stiles’ legs until he was lying on his belly, his large hands cupping each cheek of his ass.

Stiles sucked in his breath. "Derek," he gasped, his cock twitching as Derek kneaded, then pried apart the flesh. 

"You’re beautiful," Derek murmured as Stiles blushed under the scrutiny. He looked so intent, so sincere, even as his form shimmered and rippled. As if he, too, was on the verge of losing control.

Stiles drew in a breath and tried not to tense as Derek's lips ghosted hot and wet over his hole.

"Fuck," Stiles groaned, fisting the sheets as Derek worked along the ring of muscle, his tongue darting out teasingly before licking a fat stripe from Stiles’ balls to his hole. The roughness of the stubble on his cheek brushed the inside of Stiles’ thighs, creating a dull, exquisite burn, and Stiles heard the sounds of his slick mixed with saliva as Derek ate him out, sloppy and eager.

"Fuck," Stiles gasped, trying to not grind down on Derek’s face. Derek pulled back; his mouth was parted, his lips swollen and glistening, pupils wide and irises a deep red as he placed his fingers in Stiles’ mouth.

"Soon, baby. Soon." Derek soothed as he removed his fingers and placed one of them, the pad of it thick and blunt and insistent, against Stiles’ hole. There was a painful burn as Derek breached the rim, but it was quickly forgotten when Derek leaned over and took Stiles’ aching cock in his mouth, groaning in pleasure as he swallowed him down.

Derek’s mouth was hot and wet, the suction unrelenting as he worked Stiles open—one, then two, and finally, three fingers—pushing, twisting, and spreading Stiles apart. Stiles’ skin buzzed, his breath catching in his throat as the magic that was pulsating at the edges of his fingers, his teeth, and his toes made him feel as if he were falling apart at the seams.

"Come on, Derek," Stiles pleaded. Something fell off the shelf nearby, a sympathetic response to his impatience and need. He lowered his lashes and bared his neck shamelessly, his body arching and put on display. "Knot me, alpha. Make me yours."

Derek growled. It was a deep, rumbling, possessive sound that had Stiles mewling in delight. He sat, his cock jutting out in front of him, thick and veiny, his balls hanging heavy beneath a thatch of dark, wiry hair. A sheen of sweat glistened across his chest as he angled the head of his prick against Stiles’ hole, its pressure teasing and inviting, and then without warning he pushed, sliding in as Stiles keened.

Circe, nothing had ever felt like this, the sweet, torturous mix of pressure and friction that still left Stiles reaching for more. Derek repositioned himself, urging Stiles’ legs to wrap around his waist as he plunged deep, his hips swiveling and cock pistoning as Stiles clenched around him, his balls slapping heavily against Stiles with each thrust.

"Stiles," Derek choked out as the headboard of their bed slammed against the wall. He was beautiful: naked and raw and terribly desperate. His movements grew stuttered as his eyes widened, the muscles in his upper body tensing as he strained.

"Do it, Derek. Knot me. Bite me. Make me fully yours," Stiles begged, twisting his neck and exposing his bonding bite.

Derek let out a noise that was otherworldly and inhuman as he rocked down, his knot locking them in place. He widened his jaw, his teeth sharpening and elongating as he latched his mouth against the side of Stiles’ neck, his hips thrusting desperately as he sank his fangs into the tender flesh. He reached for Stiles’ cock, his fingers barely curling around its length as Stiles came, spilling into Derek’s fist.

It was like a string being plucked and chased by its echo, the imprint of its sound becoming deeper, more resilient, and more vibrant as their nascent bond opened completely. Stiles’ magic pulsed, dancing happily at the edges of his skin, its spark shimmering then exploding as Derek came, his roar reverberating against the walls of the castle as he filled Stiles with his seed. 

"Stiles," he cried out, caging Stiles inside the comfort of his arms and burying his face in Stiles’ neck. 

Something wet splashed on Stiles’ cheek. He raised his hand and ran the tips of his fingers softly along Derek’s back. 

"I love you." Stiles said.

Derek lifted his head, his eyes shining with the weight of his love as Stiles met him halfway. Stiles felt his magic rouse as their lips met, brushing against their cooling skin and enveloping them in a gentle caress. I love you, I love you, I love you, it sang as Derek pulled Stiles against him. He turned them over gently, taking the weight of Stiles’ body on his own, not letting go until long after his knot deflated and their bond solidified, contentment washing over them both.

*

Stiles stared at the map, jabbing a finger at the space bordering the Guodalir Mountains and the Kingdom of Froalith. "Why are you so sure they’re here? The territory’s been unclaimed for thousands of years because it’s practically uninhabitable!"

"‘Practically’ is the key word," Peter replied. "Not ‘definitely’."

"The implications of a potential alliance with another group in the region, especially one with a natural antipathy to the Argents, are too great to ignore," Lydia added.

Stiles fought to hold back a snarl. "It’s been twelve days. Twelve days, Lydia, for a mission that was supposed to take less than a week. What if we sent Derek on a fool’s errand? What if—?" Stiles couldn’t finish the thought as his heart raced, restless and anxious.

"I would never send him on a fool’s errand. Derek and Cora are my only living relations," Peter said. "I have no desire to be king; I’m much too selfish to be at the beck and call of my country. I wouldn’t have agreed with the plan if I thought it was doomed to failure. And stop your pacing," he added, rolling his eyes. "I can practically see the floor from where you’ve worn through the rug."

"I can’t sit around and just wait. I feel… Goddesses above, I feel so bloody impotent."

Peter frowned. "Consider the facts, rationally. There have been recent sightings of tusked creatures in the outlying villages of Guodalir and Froalith. If several of the boar clans did indeed survive all these years, it’s probable they would seek refuge in an area largely inhospitable to humans. Perhaps the delay is a good sign. If Derek had found nothing of importance, he’d be home by now."

"Or he could be in trouble!" Stiles closed his eyes and tried to ignore the restlessness that was building inside him as he focused on their bond. It was still intact; he could feel Derek’s presence, however faint. The knowledge comforted him a little. "I’m sorry. I… It’s been too quiet lately. We know the Berserksyyrs and Arnarhvallians are planning to attack, likely through here, where it’s least guarded," he said, pointing to the border between northeastern Lunansholt and Arnarhvall, separated by the Gunnarsholt Mountains. 

"It’s least guarded because the conditions, especially at this time of year, are extreme and dangerous. Practically impossible for a human to survive more than a night or two, even with shelter and food and the warmest clothing."

"But not impossible for a wolf or bear." Lydia guessed.

"It would be difficult, but not impossible," Peter agreed. "We have allies in the town of Villeurbonne, and Scott and Erica are headed for Marsir. That will reinforce our presence in the northern regions to help against the Berserksyyrs."

"But they are still an unknown entity," Lydia said, pointing to the kingdom of Guodalir. "Ever since Queen Victoria’s death five months ago, their army hasn’t been alongside the Argents. At least, not with the same numbers."

"They’re still in mourning," Peter snapped.

"Five months later? In a time of warfare? Princess Allison should have succeeded in the throne by now, yet neither she nor Prince Christopher have made any such announcement. And the steady withdrawal of their troops is puzzling."

"Christopher is an Argent," Peter said, his face stony. "We know where his loyalties lie."

"Do we?" Stiles ventured. "Victoria’s family hated shapeshifters. Prince Christopher, however, may not feel the same. Perhaps he and his daughter can change Guodalir’s policies—"

Peter’s next words were bitter. "Guodalir fought against us while Christopher sat on the throne with the queen. There’s no reason to think things have changed."

"Are you sure?" Stiles asked softly. "Perhaps we can send a communication to them—"

"No," Peter said, his tone brooking no argument. "Our energy is better spent elsewhere."

Stiles clamped his mouth shut. Before he’d met Derek, he would have pursued the matter further, but the thought of Peter not only losing but becoming enemies with his mate made Stiles’ heart ache. He walked over and picked up a blanket from the window seat and wrapped it around himself.

Lydia gave him an amused look. "Perhaps you need Derek to order some warmer clothes for you," she said as the ache intensified.

"First, I can order my own clothes if I wanted, and second, it’s only because I—" Stiles flushed when he realized he was scenting Derek’s blanket. It was the one Derek wore around his shoulders to ward off the chill in the library that came with the early hours. 

It couldn’t be, he thought as a dull heat stirred in his belly. The timing wasn’t right; he and Derek had fully bonded just three weeks ago. There was no way he could be— 

"Peter! Stiles!" Stiles turned, feeling a sharp pain lance through him as Cora ran into the room, her face stricken.

Peter pulled Cora into his arms as he looked at Stiles, visibly shaken. "I know. I felt it, too."

"It’s Derek," Stiles choked out in response to Lydia’s confused expression. He squeezed his eyes tight as her face dissolved into pity. "Something’s happened. He’s alive, but… " He touched his bond bite and pressed down, letting the pain ground him. He could feel Derek’s presence, but it was sluggish and thready. "I have to go. I have to go find him."

Peter gave him a sharp look. "Your control over your magic will be tenuous while you’re under duress. And you’ve only just started training with a sword."

"I’ll go with Boyd," Stiles said. "Look, one of us has to go, and you know I’m the best choice. If anything should happen to Derek—" A weight squeezed inside Stiles’ chest as his vision blurred. "If anything should happen to me or Derek, a Hale should be on the throne. And Cora will need someone to guide her," he finished, his voice thick.

Lydia reached out and held Stiles’ trembling hand. "As one of Stiles’ oldest friends," she said, addressing Peter and Cora, "I can tell you he won’t change his mind when he’s this determined. So the best thing to do if you want to save Derek is to help Stiles with what he needs."

Peter appeared to mull it over but came to a decision quickly. "Very well. I will summon Lieutenant Boyd and ask that he gather the rest of our troops. In the meantime, Cora can send one of the footmen to help you pack. You’ll head out at first light."

"I’ll prepare a missive to request aid from our allies," Lydia added, gathering her things. "It’ll be ready for your review within the hour."

"We will request their assistance for battle. And for a potential rescue." Peter nodded, then followed Cora out.

"Wait." Stiles pulled Lydia aside and waited until both of the Hales had left. "I need a favor from you." He took in a deep breath and steeled himself for the argument he knew was forthcoming. "Two of them, actually. As your prince and as your friend."

*

"You should put up your hood," Boyd said, his voice tinged with disapproval. "We are already at three thousand feet and the climb will only get worse."

Stiles nodded and placed his hood over his head with shaking hands. Boyd was right; it didn’t matter how warm Stiles felt, the reality was that the temperature was dropping with each passing minute. This was also a rescue mission, and from Boyd’s perspective, he didn’t have time to be worrying about another liability, even if Stiles was Derek’s mate.

"I’ll just snuggle up with Roscoe, then." Stiles joked as he patted the coarse and heavy coat of his horse.

Boyd sighed. "These horses may have been bred for traversing icy and rocky terrain, but there will be a point where this path will be difficult for even them to cross. We’ll have to slow our pace considerably."

"Because of me," Stiles said, realizing his human status was viewed as a burden, despite his magical gifts. "Because I can’t shift." He frowned, curling his fingers deep within Roscoe’s mane. "We could break off into two separate parties. You could lead one and I could stay with Liam," he said, nodding toward one of the younger officers.

"Liam is not experienced enough to lead a group on his own. You are my king’s mate. I’m staying with you." He glanced at Stiles, then sighed once more. "There’s a small clearing ahead. We’ll stop for a quick bite and to let our horses rest."

Stiles nodded his assent. He would welcome having something in his belly. He hadn’t entered his full heat yet, but he knew he would need to store all the energy he could for the week ahead.

He bent his head into the collar of his coat and took a stealthy sniff. There was a trace of Derek’s scent; it centered him for a moment, but he needed to be careful, lest it accelerate his heat. As it was, he wasn’t sure how much longer the scent blockers Lydia supplied would fool Boyd’s werewolf's nose, or how much longer the herbs she pilfered would keep his heat at bay. She had refused to give him outright suppressants—rightly so, since he was already in pre-heat, not to mention his adverse reactions from years of their use. Still, he bemoaned the fact that he was not only preparing for a miserable heat, but it was happening at the most inopportune moment.

They stopped in a small area that was flat and open. The closest trees were saplings and the perimeter almost too uniform to be a natural occurrence. Stiles wondered whether Peter was right, that the boars had somehow survived all these years under everyone’s nose.

He took a handful of corn and barley from his sack and held it out to Roscoe. "I know you’re strong and can go so much longer than most horses," Stiles said, patting Roscoe’s neck, "but I need you to hang in there for me, okay? Boyd told me you have a pack instinct, like your own kind of compass to get us home, and I might ask you to use your skills if it looks like I’m holding everyone back." Tears stung his eyes from the cold, and he blinked them back furiously as he took out a small tin and filled it with gruel and two strips of meat.

He warmed the tin between his hands with a simple heating spell, careful not to start something larger that could signal their presence to the enemy.

Boyd watched him curiously. "You have better control of your magic."

Stiles barked out a laugh. Boyd’s assessment may very well change as the days progressed. "For now," he agreed. He motioned to Boyd’s plate, offering to do the same, but Boyd declined. 

"I prefer my food this way," Boyd said with a wolfish grin, pointing to the nearly raw bits of meat.

Stiles was about to make a joke about feasting on the blood of their enemies when Boyd’s head cocked, his nostrils flaring.

"Stay here." Boyd ordered, his voice curt. He walked over to several of his men, signaling to them with his hands and talking at a volume too low for Stiles to hear. 

Stiles felt his anger build at being left out of the loop. He stood, ready to demand, given his status as prince and Derek’s mate, to be included. He prepared to stalk over to the group when a blood-curdling cry made him halt in his tracks.

Stiles had heard stories about the Berserksyyrs and had seen their likenesses illustrated in books, but nothing had prepared him for his visceral response as a pair drew into the clearing. Unlike Derek’s wolf, it appeared as if something held them permanently in a half-shift: easily seven feet tall, with a slavering mouth filled with pointed teeth and overly large hands tipped with vicious claws. Thick coats of dark brown fur covered most of their heads, their backs, and legs. But what startled Stiles the most was the look in their eyes: a wild fury with neither the recognition of man nor the simplicity of the beast.

"Goddesses above." Stiles cursed as the larger Berserksyyr batted one of the soldiers to the side with a quick swipe of his paw, then grabbed the nearest horse’s head with both hands and sank his teeth into its neck as the poor animal kicked futilely; its pitiful whines gurgled until they were finally extinguished. When the Berserksyyr looked up, he caught Stiles’ eye, and his face broke into a blood-stained manic grin.

"Potentiam terrarum et caelorum invocare," Stiles chanted as Boyd and the rest of the wolves began to shift. He had wanted to confound the Berserksyyr, but the wolves’ vulnerabilities were too similar for him to risk, so he concentrated on creating a veil out of snow and wind to hide the horses before turning his attention back to the enemy.

The Berserksyyr stepped forward, shifting his focus to Stiles as several wolves attacked. They charged at it, their jaws piercing and tearing at its legs and back, but if anything, it seemed to thrive on the pain and the smell of its own blood as it tossed the wolves aside like they were nothing more than cloth poppets.

Stiles grabbed the axe Boyd had left behind and swung it around to gauge his control, and then, satisfied with the weapon’s weight and balance, he charged into the melee. The sight of the wolves—of his pack— being attacked filled him with an indignant fury. Despite their size, the wolves were too short on all fours to reach the Berserksyyr’s throat, so when the bear broke free and lunged, Stiles swept the blade of the axe low to catch the back of its knee. The Berserksyyr’s knee buckled, and Stiles brought the axe back up and swung again, this time hooking the metal against the bent limb to launch the Berserksyyr onto its back.

Stiles flipped the axe upside down. He barely had time to readjust to the shift in its weight as he lifted it overhead with both arms, preparing to smash the hilt of the polearm against the bear’s skull.

"No!" Stiles cried out as Boyd leapt into the air with his jaws opened wide, his fangs latching onto the unprotected part of the Berserksyyr’s neck as he tore out the bear’s throat with his teeth.

Even in death, the Berserksyyr wore a mocking grin. "We needed to interrogate him!" Stiles shouted as Boyd and the rest of the wolves shifted back into their human forms. "I was trying to knock him out, not kill him! What if he had information about Derek?"

Boyd appeared nonplussed by Stiles’ frustration or his own nakedness as he shrugged on his tunic and overcoat. "Why deal with the risk of two living enemies when one is enough for our purposes?" he asked, jerking his head to where Liam was entering the clearing with the second Berserksyyr in tow.

*

"Fuck. You." The Berserksyyr spat as Boyd and the rest of the wolves snarled.

Stiles wiped the blood and spittle from his face. His nerves were frayed, and it was still difficult to look at the Berserksyyr’s battered body, even though they had been questioning him for over half an hour. He hadn’t wanted to resort to further violence, but every second wasted meant they were a second closer to losing Derek, a thought that made Stiles whine in distress.

He wiped the sweat off his brow. Goddesses above, his anxiety and his oncoming heat were making it hard to think. "Tell me where you’re holding the King of Lunansholt, or by Circe, you will feel the full force of his fury for conspiring with the Argents once we free him."

The bear gave Stiles a crooked, carmellian-stained grin. "That would be difficult. Since he’ll be on the executioner’s block in less than forty-eight hours." The Berserksyyr’s maniacal laugh was cut off when Boyd’s fist connected with his face. The air that was punched out of his chest ended in a pitiful wheeze, accompanied by the sound of breaking bone, as his nose crumpled and his head snapped to the side.

Stiles let loose his magic—let the Berserksyyr feel its inherent power—as he dragged his fingers over the bear’s heart.

"The wolves will seem merciful compared to me if you refuse to answer." Stiles promised with a turn of his hand. The rope that bound the bear’s chest and limbs had been enchanted with ore dust that muted the shapeshifter’s powers, and his eyes widened as they slowly tightened around him.

"You’ll never find him, anyway, princeling. He’s in the Argent special dungeons, sentenced to death for slaying King Gerard. The Hale king will be broken by wolfsbane-laced cudgels and then burnt at the stake alive, on Princess Kate’s order."

"What?" Stiles staggered back as bile rose in his throat. News of Gerard’s death had not reached them by the time they’d left Lunansholt. If it were true, and with both Prince Christopher and Princess Allison in Guodalir, Princess Kate would now be Queen Regent. It would take them at least a day to reach Arnarhvall—and only if they rode tirelessly, and without further incident—and they would still need to breach the castle and find their way to Derek in the dungeons.

"Your Highness." Liam began. "Perhaps we should head back to Lunansholt. To warn Lord Peter and Princess Cora."

"No." Stiles shook his head fiercely. "We will do everything we can to save King Derek until we can’t do anything more. I don’t care how small the odds are."

"Forgive me, Your Highness," Boyd said with a grim expression. "But the odds are not just small. They are nigh impossible."

"We can reach the castle in less than a day’s ride if one knows the proper way," said an unfamiliar voice.

Stiles whipped around, his mouth dropping at the sight of an older man and his companion. They were dressed in deerskin leggings and the traditional green woolen cloak of a hunter.

Boyd raced over to the hunter and drew his sword. "What kind of fool are you to announce yourself so boldly to a group of wolves?" He sneered, placing the tip of his blade against the man’s throat. His companion quickly removed an arrow from their quiver and drew their bow, angling it toward Boyd.

The man’s ice-blue gaze was unwavering, even under threat. "I came because I was invited. And to be honest, the trail you’d left getting here was practically an invitation itself." He held his left hand up, then slowly lowered his right into his pocket as Boyd let out a warning growl. "I come in response to Lady Martin’s communique on behalf of Prince Mieczysław," he explained, withdrawing a letter that was stamped with both Lunansholt and Brenna’s official seals.

"Prince Christopher?" Stiles whispered as hope flared in his chest.

Christopher nodded. "And my daughter, Allison, the princess of Guodalir," he said as his companion put down her bow and lowered her hood. "There are a series of underground tunnels that lead to the dungeons where King Derek is being held. We can make it by nightfall tomorrow if we hurry."

*

The tunnels were dank and chilled and smelled of the detritus of the nearby river. 

"Ugh," Stiles said as their small group passed another set of vaulted chambers. "I don’t even want to know what they used those for."

"The tunnels were originally constructed to house the wares of merchants. Nearly three hundred years ago, the public entrances were sealed. My family used these spaces primarily for storage, but in later years, they took on a darker purpose," Prince Christopher said with the barest hint of a sheepish look.

The light from the torches they were carrying threw long shadows against the walls. It was just enough to find their way—not bright enough to illuminate what lay behind the vaults and niches, which suited Stiles just fine, although he probably should have concentrated a little harder on the path in front of him. He mis-stepped, his ankle turning as he pitched forward. He tried to right himself on his already-wobbly legs, his hunger and worry, the arduous ride, and the beginnings of his heat making his reflexes sluggish.

"Careful." Christopher warned as he grabbed hold of Stiles’ waist and jerked him upright, pulling them flush. The solidity of the alpha’s weight steadied Stiles momentarily until the sound of a loud inhale caused him to take a shaky step back. Stiles looked up, and despite the dim light, he could see that Christopher’s usually clear blue gaze was now dark and intense.

"You. You’re… " Christopher shook his head, his eyes clearing their fog temporarily. "You’re putting yourself, not to mention the entire mission, at risk!"

It was the first time Stiles had seen the Argent prince angry. "I didn’t have a choice!" Stiles hissed. He wrenched himself away from Christopher’s accusing look. But when Boyd and several of the other werewolves started growling at the hunter, Stiles waved them off. "What was I going to do, sit back and do nothing while your crazy family holds my mate hostage?" he asked as he resumed walking.

"Your mate would rather you be safe, no matter the implications for his own fate," Christopher said fiercely.

"Are my feelings not part of this equation?" Stiles asked. The flames on the torches suddenly burned brighter as his magic flared, only to die down once he saw the pinched and guilt-ridden expression on Christopher’s face. "Oh," Stiles said with a dawning realization. "You’re not just… This isn’t just about Derek."

If Christopher was surprised at Stiles’ awareness, he didn’t show it. In fact, he ignored it completely as his face settled back into an inscrutable gaze. "How far along are you?"

"Four—no, five—days." Stiles confessed. They had been traveling for three days before meeting Chris and although the darkness of the tunnels warped his sense of time, it was probably after dawn. "Five and a half," he whispered, "if you count the pre-heat symptoms I experienced before we left."

"Jesus." Christopher swore, scrubbing his chin. "Allison," he said, stopping and waving the princess over to their side. "We’re going to divide into three groups. I’ll lead the first; Lieutenant Boyd will lead the second." He bent over and whispered something into Allison’s ear, which made her cheeks pink. Stiles felt his own face flame as Allison gave him a sympathetic look. "Allison, you and Prince Mieczysław will bring up the rear."

"Hades, no, there’s no way I’m going to—" Stiles started, before a throbbing ache in his belly made him draw in a sharp breath, cutting him off.

Christopher’s lips thinned. "We have little time. When we reach the dungeon where Derek is being held, I promise you’ll be the first. But whatever you’ve been using to block the scent of your heat is wearing off, and I can’t risk our entire group being compromised."

Christopher was probably right, loath as Stiles was to admit it. Still, his pride was wounded. "Why are you so sure Allison’s the best choice?"

"Allison is an accomplished bowman," Christopher said proudly. "Probably one of the best I’ve ever known."

"My father’s also too polite to mention that as a human and a beta and someone who believes wholeheartedly in free will and choice, I’m the best person to guide you to your husband safely. I won’t allow you to be harmed. On my honor, Mieczysław."

There was something in Allison’s expression, so sweet and earnest, that Stiles couldn’t help but trust her. "Well, since we’re getting up close and personal, you should probably call me ‘Stiles’. I never use ‘Mieczysław’ unless it’s absolutely required, and when I do, it’s usually not amongst people I’d consider friends."

Allison squeezed his hand, apparently pleased as they fell into their groups. After a quarter hour, the tunnels grew wider, and the ground beneath their feet smoother, as if well-trod.

Boyd cocked his head and sniffed. "There is misery in these walls," he said, snarling.

"Wolf’s blood," Liam added, his eyes flashing gold and hackles rising. The rest of the werewolves seemed to agree. As they turned toward Christopher, some of them were half-shifted.

"They mixed wolfsbane with the mortar when the dungeon was rebuilt. And put your fangs away," Christopher admonished, not cowed by the aggressive display. Allison, meanwhile, had pulled her quiver closer, her hand reaching for an arrow. "Fighting among us won’t save your king."

"How do we know this isn’t some kind of trap?" One soldier bit out.

Stiles took in a deep breath. "Does it really make sense that Prince Christopher would place not only himself but also his only daughter amid an army of wolves if that were his intention? Even if he were so foolhardy, he certainly didn’t need to make the journey to Arnarhvall. Nor did he need to wait until we were trapped in the tunnels to harm us, when he himself had little chance of escape." He willed himself to slow his racing heart, to push down on his panic and the desperate need to reach Derek in that very instant so the other wolves wouldn’t pick up on his distress.

Christopher crossed his arms over his chest and lifted a brow. Boyd grunted, but backed down as the other wolves fell in line and followed suit. Allison, in turn, lowered her hand to her side as the group soldiered forth.

The rumbling of wooden wheels against cobblestone and the clip-clopping of horse’s hooves were growing louder and more frequent above them. The sounds of music and merrymaking swelled, a sharp contrast to the tension that pervaded their group.

"Almost there," Christopher said. The tunnels took on less of an abandoned quality: the air was crisper, the path under their feet had been repaired. Stiles pushed down the lump in his throat when he noticed many gouges in the walls made by claws—fresh-looking and deeply grooved.

The sound of a trumpet resonated through the tunnels from the street above. It was bright and clear and jubilant.

"Your customs are strange, Argent," Boyd said with a snort. "Why would they celebrate your father’s death?"

"Because they’re not celebrating the death of Arnarhvall’s fallen regent," Christopher answered. "They’re celebrating the impending execution of Lunansholt’s Wolf King." The sneer on Boyd’s face faltered. 

The collective roar that erupted following Christopher’s announcement echoed through the corridors, its volume deafening. There was an answering howl, and Stiles pushed his way out from behind the mass of snarling wolves. It had unmistakably come from Derek, his anguished whines more animal than human. Stiles' omega cried out in response and he stumbled forward, all thoughts of his own safety thrown by the wayside as he sought to comfort his alpha. 

His mate.

"Stiles!" Christopher shouted, shielding his face as Stiles cast a spell to clear their path. "You can’t just waltz in there. He will be heavily guarded!"

Fuck. There was just enough command in Christopher's voice to cut through the haze of desperation. Stiles stared around him, open-mouthed, as the detonation and falling rubble from his spell echoed throughout the length of the tunnel.

"Then we’ll just have to be faster," he said grimly. The element of surprise was lost now, anyway, and too much precious time wasted. Stiles ignored the dull ache that spread through his limbs and the fever that threatened to further cloud his mind as he focused on reaching Derek, his legs carrying him closer to those heartbreaking snarls.

Stiles skidded as he reached a block of cells. As his eyes adjusted to the brighter light of the dungeons, he gasped when he saw the other shapeshifters who were being held captive.

"It’s true. You survived." Stiles whispered as his gaze swept over the three prisoners. Two of them—a massive, hulking male and a female with long dark hair—snorted and snuffed as Stiles approached. They were nearly fully shifted: there were tusks sprouting from the sides of their mouths, their noses were elongated into snouts, and they stood on legs balanced on hooves. His heart broke, because if they were captured alongside Derek, it likely meant Derek had been successful in finding the lost group. 

"There’s more of us coming. We’ll get you out." Stiles apologized before moving on.

The third boar seemed to understand. He wasn’t as fully shifted as his companions, although he appeared ragged, the marks of burns and lashes of a whip visible on his human flesh. His icy blue eyes lifted to Stiles’ and then he nodded, tilting his head to the right.

Stiles croaked out his thanks and made the turn, the others following close on his heels. There were only two cells in the otherwise walled-in space, and Stiles’ heart clenched as he approached the first. The iron bars guarding it were thick, its opening padlocked, and it smelled of blood and the acrid stench of suffering.

"Derek?" Stiles said, unable to keep his voice from trembling. A pair of red eyes glowed at him from beyond the bars; there was a flash of white teeth as Derek snarled. Stiles reached for the padlock, hissing when his hand burned at the touch. He stared at the angry red welt that marred his palm as Christopher, Allison, and Boyd pulled up beside him.

"Mistletoe," someone said as they stepped out from the second room. She was tall and beautiful and moved with a sinister grace. Several soldiers wearing Arnarhvall’s colors appeared, flanking her sides and carrying glaives and swords. "It’s poisonous to humans, but even more so to shapeshifters and magic users." She ran a gloved finger along the bars. "But I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that, mage."

"Kate." Christopher rasped, his voice pleading. "This has gone far enough."

"You’ve always sympathized with them," Kate said, her face twisting into something ugly. "The traitorous agreement you made with grandfather only protected Peter, not the rest of the family."

Christopher looked broken as Allison gasped.

"Oh, yes." Kate sneered as she turned toward Allison. "You didn’t know? Your father’s childhood love would remain unharmed by Argent hands in exchange for marrying your mother. Did my brother tell you he still keeps the cottage where he lay with that animal? Like some kind of shrine?"

Christopher took a step toward Kate, hands fisted at his sides. "Put an end to all the bloodshed now, Kate. Let Derek go. Broker a new treaty between Arnarhvall and Lunansholt."

"He killed our father! I would rather die than make a deal with that monster," Kate cried as Stiles stepped forward.

"My husband was not in your territory. Or on a diplomatic mission, even," Stiles spat. "If he killed your father, it was because Gerard was the aggressor."

Kate let out a bitter laugh. "You’re so sure. So self-righteous. Has Derek already blinded you to his wickedness with his… assets?" Jealousy flared within Stiles at the familiarity, and Kate must have picked up on it because she laughed once more, only this time it was throaty and knowing. "Oh, I know very well how Derek can get," she whispered into Stiles’ ear, brushing her hand against his arm as Derek roared. "How he can become an utter animal when he’s losing himself, so desperate to fuck."

Stiles couldn’t suppress his cry as Derek threw himself against the bars of the cell. He knew how the tainted surface felt—how it had seared his flesh—and couldn’t imagine how much worse it must be for a werewolf. Derek let out a distressed howl and pulled back again in pain.

"An animal is better than a monster like you." Stiles retorted as the other wolves whined in sympathy with their pack mate. "You manipulated his rut. And now you’re torturing Derek and the boars so they stay in their animal forms." Stiles wasn’t sure how Kate was accomplishing that, exactly, but based on the marks on the boars and Derek’s own state, he had a fairly good idea. 

"Oh, he’s done a job on you," Kate said, her eyes lighting up at the news. "Very well, then. As Queen of Arnarhvall, I am not without mercy. I will give you a choice: I will spare your life—and those of your men—if you’ll be my guest of honor at your husband’s execution. Or, you can take your chances in the cell with him."

The prickle of fear that ran through Stiles had Kate’s face breaking into a wide grin. In his current state, Derek barely resembled the wolf that pranced around with Stiles in the meadow. Instead, his lips were curled around a wide mouth of teeth, bloodlust brimming from behind the unnatural brightness of his eyes. When Stiles turned, the fold of his cloak opened and Derek sniffed, his nostrils flaring as he began drooling and his cock extended from its sheath.

Circe. Kate was counting on the fact that Derek was so far gone, he wouldn’t be able to keep from tearing Stiles apart. Unfortunately, Stiles’ heat would make Derek’s control even worse.

"There really isn’t a choice, is there?" Stiles said softly. 

"Your Highness—" Boyd started, reaching out to stop Stiles. When Stiles shook his head, Boyd stepped back and lowered his head in a bow.

"If you die at Derek’s hand, it would be akin to killing Derek yourself." Christopher warned. "He would never want this from you."

"You can’t discount what I want, remember?" Stiles admonished Christopher gently. He shucked off his robe and handed it to Allison, then whispered words for her ears only. "I release you from your vow. Whatever happens inside is between me and my husband and no longer your responsibility." He steeled his spine and stood in front of the door as Kate removed her keys.

"Get the cur to the back," she said as she motioned for one of her men to come forward. The soldier poked through the bars with his glaive. Its wooden shaft rattled ominously against the metal as its blade forced Derek to the far end of the cage. "We wouldn’t want the entertainment to be over too quickly, after all."

"You’re going to watch?" Stiles asked, horrified as the door unlocked.

"Will I watch as the monstrous Hale king murders his loving mate? Absolutely. It’ll be a fitting note to top the beast’s long line of crimes. And I’ll enjoy every minute," Kate said as she pushed Stiles inside and latched the door shut with a decisive click.

Don’t run, Stiles chanted, recalling how Derek had lunged, his entire demeanor shifting to that of a predator as Stiles had taken flight. Given the confines of the cell, there wasn’t much room to do so, anyway. "Derek, it’s me." He swallowed as Derek snarled in return and stalked toward him on all fours. "It’s Stiles. Your husband. Your omega. Your mate." He tried to keep his voice from trembling as Derek nosed at his chest, the imprint of fangs ghosting through Stiles’ clothes. He had forgotten how big Derek was in his wolf form. Surely Derek could easily hear how rapidly his heart was thudding in his chest.

The sudden clatter of metal against stone as the glaive rattled against the bars caused Derek to lunge. Stiles bared his neck as he found himself pinned to the ground, the weight of Derek’s paws pressing against his torso and stifling his breath. Derek’s usual musk was overlaid with copper and rot, and—despite Derek’s size—Stiles could see the gauntness of his ribs.

Stiles stifled a distressed cry, his heart aching for everything Derek must have suffered during his captivity. Derek snuffled around the crook of Stiles’ neck as if to soothe Stiles, licking him with a dry, sandpaper tongue. His growls subsided briefly, but as he made his way down Stiles’ arm, he dug in with his claws and let out a ferocious roar. It rang hot and deafening in Stiles’ ear, and as the world around him dulled, shock slid into an icy understanding.

Kate had scented his arm. "Don’t." Stiles gasped, unable to finish his sentence. He reached for their mating bond, latched on to their connection, and tried to draw Derek in. No matter what happened to him, he couldn’t let Derek be manipulated by Kate again. "Don’t give her the satisfaction." He continued to focus on their burgeoning bond, not stopping even as Derek snarled, his teeth latching onto the meat of Stiles’ arm where Kate had touched him, breaking the skin. 

Stiles’ ears still felt as if they were stuffed with wool, but it allowed him to shut out other distractions. The bond’s connection jumped and hummed as he poured in memories from their time together. He thought about Derek’s love for Peter and Cora; his friendships with his lieutenants; and the loyalty he inspired from his pack. He recalled their first kiss; Derek’s chase at his family’s ancestral grounds; and his confession of his love in the village.

"That’s it, big guy." Stiles croaked out as Derek’s posture loosened, their bond thrumming more strongly. He tried not to think about the trickle of warm fluid from where Derek’s teeth were still sunk into his skin. Or when Derek inhaled sharply, his hips moving slowly over Stiles’ legs and causing Stiles’ lower body to heat. 

"Easy there," he pleaded as Derek slowly loosened his bite in favor of licking Stiles’ neck. "I’m all in favor of this, but preferably not in front of your pack, and definitely not in front of our mortal enemy."

There was a scrape of teeth against Stiles’ mating bite as Derek shuddered, his hips stilling. Stiles felt, rather than heard, the popping and snapping of bones. Derek slowly shifted, his skin growing smoother and his limbs shapelier as soft, human lips nuzzled Stiles’ cheek.

"Stiles," Derek rasped. His expression was wounded and apologetic as his eyes dropped to Stiles’ arm.

Stiles put his fingers against Derek’s lips. "Don’t you dare ruin this moment with your misplaced guilt," he said, as Derek let out a huff.

A flurry of movement caught his eye. Derek whipped around and crouched in front of Stiles, snarling. Kate’s face was a rictus of fury, her outrage palpable even with Stiles’ still-fuzzy hearing.

"No!" he cried as Kate dug her hand into the pocket of her gown. She pulled out a knife that resembled the seax Derek had brought to Peter, and Stiles had no doubt that it was not only laced with the same rare species of wolfsbane, it was just as deadly. 

"Natura meum audit vocationem," Stiles chanted as he cast a quick succession of spells in desperation. Several stones from the wall rattled and fell, the clouds of dust from the rubble fusing with the whorls of wind and moisture he'd gathered from the length of the tunnels to obfuscate their forms. Regardless of his best efforts, Stiles knew that with the array of weapons at Kate’s disposal and her savage determination, he and Derek were surviving on borrowed time.

Stiles heard Derek’s frustrated growls as the ringing in his ears subsided. The sudden cacophony of incoming sounds disoriented him, and his incantation faltered. His spell sputtered, and Kate cocked her arm back with a triumphant grin.

"Derek! No!" Stiles shouted as Derek leaped, throwing himself between Kate and Stiles. A terrible, wounded noise left Derek’s throat as his body crumpled. 

Fury burned through Stiles as he ran over to Derek’s prone form, his vision blurring through the hot wash of his anger.

"Circe, where is it?" Stiles’ fingers flew over Derek’s torso, unable to find the handle of the seax. He tilted Derek onto his side, checking frantically. "Why in the goddesses’ names are you laughing?" he asked, fighting the hysteria building inside him as Derek let out a broken chuckle.

"I’ve survived worse," Derek said, motioning to the mistletoe-tainted bars of the cell and then the residue of their angry marks on his chest. His face twisted, anger, sadness, and bitter satisfaction mixing in his features. "Kate, on the other hand… "

Stiles turned slowly and stared at Kate’s prone form. Her arm was bent at an unnatural angle, her brown eyes unseeing as a silver arrow protruded from her chest, the seax on the ground beside her.

Stiles jerked his head up and caught Allison’s pale countenance.

"On my honor," Allison declared, firming her jaw.

*

Upon Kate’s death, the Arnarhvallians who had accompanied Kate into the dungeons threw themselves at the mercy of the werewolves. As the successor to Arnarhvall’s throne, Prince Christopher’s first act was to order the beleaguered foot soldiers to move Kate’s body into one of the chambers in the palace and prepare her body for burial.

"There has been enough bloodshed," Christopher said as Stiles gave Derek his cloak. "Allison’s coronation as Queen of Guodalir is a mere formality. I propose an armistice until we can work out an official treaty to end the war amongst our three kingdoms."

"I agree," Derek said. Somehow, he managed to look regal despite the fact that he was bloodied and naked but for Stiles’ robe. "Peter can start drafting the terms. Of course, we will need to discuss the Berserksyyrs and the exchange of the prisoners of war, but I would consider it a show of great faith if you would release the boars now. They have lived peaceably among us for generations and had only been captured by Kate and Gerard because I sought to give them safe passage to Lunansholt and sanctuary in my kingdom. They have no quarrel with you."

Christopher looked at Derek carefully, then gave him a slight nod. "On your word, I will do so. And in return, I ask you to ensure that Peter will be fair while drawing up the terms. That he does not let his personal feelings interfere with what is best for all parties."

Allison slid her arms around her father. "Is Peter the one Aunt Kate mentioned?" she asked, her voice sorrowful.

Christopher drew her close. "He is."

"You gave up the love of your life to marry mom."

Christopher clasped Allison’s shoulders and bent down to meet her gaze. "I don’t deny that I’ve made many mistakes in my life. But, God help me, you were never one of them."

Stiles took a deep breath. "Perhaps not all is lost." He ventured. "After all these years, Peter still hasn’t moved on. He has yet to bond with anyone."

"I’ve sent him several letters over the years," Christopher said. Derek’s mouth parted, his eyes widening at the news. "They’ve all been returned to me, unopened."

"Can you blame him?" Derek asked dryly. "Still, my uncle is not unreasonable. Difficult, yes, but not entirely unreasonable. You may just need to do a bit of groveling for him to listen."

"Circe." A wave of arousal rippled through Stiles as the last of Lydia’s remedy wore off and his heat slammed into him with a vengeance. He let out a low moan; Derek’s nostrils flared and his eyes flashed a deep red, nearly half-shifted as he hovered over Stiles, shielding him from the others’ view. Even Christopher took a step back, his hands balled to his sides as he took in several shallow breaths. "I’m going to do worse than grovel if you don’t get me out of here right now. Seriously, Derek, we’re talking on my knees, with your cock in my hand or in my mouth—"

"The cottage," Christopher said with a strangled voice. "It’s not too far; I’ll take you and Derek there. Everyone else: out." The remaining wolves and Arnarhvallians scattered as Derek punctuated Christopher’s instruction with a hair-raising and earth-shattering roar.

Stiles leaned into Derek and inhaled deeply. He smelled so good; Stiles just wanted to lick every inch of him, to feel the hardness of Derek’s muscles underneath his hands, to fill the emptiness that was tearing him apart with Derek’s thick, alpha cock. "I need you inside me, alpha. Please," he said, whining as he parted Derek’s cloak and started grinding against him.

Derek swept Stiles into his arms as he shielded him from Christopher’s red-faced gaze. "I’m going to take such good care of you. My omega. My Stiles," he promised through a mouthful of fangs. 

*

"I have dried meat, water, and candied fruits in the kitchen. I can return with some fresh—"

Derek snarled. "Christopher. Thank you for everything, but I need you to get out, now."

Stiles croaked out a laugh as he buried his face against Derek’s neck. He’d make it up to Christopher, but now was not the time, half-way out of his clothes and with Derek even more possessive than usual.

"Let me breathe," Stiles gasped as the door to the cottage slammed shut. "I have to—" He peeled off his tunic, sticky with sweat, his clothing too tight against his heated skin. It was even worse than he remembered from his previous heats. His need to be mounted and fucked—to be bred —was overriding the last threads of his control.

Stiles’ hands fumbled with the drawstring of his trousers, but he was too fucking slow, the outline of his aching prick already tenting the fabric obscenely. He ground against Derek, his hips hitching; small, wanton sounds escaped his mouth as his pants grew sodden with his arousal.

"I’ve got you," Derek said, ripping the front of Stiles’ trousers open and reaching behind as his hand slid into the cleft of Stiles’ ass. His fingers were blunt and thick as they pressed against Stiles’ hole, and though they made Stiles sob in relief as they sank inside him one by one, the satisfaction was short-lived.

"Derek," Stiles whined, humping his hand frantically. The angle wasn’t right, even with three—maybe four—fingers. "I need something more." He panted as Derek groaned. "Need your knot."

Derek removed his fingers with a filthy squelch. Stiles’ hands were all over Derek as soon as they had kicked off the last of their clothes. He ran his hands up and down Derek’s front, marveling at the broadness of his chest and the cut of his abdomen under his palms. Next, he trailed his fingers through the line of hair leading down to Derek’s prick. Derek’s cock was beautiful, its turgid head peeking out beyond its foreskin as the smell of pre-come intensified Stiles’ arousal. 

"You’re fucking gorgeous. And you’re mine."

Derek’s chest hitched as Stiles grabbed the shaft of his prick and squeezed.

"Yours," he growled with a flash of red in his eyes that made a gush of slick trail down Stiles’ thighs. He thrust his nose against the crook of Stiles’ neck, taking long whiffs before latching onto the flesh with his lips, then his teeth. "You smell so good," Derek rumbled. He sucked hard enough that the skin was sure to bruise as Stiles bared his neck, putting himself on display for his alpha. "So ripe. So ready," Derek added as he maneuvered them to the couch.

"The bedroom," Stiles protested weakly, even as he gripped Derek’s shoulders and pulled him closer. "Christopher—"

"I’ll replace everything," Derek rasped. "And I’d prefer not to hear another alpha’s name on your lips as I get ready to fuck you." He set his mouth over Stiles’ bond bite, his teeth perfectly mirroring the outline as they pressed over the edges.

It was like winding up a music box then letting go. Stiles’ nerves sang as the memory of Derek’s original claiming bite rushed through him, bringing along with it a flood of endorphins. He arched up as his nerves thrummed, his hips writhing desperately in search of relief. 

Derek scooped up the slick between Stiles’ legs and took Stiles’ cock in his hand. He stroked, his movements strong and sure as he built up speed.

"Going to take the edge off, baby," he whispered. Tears of relief pricked the corners of Stiles’ eyes as his stomach swooped, his body seeming to fall from a dizzying height.

"Derek," he gasped, his breathing ragged as he spurted over Derek’s hand, finally going pliant.

Derek peppered Stiles’ face and neck with kisses. The hard line of his cock was a heavy weight against Stiles’ leg as he worked his way down to the vee between Stiles’ thighs. "You smell so good," Derek said, his voice hoarse and almost unrecognizable as he leaned in and tongued Stiles’ hole in a parody of a kiss. Stiles mewled, his hips writhing from the pressure of Derek’s mouth and the sounds of spit mixed with his slick.

"Fuck," Stiles cried out as his cock swelled. He had just come, but now his arousal and lust were flaring up, stronger than ever. "Circe, no, no, no." He rocked forward, impatient and frustrated and angry.

Derek was up on his knees, cradling Stiles’ face in a flash.

"What is it, baby?" His eyes were black with his desire, his mouth swollen and wet and cheeks flushed.

Stiles pointed a finger at Derek angrily. Derek’s cock was jutting out in front of him despite its weight and girth, his balls huge and heavy between his powerful thighs. Stiles wanted that dick inside him, wanted to feel his belly swollen with Derek’s seed, to carry his pups.

"I need that," Stiles said. His voice was embarrassingly desperate and raw, and he could only imagine the blotches of color that must litter his chest. "Not your fingers. Not your hand. Not even your incredibly talented mouth. I need your cock inside of me, right now, and Circe help me, if you can’t do that, I’m going to find the nearest alpha who can, and—"

Stiles yelped as Derek grabbed the sides of his hips, manhandling him so Stiles was on his hands and knees. Stiles rested on his elbows, his ass high as the air grew thick with the sweet scent of his slick and the intensity of Derek’s musk. His heart fluttered in anticipation as Derek tilted Stiles’ hips, his thick fingers digging into the tender flesh as his thumbs parted Stiles’ cheeks.

"My omega," Derek snarled as he took hold of his prick and pushed its head against Stiles’ hole.

"Oh, fuck." Stiles whined as Derek’s cock filled him slowly, splitting him apart. He tried to control his breathing as he adjusted to its girth, his ass clenching around the hard length.

Derek groaned as the sharp angle of his hips hit against the meat of Stiles’ ass. He curled himself over Stiles’ torso, his lower body making small, circular movements as he grunted, his voice absolutely wrecked.

Stiles tilted his head. He caught the corner of Derek’s lips with the tip of his tongue. "Fuck me, alpha," he chanted. "Fuck me, knot me. Give me your pups."

Derek roared, his hips rearing back before brutally snapping forward as he pounded into Stiles.

"You’re mine," Derek said, his thrusts causing the legs of the couch to creak as he adjusted the angle of Stiles’ hips and fucked him harder. "Going to fill you full with my come, knot you so it stays inside you. You're going to be so gorgeous, baby, when your belly's round with our pups." Stiles bucked back and moaned as Derek’s well-timed thrusts sent lightning bolts of pleasure from the base of his spine down to his toes. His cocked bobbed in front of him, slapping against his belly, as his slick dribbled down his legs and onto the upholstery.

"Circe," Stiles wheezed as Derek’s knot began to form. Derek’s hips flexed and jerked, the drag of his cock and the size of his knot building a pressure inside Stiles that was low and hot and blinding as he convulsed around Derek’s cock. Derek slumped over Stiles’ back, bracing himself with one arm as he reached around and gripped Stiles’ prick. The friction as he started to stroke the shaft made Stiles’ toes curl, their lengths digging into the cushions as his orgasm ripped out of his throat. 

Derek’s expanding knot tied them in place as Stiles clenched and shuddered around him. After several aborted pumps, Derek cried out, his claws digging into the sides of Stiles’ hips as he came with a broken sound.

"My love," he groaned, burying his face against Stiles’ neck as Stiles’ belly filled with his come.

They remained in place, their bodies rocking slowly together as the sweat between them cooled. The heat had subsided temporarily, and Stiles was suddenly aware of the cramping in his legs and the exhaustion in his body as his lust was briefly slaked.

"I need to lie down," he said hoarsely. He leaned back as Derek carefully cradled him in his arms and eased them gently onto their sides.

"We didn’t think about this carefully." Stiles huffed out a laugh as Derek shifted his lower body back onto the couch, intertwining Stiles’ legs with his own.

"We didn’t think about this at all." Derek grumbled, but when he nipped the back of Stiles’ neck, Stiles could feel the outline of his grin.

Derek tickled the hairs at the base of Stiles’ neck as Stiles closed his eyes and waited for Derek’s knot to deflate.

"We’ll move to the bedroom for round two." Stiles hummed as the bond between them flared, stronger than ever. Even the sweat on Derek’s skin smelled sweeter than he’d remembered. It was less musky and sharp. It smelled more of them.

Derek leaned over as Stiles tilted his face and kissed him softly. "How are you doing?" he whispered after a moment.

"Never better," Stiles said. He took Derek’s hand and pressed it over his heart. It beat strong and sure, soaring with the weight of his emotions, gloriously full.

 

Epilogue

Eighteen months later

Stiles looked up to the heavens. The moon was enormous against the sky, the color of honey mead, and outshone even the brightest stars around it.

"That’s the Planting Moon, Samuel," Stiles said, pressing his lips to the top of his son’s downy head. "Its color is a favorable sign. It means we should have a good harvest."

Many of Lunansholt’s fields were still fallow, but there were several parcels of land fertile enough to grow flax and barley and wheat, even without the use of cultivation magic to assist them. Despite the occasional unrest in the surrounding regions, Lunansholt’s treaty with Guodalir and Arnarhvall had reduced the number of skirmishes, and Derek began diverting some of the kingdom’s resources toward efforts that promoted self-sufficiency. The boars, under their leader Deucalion, had jumped on the opportunity to occupy the farmland near the kingdom's border—happy for Derek's protection, yet too used to their solitude to fully integrate with the wolves, at least for now.

Samuel lifted his hand and burbled. Stiles took it into his own and marveled at its size and softness. Sometimes he couldn’t believe this was his life: married and a co-ruler with the king, a respected mage, and a father. Still, he couldn’t imagine any other.

"Watch, love." Stiles picked up a small twig near the bench they were sitting on and held it up. Samuel tracked its path with wide green eyes, his cupid-bow lips parted in anticipation. "Lux sit et lux fuit," Stiles chanted as the branch glowed, a pale white light intensifying from within. Its tip crackled as it formed a small sparkler that turned into a shooting star as Stiles lifted it and flung it into the heavens above.

"You like that!" Stiles said with a grin as Samuel clapped and drooled. The star shone brightly, twinkling as it took its spot near the moon. He looked back down as Samuel latched onto his finger with a chubby fist. 

Stiles gave his son a stern look. "We have a big night tonight, and Papa’s tired." It’s been more draining to use his magic lately. "Samuel, no," he added as Samuel’s green eyes flashed gold, his tiny fangs descending below his upper lip.

Samuel grabbed onto Stiles’ finger, his grip surprisingly strong.

A pair of brawny arms wrapped around Stiles. Stiles’ heart swooned as Derek leaned over to nuzzle Samuel’s head and scent his neck.

"He’s being incorrigible." Stiles complained as Derek turned and gave him a kiss.

"Mmm. I wonder where he gets that from?" Derek mouthed the line of Stiles’ neck and nipped playfully over their bond bite. A burst of color popped in the background, showering sparks of blue and gold from above as Stiles squeaked in surprise.

The smirk Derek shot Stiles was undeniably smug.

"That wasn’t me, I swear! I would have felt something, even if it were accidental. The only thing I felt was your kiss and Samuel in my arms, and—" He looked down as Samuel stared back at him innocently, gnawing on his fist. "Wait, you little bug," he said as he withdrew Samuel’s hand from his mouth. The residue of magic lingered on his skin. "A werewolf and a mage?" Stiles marveled as Samuel cooed.

"He’s remarkable. Like his papa." Derek bent down to bite Samuel’s feet when he froze, his nostrils flaring.

Stiles groaned. "Is this what our life is going to be like? Chasing after a litter of pups with control issues around the moon and their magical impulses?"

"We’ll find out soon enough, I guess." Derek said with a grin as Stiles’ jaw dropped. "Your scent has changed."

"You mean…?" Stiles counted back the weeks frantically as his eyes grew even wider. He hadn’t been on any potions since he was breastfeeding Samuel, but Derek had used a covering over the tip of his cock during Stiles’ last heat. He slapped Derek’s arm. "It’s all because of your stupid alpha seed!"

Derek preened. "Or you could blame Peter’s blessing for our ‘unequivocally fertile loins’," he said with a laugh.

Stiles’ eyes narrowed. "Just wait until he and Christopher say their vows tonight."

The mirth on Derek’s face faltered. "Are you truly upset about being pregnant?"

Stiles mulled it over and shook his head slowly. "I can’t say I’m looking forward to another year of sleepless nights, but… It feels right. Besides, when have we ever done anything as planned?"

Derek smiled as he came to kneel in front of Stiles. He cupped Stiles’ chin, his thumb brushing the curve of Stiles’ cheek. "Never. But despite that, I think things ended up perfectly." He brought his lips to Stiles’, the kiss soft and sweet and tasting of the truth of his words.

A soft pop caused them to startle. As Stiles looked up, he discovered the sky filled with a million twinkling points of light. Even the moon appeared drenched in diamonds.

"Goddesses above," Derek said, his voice filled with awe. "Did Samuel—?"

"Uh, no. That was me," Stiles said, sheepishly, flushing further when Derek gave him a lascivious grin.

"Okay, father-in-law coming through." King Noah announced loudly as he entered the garden, shielding his eyes as Derek stood. "I’m not interested in either of you, anyway. Where is that grandson of mine?"

Samuel reached out with both arms towards King Noah, squirming out of Stiles’ grasp. "Here," Stiles said, standing as he handed Samuel over. "Careful. He’s being quite a handful. As it turns out, he’s got the spark of magic, too." It was more than a spark, but Stiles figured he should break one enormous piece of news to his dad at a time, if only to protect his father’s heart.

King Noah bopped the tip of Samuel’s button nose. "You forget I not only raised you but also married your mom," he said. "I’ve known Sammy’s had the spark in him for at least the past month. I’m just surprised it took the two of you so long to figure it out."

Stiles snapped his mouth shut. "Fine, father mine," he said as he closed his robes around him in a huff. "In the meantime, keep up with your exercises and healthy eating, because you’re going to need it. Now if you don’t mind, we have a wedding to go to."

"What was all that about?" King Noah demanded after Stiles, as Derek laughed softly.

*

"Peter looks incredible," Stiles whispered to Derek as they took their spots next to Cora. The sleek lines of Peter's cloak were highlighted with a shimmering gold thread, and the leather fastenings had been charmed with many protective and prosperity spells, a wedding gift from Stiles.

"Isaac really outdid himself." Derek observed begrudgingly.

"Isaac’s an artisan," Cora said, unable to keep the note of pride from her voice. "Although I think Uncle Peter could wear a burlap sack today and still look incredible." She sighed, a wistful look crossing her features. "He’s so happy. To think: two people from totally different backgrounds, getting together after all these years."

Derek tilted his head, his eyes suddenly clear with understanding. "Tell Lahey I expect him to see him at Sunday dinner," he said gruffly. "And to keep his intentions honorable."

Stiles reached for Derek’s hand and interlaced their fingers as Cora’s face split into a blinding grin.

"She’s growing up too fast," Derek groused.

"You will always be her big brother. Besides, you have additional responsibilities, too," Stiles said, patting his still-flat belly. When he looked up, he caught his father’s shocked expression from across the aisle. Stiles blushed, his face flaming further when his father turned and whispered to Scott.

"Tell them to keep it quiet for tonight," Derek warned as Scott whipped around to give them an enthusiastic thumbs up. "Peter won’t take kindly to us stealing his thunder."

"I wouldn’t dream of it. Peter and Christopher deserve every moment of their happiness." 

Derek looked at Stiles fondly. As Deaton began the ceremony, an overwhelming rush of emotions washed over Stiles as he remembered the last time he stood here with Derek under the full moon. Unlike Peter, he didn’t have his family, nor security, or love at the time. But Stiles couldn’t begrudge his loss, because although his and Derek’s story started out as a marriage of convenience, he didn’t have to wonder whether they were in love, or whether they would have a happy ending.

They were already there.

~fin~