Stiles nearly stepped on it when he tried to leave his room the next morning. His strangled scream brought Erica and Isaac running.
“Do you still want to stay here?” Isaac asked, staring.
“Erica,” Stiles choked, “go find Laura, please. Now.”
Erica sighed and stepped over it to go. “Don’t touch it,” she called over her shoulder.
“Like I was going to,” Stiles scoffed.
“Why do you want Laura?” Isaac asked carefully.
“A dead rabbit might mean something different here than it would at home,” Stiles said. He kept his gaze up and away from the blood-matted fur ball on the floor.
Laura and Erica came running down the hall together minutes later. Laura slowed at the sight of the rabbit, her eyes widening.
Erica turned on her impatiently, and nearly got knocked on her ass when Laura started running again.
She bent at the waist and sniffed, a grin breaking across her face. “This is good,” she declared, straightening up.
“How?” Stiles demanded, unable to help himself.
“Derek…left this as an apology,” she explained. “For scaring you.”
Stiles gaped wordlessly.
“All due respect, Your Majesty, but how is leaving this—?” Isaac began.
“It’s food,” Stiles said. He looked at Laura’s excited face. “Can we try that first meeting again?”
A smile bloomed across her face. “Yes! Yes, please.” She looked down at her night gown, covered hastily in a plaid robe. “Okay, in a half hour, meet Cora in the courtyard and I’ll bring Derek.”
“Okay. Good.” Stiles nodded and backed into his room. “Wait! Um, the rabbit…”
Laura grimaced. “I’ll have someone remove it, take it to the kitchen.”
She shot Isaac a fierce look. Then she smiled sweetly. “I assumed Prince Stiles would prefer it cooked.”
Stiles’s stomach lurched, but he smiled graciously. “Well-done, please.”
“I’ll let them know. Half-hour.”
Isaac and Erica stuck so close that Stiles gave up the idea of showering or dressing with any semblance of privacy.
The eight knights from the Stilinski Kingdom were spread around Stiles’s guest wing, guarding him from afar. They seemed on edge, which was probably because Erica had warned them something might be going on.
They stayed at their posts when the three of them left for the courtyard, but some of the older ones looked nervous.
Cora was waiting, lounged on the edge of some sort of stone fountain. She wore a dignified pantsuit, much like the one Laura had worn the evening before. On Cora, it looked uncomfortable, like she’d been forced into it against her will.
“Hey,” she said, grinning. “How was your breakfast?” she asked innocently.
“A rare treat,” Stiles replied soberly. “So rare it was still twitching, in fact.”
Cora roared with laughter, rolling to her feet in an effort to keep from falling in the fountain. “Man, I hope you and Derek get along.” She looked at his knights, who looked supremely unamused. “Oh, come on. It was an apology.”
“It wasn’t exactly helpful,” Erica snapped.
“Well, he thought it was,” Cora replied, pointing at Stiles. “Obviously.”
Erica rolled her eyes but kept her silence as Laura and Derek emerged from a side door of the castle.
Stiles finally got to see Prince Derek this time. He had Laura’s dark hair and general coloring, though his skin tone was a deeper sepia than hers, as if he’d been outside a lot. He wore a pair of baggy gray sweatpants, with no shirt or shoes again.
Laura had a white-knuckled grip on his arm as she led him to them.
Derek was muscular, but Stiles had seen Laura’s strength, had seen her flick Derek across the room like a ball of lint.
When they got within earshot, Stiles heard soft, nervous growls coming from Derek; he could also see that his eyes were glowing gold.
“Hello, Derek,” he said firmly. “I’m Stiles Stilinski,” he added. He purposefully left off his title, hoping to keep him at ease.
Erica’s head turned as she, too, noticed the lack. Her hands were flat against her sides, ready.
Stiles saw the glimmer of water dripping from her fingertips.
Derek’s growls got louder slightly, his muscles bunching.
Stiles’s right side felt light and airy, nerves getting the better of him, before Laura set her hand on his left arm. The touch grounded him and his right side re-solidified.
Derek’s growls cut off sharply. His eyes were fixed on Laura’s hand.
“Derek, Stiles is your betrothed.”
Stiles’s head whipped toward her, but she just shook her head.
“Do you remember meeting him? He’s here to help us.”
“He was four when he met him,” Cora scoffed.
“Shut-up,” Laura mumbled out of the corner of her mouth. “Derek, he’s here to help.”
Derek started shaking his head, taking tiny steps back.
“He is. He—he’ll help us with the Argents.”
At the name Argent, Derek went to his half-shift, snarling. Then he turned and ran.
Laura seemed to stifle a wail. “Thank you, Stiles. You’re welcome to explore the castle. I…I have business to attend.” She ran after her brother.
Cora sighed. “Come on. I’ll play tour guide.”
Stiles managed a smile. “Thank you.”
She scowled at him. “I still don’t want to marry you.”
He choked. “Um, good?” He looked at Erica and Isaac for help; they shrugged. “Do you have a library?”
Apparently, to Cora, tour guide meant leading them to the library and leaving them there to go practice sword fighting with some knights.
Stiles was fine with that—left alone, he could snoop.
There were framed portraits of the Hale family throughout the library, formal posed pictures much like in the Stilinski palace.
There had been a lot more Hales than there were Stilinskis. The number fluctuated with each picture, but Stiles counted fifteen people that were in every picture.
“Just like your library,” Isaac observed.
“Uh-huh…” Stiles studied the boy who had to be Prince Derek in one of the pictures.
It looked like it had been taken just before the fire, making Derek fifteen. He was gangly but solid, like the others around him. He was leaning up against a girl—a sister who’d died, probably. He could see Laura leaning on a blond man—Peter Hale. Stiles remembered him from when he’d visited when Stiles was ten, bearing a birthday gift from the Hales, a painting that he’d hung in his study room so he could stare at it while pretending to do homework.
Cora was very small in the picture—eight or so, making Stiles wonder how old she was now. Seventeen?
He turned away from the family portraits and wandered to a sitting area. There was tasteful furniture arranged around a leather center piece of sorts—it wasn’t a table. It looked merely decorative. Stiles knelt beside it and lifted at the cushion, satisfied when it opened up.
Inside were stacks of photo albums and some loose pictures scattered about.
“How’d you know they had those?” Erica asked, looking over his shoulder to see.
“You put the posed portraits on the walls, keep the others out of sight. Just for family,” he muttered. He shook his head and picked up an album at random. He flipped it open.
These pictures were much better; grinning Hales, half-dressed or half-shifted, stared up at him from every page.
There was Laura in jean shorts and a tank top, her hair braded. She had another girl on her back, both of them grinning wildly. They were standing in the fountain Cora had been sitting on.
“Cute,” Erica said. “But what’s the point of looking at these?”
“Getting to know the Hales,” Stiles mumbled, studying a picture of Queen Talia and King Patrick sitting on a blanket in the courtyard, leaning against each other.
“But, well…” Isaac cleared his throat. “Most of those Hales are dead.”
Stiles swallowed thickly. “I know.” He closed the album and put it back. “Do you guys remember anything about the fire?”
Erica glanced at Isaac. “Just that it was while the majority of the family was at their summer house for the month. I think I heard that Laura and Derek Hale had some schooling or official things here to finish before they would go there.”
“What about Cora?”
“She wanted to stay until Laura went,” Isaac said slowly. “I read somewhere that Princess Cora was practically attached to Laura’s hip at the time.”
Stiles walked to one wall of books, frowning as he studied the titles. He picked up a book called The Hidden World of Birthdays and thumbed through it absently. The pages were yellowed with age.
“I don’t really remember anything else,” Erica said.
“How did the fire start?” Stiles put the book back and grabbed another, restless. “Was it an accident? Or did someone do it on purpose?”
“No one really…if they knew, they kept it quiet,” Isaac amended. He was frowning. “People suspected that it was murder, but they could never prove anything. And even if they could, it’s not like-” He cut himself off, flushing.
Stiles picked up another book, rubbing his thumb across the spine. “It’s not like what?”
“Well, if, you know. If Argents did it, it’s not like…”
“Right.” Irritated at the reminder that Argents thought themselves above punishment for their crimes, Stiles shoved the book back on the shelf—a slip of pale blue paper fluttered out as he did. Curious, he bent and picked it up, unfolding it.
I hope this time you’ll be able to get away. I miss you. You should try harder, sweetie. I'm sure you can think of something.
I heard something today—my father was talking about your family. He said you were going away. Is that true? How long will you be gone? Where are you going?
Write me back and let me know. Or you could tell me in person if you can get away soon. Maybe I can visit while you’re away; wouldn’t it be easier to get away from your mother’s gaze while you’re away from the castle?
Do not forget to write me back, Derek!
Stiles flushed slightly, refolding the letter. He had no interest in seeing Prince Derek’s adolescent love letters. With a little huff, he stuffed it back in the book it’d come from—a thick tome full of Shakespeare, of course.
“What’s the matter?” Erica asked, crossing her arms. “Did you find something interesting?”
She and Isaac were watching him.
“Stupid note-to-self,” he muttered. “Come with me to find some food.”
“You’ve always got rabbit,” Erica said cheerfully.
Stiles moodily stirred the stew he’d been given for lunch. No doubt the meat was from the rabbit. He wasn’t too bothered by that. In fact, he was still thinking of the stupid love note tucked carefully away.
It wasn’t that he’d expected an arranged marriage would be full of love at first sight and we-were-destined moments.
Their marriage wasn’t even truly arranged. They were betrothed, yes, but they were being given the option to get a feel for each other before any decisions were made.
But Stiles had always imagined Prince Derek to be at least somewhat interested in meeting him.
Stiles had been curious about Derek his whole life. He’d had crushes, yes, had experimented, but nothing had ever been serious enough to write letters. To save letters.
Why didn’t he ever write me? Stiles frowned. Obviously, because he’d been busy mourning his family. And writing Kate. He wondered if she was still around. Maybe that’s why Derek was acting so odd, trying to scare Stiles away so he could marry his true love.
Stiles snorted and shoved his dish away. If Derek wanted him to leave, to call off the betrothal, he’d just have to say it himself. “I’m full,” he muttered.
For the rest of the afternoon, he searched the books in the library for more notes, perplexing Isaac and Erica.
There weren’t anymore, but it wasn’t until late into the night that Stiles finally gave up.
“I’ll meet you in the room. I’m just going to get a drink,” he added when they looked at him incredulously.
He still had an entourage when he went to the kitchen, where he retrieved a glass of water and sarcastically saluted them with it.
They walked a few feet ahead of him on the way back to the room, which had him grinning mischievously and slipping down a side hallway he’d noticed.
It wouldn’t be long before they noticed his absence and exploded with rage. Stiles started looking for a hiding spot, heart hammering with excitement.
He backed up, swiveling his head, and bumped into someone.
Cringing, he turned, apology already halfway out of his mouth. It died on his tongue when he saw who he’d backed into.
Derek didn’t move. His eyes were glassy and hazel, his breaths even and deep.
“What are you doing?” Unnerved, Stiles took a step back. The air in the hallway started shifting restlessly, like an uncertain wind had blown through.
“Protecting my sisters,” Derek replied. His voice was rough and hitching. “It’s my fault, so I…have to protect my sisters…”
“Oh my gods,” a voice whispered.
Stiles jerked and so did Derek, who blinked rapidly in surprise. His eyes turned gold again as he woke up. Fangs descended, but he didn’t try to attack; he just went to Cora’s side, grumbling as he did.
Cora went to get Laura with Derek on her heels. "Meet us in the kitchen," she said over her shoulder.
Stiles stayed in place until Erica found him and started ranting at him.
"Let's go to the kitchen," he mumbled.
She threw her hands up and followed him, grabbing Isaac on the way.
Laura and Cora were waiting for them in the otherwise empty kitchen. Derek was nowhere in sight.
Laura asked if Stiles wanted tea, but he shook his head.
"So, um...what's going on?" he asked nervously.
"Cora said you and Derek were--talking." She twisted her fingers together. "Were you?"
"Um...yes? Kind of? Is that—I think he was sleeping. Sleepwalking. And talking. Because he didn't even seem to know I was there?"
Laura nodded slowly. "He does sleepwalk occasionally. What did he say?"
Stiles shuffled his feet. "That he was protecting you guys."
Cora sniffled and rested her head against Laura's shoulder.
"And..." Stiles hesitated. "He, um, also said that it was his fault, so he had to protect you."
Laura straightened. "That what was his fault?"
Stiles shook his head, nonplussed.
Cora murmured something too low for Stiles to hear, and Laura nodded.
"That's ridiculous, though," she mumbled. "He wasn't even there." She looked at Stiles and offered a small smile. "That's the first time he's spoken to anyone in nine years."
Stiles gaped. "But—he—you—?"
"Um, well," Laura stammered. "You know, he's got some...issues? With the fire. He just. Um. Doesn't talk."
Cora rolled her eyes and left the room, her cup forgotten on the counter.
"I noticed him not talking," Stiles said slowly, frowning at her. "But I figured it was just because there was someone new in the house."
"That's why he's acting...odd, yeah." Laura nodded.
Stiles suppressed a snort. He bet that was why. That and Kate.
He wanted to find out more about this Kate. If Derek was going to break a possible alliance with his kingdom for her, he obviously loved her, and Stiles wanted to see proof of that love.
Unfortunately, Erica and Isaac wouldn't stand for him exploring more of the castle that night, so, with them guarding the door and windows, he fell asleep and dreamed of ducks chasing rabbits.
Derek joined them at breakfast in the morning. He was firmly seated between Laura and Cora.
This made Erica and Isaac very nervous; as a result, they stood directly behind Stiles's chair. Isaac's hand rested on his sword hilt, while Erica's fingers twitched anxiously.
Laura was telling Stiles about a specialty wine available only in their kingdom when breakfast came out.
Laura's hand shot to Derek's shoulder, keeping him seated as the dishes were laid out.
Stiles glanced at Cora questioningly, but she was determinedly looking out the window to her right.
Stiles was unsurprised to see rabbit meat among his bacon and eggs. He was surprised to look up and find Derek's gaze on him from across the table, still unnervingly gold.
He thought of the pretty hazel they had been the night before and smiled awkwardly, looking away.
Laura went utterly rigid when a plate was set in front of Derek. It was piled with meat, mostly rare steak.
"Um...isn't that....not good?" Stiles asked, cringing. He could only imagine what his father was eating in his absence.
"Well, he...likes meat," Laura said. She looked sideways at Derek, who was still watching Stiles. "Here, Der." She held a fork out to him.
It clattered to the floor when Derek lurched forward, falling face first on his plate and ripping into the meat like an animal.
"Derek, no!" Laura snapped.
Derek flinched and sat up, chewing open-mouthed on a hunk of steak. There were sausage bits in his eyebrows.
"Laura, this is obviously not working," Cora said quietly.
Stiles was too busy watching Derek eat his food to see the sisters' expressions.
Laura sighed when Derek brought the steak up to his face and started tearing at it.
His teeth were sharp, like he was half-shifted again.
"What...is he...doing?" Stiles finally managed.
"He's eating," Cora replied. "Obviously."
Laura shushed her. With her gaze firm on Stiles's face, she said, "Prince Stiles, I understand that you obviously don't want to marry my feral brother—I also know that it wouldn't be right. I'd hoped that being in the castle, being in his skin, he'd get better, but..." She took a shaking breath. "I can have a carriage and some knights ready to escort you home before noon." She looked extremely resigned, dropping her gaze to her untouched plate.
Stiles glanced at Derek, who was studying Laura very closely.
"Well...I came here to get to know Derek..."
Laura looked up.
"I did, I came here to get to know him before the final decision was made. So that's what I'm going to do." He smiled at Derek, who looked confused. "I always did love a project."