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Day for Night

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Stiles could honestly say he’d thought that fitting through the drain pipe would be the hard part.

When he’d formulated his escape from Beacon Hills' inescapable dungeon, the biggest obstacle in his mind had been the drain pipe. Of course it was. He was going to squeeze his perfectly average sized body through a small hole in the floor that hopefully led to the sewers unobstructed and didn’t have any sharp turns for him to get wedged in.

To put his horrible plan in context: he was less than an hour away from being publicly executed for theft. Desperation did funny things to critical thinking.

Fortunately, or maybe unfortunately, the smarter and non-panicked side of his brain didn’t catch up until just a little too late; just as he was past the point of no return, headfirst straight down in a pitch black drain.

This is such a bad idea, this is such a bad idea—the mantra kept repeating itself over and over in his head as he inched forward, mocking him, because it was far too late to turn back. Whether he made it through or not, he was dead, but at least dying in a drainpipe didn’t give anyone else the morbid entertainment of a public beheading. At least Scott wouldn’t see his death, his dad wouldn't, and his corpse might even back up the prison's sewer system, really ruin the day of that guard who enjoyed poking at Stiles through the iron bars of the cell with his spear.

The thought at least brought him some dark joy as he inched forward through the pitch black nothing before him.

Minutes stretched out into what felt like hours of agonizingly slow progress, the crushing pressure of such a tight space closing in on him, scraping at his shoulders, until suddenly his drain dropped off and opened up to another. It must’ve been an older pipe because it felt huge in comparison to the path he’d just taken, large and open, the stones smooth and eroded away from water and slick with...he didn’t want to think about it. He just needed to focus on moving forward and pray that no one up above dumped anything until he was out of the way.

He was almost through, he could feel it. The darkness was starting to lighten, some dim and grey light from somewhere up ahead just barely peeking through, and he could hear running water somewhere very close, feel the air moving. He squinted into the dark but he just couldn’t see—

The drain underneath him was suddenly not underneath him anymore, and before he could find anything to hang onto, he slipped down the suddenly steep and slippery drop with a yelp and splashed into cold water. Deep water. That smelled like sewer, once he came back to the surface and was able to breathe again.

It was a bittersweet success; he hadn’t died in a drain, but he could very well still suffocate from the smell.

The sewer was only a little lighter, illuminated by drain shafts leading straight up to the street above; he could hear people talking, horses moving past, echoing chants that could only have been from the morning mass at the church. That one sounded eerie, floating down around him like they were singing him to his death. It faded quickly though, the current kept him moving forward and it was all he could do to keep his head above water while he was whisked along for the ride.

It wasn’t easy by any means, the water was moving faster than he’d thought it would with the recent rain, and there was nothing he could grab onto to slow his progress. He coughed, trying to force his eyes to adjust to the darkness sooner so he could see over the currents splashing into his face—but when he finally did, his stomach curled up and died at the very clear drop off up ahead to who knew where. He didn't know how far it dropped, into what, or if he would survive it. Things weren’t looking all that great after all.

The eerie chanting still echoing faintly through the stone sewer certainly wasn’t helping his positivity.

That desperate feeling was creeping back up.

If he survived this, he promised anyone listening, he would never steal again. Never. He would get Scott out of the dirty city and settle in the first safe place they could find (preferably somewhere close to his dad), get himself a respectable job, save his respectably earned wages like any respectable citizen, start a family and raise—chickens, whatever respectable people raised, he didn’t actually know. But he could do respectable, if he only survived this very close drop into nothing.

He held his breath and braced himself seconds before everything was totally overwhelmed by roaring water and tumbling down—maybe down, it was impossible to tell which way was up, he couldn't get his head above water. Until he was unceremoniously dumped out in the channel flowing calmly and leisurely out of town to the river.

He sputtered out dirty water and squinted in the sudden light and clear blue sky.

Holy shit, he was out.

He ducked back down into the water, swimming along the slimey retainer wall and trying not to make too much noise. The wall wasn't that high, if anyone passing by on the street above happened to glance down, he would be caught for sure.

He kept an ear on those above, listening for any sign that he’d been spotted. All he could hear was the guards rushing past and yelling as the alarm bells rang out from the prison, and relaxed conversation from a few merchants sitting on the wall and staring after them, idly wondering what happened to cause such a commotion. They were so immersed in their talking that they weren’t paying the least bit of attention to the coin purse hanging temptingly close over the water from one's belt.

Eh, respectable could wait.

*

Alright, if he survived this, he would never steal again.

Respectable was starting to look pretty welcoming again as he dragged his feet along the riverbank.

He'd been dragging his feet along the riverbank for almost two days, in not enough clothing, and there was snow creeping down on him from the mountains. He was out of the food he managed to swipe in the last village he passed through, and if he didn't find more soon, well, it didn't take a genius to figure out what would happen then. He didn’t exactly have any extra weight on him to work off. He’d always been lean; thieves who were too thick around the middle to make a fast getaway didn’t generally make very good thieves.

An echoing howl rang out through the mountains as dusk faded into darkness.

Wolves. Of course.

It could always get worse when it came to Stiles’ life, and what could possibly be worse than wolves?

“I mean that rhetorically,” he muttered up at the sky. He felt the clarification was necessary, he had a lifetime of proof that said if he wasn’t perfectly clear, the universe would gleefully demonstrate exactly what could possibly be worse than wolves.

At least his frozen dead body would be of use to someone.

*

He held out for as long as he could, passing by two towns he didn’t know (and swiping a warmer shirt and pants from an outlying farm) before he absolutely had to stop for food and a rest. He’d been moving for two days on barely anything, after a week of the slop the prison pretended was food. His stomach had given up protesting, he was shaky, and the little he’d stolen from farms along the way was gone hours ago.

The village he stumbled into was small, not even a real town, but it had a tavern and that was all Stiles cared about. He slapped a handful of (stolen) coins on the counter and ordered a slab of meat the size of his head and the largest drink they could manage. He was freezing and jittery, he needed the warmth of alcohol.

“Sounds like you’re celebrating,” the barkeep commented with a raised eyebrow, but raked the coins towards himself all the same.

“That’s because I am, I’ve got a lot to celebrate,” Stiles responded vaguely, and wasn’t that an understatement. The man looked interested and raised his other eyebrow in a silent prompt to continue, as well as the bottle to entice him into a reward. Small village gossips, always looking for a good story. It wasn’t like he would ever come back to this pathetic hole of a town, he had to be heading back west now, and more drink was sounding pretty good at the moment.

Stiles leaned in a little, casting an eye over the other patrons before he said with a grin, “Between you and me, I just escaped the dungeons of Beacon Hills.”

The barkeep’s face immediately fell into disbelief and he rolled his eyes, no longer interested. Stiles wasn’t insulted; it was a historical fact that no one had ever escaped the prisons of Beacon Hills, he wouldn’t believe just anyone claiming to have done so.

“A child like you?” The man scoffed. “Did you squeeze through the bars on the window?”

Stiles just laughed instead of admitting that his escape had been far less dignified than climbing through bars, and answered with a wink, “If I told you, I wouldn’t be able to use it again next time.”

Not that he ever planned on letting himself be taken back there alive.

“Escaped from Beacon Hills,” the barkeep muttered, shaking his head and noticeably not pouring Stiles more alcohol as he moved down the bar towards a group of other men huddled under their cloaks. Those cloaks looked incredibly warm. Stiles wasn’t ashamed to admit he was coveting them; he wasn’t respectable yet, he could do things like covet cloaks.

“Did I hear you correctly?” one of the men asked, turning his attention to Stiles. He quickly tried to look like he hadn’t been coveting their cloaks, because that wasn’t something to advertise. Especially when he was planning on taking one the second they were left unattended. “You escaped from the prison?”

“That I did.” The liquor was starting to kick in—he shouldn’t have downed half of it at once. “The only man alive to see the inside and live to tell the tale.”

“I’ve seen the inside,” the man commented mildly. There was something off about his tone.

“Have you?” Stiles eyes flicked to the man’s rough and calloused hands resting on the bar. “Blacksmith? Guard?”

Before Stiles could blink, one of those hands was clamped down on his right forearm, holding it hard against the bar.

“Not exactly,” the man sneered through his teeth as he shifted his other arm back, moving his cloak to reveal the sword on his belt. The sword with the crest of not the prison’s guard, but the royal guard glinting in the dim light.

Crap.

“Such an amateur mistake, coming to the town,” the guard drawled as he roughly pushed up Stiles’ sleeve, revealing the long healed brand of a T in a circle. Heavy footsteps behind Stiles to told him he was already surrounded. “If you’d kept to the forest you might have stood a chance, thief.”

Stiles nodded like he agreed—he did, coming into the town had been a stupid mistake, but he was hungry and desperate and tired—and then threw his drink in the guard’s face, wrenched his arm away, and dove under the nearest table in the clamor of confusion and alarm.

They were good with swords and brute strength, and if they were fighting anyone else in a real or formal battle, they would’ve easily won. But Stiles’ profession had never required brute strength; he needed to be quick and light, get into tight spaces and out again before anyone knew he was there. Dodging their swords and grabs was no problem for him, darting behind the bar and ducking beneath tables, even scaling the wooden beams set in the daub walls to the second floor balcony, hauling himself up by the railing.

But the guards saw where he was headed and flooded the balcony just as he got there, they circled him below—he was trapped.

Although...

There was a heavy iron chandelier, in the middle of the pub, and if he pushed off of the railing hard enough, he could probably grab onto it and swing to the door. If he missed, he was dead either way, he didn’t have a whole lot to lose in this situation. Except his life, but what had he really been doing with that anyway?

Out of the corner of his eye he saw a guard dart towards him and he lept before he could second guess himself.

His hands gripped the edge of the chandelier, so that part was a success, but his weight tipped the other side up and over him. First, wax started to drip down onto his fingers, burning his skin, and then candles started following suit and he was forced to let go. He fell in a shower of lit candles and wax and hit the floor in a painful heap.

It took only seconds for the guards to get over their shock and surround him. All of the other patrons had cleared out of the bar, the barkeep was nowhere to be seen, there was no one left to stop them from killing him.

Well, this was it. This was the end.

The guards wouldn’t bother taking him back to Beacon Hills to be formally executed with an audience, it was too far a journey for them to bother and he’d already escaped once. His head was much easier to carry without the body attached to it.

He was never going to see Scott again, he realized with a detached acceptance. Not his dad, no one.

“Get up,” the head guard ordered, flicking his sword with the command.

It hurt, rolling to his feet after the abuse his body had taken the last week, but Stiles refused to die on the floor below this smug lapdog of the regent. Before he was even halfway up, another guard yanked him the rest of the way, holding him in place from behind like he would ever have a chance of running from this. At least now with the extra support it wouldn't matter if his legs gave out in fear like they were on the verge of doing. Now he only had to hope that none of them could actually see his heart pounding through his shirt.

“You think you can die with honor, thief?” the head guard sneered, bringing his sword up to rest against Stiles’ throat. He swallowed instinctively, and felt the edge dig in. “You can pretend to stand before me as a man, but I know your type. Deep down, every single one of you is just a coward. A frightened, honorless worm, who no one will mourn when—”

“Fire!” someone hollered from somewhere behind them.

Instinctively everyone in the room turned towards the voice, and Stiles felt the grip on his arms loosen just a fraction at the shift in attention. One of the lit candles from the chandelier must have fallen onto someone’s forgotten cloak—the guard’s very nice cloak that Stiles had been eyeing, he noted with glee, and it was up in flames on a table, already spreading through spilled alcohol soaked into the wood.

“Put that out!” the head guard ordered to the room at large, his sword dipping slightly with his distraction, and the second the tip was away from Stiles' throat, a black shape appeared in between them. There was the metallic bite of two blades clashing, forcing the guard’s sword to the side, then a hand pushed Stiles back roughly.

“Run!”

There was just enough of a delay in Stiles’ mind to let him take in heavy eyebrows, dark stubble, and a sharp jaw before his feet caught up and he took off without looking back, because who was he to pass up a literal invitation to flee for his life?

He didn’t bother with the horses tied up outside the tavern, he’d never had much luck with them, and living the formative years of his life in the cramped city had taught him how to move on his own feet, so he just kept running. He ran as fast as he could along the road, hoping he could make it through the town gates before the guards there realized something was wrong and closed them.

Hooves pounded behind him, galloping up quickly, and moving far faster than he could.

Damn it. Escaped execution, escaped death again, only to have his head lopped off in the road a minute later. Not exactly how he’d imagined his death.

The forest to either side of the road was filled with thick brambles, thorns, too dense for him to run through easily to escape and the guards had crossbows anyway, they could easily just shoot him. The rider coming up behind was practically on him. There was no way he would get out of this alive, so he just kept running in some futile attempt to feel like he tried in the end, and braced himself for death.

Only to be yanked up by the back of his jacket and slung over both the horse and its rider's lap like a sack of potatoes. He stared at the ground in front of his face, watching it bob violently, closer and farther as the horse kept galloping forward, and still he wasn't dead. He might vomit, and he couldn't breathe from having the wind punched out of him after a very long sprint, but he was alive, which was more than he’d expected mere seconds ago.

He craned his neck awkwardly to look towards the horse's front; they were only a few dozen feet from the gates—the rapidly closing gates with guards bearing very large swords, and the horse wasn't slowing down or veering off course.

Stiles felt the knee jabbing into his ribcage shift and the horse actually sped up, and nope! This was how he would die. His head taken clean off by a collision between a horse and a very sturdy wooden gate. A sword might also be involved.

So he yelled. Loudly. He couldn't help it, because he was galloping towards certain death, slung over a horse like cargo, and there was nothing he could do to stop it but close his eyes, cover his head, and pray very quickly to an omnipotent overlord he didn’t even believe in anyway. There wasn’t even time to promise to be respectable if he survived.

He continued to yell as an arm wrapped around his torso, the horse leapt over the gate, and as Stiles made direct eye contact with a very shocked guard passing under them. In fact, he didn’t stop yelling until the landing punched out the very small amount of air he’d managed to take back in, and then all he could do was kick his legs uselessly and try to pull in a full breath as his savior and/or new captor kept riding on at a fast clip.

Whoever he was, he didn’t slow to let Stiles right himself until what felt like a few miles away, and by that time his head was pounding from being thrown around and he was one more step away from vomiting all over his dashing hero’s boot.

It was a familiar boot, Stiles realized belatedly, and he craned his neck around to follow it up the black pants of the leg wearing it, up the black tunic, the black cloak, and finally landed on the black scowl of none other than the man who stopped the guards from killing him. He didn't look overly pleased with his decision.

Ever the gentleman in the short time they’d known each other, his dashing hero let him off the horse much the same way he pulled him on: grabbed his jacket and just yanked him off to catch himself on the way down. He did, barely, and then he did vomit. Everything he ate at the tavern, though thankfully not on anyone's boots.

"You have a weak stomach for a thief."

Stiles wiped his mouth and glared up at his dear hero's disgusted eyebrow raise, mourning the loss of his meal more than his wounded pride or actual injury. "My stomach is just fine when it isn’t slung over a knee."

“It saved your life.”

“I would’ve preferred my lunch.”

"Your priorities need to be sorted," the man factually declared, like an order—as he turned his gaze to the distance and held up his forearm.

"What's your name, thief?" he continued, arm raised and still as a statue. Stiles squinted up at him, his arm, then out at what he could possibly be looking for. There was nothing but wide open country dotted with trees and the mountains far off in the distance, a few birds circling.

"Stiles. Sir," he added belatedly and with attitude, noting the man's noble clothing and the embroidered black cloak he kept draped ridiculously over one shoulder.

"My name's Derek." He finally looked down at Stiles, and a second later a flurry of brown feathers alighted on his raised forearm—a hawk, Stiles realized once he stopped reeling back in surprise and minor terror. So he was a little jumpy and on edge, he’d almost died at least four times in the last hour, that was perfectly understandable.

And he still wasn’t sure what the intentions were of the mysterious Derek of No Family Name. Stiles had a reason for not giving a surname, he was usually on the run and his chosen profession was very much illegal and couldn’t in any way be linked back to his father, but he didn't trust a man dressed like Derek doing the same. He didn’t think someone would bother to introduce themselves right before cutting his head off, but he couldn’t say for sure. He'd escaped an inescapable prison through a drain, stranger things had happened.

"And what is it you do, Derek?" Stiles prompted, when the man did nothing but check over his hawk briefly. Stiles was half expecting him to be a bounty hunter of some kind, beating out the guards for all of the reward—and there was no doubt a reward being offered. Stiles had escaped the inescapable prison of Beacon Hills. The regent would rather burn down the countryside than let his humiliation at the tricks of a lowly thief stain his name.

"I travel," was the very simple answer.

No, not suspicious in the least.

"Well now you run. The guards will be after you as well for helping me."

"They would be after me whether I helped you or not," he answered and didn't elaborate at all.

"Right,” Stiles said after an awkward pause. “Well, thanks for the rescue." He waved as he took a few steps back, fully intending to get the hell away from Derek and find a place to lay low until he could head back west, especially if the guards were after him as well. Stiles didn't need any more attention drawn to him than absolutely necessary, and a statuesque mystery man who traveled with a hawk and a powerhouse of a horse tended to turn unwanted heads, both sinister and aroused.

“Where will you go?”

Like Stiles was going to tell him. He didn’t even know the exact direction himself, there was nothing out here to orient himself, but he wasn't about to tell Derek that.

“That way.” He flung his arm in the first direction that didn’t look noticeably perilous. Once he got out of sight he could figure out which way he actually needed to go and doubleback if necessary.

Derek wasn’t buying it. He didn’t even glance in the direction indicated.

“Come with me,” he stated instead. Again, like an order.

“Wh—” Stiles spluttered for a second. “Did you not hear what I just said? That is a terrible idea!” One of Derek’s impressive eyebrows arched dangerously. “You really think the two people they’re looking for traveling together is a good plan?”

Derek just kept staring in stony silence, which was just making Stiles more agitated about the whole thing. He was exhausted, he needed to leave and get safe and meet Scott, he needed to not be around the guy who just made him a bigger target!

“That’s a horrible plan!” he continued, because there seemed to be some confusion on the matter. “We should split up, go completely different directions, make them split their forces so we have a better chance at escaping!”

“And how will you defend yourself next time they catch up to you? Do you have a weapon? Can you fight?”

“They won’t catch up to me next time.” He would starve in the middle of the woods if he had to, there was no way he was going to let himself be captured again.

Derek didn’t appear to have the same kind of faith in him, or maybe he just wasn’t listening at all, because he scooted forward in his saddle and guided his horse around in an invitation to climb on.

“You’re exhausted and you must be hungry,” he said with authority he certainly didn’t have over anyone. “I’ll find us shelter for the night and you can be on your way in the morning.”

Stiles threw up his hands. “Seriously, did you hear anything I just said? Are words coming out of my mouth?”

“Nothing of value,” Derek responded with a haughty smirk. Stiles gaped, started an indignant retort, but was cut off again. “We’ll make it farther watching each other’s backs, and you’ll be faster on my horse than on foot. Wherever you're really going, I can get you there alive.”

That was tempting. Now that the adrenaline and stark fear of almost dying had faded, he really was exhausted, and the offer of letting someone else take charge for once sounded good. Too good. Not that he would actually take Derek to Scott.

“And what do you want in exchange?” Derek stared at him flatly. “You saved my life and now you’re offering this, you must want something."

“Just an extra pair of eyes while the guards are still searching.”

“Just an ex—” He cut himself off to rub at his temples. He felt a headache coming on, he was feeling that shaky weakness from too little food. Whatever Derek wanted was probably infinitely better than death at the hands of the regent’s men or starving to death, so why the hell not?

“Fine.” He held up a finger when Derek looked more smug than what he assumed was usual at getting his way. “I still think you’re up to something, but I’ll come. And I expect warm meals, seven hours of sleep a night, and a real bed at least three nights a week.”

Derek looked like he was already starting to regret this decision.

“I have an extra sleeping pad and you’ll eat what I can find you.”

“Close enough.”

*

By the time they stopped for the night, Stiles was dangerously close to falling asleep against Derek's very solid and broad back. It was taking everything he had not to just face plant into the soft and warm looking cloak, and the jostling of the horse and steadily darkening sky certainly weren't helping.

But as exhausted as he was, the place Derek decided they were to sleep for the night made him perk right back up with fear and apprehension and even more fear.

It didn’t look abandoned, it looked like the entrance to hell itself.

A shifty eyed old man wandered over when he saw them approach, and Stiles couldn’t tell if he was checking for weapons or eyeing the size of their clothing for after he'd stripped their bodies to bury them. Probably both.

“Can I help you gentlemen?” he wheezed out. He was missing most of his teeth.

“We need dry lodging after all of this rain lately,” Derek explained as if he was talking to any upstanding innkeeper in a town. “We can pay you.”

“Don’t have space in the house, but we had a sickness run through the pigs last spring. Barn’s yours.”

Stiles turned around to look at the silent and empty barn—a glorified pile of sticks that had somehow managed to keep standing—and then to the back of Derek’s head. He tried to subtly prod him a few times to get his attention, but he was being stubbornly dense as he passed over a handful of coins to the old man, promising more in the morning.

He tied up his horse, Camaro, to the rickety fence and then shoved Stiles into the barn, ignoring his adamant protests towards the entire situation.

“You know we’re going to die here, right?” he continued, even as Derek pushed past him to put down his things in the back room of the barn. “Either by his hand or the roof collapsing in on us, we will not be leaving here.”

“We don’t have a choice,” Derek said as he returned. “It’s too wet to build a fire outside and it will be too cold tonight to go without. Would you rather freeze to death out there?”

“Yes!” Stiles practically yelled in his face. “Literally anything else would be better! You said you would find me shelter for the night, and this is not shelter!”

“Stiles.” Derek placed his hands on his shoulders and squeezed. Stiles wasn’t sure if it was supposed to be comforting or threatening, but he certainly came off as the latter. “You’re a wanted man, and I can’t have anyone recognize me. We can’t stay at an inn, we can’t find a town, this is what we have to do. Nothing will happen.”

Nothing will happen was playing through his head, mockingly, as Stiles tore through the trees a few hours later, chased by the surprisingly spry old man wielding an axe.

Derek was such a liar, and an idiot, and a terrible person to finish it off—who in their right mind would trust a man who looked like that?

Stiles glanced back at him, saw the whites of his crazy eyes, and turned back around just in time for his shoulder to glance off a very solid tree. He hit the ground hard, the gnarled tree roots he landed on knocking the breath and maybe a rib or two out of him.

He regretted everything; he shouldn’t have gone for a walk to settle his nerves. He shouldn’t have agreed to travel with Derek. He shouldn’t have gone to that tavern. He shouldn’t have left prison to begin with. A beheading in a controlled environment where he knew the axeman had good aim was sounding so far superior to his current predicament.

He groaned, in both pain and fear, and rolled over in some morbid fascination to see the face of a man just before he killed someone. It was horrifying, just like he’d expected; twisted up and demented, he was practically vibrating with excitement over his kill.

At least he was until a black blur slammed into him and the man was thrown to the side with an animalistic snarl, his axe clattering against the rocks as it fell.

Stiles froze, confused and still reeling from yet another brush with death (more like a violent trip over it), blinking at the spot his would-be murderer had just been standing. Then what he’d just seen sank in.

“Shit, shit!” He stumbled back, tripped over a root and hit the ground hard before scrambling back to his feet.

The large black wolf snarled, its lips curling back over bloodstained teeth that looked more than capable of ripping out another throat. Stiles’ throat. The only un-ripped throat in the vicinity, unless—

He glanced back towards the barn, where Derek was asleep and entirely unaware of the massive wolf with a taste for throat prowling just outside. If the wolf hadn’t gotten to him first.

He had to warn him. They had to get out of there.

He started backing away from the wolf slowly, trying not to look like an enticing meal to chase down. The wolf kept staring at him, unblinking, coiled tight for attack if the opportunity presented itself.

Well, Stiles didn’t intend to let anything present itself, and he kept his eyes fixed on the animal, even though he tripped a number of times and bumped into the low rock wall that ran around a chicken coop. Or it might’ve been a chicken coop at some point, now it was just barren mud and a rusty old pail.

He didn’t turn around until he was backing into the barn and closing the door between them, and then he finally breathed a full breath and whipped around in the darkness.

“Derek! Derek!” He threw open the door to the back of the barn, tough luck if Derek didn’t want to be disturbed, Stiles didn’t want to die. “Get up, get your sword, get any kind of weapon, there’s a massive wolf out there who has my scent and he looked like it was the best thing he’s ever—

Derek wasn’t there.

The back of the barn was empty, just mounds of dry hay that didn’t look like they’d been arranged into any kind of bed area. Derek’s things were piled in the corner, his sword leaning against the wall over his pack, and no other sign that he’d ever been there.

He left him.

Derek just outright left him in the middle of nowhere, and now he was going to die.

No, he told himself firmly, forcing himself to calm down now that there wasn’t a giant wolf five feet away from him with bloodlust in its eyes. Derek wouldn’t have left his stuff, he didn’t have anything else. These were all his belongings.

He probably just also went out for a late night walk. Through the dark and unfamiliar forest. Without a weapon of any kind. Like Stiles.

Stiles didn’t have time to worry about Derek at the moment, he could hear growling getting closer to the walls full of cracks and holes between warped boards and sticks. He could see the moonlight glinting off the sleek black fur as the wolf moved past, prowling around the barn.

He made his decision, grabbed Derek’s sword (and balked under the weight—seriously, was it always this heavy? Derek held it like it was nothing), and pushed through the rickety door to the main room of the barn. He held the sword somewhat raised before him, silently daring the wolf to come closer while also praying that it just moved along.

The old man’s body was visible through a gap in the wall, blood pooled around him and soaking into the dirt and leaves.

The sword was getting heavier, sinking down, pulling his arms down with it, and how could Derek possibly carry this all—

He looked down at a light pressure on his hands, and it registered that there was a small and delicate hand pushing the sword down. A woman’s hand. A woman’s hand that certainly didn’t belong in a place like this with an old man like that.

His eyes followed the hand up to the attached arm, then took in Derek’s cloak wrapped around the small frame of a young woman. He couldn’t see her face under the large hood of the cloak, the only thing visible was her long red hair flowing out, but she seemed to be looking at the wolf.

Stiles blinked.

There was no possible way that she'd come from the heap of sticks the dirty and murderous man called home.

"Where did you come from?" he hissed, then realized that wasn't the most important thing at the moment, because they were both in danger and all they had for protection was a sword he could barely lift. "Get back, there's a giant wolf out there ripping people to shreds."

She didn't remove her hand from the sword, she just turned to look at him. Her face was just as delicate as her hand, large eyes searching his face intently, and he felt like she was looking straight through him and weighing the worth of his soul.

Stiles didn't overly enjoy the feeling.

"He won't hurt you," she assured him finally, and he really wasn't assured in the least, because he was still wearing another man's blood.

She turned back to the wolf, and then opened the door of the barn.

It wasn’t a very strong door, it was mostly held together with twine and prayers, but it was some kind of barrier all the same. Something else the wolf would have to get through to hurt them.

“What are you…” Stiles watched, dumbfounded, as the woman wandered out towards the wolf, who trotted over and greeted her as any family dog would. But his tail didn’t wag, he didn’t look excited, he just fell into step next to her like an old friend. Then they kept going, walking off into the trees like there wasn’t a corpse with its throat ripped out thirty feet from where they stood.

Stiles shook his head emphatically, deciding then and there that he was washing his hands of the whole thing. He had no idea what was going on here, but he was getting the hell away from it at first light.

*

Derek shook him awake well past first light, telling him to get moving as if he hadn’t been gone without a trace all night while Stiles was nearly torn apart by a wolf.

He was already climbing back down the ladder before Stiles cleared the fog of exhausted sleep from his mind and remembered he had intended to demand an answer about that. He’d also intended to be gone by the time Derek woke up, and now he wasn’t sure he would be able to make a clean break; the man seemed intent on keeping him around for some reason, and he didn’t like it in the least. He was a thief, had lived his life with the sole purpose of being invisible and forgettable; any kind of attention was bad attention.

But then he walked outside, blinking in the sunlight, saw the stained earth where the old man lay the night before though his body was gone, and completely lost his nerve for confrontation. There was a massive wolf and an unnervingly mysterious redhead wandering around these woods, and Derek had a very large sword. When he was actually around to use it.

Better than nothing.

Derek was already loading up Camaro, getting him ready to continue on. He was completely focused on his work, didn’t even glance in Stiles’ direction as he walked over, yawning widely because as exhausted as he’d been the night before, nearly being torn apart by a wolf was somewhat nerve wracking and he hadn’t actually slept all that well.

They raided the man’s empty home for anything they could use; Stiles couldn’t feel guilty about it at all, the crazy old man had tried to kill him. There wasn’t all that much, so that really explained why they had been so desperate for Derek’s money, but they grabbed a couple blankets that weren’t horribly dirty and could be rolled up tight and compact, some food, a warmer coat for Stiles, and then set off towards the west.

They traveled in silence for most of the day, aside from the numerous offers Stiles made to split ways at every intersecting road they crossed. Every offer was shut down, and the one time he’d just walked off, Derek had dragged him back up onto Camaro and grumbled something about it not being safe to leave. Stiles still had no real answer for this insistence that they ride together, and conveniently, it seemed as though anything Stiles tried to say about it was whisked away into the wind before it reached Derek’s ear.

But for Stiles, a lack of talking meant inner obsession. He kept going over the night before in his mind, how close he’d come to death again, both by man and animal, the mysterious red haired woman, Derek leaving him. He couldn’t help feeling betrayed by it all, because the whole reason Derek even wanted him there was (supposedly, Stiles still didn’t trust it) to watch each other’s backs. Stiles’ back didn’t feel all that watched.

By the time they stopped to make camp for the night, in a clearing deep in the woods where it would be near impossible for anyone to reach easily, Stiles had stewed in the entire situation long enough to work himself up into a bitter rage—which was fair, he thought, because he’d been abandoned to death after all.

Derek didn’t address this at all as he got a fire going in silence, then retreated into the trees to find food. At least this time Stiles had a large knife from the old man’s house to protect himself, as if that would even do anything against a wild animal. Or axe murdering old men.

He inched a little closer to the fire and hunkered down. He’d spent his formative years in the city, he wasn’t used to being surrounded by steadily growing darkness on all sides—crushing crowds and towering, densely packed buildings, he could navigate them no problem and watch his own back, but this...he felt uncomfortably exposed.

No back-watching to be found. Because Derek was just plain gone. Again.

Or so Stiles thought, until a loud twig snapped behind him, and he almost stuck his foot in the fire in his surprised flailing

“You’re the jumpiest thief I’ve ever met,” Derek commented with a shitty smirk as he returned to the fireside with a dead animal of some kind. Stiles scowled at him, intentionally not watching as he began to prepare the meat to cook.

“Well, you could say I’m a bit out of my element,” he snapped. “Out in the middle of a forest with a stranger with unknown but probably dubious intentions.”

Derek glanced up briefly, but looked back to what he was doing when he echoed, “Dubious intentions?”

“Yes, dubious. Questionable. Suspect, ambiguous, all around fishy in nature.”

Derek set down the knife he was using and kept his voice carefully neutral. “What do you mean?”

Oh, he was going to play dumb? That’s how it was going to go? Stiles was far too tired and still a little keyed up for this level of bullshit, he'd been stewing in his rage all day on a bumpy horse and he was sore, this was going to happen.

“I mean last night. When you left me in a stranger’s barn alone, without even telling me. I mean,” he had to let out a mean laugh at the situation, “what do you even want me for? There must be something, because you won’t let me leave, even though you had no problem leaving me last night!” There might’ve been a bit of delayed fear coming out, but he wasn’t about to acknowledge it. “I almost died, Derek, the man you left me with came at me with an axe!”

Derek at least had the decency to look guilty about ditching him with a murderer. He was silent for a long moment, looking anywhere but directly at Stiles, who was totally fine with waiting him out because he wanted an answer to all of this. Based on the little he knew, it wasn’t making any kind of sense as far as he could tell.

“I need your help with something,” Derek said finally, quietly.

Stiles scoffed. “Oh, here we go.” He knew there was a catch, there was always a catch. No one would do everything Derek had done and expect nothing but company and an extra pair of eyes in return. “What is it, jewels? Gold? Manuscripts?”

“I’m not stealing anything.” He almost looked offended by the insinuation, which Stiles took issue with given his own chosen profession. “There’s a man I need to kill.”

Oh yes, much better than stealing. It was a wonder Derek could even see Stiles from so high above on his lofty moral high ground.

“Yeah?” He crossed his arms, wondering how far Derek was willing to take this. He looked impressive and mean, but so far he’d been nothing but—well, not civil, but certainly not cruel to Stiles. In his experience, anyone who would take a life in cold blood had an air of cruelty about them, no matter their actions to the contrary, and Derek didn’t have that. He was intense and angry, and a touch negligent, but not cruel. “Who’s the unlucky bastard?”

“His Highness, the Regent of Beacon Hills.”

Stiles raised his eyebrows, waiting for the punchline, but Derek’s face didn’t show any sign of joking. Apparently he was committed to this.

“Well.” Stiles clapped awkwardly after a heavy silence. He hadn’t gotten this far in life without knowing when to call it quits. “Sounds like you have a lot on your plate, so I’ll just get out of your hair then. Good luck, have a safe trip, may we never meet again.”

He turned to get his few meager things with a jaunty and awkward wave.

“I need you to guide me into the city unseen. His guards would stop me the second I stepped foot within those walls.”

Stiles didn’t even hesitate as he turned right back around. “And they wouldn’t stop me? I escaped his inescapable dungeon, his guards tracked me for days out of the city, do you really think they would forget a week later?”

“You’re a lower priority than I am. If I distracted them—”

“You would die, the Regent wouldn’t, and I would be on the run. Again. Without a head start. There are no benefits to this plan.”

Derek frowned like he was surprised by his refusal, or maybe that he’d shot down his horrible plan so quickly, and his face grew thunderous as he stood and took a threatening step forward.

“I saved your life. You owe me this.”

Stiles took a step forward as well, refusing to be threatened back to the place he just barely escaped with his life.

“And if I had honor, I would repay you, but I don’t. I never have and I never will, and I’m fine with that if it means never returning to Beacon Hills.”

“Well I’m not. I need to get to the regent, and you’re the only one who's gotten in and out of the city undetected before."

“It was dumb luck! The guard was distracted, there was a drain, I took my chance.” Derek raised his eyebrows at the drain but didn’t interrupt. "The odds of that happening again are slim to none, and I'm not about to stick my head back on the chopping block for the sake of some stranger’s mysterious vendetta."

“I can pay you.”

“I don’t care. I’m done, I’m leaving.”

He spun on his heel and stalked towards the bags, intending to collect the two things he now owned and make for the cabin. He’d turn respectable if he had to, get a job with Scott, start a farm, but he wasn’t going back there for anything.

Splinters of wood streaked across his face as a large sword thudded into the tree less than a foot away from him, and his heart jumped into his throat while his stomach tried to fold itself up into nothing to hide in all of .5 seconds.

"I may not know where you’re really going, but there's a considerable bounty on your head," Derek said in a deceptively mild tone that was somehow even more threatening than a direct threat. "If you wish to reach there alive, you would do well to cooperate,"

“Beacon Hills, you say,” Stiles said weakly, turning back around and trying not to make any sudden movements because Derek had picked up the blood covered knife again. If he could do that with a sword, the distance between them would be no obstacle for him. “Interesting. I just so happen to be headed in that direction myself.”

He could easily take off during the night while Derek was asleep and head towards the cabin. If he kept to the woods and didn’t stop to rest for at least the night, there was no way he would be found.

Derek's responding grin had a feral quality to it that made Stiles’ body have a number of very confused and conflicting reactions. He didn’t want to think about it.

*

Derek was smarter than Stiles gave him credit for, because before he disappeared off into the night again, and again with no explanation, he tied Stiles very securely to a very large tree. And he was surprisingly adept at tying knots.

Very adept.

Infuriatingly good at tying knots, Stiles fumed to himself as he thrashed around in his bindings, cursing his large hands and disproportionately small and delicate wrists. This wasn’t the first time he’d had this problem in his line of work.

If only he’d been blessed with Scott’s small hands. The guy really took him for granted; they were wasted on healing the sick and injured.

The percentage of more pockets he could pick with smaller hands was—well, he wasn’t actually sure, but it was probably—

A twig snapped in the dark trees behind him and he whipped around, leaning to the side to see around the tree.

Oh god, he was going to get eaten in the middle of nowhere because stupid Derek tied him to a stupid tree and his stupid knife was out of his stupid reach. He should’ve known Derek would be the death of him in the end. There was no other way this partnership could go—even if a small part of him deep down and been really enjoying having someone who could not only accept, but keep up with his assholeish tendencies.

(He loved Scott, he really did, but the guy had a habit of looking sad and disappointed when Stiles said what he really thought about something; Derek just accepted it with a nod, didn’t try to look on the bright side or turn something negative into a positive.)

Too bad Derek had his own assholeish tendencies, like leaving this travel buddy to the elements tied to a tree, and now they would never see each other again. Stiles might’ve liked to at least say goodbye, maybe kiss him just to say he had kissed someone that attractive before he died.

And, you know, he might’ve liked to see Scott again. His father. Let him know that he’d been okay in the city these last few years, happy with Scott, even if he occasionally lost a little too much weight or got roughed up a bit if he got caught. It would’ve been nice to go home again and not risk his dad’s job if he was seen.

Whatever was in the woods was getting closer; it sounded big and heavy

He tried to ignore his impending death, focus on his father, on Scott, seeing them again—definitely not thinking about the footsteps getting closer and closer—

Wait, footsteps?

He leaned to the side as far as the ropes allowed, peering into the darkness.

The footsteps stopped.

He squinted, straining to hear anything over his own pounding heart, and then jumped violently when whoever it was took another step closer. Now they were close enough for him to see it was a woman, barely illuminated by the dying fire, the light reflecting off her eyes.

It was the same red haired woman from the night before, he realized when she stepped fully out of the trees, once again wearing Derek’s cape—so he was clearly sneaking off for midnight trysts, the bastard. She hesitated, watching him warily, looking far more concerned by the man tied up in front of her than she had about the hulking, murderous wolf.

Stiles was fully aware that he probably looked like a rabid raccoon stuck in a trap, willing to take out her shins to escape; he wasn’t proud of it, but that was the hand he’d been dealt. Things could be worse.

“I won’t hurt you,” she said carefully as she took a step forward, holding her empty hands up like that was any kind of proof. She also had small hands, Stiles noted bitterly. The only one who needed them and he was cursed with monster puppy paws. “I just want to talk to you about Derek, and ask you for a favor.”

“Only if you do one for me first,” Stiles countered, pointedly shifting against the ropes and trying to look innocent.

She gave him an appraising look, steely eyed and calculating. She was regal and terrifying in a way that Stiles was ashamed to admit Did Things to him. Kind of like Derek.

They were perfect for each other in that way.

His wide-eyed imitation of Scott’s harmless puppy look must’ve worked, because she walked over, pulling a knife from the back of her belt. Stiles didn’t think he could be blamed for pushing back into the tree a bit as she came closer; she had a cold look in her eye that would’ve made anyone nervous.

She disappeared behind the tree for a few minutes, Stiles could feel the vibrations moving through the rope as she cut at it, and then it fell away. He immediately jumped up and out of reach of her and the knife—better safe than sorry.

“So who are you, anyway?” Stiles tried to ask casually, rubbing at the rope burns around his wrists from where he’d been struggling.

“Lydia.”

Again with the no family name! It was a good thing Stiles was already about leave, because anymore of these cryptic non-introductions and he was going to stab someone.

“Alright, Lydia,” he said mockingly and more than a little irritated. “Why are you following us? Does Derek know?”

“He does.” She’d apparently picked up his gift of vague brevity.

“Yeah? Where is Derek, anyway?”

“He’ll be back at sunrise,” she answered simply. He was really starting to hate these two. Actually, he was past hate by this point, well into abhorrence—open loathing, even.

“Well, tell him goodbye for me.” He kneeled down at his blanket and pad and started to roll them up tightly. He might’ve felt bad about stealing the stuff, but Derek had left him to be eaten by wolves and then again at the mercy of this Lydia person. He deserved some kind of compensation for his trauma. “It’s been a wonderful travel experience and all, but I’m afraid it’s time to part ways.”

“You’re leaving.” She didn’t sound impressed by this decision. In fact, she sounded like her opinion of him couldn’t possibly get any lower, disgusted by the very suggestion.

“Of course I’m leaving, and if you had any brains, you would be too.” The blanket wasn’t rolling as tightly as he wanted; he unrolled it to start again, putting his full weight on it this time. It would have to be tighter than before since he wouldn’t have Camaro to carry it for him.

“You can’t leave.”

Stiles looked up from his blanket, pausing in his task so he could give Lydia a properly disbelieving look. “Have you actually met this man? Actually talked to him? He’s insane, and probably suicidal, which I am not, so I will be leaving.” He continued with his rolling.

A small hand covered his, a little forcefully. He looked back up and mentally cursed the imploring, wide green eyes staring back at him. They were captivating, and sincere, and desperate, and impossible to look away from.

“Please,” she whispered, as if afraid of showing any weakness to the night around them. “He’s going to ruin everything if he kills the Regent. I can fix it if he’ll give me the chance, but you have to stop him. You have to make him listen.”

“Look.” Stiles finally tore his eyes away and delicately removed Lydia’s hand from his, because her nails were starting to hurt. “I don’t know who you are, or how you fit into his insane plan, but if it’s really that important, then you stop him. I have somewhere I need to be, and I can’t be involved in this.”

“I can’t,” Lydia admitted brokenly. “He won’t listen to me.”

“Well then you should definitely be leaving too. Maybe sick your wolf on him.” He reached to the side to grab his jacket, and there was a knife at his throat when he turned back.

“Stiles, let me make something very clear to you,” Lydia said, voice suddenly low and threatening, as if the knife wasn’t threatening enough. Her eyes were burning, even without the reflection of the fire dancing in them. “Derek is my priority here. I don’t know you, and to be honest, you’re starting to get on my nerves, but I can’t talk to Derek, and you can. I need you.”

Rope landed across his arms; Lydia was surprisingly adept at at knot tying as well, even one handed. She looped the rope around loosely, but when she tugged on one end, it tightened right up neatly.

“I’ll explain everything when I can,” she continued, pulling Stiles up and towards a different tree with frankly surprising strength, “but my only concern right now is keeping you right where you are.”

She didn’t remove the knife from his throat until he was securely fastened, without the bit of give Derek’s knots had given him.

He was actually starting to miss the jackass, because there was no getting out of this.

*

“So your charming lady friend stopped by last night,” Stiles blurted out. He was pissed, he was cold, he’d just spent the entire night tied to a tree, refusing to even look at Lydia while she got steadily more frustrated by his admittedly childish behavior until she stormed off into the night, and Derek had taken his sweet time wandering out of the woods like there was nothing wrong.

Derek froze for a second, then resumed his packing, forcefully, pretty clearly pretending he hadn’t heard. Stiles scowled and hefted his blanket more securely around his shoulders. It had been just out of his reach the entire night after Lydia followed Derek back out into the trees.

“She said this is a pretty stupid idea,” Stiles continued a little louder, “and that you should let her handle it, because you’re going to ruin everything.”

“Despite what she thinks, Lydia doesn’t know everything,” Derek finally responded tightly, moving to his horse to attach their meager belongings.

“Well, I can’t say for sure, because you won’t tell me why you’re even doing this, but I would assume that the plan that avoids murder is the way we should go.”

Derek fixed him with a hard glare over Camaro’s back.

“Preferably the plan that also avoids my murder,” Stiles added for clarity.

That made Derek pause and cock his head slightly. Then he grinned that same feral grin from yesterday. “She threatened you, didn’t she.”

“Boy, did she.”

Derek shook his head, still grinning, like that was cute and charming behavior. Though maybe it was for them, Stiles had never seen them together. Maybe this was all part of some sick courting ritual, a bedroom kink.

Oh great, Stiles was going to die in the middle of some couple’s spat.

“Look, I don’t know what kind of personal issues you two have between yourselves, but I would really appreciate it if you could work it out on your own time. Without me involved.”

“I told you, I need your skills.” Derek stalked back over to their camp to gather up Stiles’ things as well. Stiles refused to help with any of it; he was still trying to work the feeling back into his fingers.

“Right, to get you back into the city for you to commit pointless suicide by royal guard. A fantastic strategy, really, except for the part where I will also definitely be killed.”

His completely valid concerns just got a dramatic eyeroll in response.

“All you need to do is get me into the city and then you can leave. You won’t be in any danger.” Derek held his hand down to Stiles, and when he just stared at it, Derek grabbed his blanket and yanked him up to stand. “Get on the horse.”

“Yeah, okay, but just hear me out: how about I don’t?”

This time, Derek took the time to take a deep breath and gather his patience.

“Stiles,” he said with restraint. “The sooner you get on this horse, the sooner we’ll get to the city, and the sooner you can leave. Just one more day west, then it should be safe to head south again.”

One more day to plan his exit strategy, Stiles mused, as he did climb back on Camaro. He didn’t care what he’d told Derek, Stiles wasn’t going south. He was going to continue heading west to the cabin, where Scott would be waiting. Hopefully.

*

Despite the fact that he was there under duress, the rest of their journey west wasn’t as horrible as Stiles had predicted, aside from the fact that Derek kept tying him to trees to make sure he didn’t run off. He didn’t say much, but he had a dry sense of humor, tolerated Stiles’ ramblings with relatively good nature, and made sure he had food and shelter every night. Shelter that wasn’t in the rickety not-barn of a psychopath.

At the very least, he was certainly preferable to Lydia, who was still somehow following them, because shortly after Derek vanished into the night, every time, she appeared. It was inconvenient, having this near constant guard, but Stiles wasn’t going to let that stop him.

He just needed to figure out what Lydia did during the day so he could avoid her too, because he could never catch so much as a glimpse of her as they traveled, but every time he nodded off at dusk, Lydia was sitting beside him and tending the fire when he blinked awake a few hours later. Every morning she was gone without a trace, but Derek was back, offering cooked breakfast without a word as to where he'd been, with his hawk back on his shoulder and stealing food from his fingers.

He didn’t appear to be concerned about the mysterious Lydia in the least. In fact whenever she was mentioned, he got a softly fond look in his eyes that Stiles had never seen before, similar to the one Lydia had whenever she asked after Derek during the night. Something about what that implied didn’t sit well in the pit of his stomach.

Anytime Lydia even began to try to explain her involvement in Derek’s stupid plot, Stiles stubbornly shoved his fingers in his ears (as well as the ropes would let him) and refused to listen. He wanted no more information about these two, nothing that could get him sucked further into their own deep seeded issues. Plausible deniability.

Stiles was ready to be done with them, with all of it. He was so close to Scott, less than a day’s ride now, but he just couldn’t find an opening to leave. He didn’t even have a way to send a message, let his best friend and brother know he was still alive somewhere in the world. Scott no doubt knew he’d escaped the prison, no one else was stupid enough to do what he’d done and Scott knew it, but Stiles couldn’t just let him sit there in that dingy cabin, waiting for him to show.

That cabin was their Plan B, the place they went if they were separated for any reason. Stiles was so close, but he still couldn’t bring himself to outright ask Derek to make a stop. He didn’t trust him enough to reveal Scott, because both Derek and Lydia had shown that they weren’t above threats to get what they wanted, and Stiles wasn’t about to let his brother be used as a pawn.

He needed to get to Scott, and to do that, he needed to get away from Derek.

*

His opening came unexpectedly and violently, in the form of arrows thudding into the tall grass at their feet, when they were crossing an open valley, winding between massive boulders jutting out of the earth.

It took Stiles a moment realize what was happening, being showered with arrows was something of a new experience for him, but Derek moved in a second, on reflex.

"Get back!" he yelled, shoving Stiles back behind a large boulder for cover.

He drew his sword, still crowding Stiles farther back, eyes fixed out on a ridge above them. It was the only place archers would be able to shoot from in the relatively wide open landscape.

“Why are they shooting at us?” Stiles yelled back, pulling Camaro close to him behind their shelter. When his horse bumped into him, Derek turned to rifle through one of the saddlebags, pulling out a small crossbow Stiles had never seen in there before.

“Someone must’ve seen us leave and passed along our description,” he explained as he drew back an arrow and fired.

“I told you we should’ve split up!”

“Yes, I remember!” Derek yelled back, firing another.

There was a brief lull in their attackers’ arrows, probably regrouping now that their target could hit them back. A shriek through the air signalled Derek’s hawk’s returning to them.

“Stiles, we’re going to have to run, we can’t wait them out.”

“Okay, but if we leave, we’ll be shot in a second.”

“If we don’t, we’ll never get out of their range and they’ll just keep firing until one of them gets a lucky shot.”

A weak trickle of arrows hit the ground, then another pause. Then something else, something larger, hit the ground just beyond their boulder.

Stiles frowned, wondering what they’d thrown, but then he realized:

Derek’s hawk had never landed.

Derek seemed to realize this the same moment Stiles did, because the color drained from his face and he whirled around to check. And then he just darted out of hiding, running to her side—which to be perfectly frank seemed like overkill for the life of a bird. It was sad, Stiles would probably get misty eyed later if he survived all of this, but darting out into a volley of arrows didn’t seem worth it. And it really was a volley that started up with gusto the second Derek was in view of their attackers.

Getting shot for a bird was stupid, and Derek had gone and done just that. There was an arrow sticking out of his bicep when he returned, but he didn’t even seem to realize it, with all of his attention fixed on the hawk cradled in his arms.

Before Stiles knew it, the hawk was being pressed into him, firm but gently, and he had no choice but to hold her. The hawk was probably the only thing Derek was gentle with, because all he’d done thus far was push and shove Stiles around.

"They’re after me. You take her," he ground out through gritted teeth. “Ride ahead and get out of here.”

"But you—”

"I'll catch up, I'll be fine." He grabbed Stiles’ upper arm roughly and dragged him to Camaro's side, with surprising strength considering he still had the shaft of an arrow in his own arm. "No matter what happens behind you, keep riding.”

There was no way Derek would be able to catch up. There were guards coming for them, he was wounded, and he would be making the trip on foot, at night.

"Derek—”

"Go!" he yelled, practically forcing Stiles up into the saddle. "I'll lead them off, just get to safety!"

Stiles only hesitated the briefest second, knowing he would be of no help in this kind of fight and that if the hawk died, Derek would be devastated.

“There’s a cabin to the northwest, a few miles into the forest,” he finally revealed, making up his mind. Derek was a pain and an idiot, but Stiles didn’t want him to actually die. “Follow the river. My friend can help her.”

Derek nodded, then sent Camaro off with a quick swat at his flank.

*

The cabin in the forest was old, long abandoned and forgotten so far from the city, so it was perfect for Scott and Stiles to set up as their base. It was deep enough into the forest that no guards would stumble upon it—Scott had only found it while on the panicked run from the Yukimuras after being caught with their daughter—and there was a small river running nearby for water.

The two of them spent the last few years building it up to be habitable, squirreling away food and supplies so that the next time one of them had to make a quick exit from the city (which happened more than Stiles cared to admit) they could stay longer than a few days until things died down again and they could return. Most importantly, Scott was a healer back in the city and made sure there were basic medical supplies, so when Stiles crashed through the door with an injured hawk, Scott only hesitated for a second before he was moving.

Out of danger and his charge handed off to more capable hands, Stiles collapsed into a chair and shook.

Scott knew what he was doing, he’d worked with Deaton as a healer for years and he had the necessary supplies—and healing a bird had to be simpler than healing a human, right? The hawk would be fine, Stiles assured himself as he gnawed at his thumbnail, the old wooden boards of the floor squeaking under his jiggling knee. She would survive, and Derek would return and be alive and whole, and then they could properly part ways and all would be well.

It would be fine.

At least, that’s what he kept repeating to himself as the windows steadily darkened, until Scott’s very confused voice called out to him.

“Um, Stiles?”

That didn’t sound good.

Stiles stomach dropped.

Oh god, the bird was dead.

Derek was going to kill him if he survived the guards. That bird was the only living thing he’d looked at or even spoken about with zero contempt, he loved that hawk more than anything, and Stiles killed her.

Scott’s quick footsteps snapped him out of his spiraling panic, as did his wide eyed expression of confusion, fear, and alarm when he appeared in the doorway.

That wasn’t the expression of an experienced healer who just lost a bird, no matter how much of a bleeding heart Scott was.

“What did you do?”

It took a second to register that they’d both said it at the same time, then cocked their heads to the same side in unison. Stiles scrambled to his feet, stubbed his toe on the chair he’d been sitting in, and tripped back into the tiny bedroom in a mess of limbs.

It was only Scott’s arm across the doorway that kept Stiles from falling onto the narrow bed squeezed inside, which no longer held the wounded bird that he very clearly remembered leaving there.

It was a wounded Lydia, blinking hazily up at them.

“Stiles,” she breathed, looking relieved.

Scott’s gaze snapped to him for explanation.

"You're the hawk," Stiles answered stupidly, and Scott looked back to Lydia.

"I'm the hawk," she confirmed softly, and Stiles couldn't help the somewhat hysterical giggle that bubbled out. He'd honestly thought he life couldn't get any stranger.

"I was starting to think you were actually Derek," he confessed, still not quite believing it, but it made as much sense as anything else going on, he supposed. She tilted her head against the pillow and she didn't even need to open her mouth to call him an idiot. "He disappeared and suddenly you were there, it made sense at the time!"

"Our curse—always together but separate."

That was vague and unhelpful, as per usual.

“What do you mean, does he become a hawk at night?” He had never seen the hawk after the sun set, but he’d just figured Derek took her with him.

Lydia gave him a flat look, effective even while lying down and recovering from an arrow in her shoulder. “Have you really never wondered why you hear a wolf howling at night when there are no wolves in this region?”

Stiles opened his mouth to make a cutting remark in the same tone, but he stopped when he realized that she was right; he heard howls, had heard them since he escaped from Beacon Hills in the first place, but it was a lonely and solitary howl, only at night.

“Derek’s a wolf,” he stated as he stared at the dingy wall across from him, seeing how it sounded aloud, and no, that still didn’t make any sense. Or it wouldn’t have, if Lydia wasn’t lying right in front of him after apparently changing from a hawk to human before Scott’s very eyes. “Derek’s a wolf,” he repeated, letting it settle into his mind. He turned back to Lydia. “Why is Derek a wolf?”

“The Regent.” She winced as she shifted, and Stiles thought about telling her to rest instead and tell him later, but for all he’d refused to listen before, now he really wanted to know. “He and I were engaged to be married, until he thought Derek and I were in love. He wasn't ready to give up the throne."

Stiles frowned, filing that tidbit of information away to be obsessively examined later, because if Derek and Lydia were any kind of threat to the Regent's power, then they were very close to the throne, something Derek had definitely failed to mention in their time together. But first, priorities.

"But you're...not? In love, I mean?" he tried, pushing back the tight feeling in his chest, an odd combination of hope and jealousy that he didn't want to examine too closely. He was under a great deal of stress, confusing emotions and tight chests were normal. Probably.

Lydia smiled in a way he also didn’t want to examine too closely. “I love him dearly, but Derek is like a brother to me,” she assured him. “He always has been.”

Stiles carefully didn’t react to that.

Scott, however, did.

“Does anyone want to explain what the hell is going on right now?” he exclaimed, looking back and forth between them. “Who the hell is Derek?”

*

While Lydia slept, Stiles explained. Mostly. There were still a lot of gaps on Derek’s side of things, pretty much everything about his entire person, but Stiles explained what he could; his escape from the prison, Derek saving him from the guards, the wolf, Lydia…

Scott’s frown kept getting deeper as he listened and watched Stiles pace back and forth across the cabin.

“—and then we were attacked on the way back to the city and I brought Lydia here and Derek may or may not be coming, possibly dead somewhere, but hopefully not. Now you’re caught up.”

Scott blinked hard, frowned a little deeper, and started the questioning. “Why were you going back to the city if you’re both wanted by the guards?”

“Exactly what I said!” Stiles threw his hands out towards him, thanking the lord that someone around him finally had half a brain. It was exhausting being the only sane one the last few days. “He's gotten it into his head that going after the Regent is a fantastic plan and nothing I’ve tried has convinced him otherwise.”

“The regent who turned him into a wolf at night.”

“Yes.”

“And Lydia into a hawk during the day.”

“So it would seem.”

“You know how this sounds, right?”

“I do.” Scott was taking this remarkably well so far.

“So he’s going to sneak back into one of the most well guarded cities to get to the most heavily protected man outside of the Vatican to...try to make him change them back?”

Ah, that explained the lack of reaction.

“Um, no, he’s going to kill him.”

Scott’s eyes widened dramatically—that was more like it. “Kill—Stiles!”

“I know!”

“Why did you agree to this?”

“He has a really big sword!”

Scott hesitated, looking first horrified, then grossed out, and finally landed on wary. “That better not mean his—”

“An actual sword!” Stiles cut that off before it could go anywhere he was trying to avoid. “And he knows how to threaten someone, trust me. So does Lydia.”

Scott scooted closer to him. “They threatened you?”

“Thoroughly.”

“Are you okay?”

“Mostly.”

“Then you need to go before Derek gets here.” He was already up and moving before his words really registered, grabbing his own bag and stuffing clothing and food into it.

“What? No, Scott, I can’t just—” Stiles stood up to stop him, but the room swam eerily with a rush of lightheadedness.

Scott, ever the caretaker, noticed and immediately pushed Stiles back down onto the couch.

“I’ll pack for you, just lay down and rest while you can,” he ordered gently, despite still looking a bit panicked. “And yes, you have to go. He can’t make me do anything for him, I don’t have the skills he needs, but if he finds you and makes you do this, you’ll be executed for sure. They won’t even send you to the prison this time.”

Yes, that all sounded good, but that still left Scott alone with Derek, and with a lot of potential to be a hostage to make Stiles do it anyway.

“Then we’ll both go,” Stiles said. “I’m not going to leave you here.” Not when they’d just found each other again.

“You’re not leaving me, I’m staying. I can stall them and throw off your trail. And someone needs to look after Lydia.”

“Scott.” Stiles tried to look firm even when he could feel his eyelids drooping with exhaustion of too many days on guard. “I’m not going to get you involved in this. Derek doesn’t know about you, if we leave—”

“He’ll find us,” Scott finished. “Stiles, you’re exhausted. We won’t be able to move quickly, and if he’s as good as you say he is, he’ll find us easily, even with a head start.”

“No, he’s hurt and moving on foot, we’ll have plenty of time.”

“Then you should take that time to rest up.” Scott’s eyebrows rose, his eyes widened with pleading sincerity, his lip quivered. “I thought I lost you once, when you were arrested. Don’t do that to me again.”

Stiles didn’t stand a chance.

*

Stiles woke to Scott licking his face.

Or at least, that was his first half-asleep assumption until he realized that Scott had never licked his face, and also a human tongue didn't feel like that at all.

He flailed with a shout, his heart both pounding and making a respectable attempt to burst through his chest and escape solo, the rest of Stiles be damned, and once the whirling motion of his vision slowed, he realized that it was really, definitely, not Scott.

It was a wolf. A massive, black wolf.

The very same wolf who had ripped out the old man's throat, now standing in the middle of their safe house like the door had been left wide open in an invitation for him personally.

It took another panicked few seconds for Stiles' mind to process the new information from Lydia and remember that the wolf was Derek, not a completely wild animal, and that he probably wouldn't try to kill him. At least not at that second, if he didn't make any sudden moves.

He pushed himself up to sit on the couch, slowly, not taking his eyes off the wolf.

The wolf who was Derek.

Derek who hated him and tied him to things during the night, and then faced almost certain death to get Stiles and Lydia to safety, was this wolf in front of him, who had been licking his face like an excited puppy a minute ago.

"Derek?" Both Stiles and the wolf looked to the bedroom, where Lydia stood leaning against the doorframe, looking at the wolf with some expert combination of judging concern.

"That's Derek?" Scott exclaimed, just over her shoulder with wide eyes flicking between the wolf and Stiles.

"That's Derek," Lydia confirmed. Now her voice had softened in relief, and she hobbled closer, reaching out to her friend. A stressed Scott trailed behind, torn between fear of the massive hulking wolf and caring for his patient.

It seemed Derek still recognized his friend on some level, because he stood to try to walk towards her, no hint of threat in his movements—only a violent limp on his front left paw.

“He’s hurt,” Scott realized, kneeling down to appear non-threatening himself.

That jolted Stiles’ memory into action, remembering the entire reason they’d separated in the first place.

“Oh, god, he was shot by an arrow.” Lydia turned a glare towards him, like it was somehow his fault Derek got hurt.

“Okay, I can handle that,” Scott assured them both before either of them started anything. “I’ve already fixed up one puncture wound tonight, what’s a second?”

Stiles couldn’t put into words how grateful he was to have Scott as a friend. No questions, he just got up to retrieve his supplies and settled down to heal. He’d also grabbed food for Stiles, who hadn’t even realized his stomach was angrily trying to eat itself in a petty play of self-sabotage.

“Oh, we came up with a plan,” Scott announced proudly as he worked.

Oh no.

His gut reaction must’ve shown on his face because Scott scowled and added indignantly, “You don't even know what it is yet!”

“I have a lifetime of experience to draw from!”

“Well don't worry about that,” Lydia cut in, “because it's mostly my plan. Scott helped with the logistics.”

“That doesn't make me feel any better.” Derek huffed on the floor, and it sounded like a laugh.

Lydia rolled her eyes. “Trust me. Now first, I’ll have to tell you a little bit about us, how we were cursed.” She took a breath before she started. "Three years ago, Peter, the Regent, and I were engaged, a redundant political arrangement, wholly unnecessary in the long run," she added dismissively. "It was also the year that Prince Derek came of age to take up the throne."

Stiles choked on his food, coughing violently and spraying bread crumbs across the floor. Derek inched closer, forced Scott to scoot with him.

"Prince Derek?" Stiles finally wheezed got out, absently patting the wolf's head. Scott didn't look surprised in the least, so he'd clearly heard the whole story while Stiles was asleep. He just kept working.

Lydia nodded around a restrained smile, no doubt at Stiles' expense. "He's the rightful King of Beacon Hills."

Stiles' entire world shifted sharply. He removed his hand from the rightful king's furry head. Patting royalty on the head probably wasn't proper etiquette.

Oh god, he'd been yelling at royalty this entire time.

The rightful king who the city still mourned together once a year. The rightful king who had vanished on the eve of his twenty-first birthday in a plot by the Regent's fiancée to secure the throne, the people had been told. The fiancée who was now apparently sitting right in across from Stiles and definitely hadn't been beheaded for treason like the announcement said.

It just kept getting better.

"Wait, so he framed you? And his own nephew?"

Stiles wasn't sure what his face was doing reaction-wise, but Lydia tipped her head in agreement.

"He thought we were in love and that Derek would choose me to be his queen. Jealousy and ambition can do terrible things to a once loving man."

In Stiles' experience, anyone willing to destroy the lives of their family for their own ambition was never all that loving to begin with, just a fantastic actor and manipulator. And really, given the Regent's history of ruthless leadership, love of branding children, and his casual approach to beheadings, his part in the story really wasn't all that surprising.

Derek's however, definitely was.

And yet, it really explained a lot about his demanding attitude. No wonder he expected Stiles to do what he said without question, he'd been raised to literally run a kingdom.

"So the plan is to, what, lift the curse, restore Derek to the throne, and...live happily ever after?"

"Exactly," Lydia said matter of factly. Oh, so simple. "But we need Peter alive to lift the curse, so we need to convince Derek to hold off on his revenge for just a moment. Once it's lifted, Derek can kill him as violently and as many times as he wants."

Scott, who had been nodding along beside her throughout, frowned at that, but wisely didn't comment.

Stiles looked between the two of them, looked down at the wolf, who was largely ignoring them to lick at the bandage on his leg even before Scott finished wrapping it, and considered his options:

Grab Scott, leave them to their revenge scheme, and live out the rest of his days on the run when it failed and they were killed by the Regent. This was not ideal, as this would also doom Scott to a life on the run as a wanted man.

He could take off on his own, leave them all to their revenge scheme, and live out the rest of his days on the run when it failed and they were killed by the Regent. But no, Scott would never let that sort of injustice stand; he would go with them and get himself killed too.

Or, Stiles could go with them, get them into the city, and give them a fighting chance at restoring the throne. At least give Derek the kind of life he was meant to live, a chance at improving the kingdom, having a family, reclaiming honor and all that.

Not to mention, if Derek became king, he could probably be persuaded to lift the bounty on Stiles' head in exchange for his help. Maybe even pardon his crimes altogether.

He could finally go home, see his dad.

"I'm in," Stiles decided, removing his hand from the brand on his arm. He hadn't noticed he'd been rubbing a thumb over until he caught Scott's eye drawn there.

Scott met his eye, then nodded. "Me too."

Lydia looked relieved; Derek used his teeth to gnaw at the bandage.

It was hard to reconcile the majestic and impressive man with the large wolf who picked at his stitches.

"So what's this plan you two came up with?"

Lydia straightened, and it became all too clear that she was meant to live her life dominating a royal court. She was commanding even without a knife to anyone's throat.

"From the research I was able to do back in the city, before I was accused of treason, there is a way to lift this curse. Derek doesn't believe it, and he's convinced we'll only get one chance at Peter, and reclaiming the throne is his priority. He's willing to live a half life, spend his nights as a feral wolf, if he can improve the kingdom for the people."

"But you think you can do both," Stiles guessed, reading between her words.

Lydia nodded. "I think it's worth a shot. The only way to break the magic is for both of us to gaze on Peter with human eyes, which only happens during the eclipse. We have to confront him with the loophole in his magic."

Stiles couldn't keep his doubt out of his expression. Lydia didn't appreciate it.

"The one time I've seen Derek's face since we were cursed three years ago was during an eclipse. We weren't anywhere near Beacon Hills, we weren't expecting it, but that's when I realized how to free us. This isn't some half-assed idea we just came up with while you were asleep, I've been working on this for years."

That couldn't be it. It couldn't possibly be that simple.

"What if you're wrong and lose your one shot at the Regent? Derek said you tend to overestimate your own intelligence."

"Derek is a kneejerk pessimist to the point of martyrdom. He refuses to believe there's a solution to everything," she said in a devastatingly dismissive tone. Derek growled. She raised an eyebrow at him and he stopped. "Any note I left him about it, he assumed I was just lying to keep him from getting arrested. He needs more than written words to convince him, he needs a real conversation and sincerity to convince him to stop." She fixed Stiles with a look. "And you are apparently miserable at being sincere."

"I was sincerely threatened!" Stiles protested, feeling utterly attacked and betrayed. "I was under duress! If you'd just explained things a little better, maybe put a little more effort into talking instead of your knife at my throat—!"

"Like you would've believed anything I said right then," Lydia countered, which was a fair assessment. "You were angry, scared, and trying to leave. Nothing I said wouldn't convinced you to stay of your own free will. You were my last chance to get through to Derek, I couldn't let you leave."

"Well you could've said that without the knife."

"I tried."

"Yeah, well—" He faltered, because he didn't have anything to say to that. He really had been angry, scared, and about to leave. Nothing she said would've made him stay, even if he’d unplugged his ears enough to hear it.

Well, maybe the whole I'm a hawk and Derek turns into a wolf at night part. That might've piqued his interest.

"Fine. What's this plan?" He wasn't happy about it, but he could admit defeat. Or, not admit it, but dismiss the issue and move on quickly to save face.

Scott straightened. "I'm the plan! The night before the eclipse, I, a doctor who was called out to a farm for an emergency animal attack, will bring in a captured wolf—" he gestured to Derek, then to Lydia "—and its victim, wrapped heavily in bandages, for further treatment under Deaton."

As simple as that sounded, Stiles couldn't help but notice a piece missing there.

"So I'll just wait here, shall I?"

"No need to feel left out, we have plenty for you to do too," Lydia chided. "Scott said you escaped the prison through the sewers?"

Oh, Stiles wasn't going to enjoy this. He nodded hesitantly, after a quick glare at Scott, the traitor.

"Well that's how you'll be getting into the palace."

Stiles physically recoiled at the very thought. "Whoa, wait. I was supposed to get you into the city. No one said anything about going to the palace." He was very strongly feeling the urge to run again. Tuck Scott under his arm, take off into the night, and find an even better cabin, far, far away.

Lydia just looked at him like he was an idiot. "The only time Peter isn't surrounded by guards is when he's in the palace walls."

"Yes, because there are guards everywhere in the palace anyway!"

"Not where he'll be during the eclipse," she said with a gleam in her eye. It was a gleam of revenge, and Stiles was infinitely grateful it wasn't aimed at him.

*

"She wants to attack during the Argent negotiations?"

Derek turned his head to give the falcon on his arm a flat look, conveying perfectly just how he felt about that plan. She ignored him and preened.

"Yeah, she says there won't be any guards in the east wing for the duration?" Stiles squinted into the early morning sun directly behind Derek. He was exhausted from being up all night, had only slept a few more hours, and now they were packing up to head back to the city.

Because of Stiles' all-around worn down everything and Derek's arm injury, Scott had ordered them to stand out of the way and let him pack everything. Every once in awhile he passed by them, once with bags and then without, muttering a checklist to himself with single minded focus.

"Yes, I know, I did grow up there." Derek turned back to Stiles and explained patiently, "Both Peter and King Christopher are notoriously paranoid and equally matched in hand-to-hand; if anyone else is found nearby, the negotiations fall apart and the alliance is broken."

"That's really all it takes? That's a terrible alliance." Stiles had made a better diplomat as a child shoving the Whittemore kid into the mud.

Derek shrugged and said nonchalantly, "Well, the only time it happened, five royals died and a six year war broke out. Neither side is interested in reliving it. Sounds fairly effective to me."

Stiles blinked, frowned, and decided not to dwell on it at the moment. Stand offs were never his forte; he'd always been the one to throw the first punch.

"Right. So we have an opening, Lydia's going to draw me a map of where to let you guys in, we'll have the element of surprise, and as long as we time it with the eclipse..." he trailed off, running through it in his mind. It seemed too good to be true. "Do you think we actually have a chance?"

Derek dipped his head to the side while he considered. "Neither Peter nor Argent will be armed during the talks, it will take a few minutes for guards to reach the hall once they're called—Argent isn't likely to do anything to stop it, he hates Peter as much as I do for leering at his daughter." Stiles motioned for him to get to the point. He was starting to get anxious with all this stalling, as positive as it sounded.

"If I move quickly, it will be a clean death before anyone else knows," Derek finally answered, to not the question Stiles was asking.

"Yes, but the lifting the curse part. Remember, that's the priority here, you can kill the Regent after, tie him to your horse, and drag his body around the city, I don't care—just, lifting the curse."

Derek snorted softly. "I'll be lucky if I have time to slit his throat before he fights back. He's strong and ruthless in battle. In a fair fight he'd kill me in a second."

He stood up to leave, probably intending to have a dramatic exit on the last word, but Stiles wasn't about to let that happen; he didn't get this far in life letting others have the last word. He jumped up and ducked in front of him, planting himself firmly in Derek's face where he couldn't avoid him.

"No, no, I don't want to hear that kind of negativity from you when my life also depends on you winning, because if you don't kill your uncle, then I'll get caught and be publicly beheaded for treason, and I would really prefer that didn't happen."

"And it won't, because the second you let me into the palace" —Derek gripped his shoulders and shifted him to the side— "you'll take Lydia and Scott and leave before anyone knows you're there."

"Except I won't" —Stiles tripped backwards slightly to get back in Derek's path— "because then Lydia wouldn't be with you, and the curse wouldn't be lifted."

Derek stopped, and said overly enunciated with direct eye contact like he thought Stiles was an absolute moron: "Yes. That's the plan."

"Really? You're not even willing to give it a shot? You and Lydia will be cursed for the rest of your lives!"

"We'll find another way after he's dead. Magic always has more than one loophole."

"Lydia doesn't think so, and do you really think she hasn't looked for one?"

"Lydia isn't some all-knowing omnipotent goddess!" Derek yelled, sudden and unexpected enough to surprise Stiles into a shocked silence. Lydia took off into the sky in a violent flutter of wings, and Stiles could relate. He hadn't heard the man do much beyond mutter angrily and growl thus far.

Derek watched her disappear into the trees, took a calming breath, and continued much more controlled. "I know it's hard to believe, but every so often, she is, in fact, wrong about something, and I don't want to take that chance with the entire kingdom and the lives of everyone in it."

God damn it, he couldn't just be a selfish prick, could he? He had to go be selfless and worried about the happiness of others, and placing their lives before his own. It was starting to give Stiles a headache. He could only take so much selfless behavior from Scott, and Derek was maxing out his tolerance.

"Okay, say you kill your uncle, don't die in the process, and take back the throne," Stiles threw out, because why not indulge in a little hypothetical situation? "You'll what? Rule the kingdom by day and chase rabbits on all fours by night?"

"If I have to, yes."

Good lord, he was worse than Scott.

"You know that won't work. Beacon Hills needs a king, not a werewolf. You can't do this halfway, it's all or nothing here. You know Lydia agrees."

"Yes, I know she does, but she doesn't know my uncle as a warrior like I do. The city is suffering, people are being put to death for the smallest crime, just trying to survive; if he gets the upper hand even for a second, I'm dead." He took a deep breath, looked carefully past Stiles into the trees, and said with his usual majestic determination, "If I die there, she needs to be able to escape and live her life."

Stiles was too exhausted for this level of martyrdom.

Despite his best intentions, he'd grown fond of Derek over the time they'd spent together; the guy had a great sense of humor under all that scowl, he constantly put others before himself, and he clearly loved those close to him as fiercely as Stiles did. But on this particular issue, he was wrong. Just—so wrong, and Stiles couldn't hold it back any longer.

"What life, exactly? As noble as this all is, she's stuck as a bird all day and on the run during the few hours she's human! The least you could do is give her the choice!" He could see cracks in Derek's stubbornness, a bit of logic shining through his defensive shield shored up with self-sacrifice and fear, but the shield still wasn't falling. Time to try another tactic.

Stiles took a deep breath, tried to calm down a little. "Look, we'll all be there, four against one, and you said yourself that the Argent king wouldn't lift a finger to stop us. Don't you think those are pretty good odds?"

Derek didn't look at him. His intense green eyes were fixed on some point in the distance in a way that was as good as an agreement.

"Besides," —Stiles shrugged, attempting to lighten the incredibly tense mood— "if Lydia's human during this eclipse, good luck stopping her from doing exactly what she wants either way."

*

By the time they stopped to set up camp for the night, they were all exhausted from so long on the move, trying to make good time back to Beacon Hills. They were running short on time to reach the city, and they still had to get close enough tomorrow for Scott to get in and back out to them before the next nightfall.

The stress and fast pace was putting everyone a little on edge.

Derek was still in a foul mood from Stiles confronting him when he stalked off into the woods to change; Scott kept wanting to talk to Stiles while they were alone, probably about Derek, which Stiles really didn’t want to talk about; and by the time Lydia was human, she was frustrated with both Derek and Stiles—Derek for being so stubborn, Stiles for...well, he wasn’t actually sure. Probably for failing to convince Derek that her plan was a good plan, which he really couldn’t be blamed for. Lydia grew up with the guy, she should know how stubborn he could be.

That argument didn’t convince her; she blew up at Stiles and stormed off to take a walk, away from everyone to fume in peace. She’d at least taken her knife with her, so he wasn’t too concerned about her safety.

His ego, yes. Her safety, no.

“Well that was awkward,” Scott finally broke the silence she left in her wake.

“I’m sorry you had to see that, buddy.”

“I’m sorry Derek had to see it.” Scott nodded toward the wolf, who was pacing and limping, refusing to lie down for even a moment. “His two favorite people fighting.”

Stiles snorted, using his Favorite Stick of the Night to poke at the fire they’d coaxed up to a respectable size. “I’m not one of his favorite people.” It hurt more than he cared to admit, even though they did little more than snipe at each other.

“Yeah, sure. I’ve seen you two together.”

Stiles turned to squint at him, but Scott was intently focused on his dinner—some furry animal Derek had caught and prepared for cooking before he disappeared to change. He was a very good provider, even with a wounded arm.

In fact, that’s something Stiles could say had always been the case with Derek, even from the start. He’d always made sure Stiles had somewhere to sleep and something to eat, and even started handing off his own blankets when he noticed Stiles shivering one morning. Sure, there was the axe murdering old man incident, but Derek had protected him in the end. And the whole tying him to a tree fiasco, but he’d only done that when Lydia was there to be with him, and now he was getting the idea that Derek had never been that far off after all.

He glanced over at Derek, still pacing and alert despite his clear exhaustion. He’d been on the move for too long now, Stiles couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen him sleep.

“What do you think’s wrong with him tonight?”

Scott finally looked up from his food and watched him for a moment. “Maybe he hears something close by. Or his leg might still be bothering him. Pain can make animals territorial and defensive.”

“So should we just let him be until he changes back?” He didn’t want Derek to be in pain, but there wasn’t much he could do. Lydia was the only one the wolf really calmed down around and she was still off traipsing through the woods.

Scott thought for a second. “If he’ll let me get close enough, I have something that should help. I’ve seen Deaton use it on dogs before.” He set his dinner down and moved to his bag. After rooting around for a minute he pulled out a dark glass bottle and shook it enticingly.

It didn’t look enticing.

Stiles frowned. “Are you sure? He’s a wolf, this doesn’t seem like a good idea at all.”

“I think it’ll be okay as long as I move slowly and don’t making any aggressive movements. Let him come to me.” He sat down on the ground and waited for Derek to note his presence, then when there was no reaction, he inched closer.

Stiles just shook his head and returned to his own dinner.

That went on for a long time, the quiet shuffling of Scott across the grass, his soothing tone of voice trying to lure Derek over with meat. It seemed to be going perfectly well until whatever the medicine was made contact with Derek’s wound.

He jumped back, snarling and snapping, and the only thing that registered in Stiles’ mind was that Scott was on the ground at the mercy of a violent wolf. In that moment it wasn’t Scott and Derek, it was just Scott and danger.

Lydia and her wolf calming powers were still nowhere to be seen.

“Shit, Scott, don’t move!” He rushed to get between them; Derek had seemed perfectly alright around him the night before in the cabin, despite being in pain, so maybe he could still recognize him on some level.

No, he couldn’t, Stiles realized as he hit the ground with a feral wolf on his chest. Derek was not in there anywhere, and that was the stupidest thing he’d ever done.

“Derek!” Lydia cried from somewhere past Stiles’ head, apparently returned from her fuming walk, but he didn’t even try to see where she was; he was more interested in the blood pooling on his chest from the deep gouges left behind by Derek’s claws. “Oh god,” he groaned.

“Stiles!” Scott was suddenly at his side with a cloth in his hand that he pressed to the wound.

“‘m alright, Scotty,” Stiles tried to answer, but it came out breathless and forced—holy hell, he didn’t think the human body could withstand this much pain. Wasn’t shock supposed to kick in at some point? Where was that when he needed it?

“Yes you are, you’ll be fine, I’ll take care of you.” Scott looked worried, terrified, but his hands were steady and sure. He kept pressure on Stiles’ chest, so much it was almost hard to breathe, while he reached for his bag with his other hand, not even needing to look to find what he needed; he was a doctor, this was what he did on a daily basis.

Stiles could hear Lydia’s voice, steady and soothing in the background, so she must’ve gotten Derek back under control. Every time he tried to look, Scott guided his head back so he wouldn’t pull at his chest, also keeping up a steady stream of comforting words as he patched him up.

It hurt, more than anything Stiles had felt before, and it was the first time in his life he was thankful to hardly remembered any of an experience. He knew someone climbed into his blankets with him—Scott, probably, to ward off the chill of blood loss—but beyond that, it all blurred together into a jumbled mess of pain and floating nothing that seemed to go on forever while lasting no time at all.

He didn’t really care to think on it too much; passing out was far more comfortable.

*

Stiles woke up coughing painfully and opened his eyes to campfire smoke billowing directly in his face, which was confusing because he hadn’t been anywhere near a fire when he closed his eyes and finally shivered off to sleep the night before. He pushed himself up, blinking against the cloudless late morning sunlight, taking in the fish cooking over the fire and the rest of the simple food prepared.

“You looked cold.”

He jumped and turned towards Derek’s voice next to him, squinting over at him through one open eye in the sun. Derek looked unflappable and majestic as usual, staring out across the lake and tracking Lydia’s flight as she swooped across the water. Scott was nowhere in sight.

“I probably was.”

“You’re a delicate thief.”

“I’m a thief who prefers a roof over his head.” He sat up properly and hid a large wince at the sharp ache in his muscles; he was also a thief who preferred a proper bed of some kind—and to not be clawed by a feral wolf. Even after all this time sleeping on the ground, he still hadn’t adjusted, and his back longed for his bed back home in the city. And the pile of blankets he kept on it. He’d had to leave some of his back at the cabin to travel light, and he felt their loss now more than ever.

The sun was even brighter sitting up, but he kept one eye cracked open to look around the area; Lydia and Scott had chosen this spot in the dark of night, while he was still keyed up and in pain and worried about Derek, and now he had no idea where they were. It was probably safe if Derek hadn’t shaken him awake to move the moment he became human again, so he wasn’t concerned about that.

He was more concerned with the ache in his chest, though it was considerably better than it had been during the night (Scott was very good at what he did). With the pace they’d been moving at, he was going to have trouble keeping up, not to mention hiding it from Derek. The guy didn’t need anymore guilt or distraction piled on his shoulders; they had a plan, and they needed to stick to it.

“Where’s Scott?” he asked, trying to force his voice to sound normal and not strained with pain in the least.

“He went to gather more firewood.” Stiles raised his eyebrow in a question. “He said you needed to sleep more and stay warm. Are you sick?”

Scott was the least subtle person on the planet, but if Stiles didn’t know better, he would say that Derek looked...worried about him. Then was he the one who moved his bed closer to the fire during the night? He always started a fire before he changed, but he'd never moved Stiles closer to it, and had always seemed to be fine with letting Stiles wake himself up freezing and drag his pack over himself.

“I’m fine. Where are we?” He vaguely remembered moving at some point during the night, but he’d been pretty out of it. He’d felt like he was moving even when he was lying still.

“A few hours’ ride from the city.” Derek knelt next to the fire to pick out one of the cooked fishes on sticks and hand it to Stiles. “Scott will ride ahead on Camaro and bring a cart and supplies out for tonight.”

Stiles nodded his thanks and reached to take the fish, but Derek didn’t let go of it. He was staring past his hand, down where Stiles’ shirt had fallen open, revealing the deep scratches from Derek’s wolf claws where the bandages didn’t cover them.

“What is that?”

Stiles straightened his shirt, unintentionally yanking the fish out of Derek’s hand, looking anywhere but at the dawning horror on Derek's face as he put two and two together.

“That’s proof that you can’t just kill the Regent,” Scott answered as he returned with a bundle of firewood in his arms, his voice hard.

“What happened?” Derek asked quietly, reluctantly.

“You’re not in control when you’re the wolf,” Stiles explained, picking at his fish. “You went after Scott and I got in the way, and Derek—”

“That can’t happen if I’m king,” he finished. He didn’t seem surprised by it, had probably been in denial about it for however long he’d been planning to kill Peter.

“It’s exactly why Lydia is so desperate to break the curse. She knows what you can do, she’s got scars from—”

Derek’s head snapped up at that. “What?”

“Nevermind.” Crap. Crap. Lydia had expressly asked he never mention those, for the exact same reason Stiles had tried to hide his chest.

“I’ve hurt Lydia?”

“A little?” Stiles winced, trying to hide from Derek’s intense and angry gaze by closing one eye like a child. It didn’t really help.

He exchanged worried glances with Scott, still holding the firewood like it could protect him from attack, while Derek clenched his jaw and turned his wrathful and self-loathing gaze of shame towards the sky—towards Lydia.

“Fine,” Derek finally answered after several minutes of Stiles sweatily picking his fish to shreds with nerves and Scott continually feeding twigs and sticks into the fire like it was his life’s dream.

They glanced at each other again. What did that mean? That they’d go with the curse-lifting plan? Was Derek finally done with them and taking off on a private revenge plot? Was he just going to kill them both right there and be done with it?

“Fine?” Stiles echoed.

“Fine. We’ll do it your way—Lydia’s way.”

Stiles had to stuff the entire too-hot fish in his mouth to keep from saying something shitty in response.

*

It was when Scott was getting ready to ride ahead that they hit a snag, which turned out to be Stiles.

“No. No. We’re changing the plan. Stiles, you can’t go through the sewers with an open wound in your chest.”

Stiles rolled his eyes. “I have to. No one else knows how to get in.”

“Tell me how, I can do it.”

“No, it’s way too complicated down there, and you need to get Lydia and Derek through the gates. I can’t do that, I’ll be arrested on sight.” Even if the guards didn’t know Stiles was wanted, they would check for the brand on entry and that would only draw extra attention they couldn’t afford. It had to be Scott, with his trustful face and good social standing as a doctor.

That wasn’t what Scott wanted to hear.

“But your—”

“Scott, let's be honest.” Time to be blunt. Gentle reasoning wasn’t going to get them anywhere. “The odds of me creeping around the palace and surviving are slim to none. I doubt I'll even be alive by the time an infection could set in.”

Now Scott just looked like he wanted to knock Stiles out and stash him somewhere until the plan was complete. Surprisingly, it was Derek who smoothed it all out, interrupting from a little ways away where he’d been brooding with Lydia on his arm.

“If we succeed, I’ll make sure he has the best doctors in the kingdom for his recovery.”

Oh, that was a neat trick. It was an option they’d never had before; whenever Stiles got sick or hurt, Scott was there taking care of him with whatever he could squirrel away from work. When Scott got sick, Stiles tried his best under his patient’s directions, but he just didn’t have the magic touch—unfortunately for Scott. It was a complete novelty having a higher power to call in.

“There, see?” Stiles pointed to his new hero. “He’s a prince, he can do that!”

Scott still wasn’t happy, but he left anyway. He had to get to the gatehouse, make idle chat with the guards, tell them that there’d been a wolf attack and he had to return to town for more supplies before heading back out. They needed a lot of bandages if they were going to successfully hide Lydia’s identity, and they would need a cart large enough for a cage that was strong enough to hold an angry wolf, and Derek as a wolf could get pretty angry. Which was half of the plan because he had to get worked up enough to distract guards within view of the sewer’s large runoff pipe.

So Stiles could climb in unseen and crawl through the hell that was the pipe system of Beacon Hills, with a wound on his chest.

This was going to go splendidly.

“This is going to be a disaster,” he sighed, wandering over to stand with Derek.

“Most likely.” As the very not reassuring response.

Stiles threw up his hands as he turned to glare. “Derek, you aren’t supposed to agree with me!”

“But I do. Peter is a master swordsman, not many could hold their own against him.”

“You mean except you, of course.” If Derek didn’t actually think he could win, Stiles wasn’t about to let him throw away his life (and everyone else’s) on some stupid suicidal revenge plot. They would disappear into the woods and wander the hillside training with whatever skilled swordsman they could find until the next eclipse if necessary.

“We trained together. I know how he moves.”

“So you can win.” Stiles just wanted to clarify. For clarity. Before they all ran into the city and risked capture and decapitation.

If he legitimately didn’t think he could win, then there were a few things that had to be set straight here, because this would be Stiles’ only chance before Scott returned.

“Derek, listen to me.” He stepped to the side to stand directly in front of him, making full on, deep and meaningful eye contact to drill in the seriousness of what he was saying. “If you can’t win, I need you to kill me.”

Derek’s confusion dropped into a glare. “Your overwhelming faith in me is flattering.”

“No, you don’t understand." Not the time for banter. "If you think you’re going to lose in there, I need you to kill me.”

Derek stared at him, his eyebrows now angrily confused. Damn it, he was going to have to explain.

“I haven’t been home in five years, since your uncle gave me this.” He shoved up his sleeve, finally revealing the scarred capital T burned into his skin. “My dad’s a sheriff out in the hills. If his son came back a branded thief, he would lose his job in a second.” Derek still wasn’t getting it. “If you don’t kill your uncle, I’ll be publically executed as a traitor to the crown.”

Now he got it.

“As an official, your father will be expected to attend.”

“And I’m not going to let the last time he sees me be my execution. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do it when the time comes, so if I can’t, you need to.”

Derek looked at him intently, intensely, for an uncomfortably long time, then said, “You’re a good person, Stiles.”

“I’m a thief,” he responded stupidly, for lack of a better reaction. He didn’t know what to do with that statement because he’d never actually heard it directed towards him before, at least not since he was a little boy with his father. These days he was usually being cursed and yelled at as he ran off with valuables.

“They’re not mutually exclusive.”

Stiles couldn’t look away from his gaze, softer than usual, focused like there wasn’t anything else in the world he would rather be looking at.

“Well, you are, too,” he said haltingly with a painfully awkward chuff to the shoulder. Derek just smiled; it was barely more than a corner of his lips curving up, but it was definitely a smile. Not a smirk or a shitty grin, a smile. And those were definitely butterflies in Stiles’ stomach.

Wow, that smile was beautiful. He wouldn’t mind if that smile was all he saw for the rest of his life. He wanted it to be the last thing he saw before death. It was that great of a smile. And then Derek had to go and make it all so much worse.

“Even if it was under terrible circumstances, I’m glad I found you.”

“Stalked me, you mean,” Stiles finally got out around his fond outrage and flattered sputtering. “You stalked me. Don’t think I didn’t notice the wolf howls for days before we met.”

“Agree to disagree. I have no control over the wolf, remember?”

Derek was suddenly significantly closer than he had been, or maybe he’d been getting closer all along and Stiles had been too lost in his stupid eyes to notice—either way, he was painfully aware of how little distance was between them, and his heart was racing.

“I’m not so sure you want to go through with this plan after all,” he tried for casual; missed by a mile. “After the curse is lifted you won’t be able to blame your creepy habits on the wolf.”

Derek’s smile turned feral with a hint of teeth. “I have every intention of taking full responsibility for any creepy habits from here on out.”

And then they were kissing; pouring all of their frustrations and bickering and arguments into it, teasing out fondness and caring and promises to protect. It was fierce and focused like Derek, frantic and loose like Stiles, and by the time they broke apart, it was like there was no air left in the forest around them.

“Oh god,” Stiles gasped, trying to catch his breath, pointing accusingly at Derek, who looked ruffled and all too pleased with himself. “I am so holding you to that.”

That feral grin was going to kill him.

*

“Another layer?”

“Another layer.”

Scott nodded to himself in agreement and picked up the third roll of bandages. Lydia’s one visible eye narrowed at him, but she didn’t say anything; the more covered her face was, the better.

Even Stiles had to admit, between the bandages covering most of her face and the animal blood Scott had brought to make the implied injury seem that much more horrifying and gory, Lydia really did look like an animal attack survivor. Her unique and eye catching red hair was pulled back and tucked into a hat, and Scott had grabbed some of his ratty clothes for her to wear. It was hard to believe she was once royalty.

“Alright.” Scott dabbed a little more blood into the bandages on her neck, stepped back, and cocked his head like an artist surveying his masterpiece. “I think that does it.”

“How do I look?” Lydia asked dryly.

“Like my worst nightmare come to life,” Stiles said with a wink.

Her one eyed glared turned positively lethal. “Let’s just get this over with. Sunrise is in two hours and we need to be hidden out of sight by then.”

She just didn’t want to be alone in her suffering for the plan.

“Yeah, yeah, excuse me if I’m not exactly eager to climb through sewer water again.” Still, Stiles helped Scott gather up his medical supplies and dump the remaining animal blood before clambering into the cart right behind his friend. “So what did you tell the guards about all this?”

“That I would be bringing through a young lady who was very self-conscious about her appearance after the attack, and I would appreciate it if they didn’t ask about her injuries for her own mental wellbeing.”

Nice.

“False name?”

“Consuela Schlepkiss,” Lydia answered flatly.

“It was the only thing I could think of!” Scott countered, and his tone suggested that they’d had this discussion before.

Stiles did a very bad job of hiding his smile.

The rode on through the dark for a while, the only sounds around them being the horse’s hooves on the road and the steady, constant growl from Derek in the back. The wolf hadn’t appreciated being trapped in a cage for hours. Eventually, the very tops of the city’s tallest buildings came into view, a dim glow from illuminated windows and torches filling the sky.

“We’re coming up on the gatehouse over this hill,” Scott announced. “You’ll have to get out now so the guards don’t see you run off.”

Stiles nodded, bracing himself. Once they parted ways, there was no going back; he would either see them at the palace doors, or never again. He didn’t even get to see Derek one last time—just a wolf that didn’t recognize or understand him, still growling in his cage. He tried to bite through the bars the last time Stiles had gotten close.

“See you on the other side,” Stiles said, giving Scott a firm pat on the shoulder. They’d already had their misty-eyed hug in private. There was no need to start up the waterworks again with an audience.

He gave Lydia a somewhat uncomfortable nod, because they weren’t close enough for much else and he didn’t get the feeling that she wanted a hug or even a firm handshake, and practically threw himself out of the cart before he could chicken out or do anything crazy like chain himself to it and refuse to ever leave again. He might’ve been a little nervous about this entire harebrained plan, but he was trying not to think about it.

He took a second to orient himself, figure out which direction to slink off in towards the low end of the city to the river. Luckily it’d been fairly dry the last week, the river sounded calm, so his re-entrance shouldn’t have the same strong currents as his swift and panicked exit.

“Stiles!” He turned back at Lydia’s call. “Remember, the east wing,” she reminded, and he rolled his eyes as he normally would. She was worried about him, he could tell, and given their somewhat tumultuous relationship thus far, he didn’t really know how to handle her concern, so he gave her a thumbs up that she probably couldn’t see in the dark.

Scott, ever his best friend, brought the uncomfortable interaction to an abrupt end by urging the horses onward.

It might’ve been his imagination, but Stiles thought he might’ve heard the wolf whine as they trundled off over the hill.

*

Even without the strong currents ripping him away, the sewers were just as bad as the first time. It was still dark and smelled horrible, the water was still a murky brown that he didn’t want to think about, and he was swimming upstream this time with a much larger margin for error. He couldn’t just follow the water out, he had to choose the correct pipes to branch off into. There was climbing involved, and his chest and shoulders were screaming at him to just stop and let the water wash off him to a comfy grave where he wouldn’t have to smell all of this.

By the time Stiles scaled up the side of the palace’s waste dumping pit (which was luckily lined with very uneven rocks and boulders that were easy to climb aside from the slime), he was a mess, and exhausted, and a number of things that were still alive underwater had brushed by him. Larger things than rats. Maybe even an underwater species of cat—he wouldn’t be surprised if there were unknown species in there, he’d personally felt all of them.

He didn’t feel the least bit bad about taking the time to duck into a small courtyard he passed to bring up a bucket of water from the well and dump it over himself. Three times. The others would thank him despite the slight delay.

From there, it was a simple matter of following Lydia’s directions she’d drilled into his memory. She was right, the halls of the east wing were damn near empty, aside from a servant or two hurrying from one room to another, paying no attention to the soaked and dirty peasant sneaking around the palace.

It felt easy. Too easy. They were going to assassinate the Regent and there was no one around to stop them, except for the single guard Stiles passed, who had his lovesick head firmly in the personal space of a maid in the kitchen, who seemed to be equally as interested in him.

Ah, young love; easy and without the obstacles of secret princes, magic curses, and an evil tyrant threatening to kill them all.

Stiles pressed on, only turning down the wrong hall once before he reached the side door where the Scott and Derek were waiting. Both in unison wrinkled their noses at him, which he couldn’t help but notice was incredibly cute on the usually stoic and impressive Derek.

“Hey, you told me where to go,” he pointed out to Lydia when even she cocked her head to the side and ruffled her feathers in offense.

They followed Derek back through the palace to a small, dark room he deemed acceptable for Scott and Lydia to wait for the eclipse. It was a nicer room than Stiles had ever set foot in, but Derek seemed rather put off by the decor for some reason.

“From here, go to the right down the hall, take the first left, and you’ll see the doors to the great hall,” he explained quietly to Scott.

“Alright, I noticed a few guards, are you sure they won’t interfere?”

“Peter’s cocky and he likes everyone to see his confidence in his skills. He won’t call the guards until after he subdues the intruders himself, we’ll have plenty of time. Just keep her out of his sight until the eclipse, do not bring her anywhere near him until then.”

“Got it,” Scott said with a nod, then, surprisingly, he clapped Derek on the shoulder and said sincerely. “Good luck.”

Derek nodded stiffly in return, then looked to Stiles, who also nodded, because it seemed like the thing everyone was doing. Even Lydia was bobbing her little hawk head around on Scott’s arm.

With one last hug for Scott, Stiles and Derek hurried off, with Derek in the lead as he knew the palace better than anyone (and he seemed determined to stay upwind of Stiles’ sewer stench). They ducked only two guards on a lower floor, then the rest of their path was clear to a long hall ending in large double doors made of solid wood. They were probably built to withstand an army attacking them personally.

“Is this it?” Stiles whispered, mouthed, really, because he was too keyed up and nervous to make much noise.

Derek nodded.

Then he just stared for a second, eyes roaming over Stiles’ face with a focused intensity he now recognized well.

“Wait, I—”

—have sewer water all over me, he’d been about to say, but it was impossible to get out around Derek’s lips on his.

They were going to have a problem if that was how Derek planned to deal with every stressful situation. Though not too much of a problem, because if they got to be together for even a few more stressful moments, Stiles figured they were doing alright.

This kiss wasn’t like their first; it was hard and fierce, desperate, and it felt like a goodbye, Stiles realized as they parted and Derek threw open the door.

The great hall was almost comical. It truly was great, with massive soaring wooden ceilings with all sorts of ornate trusses and decoration, but at the very end of an incredibly long and otherwise empty table sat two men, chatting casually like they were out for a lunch in the gardens. They had wine and a bit of food, nothing like the royal feasts Stiles had imagined as a child, but otherwise, it was the least impressive negotiation ever. They didn’t even have paper to write anything down.

They both turned at the interruption and the Regent stood from his seat at the head of the table. Whatever shock he may have been feeling was gone by the time he reached them.

“Well, well,” Peter mused softly. “My nephew returned from the grave and a thief—a prince and a pauper.”

Stiles felt an uneasy jolt; his brand wasn’t showing. “Do you remember every kid you’ve branded for life for trying to survive?”

“Just the ones with nice eyes,” Peter leered.

Derek’s animalistic growl and the Argent king’s curled lip of disgust perfectly summarized Stiles’ feelings on that comment.

“And what brings you here, nephew? Revenge?” he guessed with a mocking smile and a glance at the sword in Derek’s hand.

“It shouldn’t come as a surprise,” Derek ground out. He was practically vibrating with his restraint; three years of burning vengeance driving him forward, and now the man was standing right in front of him. But he couldn’t kill him yet.

Stiles glanced towards the enormous stained glass window facing the east. The sun was shining in brightly, unobscured yet.

“Quite the contrary. I’d heard the recent rumors from my guards, but I didn’t believe them myself. I’m surprised you lasted a week with all those hunters roaming the hills.” He gestured behind him towards the table, towards his own chair with a black pelt draped over the back.

Stiles wanted to vomit all over his royal slippers.

“Draw your sword,” Derek ordered, and Peter looked almost disappointed he hadn’t gotten more of a reaction out of him. He tutted.

“Derek, don’t you remember our sparring? You don’t stand a chance.”

“It’s amazing what three years on the run does for your skills in combat. Now draw" —he raised his blade— “your sword.”

There was an amused gleam in the Peter’s eye as he did just that, stepping back just far enough to take up a proper stance.

“I hope you don’t think this will lift your curse, nephew,” he said with a laugh.

“I know it won’t,” Derek answered, then attacked first with such fury that Stiles thought he felt sparks on his face.

For all that Stiles mocked him, and his sword, and his cape, and his entire being, Derek really was truly a magnificent man, and he fought like one. Each swing had a barely restrained fury behind it, yet still under complete control from years of training. But though he’d spent the last three years fighting to survive on the run, Peter had been dueling and sparring with the best the kingdom had to offer at his beck and call. It wasn’t as fair a fight as Stiles would’ve liked.

Argent was, wisely, staying out of the fray, sipping his wine and only half paying attention. If the alliance between kingdoms was going to last beyond today, he couldn’t very well have tried to kill whoever ended up winning to become king. Interfering in an ally’s internal politics probably wasn’t part of his job description.

Stiles almost wished he could edge around the uncle and nephew and go join him at the table, after removing the wolf pelt from Peter’s seat, of course.

He just felt so useless, standing off to the side while the two fought to the death with everything they had. He had no real training in combat, beyond fistfights on the street which were the only thing his giant hands were good for, and even if he did, Derek had been clear that Peter was his responsibility. Stiles had his own reasons for hating the Regent and wanting to see him dead, but Derek was on an entirely different level.

As much as it hurt to stand by, this was something that Derek wanted to see through himself. Even if it killed him, which it looked like it might. Oh god, Stiles was going to die today. As per their agreement, the first opening Derek got, he was going to lob off Stiles’ head. At least his beheading would be private.

Until finally—finally—the large stained glass facing the sun started to dim, the bright glow becoming obscured by the moon. Derek didn’t seem to notice, too focused on his fight, and Peter had no reason to care about it. For him, it only meant that his negotiations with Argent would be coming to an end soon.

Derek only had to hold him off for a few more minutes, just enough time for Lydia and Scott to get there. He was tiring out; despite telling Stiles to keep out of it, Stiles was itching to jump in, grab the sword from his hand, and give him a chance to rest. If he died, which was likely given his extreme lack of training with a sword, then at least his father wouldn’t see it. He would never have to know that Stiles wasn’t still running around in the world somewhere.

There was a loud clang from out in the hall; it sounded like the armor the guard had been wearing at the kitchens. Evidently the sounds of a furious sword fight weren’t very common in a palace and tended to draw attention. Derek would never stand a chance against two opponents in his state.

Stiles grabbed a solid gold goblet from the sideboard as the door opened, had it raised to strike before he realized it was Scott and Lydia, who was wrapped up in a tapestry that somehow on her looked more like a gown than a rug. Wearing only that, some of her scars from Derek were visible; across her collarbone, one down her forearm, probably others still hidden.

There was a very unconscious guard lying sprawled across the floor behind them.

“Oh my god, it worked,” Stiles breathed out in relief, and that was his only hesitation before shoving Lydia forward towards the ongoing fight. Derek was tiring and that just wouldn’t do. Stiles generally liked being alive, thank you very much, he didn’t want that to change anytime soon—by sword or axe.

Lydia didn’t let herself be shoved far. She stopped, straightened regally (somehow the tapestry was really working for her, like she was wearing a mantle for her own coronation), and firmly said the name of her former fiancé.

Peter instantly froze at the sound of her voice, blocked one more strike from Derek, then turned to look at Lydia.

“You’re supposed to be dead,” he said calmly, as if he were greeting her at the breakfast table. Stiles wondered if he had a stuffed hawk somewhere he liked to stroke with his disgusting, slimy murder hands.

“Then you should’ve been man enough to kill me yourself,” she hissed back. “Cursing us like that, what a cowardly way to commit murder.” She stepped forward and he flinched, his sword lowered. “Was it too hard to face what you were doing, killing what was left of your family for power? Were you worried it would haunt you if you saw the moment we stopped breathing? Were you hoping your royal hunters would shoot us on a hunt and have their dogs drag our bodies back for your dinner?”

She was surprisingly correct with that last one and she knew it by the way Peter’s eyes roamed away from her in guilt, over to Stiles and Scott behind her.

“Don’t you look away from me, Peter Hale.” Lydia reached up and gently turned his face back to her, brushing her thumb over his cheek tenderly as the sunlight through the stained glass window brightened behind them. The eclipse was passing and she was still human. “Don’t ever look away from me, because I want my face to be the last thing you see as the axe comes down on your throat.”

Taking advantage of his distraction, his trancelike state in the presence of Lydia, Derek knocked Peter’s sword from his hand, and had a knife at his throat even before it clattered to the floor.

*

Ruthless justice wasn’t as swift as Stiles had always imagined. He’d been expecting a public execution the very next morning, probably a feast and a large announcement, celebrations in the streets.

Instead, Peter was quietly arrested by Derek and the no longer unconscious guard, and confined to a room that was far too lavishly decorated for such a foul human being. There was no dingy dungeons, no reverential transferring of crowns, no fanfare, no stately dinners—it was almost anticlimactic, and made Stiles wonder what daily life in the palace was like if the dethroning of a tyrant was met with little more than a brief shrug and a shuffle of papers.

Lydia was given proper clothes and whisked away by handmaidens she looked perfectly at home among (that was when it really clicked that she was, in fact, royalty), Stiles and Scott were shown rooms to sleep and bathe in (finally), and Derek disappeared in a swarm of advisors and guards and whatever other kinds of people surrounded a king on a daily basis.

By the next afternoon when a heavy knock on his door roused Stiles out of the deepest sleep he’d had in over a month, the entire palace had calmed to a controlled flurry of activity that he assumed was normal.

So, all around anticlimactic.

“His Highness wishes to see you,” a strange man with curly hair Stiles had never seen before informed him as he bustled into the room like they knew each other.

Stiles blinked hard as he sat up, then blinked again, trying to wake up after such a deep sleep in a very fluffy bed. It was so fluffy he’d briefly wondered if he had a chance of suffocating in it during the night.

“Who are you?” he croaked, watching the man hold up his clothes, give them a judging look, and then toss them in the trash. Unfair, they’d been properly cleaned and everything, and they didn’t even smell like sewer anymore. Whatever magician did the castle laundry somehow managed to get out all of the stains.

“Isaac. I’ll be your valet for the duration of your stay.” He moved to the wardrobe and began to pull out more pieces to an outfit than Stiles knew what to do with.

He was not going to wear that bright a purple. No way.

Stiles jumped out of bed and hurried over to the trash to retrieve his clothes. “Well, Isaac, I’ve been dressing myself for eighteen years, I think I can manage this part just fine, so if you could...” He gestured to the door.

Isaac paused, holding something ruffled, and gave the clothes clutched to Stiles’ chest a withering look of disdain. “Debatable.”

“Alright, no.” He refused to be insulted in his own guest chambers by a man with those cheekbones. Stiles tossed his clothing to the bed and forcibly pushed Isaac back towards the door, ruffled mystery garment and all. Considering he was almost a head taller, Stiles got the feeling it was only working because the valet didn’t really want to be there anyway. “No, I saved the kingdom in those clothes, I can see the king in those clothes—out!”

“I would rather have seen the kingdom fall than see that outfit woven into a tapestry about it,” was the last thing Isaac said before Stiles slammed the door in his stupid smug face.

The same stupid face curled a lip in disgust when Stiles opened the door wearing his own outfit, exactly as he always did, with a bit of soot from the fireplace smudged into the arm for spite.

Out of his own spite, Isaac took Stiles as far as an imposing wooden door, rapped on it, and then left him there with no cues as to how he was supposed to act around a new king. He was panicking, because honestly, he’d been steeling himself for rejection now that Derek and bigger and better things to worry about, like running a kingdom. There was no room in his life for a lowly thief anymore, and this was the moment he was going to announce just that. Stiles wanted to be anywhere else but standing in front of that door.

“Come in,” Derek’s muffled voice said from the other side, so Stiles braced himself and went on in and tried to pretend everything was normal.

Derek sat at his big, dark, intricately carved, wooden desk surrounded by books and papers, the walls around him lined with stuffed bookshelves, and what didn’t fit there was stacked on the floor. He looked stressed, poring over a large document and frowning his eyebrows at it.

“What, no crown?”

Derek looked up from his papers and snorted softly when he saw who it was. Everything about him lightened immediately. “Crowns are only for important events. Was your chest tended to?”

Stiles plopped down in a chair across from him. “Yeah, last night, with checkups for the rest of the week. And that is such a waste. If I were king, I’d wear that crown to bed every night.” Stiles shifted around in his seat, trying to get comfortable. His chest still stung and ached from the abuse he’d put it through, but the royal doctor had been thorough during all of the interruptions to Stiles’ sleep to check on him.

He slouched a little more. He refused to be intimidated by the whole king thing. It was still just Derek.

“You’d feel differently if you’d ever worn one.” Derek set down his work to give Stiles his full attention. It was a nice gesture; made Stiles feel a little more important and like he wasn’t now at the bottom of the list of priorities for the king.

“But I’ll never have to worry about that, so just let me keep my fantasies.”

“You could worry about that with what I plan to give you, if you want.”

That stopped Stiles’ next snarky comment short. “Give me?”

Derek looked confused by his honest surprise. “Stiles, you saved both my and Lydia’s lives, you helped us remove Peter from power, you kept me from giving in to blind anger and vengeance. I would give you anything you ask.”

“Anything?” He perked up.

“Anything. Land, gold, money…”

“That’s not exactly what I had in mind. I mean, don’t get me wrong,” he added quickly, “reward money would be fantastic, but that’s not what I…” he trailed off, rubbing at his forearm self-consciously through his shirt.

True to form, Derek knew exactly what he meant.

“You want a pardon.”

A formal written pardon would give him permission to cover the brand with a tattoo so it wouldn’t be glaringly obvious what he’d done, something that would otherwise be punishable by banishment or death. He’d have to keep the papers on him, but that was a small price to pay to keep a stupid mistake as a child from holding him back from getting a real job like Scott, or restricting his movements.

“I want to see my dad.”

Derek nodded immediately, without hesitation. “Done.”

Stiles snorted, helplessly fond. “Just like that?”

“Just like that,” Derek confirmed. “You’ve done more for me than I could ever repay. This is the very least I could possibly do for you.”

“Well in that case, I’ve been looking to invest in a nice jacket for the winter,” Stiles quipped with a shrug, because again, he had no idea what to do with that statement. Derek kept coming at him from left field and hitting him square in the chest, and it was frustrating him as much as it was making his heart flutter embarrassingly.

“I’d give you an entire wardrobe if you wanted it,” Derek countered with a smirk.

“A horse?”

“Your own stable of horses.”

“A house.”

“A castle.”

“Your castle?”

“As long as you don’t mind sharing it with me.”

Now that was a little too sincere on Derek’s part, gazing into Stiles’ eyes without hesitation or unease, and Stiles couldn’t bring himself to look away.

“I think I could find room for you,” he responded weakly, making a poor attempt at being cool and suave and unaffected. It failed, judging my Derek’s soft grin. It made Stiles’ stomach flip.

“It is large castle.” Wow, Derek was intense when he wasn’t vengeful and cursed. “In fact, after you’ve spent time with your father and settled, I’d like it very much if you came back. To stay, if you would like to. Take up some of this excess space.”

Panicking again, Stiles fell back on the only defense he had: joking it away until he could run and hide and probably leave the city forever.

“Why Derek, that almost sounds like a proposal.”

“One could say that it is.”

Panic. Blind panic and pounding heart. Defend harder. “What would that make me, your paramour? Your kept thief? I could keep your bed warm all day, and that’s not even supposed to sound bitter, those are really nice beds—”

“Stiles,” Derek interrupted gently. “I could never keep you hidden away like that.”

“Well that just leaves—”

“Marriage.”

No. Not marriage. Given Stiles’ life thus far, that was too good to be true, too much to ask of the universe without sacrificing something precious in return. There was no way a thief, on the run and scraping by for years, got that kind of happy ending. A respectable ending, beyond respectable. It just didn’t happen in the real world.

“I was going to say a very out of practice chess partner, but I’m pretty sure it would be against the law for the king to marry a thief, even a pardoned one.”

“Well it’s a good thing I’m the king and I make the laws, then, isn’t it?”

“What about Lydia?”

“She has her own kingdom to rule.”

“Alliances?”

“We’ve got plenty.”

“Reputation.”

Derek dipped his chin, and when he looked back up he was smiling. “I think as long as I avoid plotting to murder the rightful heir to the throne with dark magic and rule as a tyrant, my reputation will be just fine.”

“That is a lot to live up to—or down to, as the case may be,” Stiles conceded, then threw up his metaphorical and literal hands. “Well, that was all of my reasons to say no.”

“Are you finally done being self-sacrificing?”

“Hang on, who are you to talk about self-sacrificing, Mr. Martyr?”

“That’s King Martyr, to you,” Derek corrected with a devastating smirk that made Stiles glad he was already sitting. He wasn’t about to let him know that though.

“Oh god, is this going to be a thing now? Are you going to be doing this a lot? I take it back, all of it, I’m leaving. You can keep your castle and your stables, you pedantic twit.”

*

When Stiles returned to the palace four months later, intricate tattoos winding up his right forearm, Derek was standing at the main gate, wearing a soft smile and a crown.