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.Present.

Each year the heats grow stronger. What is a soft trickle at sixteen becomes a steady stream at twenty and now that Stiles is fast upon twenty-five, each month brings a new flood. Stiles knows that he has less than five years before the tremors turn to seizures, where upon he shall fall into a delirium from which he will not surface.

It was not supposed to be so. It was to be easier than easy. Genim Percival Stilinski, Prince of Beacon, heir to the throne, and “blessed omega” is a match that any alpha would gladly accept. Winning his hand means wealth, children—social elevation. Yet Stiles has been through alpha after alpha. His heats have passed with the waxing and waning of moons and flashed with summer lightning storms. Yet it always happens: damp sheets and rough hands that spread and coax and enter and beg—and yet Stiles’s body unerringly refuses to open.

No matter whether their rank be emperor or lowly lord, they always beg the same, “Accept me.”

Stiles, out of his mind with sweat stinging his eyes and a cockhead plugged between his cheeks, hisses, “I want to.” But the knot will not take—it never takes. Stiles says he doesn’t know why… but that’s only partially true.

The court physician is the only one who suspects. Lady Lydia has asked him on at least three occasions. The last time she asked, it was a year ago, when they were still muscle-sore and breathing heavily from Stiles’s last spike. She whispered wetly in his ear, “It was him, wasn’t it?”

When Stiles didn’t answer, Lydia didn’t press his silence, and the next day they left behind the intimacy of the heat and were naught but friends.

Because they never learned his true name.

“Call me Ash,” the man said to the bare wall, “for ashes are all I have left.”

It shouldn’t matter anyway. It happened almost five years ago. Other omegas are widowed and they barely have to wait a year before they’re receiving again. Stiles doesn’t know why he…

Besides, Stiles wasn’t even in heat when they had done it, when Ash had withdrawn with a gasp and a pained “no.”

.Past.

Stiles has many, many faults. Namely, he’s a failure of a prince. Everyone else likes to give him the benefit of the doubt. Instead, they all blame “that Lord Scott.” (An omega would never. And from hot-blooded Spanish stock.) As a child, he and Scott climbed every haystack in the grounds. They raced ponies and pilfered apples from the kitchens to indulge the warhorses (Stiles nearly lost a finger once). Lady McCall required the salts after they took a trip in a rowboat around the castle moat (the calls of “Hygiene, Scott! Hygiene!” echoed up and down the castle corridors). Of course, it wasn’t Scott. It was always Stiles concocting their latest scheme. Scott was simply kind enough to always play along.

Thus, when Stiles is twenty and arguing to assist Lydia’s medical work in the borderlands, his father knows he doesn't have much of chance of convincing him otherwise.

“There’s a war going on. I don’t want you anywhere close.”

“Beacon’s neutrality is acknowledged by Hale and Argent.”

“Each battle is more savage—I don’t want my son put in the middle. Men lose their logic for bloodlust in such times. Stiles, it could hop our border far too easily.”

“Exactly. Hate breeds hate. Our citizens already take sides—which is not what we want if peace is continue on this continent.”

The King glowers. “I already heard this speech. It’s why we set up the border clinics in the first place.”

“And the clinics are already overwhelmed with wounded. I will help.”

“Stiles…” His father buries his head in his hands because he knows there is no stopping his son. If he forbids him, Stiles would likely only finagle another way of going… and there would be trouble.

Somehow Stiles always finds trouble.

Instead, his father’s compromise is to send Stiles and Lydia to the belfry of Saint Jerome. It stands on the clay-colored cliffs of the Sierra river valley. The rest of the monastery is in ruins, reclaimed by gingko trees and brush, but the stucco bell tower still rises tall, and in it, a small hospital has been established for both the medical care of the surrounding villages as well as the overflow from the military clinics by the river. Most of the belfry’s charges are amputees or soldiers who need months to mend.

Stiles loves his work. After getting over the “your majesty this” and “your majesty that” stage, the alpha and beta soldiers all flirt horribly with him. Then, of course, after Stiles empties a few chamber pots and changes their dressings, he is just “Stiles.” He feels useful, needed. It is exactly what he craves.

It is in his third week at the belfry, not three days after the razing of Hale Castle, that they bring in the burned scout. His arms are heavily bandaged and his countenance veiled by a punctured cloth sack. He is accompanied by a hulking, blood-stained knight who gives his name as Sir Boyd.

“Do you have a private place?” Boyd implores.

“The whole belfry is neutral ground,” Stiles answers calmly.

Boyd steps in closer, so that his chin is nearly at Stiles’s nose. At first Stiles thinks it’s because he doesn’t know that he’s talking to the sovereign’s son, except that then Boyd’s voice drops to a deep bass. “I beg you, Your Majesty, this man turned the tide of the last battle for the Hales. The Argents hunt him. If they know he’s here, it will compromise your neutrality. Grant him sanctuary. I beg you. At least until he’s healed.” Boyd drops to his knee, head bent.

The obeisance is unnecessary. “No one is denied sanctuary in this kingdom.”

Boyd’s head rises. The whites of his eyes grow round with hope. “Then you will grant him privacy, anonymity?”

Stiles stares at the hard figure of a man laid out on the stretcher. His clothes are fine, if stained and shredded. An alpha, certainly, what with so much muscle. Though his breathing is labored (“a cracked rib,” Lydia said without a second glance), his cheek is smashed into his pillow in a way that suggests no pain. “He’s not burnt.”

Boyd pauses before nodding. “Only the spear wound on his side. The bandages on his face are to preserve his identity.”

Let this man not be a psychopath, Stiles thinks, before nodding and saying, “I share rooms in the cottage up the hill with Lady Lydia, the physician. There’s a spare chamber with a door to the back garden. When is his season?”

“In a month, but he keeps his mind. He is a good man, no matter what he may think.”

Stiles raises his brows at the implication in that, before asking, “Name?”

“He was a scout.” Boyd never answers the question.

.Present.

On the eve of his twenty-fifth birthday, Stiles goes to his father and says, “It’s time to call the Reception.”

His father, who looks too old for a man not yet sixty, swears and says, “You don’t have to.”

“It’s time,” Stiles repeats, then adds, “I want to.”

He doesn't want to, though. Hearing the lie, his father stoops forward and his face looks heavy, like it might drain away. “I wanted you to find someone in the way that I found your mother.”

“My heats are getting…” Stiles doesn't feel like repeating what they already both know.

“I will call the Reception,” the king says. “And, Stiles, I’m so sorry.” Then his dad opens his arms to embrace his son.

.Past.

The scout, Stiles decides, would be exquisitely good looking if he weren’t nearly dead. His hair is the color of ink and his cheekbones are carved and high, but it’s ruined by his pallor: ice-blue. The chapping on his lips worsens with each morning’s frost. It is like the hearth’s efforts never reach him.

“His wound isn't that bad,” Lydia complains. “He should be healing.”

“Maybe he doesn't want to.” Stiles thinks of Boyd’s words.

“He isn't eating. And I don’t have time for idiots like this when I have other idiots who still want to live.” Lydia makes fists before grabbing her mug of tea and marching off to the belfry.

Stiles tried to feed the man soup earlier. It didn't work. It didn't work because the man didn't care, but there are ways of making an alpha care. Stiles has a new idea brewing. A very bad, very un-princely idea.

Going to the wash basin, he removes the wreath of aconite from his neck. Martha, the village woman who tends the cottage, has left a kettle warming, so Stiles uses the hot water to scrub at his skin until the herbs’ harsh odor begins to fade. Then he strips himself of his white apron and coarse wool work clothes and finds his night shift. Stepping in a swirl, he dances in his own, now brimming scent.

Careful of the man’s torso, Stiles settles his weight evenly on the bedside. He starts with the man’s temples, softly rubbing. He thumbs down his cheeks and presses firm crescents around his ears. Stiles is only just starting to press lines into the back of his neck when the man’s eyes flutter open.

Stiles doesn’t stop what he’s doing. He keeps up with massage on the neck, pleased with the pinking of the man’s cheeks, before gently working across the collarbone to his shoulders. Stiles is so focused on his task that he jumps out of his skin when the man asks, “Are you an angel?”

Stiles nearly snorts—before realizing that this is a pivotal moment. Not speaking, he picks up the bowl of soup and after dipping his finger in, he traces the broth across the man’s lips. When the act isn’t rejected outright, Stiles picks up the spoon and spills a teaspoon of liquid over his tongue.

The man swallows, a dry sound. He’s still staring at Stiles as if he’s a conjuration.

Stiles keeps spooning broth. He even manages to get his patient to take a few small bits of goat and leek. It’s tempting to try and get him to eat even more, but Stiles doesn’t want to push him too hard with his stomach being empty. The broth is a start.

“Why am I alive?” the man asks.

Stiles hushes him. He sets down the bowl and goes back to massaging his temples and neck. After a while, the man drifts to slumber.

.Present.

At the king’s command, preparations for the Reception begin. The scribes send beribboned invitations to all eligible, titled alphas on the continent. Which is an inestimable number. Stiles has to sign his name to indigo fleur de lis scrolls gilded with swirling gold calligraphy until his wrist gives out and Lydia and Scott take turns forging on his behalf.

The kingdom is in a tizzy over it. Among the old omegas on the street corners, it is the sole topic of gossip. In the market, Stiles hears of a stall being set up to take odds on his choice. It shouldn't be that surprising that his citizens find it exciting. Other titled omegas do this the second they reach eighteen. Many think of the Reception as romantic, what with all of the attention showered upon the presenting omega. But Stiles has been through far too many heats with far too many alphas for that rosy view. At his wash table, he holds up a mirror to examine the glow of his skin, the perfect apples of fat in his cheeks. Fertile, his features announce.

He fears this Reception will break yet more hearts.

.Past.

A few day’s worth of soup and bed rest, their patient “Ash” is on the mend. He doesn't seem particularly happy about it, yet every time Stiles feeds him, he eats. During the fifth bowl of soup, Ash’s eyes clear and he says, “You’re an omega.”

“Yep. Not an angel. Open up.” Stiles wiggles the spoon in front of his mouth.

That earns him Ash’s first glare. “And a prince.”

Stiles take the opportunity to jam a good sized piece of squab between Ash’s lips. “How do you know that?”

Ash is chewing as he says, “The physician sarcastically calls you Your Majesty when she’s angered.”

“Oh, right.” Stiles prepares another spoonful.

“I’m in Beacon, aren't I?”

“Because Beacon is the only kingdom with a reckless omega prince. This is good. You’re making deductions already. It means you’re not brain damaged from all that blood loss.”

Second glare. “What’s the news of the war?”

“Oh.” Stiles puts down the spoon. “Are you sure you’re ready for that?”

Ash’s eyes close as he lifts chin to the ceiling as if praying for patience, but then his eyes open, clear, both brown and blue and brave. “Tell me. I know that… Queen Talia,” he swallows, “is dead.”

“As is Queen Victoria.”

Ash nods, no surprise evident. “What about the oath breaker? Duchess Kate.”

Stiles has never heard so much disgust attached to a name. Though, to be fair, the negotiations at Hale Castle were supposed to be for peace—instead the Argents had used the opportunity to stab the Hales in the back and burn down their home. “Word is that Lady Kate was killed by Duke Peter after the razing of the Hale Castle.”

Ash hesitates, “The rest of the royal family?” His tone is so devoted. Then again, most of the knights of Hale are that way.

“No word since you arrived. News has been spotty. We should have more soon. It is currently unclear whether or not Princess Allison shall become queen.” Stiles wants to add more: I know her. She’s a good person. But there is no way that Ash is in a place to hear that.

Ash is silent for a long moment before he leans to the side, wincing with the effort to lift himself up.

“Just what are you doing?” Stiles demands.

Ash hesitates. Sweat already beads the lines of his brow. “I need to pass water.”

Stiles points at the chamber pot. “Ready for your input.”

Ash blanches. “And my muscles are sore from being still. I want to see the sun.”

Stiles throws his hands up in the air. “Oh, fine. Just watch your side. It had a big piece of sharp metal in it only a week ago.” Then he helps Ash get his legs to the side of the bed. “Slowly, slowly,” Stiles commands as Ash tries to push himself up. “Use your elbow to support your side.”

When Ash finally stands, he’s unsteady and heavier than a boulder. Stiles totters a bit as he bears the alpha’s weight. But then Ash is walking. He braces himself against Stiles, the walls, and any furniture in range, but by the way his teeth bear down on his bottom lip, he’s fighting pain.

They’ve only just made it out the back door when Ash releases an agonized, “Hell, I can’t take another step.”

“We can go back inside,” Stiles encourages.

“I really meant it when I said I had to pass water. And the sun—” His pale face stretches pink and gold in the glow of dusk. “—it’s good. I can just stand here for a minute.”

Alphas are horribly stupid. Stiles mutters this under his breath and then he says, “Hold still,” as he finds the draw strings on Ash’s breeches.

“What—” Ash’s eyes are white with shock. “—are you doing?”

“Loosing you.” With an eye roll, Stiles yanks. The breeches slide down the alpha’s thighs.

“—Jesus—I can handle the rest myself, thank you.” Ash reaches down to grab himself (which, there’s no way Stiles doesn’t slightly react: it’s a dragon dangling between those legs), but when Ash has to bend his waist slightly—there’s a hiss of breath—because of the still-healing wound, the idiot.

With firm fingers, Stiles grabs Ash’s hands and presses them against the wall. Then he wraps his other hand around the alpha’s dick and says, “Pee.”

Ash’s eyes bulge and a choking sound bubbles deep in his throat.

“Don’t worry. There are no herbs back here that Lydia cares about. Just pee.” When Ash shakes his head with closed eyes, Stiles says, “I’ve cleaned your bed pans, remember. This is nothing.”

Ash sucks in his cheeks and likely bites them. “You are shameless and this is mortifying.” His face is starting to pale again—which is not what Stiles wants.

“Suffering is never graceful. Just pretend I’m not here. Just focus on what you need.”

Stiles counts five breaths before the stream begins and Ash groans in relief. It makes Stiles wonder how long he’s been holding it. When he’s finished, Stiles tucks him back in and ties him up.

With jerky steps, Ash pivots so he can slump back against the wall and let his head fall back. The sunset, already fading to a murky violet, seems to calm his features. His eyes open and his face is a question as he says, “Thank you for that.”

“You’re welcome.”

“It’s not proper for a prince though.”

“Especially not an omega prince.”

The edge of Ash’s mouth twists. “You were horribly spoiled as a child, weren’t you?”

Stiles gasps with hyperbole. “Slander! And I know you like me.”

This causes Ash’s mouth to flatten. “You’re…” His eyes move up and down on Stiles for a fleeting second before he begrudgingly finishes, “You’re impossible not to like.”

“I love how your compliments are also insults.”

“I think I need to lie down.”

Stiles realizes that Ash's knees are trembling and his knuckles are white as fingers press into the cottage’s stucco. “Let’s go.”

.Present.

It’s the day of the Reception. Two days from Stiles's next heat. He is dressed head-to-toe in gossamer white. The fabric itches, in part because his heat is so near. Lydia and Scott have been helping him, Lydia by arranging the stupid gown—Scott, mostly by keeping him distracted.

“Have you been down there?” he asks Scott as Lydia pins a fabric panel.

“Allison is here.” Scott nods with hearts in his eyes.

“We knew she was coming,” Lydia says dully.

“Who’s the fairest of the lot?” Stiles asks before frowning. “—actually don’t tell me. I should let it be natural, right?”

Lydia answers him anyway. “Deucalion is handsome in a dirty old man way. Prince Isaac has those cheekbones, but I’m not sure you would want to handle the Lahey clan as in-laws. Prince Ethan is yummy. His twin brother is an omega, can you believe that? You met Prince Daniel of Hillsouth last Michaelmas so you know he’s lovely. Lord Ennis has the biggest cock, hands down. Queen Kali wants your throne and nothing else, and let’s be real, Princess-Elect Allison is here to fuck your best friend. Oh, and there’s Viscount Greenberg and Lady Morrell and Baron Daehler.”

Stiles can’t help his grumble. “Those are not encouraging prospects.”

“Unless a Hale comes.” Lydia snaps the lid on the sewing box shut.

Scott is shaking his head. “They won’t come. Because an Argent is within a five mile radius—no matter that she’s kind and compassionate and like… perfect.”

Stiles tunes Scott out (as he does when his best friend gets going on the topic of Allison) to focus solely on Lydia. “I’ve only met Queen Laura when I was a kid but she was…” Let it not be said that thirteen-year-old Stiles wasn’t capable of a crush on an older, happily mated woman. Raven hair, red lips, alabaster skin and a voice that melted each word like metal in the back of her throat.

“Gorgeous,” Lydia agrees. “And a good queen. I don’t think we’d have seen a peace treaty without her. She does have siblings. Two out of the other four Hale children survived the Hale fire. The eldest boy and the youngest girl.”

“Who never leave their home,” Stiles laments.

“Can you blame them?” Lydia asks severely.

Stiles doesn’t get to answer before Sir Deaton enters the room, rapping on the door frame. “Sire,” he says, “they’re ready for you.”

.Past.

After two weeks of soup, Ash has progressed to game meats and turnips and egg scramble. When he and Stiles do their twice-a-day constitutionals, the alpha takes more of his own weight. His color is mostly returned, and what Stiles guessed on the first day has now been proven true: the man in full form is elegant. He’s all flexing muscle and spruce eyes and prickly dark scruff that Stiles never wants to see shaved.

It’s on their Wednesday walk that Ash comments on the wreath being back on Stiles’s neck. “It covers your scent,” Ash says with an arched nostril.

“Yes,” Stiles agrees patiently.

“You’ve never covered it before.”

“I have a reason to.” Stiles’s heat is due in three days.

“Reason… I see.” Ash’s next step falters as he takes in Stiles’s meaning. “You’ll be sequestering yourself?”

“No,” Stiles grimaces. “This time it’s to be Lord Grey’s trial. He’ll be riding in tomorrow.”

“Lord Grey of Formican?” Ash’s tone is too neutral. His grip on Stiles’s shoulder tightens.

Stiles wants to lean into the squeeze. His thoughts whisper: if I didn’t think it would reopen your wound, this trial would be yours.

But he reminds himself he knows nothing of Ash’s past, not even his name. All he knows is that the wounded soldier at his side is the bane of the Argents. That label by itself is a reason to stay the fuck away. Instead Stiles reassures, “I believe nothing will come of it. He’s terribly boring. I like physics, but the man seems to think math equations are the only topic of conversation. Then again, Formican is our greatest trading partner so… it would be strategic. And I have to think of my kingdom.”

When he raises his gaze, Ash is staring at him. “It is noble that you put yourself after your kingdom. As an omega prince, you are not bound to. Whoever you chose as a mate would be legal under the law.”

Stiles's heart stutters. Is Ash asking…?

But then the man’s gaze drops. “I will have to hide myself during his visit. The man knows my face.”

That confession peaks Stiles’s curiosity, but then he considers that Formican was the major arms supplier to the Hales during the war. “Of course,” Stiles agrees.

.Present.

The red carpet is unrolled. Stiles takes his steps in two-counts. He looks over the balcony to see a whole lot of alphas. There is a trumpet in his ear as they announce him. His ear drums are still buzzing while his father reads down the scroll, greeting each suitor in turn. Stiles really can’t say that a single alpha stands out to him, except that as a collective, they all smell pretty damn good.

“Stupid heats,” Stiles mutters to himself. His father is formally welcoming Greenberg.

Ugh, Greenberg.

Stepping up beside him, Lydia says through gritted teeth, “Smile.”

Stiles plasters a ridiculous grin on his face. But then his father is at the final few inches of the scroll when two new figures stride into the room. Both wear dark hoods emblazoned with white triskalions.

Stiles has only just remembered which house has the triskalion as its mark—Hale, holy mercy—when the first of the newcomers pulls her hood back to reveal dark hair and an elegant neck with a plump, proud mouth. She looks barely twenty, but Stiles is absolutely intrigued: she’s gorgeous.

The girl hands her card to the Lord Deputy who then brings it to Stiles’s dad. His dad reads with a genuine smile. “Ah, Princess Coralline of Hale. I remember you as Cora when you were very young.”

“I still go by that name to my friends. I would be honored if you chose to use it.” She bows lower than protocol. Her tone is deeply serious and sincere.

“Cora, you’re very welcome in my land.” He nods his head in her direction. “Along with your companion of course.”

Stiles, like the rest of the room, is all interest, but he’s still unprepared when the tall figure behind Cora drops his hood. The smell—Stiles’s nostrils flare. His skin goes from itching to burning. Once familiar eyes meet Stiles’s and for the first time all evening, Stiles lowers his gaze. His balance teeters as he grabs Lydia’s arm for support.

Cora’s voice is a distant echo as she says, “Yes, Your Majesty, may I present my older brother: Prince Derek of Hale.”

.Past.

As Stiles predicted, his trial with Lord Grey of Formican fails to result in a proper mating. (Stiles is unabashedly grateful for the outcome.) “Can you believe that he wasn't remotely put out by my lack of reception?” Stiles says to Lydia. “He actually suggested that more trials were required before a scientifically valid result could be concluded.”

“I do believe you, unfortunately.” Lydia puts down her mortar and pestle to shudder prettily.

“And by the way, where is Ash?” He wasn't in the cottage when Stiles had returned.

Lydia’s expression falls. “He’s been spending time out in the woods. The moment you left he went into a giant sulk. He’s also been taking walks on his own, out to the cliff side. I tracked him down yesterday, and the stubborn bastard wouldn't let me check his wound. If he gets gangrene, it’s his own damn fault. These herbs are for him—if he’ll take them.”

“I’ll handle it,” Stiles says.

He finds Ash exactly where Lydia said he would: on the cliff’s edge looking down over the empty river valley. This time of the morning, the view is too stark to be lovely. The sky is white-grey. The river is the shade of dung. The opposite cliffs are bald clay.

As Stiles sits down beside Ash, the man says, “You stink.”

Meanwhile, all Stiles can think is that the man smells heavenly. “Lie back. Sitting like this can’t be good for your wound.”

“It’s fine.”

“Lie back or I’ll think you’re mad at me for my heat. Or worse, jealous.”

Ash’s eyes trace the river to its final twist in the cliffs, and then as if a decision is settled upon, Ash’s chin arches up, proud. He leans back on his elbows and gives Stiles a look that is pure alpha challenge.

It should not be as attractive as it is.

Trying not to be overly distracted by this, Stiles undoes the bandages with care and is relieved to see no signs of infection. “You’re such an idiot,” Stiles whispers under his breath as he cleans the area and applies the new poultice.

“How was the Lord Grey?” Ash bites out—only to wince. “I didn't mean to say that. Not like that. I apologize.”

Ash’s eyes are squeezed so tight that Stiles fears the popping of his eyeballs. “It’s okay. You’re injured.”

Ash chuckles hoarsely. “It’s not what you think.”

Stiles is finishing wrapping the bandage about Ash’s torso when he finally realizes what he’s smelling, what Ash is saying. “Lord Boyd said your heat was a month out—” Before Ash can answer, Stiles is nodding. “But your injury messed with your balance so...”

Ash’s face is flushed. “You should leave me.”

This earns the man an eye roll. “It’s not like I haven’t been around alphas in heats before. They are not like omega heats, after all. Comparatively mild, you know? Like, I want to sniff your skin or whatever but I’m not losing my mind. Besides, you're my friend.”

“Your friend.”

Stiles hears the disappointment. (And yes, he likes it.) “I mean that you would never hurt me.”

Ash’s eyes flash to his. The man's jaw works. “No.”

Stiles ducks his gaze, unable to suppress the corkscrewing sensation that has taken over his spine. “Attending to your heat would accelerate your healing, actually.”

Ash shakes his head. “No thank you. You’re not going to force me on some beta.”

He doesn't have a clue. Stiles is going to have to be bold. Taking a breath, he lets his eyes float down to Ash’s lap. The soldier's breeches are loose but there’s no way to completely hide the log-shape that parallels the thigh. Stiles’s hand reaches out and he grips. He says, “No one is forcing anyone.”

Ash’s mouth is hanging open. His lips are pink and his beard is a mess and he’s looking at Stiles like he’s a hallucination again. “Stiles.”

Stiles squeezes with purpose. “I want to.”

“This is not…” Ash’s eyelashes flutter. “You don’t want to.”

“Say you want me to. Please. Unless it’s just the heat—if it’s just the heat then—”

“It’s not the heat.” Ash’s voice is stone.

Stiles doesn't wait another second. He straddles the man. His fingers fumble with the laces. He tries to be careful as he rips, pulls at the strings.

“We shouldn't—we’re out in the open. Anyone could see,” Ash is saying the words in a mutter that cuts off when Stiles finally seizes his cock in his hand, fingers sticky against the hot muscle. He can feel Ash’s pulse pumping as the blood flows fast, hardening and stretching the skin to thinness.

Stiles has never done this outside of heat. For an omega, it’s considered improper. For a prince, it’s the apex of indecency, but then when has Stiles not been a piss poor prince? When has he not been a travesty of an omega? Thus, it is with a smile on his face that he sucks Ash into his mouth.

Ash jerks, and Stiles is immediately popping off of him. “Watch your torso, you dolt.”

Ash grits his teeth even as he smiles. “Put those red lips back where they belong.” Ash’s tone is all easy command and relaxed tease and so stupidly confident and alpha.

Stiles dives back toward the prize. And well, he can’t fit it all but he does his best, using his hand to pump the remaining length. While his cheeks begin to tire almost at once and the sun lures sweat from his back, Stiles gives himself completely over to the effort. He urges his movement to the chorus of Ash’s soft-high sounds. He makes his own delighted, slurped moans as he sucks and pumps.

What he’s not expecting is his own fog. Ash’s smell is sizzling in his brain, and when the knot begins to swell, lapping against his tongue—Stiles is not ready for the contraction of his own pelvis. Followed by the hungry, seeping sensation.

It makes it so that Stiles goes a little crazy. As Ash unleashes a final hard groan, Stiles latches on, sucking with all his might and then his mouth is a puddle of gummy white but Stiles is licking at it, swallowing like he needs it.

It’s only as Stiles collapses backward with gasp and smile that he realizes what has happened.

He opened. The bone shifted, opening the canal. He is dead certain. And it isn’t even his heat. There wasn’t even penetration. But he opened.

For a moment, Stiles is terrified.

Ash senses this. “I’m sorry—” he begins.

Stiles cuts him off with a wet and desperate kiss. Then he whispers in Ash’s ear, “I wish my heat had been with you.”

But Ash leans away. “You don’t want that. If you knew it all, you wouldn't.”

.Present.

The moment formal introductions are finished. Lydia announces “a break,” and then she drags Stiles into the nearest drawing room so he can properly hyperventilate. Unsurprisingly, he pukes into the bag she gives him. This close to another of his horrible heats, it’s not surprising.

Luckily Scott shows up with a cup of something strong and vaguely smelling of mead. “Um, he’s really not handling this well. But I thought things were looking up, though, at the end. It’s good the Hales came, right? Cora’s like…” Scott squints an eye, “not Allison beautiful… but still pretty damn fair.”

Pointedly ignoring Scott, Lydia says, “So Ash is Prince Derek fucking Hale.” She looks as pissed as he feels miserable. “Well, that explains a whole lot.”

“Wait—Ash? Like that guy from the old belfry who…” Scott trails off under Lydia’s glare. “Oh, so Derek is the one who beheaded Allison's mom. No wonder she got all stiff. Kind of awkward…”

Stiles manages to find his voice. “He didn’t put his name down. Only Cora did.”

Lydia’s mouth turns up as she processes this. “Give me twenty, no, thirty minutes.” She stomps from the room.

.Past.

When they’re back in the cottage, night might have settled but Stiles has not. The fingers of Ash’s right hand creep up his ribs like they’re spiral stairs while a digit on his left hand pushes and circles in Stiles’s opening. “You are perfectly insane,” Ash growls in Stiles’s ear, and Stiles loves it.

“Don’t stop,” Stiles says, before considering, “wait—do.”

“What are you doing now?” Ash demands as Stiles sits up.

The sheets are tangled about his ankles and he has to kick them away. Throwing a leg over Ash’s naked lap, he asks, “May I?”

Ash lets out another one of those choked noises (that Stiles has decided belong solely to him), but he manages to say, “I don’t understand this.”

“Understand what?”

“You could have anyone.”

It’s Stiles turn to choke on air. “But I want you.”

Ash reaches up to trace his lips, and when his finger reaches the bottom of the curve, he plucks it like a guitar string which causes Stiles to chase it with a kiss. “My last mate died,” he says.

Stiles doesn't know what to say to that. Somehow, with the tragedy that marks Ash’s bearing, it makes sense. “I’m so sorry.”

Ash shakes his head. “You’re not her.” He says it almost like he’s trying to convince himself. “You’re not her. You’re Stiles.” And then he’s nodding. He picks up Stiles’s hand and kisses each one of the fingers, and then flips his wrist to mouth at the beat of his pulse.

Stiles leans forward. He’s about to pull back his leg to roll back onto Ash’s side but the man grabs his hips and says, “I do want you.”

Breathless with relief, Stiles pushes up on his knees. He holds Ash’s cock perpendicular in his fist and sinks slowly, the pain reminding him he just finished his own damn heat. But this doesn't feel like anything before. Stiles’s whole body is singing. Like before on the cliff, there’s the onset of euphoria and it is the thing when Ash slides right past his sore spot and deep and dark and in.

Stiles is moving up and down. He’s thrusting and blooming wide open with pleasure and trying not to be too rough when he hears Ash’s hoarse question: “You opened, didn't you?”

Stiles isn't sure if he’s smiling or nodding or laughing but somehow he manages to bark out a breathy, “Yessssss.

But then Ash is yanking at him. Suddenly Stiles is empty and wedged along Ash’s good side and that’s when he sees the silver trails on his cheeks. Arms grip him hard, fingers splay on his back, and deep in a whisper, Ash says, “No. I'm—I’m not ready.”

“It’s okay,” Stiles reassures him. “It’s so okay. There’s no rush. Rushing is stupid. We can do other things.”

Ash’s answering kiss is so careful that Stiles thinks it’s a prayer.

.Present.

Stiles has to go down to the dining room. “We wouldn't want people to talk,” he says when Scott protests.

“That is the most un-Stilesy thing I have ever heard you say.”

Stiles shrugs, and squaring his shoulders, marches toward the west dining room where the alphas are gathered and waiting. As he walks, he tries to sort out what he knows about Prince Derek Hale versus what he knew about the man he called Ash.

Some things immediately make sense. Stiles knows that Prince Derek Hale agreed to mate with Duchess Kate of Argent as part of the negotiations for the ceasefire. At the time, it was seen as the best way to ensure peace. However, no one had thought it would work. It was thought that Lady Kate would be unable to receive the Prince during her heat. It was likely that the prince even believed such a thing when he agreed to the measure. But the mating had been successful.

The troops had been ordered to stand down as the Hales had invited the Argents to their ancestral castle in celebration of the new bond. Only, the Argents had arrived in white but left painted with red. It was said that Lady Kate was the one to slit Queen Talia’s throat on the altar of blessing. And that when the Prince was unable to stop his own mate, he took his vengeance out on the Argent’s queen.

Needless to say, that Ash—Derek—wasn't up for hopping right into another bond, well, Stiles understands that. He even understood that back then. What he doesn't understand is five years.

Stiles could have been with him. He could have shared his pain. They were meant to be partners.

Fingers flexed like fork tines, Stiles realizes how angry he is. Because Derek finally shows up—now—when Stiles is on edge of psychotic from heat fever and has spent years going through heats with alphas for which he cared nothing and nothing and nothing because he might have secretly been hoping that the one dumb bastard he really loved would get his head out of his ass and claim him. But Stiles never got so much as a note in a bottle or a card at Yule. He never even got Ash’s true name. Then with no explanation, the utter fuckwad shows up at Stiles’s Reception and doesn't even put his name down.

Stiles isn't just angry. He’s furious.

Derek has no idea what he’s done. He thinks Stiles is some tepid, long-suffering omega. Stiles is no such thing. Stiles marches into the dining room, dripping charm and blushing smiles. He heads straight for Cora. He can feel the whole room staring at him. He can feel Derek staring at him.

“Am I the first to be greeted?” she asks with delight. “How lucky.”

“Better yet, how would you like to be first on the list?” That’s right, Stiles fumes, your sister will be the first to fuck me.

Except it might be a bit overboard. Cora’s whole expression plummets like a river stone. Then she laughs: a big, honest laugh that makes Stiles instantly like her. “Well, I shouldn't be surprised,” she says. “Derek did say you had some serious pluck.”

.Past.

The next three days are sneaked kisses, silent hand jobs in the morning glow. Stiles squeezes his thighs tight while Ash thrusts between.

Lydia makes herself scarce, not even commenting on how Stiles is spending significantly less time in the hospital. All she says is, “So Ash is healing nicely. All that stretching… definitely helping.”

Stiles considers throwing a potato at her but settles for crossing his arms and sort of pouting. Except that the smiles replaces it in an instant. It’s hard to be anything but happy these days. Because Stiles has found his mate: his scarred up, broody, absolutely gorgeous mate.

Lydia pulls out the chair to sit down across from him. “We've new patients in tomorrow. The messenger just arrived.”

This news causes Stiles to jerk to attention. “Another battle?”

“Just across the river.”

“But who’s leading the Hales? A loyal general?”

“No, hear this. Laura Hale has resurfaced, alive and righteous. The kingdom has a new queen.”

Ceramic shatters in the adjoining room.

“Is Ash still falling over?” Lydia asks with a raised brow. Her tone says this is Stiles’s fault.

Stiles goes into the other room to find Ash on his knees staring at the broken clay bowl. His finger is cut and dripping blood. Stiles grabs cloth to bind it. “You heard what Lydia said?” he asks carefully.

“It’s true?” Ash’s tone is desperate.

Stiles grabs his hand to hold the finger steady. The cut is shallow, though being on the center of the finger pad, it must pain. Stiles nods as he says, “We tend to get good intelligence here. My father insists I be forewarned if danger draws near.”

“Direct from the scouts then.” Ash’s nod comes with a calculated tone. It’s like he doesn't feel the cut at all. As soon as Stiles ties off the ends of the bandage. Ash stands, walking east then west in the room. “I need to go for a walk.”

“Okay….”

They go for a walk along the cliffs. Ash searches the valley like he expects to see marching troops. When they come back, Ash attempts to do push ups until Stiles throws a raving fit.

“Cracked rib! Punctured innards. You cannot go back to being a dragon slayer in a day!”

What he doesn't realize is that Ash is preparing to leave.

.Present.

Stiles is half-thinking Cora is a traitor of a sister. Because, for every flirtation with which Stiles has pressed her, she has responded back two-fold.

“You have such piercing eyes,” he says. “Almost cat-like: the blue, the green, the gold. It’s bedazzling.”

She leans in. “And yours, Sire, are like honey, so sweet I long to taste them.”

“With a tongue, I hope. Not a spoon.”

“I would spoon you like cream if I could.”

Stiles coughs to cover his laugh. “Speaking of being cat-like…”

“Well, you make me want to purr,” she teases, a laugh in her voice.

It’s absurd and ridiculous, especially given Cora’s statement about Derek saying he was “plucky.” So Stiles leans in, like he’s about to share a secret and says, “Please tell me we’re trying to make your brother frog green with jealousy and that you’re not normally such a tart with omegas.”

Cora laughs at that and then she leans into whisper, “You know we only really knew when the invitation arrived. He lit his on fire. I barely saved mine from joining it. Laura had to threaten Boyd with an administrative posting in Formican so that he would confess. That was how we knew, you know. He never said it was you. The damn prince of Beacon. That our Derek would fall upon such a match.”

Stiles pulls back, eyes dead set on the heavy chandelier. “But he didn't put in his name.”

Cora looks like she’s about to answer when Duke Deucalion’s hand claps Stiles’s shoulder and he says, “Are you being hogged, Stiles?”

“No such thing,” Stiles objects, but then he’s being pulled away from Cora, pushed toward other alphas. It’s an hour later when on the other side of the room, Stiles looks up and meets Derek’s eyes.

Heartbreak is what he finds. Deep heartbreak.

Yet it’s never before been directed at him.

Stiles silently asks, Then why don’t you come here? Why don’t you ask me?

Derek answers by taking his leave. Again.

.Past.

Stiles awakens to a mountain breeze and the soft push of lips beckoning him to consciousness. “What?” Stiles asks. He’s still warm with dream dust and the happiness of a night cosseted against his lover. It takes a few seconds before the meaning of Ash’s words dawn upon him.

He said, “My sister is here. I have to leave.”

“Wait.” Stiles shoots up, rubbing the stick out of his eyes. “Can I meet her?”

“Secrecy,” Ash says.

“For your sister?” The lack of trust stings.

“I love you.” Ash’s words are clear but the tone is so broken. Stiles traces the slope of his nose and the cave of his jaw, and yet his affections only seem to make Ash more stricken.

“You say that,” Stiles manages, “like it’s goodbye.”

Ash doesn't answer. Instead, Stiles gets a kiss, the sort that suckles out your soul, the kind that leaves you wide open in a way that can never be completely closed again. It translates so easily: yes, I’m leaving. No, you can’t stop me.

Stiles grabs the front of his shirt.“If you die on some fucking battlefield, I will never forgive you. I’ll find your corpse and curse it myself. Then I’ll… poop on it.”

He only gets another kiss.

Ash’s eyes are strained with pink as the man leans down to say, “I’ll come back when I’m not just smoke.”

To which Stiles grumbles, “Or just tell me your fucking name.”

Ash jerks away. Then he marches to the door. He pauses but then he pushes through.

Outside Stiles hears the whinny of horses and the clattering of shoed hooves. He throws open his window to see Ash giving himself into the arms of a woman in a black, hooded coat. The only mark that Stiles can see is the Hale triskelion. Boyd is at the woman’s side.

Stiles wants to run out and yell, “Stop.” He wants to scream, “He’s mine!” But when Ash pulls back from his sister, his face is an answer on its own. Stiles has never seen such happiness on the man he claims to love. Such blind relief. Such laughing joy.

Stiles closes the window’s shutters and collapses into Ash’s pillow, chasing the scent that’s already diminishing.

He lets Ash go.

.Present.

Stiles talks to them all. He discovers their hobbies: Kali likes to gallop horses. Ennis likes gladiator reenactments. Allison likes books and archery. Deucalion likes sex and more sex. Cora likes hiking and swimming. Ethan likes hanging out with his brother. Sir Daniel, in a polished way, says he enjoys haberdashery and sport. When they get to Isaac, the cavernous cheeked man says he likes “helping,” and well, Stiles almost wants to mate him to save the poor alpha from his family.

Politically, Stiles’s best choice is a second. If he marries a direct heir or ruler, like Kali or Allison (not that Princess-Elect Allison is looking anywhere but at Scott), it would mean shared kingdoms. Beacon could be ignored or worse, absorbed. That Derek is a second son and therefore a perfect fit is yet another sore point.

Regardless, putting aside the morning’s hysteria, the day goes smoothly. At the end of it, Lydia meets him in his room and she has parchment and a quill ready. “By the morning, you’ll need an aconite wreath,” she says, scenting his room. “You already smell like candy.”

Stiles can feel the building delirium. It makes him both impotent and angry. “I already know the order.” He reaches for the quill.

“So…. we aren’t going to talk about Derek?”

“I know you talked to him.” Stiles doesn't meet her eyes as he begins to write: 1. Cora Hale. 2. Isaac Lahey. 3. Daniel of Hillsouth …

“You have a partial bond to him. You realize that’s why this is happening.”

“He never knotted me. Not once,” Stiles snaps.

“An omega’s reception of a knot is not merely physical, Stiles. It’s about two souls connecting and your bodies recognizing it. It’s not just you. Derek has a bond to you too. It was during his heat.”

Stiles writes 4. Ethan 5. Morrell (even though she’s old.) Part of Stiles’s anger is that he hears Lydia’s sympathy toward Derek alongside her anger toward Stiles’s. Likely, because Stiles never told her. He tells her everything else but not this. Derek, though…. “He told you.”

“You should at least talk to him.”

Stiles writes down 6. Deucalion — because he hates himself right now. “He said he would come and find me. He never did.”

“He’s here now.”

“Lydia.” His quill streaks. The blot spreads to blacken out the names.

“The Hale-Argent peace is less than a year old. Stiles, I’m not sure he had his footing until now. Besides, think about if you had mated him. He isn't just an aristocrat. He is the general who killed the Argent's queen. Beacon's neutrality would have been compromised.”

Stiles's brain is throbbing. That Lydia's argument holds reason only serves to make the pain worse, not better. “He didn't put his name on the list.” Stiles crumples the paper into a wad.

Lydia arches a brow. “The question is: why does he need to?”

Stiles wants to scream. He doesn't. Instead he sucks in his cheeks and grinds out, “Because I don’t have a damn clue what’s going on his head. At the very least a little, ‘I don’t hate you—I might even still like you’ would be nice.”

“Stiles…” Lydia’s face is pitying—and Stiles hates the very look of it.

“Stop.”

It’s better when her eyes brighten with command. “He’s in the north wing. Third floor in the room adjacent to the chapel stair.”

.Past.

Stiles remembers the heat after Ash. He sequestered himself for the first time since he was a teenager.

How the tremors burned. How his mind warped.

He came to with splinters from his bedpost in his forearms. A pillow was torn to feathers. Stiles's finger was dripping red dots. He watched them fall one by one. Distantly, he felt the pain but couldn't bring himself to care.

Like Ash, he thought.

.Present.

Lydia is evil and she knows this close to his heat, Stiles turns into an insomniac.

On this night, he can’t let it go: Derek is a five minute walk through the castle.

Therefore, it’s when Venus fills his window that he surrenders to the night’s blandishments. He toes on his slippers and adorns himself with the ceremonial wreath. The cloak he wraps about himself is too thin to keep the drafts at bay as he navigates the castle’s frigid corridors.

The door to Derek’s room seems a heavy, impenetrable barrier. Stiles considers knocking, before telling himself he should go straight back to bed.

It’s at the stairs that he curses himself a coward. He stomp-marches to Derek’s door and pushes on the latch.

It’s not locked. It opens with a click.

Stiles steals into the room.

Derek is not in his bed. No movement stirs within the canopy. No, he’s by the crackling hearth, sitting in a high backed chair. He’s looking right at Stiles. There’s nothing specific in the gaze that Stiles can identify. There’s no sweetness, no open hint of desire. If anything, Stiles would say the gaze is so old, so apologetic, and it makes Stiles realize that while some things have changed—others have not: Derek, the idiot, still thinks he’s broken.

Stiles crosses the room until he’s padding across the fire-richened mahogany rug. Kneeling at Derek’s feet, he leans into him, pressing his nose to his fabric-covered knee. The smell, so familiar, is sinister in its swell of nostalgia. For a moment, there is naught but the fire’s spitting and the shudder of the baking logs. Stiles can't stand the silence.

"So your name is Derek," he says, trying not to sound bitter or worse, desperate. "Pleased to make your acquaintance."

He doesn't know what he's expecting in response, but Stiles can't help his gasp when the hand slips into his hair. The touch is feathered, careful. Fingernails softly scratch and thumbs come down to rub at his temples.

Stiles responds by pressing into the touch. He lets himself finally breathe, taking giant, rib pressed lungfuls. When Derek’s hand cups his jaw, Stiles licks into the lines on the palm. He bites at the muscles of Derek’s thumb, and then Derek is out of the chair, he’s kneeling down before Stiles and he says, “I’m so sorry.”

Stiles kisses him, gracelessly slow, plus, a touch pissed-off before he says, “You should be. Took you long enough.” He adds, “Asshole.”

“Forgive me.”

Stiles has imagined this moment a hundred times. In some of his imaginings, the tirade is skin-searing. In others it is a puddle of tears. But Stiles doesn't want to focus on the past, on the in-between, or the uncertainties of now. He looks into Derek's eyes, and seeing what he wants, Stiles says, “Yes.”

Derek, in response, rips the wreath from Stiles’s neck. He rends it in two and slams it into the fire. A cloud of smoke and sparks erupt as the aconite kindles.

“My heat is close…” Stiles says, but it’s like Derek doesn't hear him. Derek buries his face into the crook of his clavicle and gasps humid gusts into his skin. It’s enough for Stiles to dig his fingers into his back, press in his nails. He thinks, this time, maybe, I won't have to let you go.

“I’m taking you to bed,” Derek says, and he stands, taking Stiles’s hand in his.

Stiles doesn't let himself be pulled. “A little presumptuous.”

“It’s nicer than the floor.”

Stiles detects the awful signs of teasing. He’s not ready for it. “You can’t not be there when I wake up. I can’t handle that. In terms of my chances of avoiding the asylum, waking up alone would be a big odds diminisher.”

Derek nods solemnly before pulling Stiles once again. Stiles forces his feet to move in step toward the bed. The sheets are cold compared to the fireside rug but no sooner does the quilt cover them than Derek pulls Stiles tight to his chest. “Sleep,” Derek says. “I’ll be here in the morning.”

“So close to my heat, I’m a disaster at sleeping.”

Derek kisses his shoulder. “I promise. I’m not just smoke anymore.”

.Present again.

Stiles wakes up to a molten tongue and fingers that are twisting his robe in tighter and fatter coils against his hips.

Instinct has Stiles widening his legs but it’s memory that causes the hiccup in the back of his throat. “Derek,” he says as the man attacks his throat.

All weight and shadow above him, Derek growls.

Stiles can’t help the way the sound affects him. He can’t help the way he wiggles his hips and clamors for freedom from the sheets. He thrusts, legs clenching. And when Derek is too strong to be budged, Stiles flat out whines. “Derek.”

Pinning Stiles's hands, Derek paints a stripe with his tongue. He starts at Stiles’s throat, encircles his naval, takes a short detour up his cock and then finally fucking gets where Stiles needs him to be. It’s while he’s there, tongue deep in Stiles’s opening that the first contraction hits and Stiles brain dissolves as he realizes that he’s already ready.

Derek realizes too because there’s that lusty choke and Stiles is being shoved back. Derek uses one hand to spread him and the other to guide himself in.

Stiles doesn't believe this is happening. His vision blurs and pops with color. Derek's smell floods his brain and Stiles's teeth sink hard into his mate's shoulder.

When Derek is in, when he is moving, Stiles moors himself to Derek’s chest and doesn't let go.

Derek kisses his neck and whispers his name over and over.

The rocking changes to hard jerks of hips and Stiles wants to weep at the sudden pressure that wells in his abdomen. It’s only as Derek trembles and collapses that Stiles feels the swell rise in him. He clutches hard as he spills.

It’s once they’re cooled and Stiles thinks they might be able to separate that Derek says, “No, stay.”

They start right where they left off.

.Future.

On the cobbled streets in Beacon, the townspeople argue. Most claim it’s a tale of legendary love. After all, their prince, now full of child, nearly lost his mate to that awful war. The pro-Argent supporters claim it was outright subterfuge, but no one really believes them. Not with Princess Allison only having recently mated Lord Scott. Quite a few young omegas are disappointed that the Reception was so abruptly cancelled. The alphas in pubs are still sore over having spectacularly lost their bets.

In the castle’s keep, Derek is joined by his visiting sisters. They fawn over his mate and lovingly chide their brother for being an idiot. Hot in the stone hearth, the fire brightly burns.