"If you're another knight here to rescue me, thanks but no thanks." Stiles folded his arms and leaned against the doorframe, trying to look casual and threatening at once. "I'm busy. Dinner's in three hours, and the sink just busted."
Stiles had thought that running off to live with the dragons would be easy, but ever since word had gotten around, a steady parade of knights, princes, and miscellaneous heroes had been showing up at his doorstep to fight 'the accursed wyrm' and win his hand. Stiles tried to explain to them that Lydia was only a little accursed before her morning coffee, his father had reluctantly given Stiles his blessing to stay, and there was a pile of unread books waiting for him in the massive library that he had taken over since his appointment as librarian.
Some knights needed to be yelled at or threatened before they went away. Stiles had been forced to challenge one particularly persistent prince to a duel before sending him off bewildered, bruised, and halfway to tears. People forgot that Stiles's dad had once been the old king's captain of the guard.
Allison even dropped by once as a formality because Argent knights had their code to protect and serve, but she was already in love with Stiles's best friend Scott, and she had figured out pretty soon that Stiles didn't want to be rescued. Stiles had given her an entire dragon-sized berry pie to take home and some letters for his dad about eating more salad.
"Well?" Stiles prompted. "What's it going to be? Will you go quietly, or do I have to fight you?"
To his credit, the knight seemed to give the threat serious consideration. "I'm good with sinks," he said.
"If you wanted me to take a look." The knight's expression was neutral under his handsome stubble, but he wasn't the first one to try and get in the door through docile cooperation.
Stiles decided to give the guy the benefit of a doubt for not showing up swords drawn and guns blazing. The knight even took off his muddy boots at the door without being asked. "What's your name?"
"Derek," the knight said. He wrinkled his nose at the steaming green pool of brackish water in the sink. "What the hell happened here?"
"Tried out an old grease-fighting spell I found in the library spellbooks," Stiles said. "I think I used too much mermaid breath. Aren't you supposed to be nice to me?"
"You probably screwed up your grease trap," Derek grumbled. He stripped out of his leather gloves and jacket and hello, the afternoon was already looking up. Stiles was almost sorry at the prospect of kicking him out.
Stiles tore his eyes away from Derek's broad shoulders and occupied himself with putting on the kettle and throwing together some sandwiches from leftovers in the icebox. By the time he pulled the last gallon of cherries jubilee off the stove, the noxious stagnant potion had drained away, and the air had stopped smelling like shoe polish. Derek looked halfway pleased, and Stiles despised him a little.
"You might as well eat," he said grudgingly and didn't stare at the way Derek's shirt was veined with sweat.
Derek demolished three sandwiches while smelling like green goo and shoe polish, putting Stiles's own ironclad stomach to shame. He didn't talk much, not that Stiles wanted to hear what he had to say. Derek was still an unwelcome visitor that intended to slay Lydia and drag Stiles away, even if Derek seemed content at the present to eat Lydia out of house and home instead of beheading her with a sword.
But Derek didn't have a sword or a shield or any weapons at all. His clothes bore no insignia, and he'd given Stiles his first name without rank, kingdom or family, which was unusual for someone hoping to impress and carry away a prince. (One duchess had showed up with a herald and trumpeter, and Stiles and Lydia still went into fits of laughter over the incident, Lydia snorting out little orange flames and almost singeing Stiles's hair.)
"So, Derek. what's your story?" he asked and poured him another cup of tea. Derek's jacket was hanging on the back of Stiles's chair, and he leaned back to furtively hunt through the pockets.
"I could ask you the same thing," Derek said. "You're almost too much trouble to bother rescuing."
"Watch it, buddy," Stiles said cheerfully. "You're talking to the Chief Cook and Librarian to the King of the Dragons."
Derek could definitely be the carrying away type, he decided as he studied the smooth lines of muscle underneath the sleeves of his shirt. Not that Stiles was the kind to let himself be carried. He was too tall, he had a mean punch and sharp knees. The twenty-fourth knight had found that out quickly and painfully.
"I know Lydia's a female dragon," Stiles continued by rote, because he had to explain this to everyone, "But—"
"Queen of the Dragons is a boring job, and any dragon can be king regardless of gender," Derek finished for him, a little smile flickering at his eyes.
Stiles felt his mouth drop open. "Yeah," he said. "How did you—"
His ears pricked up to the sounds of a gate closing and then heavy clawed footsteps coming up the path. Stiles snatched the half-eaten sandwich from Derek's hand and put it down. "Listen to me," he hissed. "Act casual, be polite. If you even try to attack Lydia, I'll knock you out. If she doesn't flambé you first."
That was an exaggeration. Lydia had yet to roast anybody alive, at least to Stiles's knowledge, but Stiles knew the value of playing on people's misinformed fears of burnished claws and hot relentless dragonflame.
And then there was the ordinary fear of being bludgeoned with a blunt object. Derek followed Stiles's fingers to where they drummed dangerously next to the handle of a particularly heavy iron skillet. "Fair enough," Derek conceded.
The door opened. Lydia was an impressive sight as she loomed into the kitchen. Her vermillion scales were keen and bright as blood, and her yellow slanted pupils reflected an eon of terrifying intelligence. Even folded up, her powerful wings draped at her sides like a regal cape. She looked every inch like a king.
Lydia's nostrils flared pleasantly when she first caught a whiff of the cherries jubilee, and then her eyes fell upon Derek. "Stiles," she rumbled. "I didn't know we were expecting company."
"Lydia, this is Derek. He's alright," Stiles said quickly. "He came by to…um, help fix the sink."
Lydia blew a few doubtful smoke rings around him but then settled next to the window with a bucket of strong coffee and a slice of cake as big as a cobblestone. Lydia had an incurable sweet tooth and was especially partial to cherries jubilee and chocolate mousse.
Stiles filled the silence with unnecessarily updates on the dinner, which dragons were attending, and his ideas on a new pocket-sized alternative to melting wizards. (You could only carry around so many buckets of soapy water before people stopped you to ask what you were about.)
But unlike Stiles, Lydia had a dragon's eternal patience and a dragon's instinct for shrewd diplomacy, so she waited till her second helping of cake before turning her giant snout to Derek. Stiles's voice died in his throat as Lydia sniffed long and deep. It would have unnerved anyone else, but Derek calmly held out his empty teacup to Stiles for a refill, his expression like stone. Stiles had the sudden memory of Lydia swallowing up a wizard and estimated that Derek would go down in two bites at most.
Lydia looked like she was entertaining similar thoughts. "You're a Hale," she said.
Stiles almost scalded Derek with hot tea. "He's a werewolf?"
That explained the lack of weapons and armor. Werewolves had preternatural healing ability, and their claws and teeth were said to be as strong as diamond. The Hale family was large and old and eccentric. They usually kept to themselves in their little isolated sylvan kingdom in the western territories and rarely welcomed foreign delegations seeking the hands of their eligible children, preferring to let them find their mates alone with some ineffable honing instinct that Scott had struggled to explain.
"I haven't seen Talia Hale in an age," Lydia continued. "Not since the moon festival when she named her alpha firstborn as her heir."
Derek nodded. "My mother," he said. "And my sister Laura. I'm Derek."
"Derek." Lydia's breath steamed over both of them. "What is it you want with Stiles?"
"I was curious," Derek replied.
"A curious wolf? Unusual indeed," Lydia mused. Her eye roved over them like a hot golden lathe. "My Stiles must be quite the curiosity to draw a Hale wolf out of his cloister." And then she smiled, showing all of her teeth. "Stay for dinner, Derek."
"I don't think—" Stiles started.
"Thank you, I will," Derek interrupted, and Stiles stomped on his foot underneath the table. Derek was an idiot to think a wolf could match wits with a dragon.
"A polite wolf, how very nice," Lydia cooed. Derek didn't rise to the bait. Lydia uncoiled to her full height and wound her way past their table, seemingly bored of him already. "More tea in the library please, Stiles," she said. "And cake with cherries jubilee."
"You can wait for dessert after dinner like everyone else," Stiles sniped back and then laughed as her teeth snapped close to his head. Lydia's tail flickered once, barely missing Derek's leg as she went. Stiles watched her blood-red scales glint and vanish into the darkness.
Stiles turned to meet Derek's eyes. "You're helping with dishes," he said and pushed the sponge into Derek's hands before he could say a word. Derek's silence and his forbidding eyebrows made him easy to boss around, and Stiles could still pretend he was an unexpected nuisance, good hospitality extended as an olive branch for Lydia's benefit.
My Stiles, Lydia had called him. Stiles forgot how jealous dragons were of their treasure. That's what he was to her, he realized with a start. Lydia prized him as dearly as her gold, a friend to cherish and hoard, and that sent warm waves of pride and contentment roiling through him.
Derek washed while Stiles dried. An endless stream of pots and pans and ladles. A place for everything, and everything in its place, Stiles thought with satisfaction as he sorted the plates and bowls. He suspected, with some alarm, that he was nesting much like dragons nested. Lydia's home was cozy for a dragon den with a hundred nooks and shelves, a treasure room for Stiles to explore and catalogue. It was a welcome change from growing up in a tolerably large drafty castle where unsupervised spoons and gloves and keys went missing all the time.
That kind of thing happened at Jennifer's cottage too, but witches' houses behaved under a different set of rules. Objects disappeared or turned up at will—silver thimbles in Stiles's teacup, pinches of feverfew in his pockets, a single button missing from his coat. Small baubles gained and lost. Jennifer's crepe pan followed him home so many times that she finally gave it to him on the promise that they would work out a bargain. Stiles wasn't sure he liked being in debt to a witch like Jennifer Blake, but she did enjoy his crepes and taught him how to make a fire repellant from the feverfew.
Stiles reached out for the next plate, but caught Derek's damp soapy hand instead. He tried to pull away, but Derek closed his grip.
Stiles looked up. The sink was empty, the cupboards were full, and Derek was staring at him with an intensity that Stiles couldn’t face. He looked down at their entwined hands instead. Let me go, he thought about saying, but he knew Derek would obey him, so he turned his hand and wiggled his fingers so they were wrapped around the meat of Derek's palm. Derek's fingers ticked the inside of his wrist.
"Your king doesn't like me very much." Derek's voice rumbled out an octave lower. His eyes were electric blue.
"Lydia doesn't like it when you lie to her," Stiles sniffed, unwilling to be intimidated. "Why are you really here?"
Derek raised Stiles's hand and breathed over the fine bones and veins running underneath the skin. A hint of fang glinted at the corner of Derek's mouth. "I meant what I said. I was curious."
Derek's eyebrow ridges were furrowed high and hooded around his temples, and his nose was blocky where it met his broad cheekbones like a mask. Like a helmet. Derek held the transformation, showing Stiles a glimpse of his true face.
Stiles didn't look away when he felt a single gossamer kiss pressed to his first knuckle.
The first attempt at breathing failed him. Stiles tried for another. He had a powerful urge to press his fingers along the bone plates of Derek's face, and he knew Derek would let him.
Stiles wasn't an idiot. He had read all the bestiary scrolls in the Argent library and stolen copies of fanciful werewolf romance novels that Kali insisted loudly didn't belong to her. Stiles recalled now with perfect clarity the interminable hours Scott had waxed poetic about how he had walked for days and days through the woods, following a path he couldn't explain or remember, till he'd found himself fifty miles east of his home on Argent acreage, and Allison had almost shot him through with an arrow.
Stiles was wrong. Wolves were more than a match for dragons. Lydia knew exactly why Derek was here, what he planned on stealing from her, and Derek had accepted her invitation to dinner, to stay here a little longer if it meant he could scrub out saucepans and unstick sinks in the rooms that Stiles moved through.
Stiles wanted to laugh. He had left home for a life less ordinary, less embroiled in unintelligible dynastic tradition and law, and now he was keeping house for the King of the Dragons and being courted by a werewolf who had pursued him in the thrall of an ineffable instinctive pull that drew him to Stiles like a lodestone pointing north. Derek was here because Stiles was here. Derek was here because Stiles was more than a match for him.
Derek's lips were hovering over Stiles's second knuckle for another kiss, but Stiles wouldn't give him the satisfaction, not yet. He pulled away and tucked his hands underneath the dishtowel, pretending to fold it and refold it as he stared unblinking into Derek's gently untransforming face.
Derek huffed out a breath—not by the hairs on my chinny chin chin, Stiles thought—and the smile he gave Derek was all cunning and calculated charm.
"Feel free to visit another time," he said. "If there's something else that needs fixing."
Derek smiled with his teeth, slow and speculative.
A week later
"How did you manage to break the one bottle with the vengeful jinn inside it?" Derek complained as they fled through Lydia's vault.
"Shut up and help me cast this spell," Stiles snapped at him and shoved a book into his face.