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an exaltation of larks

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When Derek first sees the boy, he thinks of a fox. Not an insolent fox with its mouth open, eyes bright, laughing at him—although that happens later, when he’s already hopelessly gone on him—but a hunted one, ears back, low to the ground, breath high and desperate, almost a whimper. The boy is wearing green, crossing the stream further down the mountain. He carries nothing with him, is wearing only light clothing, too light for the snow on the ground, for the blizzards that come without warning. It’s already dark: below them, the lights from the village glow. It’s no night for a boy such as this to be away from his home. He’s a little injured, limping, holding one hand against his side. He’s also being followed by men on horseback: although they’re half a mile behind him, they’re gaining on him fast and he won’t be able to evade them for long once they’ve cleared the brow of the hill. When Derek first sees the boy, he wants to help him, and he has no real idea of why.

Derek stands up from his watchful crouch, letting the boy see him for the first time, and jerks his head towards his hut. The boy nods, lips pressed tightly together and starts to scramble up the slope, feet catching on tussocks, sending scree falling into the valley below. He has arms and legs that seem inconveniently long; he must be in the middle of a growth spurt, shedding the last of his cub fat. He moves with a spiderish sort of grace, and Derek thinks he is handsome, though there is precious little to compare him with, up here on the hillside at the tail end of winter. “My hut is over those rocks. Give me your shirt and go lie under the sheepskins by the door.”

The boy squints at him, head tilted to one side. “You have a peculiar seduction technique,” he says. “And no, I’ll freeze.”

Derek prays to the moon for at least a measure of patience. “You smell of omega. The fleeces are warm. Go!” Still, the boy doesn’t. He stands there, panting, his lips parted. There’s steel in him, and Derek would respect that at any other time, but not now, not when the hoofbeats are getting louder and louder and the hounds are baying for the scent. “Please, if you wish to live,” he says, and this time the boy takes off his shirt, thrusts it at Derek with a scowl, hands crossed over his chest. “Go,” Derek says softly, and this time, thank the fates, he does, dodging from side to side as he runs, just as the men clear the brow of the hill and Derek, fully shifted, starts to run with the shirt in his mouth. The hounds whine, and he’d grin if he could spare the teeth. He runs instead, staying out of sight, stretches his legs in a way he seldom does in lambing season.

They follow, led by the hounds. Their horses are starting to tire, and they are becoming more irritated with every mile he leads them. The boy must have given them quite a chase, and he can well believe that he would not have gone with them quietly had they caught him. Derek takes them a valley over, leads them into a cave and drops the shirt into one of the streams that goes underground to the river a few miles away, slips out of the cave through a narrow foxhole at the back. One of the hounds tries to follow, and he gives it a long look that sends it whimpering back to its master. He only shifts back when he is next to his pile of clothing, dresses quickly in the keen wind.

When he gets back to the hut, the boy has fallen asleep. Only his hair is visible from the pile of sheepskins, and he smells strongly of wool, overpoweringly so. Derek is used to it, but he is unsure of how impressed the well-born boy will be when he wakes up. Hefting the fleeces under one arm and the boy under the other, he ducks into the hut, sets the fleeces down by the fire and carries the boy to his cot. He doesn’t even stir, though his skin starts to pebble in the cold and he frowns, turns towards Derek. “You’re going to be trouble,” Derek murmurs, goes to the stove and stokes it, puts some more peat in. Maybe more trouble than he can afford.

The boy has blisters on his feet, soft shoes worn through. There’s a cut on his left calf that needs cleaning, and a large bruise on his ribs, although they aren’t cracked or broken. Mostly, he’s tired, so Derek cleans his wounds, bandages his feet and puts all of the quilts he has in the hut over the boy so that he will at least be warm. His hand lingers over the boy’s forehead, but he doesn’t touch him. He feels oddly guilty, as if that single touch would change something between them, for all that the boy’s asleep. He runs his hand through his hair, sighs. The boy has long lashes, softly parted lips. He is beautiful, in a way that makes Derek feel clumsy, too strong, too wild. He feels awkward in his own den, and the bleating in the caves nearby is more of a blessed relief than he’ll admit.

He leaves the boy sleeping in his cot, the stove glowing softly, and goes out to the lambing caves to check the ewes. He doesn’t need a lamp out there, as other shepherds do. He can see even the ewes in the backs of the pens where the cave dips lower, and even if he couldn’t see them, he can tell how they are by scent and sound alone. One is birthing now, and another will have lambed by morning. All the ewes are calm and quiet, and he runs a hand over their backs as he walks between the pens checking. The air is heavy with the warm animal smell of them, with the scent of the hay they’re eating. Two of the lambs make distressed bleats when he comes near them, but the ewes lick them, quiet them gently. He smells of predator to them, of danger. They’ll learn to trust him. His hand smells the most strongly of sheep, and he holds it to the lambs, lets them scent him then leaves them in peace.

The other ewes are fine, settled down for the night. The lambing ewe is on her side, in no distress, her lamb’s heartbeat steady and strong. She’s three years old, experienced. He sits in the straw a few yards away and watches as she shudders through her contractions, as the lamb’s forelegs, then head appear and the lamb slips out onto the straw, bleating in the quiet of the night as the ewe licks its face clean, warms it with her tongue as it tries to get up on shaking legs. It blindly seeks her milk, tail moving as it suckles for the first time, a strong, good lamb. “There’s a girl,” Derek murmurs, standing up. “Good lass.” The ewe ignores him completely.

He stays in the cave for the night, leaning against the side of one of the pens dozing, his mind drifting as the ewes and lambs sleep. The omega keeps returning to his thoughts. Derek could perhaps let him use the horse he stables at the inn in the village to get home, once he has rested. There is no possibility of the boy leaving tomorrow: there are dark shadows under his eyes and he is injured, though not badly. Derek could give him some more suitable clothing for the journey, pack him some food. Give him some coin to pay for food and a bed on the way. Yes, that is what he will do. He will help the boy in whatever way he can.

*

The boy is asleep when Derek returns to the hut, exhausted. At some point in the night he kicked off some of the quilts Derek put on him and he’s sprawled on the cot with one leg hanging off the side, face pressed into Derek’s pillow. He smells of an odd combination of sheep, Derek's cot and omega. It feels as if he belongs in this hut, sets off old instincts in Derek that he tries to ignore. Those old yearnings, dulled by age and time, feel keen and sharp when there's a boy in his bed that smells like everything good in the world. Derek takes the quilts that have fallen to the floor, lies down on the long bench on the other side of the hut. Grabs sleep while he can, lulled by the soft crackle of the fire, the sheep on the hillside and the slow, rhythmic breathing of the boy in his cot.

He’s still asleep when Derek wakes up. He’s not feverish, thank the fates. He’s sleeping deeply, face smooth, lips parted. The sweep of his eyelashes is enchanting. Derek could lose himself in the soft rhythms of his breath, his scent. He looks better, a light flush on his cheeks, the tension gone from his face.

The mountain pass is clear for now; he could find lodging in the village, stay there for the winter if he could go no further. The sea is a few days ride from here, and from there he could go to one of the outlying islands, a monastery if he was in need. Derek stokes the stove a little, starts a pot of tea brewing. The smoky smell of it begins to fill the hut, cutting through the boy’s scent. He could send the boy down with Isaac, the next time he comes up to the hut with supplies. Derek rubs absently at his knee as he waits for the tea to steep properly. There’ll be snow here before the end of the week. He can smell it in the air, feels it in his bones. This is no place for one as finely born as the boy, especially in the driving wind, the cold. Especially when food will be scarce, comfort scarcer.

As Derek sips at his tea, he looks out of the small window. The sky is a bright, bright blue, the snow melting a little on the ground. He can see tufts of grass and heather, little scraps of life under the snow. The bell is tolling in the village below, and if he listens, truly listens, he can hear the hum of conversation, takes comfort from it, from the lives lived in small ways, away from the wind and the snow, in hunkered down cottages and winding sidestreets. The sheep are quiet in the lambing cave, although they are starting to stir with the morning. One of the ewes, a yearling, is getting ready to birth, her heart leaping with every contraction. He drains the mug of tea, sets it down on the hearth. He leaves a mug of tea on the stool next to the cot, leaves the boy sleeping in his cot, leaves the hut, his shoulders hunched against the thin wind.

*

He forgets about the boy as he works. The yearling is quick to panic at every change to her body in labor, strains and pushes, her distressed bleats making all the sheep in the cave restive. He calms her with soft words, careful with his movements. She’s having twins, is already tired when the first lamb slips out, but she rouses herself, licks the lamb clean, lets it feed from her. She considers her work already done, puts little effort into pushing the second lamb out so he clambers into the pen, kneels next to her, side of his face pressed to her flank as he pulls, the scent of her strong in the still air. It’s still and limp when it does come out of her in a slippery rush; he has to tickle its nose with straw to draw out its first shuddering breath. He rests his head against her for another few moments, then wipes his hands on the straw, stands up and breathes deeply. They’ll be fine.

“Is it always like that?”

Derek turns slowly, doesn’t startle. The boy is standing at the mouth of the cave, backlit by the pale winter sun. He clears his throat, wipes his hands again on his shirt. “It’s her first time lambing, and she had twins. Usually, they know what to do, but the new mothers can need help.”

The boy nods, comes a few steps further in. He’s wearing one of the quilts from Derek’s cot, and is holding the mug of tea that Derek left for him. He’s barefooted, feet pale on the stone and dirt, snow melting on the tips of his toes. “Is she going to be alright?”

Derek looks over at her. She’s licking both lambs, alternating between the two of them as they push in closer to her. They’re already bonded, and his scent hasn’t disrupted that link, even with his intervention. “Aye. She’ll do well. Are you—are you well rested?” he asks, mouth feeling clumsy around the words. “And you—shoes?” he adds.

The boy shrugs, drawing the quilt a little tighter around him. “I’m a little surprised you aren’t carrying me back to your hut to get warm,” he says with a slight tilt to his mouth. “Fragile omega that I am.”

Derek raises both his eyebrows. “Omegas who see fit to try and outrun a pack of hounds aren’t generally fragile,” he says at last. “Your feet get cold, it’s your lookout.”

A part of him, of course, wants to pick the boy up and put him straight back in his bed. He is more than a knotbrain, however good the boy smells, and it’s worth restraining those impulses for the way the boy’s expression softens, a smile hovering about his lips. “My feet are cold,” he says. Derek shakes his head, doesn’t quite smile. Wants to.

“C’mon, we can go back to the hut. The rest of the ewes are quiet for now.”

At the mouth of the cave, he takes his shoes off, tries not to preen when the boy slips them on without a murmur. The ground is cold beneath his feet, but it doesn’t bother him. “Who are you?” he asks the boy as he skirts around a patch of ice. They’re almost at the place where Derek first saw him running and thought he was beautiful. The boy doesn’t answer for a few moments, concentrating on keeping his balance in Derek’s sturdy shoes, fine feet unused to such footwear.

“Everyone calls me Stiles,” he says, and it’s the truth, but it isn’t the whole truth.

“I’m Derek,” he says as he reaches a hand out to steady the boy—Stiles—over a rutted patch of ground. Stiles. It is an odd name, but it fits. Derek walks quietly beside him, taking the brunt of the keen wind from the ridge of the mountain.

The hut is warm, smells like home. Stiles’s scent completes it, somehow, speaks to vestigial instincts that Derek tries to ignore most of the time. It feels a little smaller than before, though, and a lot shabbier. Derek is looking around his hut with new eyes, sees the threadbare quilts, the chipped mugs, battered plates and pans, the tattered map of his old home. Sees the dust, the clothes he’s thrown into a cobwebbed corner to be washed at some point. This is no place for a wellborn boy like Stiles. Derek closes the door behind him, busies himself with the stove, making them both porridge to break their fast, more tea. He will tell the boy his plans, and they’ll part ways when it is safe. The scent will fade from his hut, soon. Derek ignores the dull ache in his chest at the thought. It will be better like this.

*

“What do you mean, no way?”

Stiles folds his arms. The effect is a little spoiled by the way his hair is sticking up in every direction, and by the fact that he is wrapped up in a brightly colored quilt. He looks a little like a mildly peeved bird.

“I’m not going,” Stiles says. “No way am I going home. I can’t.”

“Well you can’t stay here,” Derek says, and it feels like he’s been saying it forever. He stirs the porridge on the stove, adding the honey and salt evenly. Stiles already has a mug of sweetened tea that he is holding in front of him like a shield.

“Why not?”

Derek really wants to say ‘because I said so.’ He hasn’t had to say so many words in weeks. “Because you’re an omega and I’m an alpha and you should be safe, at home, not halfway up a mountain with a werewolf,” he bites out, filling two bowls with porridge and bringing one to Stiles.

“But why?” Stiles asks again. Derek is on the point of growling when he realizes that Stiles has a look of unholy glee in his eyes. He hands him a spoon, sits at the small table near the cot, keeping his temper.

“Why can’t you go home?” Derek asks instead, gentling his tone. Stiles blows on his porridge before he answers, and Derek is momentarily enchanted by the shape of his lips, the sweep of his eyelashes, the way his fingers curve around the bowl.

“My father has gone from our home—just for a little while,” Stiles says at last, calling Derek's mind back from thoughts of dens and cubs. “—there’s a power struggle among those who remain. I have no wish to stay in a household in which I could be used as a bargaining chip by anyone with a knot, because I’m—I’m of an age to be mated. And there were looks, insinuations. I didn’t want to stay there to see what those looks could turn into.”

Derek bites back every comment he wants to make about the highborn humans who think of nothing but bloodlines, who tether their omegas to hearth and home, send them into seclusion for their heats. With wolves, it’s simpler. More bloody, perhaps, but more honest, too. “You had no guard? No one to protect you from them?” he asks at last. Stiles scowls, picks idly at a loose thread in the quilt. “Or you had no wish to be burdened with guards,” he says, a slash in the dark, but by the way Stiles’s shoulders tense, an accurate one.

“You make me sound like a brat,” Stiles says quietly. Something thrums through his voice, a deeper anger. Sadness, too. “Like a spoilt child. A guard can go take a piss and in the time between undoing his breeks and shaking his dick I could have been taken. A guard can be bought, drugged or threatened. I want to stay here, stay safe. I trust you.”

Derek looks up at him, sighs. “There’s nothing for you here. No—no feasts, no tapestries, no servants, no baths, no libraries, no tourneys, no dancing, or music, no swains to write poetry about your eyes. All I have is a hut, and three hundred ewes. It’s cold: the wind is too lazy to go around you so it cuts through you, food supplies come but once a week, and it’s the same every time, and I am not—I am not safe to be around. I’m a werewolf. An alpha. And the last thing you should be doing is trusting your safety to me.”

He blows on his spoonful of porridge to avoid Stiles’s eyes. They’re far too knowing, too sharp for him. There’s something bright and fierce about Stiles, like an ember in Erica’s forge, spitting sparks, too hot to touch. Derek keeps his head down, eats methodically. “You can go down to the village with Isaac. I have enough coin to—”

“By the seven hells, Derek, will you just listen to me? I don’t want to leave. I’m safe, here. All you’ve done is protect me, and all you’ve said is that you can’t. Just—look at me. Please.” Derek looks up, doesn’t say anything—can’t say anything. Stiles sets his bowl down on the bed. His eyes are almost beta gold in the pale morning light. His cheeks are flushed with anger, but when he speaks, his voice is careful, gentle. “It’s just until my father returns. Scott’ll come find me, and bring me home. You’ll hardly know I’m here,” he adds. Derek raises his eyebrows at that, can’t help it, then sips his tea to hide his smile at the way Stiles scowls.

“Until your father returns,” he says at last. “To keep you safe.”

Stiles’s smile is brighter than the sun, pulls him in like the moon. Derek can feel himself falling, can feel his heart melt and yield to him. He doesn’t do a thing to stop it. Even though this is temporary, even if this is unwise, he still lets himself fall, eyes open and head clear. There’s nothing else he could possibly do.

*

Isaac comes up the winding path the next morning. Derek can sense him from a few miles away. Stiles is still asleep, sprawled on his cot. Derek’s been up half the night with three ewes, sisters by their scent, who decided to lamb their twins at the same time. He’s with the last ewe when Isaac comes in, sets his knapsack by the mouth of the cave and kneels in the straw next to him. The ewe is tired, but the lamb is nearly out, so Isaac stays by his side and watches as, with a few last rippling contractions, the lamb slithers out onto the straw, already gulping in air, limbs twitching shakily. The ewe rouses herself, licks her offspring clean, nudges it around to her milk. When it starts to feed, Isaac stands, offers Derek a hand and pulls him up.

“I’d forgotten how much you stink when you go up into the mountains,” Isaac says as they walk together to the mouth of the cave. “It’s as if you forget that soap exists, and that washing is a thing that any decent werewolf should do for the sake of their pack.”

When they get out into the light, Derek makes him stop walking, checks him over for injuries, that he’s eating enough, then when he’s satisfied, he buries his nose in the side of Isaac’s neck, settling down at the smell of his pack, the smell of their contentment. “I don’t need to use soap, not for the sheep,” he says when he’s stepped back. He should wash, perhaps. “All’s well?”

“Yes. The river has frozen over again, and Boyd’s selling skates. The cottage is fine; the ducks and hens miss your smiling face. Erica made a belt dagger, but the balance on the blade isn’t quite right. She’s getting better at it, though.”

Derek lets Isaac’s voice wash over him. The pack prospers, and the village is safe. “Thank you,” he says when Isaac finishes. He’d like to hear more, but Isaac’s hunched over a little in the cold, cloak pulled tight around him. “And thank you for the food. And…the next time you bring supplies, I need double, please. I have a guest,” he explains when Isaac raises his eyebrows. “A traveler.”

Isaac tilts his head to one side, scents the air. “Funny, the sheepstink was masking most of it. I didn’t think you were the type to keep an omega warming your bed.”

He keeps his claws down. “We haven’t—it isn’t like that. He needs somewhere to hide. I wouldn’t. It’s not—” he sighs, frustrated with the persistent, enticing scent, the temptation he’s allowed into his hut. Isaac shifts from one foot to the other, searching his face for something, some sign. Whatever Isaac sees, he’s satisfied with it.

“I’ll be back later today. You can’t survive on quarter rations for a week, Derek. You need your strength. And I know you; you’ll give most of your food to the omega.”

“Stiles. His name is Stiles,” Derek says. Isaac shrugs, hands him the knapsack. “Isaac,” he says, reaches out and grasps the back of Isaac’s neck, presses their foreheads together. “Don’t tell anyone outside the pack. Please.”

“Of course,” Isaac murmurs, relaxing into Derek’s grip for a few seconds. “This is going to end badly,” he adds. Derek can’t even correct him, just nods, swipes his hand over every patch of skin he can get to, spreads his scent, and with it the scent of sheep. Isaac’s disgruntled expression pleases him more than it should.

At the bottom of the second knapsack Isaac brings up is a generously sized bar of soap. Derek probably deserves it.

*

Stiles finds him at noon as he rests on one of the benches. He’s wearing shoes this time, is wrapped up in one of Derek’s shirts, a tunic belted with a length of twine. His trews are his own, clumsily mended, the patches Derek sewed on as he slept a bright contrast with the original fabric. In his hands are two mugs full of sweet, spiced tea, and he walks tentatively, face creased in concentration as the tea ripples and splashes. “You got supplies in,” he says, handing Derek the mug. “Is your pack down in the village? Do you live with them? Or do you live here all year?”

“Yes, yes, no,” Derek says, then elaborates at Stiles’s deeply unimpressed look. “We live in a cottage backing on to the woods. I only live up here for lambing, then the sheep scatter over the mountains, come back down for the shearing. I couldn’t live up here without them for longer.”

Stiles sits next to him, straddling the bench. “Do you miss them?”

He feels the loss of two packs when he’s up here in the mountains. “Of course,” he says. “This tea is good. What did you add to it?”

“Some of the spices in the new supplies. Just a small pinch of cinnamon, a little cardamom. Enough to warm it.”

“It’s good,” he says again, and Stiles smiles at him.

After lunch, Stiles stays with him, watching him work. Some of the lambs have wriggled out of their pens, and he matches them with their mothers by scent, fixing the pens as he goes. Stiles seems content just to look at him, the lantern in his hand casting shadows over the pens, light softening at the edges into the darkness. He looks away for some of the messier parts of birth, but there’s wonder in his eyes, too, at the first breath of life, the thin bleating cry, the way the lamb’s tail flails and wriggles as it seeks its mother’s milk. Derek becomes used to his presence as he works quietly, soothing the ewes, getting the lambs used to his scent. Stiles sometimes wanders off deeper into the cave, looking at the rocks, the mineral veins, but he always comes back to Derek’s side.

By the time there’s a lull, it’s late. It’s only when he straightens up that he realises that he’s hungry. “We should go and eat,” he says, noticing the way Stiles is swaying a little, his eyelids drooping. “You should have said you were tired,” he adds, snagging the lamp from Stiles’s hand and herding him out of the cave.

“’m fine,” Stiles mutters, but he allows himself to be led out.

The night is clear and cold, their breath dragonsmoke in the moonlight. The stars sprawl out over the dark sky, the moon bright, so bright. Beneath them, the lights twinkle in the village, little clusters of warm lights gathered in patches all along the valley. Stiles stops, points over to a distant hilltop. “That’s the beacon,” he says, hand on Derek’s shoulder to point him in the right direction. There’s a fire there, or a light. As Derek watches, it flickers. “It’s a code. They let the light shine out in pulses, the same message, over and over. The messages can be passed up and down the kingdom on a clear night.”

The hand on Derek’s shoulder is warm and strong. Derek controls his breathing, keeps his voice steady. “What does it say?” he asks. Stiles keeps watching the pulse, his lips moving, eyes narrowed.

“It says ‘all will be well,’” Stiles says at last, with a shaky laugh. “My—they use that message when the country is in peace talks. They say ‘no news is good news,’ but I’ve never believed that. This message is—it’s comfort. Things will get better.”

Derek nods, can’t quite speak. Stiles’s eyes are liquid black in the moonlight, face all shadows and angles. They watch the pulses of light until he notices Stiles shivering, then they go back to the hut. Stiles has managed to find every single book in the shed, every chalkboard, every map, and they all seem to be scattered on the cot, a nest of books and quilts. “I got bored,” Stiles says with a shrug when he sees Derek looking. Some of the books are about crop rotation, household remedies. One is a treatise on wolfsbane, one a vade mecum on visiting large cities. The rest of them are collections of ballads, folklore, about constellations and far off lands, heroes and old battles lost and won. Books are expensive, but he has more coin than he likes to think about.

He clears his throat. “I’m glad you found them. I was worried that you would be bored, here all day. I’m unused to—to conversation.”

Stiles’s lips twitch, but he doesn’t say anything. They peel carrots together, chop them. Derek uses his claws to peel the potatoes, smiles with his head ducked when Stiles makes him do it over and over, eyes bright as he manages to strip a potato in one long string of peel. “Throw it over your shoulder,” Stiles says with a grin. “It always comes out as an S. I’ve got so many people to bond with, I’ll waste away.”

Derek puts it in the bowl with the rest of the peel, ignores Stiles’s scowl. After they have eaten, Stiles sprawls on his back in front of the stove, one book resting on his chest as he reads another. Derek quietly carves the wolf figure he promised Erica for her birthday, stealing glances at Stiles as he works. Stiles isn’t so subtle; he will openly watch for long moments. Derek isn’t quite sure what he is looking for, if he ever finds it. As he works, he thinks of the beacon, of the people who tend them, who are cold and shivering in the dark so that the people who know what to look for can get their comfort and peace from the flashing of a fire on a hill. When Stiles is asleep, curled up in his cot, Derek lies on the long wooden bench, a blanket draped over him, looking through the small window at the moon, his own comfort, falls asleep to the sound of Stiles’s breathing and the soft crackling of the fire in the stove, a new sort of peace.

*

This time, when Stiles brings him tea, Derek snags both mugs from his hands, sets them down on the ground and hands him a lamb and a bottle. “The ewe, she was too tired by the end. She’d lost too much blood; it had been too long for her. She didn’t survive.”

Stiles nearly drops the bottle as the lamb wriggles in his arms. “And what am I meant to do with this?” he asks, scowling when the lamb starts to mouth at his jerkin.

“There’s milk. It’s cow’s milk, with more fat added it. You’ll need to feed him little and often. He’ll need to be near to you, sleep in the hut,” Derek adds, steering Stiles over to the bench. Stiles is too baffled to do anything but follow. Derek sits down, takes the lamb and bottle from Stiles, sets the lamb on Stiles’s knee. “Hold the bottle up. He’ll know what to do,” he says, watches as Stiles brings the leather teat of the bottle to the lamb’s mouth. The lamb seeks it out, suckles eagerly at it as Stiles watches, enchanted. “He’ll stop when he’s ready,” he adds.

Stiles looks up at him when the lamb’s had his fill, from his head to his toes. “You look…awful. You’re—I’m not even going to guess what’s all over your clothes. And when did you last sleep properly?”

Derek doesn’t know what to do with his hands. He takes the lamb from Stiles, puts it in a small pen, picks up the mugs and sips from his own. When Stiles frowns at him, he remembers he had been asked a question. “About a month ago,” he says after some thought. “And there’s the lake, just over the ridge. I could get…” he loses the thread of his thought. It had been an awful night. Long, and bloody. The lamb had been close to death when he had eventually got him out of his mother. He’d had to swing him back and forth to clear his lungs, tickle his nostrils, and then, when that hadn’t worked, he’d growled, a subvocal growl that the ewes knew well enough not to fear, his eyes glowing red in the darkness. The lamb had jerked into life then, born in fear, bleat thin and high, body still weak as he struggled on the floor.

“Drink your tea, then go wash yourself in the lake,” Stiles says, frowning slightly. All Derek can do is nod, too tired to think.

*

He doesn’t undress, just slips off his shoes, walks forwards into the bitingly cold water, everything in him seizing up at the shock of it. He keeps walking, stones slippery under his feet, breaking the thin ice that’s gathered on the shore. When the water is waist depth, he starts to swim, submerges himself in the water, eyes closed, lets the air bubble out of his mouth. The water is sweet and cold, clean. He strips off as he swims, shedding his clothes and flinging them closer to the shore. He can use Isaac’s soap on them later, but for now, he keeps swimming, lets himself stretch disused muscles, burn off physical energy, use his body as he was always meant to, not in stillness but in action. When he looks up to the ridge, Stiles is watching him. It’s too far away to see his expression, but Derek swims a little faster under his scrutiny, dives down to the bottom, just for the burn in his lungs as he pushes himself back up, up, from the darkness up to the thin light of the surface. He comes out gasping, breath harsh in the stillness. Stiles is gone the next time he looks up.

He swims back to shore, then, sits on a rock and scrubs at his clothes as best he can. Now that he’s clean, the smell on them is harsh, sheep, musk, blood and sweeter undertones of omega, every time Stiles has touched him showing through in the weave of the cloth, soaked into the fabric. He gets the worst of the dirt out of them, slings them over his shoulder to trickle water down his back. He puts his shoes on, walks skyclad back to the hut, mind muffled, calm. When he gets to the hut, Stiles isn’t there. He puts his clothes to dry in front of the stove, dresses himself again in his third best shirt, his last best pair of breeks. The best of his clothes, Stiles is wearing. Derek couldn’t bear to give him anything but.

*

If Derek allowed it, Stiles would have the lamb in his cot. He’s taken to calling him Scott, using the lamb to win arguments by insisting that he agrees with Stiles, that Derek is outvoted, and Derek should never be in the position where he is tempted to use his alpha powers on a lamb. Scott begins to prosper under Stiles’s care, grows well and takes to following him around the hut and sitting at his feet as he reads. Stiles is delighted by this, and would have dressed the lamb in clothing if Derek hadn’t put his foot down.

They start playing cards in the evening, or talking. Stiles is careful about what he tells Derek, talks about his father but not his mother, and doesn’t say much about his background. He doesn’t ask about Derek’s family. He talks a lot of his friend Scott, the Scott who isn’t a lamb. Scott is his best friend and his partner in crime, the only man he trusts to keep his father safe. “I made Scott go with him. I knew I’d be fine without him, but my father—I couldn’t let him go without Scott. He’s too important to the—to me.”

“How did Scott feel about leaving you?”

Stiles shrugs, fiddles with the edge of the tablecloth. “He didn’t mind,” he says, but there’s a note of hesitation in his voice.

“Did he know about your escape plan?” Derek asks, but he already knows the answer. Stiles shakes his head with a slight smile. “Did anyone?”

Stiles hums, thinks for a few moments. “Lydia, probably. She’s clever. But she would never give me away.”

“Not even to keep you safe?”

Stiles doesn’t answer. Derek doesn’t know if he’s considered the worry that he has caused for his father’s staff about his safety. Their posts or their lives are at risk, for letting a noble born omega escape from their guardianship. Even if he has considered it, Derek isn’t sure if Stiles cares all that much, and he doesn’t know if it’s because his father is a just man or because Stiles is an unjust one.

*

Stiles is uneasy. Derek doesn’t know quite why, but Stiles has started to look at him oddly. He’s been preoccupied for a few days, keeps on watching Derek when he thinks Derek is unaware. It could be that Stiles has discerned his regard, an attraction that he feels must be painfully obvious. Stiles could be letting him down gently. Derek stays quiet and watchful, tries not to show his growing affection. Perhaps Stiles is made uncomfortable by him, so he makes himself small, tries not to be too hurt by the way that their conversation is stilted, the card games that they play less lively. Stiles still brings him tea, still feeds Scott dutifully, but their previous ease is gone.

Derek is on the point of asking Stiles outright what he can do to make Stiles comfortable again, is trying to shape his words with a too-clumsy tongue when Stiles puts his hand of cards down, leans forward and looks at him. His scent has a thread of nervousness running through it, his eyes troubled. Derek calms himself, waits for Stiles to talk. “I know who you are. It took a while to make the connection. But I saw—when you were swimming. The triskelion on your back. The Hale coat of arms,” Stiles says at last. “And I know what happened to the Hales, to your family.”

Derek lets out a long, slow breath. “And what happened?” he asks quietly. There are stories, so many stories, whispers turned to fables turned to warnings to tell wide-eyed cubs by the fireside.

“The Argents massacred the Hales at a feast on the lunar eclipse. The Hales were weakened by the moon, and the feast was to celebrate a truce. All but three survived. The Argents were brought to justice—”

“—it was no justice. We decided, for the sake of peace, to forego justice,” Derek spits out. Scott bleats under the table, and Derek takes another breath, steadies himself. “We decided to leave it in the hands of the old king, although none could blame us for taking every one of their worthless hides. And his justice—his justice was to allow them to go free, to take their coin in recompense for the lives of my family, their worth measured in gold, and measured poorly—”

“—it would have been war,” Stiles says softly, looking at the claws that make little marks on the table. “If you hadn’t, if your alpha hadn’t chosen mercy, your feud would have dragged every wolf into war with their king.”

He had wanted war, back then. But Laura had stood firm, and he had stood with her, ignoring the itch in his fangs to take his grief out on their worthless hides. He had stood with her through the trial, the weighing out of his family in gold. He didn’t do it to keep the peace. He did it because she was his alpha, and the kingdom could hang. “I have no king,” Derek says, very softly. “I will never have a king.”

“The old king is dead,” Stiles says. He still hasn’t looked away from Derek’s claws. “Will you never accept the new one?”

Derek feels as if his skin is too tight. Stiles is sat with his back straight, face still and calm, save for the fire blazing in his eyes. There are moments, brief moments, when Stiles seems powerful, draws it around him like a cloak, only to cast it aside the next second. Right now, he seems as if he could lead armies.

“I had an alpha. Wolves need no king. And now…I have a pack. I have the land. It’s enough. I accept no king.”

The hut feels too small. Stiles, when he does meet his eyes, looks lost. Derek stands, his chair clattering with the force of it. He walks out before Stiles can say anything, before he can speak more treason.

He wants to run and run. He looks down at the village instead. He knows which of the lights is from his cottage. Boyd, Erica and Isaac are there, curled up together in his bed. He can feel them, contented in their sleep. Peter had bitten them first, his first act as an alpha after he had murdered Laura for her power. Then he had killed the old king, although no one has ever proved it, killed Katherine Argent, Gerard Argent, killed every Argent who was at the feast, every one of their soldiers. By the time Derek had caught up with him, he was covered in blood, replete with it, standing between Katherine’s brother and his daughter, the daughter holding a crossbow too big for her to keep steady. He hadn’t even been at the feast, had refused to take part in the bloodshed, and yet, here Peter was, ready to murder them all. The worst thing was how sane Peter seemed, how familiar. Not even a stranger wearing his uncle’s face, but his uncle.

One howl could summon his pack to him. He stays quiet, watching the lights in the village go out, one by one. The door to the hut opening draws him out of his thoughts. He turns to face Stiles, already braced for an argument.

“Your uncle murdered the old king. Does regicide run in the family?” Stiles asks, almost toe to toe with him, his fists clenched by his sides. “And rumor has it your uncle lives yet. What of him? Does he want to add another king to his collection? Does he want more power? They say he is clever, has cheated death, that he calls people to him and they come. Will you aid him? Your flesh and blood? Your pack?”

Derek doesn’t speak for long moments. A deep, dark part of him wants his uncle to be alive still. At least then he wouldn’t be the last Hale. At least the bloodline wouldn’t die out on a hillside, name blackened beyond redemption. “I don’t care who sits on the throne. There is nothing more that they could take from me,” he says. “You talk of kings, of a ruler. We have alphas, who love us, who fight for us. I was born screaming from my alpha a few days after the solstice, and she calmed me with her red eyes as she lifted me up to show the moon, bloodied and new, she guided my first steps and guarded me as I slept. What is a king? I had a mother, a sister.” He bows his head. It’s an old grief, but a strong one. “I want to live quietly, without blood or revenge, without feuds. That’s all I want. I have no need to usurp a king, to steal their power. It won’t bring them back. It won’t bring me their guidance, their love.”

Stiles’s hand is warm on the side of his neck, touch light at first, then stronger when Derek doesn’t move away. He can’t calm his breathing, his claws still sharp, his eyes red. “I believe you. I understand. I think I understand,” Stiles says. Derek lets his head drop and rest on Stiles’s shoulder. “I can see the beacon from here,” he murmurs. “I look for it every night. When it’s too cloudy to see it, I worry; it feels as if I can’t breathe. As if I don’t have a reason to believe everything’s going to be alright.”

Derek doesn’t understand, but he doesn’t speak. His wolves are restless, reacting to his anger, his pain. He calms them, gentling his thoughts, draws on their strength and gives them his in return. He listens to the sheep as they settle, their placid waiting. He leans on Stiles. His scent is a sweet comfort, a soothing balm, an anchor, keeping him from drifting too far into thoughts of bloody revenge, of phantoms and dead men who didn’t stay in the ground. Over his shoulder, Stiles watches the beacon and they stand, lost in their own worlds, until the cold seeps into their bones and they stumble home, shivering and numb, warm their hands on mugs of sweet tea and finish their card game. That night he doesn’t sleep. He doesn’t think Stiles does, either.

*

Things are fragile between them for a few days. Stiles looks after Scott at the hut for the first day. Derek works in the cave, checking over all the lambs, scenting each of them. There are only straightforward lambings today. Derek doesn’t think he could cope with anything too complex. He forgets that they are due some new supplies, is surprised by Boyd’s steady footsteps as he enters the cave. Boyd doesn’t say anything, but he lets Derek walk all around him, scent him for longer than usual. When he feels calmer, he clears his throat. “You remember what I told you about Peter? About what to do if he comes for me?” he asks Boyd. They had argued about it, long into the night, when Derek had first told them. He had made it into an order, made them promise to obey. It was the only time he has ever used his powers on any of them, ever forced them to do anything.

“We run. We run, and we don’t stop. And if we need aid, Argent owes us a life debt. More rumors?”

Derek nods. “Could be nothing,” he says, but Boyd just looks at him, brown eyes calm and wise. “But you’re my second. You need to—you need to make sure you keep them safe.”

Boyd tilts his head to the side a little. “I hope I never need to,” he says. Derek nods, leans into him briefly. They sit next to each other in silence for a long time, then Boyd stands up, nods, leaves the cave as quietly as he had entered it.

That evening, they play cards. Things start to feel normal between them when they become embroiled in their usual argument about Stiles cheating by counting cards and Derek cheating by listening to Stiles’s heartbeat. It’s an argument that Derek has begun to feel an immense amount of affection for, especially as they both cheat. Each method seems to cancel the other out, and as they are playing for air, there isn’t much at stake, but Derek likes the way Stiles’s eyes snap and his cheeks flush when he’s agitated, likes the spice of his scent, the way he tries to persuade with his whole body.

There are times when he feels as if they could fall into bed together, easy as breathing. If Stiles were not highborn, if he were an omega without connections, Derek would be sorely tempted. As it is, he resists. Derek wants, he yearns, but he resists. Still, the sight of Stiles in his cot is enough to test him, even now that it is familiar. At the end of each lambing season, he sleeps for a week, worn down by months of hard work, of relentless struggle. He doesn’t know how he’ll feel by the time Stiles leaves, how he’ll feel after long days and longer nights spent resisting the insistent tug of Stiles’s scent and the inclinations of his own foolish heart. A werewolf can heal in the blink of an eye, yes, but they must recover, at some point. He may drive himself beyond the point of recovery. He doesn’t know when he falls asleep, but his dreams are troubled, full of dead men, coming closer.

*

The next morning, Stiles smells different. It’s a subtle change, but it is a distracting one. Derek wakes up slowly, already hard, hips rolling against the wood of the bench. For a few moments, the sheep become a secondary concern—why heave in hay and feed when he can stay here, surrounded by such a scent as this? He could stay here all day, rutting up into his hand, taking his pleasure until the sun went down, leave the sheep to their work. When he wakes up fully, he sighs, ignoring the insistent demands of his hardness, swings his legs around to the floor and sits up, looking over at the cot, the tousled head up above the quilts. Stiles is in heat. Stiles is in heat, and they never discussed what they would do if it ever happened. Derek missed the signs, addled as he was by Peter, senses muddied by the sheep. He missed the signs, and now Stiles is hard, slick, moving his hips in his sleep as he falls deeper into arousal.

Derek brings wood in, wakes up the fire, starts to warm some milk for Scott. Kneeling on the hearth, he can see Stiles’s face, how flushed it is, how sweetly he parts his lips. He is beautiful like this, all ripe and ready. A heat is a precious time, a time to take pleasure, to give it if you wish. Wolves run and chase with it, bring the forest to life with their desires as they play. With humans it is different, more confined. Omegas can be bonded just by knot, so they hide away until they can choose a mate with clear eyes and a steady heart, not just with the ache of an unfulfilled need. Stiles will stay in the hut, taking his pleasure where he can. It will pass in three days. Derek can stay out in the lambing cave. It will be fine. He can resist. He must.

Stiles stirs as Derek finishes making porridge. Derek stops his work to watch as Stiles’s brow creases in a slight frown, eyelashes fluttering a little on his cheeks. He sighs softly, his hips moving steadily, mindlessly under the quilts, and his eyes, when he does open them, as already hazy with lust. When he sees Derek, all he says is “please,” but Derek shakes his head.

“Sit up, you need to drink something, eat some food. You’ll need your strength.”

Derek puts a little croon into his voice, something to persuade. Stiles frowns at him, but he sits up anyway, the quilts pooled around his middle. “I need—I need to come,” he says, plucking fretfully at his shirt. He looks lost, a confused child in a too-large shirt. Derek sighs, kneels in front of him.

“Eat first. You know how it is. After the first release, you won’t be able to focus on anything. Just eat. Please.”

He’s spiced the porridge, added honey and raisins. He’s added a little cinnamon to the tea as well, some honey and anise. Stiles probably has sweetmeats when he’s at home, candied peel and fresh fruit, meat that isn’t heavily salted to preserve it. He probably has a soft bed, a fire and people to tend to it, tapestries on the walls and rugs beneath his feet

“It smells good. I didn’t think I liked porridge before you made it for me,” Stiles says. Derek smiles, hands him the bowl, sets the tea down on the stool for him. He feeds Scott as Stiles eats, slowly at first, then faster as his hunger kicks in. He’ll take Scott with him, feed him outside when he needs to. “You’re so good for me, take such good care. Smell so—even with the sheep, you still smell right. Calms me down. Makes me—just—”

Derek closes his eyes, digs his claws into his thighs. “Thank you,” he says. “I’m honored. Would—I have to work. Would you like my blanket? For the scent?”

“You should stay,” Stiles says. “You could stay with me.”

His old ancestral home is in ruins; his name is black as pitch. Stiles can be so much more than his. “I have nothing to offer you,” he says, looks up at Stiles from his knees. “You need better than me.”

“And what about what I want?” Stiles asks. Derek can only look at him. He wants Stiles with every part of him, could deny Stiles nothing if his head was clear, if he didn’t have a future beyond this hut, this village, beyond Derek’s exile and his grief.

“I’m sorry,” he says. He stands, gets the blanket from his bench, puts it within reach of the cot. “Call if you are in need.”

Stiles is on the edge of saying something. He flees the hut before he can hear it, Scott trotting at his heels.

*

There are thirty more ewes left to lamb. It’s too cold to let the ewes with the lambs out onto the mountain yet, but the thaw of spring feels as if it’s right around the corner, the scent on the edge of the wind. They’ve done well. Two dead ewes, one lamb bottle fed, the other fostered onto another ewe, and healthy lambs. One lamb is a little lame, so they’ll keep him near the cottage, away from the foxes and the crows. It’s been a good season, work well done. Derek feels torn in two. He wants to stay here with Stiles, share this life with him, sit with him in the evenings, show him the mountains and the caves, the flowers as they grow. He wants to wait until the skylarks start to nest on the pastures, flinging themselves up with their wild songs, their exultations. He wants to show Stiles what leaves are good to eat, the berries to avoid. Wants to make him porridge the way he prefers, and drink the tea Stiles makes, just for him.

And yet. And yet, his pack needs him, and Stiles needs to go to his father. To read more books, meet scholars, live in the city with its bustling crowds and universities, in the bright, noisy mass of people, surrounded by his friends, all laughing and talking. It is an exquisite ache, imagining Stiles in the city. He indulges in it as he watches one of the ewes, as he untangles one of the lambs from the cloth bag of feed. By the time it is noon, he has imagined Stiles bonded, prospering in a fine house, studying runes in a lofty room. He has imagined seeing him in passing as he sells his bales of wool, dressed in fine linens and silks, fingers black with ink. Six lambs born, and Derek has tortured himself into imagined jealousies, made his heart ache with them, his teeth pricking at his lower lip with the urge to bite, to tear.

He needs to clear his head. When he leaves the caves for the night, he plunges his head into a trough of ice cold water, fed from the spring, yells into it, sputtering as he surfaces, cold but clear headed once more, frustrations vented for a short while. He washes his hands, his face, then starts walking back to the hut. Stiles needs to be fed. Needs to be cared for. He prays to the moon for fortitude as he gets closer to the hut, cold water trickling down his neck, the bridge of his nose. The snow crunches under his feet with each footstep, the rutted track hard beneath his boots. He wants nothing more than to sleep in his cot, to curl up and den, but the cot is Stiles’s now, for as long as he needs it. He sleeps on a bench, and that is fine. That is enough. As he gets closer to the hut, he can hear a thin, hoarse cry, a keening, and he closes his eyes briefly for courage.

The scent is like a physical blow. Derek has to pause on the threshold, fingers clawing briefly on the doorframe. His feet take him to Stiles without him even meaning to move, and he kneels down next to the cot, eyes wide, mouth dry. Stiles is on his front, hips up in the air. He’s kicked off the quilts, his pale skin bare, flushed and sweating even in the open air. Stiles is mouthing at the blanket, at Derek’s blanket, cheek reddened from the harshness of the wool. One of his hands is clutching at the blanket, and the other, oh, the other is two fingers deep in his ass, back bowed, ass clenching eagerly around his fingers as he tries to get them deeper, his eyes closed tightly, face wet with sweat and tears. There’s no coordination to it, and Derek can smell how desperate he is, can hear the staccato thud of his heartbeat.

“Easy, there,” he murmurs, gripping the back of his neck like he would to calm one of his betas. “You’re doing well.”

Stiles opens his eyes, smiles wearily at him. “I have a toy I use, it’s knotted. Left it back at the—in my rooms. Been trying to find—my fingers aren’t enough. Could you—you don’t have to knot. But your hand? Can’t stop looking at your hands. Strong fingers. Broad. Need your fingers. Filling me up; you’d be so good for me,” he says, hips moving all the time. Derek lets his head drop briefly to Stiles’s shoulder, kisses the bare skin there. Silently, he tugs at Stiles’s wrist until his fingers slip out of his ass. His fingers shine with slick, glistening with it. Derek rubs their fingers together until his are coated with it, although he doesn’t need much. Stiles has dripped all down his thighs, down over his taint, his balls. Derek wants to bury his face in it, to smear it on his beard, to lick him until his skin is soft and swollen, all ripe and ready for him. He bites the inside of his cheek, keeps his breathing steady.

His finger slides in, easy as butter. It sinks into Stiles’s slick heat, right up to the knuckle as Stiles opens up for him with a soft sigh. He pulls it out a little, pushes in gently, keeping to a soft, drugging rhythm, fascinated by the way Stiles’s ass yields so well, so hot and ready. By the time he presses in with a second finger, Stiles is wordlessly begging, hips canted up, mouth slack with want. He starts out slow, stretches Stiles out with his thicker fingers, keeping the same steady pace. He grips Stiles’s neck with his other hand, mimicking the press of a mating bite, calms Stiles with crooning endearments, all the words he’s been holding back. “You’re doing so well, look at you, my bright, brave boy. You’ll make—you make me so happy. So proud. Hush, hush lad, I’ll give you what you need. There,” he murmurs as he presses his fingers up, seeks out the spot inside Stiles that will light him up, make him jerk and jolt with pleasure. Stiles claws at the blanket, his toes curled up, back arched, face red and wet with tears and snot, this ugly need that Derek soothes, fucking his fingers in and out with harder thrusts until Stiles is making these punched-out sounds, eyes wide and glassy. He keeps on fucking Stiles through his orgasm, gripping his neck hard enough to bruise as Stiles comes with a yell. He doesn’t stop, not even when Stiles is weakly batting at his hand, coaxes another, smaller climax from him, coaxes the last of his seed from him until he’s twitching and shuddering, sprawled sated on the bed.

Stiles murmurs a sleepy protest when Derek eases his fingers out, so he keeps touching him, stroking his hair back from his forehead, cleaning his tearstreaked face with the edge of one of the quilts. When he’s sure that Stiles is asleep, he stands up quietly, walks barefooted to a small clearing of trees near the hut. His hand smells of Stiles, and he bites down on it as he wraps his other hand around his dick, stroking himself fiercely, teeth sinking into his hand as he growls, legs spread, hips thrusting forwards into the air. He comes quickly, knotting his hand, spends a few minutes squeezing down on his knot, dick twitching and flexing in the cold air, hands clawed. The hand in his mouth tastes of blood and omega, smells of everything good, everything worth having. He spills his seed and blood onto the snow, marks a spiral on one of the trees for protection, letting his power soak through to the land, then leans against the tree, breath white in the chilled air.

*

Derek feeds Scott, leaves a plate of food next to Stiles’s cot, kneels next to him for long moments, just looking at him. Now that he’s touched Stiles, and so freely too, he never wants to stop. He rations himself carefully, only allowing himself to press his lips to Stiles’s shoulder, to pull the quilt up so that it’s covering him, keeping him warm. It’s a wrench to leave the hut. He goes to check on the sheep, nose still full of Stiles’s scent, ears still full of his moans and cries. One of the ewes kicks out and he’s too slow to dodge, his knotbrain still making his movements sluggish. More of his blood drips on the straw. He wipes it off with his thumb, smears some on the lamb’s forehead, some on the ewe’s. It’s a sin to waste blood, to spill it without purpose. The ewe licks her lamb clean, but she leaves the mark .

There’s snow coming. He has work to do, to keep the ewes safe and warm. He stays there until it gets dark, raking out the pens, putting down fresh straw, working until he can see the steam rising from his skin, breath misting in the cave. He works mindlessly, works until his muscles tremble and his mind quiets, scoops Scott up under one arm, too tired to coax or chase him, stumbles back to the hut a sweating, exhausted mess. Flurries of snow kiss his skin, the cold burning until it melts. Flakes gather on his eyelashes, in his hair. The air above is heavy with snow. He can’t see the stars or the moon, can’t see the lights in the village below. All he can see is the soft glow in the window of the hut, the light that shines around the door.

When he lets himself into the hut, the world stills around him. Derek stands helpless, entranced, as the snow turns to meltwater, trickles down his heated skin. Stiles has taken every quilt, every blanket, made a nest by the stove, made broth with the food Derek’s pack provides. He’s sated himself, his skin flushed and glowing, all sleek and contented, the whole hut smelling sweet with it, with his pleasure. His eyes are lazy-lidded, lips curved and Derek’s lost, so lost.

“Come to bed,” Stiles murmurs, and he stumbles forward, kneels just before the nest. His clothes are wet with snow, sweat. He can’t defile such a bed as this—a mating bed, some vagrant part of his mind whispers—with his boots, his rough clothes. “Just to hold me. Just be with me.”

He should tell Stiles he can’t. He lets Scott squirm free, unlaces his boots, takes off his sweatsoaked clothes, leaves them by the door. He cleans his face as best he can, wipes the dirt from his body and puts his last clean shirt on and Stiles watches, keeps watching with greedy eyes, lips slightly parted. Then, feeling too rough, too clumsy, he kneels without grace in the center of Stiles’s nest and accepts the food Stiles gives him, dizzy from the scent of them combined, surrounding them.

The broth is warm, spiced. Stiles watches him avidly as he eats it, preens when he asks for another bowlful. Derek is hard and aching for him. He knows that if he asked, now that Stiles is so warm and contented, now that he has made them a nest, now that he’s so enthralled with the pleasure of his heat, Stiles would let Derek worship him with his body, his knot. He finishes his food, the warmth gradually returning to his bones, as the wind howls around the hut and the snow falls and falls and falls and he wants to ask but he doesn’t.

“It feels like it’ll never stop being winter,” Stiles says as the walls of the hut tremble in the gale. He puts their bowls on the hearth, puts out the single lamp, pushes Derek down until he’s lying on the mattress, the quilts warm and heavy around them, lies on his side with his leg over Derek’s, his head resting on Derek’s outstretched arm. Derek lets him arrange their limbs to his satisfaction, eyes sliding shut in pleasure at the closeness.

“In spring, on the lower slopes, the flowers are like stars, too many to even dream of counting. You can hear the skylarks and the blackbirds, the laughter of children as they climb the slopes and roll down, all in a tumble. The lake is deep and blue; you can jump from the high rocks and dive down, down and still not reach the bottom. You can run through the woods for miles, through streams and rivers, passing trees that are so old it takes ten men to wrap their arms around them, skirting round groves that are so full of old magic they make you sneeze. And if you run far enough, you can get to the sea without ever breaking out from the trees. The springs are full of promise, the summers are hot and long and the trees blaze in the fall, dropping their leaves for the winter, which is full of its own beauty. And up here, on a clear night, you can touch the moon.”

Stiles sighs, curls up closer. “I could love it here,” he says. “Seeing in through your eyes, I could learn to love it.”

They talk softly, trade secrets and stories. Derek tells Stiles about his pack, about Erica learning to be a ferris, about Boyd and Isaac working at the inn, looking after the smallholding in lambing season. About Erica’s temper, how she and Isaac squabble like siblings, how quiet she can be with Boyd. He tells Stiles about other people in the village, some of them werewolves living in secret, some of them hedgewitches, druids. He tells Stiles about going to the city to sell his wool, about putting on his merchant clothes and how strange it feels to put on highborn airs, to ape his superiors, humans with their customs and taboos, and Stiles tells him he’s worth a thousand of them, sounds so fierce it takes Derek’s breath away.

Stiles tells him about his father, about his mother, how she grew forgetful and would wander, how she was young, too young to be so ill. How quiet and sad his father became, how tightly they held on to each other. He tells Derek about Scott, about Lydia how they grew up together, got into scraps, until it feels as if he knows them. He tells Derek about the city fairs, the guilds, the universities with their alchemists, historians, lawyers and doctors, the people who come from far and wide to trade and to work. It sounds full of life, of all life, the love Stiles has for the city and the people there thrumming through every word. He wants to go to one of the universities, to study ancient languages and rhetoric, perhaps study the law, to live in the city in the thick of life. Derek listens, lets Stiles’s voice wash over him as Stiles idly plays with strands of his hair, voice getting softer as he gets sleepier, as another wave of heat begins to wash slowly over him.

They curl up together and Derek strokes Stiles’s hair, his back as Stiles wraps his long fingers around his straining dick, brings himself to completion, sweetly flushed and wanting as he pants and writhes into an orgasm that seems to go on forever, all shuddering pleasure. Derek doesn’t take long to come after that, knots up quickly as a cub at the scent of omega, uses Stiles’s come to slick the way. He ruts up into his fist as Stiles watches with sleepy interest, the warm press of his body grounding him. He falls asleep with his knot still half plump, not quite knowing where he ends and Stiles begins, never wanting to find out.

*

The world is muffled when Derek wakes up. The snow lies in drifts, icicles hanging from the hut, the last twitches of winter turning everything white and pure. He leaves Stiles sleeping, slips into wolf form and bounds across the snow, breath misting the air as he runs, the snow scuffing up behind him. Everything feels sharp and clear when he’s running. He feels stronger, all lean and sleek, keen-eyed and sharp-nosed. He rolls on his back in the snow for the pleasure of it, dives into one of the drifts after an interesting scent, frightens a ptarmigan into wide-eyed stillness and leaves it there, tongue lolling out in a laugh. He jumps into another drift, scooping up the snow with his nose, flinging it in the air, and he’s three steps from chasing his tail when he remembers himself. He has to go back to the hut for clothes, carries them in his jaws to the cave. When he shifts into human form, his heart is light, his nose cold.

Three of the ewes birthed during the blizzard. One has a fine pair of lambs, all three of sitting in the straw in a neat little row. The second has twins, but only one survived. The third is cold on the straw, her lamb huddled close. Derek sighs, sags briefly. It may be too late to try fostering the lamb, but he tries, wraps the orphan in the dead lamb’s skin, puts all three of them close together in the pen, the living twin, the ewe and the orphan, so that their scents mingle. “Good lass,” he says quietly, briefly stroking down the ewe’s back. “You did well.”

He leaves them there. The cave is a little colder than he’d like, so he lights the small stove in the center of the cave, goes around checking the lambs, stroking his hand down their backs so they get used to him. Some of the ewes hoof the ground when he gets too close, so he leaves them be. There’s nothing fiercer than a mother with her young, so he keeps a respectful distance, cleans the pens around them. He still feels stronger, somehow, feels like he does when he’s spent a whole night running with his pack, shared a bed with them and broken fast, like he has a full belly and his pack by his side.

They didn’t mate. He shouldn’t be feeling like this, like he is somehow more. He loads more peat into the fire. Out of the corner of his eye, he can see the orphaned lamb feeding from the ewe, his tail wagging in his eagerness as the ewe stands, placid, accepting her twin lambs with simple maternal instinct. Perhaps their scents together confused his wolf. Perhaps Stiles won’t feel the same thing, won’t feel this tugging need, this glow blooming in his heart. They didn’t mate, but his memory of the night is hazy, warm, something to carry him through long days and lonely nights. They didn’t knot, but they were close, sleepily sharing secrets as the stove crackled and the wind battered at the walls. Derek presses his fingers to his lips. He hopes Stiles doesn’t feel the same. He’s lying.

The snow begins to fall outside. He thinks nothing of it, continues to work. Two ewes lamb at once, at different sides of the cave, both yearlings, one with a breech lamb and he feels as though he is torn in three, between the ewes and yearning, yearning for Stiles. He rests his forehead on the ewe’s flank as he pulls the lamb out steadily, the panicked flutter of its heart loud in his ears. When the lamb is out, he swings it back and forth to clear its lungs as the ewe slumps, breathing heavily. When the lamb starts to shudder into life, he puts it by her head, hoping that the scent will cure her fatigue, get her bonded to the lamb and feeding it. He rushes to the other ewe, then to another until all thoughts of Stiles are driven from his head in the messy business of birth.

By the time there’s a lull, it’s dark. He can’t see the stars or the moon, the snow thick and heavy in the air, driving at him as he secures the cave for the night, starts to struggle back to the hut. He’s filthy, cold and tired, the scent of sheep strong on his clothing, the howl of the wind the only thing he can hear. He’s nearly blind in the snow; it’s only because he knows the land so well that he can find the hut, eyes closed, feeling along the wall to the latch of the door and—

His hand meets empty air, and everything slows down to a standstill. He stands on the threshold, fingers clawed, eyes red, fangs dropped and ready. The lamp has gone out, the sour smell of oil lingering. Snow has blown in, making drifts around the door and the wind whistles through. Stiles is gone, but he can’t scent any intruder, any threat. Only the scent of Stiles’s heat, of them together. The only living thing in the hut is Scott, and he’s huddled close to the stove, head down against the wind. Derek takes a few breaths, trying to catch a scent, to work out how long Stiles has been gone. The blizzard isn’t going to stop any time soon, and even a fully dressed werewolf in full possession of their mind would struggle. Stiles is a human omega in heat, a heat that is burning through him, sapping his energy, distorting his senses. He’s as good as lost.

Derek shifts into full wolf, steps out of his pooled damp clothes. Scott looks up as he trots over and licks the side of his face, butts his head against Derek’s, then hunkers down again. He leaves the door open, moves slowly from the threshold, trying to catch a scent, see a track. The snow has fallen too quickly, obliterates all traces of Stiles, sight or smell. Still, Derek moves forward, a few steps at a time, ears pricked for any sound, nose up to catch the currents of air as they whip past him. He moves slowly, the snow stinging his eyes, his nose. It’s a struggle to stay calm, to stop himself from running in frantic circles, using all of his strength and speed and none of his sense. He searches in a fan pattern, returning to the hut each time until his paws are numb and the cold has settled deep in his bones, the snow freezing on his skin, his breath turning his muzzle to ice.

He should be in his den now, with his pack, not chasing a scent that has been lost, footprints that are long buried. He wants to howl, wants to run down the mountain, to find his packmates, share their bed and their warmth, their bond, seek comfort from them. He cannot rest. He can feel his pack’s minds as they sleep, lets them soothe him for a few precious moments. He can feel the shapes of their minds: Erica’s is a crackling fire, a dancing flame, Isaac’s is new shoots in the earth, the snag of a briar, Boyd’s is as cool and deep as a lake, a sunwarmed stone on its shore. He almost misses the new, weak bond, small as it is, just a faint brush on his mind. It’s weak, flickering, just the vestigial sense of spiced tea, the feeling of a page under his fingertips. He shakes the snow from his fur. Stiles is alive.

This time, he has a direction, moves forward with purpose, letting the bond draw him closer, beckoning him. He chases a scent, a hint of laughter, the flash of brown eyes in the sunlight, a constellation of freckles on pale skin. He follows it until he can see the darker outlines of trees, and he knows, with a bone-deep certainty, that Stiles is there, and that he lives still. He breaks into a run, eyes glowing red as he bites back the urge to howl. Stiles lives still, and he is close, and nothing else matters.

It is quieter in the grove, sheltered from the worst of the wind. Stiles is leaning against the trunk of a tree, his eyes closed. He is barefooted, wearing only a loose shirt. He is cold, cold to the touch. Derek nudges him once, makes a high whining sound that he can’t quite hold back. Stiles frowns, opens his eyes. He’s delirious, eyes bright and staring in his stark pale face. Derek nudges him again, presses his nose to Stiles’s hand, trying to make him move, stand. Stiles just frowns again, doesn’t seem to notice the cold or the danger. His lips are moving soundlessly, repeating something over and over. Derek tries to nudge him again, gets no response so he shifts into his human form, crouches in front of him. “Stiles, can you hear me?”

Stiles meets his eyes briefly, then they focus on something else, something only he can see. “Had to look for it,” he murmurs, running his fingers down the tree bark.

“Look for what? What did you lose,” Derek asks, putting his hands on Stiles’s shoulders. “I need you to look at me, speak to me. Stiles!”

“Couldn’t see it. Didn’t know if—how will I know if I can’t see it? I can’t lose him, I can’t, I won’t,” Stiles whispers, grasps at Derek’s wrists, his fingers cold as ice, but strong, unexpectedly strong in his delirium. “Had to see if the signal had changed.”

The beacon. “All’s well,” Derek says softly. “All’s well in the kingdom.”

“Did you see it? Do you promise? On your honor?”

“On my honor,” Derek says, because he doesn’t care about honor, doesn’t need it, just needs Stiles alive. Stiles nods, tries to stand. Derek catches him as he stumbles, scoops him up and carries him through the drifted snow, the blizzard stinging his bare skin as he struggles to get back to the hut, Stiles a limp weight in his arms, head lolling back as Derek sinks into snowdrifts, nearly loses his footing countless times and the cold burns, it burns but he keeps on walking. Stiles shifts and mumbles fretfully in his arms, lost in some dark dream, his scent sharp with fear as Derek hunches over him as much as he can, tries to shield him from the worst of the wind, knowing as he does that he’s so tired that they might both perish, that every last scrap of his physical reserves is being used up on this last desperate trudge.

He left the hut door open, falls through it and into the melting snow, his feet still over the threshold. They can sleep now. All will be well, they’re in his den. His limbs are heavy as lead and he’s cold, so cold, thoughts quiet and calm. All will be—

Scott bleats loudly in his ear, butts at his forehead. Does it again, then again when all Derek does is groan. Derek lets his eyes go alpha red to quiet the little thing, but all Scott does is bleat again. He’s spent too much time with Stiles to be anything other than insolent. He butts at Derek again and again until he can feel something other than cold and tired, can feel a spark of anger as he lurches up to catch the lamb, stands and sways as Scott darts out of reach, watches him balefully from under a pile of quilts. Derek digs his claws deep into his thigh to trigger his healing, nearly yells out as warmth starts to return to his limbs and with it, pain. He breathes through it, starts to work even with fire racing up and down his legs, sweeps the snow out of the hut, closes the door against the wind, bolting it. He opens up the stove, breathing on the embers until they spring into life, feeds the flames with twigs until the peat has caught again. He sets the kettle on the stove again, the pot of broth, lights the lamp and takes a breath, another, shrugs on his overcoat and ties it loosely.

He kneels next to Stiles, who lies sprawled on the floor, shirt clinging damply to his back, breathing slowly, his pulse just a thread. It feels as if there’s no animation to him, nothing giving him any life. He is just a puppet, letting Derek take his shirt off, giving no complaint as he’s dried off with a scratchy woolen blanket. He doesn’t even stir when Derek wraps him up in quilt after quilt until he is just a face and some tufts of hair. Derek drags the cot until it is in front of the stove, picks Stiles up and places him there gently, stroking an errant strand of hair off his forehead. He looks at Stiles for long moments, memorizing a face he had thought lost to him forever. He knows, he knows that this isn’t going to end well for him, that Stiles is going back to his father, to the city. But he knows that Stiles will live, and be safe, and that is all he needs. It is enough. He brushes his thumb over Stiles’s lower lip, allows everything he feels to show in his face, just for a little while. He aches with a sweet, tender heaviness, allows himself to ache, to want, counts Stiles’s eyelashes and traces the constellations in his freckles.

When he has fed Scott, he sits on the stool next to Stiles, and waits. Stiles is warming up slowly, his heart beating a little faster, breathing a little steadier. He starts to smell more alive as his body warms, color returning to his cheeks. He starts to shiver, teeth chattering with it, tremors running through him as his body fights to live, to warm itself. Derek puts his hand on Stiles’s forehead, on his cheek, and Stiles leans into it, frowns when he can’t get closer, anxiety threading through his scent when he tries to move but can’t, trapped as he is by the quilts that warm him. “It’s alright,” Derek says, voice a little hoarse. “You’re safe, now.”

Stiles calms a little, but he still shakes, breathing heavily, tries to curl up but he can’t. He opens his eyes, looks straight at Derek but doesn’t really see him. “Cold,” he gasps out. “So cold, I can’t—please.”

“What do you need?” Derek asks, his hand hovering just over Stiles’s shoulder. Stiles tries to move again, tries to sit up and he presses him down, keeps him wrapped up in the quilts.

“Need you. You’re always so far away, and I—I’m cold. Need you here.”

He’s too tired to say no. He prays to any listening god for forgiveness, tugs at the end of one of the quilts, unwraps Stiles, letting the quilts fall to the floor as he goes. Stiles is pale, cold. He doesn’t feel quite alive when Derek first slides into the cot, his skin cool to the touch. He smells wrong, and something in Derek’s hindbrain takes over, some pack instinct that he doesn’t fight, doesn’t struggle with. He starts with Stiles’s fingers, taking the tips into his mouth, letting them rest there until they start to warm, then licking up each individual finger. Wrists are next, and he swirls his tongue around each pulse point, seeking the traces of saltsweat on his skin. He does the same with the insides of Stiles’s elbows, tongue gentle on the soft skin there, weighing Stiles down with the rest of his body, pinning him still, keeping him quiet. Behind Stiles’s ear, he takes his time, drawing sweet moans out of the boy, licking and sucking, finding all the places that make him keen and whine.

He grabs some of the quilts from the floor, throws them haphazardly over them both then goes back to the dip between Stiles’s collarbones, licks along the skin where it feels thin over the bone, up to the meat of Stiles’s shoulders. He could bite down, there, get a good purchase, keep the cub still and obedient, make him all limp and pliant. He licks the skin there instead, until it starts to warm and flush, strokes down his arms with careful clawed fingers. He can smell Stiles starting to become aroused, his heat reawakening now that the danger is passed, soothes the boy with little growls, pushes him into the mattress harder with the weight of his body.

Stiles’s nipples are tightly furled and he coaxes them out with his lips, his tongue, licking the crinkled skin over and over until they’re puffy, until Stiles has his fingers tangled in Derek’s hair, pulling at him to make him stop as he arches up into Derek’s mouth with these sweetly begging noises. He growls again to calm the boy, starts to lick and suckle at the other nipple until Stiles is hard against his thigh, warm and eager. “Please, please,” Stiles gasps, but he doesn’t tell Derek what he’s asking for, what he needs, so Derek just keeps going, licking a trail down the center of his chest, closing his teeth gently on the hint of cub fat on his stomach until Stiles whines and arches up again. He hushes him, keeps going until he’s nuzzling where Stiles’s scent is the strongest, his nose buried in Stiles’s pubic hair as he licks greedily at Stiles’s balls, the base of his dick.

Stiles humps up with a filthy undulating roll of his hips, his feet digging into Derek’s sides as he clumsily tries to take his pleasure. Derek soothes him again, pins his hips, settles his weight over Stiles’s legs. He smells perfect, all warm and alive, all slick, precome and sweat, ripe and receptive, all eager to be knotted, to be mated. Derek mouths at his dick, just presses his lips to the shaft, kisses up the length of it. He does the same again and again until his lips are shiny with it, until Stiles is gripping his hair with a strength that hurts, trying to buck up, to take what he wants, get some relief. Derek smiles, sniffs along the crease of his groin again, tugs at some of the hairs at the base of Stiles’s dick with his teeth. He lets Stiles spread his legs, tilt his hips up a little, and this time he licks down Stiles’s taint, presses his tongue to Stiles’s hole as it flexes, all empty.

Stiles pushes down on Derek’s shoulders with his heels, tilts his hips some more until his ass is off the mattress and this is hell, this is a perfect hell, because he can’t, he shouldn’t but he’s knotted up already, his dick swollen and hard against the mattress. Stiles is presenting, is begging for it. It would be so easy, but this, this is almost enough, lifting up Stiles’s hips further with his hands, lapping at his rim with his tongue as Stiles opens, slick leaking from him as he swells, all hot and ready. Derek licks him, over and over until he’s sobbing, until he’s crying with it and it only takes a few short strokes of his dick before Stiles comes, his hole spasming around Derek’s tongue, dick twitching and flexing in Derek’s hand.

Even before he’s finished coming, Stiles pulls Derek up, covers his face in feverish kisses, his eager fingers smearing his own slick onto Derek’s face, his beard as he marks Derek us as surely as Derek has marked him. Derek ruts up against his stomach, bites down on the mattress under Stiles’s shoulder as Stiles strokes his back, his hair, his fingers all gentle now that they aren’t clawed in desperation. They’re alive. They’re both alive, and Stiles is touching him like he’s something precious. As he comes, Derek kisses him, because they’re alive, and Stiles has the most beautiful mouth he has ever seen, and Derek will love him until he dies.

They eat wrapped up in their quilts, sleep in each other’s arms. Hold each other close until morning.

*

They’re being watched. Derek can feel it as he works, a prickle between his shoulderblades. Stiles’s heat broke in the night, and he comes out to the lambing cave at Derek’s insistence, wrapped up warm, watches Derek work without questioning Derek’s sudden protective streak. Derek is tired, weakened by the cold, the struggle of resisting Stiles’s heat. He doesn’t think he could defend Stiles, so he points out the tunnels at the back of the cave, shows him the length of rope that he needs to follow that will lead him to the village. “I’ll be fine, if anything happens,” he says, ignores Stiles’s narrowed eyes, his frown. They’re being watched, but it’s subtle, careful. Derek stands straight, doesn’t limp or slump, pushes himself through the fatigue. He closes the curtains of the hut before he sits down, before he shows any weakness. He shows Stiles where the knives are hidden, where the purse of coin is kept if he should need to flee in the night, and Stiles scowls, backs Derek up against the wall and kisses him until he stops talking.

They haven’t moved the cot. They share it once more. Derek is too tired to do anything but close his eyes. He goes to sleep to the feeling of Stiles running his fingers through his hair, over and over again.

The last lamb is born at midday the next day. Some of the ewes have already been let out onto the lower pastures, have bonded well enough with their lambs that they can leave the pens, can graze on the slopes further down the mountains. The snow is melting rapidly, the blizzard a distant nightmare now. Another week up here, and he’ll be done. It feels strange to think of Stiles with his pack, existing somewhere other than this isolated world, this hut, the cave, the mountain. He doesn’t know if Stiles will be able to see the beacon from his cottage. He doesn’t know if Stiles will like the woods, the stream. When he tells Stiles that the last lamb has just been born, Stiles looks as if he wants to say something, but he just smiles in the end, kisses him on the cheek. “Has it gone well?” he asks.

Derek nods, caught by the way the sunlight catches the color of Stiles’s eyes, makes them blaze, the curl of his lips. He will be the talk of the village, when they go back to the cottage—

When Stiles goes to the cottage, Derek will stay at the hut. Boyd will look after Stiles, the pack. They can run, if they need to. He can buy them time, stay up here and draw the wolf away. “It’s gone well,” he says softly. When he stands, his knees ache with the cold. He grits his teeth and walks with Stiles to the hut. He catches the scent of the wolf on the wind, bares his teeth in a silent challenge. Stiles lets their shoulders bump together as Scott plays at their feet. Whatever happens, it’s gone well.

That night, when they go out to look at the beacon, Stiles sighs, lets his head drop on Derek’s shoulder. “Has the message changed?” Derek asks quietly, but he knows the answer.

“I don’t want to go,” Stiles mumbles, his voice muffled. Derek strokes his hair, looks down at the village below.

“You have to,” he says. “You have your life to live. A city, a father who loves you. Books to read, professors to infuriate.”

“You won’t be there.”

Derek keeps his voice light, keeps looking ahead. “What do I matter?” he says, and he doesn’t say anything else. Stiles smells hurt, angry, but Derek doesn’t respond. He can hear howling in the distance. The sooner Stiles leaves, the better. They still sleep together. Stiles is silent, sullen. Derek curls around him from behind, links their fingers together and rests them on Stiles’s stomach, kisses the back of Stiles’s neck. He gets no response, but Stiles’s scent and the warmth of his body comfort him.

*

He’s taking his first sip of tea when he scents a wolf, closer now, too close. He herds Stiles to the back of the cave without talking, rolls the rock back from the tunnel. “Go!” he whispers, turns back round just as the wolf gets into the cave. “Now!” and he leaps, his claws out, on the point of shifting to wolf form as the intruder does the same when—

“Scott!” Stiles calls out. “Derek, it’s Scott!” and Derek pulls back his claws, lands on the wolf in a heap, breathing heavily.

“Scott. Your friend,” he says flatly. “A werewolf.”

He rolls off Scott, looks up at Stiles. “Didn’t I mention that?” Stiles asks, guileless. Derek snarls, deep in the back of his throat. Stiles ignores him, launches himself at Scott and they laugh and play like two cubs, talking rapidly, speaking in a language of half-sentences and touches, a language just for the two of them. Derek stands up, starts to walk back to the hut, breathing deeply for control. Stiles is going, leaving his life as rapidly as he entered it, and there isn’t a thing he can do to stop it. Stiles is going to live happily, to prosper. Perhaps sometimes he’ll think of Derek, of the mountain. Derek hopes that it’s a comfort to him, a memory to take refuge in. He’ll mate well, mate with a good alpha who will support him as he studies, who will know how to calm him when he’s worried, listen to him when his head is full of words. He’ll mate with someone from a good family, one that doesn’t feud, that doesn’t kill kings. He’ll be safe from the wolf that prowls, just at the edges of Derek’s awareness.

Derek looks around the hut for Stiles’s possessions, but he came to Derek with just the clothes on his back. There’s nothing to take away, no memories to remove from this place to make it any easier for Derek to bear. Derek wants to give Stiles all of his books, because they smell as though they are already his, and books are expensive and Stiles loves them. He strokes his fingers down their spines. They’re tattered, worn from many readings. Stiles has marked pages with bright scraps of cloth, has handled them so often that they smell of him, every page touched with long, clever fingers, read and reread. He will put them in the strongbox, hide them under the cot. Wrap them in fleeces so the scent doesn’t taunt him. Or he will give them to Stiles, and hope that he has use for them.

The sound of their laughter is clear and bright in the still air. They talk of Stiles’s father, how he is well and prospers, of peace talks and ambassadors. They walk up the path to the hut and Derek looks at the single room with fresh eyes. It incriminates him. The cot incriminates him, with its nest of blankets, the scent of their lovemaking, their sleep. Derek could talk all he wished of how he slept on a bench, night after night, but in front of the stove is a cot that bears the scent of his weakness, of Stiles’s need, tells the tale of how he almost lost Stiles, wasn’t enough to keep him safe and protected. He can wash the quilts in the lake. Carry them all up to the lake, dive in with them and let them sink. Use every sliver of Isaac’s soap on them. Then, next year, they will smell of lavender and mildew, musty with disuse, and he can lie beneath them and never think of Stiles. He smiles at his own folly, prepares Scott and Stiles a meal with the last of the bread, the cheese and the cured ham, serves it on his best plates, pours them each a glass of milk.

They come in arm in arm, a light dusting of snow on Scott’s shoulder. “Snowball fights?” Derek asks, smiling when Scott glares at Stiles. “Come, eat, you must be hungry after your journey.”

“Thank you. I am, I hardly had a chance to sit down before I was under orders to bring Stiles back,” Scott says with another glare. Stiles smiles, all insolence, spreads his hands wide.

“I left a note” he says. “It’s not my fault that my father’s staff are all incompetent. Besides, I was safe.”

Scott’s mouth is full of bread, but his look speaks volumes. Derek sits on one of the stools, takes his tally book from his pocket and notes down the last lamb born, its condition and the date it was born. When he looks up, Stiles is watching him. “Yes?”

“Tell Scott I was safe,” Stiles says. “Tell him he’s an old woman, and—” he breaks off at Scott’s low growl.

“You tricked me; you tricked everyone who was there to keep you safe, you—”

“Enough,” Derek bites out. “Stiles is old enough to make his own mistakes. I’ve known him but a short time and I don’t believe a word he says. If you’re all deceived by him, that’s your lookout.”

Scott’s eyes go red, his claws slowly appearing. Derek offers no challenge, just waits for him to regain control. Stiles has gone quiet, and when Derek looks at him, his expression is soft, unreadable. “I don’t want to go,” he says. “Now I know that my father is safe. I could stay here, I could—”

“No,” Derek says, keeps his voice flat, as cold as he can make it. It’s difficult to look at Stiles, to watch the humiliated hurt bloom on his face. “No, he repeats, because Stiles has a way of making a no into a yes, of chipping away at his resistance, arguing black into white. “We had a deal, and we’re sticking to it.” He uses his alpha voice even if it makes Scott’s hackles rise, stares Stiles down until he looks at his hands, jaw clenched, eyes ablaze with anger. Derek turns to Scott, keeps his voice even. “The weather is set clear. If you leave now you can be on the broad road by noon, and they keep the king’s roads passable.”

Scott’s eyes keep flicking between them. He’s an inexperienced alpha yet, unused to using his power, or Derek is sure that he would have had Scott’s claws in his neck by now. “I’m,” Stiles clears his throat, “I’m going to say goodbye to Scott.”

He leaves quickly, doesn’t look at either of them, cheeks still red, the lines of his body all anger. Scott starts to speak, but Derek holds his hand up, waits for Stiles to get to the cave before he lowers it.

“You—you hurt him! Do you know how rare it is for him to—to trust anyone? And you—you throw it away. You don’t deserve to even look at him, I should take it out of your worthless hide,” he snarls.

Derek lets himself slump on the stool, unutterably tired. “I’d let you,” he says, closing his eyes. He needs to sleep. Lambing season takes everything he has, every year. Stiles has taken more, and he has given it willingly. Scott stands, crouches down in front of him and puts his hand on Derek’s forehead.

“You’re burning up,” he says, looks into Derek’s eyes, scents the air around him.

“I’ll live,” Derek sighs. “But I’m weak, too weak to keep him safe. Best if he leaves, before the danger gets here. I think you’d take me in a fight, and you’re just a cub.” When he opens his eyes, Scott is smiling a little.

“You love him,” he says.

Derek lets his silence damn him. “My horses are stabled at the inn. Take them; they’ll be fresh for the journey. There’s coin in the purse on the mantelpiece, my seal ring. Use them if you need them; my name can still give some protection, blackened as it is.”

Scott tilts his head to the side. “Did he ever tell you who he is?” he asks. Derek closes his eyes, unable to bear Scott’s compassion, his pity.

“Everyone calls him Stiles,” he says, keep his eyes closed as Scott stands. Just as Scott is about to leave the cottage, he turns and looks at Derek, the light behind him making his outline dark, his face unreadable. “You should be quick. And when you get to the village, tell my wolves to run. They’ll know where to go. Don’t tell Stiles. Promise not to tell Stiles,” he says, pleading. Scott hesitates. “Please. I’m their alpha. I have to—I have to at least try to keep them safe,” he says. After long moments, Scott nods, once, turns, closes the door behind him. Derek digs his claws into the bench as they leave, talking quietly as they walk down the path. He doesn’t howl. He has his pride.

*

He bites down on his hand that night to keep himself quiet. The full moon is high in the sky, sending his blood into a fever, his mind disordered. Everything smells of Stiles, everywhere he looks he sees traces of him, from the books to the spices he puts in their tea. He bites down on his hand, stays silent and still as blood fills his mouth, huddles down like a frightened child in the corner of a hut that was a refuge. A single whine, a howl, and the pack will turn back, will come to Derek’s aid. A single sound, and he’ll reclaim Derek’s pack, and all their running will be for nothing. Derek bites down on his hand, and when Peter comes with his own, new pack, he doesn’t make a single sound. Doesn’t even fight them. His hand drips blood on the snow as they carry him. He hasn’t even the strength to heal.

He wakes up in chains. Time blurs. Peter is kind and cruel by turns. Talks of mating bonds, of packs, tells him how easy it would be for him to free himself, how Peter can make things right for him. How they can be a pack again, reclaim their lands and their name. Derek stays quiet. “Just howl,” Peter says. “Call them. Call your omega, and he’ll move mountains to get to you.”

Derek whines in pain, slumping in his shackles until his shoulders wrench. He doesn’t howl. Peter leaves. His skin burns, his joints ache. Peter doesn’t even need to torture him much. His mind and his body are doing all the work for him, not that this blunts Peter’s claws or dulls his fists. He doesn’t know how much time passes before Peter is back again. He coaxes again, talks about their old home, how beautiful it was, how sweet their lives were, full of ease. Derek doesn’t speak. He talks about their future, about ensuring the future of the bloodline, strokes Derek’s hair as he plans with a soft voice. Derek doesn’t respond, concentrating on every breath. “You could have so much,” he murmurs, kissing Derek’s forehead. “Why form a mating bond with the son of the king and never use it?” he asks softly, his voice kind, eyes full of pity. Derek doesn’t speak. He keeps his heart closed. Peter slams his head back against the wall when he leaves, snarling in his face, all teeth and anger, all honesty. Derek doesn’t flinch.

High above, he can see the stars through the grille. He imagines a beacon, something to ease his mind, but there is no need for one now. The king’s son is with his father. There is no need to calm the restless mind of the heir to the throne with lights that flicker on the hills. Stiles has nothing to trouble him now. Derek looks at the stars, names as many constellations as he can. Tries to remember all of the old stories, all the tales of chases across the sky, of wolves eating the sun in three bites, ravens and wolves as dear friends and bitter foes. His mind wanders, but those stories that he recalls give him comfort.

Peter grows impatient. Derek is steadfast. He stops healing himself, uses all of his strength to keep his mind intact, his will strong, denies himself the bonds that tie him to those that he loves. Peter turns to words, to soft touches, gives him bitter wine that haunts him with monstrous visions, sweet wine that weaves illusions of soft hands, warm lips. He sees his mother, feels her touch, smells her scent and kneels at her feet, face buried in her stomach as she strokes his hair, soothes him. He is at the feast, watches his family die, over and over. The old king comes to him, tries him for treason in his uncle’s place. Laura cries, slashes at him with her claws and they grapple, naked and bloody until they can no longer stand. His pack comes to him, lick his wounds, rip his shackles from his weakened limbs. He wakes up alone each time. Before each sip of wine, Peter tells him how easy it would be to stop these dreams. He drains each glass.

He never dreams of Stiles.

*

He opens his eyes one morning and sees a dark haired girl with a crossbow. He doesn’t speak, waits for her to disappear. “Do you remember me?” she says at last.

Derek clears his throat. “You grew into your weapon,” he rasps, coughs racking his frame. “But you’re not real.”

The Argent girl tilts her head to the side, her smile teasing. “Come with me anyway. You’ve got nothing to lose.”

Derek considers this, nods. “That seems logical,” he murmurs, watches her break the shackles with a magesnap, tries not to fall when his arms are freed. She takes his weight easily. She smells of gunpowder and wolfsbane, and he doesn’t trust her. A rope hangs down from where the grille used to be, and she asks if he has the strength to climb. He just looks at her.

“Try,” she says. “I’ll catch you, but you have to try. Please,” so he bends down, leaps, claws nearly shredding the rope, thrashes until the rope swings enough to knock against the wall and he’ll fall, he’ll fall but a hand reaches down and grips his wrist, holds him still.

“Be calm. Take my hand,” and it’s another Argent, the brother, and he doesn’t trust him but the air smells fresh and clean, and he might be able to see the moon from here so he breathes deeply, lets Argent pull him up and scrambles over the cold stone to the grass, black bile pouring from his mouth, blood seeping from his unhealed wounds. This is real. Nothing has ever hurt this much in his dreams. The grass is cold beneath his shaking hands, damp with melting frost. He wants to roll in it. “We need to leave,” Argent says, grips the back of his neck and hauls him up.

“Are you here to kill me?” he asks, swaying a little in Argent’s hold. Behind him, he can hear the sound of the grille being put back in place, fastened down. Argent smiles at him, teeth glinting in the moonlight. He looks older, grizzled, no longer the clean shaven, respectable merchant. His clothes are dark, serviceable. The stench of wolfsbane clings to him.

“I’d rather not. The price on your head is for your safe return,” Argent says, steering him towards a waiting horse. “Can you stay in the saddle?”

“So you’re a mercenary now? Not falling back on your glorious name?” he asks, turning in Argent’s grip. The girl rolls her eyes, starts to unwrap a length of rope. His knees buckle when he tries to get his foot in the stirrup. “And no. I can’t.”

Because the girl is kinder than her father would have been, she ties his arms around the horse’s neck, ties his feet to the stirrups so that he can at least pretend to be riding the thing. Chris Argent is the sort of man to tie him belly down and tell him it’s for his own good. Or he used to be. Time has changed them all, as it must. He smiles at the girl, nods his thanks. When they set off, the horse he’s on keeps pace with them. He rests his cheek on its mane, feels its muscles flex under him as it sets a merciless pace, eating up the ground with muffled swiftness. The Argents have learnt some smuggling tricks. Fitting, for a family of thieves and murderers to have abandoned their civility, false as it was. Mercenaries. Then, he is a shepherd now. It is perhaps not such a strange thing after all.

He loses consciousness as they enter the forest, unable to keep himself awake any longer. They have kept the same pace, not talking or pausing for rest or food. Both of them wear dark cloaks, daggers close to hand, set little wolfsbane traps, throw bottles of anise and cinnamon either side of them to confuse their trail. It is just like the old wars of his childhood, skirmishes and ambushes that gave way to a false peace of pleasantries and gifts, and it is with the back of his neck prickling that he eventually surrenders to sleep.

He regains consciousness flat on his back, with Argent holding a mirror to his nose. He claws up and tries to struggle out of Argent’s grip. “Easy, there. Why aren’t you healing?” Argent asks, poking at one of the clawmarks on his stomach, the deep gouge from his knee to his groin. Derek doesn’t answer, sits up slowly. “You’re an alpha; some of these are old wounds. You should have healed these weeks ago; there’s no trace of wolfsbane in them. Tell me,” he says, voice a little harsher, now, presses down on a wound on Derek’s arm. Derek snarls, stands up into a crouch, arms out by his sides, fangs dropped. Argent doesn’t move, but behind him, there’s the snick of an arrow being notched, the faint creak of a bow.

Derek takes a breath another, blackness blooming at the edges of his vision. “I don’t trust you,” he says. “I don’t know why you’re here, but I don’t trust you. Or like you,” he adds. Behind him, the girl adjusts her stance. He sheathes his claws, lets his fangs recede slowly, but he doesn’t stand down. He doesn’t need to: he’ll fall down soon enough. He pants for breath, bites the inside of his lip to try and stay focussed, but the world is tilting to black and white and he’s weak, too weak.

“We’re supposed to bring him alive,” Argent says. The wood of the bow creaks as the girl takes the tension off it, putting the arrow back in its quiver.

“We should move quickly, then. I don’t think he’s going to be alive much longer, not in this state,” she says. Her voice is dispassionate, but she catches him as he falls, lowers him gently to the ground. “Easy, there,” she murmurs, strokes his hair back from his forehead with a smile. “You’re nearly there. You can let yourself heal soon.” His eyes slide shut as he looks up at her, then at the stars above her head, blazing bright, so bright that they’re all he sees.

The world goes by in flashes: the road beneath him, the sunrise, Argent’s fingers at his throat as they make him drink, the girl’s as she coaxes him to eat, putting crumbs of honeycake to his lips and praising him warmly when he licks them off, brief conversations with other travelers, murmured conferences over his head as he lolls in the saddle. He can’t keep his claws in, snarls at the Argents when they come near. They get to the walls of a city and it’s all noise, all scent and it’s only Argent’s grip on the back of his neck that keeps him from going utterly feral as they ride, growling in a way that makes the horses paw the ground restlessly. It’s more a mercy than a betrayal when the pommel of Argent’s dagger comes down on his temple with brutal precision, and he accepts it without protest.

*

“—and if you think I’m going to sit here and watch you destroy yourself out of some misguided sense of honor, you damned—”

“I think it’s the custom to be soothing when you’re at someone’s bedside, son.”

“If they aren’t the most infuriating—”

“Stiles.”

Someone touches his forehead, his cheek. “Alright. Soothing. Your pack is here, and they’re safe. Peter’s dead. I’m here. It’s all—it’s all fine. But you need to heal. It isn’t—you don’t need to be strong any more. You need to rest. Because I love you, even if you’re an incredibly stupid, knuckleheaded lunk of a—”

Stiles.

Someone kisses him on the tip of his nose. “I love you. You’ll live, because I love you.”

*

“You made me promise not to tell Stiles, so I told everyone else, and I’m not sorry. Your pack is here, and they’re safe. And Scott’s here, the other Scott, because Stiles made us go back for him. And you’re here. We didn’t think—when Chris Argent came up the stairs carrying you, your pack thought he had killed you. It’s alright, though. He’s healing now. And he has a beautiful daughter, and she shot me, but she said she was sorry so it’s fine, because I healed. And you should, too. You should let your wounds heal, because your pack is here, and your mate is here. You just need to let them in.”

*

“Stiles told me what you did, son. I wanted to thank you, as his father. Not as a king. Just as his father. He’s going to be trouble, but he loves you beyond reason, so I think you should do just fine together. You don’t need my blessing, but you have it. Heal well, alpha.”

*

“We’re all safe, Derek. We kept our promise to you, and we’re safe. The lambs are doing well, learning all the old paths through the mountains. You’ll see a fine flock when you come back for shearing. Isaac and Erica are out in the city. They didn’t want to leave you, but they were arguing the birds out of the trees, so I told them to go make trouble somewhere else. I hope they don’t make too much trouble, though. I think I’ve had enough of that to last a lifetime. I want—you should be the one to tell them off. They don’t mind me as well as they should.”

*

“I had forgotten how beautiful the girls are in this city. Boys, too. I tried my hand at pickpocketing, just to see if I remembered it, but Stiles’s father made me take the things I had stolen back. His father—the king. Strange, to think of him as a prince. He didn’t act like one on the journey here. Except…he told us we should travel with him, to ask for his father’s protection and his voice kind of went like yours does sometimes. So maybe he does, and I just don’t know enough princes. We made Boyd go and sleep. He’s barely left your side. Erica’s at the forge, hitting things because she’s still angry with you. I think I am, too. I can decide when you wake up.”

*

“You lied. You always told us, you said that when we ran, wherever we went, you’d find us when it was safe. It’s safe now, damn your eyes, it’s safe. We’re your pack. You’re our alpha, and we need you. You promised, and I know you say you don’t care about honor, but you swore on the moon, we made you swear on the moon, and you just—Boyd, I can’t. What if he doesn’t wake up? What if he never comes back to us?”

“He’ll wake up. He’s tired. He just needs to rest.”

She kisses him on the lips, then on each of his eyelids. She touches him on his forehead, then his chest, right over his heart. “Let us in,” she whispers.

*

“It’s been too long. He just—he isn’t there. We can’t reach him. It’s like his body’s here, but his mind is just gone.”

“Call his mind back.”

“Stiles, it isn’t that simple.”

“Why not? Why can’t it be simple? Why can’t he just be at the other side of a wall, or in the next room? Why does he have to be—to be lost? What do you do—when someone’s lost, how do you find them? Boyd, how do you call your pack? How do you let them know you need them?”

“We howl.”

“Show me.”

“Stiles—”

Now.

It’s like being struck by lightning. It’s like being in the thick of a battle, all snapping teeth and slicing claws, the clash of steel and the scent of blood, like hunting down a stag with your pack by your side, like diving into the lake from the highest rock, like the heat of the fire in the forge, the sea in a storm, like the first shuddering breath of a newborn lamb, like the red flash of a fox running in the snow. His wolves howl, and it tears down his carefully tended walls. His wolves howl, and it hurts. His wolves howl, and he lets it hurt, sinks back into a body wounded almost beyond repair and lets it mend, lets bones knit and flesh bond as his wolves run back into his heart, his soul, flow into the spaces that were empty and cold before and reclaim their home.

When the howling stops, the only thing he can hear are his shuddering gasps, before the rest of the world floods in, every heartbeat, every scent. His pack are here, alive and well, and—

“Stiles?”

“I’m here, Derek. Right here.”

Derek frowns, tries to find words. Puts his hand over his heart. “Here, too.”

Stiles puts his hand over his, strokes back and forth with his thumb. “Someone decided to form a mating bond without telling me,” he murmurs. “Someone decided to make me fall in love with them, and never tell me they felt the same. Someone decided that they didn’t deserve to have any happiness, that they should make themselves suffer because they were too stone headed to—”

“I love you,” Derek says, opens his eyes. Stiles smiles at him, his eyes warm and bright.

“You can’t just say things like that,” he says, a little helplessly. “It’s cheating when I’m trying to be angry with you.”

Derek smiles, feeling weak and washed-out. Isaac, Erica and Boyd stand at the foot of his bed. Their faces are pinched and drawn, shadows under their eyes, but they’re alive, and he can feel them again, in his heart, where they belong. For the first time in long weeks, he takes a breath and everything feels alright. “The lambs?” he asks as he sinks back onto the pillows, Stiles’s hand warm in his.

“All safe, out to pasture. They’ll go up to the higher slopes when the lark starts to sing,” Boyd says. “All fine, strong lambs, too, Derek.”

“And my pack? How does my pack fare?” he asks, closing his eyes. “I missed you all, these past months. Felt wrong. Empty bed.”

He’s on the point of sinking back into sleep as the covers are pulled back. His pack surround him, Stiles tucked into his side, nose cold on his neck, Boyd on his other side with Erica and Isaac on top of him. All the knots that had been tied in his chest loosen, because his pack is here, and they smell like home, and whatever else Peter has taken from him, he still has this, still has them. They talk quietly as he basks in their presence, their scent calming him. “You’re almost purring,” Stiles murmurs, his breath warm on Derek’s skin. Derek rubs his chin lazily on the top of Stiles’s head, shifts so that his arm is wrapped around him.

“I’m happy,” he says, testing the words in his heart and finding them true. He sinks into sleep between one breath and the next, still smiling.

*

They’re still there when Derek wakes up. Stiles has somehow rolled over him in his sleep   and is draped half over Boyd, half over Isaac. Erica is lying over his legs, her head nearly hanging off the bed. He strokes her hair and she leans into his touch with a soft sigh. She smells a little of smoke, of iron and sweat, and there is a smudge of soot just below her ear. He licks his thumb, wipes it away. Find a forge, and you’ll find Erica. She shuffles a little closer to him, humming contentedly when he starts to stroke her tangled hair again.

Now that he is more alert, he can think, and plan. And wonder. His wolves seem at home in the palace, seem to be comfortable with Stiles in a way they seldom are with strangers. It took years before they were accustomed to the people in the village, and they were good, kind people who accepted them without question, helped them through the cruel winter with food that they could ill afford to spare. It is the reason that Derek goes up into the mountains every year, the reason he cares for the village’s flock, guides them through lambing, calls them down for the shearing. He owes them a debt that he may never be able to repay, helps them where he can with whatever they require of him, because they accepted his pack, even when they didn’t venture out of the cottage, would stay indoors or deep, deep in the woods, high in the mountains.

The villagers called them Derek’s shadows, only saw glimpses of them as they disappeared around corners, behind trees, flashes of yellow eyes and sharp teeth. Derek would go to the inn, go to the village pump, talk to people because they weren’t monsters and he wouldn’t let his pack become the unknown. He would tell them how Isaac could play the fiddle, how he still hadn’t stopped growing, how Erica could bend and twist metal wire into cunning shapes, how Boyd could fashion ice skates out of almost anything and follow a scent for miles. He would talk, and talk, even when he wanted to mourn his losses, to care for his pack, for the alternative was flaming torches, whispers, fear and mistrust. The village knew his wolves, and so when they came out of the shadows, tangle-haired and wild-eyed, they were welcomed.

Now, they are in a new place, a strange place, and they aren’t hiding, and he’s more proud of them than he can say. He sits up, starts to work the snarls and snags out of Erica’s hair, drawing out the pain with one hand as he combs through with the other. It is an old trick his mother used to use with Laura and Cora, to stop them growling every time she combed their hair, eyes glowing yellow as they struggled. Laura used to make him tangle her hair deliberately when their mother started to use that trick, used to kneel at their mother’s feet, eyes slipping shut in bliss as her pain was drawn out and mother brushed her hair until it shone like raw silk. He hasn’t got a brush or a comb, but he does the best he can with his fingers. She’s half awake, now, smiles up at him with her eyes half lidded. “You found a forge already?” he asks quietly. Her smile becomes a little wider.

“The armory. It’s run by another werewolf. You’d like her,” she murmurs, rolling over so that Derek can get to the rest of her hair. “She says I’ve got a lot to learn, but I listen well.”

He huffs out a laugh and she nips at his leg, growling a little. “I can listen; you’re a mean alpha” she says, but he can hear the smile in her voice, so he skritches lightly at her scalp, starts to work out a particularly large tangle.

“Yes, I am,” he agrees mildly. “What’s her name?”

“Kali.”

His hand stills for a few moments as he tries to remember who she is. So many packs came and went through Hale lands, and were welcomed and aided as required. These old alliances, old rivalries, most of them lost to the massacre, generations of aiding and feuding lost at the tip of a sword. Kali, though, was a good ally. She…after the feast, and the bloodshed that followed, she stood with him and Laura. He has little real memory of that time, but she stood with them. “You’ll go far with her,” he says. She used to wear torcs and cuffs of beaten copper, tipped her claws with tempered steel. “If…if we stay.”

“We stay,” Erica mumbles, face pressed into his shin as he tugs apart a strand of matted hair. He has no idea what she does to her hair to get it in this state.

“It isn’t that simple,” Derek tells her, wishing with all of his heart that it was. “Peter made sure of that when he murdered the previous king as he slept and left his bloodied corpse in front of the palace. I’m reasonably certain his heir will not welcome a member of the same pack into the palace for longer than is necessary.”

Stiles stirs next to him, lazily stretches out his arm so that he’s touching Derek. “Not the heir,” he croaks, his eyes still closed. “Old king didn’t have an heir. Too busy embezzling funds. My father kept the peace after Peter, and, uh, they didn’t let him stop. He was in the city guards. He still sneaks out of the palace to patrol sometimes. Thinks I don’t know.”

“Everyone knows,” Isaac says, trying to sit up, pushing Stiles so that he rolls off both Isaac and Boyd, lands on top of Derek with a stifled yelp. “Except Derek.”

Derek doesn’t comment. Stiles is straddling him, face pressed into his neck, legs wrapped around him, and he smells warm and right, smells like home and Derek doesn’t care what he doesn’t know, doesn’t care about anything but the solid weight of his mate, alive and well, struggling to keep his balance.

“Mated to the son of the king, and didn’t even know it. This is what happens when you don’t have us around,” Isaac says, sitting up and taking over from Derek with Erica’s hair. Stiles smiles into his skin.

“I didn’t—I didn’t know I was bonded. I’d always thought…” there were those stories, of alphas forcing a bond through knotting, of omegas in heat, bonded when they were too desperate to say no, feverish with need. Old folktales, of animals that would take human form carrying off omegas, kingdoms won and lost by the right knot at the right time. A bond stronger than death. “I tried to, to give you a chance to leave. I didn’t want to take advantage.”

Stiles leans back a little, looks at Derek, his eyes sharp, serious. “At some point, we’re going to have a long talk about you making decisions on my behalf,” he says, then his expression softens a little. “And then we can have a long talk about honesty and how I shouldn’t keep things from you just because it makes things simple,” he adds, and Derek nods, because a guilty part of him wants things to go back to being simple, except perhaps they never really were between him and Stiles, perhaps they will always be a tangle of love and divided loyalties, old wounds and older grudges. Perhaps they are only simple when Stiles is running, or in heat. When there is need, and it is the most important thing between them.

“I would speak with your father,” he says. “I know you—I know tradition means little to you, but I want—I wish to show him respect, as someone who loves you, who raised you.”

Stiles nods. He shows so much on his face in these moments, looks heartachingly young, vulnerable. “Does that mean you accept our bond? Even knowing who I am?”

He kisses Stiles, a chaste press of lips, rests their foreheads together. “With all my heart,” he says softly, allows himself this one wish, this desire.

*

King Stilinski is unnervingly like his son. He sits at his desk, leaning back in his sturdy oak chair. He wears no symbol of office and his clothes are made of sturdy fabrics, more practical than ceremonial. His hair is cropped short and he looks tired, his face lined but his eyes are bright and kind, keenly intelligent. He wears his power lightly, but it is still there, in the heavy seal on his desk, the maps, the territory markings—“Pack lines?” he blurts out without meaning to. Stilinski nods, rubbing his chin with one hand.

“I’m trying to work out what to do about them. Argent’s old maps. Funny things, borders. Once they’re on a map, they’ve got more power, and sometimes it’s down to who draws them on the map first. And with werewolves—the boundary moves, yes? It ebbs and flows.”

Derek nods, looking down at the map. It feels wrong, seeing them set in ink like that. “This map can only be true for a few months,” he says. He doesn’t like it, doesn’t like seeing pack lines reduced to something you can draw with a quill. Stilinski looks up at him for a few moments, rolls up the map.

“I’m going to put them in the archives. The archivist sleeps all day, so it should be a few years before they are catalogued,” he says with a slight smile. “Stiles would never let me hear the end of it if I were to burn them, but I don’t think they have any place in my dealings with werewolves. Does that sound fair?” he asks. Derek doesn’t know quite why he is asking. He is just one werewolf, not all of them. He would like to burn every single thing Gerard Argent ever touched, would like to set fire to every single damn thing, every weapon, every experiment, every single book in their damned collection, passed down from murderer to murderer—

“Or we could burn the things, and forget to tell Stiles,” Stilinski says, head tilted to one side. “But you aren’t here to talk about maps.”

Derek takes a breath to calm himself. “I came here to ask you—that is—I bonded with Stiles. A mating bond. I would honor it, if you will allow me to.”

Stilinski looks at him for long moments, eyebrows raised. “No talk of accidents, of circumstances? No apology or justification? No regrets?”

Derek looks down at the rolled up maps, the seal of office, at the man who never aimed to be king, who kept the peace in a restless city and ended up with a country to rule, thinks of werewolves and older loyalties, alphas and kings. “I fell in love with your son when I saw him running up a mountain in unsuitable shoes, trying to evade a group of men on horseback with hounds that were nipping at his heels. I cannot—will not—regret that.”

“Whatever happens?”

Derek nods. Stilinski sighs, rubs the back of his neck with one hand. “I give you my blessing,” he says. “As a father, and as king.”

Derek can’t quite stop himself from blinking in surprise. “As—your people would never accept me as consort. A prince and a werewolf who herds sheep, hiding up in the mountains from the disgrace brought about by his uncle. It isn’t a match with any advantage.”

“So you would be a kept wolf? Someone who warmed the prince’s bed when it was required?”

“If it made Stiles happy, yes,” Derek says. “I know he will be allied to someone acceptable, but I can—I’ll ignore my instincts.” Stilinski gives him a long look.

“Derek, he hired assassins to go and rescue you. He actually went, alone, to the most notorious tavern in the city with a bag of gold, and promised it to the first person to bring you to him alive. Do you know what ballads are being sung on the street corners? They tell of a lonely shepherd, a werewolf, high up in the mountains tending his sheep, who is visited by the most handsome prince in the land, on the coldest night of the year. In some, the werewolf fights off a rabid bear to save the prince, in some, a whole pack of werewolves come to try and steal him away. In some, the prince is there to test the werewolf’s hospitality, finding true nobility in the mountains when down in the richer houses, he was turned away from every home. In most, it becomes bawdy by the third verse, but in all, the werewolf is a hero. You will honor the bond, and you will do it in full sight of the people, and it will be a lasting bond and a fruitful alliance. You are a good man, and my son loves you. Nothing else matters.”

Derek resists the urge to touch the tips of his ears to find out if they are as hot as he imagines they are. “There are ballads?”

Stilinski’s mouth twitches slightly. “Stiles has been transcribing them. I think he wants to give you the book as a bonding gift. He’s had some of them illustrated. Son, are you still sure about this?”

Gods help him, he says yes.

*

They run together, hand in hand down dusty corridors, through doors concealed by wall hangings, up worn stone steps that spiral up and up. Stiles keeps looking back to check he’s still there, even though they’re holding hands, even though Derek will never lose him again. Bonded. They’re bonded. A bond that is stronger than death, more enduring than stone, bright as the sun, quiet as the moon. They run through old rooms full of finery that lies forgotten, covered in dust, gold glinting in cobwebbed corners. There are statues in one room, animal skulls in another, broken spinning wheels and unstrung harps. The rooms smell of dust, old scents overlaid in places with the brighter flare of Stiles’s scent, trails laid down on his wanderings. These corridors and rooms are secrets: this is as much Stiles’s territory as the mountain and the caves are Derek’s. He tugs Stiles to him, kisses him as he laughs, breathless and giddy.

Stiles lets go of his hand, darts through a small side door. “Catch me,” he calls, voice full of laughter, already fading as he takes them deeper and deeper into the palace. Derek grins, follows, could find Stiles with a blindfold on, could track that scent tirelessly for days. He can see Stiles’s feet disappearing round a corner, can’t hold back a low growl as he hunts his prey. Stiles’s laughter is more breathless this time, arousal running through his scent. He holds back, lets Stiles gain an advantage, waits for a minute before he chases him.

He turns this way and that, through doors behind hangings, up and down staircases, across open walkways between soaring towers and down, down, to where the wind doesn’t whistle around his ears. Every step, he gains on Stiles, until he can see a flash of bright clothing disappearing around a corner, the scent a bright lure. Derek follows him down some stairs, pauses at an archway looking out over a small courtyard with a frozen pool in the center. A tower stands opposite. At the base of the tower, a door is open. Stiles stands in the doorway, waiting for him, out of breath, his cheeks flushed with the cold.

Derek walks slowly across the courtyard, feet crunching in the snow. Snowflakes flurry about him, settling lightly on his hair, his eyelashes. This place feels sacred, somehow. In the summer, there will be roses here. The briars climb up the walls, twine around stone statues. They’ve been left to run riot over the stonework, reclaiming it. He can see why Stiles loves it here, why he chooses to have his chambers in a long-forgotten wing of the palace, where wild birds make their nests and ivy crawls up over the stones. He had imagined Stiles living in pampered comfort, his every need met, but this tower, this wild, crumbling tower, suits him better than some lavish apartment, suits him better than having servants at his beck and call. Stiles doesn’t say anything when he reaches the doorway, just holds out his hands for Derek to take, eyes a pale amber in the thin winter light.

They have already bonded, with heart and body and in the eyes of their loved ones, but the chase and the claim, their run through the Stiles’s territory and his welcoming into Stiles’s den fills his heart with a breathless joy at the ritual of it, accidental though it is. “Close your eyes,” Stiles says, so he does, lets Stiles lead him, meek as a lamb. He can hear a fire in the hearth, can smell the warmth of spices, cinnamon and cardamom, the sweetness of the rush matting on the floor. He can hear the uneven thudding of Stiles’s heart, can smell his lust, underlaid with nervousness, even if his hands are steady and warm, callused thumbs stroking over his skin. Stiles drops his hands, walks around him to close the door. He can hear fabric rustling, can hear Stiles moving around the room, minutely adjusting things to his satisfaction as he waits, trying not to smile.

“When I got back to my rooms, after the hut, I couldn’t sleep. I spent night after night just staring out of the window, wondering why everything here felt so wrong, why I was—why I didn’t feel safe. So I made it feel like home again,” Stiles says, brushing his thumbs under Derek’s eyes, kissing his cheek and leaning in close, tucking his head under Derek’s chin with a soft sigh. He smells as if he is in heat again, his scent ripe and ready, a temptation that Derek no longer needs to resist. “You can open your eyes,” so Derek does. The walls are covered in pictures, chalk writing, brightly colored threads spiderwebbing out over the stones. Books cover every available surface, scrolls of parchment littering his desk and floor, spilling out over Stiles’s heavy wooden bedframe, scraps of paper pinned to the heavy hangings around the bed.

Stiles’s mattress is in front of the fire, covered with quilts, the clothing Derek gave him on top of the pillow, copies of the books Stiles read next to it. There is a battered kettle hanging above the fire, a box of spiced tea on the mantelpiece. “I wanted to be back at the hut, with you. I didn’t want to miss you anymore,” Stiles murmurs, and Derek can’t quite speak, doesn’t know what he would even say. He kisses the top of Stiles’s head instead, kisses the tip of his ear, any part of Stiles that he can get to, because he had always assumed that Stiles would move on, would find someone better, but had never stopped to wonder whether Stiles wanted to.

“It’s perfect,” he says, “it’s home.” Stiles’s scent goes warm and pleased, and he looks up at Derek, a flush blooming across his cheekbones. “We should—can we?” and Stiles smiles, blinks slowly, takes a step back.

“You did catch me,” he says, his eyes demurely cast down. “We should respect tradition,” and his tone is formal, his posture perfect, the picture of omega chastity, and if Derek didn’t know he was a complete hellion, he would be utterly taken in.

“In that case, I should write you a sonnet, dedicated to your eyes, and another five praising my own deeds. And then play you music of my own composition on the lute, and give your father three of my best horses, and—”

The courtly illusion is ruined when Stiles tackles him to the mattress, fingers already busy on the fastenings of his breeks, impatient as they tug at his shirt, wanting everything at once, and when they are finally naked it is more in spite of than because of Stiles’s efforts, their clothing strewn about the room. Stiles is slick already, keeps rutting against Derek’s thigh as Derek kisses him, pants hot and desperate against Derek’s mouth, making these sweetly broken sounds. Derek is hard, his dick leaking against his belly as Stiles curves over him, his spine a long, graceful line, skin soft and warm beneath his hands. “Hells, your fingers, just—please,” Stiles gasps out as Derek strokes down his back to his ass, fingers just brushing against Stiles’s rim, trailing the slick down over his taint. “Please,” Stiles begs again, and Derek soothes him with kisses, presses his index finger into Stiles’s hole smoothly, both of them sighing as he sinks into Stiles’s heat, the tight clutch of his hole.

Stiles is slick enough to be in heat, his skin hot, almost feverish. Derek can ease his finger in without difficulty, making Stiles sigh softly, opening up to accept it. He keeps on moving his finger in and out as Stiles kisses him, his lips soft, sometimes nipping gently at Derek’s lower lip, sometimes tracing the divot above with his tongue. “C’mon,” Stiles says, brushing his thumb across Derek’s nipple, hips moving constantly, his dick leaving a trail of precome on Derek’s skin. “I need you.”

Derek arches into Stiles’s touch, his brain fogged with lust. “Not for my knot. I need to open you up for that. Get you all slick and ready,” he says, adding another finger as he speaks. Stiles whines, his mouth slack, eyes bright and feverish. He’s leaked so much that it’s smeared on Derek’s thighs, the scent heady, intoxicating. “You’re doing so well. You’re so beautiful,” he tells Stiles, heaps praise on him as he twists his fingers, stretching Stiles out for his knot with two, then three fingers, and Stiles takes him so easily, so readily.

“Please,” Stiles says on a gasp, almost a sob. “Please, I’ve waited so long, I’ve been so—I want you,” he begs, and how can Derek resist? He slips his fingers out of Stiles’s hole, hushing him when he whines at the loss, uses Stiles’s slick to coat his dick as Stiles watches with wide eyes. In the old woodcut pictures in the pamphlets passed from hand to hand by grubby-handed boys, the omega always presents themselves on their hands and knees, ass raised up. They wait patiently for the alpha to mount them, afraid but dutiful. Stiles is eager, warm and alive, a heavy weight on top of his thighs as they kiss, the warm glow from the fire making his skin golden, smooth and perfect, covered in freckles and moles that he wants to map with his tongue.

Derek never thought he’d get to have this. Stiles raises his eyebrows at him, and he knows he’s staring, he knows he looks moonstruck, all wide-eyed, but he thinks Stiles understands, because his expression softens and he kisses Derek again, a soft chaste kiss, wraps his arms around him. “I’m ready,” Stiles murmurs, his face pressed to the side of Derek’s neck. Derek nods, strokes down Stiles’s back again, his hand shaking a little, eases his hips up so that Stiles can sink down, guides himself into Stiles’s hole as Stiles gasps against his neck, hands clawing at his back. It’s shocking, all that heat, the tight clasp of Stiles’s hole around his dick. Stiles keeps making these little gasps, moans and whimpers, biting down on Derek’s neck to keep the sounds in as he shudders. Derek strokes his back, his flanks as he moves, eager to draw more sounds out of Stiles, enchanted by the smell of them together, by the heat of Stiles’s dick between them as it twitches and flexes with every thrust. Stiles is a heavy weight on top of him, long legs wrapped around his waist, clinging on as Derek moves, heels digging into the mattress, eyes closed tight, trying to hold off his knot until Stiles has come. He changes the angle a little, presses even closer to Stiles so that his dick can rub up between them, determined to show Stiles how good he can be for him. Stiles sobs against his neck, fingers clawing again, whole body tensing until he comes with a harsh cry, his hole tightening around Derek’s dick, rippling, the scent of his come rich in the air.

He knots Stiles before he’s stopped twitching with aftershocks, can’t help it, pleasure shooting through him at the sensation. Stiles whines, bites down again as his sensitive hole is stretched, Derek’s knot pressing against his tender prostate. Derek can’t resist, presses his fingers to Stiles’s rim, feeling the space where they’re joined, where his knot is locking them together. Stiles whines again, tries to move away, but he keeps stroking, rubbing the slick into Stiles’s skin, can’t stop touching, exploring, mesmerized by the stretch, by how right it feels. His orgasm keeps ebbing and flowing until he feels stupid with the pleasure, kissing Stiles’s hair, his ear as Stiles grumbles sleepily. Stiles is hard again, despite his fatigue, so Derek stops playing with his hole, wraps his hand around his dick and brings him to completion with the sweetest, meanest strokes that he can, as Stiles flexes around him, breathing in gasps, his body tired, even as he twitches and jerks with pleasure, his seed spilling out onto Derek’s hand.

Stiles falls asleep as soon as he has come for the second time, his limbs relaxing fully as he slumps. He doesn’t even stir as Derek arranges them so that they’re on their sides, a few of the quilts draped over them in case Stiles gets cold. They’re still locked together. Derek puts his hand on Stiles’s lower stomach, on the slight bulge there. They could have cubs. In a few years, they could have cubs. Derek would care for them in the day, if Stiles wished to study. He would like that. Or they could care for them together, bring them up surrounded by pack. Erica, Isaac and Boyd all grew up here, as did Stiles and Scott. They could show the cubs the city, and Derek could show them the mountains, the caves, show them which berries were good to eat, which groves to steer clear of, which ones to make offerings in. He smiles, and daydreams. They’re good dreams. He’ll tell Stiles about them in the morning.

*

When Derek first sees the boy, he isn’t wearing any shoes, runs up the mountain path barefooted, his long legs eating up the distance, as the pack of wolves run behind him, gaining quickly. He’s laughing as he runs, looking back to taunt his pursuers, breathless in his joy, impudent as a fox. Derek straightens up from his work, sets the shears down and sends his last sheep running with a pat on her flank, wipes his grimy face with his shirt and waits, trying not to smile at the briar-snags in Stiles’s fine clothes, the mud streaked down his legs. Stiles grins when he spots him, puts on an extra burst of speed, comes to a halt a few yards in front of Derek, almost close enough to touch. “They’re after me,” he pants, looking over his shoulder at the wolves. Stiles’s eyes are golden in the sunlight, his parted lips streaked with the juice of the berries he stole. They are of a height now, his shoulders broader, showing his strength. Derek will never be tired of looking at him.

Derek folds his arms, looks at Stiles. “Give me your shirt,” he says, keeping his voice gruff. He can see the exact moment when Stiles realizes, his eyes narrowing, flickering between Derek and his morning’s work.

“I am not diving into a heap of fleeces while you run yourself ragged with my shirt in your mouth, just because you think it’s romantic. Think of a different plan.”

Derek closes the distance between them, waves his pack off and hopes Stiles will at some point learn to stop playing pranks on them. “Or I could show you the waterfalls near the lake, and the pastures where the wildflowers grow,” he murmurs. “We could lie in the grass and listen to birds on the wing, take our pleasure of each other as the sun rises and the rest of the word awakes. We could look at the stars in the sky and watch for the beacon, then stay abed until noon. We could swim together in the moonlight, warm ourselves under the quilts,” he trails off, kisses Stiles, unable to resist his sweet scent any longer. Above them, the skylark sings, flinging herself up into the air with her wild song and Stiles kisses him back as if he’s starving, even though they saw each other just this morn and he’s too happy to speak any more, so he holds Stiles close and hopes he understands.

He does. He always will.