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The Well of Living Waters

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Hortus conclusus frater meus, sponsus; hortus conclusus, fons signatus.

“I propose a formal marriage alliance to bond our two kingdoms together in kinship,” King Stilinski said, well-rehearsed. He indicated Stiles, standing next to him. “I offer to you the hand of my son, crown prince of my kingdom, heir to all my land and holdings. Any child of his body shall stand to inherit your kingdom and mine, and join them in personal union.”

Stiles tried to look regal, yet fertile.

King Derek’s advisors glanced at each other, expressions thoughtful, but the king himself seemed to suffer no such indecision. All his muscles were taut with apparent anger—and goodness, Stiles couldn’t help but notice there were a lot of them.

“Don’t mock me,” Derek said abruptly, addressing Stiles rather than his father. Stiles blinked.

“I—it’s a serious offer, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said, rocking back on his heels. “If you don’t want to—” He broke off as Derek rose from his throne and stalked toward him, rage delineated in his handsome features.

“This is a poor kingdom. We have nothing to offer you that you don’t have. You don’t need this alliance. So don’t,” Derek bit out, glaring at Stiles, “mock me.”

“I’m not mocking you!” said Stiles, in a voice louder than he’d intended, and he put his palms out in denial. His heartbeat was quick with nerves. “There’s no need to get belligerent about it. It’s only an offer. If you don’t want to, you can just say so.”

Derek glanced back at his court. The stocky, dark-skinned man standing next to the throne tilted his head and quirked an eyebrow upward, unhelpful. Derek looked at Stiles’s father, at a pale smirking courtier standing near the throne, at the stocky man again. He didn’t look at Stiles.

“I’d be stupid not to,” he said, at last.

“Well, don’t let me twist your arm,” said Stiles sharply. He couldn’t help taking some offense. Some people would consider him a catch, he thought, indignant. Nobody that he could name off-hand, but—people. In general. Derek flared his nostrils, considering him a moment, and then set his shoulders more firmly.

“The kingdom of the Hales agrees to this alliance,” he told Stiles’s father. King Stilinski wrinkled his brow with an expression that suggested he might be regretting the whole venture.

He hesitated and glanced at Stiles, raising one eyebrow in a silent question. Stiles could almost hear his voice asking, 'Really? This one? Are you sure?'

Stiles held his gaze and nodded minutely. He was sure.

“All right,” the king sighed at last, as if it had been Derek’s proposal rather than his own. “The wedding should be held as soon as possible. I’m needed in my own kingdom.”

“A week,” Derek said, and beckoned King Stilinski to private council, dismissing Stiles without another word.

At least Stiles knew something more about his future husband now, he thought, optimistic. Even if it were only that he was rude.

 

The whole Hale castle had been stirred into a state of barely managed chaos by the impending nuptials—at least, Stiles hoped this commotion wasn’t usual. He flattened himself to a wall to avoid a housemaid carrying a stack of linens higher than her head.

The only place he had been able to find which lay entirely out of the scope of wedding preparations was actually outside of the castle, in the dirt-floored courtyard. He slipped out there now, and in the spirit of exploration (and not a little desperation) he ducked into the stables.

It was dark and peaceful inside, except where small sunbeams found their way through cracks in the wall, and the air smelled pleasantly of horses. He sat on a hay bale and breathed a sigh of relief. Motes of dust floated in the sunlight.

"Hello," said a voice behind him, and Stiles nearly jumped out of his skin.

"Holy God," he said, grabbing his chest and turning to find a tousle-haired stable boy leaning on a rake and laughing at him.

"Didn't mean to scare you, your highness," the boy said, and flashed a charmingly broad smile. Perhaps not so much of a boy, Stiles realized, getting a better look at him; he had to be near Stiles’s own age.

"It's fine. I wasn't expecting anyone to be here, or I wouldn’t have been so jumpy," Stiles said, and smiled back. “What’s your name?”

“I’m Scott,” the boy said, still beaming at Stiles as though they were best friends.

At home, he’d always enjoyed spending time with the stable boys and gardeners. They were always more willing to cover themselves in dirt during an adventure than the courtiers and ladies-in-waiting with whom Stiles was supposed to associate. It was heartening to think he might find a friend here, too.

“Hiding from the wedding excitement?” Scott asked. Stiles gave an embarrassed nod, and Scott sat next to him on the hay bale, in a mirror of Stiles’s own pose, leaning back on his elbows and settling in. “It’s crazy in there. You’d think they were about to go to war,” he said sympathetically.

"I'm as nervous about it as if I were going to war," Stiles admitted, picking at a bit of straw.

"You mean because of the king?" said Scott, cocking his head. "I'd be scared too." Stiles shrugged one shoulder.

"Yes, I suppose, but it’s mostly—" he hesitated, unsure how to phrase the thought delicately. It wasn’t the sort of thing he was supposed to talk about at all, but he’d never done well with not talking; he had to vent his worries or explode. "The, um. After the wedding. You know. Later."

"Oh," Scott said, nodding with understanding. "Have you never done it?"

Stiles bit his lip. "No," he said, a little shocked despite himself. "Of course not."

"It'll come naturally," said Scott reassuringly, with a friendly pat to Stiles's knee. Stiles squirmed, gathering his nerve to ask the question which worried him most.

"What if he doesn't—want to? I'm—I'm not very—" he said, looking down at his rumpled clothes.

“Oh, hey, no!” Scott said earnestly, brown eyes wide and worried. “You’re totally—you know, very! I don’t like boys, but if I did, I’d totally do it with you.” Stiles laughed at his concern, feeling a little bit better about the whole thing.

“Thanks, friend,” he said. Scott gave him another cheerful smile.

“Hey, as long as you’re here, do you want to help me out?”

“You know what? I really do,” said Stiles. Scott handed him a curry comb, and during all the time they spent brushing the horses’ coats to a burnished gleam, Stiles didn’t think about the wedding night once.

 

He was particularly glad of having Scott’s company in the days that followed: days which seemed to accelerate as the week went on, until only a moment passed between opening his eyes the day of his wedding, and standing beside Derek at the altar, the court amassed at their backs, a priest in front of them droning on about love and honor.

“You may now kiss,” said the priest, folding his hands expectantly.

Stiles felt reluctant to look at Derek, suddenly and pointlessly shy. Glancing up through his eyelashes, he saw Derek’s face was as rigid and forbidding as it had been in the throne room, still handsome and hostile in equal measure. His eyebrows were pulled down half-angrily, but he wore his stiff, embroidered coat and heavy crown as if they weighed nothing at all.

When their lips finally met, Derek’s mouth was surprisingly soft. Stiles had been holding his breath without meaning to, and he gasped into the kiss, mouth opening involuntarily.

At once, Derek’s hot, wet tongue slid into Stiles’s mouth, shocking and obscene in the sanctity of the chapel. It was thoroughly inappropriate, and Stiles was going to put a stop to it in just—he put out one hand to steady himself against Derek’s firm chest. The crowd around them, and the altar, and the priest all faded away, to be replaced by a buzzing sound in his ears.

Derek broke the kiss with a small, slick sound, and Stiles swayed towards him before he could stop himself.

After that, he was afraid to look at his father in the pews, so he kept his eyes fixed studiously on the priest, pretending to listen to the end of the ceremony and ignoring the ringing in his ears. Stiles’s father had granted him permission to marry, but Stiles wasn’t entirely sure he’d understood that marriage would entail marital rights. Better not to risk making eye contact until the time for objections had ended.

In what felt like the space of a breath, it was over. They were wed.

After that no one asked much of him, other than that he nod, and smile, and shake hands with an endless procession of people whose names he couldn't remember. He spent some time obsessing over his handshake, afraid at first that his grip was crushingly, awkwardly tight, and then that he had overcompensated and started flopping his hand around like a dead fish. For some reason, Stiles felt like he’d spent the day being rattled around in a carriage on a bad road. His muscle control at present didn't bode well for the night ahead.

He smiled at another noble and hoped it didn't look like a grimace, and then saw to his surprise that they'd reached the end of the receiving line. The very last to congratulate them was Derek's uncle, Duke Peter.

"Have fun," he said, which seemed inappropriate. Then he was gone, and everyone was going in to dinner, and there was nothing more for Stiles to do but eat and drink and laugh at jokes he barely heard, and say goodnight, and go upstairs, where a maid was waiting to dress him for his wedding night.

There were ruffles; ruffles to an unnecessary degree. Also, the fabric was—thin.

"Isn't there a second dressing gown or anything?" he asked the maid, without much hope. She looked like she was trying not to smirk. He crossed his arms casually over his nipples.

"I can look through the trunk again," she said, in the manner of someone humoring a small child. Stiles sighed.

"No, it's fine." It wasn't going to matter much by morning, anyway, he thought.

"Do you need anything else, your majesty?" the maid asked politely. Once Stiles had demurred she bobbed a curtsey and left, admitting Derek to the room as she went out.

Stiles’s new husband had lost his jacket somewhere and was in his shirt and trousers, sleeves rolled up to the elbow to reveal well-muscled forearms. He carried a bundle of black velvet in his large hands. Stiles re-crossed his arms nervously, casting about for something to say.

"What's that?" He nodded at the cloth.

"It's for you," said Derek, not answering the question. He unwrapped the bundle to reveal a shockingly beautiful jeweled collar, thick with rubies and diamonds, spilling across the black velvet like a puddle of fire. He cleared his throat awkwardly, holding it out.

“Do you want me to—” he said, motioning towards Stiles’s neck with his palms full of jewels. They sent off sparks in the candlelight.

Stiles nodded, breathless, and turned away to let Derek clasp the collar around his bare throat. It settled cold and heavy on his skin. Derek’s body was a wall of heat at his back, and Stiles felt painfully aware of Derek’s hands where they brushed accidentally against Stiles’s skin: his collarbone, the pulsing hollow of his throat, the nape of his neck.

Derek’s mouth was so close that Stiles could feel warm, humid breath on his skin, and Stiles helplessly tilted his chin back to expose his throat further. Maybe this wouldn’t be so frightening, he thought. This marriage. This night. That kiss at the altar had been—he wouldn’t mind a little more.

But just as he leaned fully into the heat behind him, eyes closed, every nerve in his body fiercely awake—he felt Derek’s presence vanish so completely that he half-stumbled in its wake.

“Derek?” he said weakly, opening his eyes.

Across the room, Derek was already lying down on a stiff-looking brocaded couch, his back to Stiles, shoulders tense. He didn’t respond. Stiles’s jaw went slack with disbelief.

“Are you serious?” he asked, gesturing wildly at his robe even though Derek wasn’t facing him to see. “Are you—we have to consummate the marriage!”

After a moment, Derek said, without turning over, “We have to make it look like we consummated the marriage.”

Considering all Stiles’s apprehensions of the previous week, it was unreasonable for him to feel a pit opening in his stomach. The pang of rejection shouldn’t have been so sharp. It was only his pride that had been stung.

“I know I’m not totally unappealing,” he said, voice coming out more petulant than he wanted it to. “I’m—I’ve been told I’m, you know. Beddable.”

That got him Derek’s attention, at last. He sat up on the couch and glared.

“What? Who said that to you?”

“Nobody. A stable boy,” Stiles said, looking down. “He was just being nice.”

“Being nice,” Derek repeated, a muscle ticking in his jaw.

“Nicer than you,” Stiles retorted, and glared right back.

“Go to sleep,” Derek said. He gave Stiles his back again.

The bed was enormous and Stiles flopped around in it pointedly for a long time, rustling the sheets, before he followed Derek’s advice and fell unhappily asleep.

 

Derek was gone from the couch when Stiles awakened the next morning: the morning after his wedding night. At least the whispered warnings about soreness had been unnecessary, he reflected, staring up at the stone ceiling.

He took in the room for the first time in the light of day. He’d been too preoccupied to notice much the night before, but now he realized it was a beautiful bedroom; spacious, but not so large as to be unfriendly, with tall windows in its walls and red rugs on its floors. It would have been a wonderful place to spend a real wedding night, he thought bitterly.

When he ventured downstairs in search of breakfast, he found Derek already at the table, alone, reading a sheaf of papers and chewing his bread and honey as if it had done him harm.

“I’m going out riding,” Stiles said, more or less to thin air.

But behind the papers, the sound of chewing suddenly halted. A moment later, Derek’s stern face emerged.

“Riding?” he repeated. “A horse?” Stiles narrowed his eyes at him, picking apart his sticky bun.

“No, a duck,” he said. Derek ignored this sally, expression growing even more forbidding.

“Alone?” he asked. Stiles shrugged.

“I can bring a groom from the stables,” he said. At that, Derek’s eyebrows performed some kind of complicated flourish.

“I’ll come with you,” he decided, and disappeared once more behind his papers. Probably nothing but scribbled nonsense, Stiles thought, irritated all over again.

"You weren't invited," he said loudly, but Derek had once again gone selectively deaf, and Stiles gave it up as a bad job. Abandoning breakfast with a sigh, he went to change his clothes.

When Stiles arrived in the stables, he found his new friend the stable boy already there, engaged in brushing a beautiful roan mare.

"Hey there, cutie,” Stiles said warmly, addressing the horse. This time it was Scott’s turn to jump. He bowed low when he saw who had arrived.

"Sti—Prince Stiles," he said, quite politely, glancing over Stiles's shoulder. "Are you riding this morning?"

"My consort and I will both require mounts,” Derek said, and Stiles looked around in surprise; he hadn't even heard him arrive. The man walked like a cat.

Scott quickly saddled the roan, as well as a large black stallion. Condescendingly, Derek leaned in to check the quality of Scott’s work, but instead of looking annoyed, Scott took advantage of Derek’s distraction. He raised his eyebrows at Stiles, asking a silent, conspiratorial question.

Despite knowing that it was a bad idea to respond, Stiles still couldn’t help but twist his mouth to the side in disappointment and give a quick, dissatisfied shrug. Scott frowned in surprise.

Both of them had wiped their expressions to smooth innocence by the time Derek turned back around. He peered from one to the other suspiciously.

Scott stepped forward to help Stiles mount, but the bulk of Derek's body abruptly imposed itself between them. He lifted Stiles as if he weighed nothing at all, and deposited him lightly and impersonally into the saddle.

Derek himself declined any help in mounting his steed, swinging himself up in a single expert move. Stiles rolled his eyes. A stallion, honestly.

The breeze felt delicious on his face as they rode out of the castle gate. Even with the overshadowing disaster of the previous night, Stiles found himself smiling at nothing in particular. It was hard to stay angry for long, riding a horse on a fine day in spring.

"Was that—" said Derek, haltingly, but didn’t finish the thought.

"What?" Stiles said. Derek sighed.

"Never mind," he grumbled.

The roan was just as spirited as she had looked, and it took all Stiles’s horsemanship to keep her under control. He was flattered that Scott had considered Stiles capable of handling her. He was, of course; still, most people assumed a prince raised for the court rather than the battlefield must be barely competent in a saddle.

The April air was getting to him, combined with all the nervous tension of his aborted wedding night—and if he were honest, Derek’s skin-tight riding breeches didn’t help him relax. He felt like he might jump out of his skin if he couldn’t get some space and release some of this frustrated energy.

“Race you!” he said, and took off like a shot before Derek could say a word in response.

Stiles pretended it wasn’t only because of his head start that he covered half a mile before Derek thundered past him, pulling his horse into a canter a few lengths ahead, and then slowing to a walk. Stiles reined his mare in, too, although she resisted a little, tossing her head.

“Shh,” he said, patting her neck soothingly. She huffed a snorting breath and finally slowed to a walk as they neared the bank of a pond.

When he glanced up, he was amazed to find Derek actually smiling, for once, looking painfully handsome and athletic, his hair all windblown. He’d loosened the tie at the collar of his shirt and Stiles could see sweat beading in the hollow of his neck. He was saying something.

“What?” Stiles said stupidly.

“I said—” Derek began—but Stiles never did get to hear what Derek said, because it was at that moment that Derek’s horse accidentally flushed a partridge out of the long grass. It burst out in a flurry of ruffled wings, and Stiles’s horse spooked and reared up wildly, and before he could tighten his grip on the reins, Stiles went flying through the air to land with a painful splash in the duck pond.

After a bit of flailing, he surfaced, laughing, spitting out duckweed. The water was ice-cold, but not too deep, and he found he could stand up. He wiped water out of his eyes and looked around for Derek.

The black stallion was riderless, and Stiles flailed around in a splashy semicircle until he caught sight of Derek. He was knee-deep in the water, his face gone livid white.

“Oh no, don’t you get wet too!” Stiles called out. Derek’s mouth was moving, but Stiles couldn’t hear much through the water in his ears. He waded inelegantly towards the bank, trying to whack the water out as he went. The moment he got close enough, Derek seized him by the waist and half-carried him up onto dry land.

“Are you hurt?” Derek said urgently, hands roaming over Stiles’s body. They felt disconcertingly hot on Stiles’s chilled skin.

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” Stiles said, twisting away uncomfortably. He blinked drops of water out of his eyelashes.

Derek’s mouth tightened as he took in Stiles’s condition, eyes lingering on his mouth, his chest. He looked furious, disapproving.

Stiles knew he must look ridiculous, shirt clinging to him like a second skin, cheeks likely gone bright red as they always did with cold and exertion. He looked down at himself ruefully. Oh Lord, and his nipples were showing through the shirt.

He crossed his arms quickly over his chest. Another sterling impression made on his new husband. At this rate, Derek would be trying to shut him in a convent before the month was out.

“Here,” Derek said, stripping off his coat and shoving it roughly at Stiles, so he had to take it or let it fall to the muddy ground. “Don’t waste my time riding a horse you can’t handle.”

Stiles gaped at him like a fish, the last of his laughter vanishing.

“That was not my fault!”

Derek stalked up the bank and Stiles was forced to follow him, tugging on the stupid coat as he went. “That was not my fault!” he yelled at Derek’s mute back.

Adding injury to insult, Derek refused to let him ride the mare back to the castle, even after he vowed to ride as sedately as a swan. Instead, ignoring Stiles’s protests, he lifted him onto the stallion before mounting gracefully behind.

Stiles refused to admit to any gratitude for such behavior, but when the wind picked up on the plodding journey back to the stables, he couldn’t resist leaning back into the warm bulk of Derek’s chest, just a little. A moment later he said a small, silent prayer of thanks for the cold water still soaking his breeches.

Unfortunately, when they finally arrived at the stables, Stiles found that he was the only one who had spent the ride thinking thoughts that demanded cold water. Derek had apparently been passing the time in settling blame on yet another innocent party.

“What were you thinking, giving his Highness a badly trained mount?” Derek bit out, advancing on poor Scott like he intended to knock him down. “Were you trying to get him killed?”

“Derek, stop it,” Stiles said. When it looked like Derek was going to ignore him, he added, “Besides, you’re the one who spooked her in the first place.”

Derek looked at him like he’d been slapped.

“Not—not that it was your fault either,” Stiles amended, off Derek’s betrayed expression. “I only meant it could have happened to anyone. And—and I’m cold.” He realized as he said it that it was the truth. His teeth were chattering.

At that, Derek backed away from Scott in order to reach for a blanket which hung over the side of one of the stalls. He wrapped it tightly around Stiles’s body. It was prickly and horse-scented, but very warm, and Stiles gave him a grateful look. Derek cleared his throat.

“I’ll tell the servants to bring water for a bath,” he said to no one in particular, and he stalked out of the stables without a backward glance.

Scott watched him leave, frowning deeply.

“It’s not my place to criticize a king, but,” he said slowly, and then pressed his lips together. As if he couldn’t help himself, he added, “Did he really not—”

Stiles gave a stiff, humiliated nod.

“That’s terrible,” Scott said, glaring. He crossed his arms across his chest. “He should treat you better than that. And I’m starting to think he doesn’t want you to spend time with me, either.”

“Oh, come on, no!” Stiles said, putting his palms together in supplication. “You’re literally my only friend in the castle.”

“Of course we’re still going to be friends,” said Scott firmly, as if it were never in question. “He may be the king, but he can’t just order you around. Come down to the stables anytime you like.”

Thank goodness, Stiles thought. If he couldn’t even complain to the one person who had shown any signs of caring, he was going to go mute. That convent would be his only option.

 

When he arrived back at Derek’s rooms, a tub already waited for him, wafting inviting tendrils of steam towards the high stone ceiling. Placed thoughtfully next to it was a thick mat and a heap of fluffy towels. Stiles couldn’t get out of his wet clothes fast enough, half-tripping as he tried to pull off his stockings without pausing in his rush towards the bath.

Finally naked, he sank into the water with a heavy groan. Derek had valued his kingdom too lightly in the marriage negotiations; the Hale demesne was small, but their army had a reputation for ferocity, and they had wealth enough. It was evident in the size of the copper bathtub, and in the sweet herbs drifting in the softly steaming water.

For long minutes, Stiles simply floated, waiting for the aches to soak out of his frozen bones. He hummed, eyes shut, and curled his toes against the far side of the tub.

As his body warmed and his fingers wrinkled, other physical needs began to make themselves known. The memory of Derek’s hard body rocking against his on the back of the stallion kept floating to the front of his mind, as well as the memory of that single, spectacular kiss.

If not for the hot, slick glide of their mouths together, with an audience looking on no less, he could have made himself let go of his hopes for his marriage bed: fantasies he’d been constructing since the first day he was old enough to notice pretty boys and girls around his father’s castle. He could have adjusted his expectations to reality. And yet—despite all Derek’s hostility—there was still the memory of that kiss, warming him even more than the hot water. He bit his lip, one hand stealing below the waterline.

Perhaps tonight, Derek would come to him, he imagined, taking himself in hand. He was already half-hard, and quickly growing harder. Perhaps Derek would pull back the sheets, push Stiles’s nightshirt up his thighs, press him into the bed with the weight of that broad, capable, heavily-muscled body.

Stiles let his knees fall against the sides of the bathtub, sinking lower in the water. It swirled over his lips and into his open mouth with the jolting motion of his arm.

What would Derek do then? Perhaps he’d put his mouth on Stiles. He pulled harder at his cock, picturing it. Perhaps he would take Stiles into his mouth, the way people did in jokes the servants told when they thought Stiles wasn’t listening. Derek had a beautiful mouth, even if he only used it to frown.

And perhaps, Stiles thought—his free hand creeping lower and lower—perhaps he would even put it somewhere else. Perhaps Derek would use that strong wet tongue to coax open another part of Stiles’s body until it went as soft as his mouth, until Stiles begged him for mercy, until—

Stiles froze, one eager finger still pressed into himself, his heart pounding in his chest. That had been the sound of the door clicking shut.

He squeezed his eyes even more tightly closed, breathing in quick, humiliated gasps—though his cock remained stubbornly hard as steel, spearing through the warm water. When a hand settled in his hair, he half cried out in shock.

“What trouble you get into when I leave you alone,” Derek murmured, voice closer than Stiles had expected. Reluctantly, he let his eyes flutter open, afraid of what he would see.

Derek was crouching next to the tub, eyes warm and half-lidded, looking not at Stiles’s body—or his painfully obvious erection—but at his face. When he saw Stiles looking back, he gave him a small, private smile, stroked just the back of one finger along Stiles’s cheekbone.

“My little consort,” he said softly. “My own.”

“I’m—I’m nearly your height,” Stiles said, voice embarrassingly hoarse. A moment later, he wanted to bite out his tongue. The languor faded from Derek’s face like salt dissolving in water.

“So you are,” he said, the tenderness gone from his tone. He cleared his throat and stood up, averting his eyes. “Don’t take too long. Dinner is in an hour.”

At the door, Derek paused. “If you were thinking about—that boy,” he said.

“What? No!” Stiles protested, finally yanking his hands away from sensitive areas and sitting upright in the tub. He grimaced at the thought; Scott was wonderful, but Stiles was no more attracted to him than to a brother. Purely on principle, he added, “And if I did, they’re my thoughts, not yours.”

“So they are,” Derek said quietly. “I only wanted to tell you to be discreet. For the alliance’s sake.”

Stiles’s jaw dropped. By the time he mustered a response to being accused of infidelity not one full day after his wedding—before his husband could be bothered to even—when Derek had given no signs of wanting—and with absolutely no cause to suspect—well, by the time he found any words at all, the door was long since shut, and his erection gone.

He dropped his head back against the rim of the tub and considered refusing to ever get out.

 

When he finally did come down to dinner, barely in time for the first course, Stiles felt as prickly as a hedgehog and twice as mean. No wonder Derek was such an ass if he had to spend all his time with himself, he thought, a little nonsensically.

He was so busy stewing in his own irritation and giving Derek black looks over the roasted quail that he didn’t realize one of the courtiers was addressing him until halfway through the sentence. It was the stocky, placid-faced man—Lord Deaton, he recalled—whose advice Derek had looked for during the marriage negotiations.

“What?” Stiles said grumpily, looking up.

“Oh, dear. I can’t imagine what you’ve done to your poor consort to put him in such a mood,” Derek’s uncle Peter stage-whispered, loud enough for half the table to hear. A ripple of laughter spread through the room. “Will he need to see a physician?”

Stiles stabbed a piece of quail viciously with the point of his knife, not trusting himself to utter a word on that topic. His silence apparently spoke volumes to the court, and the woman seated next to Derek struck him teasingly on the shoulder with her closed fan. It was like hitting a mountain with a feather duster.

“I said,” Lord Deaton repeated, “that the king has decided to hold a ball at the end of the week. In order to introduce Stiles formally to the court.” Stiles looked at Derek for confirmation, but his face revealed nothing.

“Oh, that sounds nice.” Stiles attempted to muster a convincing smile.

“That means you must leave him in good enough condition to dance, Derek,” Peter murmured.

Stiles was starting to have confidence in the opinion that Duke Peter Hale was a man to be strongly disliked. He entertained himself for the rest of the meal by imagining every piece of meat he ate had Derek’s face, and every vegetable Peter’s.

That night, when he got into bed, he turned his face into the pillow and went straight to sleep without waiting to see whether Derek would bother to show up at all.

 

The following day, Stiles began to see the appeal of a formal court introduction; apparently, the court still saw him as a foreign guest. The only reason Stiles even found out about the council meeting was that he went to the kitchen looking for lunch, where he was told it was being kept warm for the councilors and the king.

“But you can have some bread and cheese to tide you over, my dear,” said the cook sympathetically.

“No, thank you,” Stiles yelled over his shoulder, already halfway down the hall. He was perfectly accustomed to having to fight for his advice to be heard, and he didn’t mind earning the respect of the court; he couldn’t do that if he didn’t know the king’s advisors were meeting in the first place.

Everyone stopped talking and turned to look at him when he pushed open the door to the council room, breathing hard and sweating unattractively. A dozen councilors were seated around a wide table; Stiles only recognized Duke Peter and Lord Deaton by name, but most of the other faces were familiar. At the head of the table, Derek’s eyebrows lifted.

“Sorry, sorry,” Stiles said breathlessly. He tried to sit in an empty chair and nearly knocked it over when it got tangled in his legs. “I’m here now, ignore me.”

Duke Peter, who had apparently been speaking, let the silence drag out for another pointed moment, while Stiles folded his hands in his lap and tried to look attentive and not like he’d run all the way there.

“As I was saying,” Duke Peter continued at last, “the treasury is somewhat bare. We cannot justify any unnecessary expenditures, so we will move on to discuss—”

“Wait, sorry, what are we calling unnecessary?” Stiles asked. Derek rolled his eyes heavenward, and Duke Peter paused deliberately before answering.

“Building projects, census taking, other such superfluous elements of governance. The budget cannot accommodate them. Perhaps after—” Frowning, Stiles interrupted once again.

“But aren’t you—I don’t mean to be rude,” he said hastily, looking around the table. “But aren’t you worried about food shortages next winter?”

“I hardly see how the census—” Peter began, but Stiles was already shaking his head.

“No, the building projects. You need to be putting more money into the roads, especially here and here,” he said, dragging his finger along the map. “There’s always a wheat surplus in this part of the kingdom and nowhere for it to go.” He looked around the room again. “Uh, from what I’ve read, at least.”

Lord Deaton looked thoughtful, but most of the table seemed bored, at best. A plump woman with braids was using a knife to clean dirt from under her nails.

“Would you suggest we siphon resources away from the war with the Argents?” said a sneering man in green velvet.

Stiles leaned forward, intent.

"But why are you still at war with the Argents?" he asked. "They don't have any resources you need. You don't have any resources they need. Your kingdom barely even borders theirs. Why is this war still dragging on?"

"What is he doing here, again?" Duke Peter said to no one in particular.

"Participating in my husband's council," Stiles said.

Peter produced a tight smile, sitting back in his chair.

"I’m sure you’re trying to help, Stiles, but all these affairs of state must bore you. Perhaps you'd like to visit the conservatory with Sir Isaac?"

"No, I'm fine here," Stiles said pleasantly. And hooked his feet around the legs of his chair.

"Perhaps I haven't made myself clear," Peter said, voice rising a bit. "This is not your place."

Derek watched silently and unhelpfully from the head of the table. Glancing around, Stiles saw no support in the faces of the councilors, and he didn’t want to push his luck so soon after his arrival at court.

“I’ll just listen for now,” he said, subsiding.

 

It was going to be well worth the effort to keep trying to squeeze into the king’s council, Stiles thought, because the role they apparently did want him to play was one for which he was singularly unfit.

“Really?” he asked skeptically, holding the delicate yellow robe up to the light. It was much, much more ornate than his wedding clothes, and absolutely covered in ruffles. “I know I was raised to adorn the court and not the battlefield, but do we need to go so far with that?”

“Hmm,” the maid said, tilting her head next to Stiles’s and considering the issue. Stiles shook it a little so all the ruffles bounced. “No,” she decided, and turned back to the wardrobe.

The next thing she unearthed was cut from lurid red satin. “Kind of playing into the court gossip to go from wedding white to—that,” Stiles pointed out.

“Good point—er, what gossip,” the maid said, unconvincingly. Stiles snorted, and it seemed to embolden her. “Well, we below stairs know it’s not true, anyway,” she whispered, raising her hand to her mouth.

“What?” Stiles said, suddenly worried. “How?”

“The sheets,” she said, as if it were obvious. Oh, God. Stiles hastily changed the subject.

“How about that blue silk?” he asked, pointing at random. She pulled it out and draped it against him. They both squinted at it.

“Yes, this,” she said decisively, and hustled him out of his day clothes and into the robe before he could form an opinion of his own. She nodded in satisfaction, turning him to face the looking-glass. “I don’t fancy you’ll have a problem with his Majesty tonight.”

Stiles swallowed. The man reflected in the glass was a stranger. An attractive stranger, but a stranger. The blue silk was paper-thin, clinging to shoulders that looked much broader than Stiles remembered them being.

“I feel silly,” he said, plucking at the lacing around his bicep. The maid swiveled him a quarter-turn and pointed rudely.

“Look at your bum,” she said. “Feel silly now?”

Stiles did, actually. The silk was cut on the bias and clung to surprisingly rounded curves, making him feel more naked than before he’d put it on. Still, he decided to keep his peace about it. He should probably take all proffered advice from maids and stable boys, since whatever he’d brought to his wedding bed himself had gone down like lead.

“Sometimes it takes time,” the maid said, patting his back maternally. “If he can’t get it to stand, just be patient and try not to laugh. It happens more than you’d think.”

If Stiles were a better person, he would have nipped that particular rumor in the bud. He didn’t. Throughout his childhood, Stiles had been notoriously bad at shutting his mouth; at the Hale court he was finally learning the value of an efficient, well-placed silence.

Eyes wicked with what she thought she knew, the maid pinched his cheeks and rubbed his lips with a stinging balm, and sent him out to his welcoming ball.

Stiles nearly lost his way twice in the twisting hallways of the castle, and when he at last located the top of the grand staircase to the ballroom, he tried to charge straight down it without being announced. The steward had to put his arm out to bar his path. He looked deeply pained at being forced into such discourtesy. Stiles tried to apologize, which only made the poor man wince harder.

"The Prince Consort, His Royal Highness—" the steward began, and gestured his permission for Stiles to make his entrance.

The recitation of titles faded into background noise as Stiles began to descend the stairs, the entire court turning towards him like clockwork automatons. He wasn’t a particularly shy man, but it was hard not to feel self-conscious with so many eyes on him at once. At least during the wedding, he’d been able to concentrate on Derek. Where was Derek?

The faces all seemed to blur together for a moment, but then he caught sight of the man himself, separated slightly from the press of the crowd. His handsome face was tight and severe as usual, his lips compressed. Stiles was so grateful for a familiar face that he didn’t care what expression it bore; he smiled anyway, feeling his face go flushed with relief.

A sound rose from the crowd like the rustle of fabric, or a quiet sigh, and before Stiles reached the bottom of the stairs a half-dozen courtiers had imposed themselves in his path. He lost sight of his husband again.

"At your service, your Highness," said a man with laughing eyes and dark hair, kissing his hand.

"As am I," said a lady, slim and blonde. Polite, charming greetings emanated from the crowd like a refrain. Stiles smiled happily at them all, delighted by such a welcome, and wondered where Derek had gone.

"You're very kind," he told them, and laughed when they expanded their niceties into ridiculous, effusive compliments. He was quite sure he'd seen ten more beautiful pairs of eyes than his own in the past five minutes; still, it was entertaining to hear about flawless amber, and whiskey in crystal, and lakes in the light of the setting sun. The courtiers had an impressive arsenal of ways to say ‘brown’.

It was a little shocking when someone was bold enough to comment on his mouth, but everyone had nodded along without batting an eyelash, so Stiles tried to adjust his sense of propriety to match a new milieu.

Stiles’s father's court had always been less florid and sophisticated than all this, and he hadn't expected things to be very different among the Hales. Derek certainly had no such polish. Stiles wondered whether this urbanity came from the influence of the late Queen, or Derek’s annoying uncle, or somewhere else entirely. It was uncomfortable to know so little about the place he intended to make his home.

Duke Peter emerged from the crowd as if summoned by Stiles’s thoughts, and bowed politely over his hand. When he straightened again, his eyes were fixed on Stiles's mouth. Stiles licked his lips nervously.

"It is indeed lovely," Peter said, smiling in a way that made Stiles want to take a bath. "If sometimes over-filled with misinformed—though well-intended—advice."

Stiles narrowed his eyes at him, nettled, but before he could respond, Duke Peter was melting back into the crowd. As it parted to let him through, Stiles saw Derek again—but Derek wasn’t looking back at him. He was staring after Peter, eyebrows pinched together.

"Would you honor me with a dance, your highness?" asked a dark-skinned lady with tight, voluminous curls, sweeping him an impressive bow. Stiles worried that he might trample her toes, and then he took in the elegance of her manner and dress; no, he was certain to trample her toes.

"I’m sorry. I believe the first dance is reserved for a new husband," said a voice behind him, and Stiles turned gratefully to meet Derek's forbidding face. "Even when his consort is so popular."

"You do well to apologize for your crime, King Derek," said the lady laughingly. "How could you steal such a prize away without giving us all a chance?"

Instead of returning the banter in kind, Derek let her words lie like a stone where they fell, looking back at her in silence until her smile faded away. She unfolded her fan and fluttered it awkwardly.

"It's hot in here, don’t you think," she said, and drifted off towards the refreshments.

"You're very rude," Stiles told him, but he couldn’t stop smiling. For the first time he felt genuinely welcomed by Derek's people, and it affected him more than he would have expected.

"Will you dance with me?" asked Derek. He sounded paradoxically less certain now that the courtiers had been routed from the field.

"Of course," Stiles said, and rolled his eyes, and took Derek's arm to be led out onto the floor. As the music slid into a waltz, Derek's hand settled on his hip, and they begin to move together.

Clearing his throat, Derek said, "You look—very—" before trailing off with a grimace. Stiles huffed a laugh. He was beginning to enjoy being told he was very.

"Thank you," he said. "So do you."

It wasn’t clear at first if it was just Stiles’s awareness growing sharper, or if Derek really was moving closer to him with every turn of the dance. He was only sure of it once Derek's thigh actually touched his own. Glancing down, he saw that the distance between them had shrunk to the width of a finger. Derek's arm shifted, hand stealing all the way to the other side of Stiles's waist, and with another whirl, he tugged Stiles right up against his hot, hard body.

Hard in more ways than one, Stiles realized, with a shiver that went all the way down his spine.

"Are you cold?" Derek murmured.

Stiles shook his head, but let Derek tug him impossibly closer, until they were moving as a single body. They were almost of a height, and Derek could surely feel Stiles's hardness pressing against him, just as Stiles could feel Derek's. Between the thin silk robe and Derek's skin-tight breeches, Stiles had no idea how they were going to separate at the end of the dance without causing an enormous scandal. Enormous indeed, he thought, shifting his hips minutely, and gave a breathless laugh that came out half moan.

Derek shook his head a little as if he were trying to keep himself awake.

“We should—we need to talk—” he began, voice strained, and Stiles cut him off with a yes before he could finish the thought. A thrill went through him at the idea of private conversation with Derek in this mood; perhaps he could finally ask what had gone wrong on their wedding night. As Derek danced them closer and closer to the garden doors, Stiles risked a look around.

Just as he’d feared, they were the center of attention—but the looks on everyone's faces were more indulgent than shocked.

"Ah, newlyweds," he heard Duke Peter say to his dance partner, who threw her head back and laughed. Stiles turned his burning face into Derek's shoulder and let Derek sweep him gracefully through the open doors and out into the crisp night air of the garden.

Once they had moved a safe distance away from the doors, they broke from their position and slowed to an aimless walk, but Derek stayed close against his side. Stiles could sense his eyes on him like a physical touch. He didn’t feel silly in the robe anymore.

By some wordless agreement, they came to a stop in the shadow of a lilac dense with unopened blossoms, turning their bodies to face each other as if about to resume their dance. Stiles looked at Derek through his lashes, trying out the power of his freshly complimented eyes.

"Hey," he said, and then wanted to smack himself for how stupid it had sounded.

"Hey," Derek said—somehow without sounding stupid at all—and his heavy gaze dropped to Stiles's lips. Before Derek could follow through on his eyes’ promise, Stiles was tilting helplessly forward and kissing him full on the mouth.

Derek's lips were slightly chapped this time, but his mouth was still deliciously wet when it opened to Stiles's tongue. It was hot between them where they shared breath, and the air felt ice-cold in contrast when Derek pulled away for a moment to draw kisses down his neck. Stiles clutched Derek's shoulders, drunk on the feeling.

There were fireflies blinking in the shadowy trees, and a burbling fountain with flowers floating in its water, and Derek’s hands were warm on his hips. For the first time since the wedding, it felt like Stiles had really found his charming prince, his happy ending; like he was the hero in a fairy story.

Then Derek raised his head and opened his idiotic mouth.

“You shouldn’t come to council meetings,” he said. Stiles blinked at him.

“What?” he said blurrily, still stupid with kisses. But when Derek’s eyes dropped to his mouth and he leaned in, Stiles put out a hand to stop him, still trying to process what he’d said. “Why shouldn’t I come to council meetings?”

“Peter doesn’t want you there,” Derek said a little impatiently, as if he didn’t understand why Stiles was arguing. Stiles pushed at his chest until he stepped away.

“Why would that matter?” he said. “I was raised for court, and that doesn’t just mean dancing and embroidery. I’m supposed to advise you. That’s what I was educated for, the same way you were trained to lead armies. That’s what I do.”

“Peter is my most trusted advisor, and he’s my family,” Derek said, frowning. “If he doesn’t want you to—”

“I’m your family!” said Stiles. “And why is his counsel so trusted if—” His voice was rising precipitously, and remembering that they were in public, he belatedly lowered it. “Why is his counsel so trusted if he can’t get you out of this conflict with the Argents? Whatever he’s doing, it clearly isn’t working.”

“The Argents are not Peter’s fault,” Derek said, voice hard as stone. He stepped back again, creating a cold distance between them. “Our relations with them aren’t going to change.”

“Not if you don’t try to change them,” Stiles said urgently. “Derek, the only farmers left in the kingdom will be old men and children. This war is consuming everything you have.”

“You don’t know the Argents. I do,” Derek said.

“They’re not monsters, Derek. When’s the last time you even tried diplomacy?” Stiles said. But then Derek’s face twisted oddly, something terrible in his eyes, and Stiles faltered.

“The last time we tried diplomacy, my sister died,” he said quietly. His posture was military and rigid. Nothing remained in his demeanor to hint that he’d been kissing the breath out of Stiles not a minute before.

Stiles swallowed and said, “I’m sorry,” because there was nothing else to say. Derek inclined his head in stiff, silent acknowledgement, and held his elbow out.

“You are doubtless being missed at your ball,” he said, tone leaving no room for argument. For lack of other options, Stiles took his arm, and allowed himself to be escorted back into the glittering ballroom.

 

But after the conversation in the garden, all the fun of the ball had gone. Stiles couldn’t listen to anything anyone said for five minutes at a time, and he kept stepping on his dance partners’ feet. As soon as he felt he could get away with it, he pleaded a headache and left for bed.

He didn’t make it more than halfway, though, before a strong hand was closing around his arm and tugging him sharply into a disused sitting room. Flailing wildly, he drew in breath to yell, but let it out again when he recognized his captor.

“Duke Peter?” Stiles said, disbelieving. He yanked his arm out of Peter’s grip.

“Your Highness,” Peter said, and smiled. Stiles narrowed his eyes.

“Are you going around attacking everybody who argues with you in council now?”

“Attacking?” Peter said. He put a theatrical hand to his chest. Duke Peter never seemed to do anything without performing it. “No, no, I only wanted to have a little... private chat.”

“I’d rather not do anything private with you, thanks,” Stiles said. Peter clucked his tongue and shook his head sorrowfully.

“I”m not sure you’d want to have this chat in public, my dear,” he said. That smug smile was starting to make Stiles slightly queasy.

“What?” he said.

“I’ve been hearing such terribly interesting rumors from my valet,” Peter purred. “I was shocked, I’m sure. We all thought—but well, who would have known?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Stiles, trying to brazen it out. Oh, God, he thought wildly; rumors spread like disease around here. He wiped his sweaty palms surreptitiously on his robe.

“I’m talking about Derek’s limp fish,” Peter said bluntly, with a smile that was all teeth. “To not get it up for someone like you—” he looked Stiles over, in a way that made his skin crawl “—well, there must really be something wrong. And if Derek can’t get an heir on you....” He spread his hands wide, palm up.

“He most certainly can,” Stiles blurted out.

“The sheets say otherwise,” Peter said. He was much closer now than he had been, and he reached out to finger one of the ribbons that laced Stiles’s dress.

“That’s because the um—evidence—doesn’t make it to the sheets,” Stiles extemporized, trying to look like he knew what he was talking about. In case Peter didn’t get the implication, he licked his lips. Lord, he hoped that was a real thing people did.

Peter looked genuinely taken aback.

“Oh,” he said, apparently at a loss for words, for the first time since Stiles had met him. His gaze seemed glued to Stiles’s mouth.

“Well,” Stiles said weakly, sidling towards the door. “Um. Goodbye.”

“He’ll still need an heir,” Peter called after him. “Your pretty mouth can’t provide that.”

Stiles shut the door with a bang rather than try to think up a response, and walked away as quickly as he dared, heart pounding in his ears. Trading bedroom innuendo with Peter Hale was so far out of Stiles’s depth he might need to grow fins.

The unfortunate consequence of that little chat appeared within a day: most of the court had lost the ability to look Stiles in the eye. One little white-haired duchess actually fell down the stairs because she couldn’t tear her eyes away from Stiles’s mouth to look where she was going.

“No trouble at all, dearie,” she said dreamily when he saw her next, making her slow way down the castle hall on crutches. “No trouble at all.”

 

On May Day, he went down to the stables to see if Scott wanted to braid flower garlands with him. It was a silly, childish thing to do, but Stiles had always loved it, and Scott wasn’t one to judge. His laughter at Stiles’s offer had nothing malicious in it.

“You actually do that?” he said. “I’ve never seen a noble get his hands dirty picking wildflowers.”

“Getting your hands dirty is the best part,” Stiles said earnestly.

He had been pleased to discover that the King’s forest verging the castle was a bluebell wood in the spring, while new leaves still let sunlight touch the forest floor. An unbroken cloud of bluebells rose from the decomposing leaves, each flower crowded tight against its neighbors, a hazy carpet punctuated by the slim gray columns of beech trees.

Scott helped Stiles gather great handfuls of them. But Stiles’s mother had maintained that May garlands were made up of as many different flowers as one could find, and to look for other wildflowers they had to go further into the wood, where the bluebells thinned. It was a few hours before Stiles pronounced them finished with their hunt.

When the afternoon found them, they had settled in a clearing deep in the forest. Scott sat on a stump, and Stiles sprawled on his back in the grass, a riot of wildflowers spilling over his lap and stomach.

“Hey, I’ve been meaning to ask you something,” Scott said.

“What?” Stiles said, absently. He was holding a handful of forget-me-nots above his face and frowning, remembering too late, as always, how bad he was at the actual garland-making part of the tradition.

“Is there any truth to the rumors I’m hearing in the servants’ hall?” Scott said, an obnoxious grin stealing over his face. He was holding a long piece of hay between his teeth, and he waggled it—and his eyebrows—meaningfully. “I didn’t know you had such impressive skills. I’m so proud.”

“Oh my God, why am I even friends with you?” Stiles moaned, dropping the forget-me-nots and covering his red face with both hands.

Scott laughed so hard he fell off the stump.

 

Stiles wasn’t sure why he trailed after Derek the next time he went to train with his knights after council, beyond that he had nothing better to do. The knights’ practice wasn’t very interesting to watch, once you got over all that rippling muscle and beauty. He let his thoughts wander while he sat in the shade of a tree, picking at a clump of grass.

He was turning over the likely size of this year’s iron imports in his mind when it happened.

For a moment, he couldn’t understand what had occurred; there had been a sound almost, but not quite, like an insect. He twisted to look around himself on both sides, belatedly ducking down, and at last saw the cause of the disturbance. An arrow was buried in the trunk of the tree a handspan from his head, still vibrating from impact.

He couldn’t look away, his eyes fastened to the arrow as if his gaze had been pinned when it struck. Slowly he became aware that someone was shouting.

“Stiles!” he heard, and the sound of several running feet. But it was only when Derek dropped to his knees before him that Stiles could tear his eyes away from what had almost occurred.

“Stiles,” Derek said again, eyes darting over Stiles’s body, hands hovering in midair as if he had been about to touch, but couldn’t decide where.

“I’m fine, Derek,” Stiles said. He reached out to bring Derek’s frozen hands down to Stiles’s lap, as much for his own comfort as for Derek’s. His heart was pounding belatedly, but nothing had happened, he told himself; he was fine. “Everything’s fine.”

“You—you can’t—where did it come from?” Derek asked, rising to his feet again and turning to Sir Erica. She had caught up a moment before and was standing at Derek’s side, scanning their surroundings with sharp eyes.

“There,” she said after a moment, pointing.

Stiles followed the line of her finger and almost laughed, inappropriately. The poor archer had dropped his bow, and had his hands clasped; he looked as if he had seen his own death. In an instant Sir Boyd had him by the collar.

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m so,” the archer babbled, dropping to his knees—foolish, since it only meant that he bounced off more rocks when Sir Boyd dragged him bodily across the yard towards them. He flung the man at Derek’s feet like a rag.

“You,” Derek said, and nothing more.

“My hand slipped,” the archer pleaded, quivering like a jelly. “It was an accident, your highness. I swear it.” Derek kept his cold eyes on the archer, but it was Boyd he addressed.

“The west dungeon,” he said, in a voice like stone. “Put him in—”

“No!” Stiles said, but Derek ignored him.

“Put him—”

“No,” Stiles said again, firmly, this time rising to his feet. “It was an accident.” At that, Derek turned his entire body to look at Stiles, radiating disbelief.

“It could have struck you,” Derek said, as if Stiles’s disagreement meant only that he didn’t understand.

“But it didn’t,” Stiles said, enunciating as clearly as he could, hoping the words would penetrate Derek’s thick skull. “I’m fine.”

Derek glared at Stiles as if he were the one to blame, but he didn’t repeat his order, and Boyd released the archer’s tunic.

It was progress, Stiles decided.

 

The knights accompanied them in to lunch, which was unfortunate, because if they hadn’t, Stiles might have managed to go several more weeks without explaining certain things to Derek. Everyone seemed much too intimidated by him to tell him the rumors directly, but that didn’t stop Erica from leaning into Stiles when she thought Derek wasn’t paying attention.

“I guess it’s a good thing you didn’t bite your lip in surprise when that arrow struck, or else our king would have even more aggression to take out on us in sword practice,” she whispered, laughter in her voice.

“What did you say?” Derek said sharply, turning around.

“Nothing, your highness,” Erica said, snapping to attention. Derek transferred his gaze to Stiles.

“Nothing!” Stiles tried, but after another moment of that hard stare, he wilted. “Okay, we should probably talk about this in private.”

Derek nodded and turned on his heel, not looking back to see if Stiles were following. When they were alone in a dusty side room, Stiles took a deep breath, and explained the whole situation.

“Oh,” Derek said, once he had heard it all. Stiles bit his lip.

“And now everyone thinks—well, you know.”

“Oh,” Derek said, again. His expression was blank. Stiles rubbed the back of his neck, sighing.

“They’re not going to believe you’ll be satisfied with that for long, of course,” he said glumly. Derek opened his mouth and closed it again without saying a word. “I know you don’t want—well. But we have to think of something. For the sake of the alliance.”

Derek gave a brief nod of agreement.

“I thought—we could sleep in the same bed, and just—um, on our own—separately,” Stiles said, twisting his hands awkwardly in his robe.

“And when you don’t conceive?” Derek asked. Stiles glared at him.

“If you have another suggestion—”

“We could consummate the marriage,” Derek said, unbelievably. Stiles flailed, mouth working without sound. It was the opposite of being at a loss for words: he had too many all jostling to get out at once.

“You mean like we could have done weeks ago?” he yelled. “You mean like we could have done on our wedding night?”

Derek exhaled through his nose, casting his eyes up as if asking the angels for patience to deal with his unreasonable spouse. “Stiles—”

“I know you knew I was ready for it, so don’t try to tell me—”

“Not everything is about you,” Derek said. He crossed his arms. “I don’t see what the hurry was.”

“We’d just gotten married!” Stiles stared at him. “It’s not exactly hurrying to consummate your marriage on your wedding night.”

“We barely knew each other,” Derek muttered.

“So?” Stiles asked.

“So maybe I wasn’t ready.” Derek shrugged one shoulder casually, but he seemed somehow smaller than usual, looking down at his crossed arms so that his eyelashes cast dark shadows on his cheeks. Stiles felt himself deflate, all the fight going out of him as if he’d been poked with a pin.

“Oh,” he said uselessly. “Well, I wish you had said.”

They sat in silence for a while.

“Have you ever really done—that?” Derek asked, finally, like it had been on his mind this whole time.

No,” Stiles said, anger flaring up again. “I haven’t been with anyone, as you should well know. I hate that you don’t trust me. Why did you even enter into this alliance if you don’t trust me and you don’t—” want me, he finished silently, lacking the heart to say it out loud.

“You don’t trust me either,” Derek retorted, sounding as if he really believed it. Stiles stared at him.

“Of course I trust you,” he said, “or I would never have come here.”

"Oh, I'm sure," Derek said harshly. He crossed his arms over his formidable chest and produced a false, bitter smile. “You trust me, and you didn't come here to watch me fail, to gather up the fragments of my kingdom for your father to absorb into your borders. I know what you expect from me, you and all the other nobility."

“Is that what you think? Your kingdom?” Stiles said. He stood, brushing off his robes so he wouldn’t have to look at his idiot of a husband. “My borders are your borders. When are you going to figure out that I’m married to you?”

Stiles paused for a moment, unsure what he was waiting to hear. But Derek was silent.

The set of his jaw was familiar, and Stiles knew where he'd seen it before: at Derek's coronation, a few years back. The Stilinskis had attended, along with all the other great families, but it hadn't felt like a celebration. Derek had just come from burying a sister, and even then, the war with the Argents was a maelstrom that threatened to suck in both kingdoms whole.

Everyone in the chapel that day had known that Derek was never intended to rule; his sister had been raised for that role, and even she had come to the throne too young, after the deaths of the rest of her family. Stiles’s father had tried to keep it quiet around him, but he had overheard the whispers, rumors about a fire that might not have been accidental. It seemed likely that they were gathered to witness the end of a dying kingdom.

Queen Lydia Martin had been seated in front of Stiles, and he'd heard her whisper to her fiancé, out of the corner of her mouth, "It's like watching a slow shipwreck."

Derek had turned his head as if he'd heard as well, seeking Lydia out with his cold, sea-grey eyes. He looked at her steadily, like he knew just what she thought of him. Then for an instant, as he lifted his gaze and turned his attention back to the bishop, he'd seemed to look Stiles straight in the face.

By the time Derek bent his proud head to receive the crown, Stiles had known Queen Lydia was wrong. The Hale line would not die out, their kingdom would not crumble—not if Stiles could help it. This one, he'd thought, transfixed by those dark, haunted eyes. This one for me.

And it would still be this one for him, even if he couldn't make Derek understand that, even if he never received his trust in return.

“I’ll see you tonight,” said Stiles, resigned, and he walked out of the room.

 

He avoided Derek for the rest of the day, but Stiles remained strangely, unwillingly aware of Derek’s location; he caught the back of his head turning a corner, the noise of weapons practice drifting up to a window. It felt as though they were attached to two ends of a string winding tighter and tighter, as the shadows stretched longer and longer. Eventually, unable to resist the pull between them, he and Derek faced each other in their bedroom, together, alone.

Stiles watched from the head of the bed while Derek loosened his shirt and kicked off his shoes. Awkward, he drew his knees up in front of him and then straightened his legs out again, crossing and uncrossing his arms. He was wearing his fancy night robe from their wedding night and he felt ridiculous in it.

Derek paused a moment after he put his knee on the bed, checking Stiles’s face before he crawled cautiously up and into his space.

The color of Derek's eyes was indistinct in the candlelight, but his eyelashes were thick and soot-black, eyelids half-lowered. On impulse Stiles reached up to smooth one eyebrow with his thumb.

As he started to bring his hand back, Derek caught him by the wrist to press an ardent kiss to his palm, and suck just the tips of Stiles's fingers into his warm, wet mouth. A breeze stirred the curtains. Stiles could hear insects; someone had left a window ajar to let in the early summer night. The cavernous bedchamber had become something small, safe.

He tugged his arm back again, tentatively, and Derek released his hand so that Stiles could kiss him properly.

The tension between them had risen so gradually that Stiles was startled by the jolt that went through him when their mouths finally came together. He felt like he'd been cut, in that shocked moment before the pain caught up. Shuddering, he opened his mouth.

Derek's groan was muffled by their kiss. He had been holding himself carefully away, braced on his elbows and knees, but as the kiss deepened he let his weight sink down onto Stiles's body.

Stiles tilted his hips away, embarrassed. He was harder than he'd ever been before, so swollen he felt like he'd explode, and leaking; there was a large wet spot on his nightclothes by the head of his cock.

"Shh," Derek said, meaninglessly; Stiles wasn't talking, was hardly sure he could if he tried. He wanted to touch everything, everywhere, but wasn't sure what would be welcome, what would make him seem clumsy and naive. Derek knew he hadn’t done it before, of course, but he wanted to be—good at this. He had a lot of ideas.

Derek slid his big hands under Stiles's hips, between his body and the mattress. For a moment Stiles thought he was going to be flipped over unceremoniously, like a hotcake, and his heart skipped a beat.

But Derek made no move to take things further. He seemed content to settle in, and press his body against every inch of Stiles through their thin clothes, and squeeze him gently with those trapped palms, and kiss, and kiss, until Stiles was so crazy with impatience he thought he might scream.

"I'm getting old here," he said, louder than he meant to, sheer irritation returning him the power of speech. Derek snorted a laugh into his neck.

"Eager," he said. It might have sounded mocking if it hadn't been so breathless.

"I think even your horse knows that," said Stiles frankly. Derek laughed again, muffled, and then finally relinquished Stiles's neck, with which he seemed to have some strange fascination. He rolled off Stiles and onto his side. Every bone in Stiles's body protested the loss.

"I think you should be—it might—if—" Derek said incomprehensibly, but his hands were clear enough, urging Stiles up and over until he straddled Derek's hips. "You'll have more control."

"Oh God no, don't put me in control. I don't know what I'm doing," Stiles said.

"You'll figure it out," Derek said. His eyes were heavy-lidded, glittering. He was moving his hands repetitively, sweeping them up over Stiles's hips and bottom and carrying the fabric with them, lifting the hem of the robe and letting it fall down again before it revealed anything. A tease.

Before he could lose his nerve, Stiles reached over his head and pulled the night robe off, the silk sweeping over his bare skin.

Derek's hands went still. He hardly seemed to breathe.

When Derek moved again, all the slow, luxuriant calm was gone, as if it had never been. He squeezed Stiles's ass hard, the obscene, hungry version of what he'd done earlier, parting Stiles's cheeks so he could rub his firm prick right there.

"You—God, why do you still have this on," Stiles moaned, and tugged at Derek's nightshirt until he heard it rip. It was still on, technically, but Stiles had stopped caring, because now he could see Derek's chest, his flat nipples, his inhumanly beautiful stomach, and he could feel—when he groped behind him—Derek's bare, hot erection. He wanted to say something eloquent. But when he opened his mouth, all he could manage was, "Put it in me."

"My blushing virgin bride," Derek said, with a little curl in his voice that sounded like delight. He reached under the pillow beside him and pulled out a vial of oil.

Derek's fingers felt much larger than Stiles's ever had, inside Stiles's body. Stiles squirmed back on them.

"All right, I'm—I'm ready," he said, breathing deeply. After a moment, when Derek still hadn't pulled his fingers out, Stiles raised his head to glare at him. "I'm ready, I'm ready—I mean, we weren’t waiting on me here." Derek’s face softened, lips curving slightly, but he took Stiles at his word.

He didn't take his fingers all the way out before pressing the head of his cock up against his fingertips, where they held Stiles open. When he didn't easily slide in, he seemed about to pull away and go back to fingers alone—but Stiles had reached his limit. He knocked Derek's hand away and sat down hard.

Derek grunted as if he’d been stabbed.

Everyone had told Stiles there would be pain, but all he felt was a pleasant stretch. Perhaps all his solitary activities had served a useful purpose, after all. He rocked experimentally on Derek's hips, feeling out the hot shape inside him, like a brand in his belly. Pleased, he bounced a bit with his thighs.

Derek hissed sharply and finally made himself useful, thrusting up into Stiles. On the second thrust he hit something much more than pleasant.

"Oh," Stiles said, almost losing his balance, and Derek shot him a savage grin and hit that spot again. "Oh."

"That's right," Derek said, bucking up into him again. He steadied Stiles with one hand and put the other on his cock—not stroking—only cupping him lightly, no matter how Stiles groaned and tried to buck against it. "That's—you're doing so well."

Stiles had a number of things to say about how Derek was doing, as well as some incentives for improvement—if only he could stop moaning and pull some words together. He could feel his toes curling against the sheets.

When at last Derek took pity and closed his hand around him, it only took two pulls before Stiles was spending all over Derek’s bare stomach, jerking helplessly in Derek’s hands. He had never come around something before, that unyielding length pounding him through it, and it magnified the sensation until he thought he’d go blind.

He would have collapsed into his own mess after if Derek hadn’t held him up like a rag doll. Derek’s rhythm was unraveling now, and Stiles thought he must be close.

“Do it,” he mumbled sleepily. He wondered whether Derek would continue holding him up if he just fell asleep like this; if Derek would use his body, like a tool, a toy. He felt oddly at peace with that idea.

“Stiles,” Derek gasped, and rolled him unexpectedly over onto his back to fuck the last of his spunk into Stiles’s tired, welcoming body.

 

Watching Derek train his knights was a lot more fun, after that. The sight of that sweaty, powerful body took on a whole new appeal now that Stiles knew he’d be able to put his hands all over it, again and again, at least until Derek got an heir on him—which, at the rate they were going, might not take very long.

He shifted his weight on the stone wall, thinking about the slippery mess Derek had left inside him the night before, and how he’d renewed it in the morning. It was a sleek, possessive, satisfying feeling, knowing the seed might take root; he could theoretically be carrying Derek’s child even now.

Out on the training ground, Derek stripped off his shirt.

“You’re licking your lips,” Sir Erica said very close to his ear, and Stiles jumped. He gave her an evaluating look; she didn’t seem like the type to be easily shocked.

“Can you honestly blame me?” he asked. She threw back her head and laughed out loud.

“No,” she said, still grinning. Sir Isaac came up behind her, helm under his arm, breathing hard from his last round of longstaff practice. He leaned against the wall and smirked at Stiles.

“He knows you’re there,” Sir Isaac said.

“Yeah, I know,” said Stiles. “He’s trying to pretend I’m invisible.”

Magnificently ignoring them all, Derek hit Sir Boyd with a staff so hard that he reeled in a circle, which, considering Sir Boyd’s build, was an impressive feat. Derek’s torso was slick with sweat, and Stiles lost another few minutes just watching the muscles in his back. When he finally remembered his companions, they were halfway through a conversation, and Stiles had no idea what they were talking about.

“After dinner, maybe. I’ve got to go get the east dungeon ready,” Sir Isaac said.

“Ready for what?” Stiles asked. The other two turned to him with startled, guilty expressions, like they’d forgotten he was there as well.

“Don’t worry about it,” Sir Erica said, shifty-eyed.

“What’s in the dungeons? If you don’t tell me, I’ll just go look,” Stiles said, and raised both eyebrows at their twin reactions.

“It’s nothing, just don’t go there. The king wouldn’t like it,” said Sir Isaac, and Stiles looked back at the training field. Derek was standing stock still, looking at them, although he was much too far away to hear what they were saying.

“Please don’t,” Sir Erica added urgently, and Stiles raised his hands in defeat.

“Okay, I won’t,” he said, looking from one knight to the other. “Don’t everybody panic or anything.”

 

There was enough to occupy his mind without dwelling on the knights’ suspicious behavior. He’d thought he spent a lot of time thinking about sex before, but in retrospect, that had been nothing. Now that he was finally getting it, Stiles wanted it all the time. It was like strong drink. It was like honey.

“In here,” he whispered, tugging at Derek’s coat, and he half-tackled him into an alcove behind a tapestry. Before they’d even come to a stop, he was dropping to his knees, fumbling with the placket of Derek’s breeches.

“Stiles, we can’t—oh my God,” moaned Derek, trying to grab at Stiles’s wandering hands. His head thumped back against the alcove wall so loudly that they both froze to listen for passers-by.

Deciding they were safe, Stiles returned to his task, folding back the fabric to reveal Derek’s hard cock.

“I’ve been thinking about this for ages,” he breathed, and pressed his tongue experimentally to the tip.

Derek nearly sobbed. When Stiles glanced up, his head was thrown back, so all Stiles could see was his jawline, his throat working convulsively.

“Mmm,” Stiles said, pleased, and sucked Derek’s cock into his mouth as far as it would go. It was warm and smooth and it tasted mostly of skin. He found it more difficult than he’d imagined to get it all the way in, but it was fun to try.

After a minute, Derek bucked and almost choked him, so he had to pull off, coughing a bit.

“Sorry, sorry,” Derek breathed, touching Stiles’s face gently with both hands, caressing his jawline, the back of his head. “Oh God, someone’s going to hear.”

“They already think we do this,” Stiles pointed out, and leaned back in. This time he used his hand to cover the part of Derek’s cock he couldn’t fit in his mouth, which seemed to work well. He zoned out a little on the taste, the stretch in his jaw, the noises Derek was making high above him.

He was experimenting with licking repeatedly at the sensitive place under the head of Derek’s cock when Derek came, unexpectedly, pulsing out over Stiles’s tongue. Startled, Stiles pulled back, and Derek gave a loud groan at the sight of his come painting Stiles’s open mouth, his jaw, his throat.

“Hmm,” Stiles said thoughtfully, and licked at his lips, chasing the taste. Derek covered his eyes with his arm and groaned again.

“You’re going to be the death of me,” he said, muffled.

He tugged Stiles up to kiss him, easy and open mouthed, swallowing Stiles’s moans while he brought him off with a sword-calloused hand, until Stiles was shuddering helplessly and coming all over Derek’s white shirt.

“Oops,” he said, trying to tug the jacket closed over the stains. His voice was a little hoarse.

“Yes, I wouldn’t have been satisfied by that for long at all,” said Derek, sardonic. Stiles laughed.

It was something of a miracle that they didn’t find an audience waiting when they emerged.

 

The council meeting had started out boring and become stultifying; Duke Peter seemed determined to cover all the most mind-numbing minutiae of the military budget, and Stiles had no idea why the king needed to hear any of it. Stiles wanted Derek’s time more than any of these people did, and he could occupy it far more enjoyably.

It was the first really hot day of the year, the kind of day that made you itch to be outdoors, while every surface you touched with bare skin collected your sweat. Stiles couldn’t listen to any of the advisors for more than five words before his mind wandered. Instead he passed the time picturing Derek spread out for Stiles’s gaze, naked as he came into the world, in the clearing in the woods where Stiles had made May garlands.

“Make this council meeting brief, if you have any mercy,” Stiles murmured, aiming the comment towards Derek. They were sitting a few chairs apart, but Stiles couldn’t have cared less about the rest of the council overhearing. As far as he was concerned, they could all take the hint to get up and leave.

“I’ll try,” Derek whispered, and ventured a small, private smile. Stiles beamed helplessly back at him, unable to look away or hide his reaction to Derek returning a flirtation, for once. So it took a few more minutes than it should have for him to realize what Duke Peter was saying.

“The knights will ride out before dawn, so that they can make the border by nightfall,” Peter said casually, disinterested, as if discussing tax collection.

Stiles felt his smile drain away.

“What?” he said, but Peter barrelled on as if he hadn’t spoken.

“Derek will of course go with his men, to lead them in—”

"No," Stiles said loudly. "That’s a terrible plan. You can't send your king to the front lines of a war you’re barely equipped to fight at all."

"Stiles," Derek said. Stiles stood up, nearly knocking his chair over the way he had at that first meeting.

"No!" he said again. He looked from councilor to councilor, searching for support. The ones he liked better avoided his eyes, staring at the table or their hands; Peter's allies looked at each other. Only Lord Deaton met Stiles's gaze, steady and calm.

“You don’t think this is a good idea,” Stiles said to him, imploring. Lord Deaton hesitated and then seemed to come to a decision, putting down his pen.

“No, I don’t,” he said. Stiles sagged with relief.

"What's the alternative?" Derek asked. His hands were flat, pressing down on the table. "We can't sit by while they burn our crops in the fields. My people cannot take another hungry winter."

"Peace talks," Stiles said, and winced at the loud reaction from the council; some members even surged to their feet.

"—never to be trusted," the man next to him was saying in a wavering voice, shaking his white beard. Further down the table, a plump lady leaned forward, thumping her fist on the table.

"—will we know if we don't—" Stiles heard, before the roar of debate swallowed her voice once more.

He sought out Derek's eyes over the commotion, and found them cast down, his lips tightly closed. Peter and Deaton didn't speak, either, but their eyes were sharp, assessing each other.

Stiles wondered how long Deaton would have gone without challenging Peter's authority, if Stiles had never come along to press the issue. It was unaccountable to him that anyone could stay quiet for so long.

"How would it work?" Deaton said, and although he didn't raise his voice, it somehow carried clear as a bell over the crowd. The others' voices slowed and died in the moments after he spoke, so that Stiles responded into a sudden silence.

"We invite the Argents to send representatives empowered to sign a treaty, and perhaps my father, to serve as neutral arbiter. It can't make things worse," he said, turning to look directly at Peter and almost blanching at his expression. Duke Peter looked murderous. But his voice was bland and pleasant when he spoke.

“It’s a nice theory, but my dear boy, you don’t have experience dealing with these people.” Unexpectedly, another councilor responded, before Stiles could answer.

“However, I do.” The woman who’d spoken was slim and coolly beautiful; Stiles vaguely recalled seeing her head bent close to Deaton’s at supper once or twice. “And I agree with the king, your grace. It will at least give us time to prepare a more thorough battle plan, if the talks fall through.”

“When,” muttered the old man next to Stiles. Peter bared his teeth.

“Lady Morell, you surprise me.”

“We aren’t ready to attack,” she said, holding her ground.

“Your father would come? He’d risk his neutrality?” Lord Deaton asked, addressing Stiles again. “His kingdom hasn’t involved itself in a serious conflict since he came to the throne.”

“He would,” said Stiles firmly. Around the table, there were low murmurs of interest.

“Send the messengers, then, since you all seem to have decided this without my help,” Derek said, breaking his long silence. “Leave out King Stilinski for now; the Argents prefer to deal alone. And on your heads be whatever comes of it.” He looked directly at Stiles for that last, and then swept out of the room.

Stiles winced a little, but he felt pleased anyway, watching Derek’s well-sculpted rear as he left. Maybe he’d made Derek angry, but a bit of challenge would be good for him. It would be a poor council that gave a king nothing to do but nod agreement.

 

Derek’s knights were rather likeable once you got to know them, Stiles had decided. Especially when they weren’t engaging in impressive, athletic, sweaty activities—or when he joined in.

"Three!" he gasped, straining his chin half an inch above the metal bar, and then dropped heavily back down to the dirt. The burn in his muscles was pleasant.

"Nice one," Erica said, pulling herself up again with barely a hitch in her breath. Sir Boyd, next to her, didn't have any comment, but he flashed Stiles a surprisingly sincere-looking smile.

"Just you wait." Stiles wiped his sweaty forehead with the hem of his shirt. "I'm going to bulk up by the end of the summer. That growth spurt is finally going to catch up with me. I'll be bigger than Boyd."

Sir Isaac laughed and swung himself back off the bar, landing with more grace than Stiles had displayed all day.

"Trying to impress the king?" Isaac asked, one eyebrow raised. "I don't think you need the help."

“I haven’t seen him watch someone like he watches you in a long time,” Sir Erica added. She smiled slyly at Isaac over Stiles’s head.

“You mean I’m not the first?” Stiles said, mock-jealous.

The smile dropped off Erica’s face, and she exchanged a wary glance with Sir Boyd. Stiles looked from one to the other, suddenly suspicious. “What?” he asked. What were they trying to hide this time? Was it someone still at court?

“It was a long time ago,” she said, trying on the smile again. “I don’t even remember.”

“I’m sure you don’t,” Stiles said. He didn’t know why the knights thought they could pull the wool over anyone’s eyes about anything. They were notably terrible at it. He wondered, with the part of his mind he couldn’t distract, what they needed to hide from him.

 

Maybe without their second evasion, Stiles would have been able to resist the temptation of the knights’ first mystery: the forbidden dungeon. There wasn’t anything he could do about Derek’s past, but Stiles had a right to know his husband’s present, he told himself, firmly. He had a right to find out what they were hiding.

Everyone deserves privacy, said a sanctimonious voice in his head. He ignored it.

Having left the torchlight far behind, Stiles was grateful for the solidity of the stone wall against his hand. He stepped forward carefully, trying to give any small creature enough warning to skitter out of his way; the last thing he wanted was to feel anything give under his thin court slippers. He thought longingly of his boots, left upstairs.

This is a stupid thing to do, he thought, and kept doing it.

Just as he was considering giving up, it seemed a higher power heard his doubts: a dim light distinguished itself from the darkness ahead. As he approached, it resolved into a door leading off the tunnel, rimmed in the dark by a faint, flickering glow.

Standing before it, he couldn't see a handle or hinge. The only clue that anything lay beyond the door at all was the light which seeped through the seam around it, between the wood and the stone. At a loss, Stiles touched it lightly with his fingers; to his surprise, it creaked open eagerly, as if someone had pulled it from within.

He stepped forward, expecting to be faced with the person who’d opened the door. But what waited inside the chamber was crouched all the way against the far wall—and it was not a person.

At first, it was hard to pick out the shape of the creature from the darkness, in the weak, single light of the torch on the wall. But when it shifted, a form emerged from the shadows: a great, hulking silhouette, hunched over, covered in fur. It slowly turned its head and looked at Stiles with burning red eyes, lit from within. Stiles's heart rose in his throat.

"Oh my God, I'm going to die," he said hoarsely, and fell back a step, grabbing for the doorframe.

The creature growled, and Stiles turned to flee—but then the growl focused into speech, just as the monster had coalesced from the shadows.

"Stiles!" it roared, murderously, and despite the fact that he should have been running, Stiles froze. His curiosity would kill him someday, but he couldn't resist a mystery.

"How do you know my name?" he asked, staring at the monster. It shifted its posture in what looked bizarrely like discomfort, and something in its movement was familiar.

As familiar as the clothing piled on the floor.

"Derek?" he said, disbelieving.

"You weren't meant to come down here," the monster rumbled, straightening his spine to display more of his menacing height. "You were told."

"I can't—Derek?" Stiles said again. He felt exactly like he had when he was tossed into that pond.

Derek paused for a moment, as though he thought he could avoid admitting it even now, and then reluctantly nodded his massive head. His fists, hanging by his sides, clenched and released convulsively.

"Okay," Stiles said, taking another step back into the hall and raising his hands. "Okay, I'm just going to—okay," he repeated, and then finally, belatedly, he ran.

 

He hadn't meant to go far, or to be gone for long. He only needed time to think, away from Derek; time to process whatever he'd seen in the dungeon.

Scarlet eyes gleamed again in his mind, and he shivered despite the heat.

The garden was as calming as ever, thick with early roses and lily-of-the-valley. Whoever had overseen its planting had possessed a very different sense of taste from the stern architects of the castle. It was incongruously homey, lavender and kitchen herbs mixing easily with hollyhocks and marigolds, like any cottage garden, only a dozen times as large.

Stiles wandered towards the stone wall at its edge, turning over Derek's transformation in his mind. He had become a monster—or at least, he had looked like a monster. But he hadn't attacked, hadn't given chase when Stiles ran. He’d only stood there, back slightly bent, clawed hands hanging loosely by his sides, watching Stiles with those red, red eyes.

He leaned his chin on the stone wall, wanting to feel some solid thing's touch, a reminder that he was standing in the real world and not in some nightmare.

But as Stiles's initial shock retreated, curiosity welled up in its place. What had caused the transformation? Could Derek control it? Was he still in there, or did his mind take beastly form along with his body?

Each question bred more questions in its turn, and Stiles couldn’t pin down a single one to consider first. His mind darted chaotically from one idea to the next, layering thought on thought until he was barely aware of the world around him.

If he hadn't been so preoccupied, he might have heard the raiders coming.

When the cloth covered his face, Stiles automatically drew in breath to yell for help. But blackness was already creeping in, and the last thing he heard was a coarse voice, saying, “None of that, now, Princeling. Time to shut your eyes.”

 

Stiles couldn't tell how much time had elapsed when he came to, head aching. If he'd been able to see the sun, he might have made a guess at it; for now, though, his field of vision encompassed only the swaying flanks of a sweaty, badly-brushed horse. He was draped over its back like a roll of cloth, his wrists and ankles bound with rope.

Grimacing into the horse’s coat, Stiles huffed an annoyed sigh. Derek had almost taken his head off when he’d only fallen in a pond. If Stiles had managed to get himself kidnapped by some band of outlaws or raiders, Derek’s reaction was going to be spectacular.

“He’s awake,” said a deep voice, somewhere to the left.

“Good,” rasped a higher, harsher voice from just above Stiles. “I like it when they fight back.”

“Ew,” Stiles said to the horse, who snorted in what sounded like agreement.

The raiders stopped and made camp while the sun was still high in the sky. If Stiles had been feeling helpful, he could have told them that was a terrible idea. There was no doubt in his mind that Derek would come for him, no matter how angry he was, and no matter what monstrous shapes he could assume. Derek was Derek, and Derek would come.

They dumped Stiles unceremoniously on the ground, still tied up, while they set up the tents and started a fire. There was a branch digging painfully into his side. He was sore and tired, a little dizzy from dangling over the side of the horse and the after-effects of whatever had been on the cloth they’d used to knock him out, but he tried to wiggle into a new position. Maybe he could use the branch to cut through the rope around his wrists. Derek would come, but there was no reason Stiles couldn’t try to make his rescue easier.

A pair of boots came from outside his field of vision and stopped right in front of his face, and he twisted his neck to look up. It was the man with the scar who had grabbed him in the garden.

“We’re going to have a real good time together,” the guy said, leering. Leering seemed to be his default expression. The other men snickered in a way that suggested this was their leader; there was no other reason to laugh.

One of the men cleared his throat, though. “I thought back at the castle, he said—”

His leader cut him off with a glare. “He said we’re not supposed to kill the pretty little princeling before we get there, but he didn’t say nothing about what condition the slut had to be in.” He looked Stiles over in a way that left no room for ambiguity. “Maybe if you’re nice to me, you’ll still be able to walk tomorrow.”

“It’s probably so small I won’t even feel it,” Stiles said.

“Don’t fucking talk back,” said the lead raider, and kicked him hard in the side. Stiles curled up in pain, an involuntary sound escaping from him.

“Anyway, maybe I won’t take you like that. I’ve heard interesting rumors from the castle,” the raider said, smiling nastily and fingering his belt buckle. “Maybe I want a piece of what the king’s been getting.”

Oh, for God’s sake, Stiles thought. Even outlaws knew about that? He was never, ever going to get tangled up in rumor again. This one had cured him.

"Try it and I’ll bite your pathetic little prick off," he spat. He wrenched himself up onto his knees to look the raider defiantly in the face, and was rewarded for his efforts with a hard blow to the mouth.

He could feel blood drip from his split lip, and he licked it up, coppery and hot. The moment he met the raider’s eyes again, a vicious backhand to his cheek sent him crashing back to the ground.

As he turned his aching face to look for the next punch, Stiles felt his eyes go wide. Framed against the sky, mounted on his black stallion, Derek Hale was riding over the hill.

Stiles noted vaguely that Sir Boyd was riding in Derek's wake, but most of his attention stayed fixed on his husband. As Derek galloped closer, Stiles could see that his shirt was dirty and buttoned wrong. His hair was wild, and although his form was human, his eyes still shone red. He descended on the valley like thunder.

The raider who had been tormenting Stiles turned, following his gaze, and made a dry, creaking, terrified sound.

On the stallion's back, Derek gathered himself up into an animal crouch and leaped for the nearest raider, transforming as he went. His bare feet were sprouting claws before he hit the ground.

Perhaps Stiles should have wanted to close his eyes against the carnage, but some vicious streak inside him kept them wide open, watching Derek mow a pitiless, gory swath through the raiders' camp. He could have cried out, said something, asked Derek to take mercy on them; Derek might have listened. Stiles stayed silent.

It was all over in moments, the outcome obvious from the moment Derek had appeared. When only the leader remained, Derek paused and looked down at Stiles, who lay bleeding and bound in the dirt. The raider was still pleading for his life when Derek reached out to rip his head from his neck and toss it in the fire, where it lit up like pork fat.

But Derek didn’t seem interested in savoring his victory. Taking another step forward, he dropped to his knees, the fur and pointed ears melting away.

Soon the only supernatural features left were his red eyes—and his claws, Stiles realized, when the ropes binding his ankles and wrists fell effortlessly away. He sat up, wincing at the stretch in his cramped muscles.

"Stiles," Derek said, and his voice broke. He reached out with one clawed hand to touch Stiles's stinging cheek.

"I'm—I'm fine," Stiles said, closing his eyes, as Derek pressed his lips lightly to the bruise. Now that the danger had passed he felt shaky, all the fear he hadn’t noticed while he was being held captive suddenly rising to the surface.

The claws had vanished, and Derek's hands were roaming everywhere, gentle, intent, checking Stiles over for injury as if he could shatter at a touch. He ignored the reassurance, examining every visible inch of Stiles’s body for gaping wounds or broken bones. At length he exhaled shakily, and his eyes faded back to green.

“Stiles,” he said again, like it was the only word he knew. He gathered Stiles carefully up in his arms, kissing his forehead, his chafed wrists, his split, bleeding lip.

“Yeah,” Stiles said meaninglessly. He felt something sweet and wild welling up inside him, and he put his hands on Derek’s neck, tucking himself closer. Derek lifted him up and stood as if he weighed no more than a sparrow.

“I can walk,” Stiles said. He didn’t really expect that Derek would listen, and Derek didn’t, carrying him through the camp like an invalid. He held Stiles's face pressed against his shoulder, not letting him look at the carnage. Stiles didn’t struggle.

When they reached the stallion Derek set him down on its back, hands lingering as if he didn’t want to let go even for long enough to mount, then quickly lifted himself into the saddle. Stiles didn’t protest when Derek wrapped an arm around his waist again, tight enough to be painful on his bruised ribs. He only leaned into the shelter of Derek’s body and closed his eyes, gripping his torn shirt with one hand.

“He hadn’t touched me yet,” he said quietly. “Derek, he didn’t—I’m still—”

Derek cut him off with a raw, wordless noise, and Stiles was almost grateful that he had. Yours, he had meant, I’m still yours—but he didn’t know how to tell Derek that without telling him more, telling him everything he felt. He was like an over-full bowl of water; anything could tip him and spill out what he tried to contain.

The rest of their long ride back to the castle was silent, but Stiles could still identify the precise moment that Derek froze up again. When the flickering lights of the castle began to come into focus, Stiles felt him stiffen; he sat up straighter, no longer breathing into Stiles’s hair. A few lengths more, and his arm loosened around Stiles’s waist. As they crossed the drawbridge, Stiles felt Derek’s thighs shift away from his, even though it made the stallion snort irritably. Stiles closed his eyes.

By the time Derek dismounted in the stables and turned to face him, his expression was its usual, forbidding mask. All the tenderness he’d shown had been tamped back down.

Scott came forward to grab the horse’s reins, face filled with relief.

“Stiles, thank God,” he said fervently.

For once, Derek didn’t seem annoyed by Scott’s presence. The look he gave him was almost sympathetic. But that emotion too vanished quickly, replaced by the familiar frown.

Rather than make eye contact with Stiles as he lifted him down, Derek pinned Sir Boyd with a gaze.

“Take him to my rooms, and bring the other knights to guard him,” he said.

“I’m not going to be kidnapped from my bedroom, Derek,” said Stiles. Derek glanced at him, but didn’t acknowledge what he’d said. Stiles was getting tired of being ignored.

“I’m going to inform the council that we’ve returned,” Derek said brusquely.

“I—” Stiles started, and then hesitated. He couldn’t say exactly why, but some part of him didn’t want Peter to know what he’d overheard in the raiders’ camp—and if he told Derek, Derek would report it. “All right,” he said instead.

Derek gave him a sharp nod, and one frighteningly intense glare, and then he was walking away. Stiles watched him go, feeling knocked off-balance by the whole experience. The thrill of seeing Derek come over that hill was still fresh enough to make his knees weak, and yet he was so frustrated with him he could have screamed, if it wouldn’t have scared the horses. It was infuriating to actually see him shut down.

Sir Boyd coughed, breaking his silence for the first time.

“Do you want me to—” Sir Boyd said, making a gesture like carrying a baby.

No, I can walk,” Stiles said firmly. “Derek was just being—Derek.”

“Yeah,” said Sir Boyd, and looked relieved.

Boyd’s willingness to go against Derek’s insane orders had limits, though, because he did actually send a servant to find six guards before he would leave Stiles at the door of their rooms. He shot Stiles an unimpressed glance when Stiles objected.

“Would you want to be the one the king blames the next time?” he asked. Stiles couldn’t help but picture the raiders’ camp, as he’d last seen it. He had to admit Sir Boyd had a point.

“Okay, fair—oh my God,” Stiles said, jaw dropping, as the door to their rooms opened to reveal what looked like the aftermath of a violent battle. Sir Boyd peered in after him and winced.

There were huge rents in the tapestries and the bed hangings, grouped in sets of four, where massive claws had ripped through them. Furniture was tumbled everywhere, lying where it must have fallen, mostly in pieces. The couch where Derek used to sleep had been broken entirely in half.

Sir Boyd, still leaning over his shoulder, sucked in an impressed breath through his teeth, but his voice didn’t sound particularly surprised. “Like I said, the guards stay.”

Stiles nodded, lost for words.

He thought he might pass the time tidying up, but after dragging the larger pieces of rubble into a vague pile in the corner of the room and sweeping up the broken glass, he got bored and left the rest for morning.

Stiles changed into his nightshirt and washed his face, and tried flopping on the bed in several different positions, looking for one that didn’t make his bruises twinge. But being comfortable only made him want to go to sleep, and he wanted to be awake when Derek came back.

The later it got, the more stubborn and mulish he felt about it. Stiles had been kidnapped and threatened and that was all after he’d found out his husband could change into an unearthly beast. He really thought he’d handled it well, all things considered, but enough was enough. He was not going to be abandoned tonight of all nights.

Stiles yanked the bedroom door open so hard the guards jumped in surprise.

“Where the hell is he?” he said, glaring at them.

“I don’t—um,” one of them stuttered, and gave a betraying glance to the left.

“Thanks,” he said, and stalked down the hall in his nightshirt. He’d had a very hard day. He didn’t need to go searching for his wayward husband—and that had better only be literal, he thought darkly; if he found Derek in someone else’s bed after a day like today, he was—well, he wasn’t sure what exactly he would do to a man who could turn into a giant ravening monster, but he’d think of something. He had a creative mind.

“Where?” he barked at the guard stationed on the stairs. This one didn’t even try to dissemble, pointing towards the door to the courtyard.

“Guardsroom, on the left as you come out,” the guard said.

Stiles flung open the door to the guards’ sleeping quarters even harder than he’d opened his own, relishing the bang against the wall, and the way everyone in the room sat bolt upright in their cots. One even fell out of bed, yelling something indistinct through a tangle of sheets. The only person who didn’t react was the one who had already been sitting up when the door opened.

“Derek!” he yelled, glaring at him. Derek got up from his cot, looking almost as infuriated as Stiles felt.

“You’re in your nightclothes,” Derek hissed. Hastily he crossed the room, blocking Stiles from the guards’ interested gazes. His own eyes were focused somewhere around Stiles’s collarbone.

“Yes, I am,” Stiles said coldly. “I am, Derek, well-observed. I am in my nightclothes because it is night. And I am here because my husband will not come to bed.”

“You—oh,” Derek said, looking him in the eyes for the first time. He turned to glance back at his guards—who rapidly interested themselves in the walls and their fingernails—and then came tentatively closer, lowering his voice. “You want—”

“Yes, I want,” Stiles said, and crossed his arms over his chest as his anger ebbed. It was an unseasonably cool night, and his shirt wasn’t thick. “It’s been a long day. Come to bed.” Embarrassingly, his voice broke.

He held out his hand. After a moment, Derek took it.

Things should have been awkward between them, with this great secret uncovered—and perhaps they would have been, if Stiles hadn’t been so completely, bone-deep exhausted. As it was, it took all of his concentration to keep putting one foot in front of the other until they were safely back in their room with the door closed and the world outside.

“Could you—mmm,” he said, sighing, as Derek helped him take off his nightshirt. His arms felt leaden, but he wanted the thing off, wanted the reassurance of touch, skin-to-skin. Wanted sex, he realized with some surprise.

He lifted his heavy hand to touch Derek’s cock, without much coordination, and Derek jumped a little.

“You—but you should rest,” Derek said, searching his eyes. Stiles shrugged and gave him a half-smile.

“You can do most of the work?” he offered. “I mean, if you wouldn’t mind.” Derek’s mouth quirked.

“No, I wouldn’t mind,” he said. Then they both were quiet while Derek half-lifted Stiles into bed, sat back against the pillows and arranged Stiles over the angles of his body, comfortably nestled in his lap.

“Your fingers,” Stiles suggested, and Derek hummed agreement.

Derek brushed his fingers lightly over Stiles's hole, then rubbed again, more firmly. After the chaos of the day, Derek's body was incredibly solid, and Stiles felt so very tired. Tipping his head forward, he rested against Derek's shoulder and tried not to think about anything at all.

He closed his eyes and and rocked his hips a little, settled back against Derek's fingers. They were still only rubbing, idle, purposeless. He hummed into Derek's chest.

Derek's other hand had come up to cup the unbruised side of Stiles's jaw, and now it exerted gentle pressure, tilting Stiles's head to the side and back, so he could feel the night air on his face again. He grumbled a little, annoyed to lose his pillow, but both Derek's hands stayed where they were, and after a moment Stiles relaxed into their support, letting Derek take the weight of his head.

The fingers at his hole disappeared for a moment and returned slick with oil, but only to rub at him again, barely pressing the pad of one finger in past the muscle; an endless, patient tease. By the time Derek finally eased the whole tip of a finger inside him, Stiles was panting like a dog.

When he opened his eyes he could see why Derek had moved him. He was watching Stiles's face intently, in that way he had, like a falcon marking its prey.

"What're you looking at?" Stiles mumbled. Being this tired was surprisingly like being drunk.

In lieu of answering Derek kissed him briefly, pulled back for a moment to stare at Stiles's mouth and then kissed him again. When he broke the kiss a second time, he seemed to be considering Stiles, as if evaluating the progress of some craft. He brushed his thumb over Stiles's split lip and kissed him some more, soft, sucking, biting kisses, until Stiles's lips felt bruised all over.

"Hmm," Derek said, looking satisfied, and licked at Stiles's tender mouth.

“Stop teasing, you monster,” Stiles said.

Derek froze.

Maybe it was too early to joke about that, Stiles thought, worry trying to carve its way through the haze of his exhaustion and lust. He relaxed again a moment later when Derek gave an incredulous laugh.

“You’re unbelievable,” Derek told him, pressing a finger deeper into his ass. “I don’t—”

You’re unbelievable,” Stiles pointed out, factually. “It’s amazing, what you can do. I loved watching you today.”

Derek looked at him, eyebrows drawn together, as if he suspected Stiles was making fun of him, but couldn’t tell how. Stiles wasn’t sure whether to keep insisting, or if it would sound like protesting too much. So he just looked back at him, steady.

Then Derek remembered what he’d been doing.

“Yeah,” Stiles moaned. He licked his lips and rested against the heel of Derek’s hand, head heavy, while Derek worked a second finger into his ass. “That’s so—that’s—”

Derek hushed him, and he felt so grateful not to have to think any more that he could have cried. He closed his eyes against Derek’s intent, watchful face.

“That’s it,” Derek murmured. He pressed hard with the pads of his fingers on that spot inside, so that Stiles could do nothing but twitch helplessly.

In the end Derek didn’t even need to touch Stiles’s cock. He just massaged a deep, clenching orgasm out of him from the inside, like working a knot out of a sore muscle, while Stiles shuddered and possibly drooled and came all over everything.

He fell asleep before Derek had finished rubbing off against his thigh.

 

A week later, Stiles was sprawled on the newly replaced, and much more comfortable, couch in their room. His muscles felt pleasantly sore from various athletic activities, and his stomach was full of cold duck and fresh-baked bread. Derek’s cooks ought to have their pay doubled.

He was rereading one of the books he’d brought with him, a dearly-obtained copy of Virgil’s Georgics. All those odes to the bounty of the earth suited his summer mood, but they were palling a little, now that he was rereading them for the third time. He hadn’t remembered to pack until the last minute, and in his rush he’d somehow managed to bring only five books, along with twenty-nine pairs of stockings, and no shoes but the ones on his feet.

Stiles could feel Derek’s eyes on him, watching from his desk, where he was impressing his seal on a dozen identical copies of the household budget. Stiles raised an eyebrow at him without looking up.

“Double the cooks’ pay,” he advised.

Derek stood up and came over to take the book out of his hand.

“Come with me,” he said.

Stiles went happily, expecting to be ravished in another disused closet somewhere in the castle; Derek seemed to be on a mission to christen as many rooms as possible. But the place Derek took him was far better than that.

The room smelled of dust and old paper. Light fell in through the tall, many-paned windows to rest on leather chairs, and a faded carpet, and boxes of curling old parchment—and shelf after shelf of books.

"Oh my God," Stiles breathed, and without looking away from the books, he smacked Derek on the arm.

"Ow," Derek said, sounding more offended than hurt.

"I can still leave you and go into a convent, you know," said Stiles severely. "We've been married for more than a month and you only show me this now?" At that he felt Derek's breath hot on his neck, and his chest pressed against Stiles's back.

"And how long would you last in a convent, my little wanton?" he whispered into Stiles's ear. Stiles leveled a glare over his shoulder, but didn't argue the point.

"Go away," he said, instead, pulling away to investigate the books. "Come back in another month."

Derek came back after dinner.

"Have you been here all this time?" he said, leaning over the back of Stiles's chair. Stiles startled, nearly falling off his perch. He had curled himself at some point into a tight little ball, book against his knees, sitting sideways with his back against the arm of the chair.

"What? Oh," Stiles said, and looked around, blinking. "Is it time to eat?"

"It's time for bed," Derek said. "You're lucky I saved you a plate."

"Yes, okay, can I just—five more minutes," Stiles said, running his finger along the page and going back to his reading.

"But you don't understand, I found all these amazing old records of treaties," he explained half an hour later, when Derek finally lost his patience and pulled him bodily from the room. "Not just from here, from all the neighboring kingdoms. I don't know which of your ancestors got his hands on these, but I could kiss him for it."

“Hmm,” Derek said, herding him up the stairs with his body, as if Stiles might try to evade him and run right back. Which Stiles might, he thought. Books. Sex with Derek was old news compared with those treaties—even if, technically, the treaties were older news by far.

“I bet I can make you forget about that ancestor,” Derek rumbled in his ear. Stiles tried to think of a clever response, but lost it in the sensation of Derek’s body, moving against his.

 

May stretched out into a long, lazy June, while the roses got fat and heavy, and messengers rode back and forth from the Argents’ kingdom. Stiles made a firm rule for himself that he shouldn’t remove things from the library, after all the scoldings he’d received as a child for losing books and leaving them out in the rain—and promptly broke the rule, because it was gorgeous outside and he had no self-control.

Derek usually found him at some point, wherever he was reading, and played it off like it was an accident even when it was absurdly obvious that Derek had no reason to be walking through the orchard or looking into cool, shady nooks of the castle. Stiles didn’t mind it.

“I was just looking for the cakes,” Derek said, sitting down. “You always get them out of the cook. She doesn’t like me.”

“Mmhmm,” Stiles murmured, unconvinced, but he obligingly slid the plate of seedcakes closer to Derek. He had been curled in a windowsill with some Ovid, but the window was wide enough for two. Besides, he didn’t need to read about metamorphoses; he could see one in the flesh any time he liked.

He pushed his feet against Derek’s thigh, mind wandering.

“Whatever happened to that archer, the one who almost hit me? Did you discharge him from your service?”

Derek frowned. “No,” he said. “I was going to, but he left of his own accord before I could.”

“I probably would have too,” Stiles conceded.

“You wouldn’t have nearly killed your prince by being an idiot in the first place.”

“That’s sweet, but you haven’t seen me with a bow,” Stiles said.

“I’d look at your arrow anytime,” Derek said awkwardly, to Stiles’s lasting delight.

“Oh my God, did you really just say that?” he said, gleeful. Derek winced.

“I—”

“No, no, that was amazing. Come here,” he said, winding his arms around Derek’s neck and crawling into his lap. “We have to reward your first attempt ever to chat me up.”

Derek seemed to have an encyclopedic knowledge of dusty little disused closets around the castle, and he had carried Stiles to one and shut the door before Stiles even finished laughing at him.

 

When the Argents finally sent a rider ahead to say they were a day’s travel from court, to be met in the solid, breathing flesh, after all the weeks of negotiations by messenger, it was like being woken from a long dream. Stiles felt restless, ready for action.

He went up to the parapet to watch the delegation approach. Derek was down in the castle yard, waiting to greet his guests, but Stiles had begged off with a stomach complaint in order to get a proper first look at them without being seen himself.

It had only half been a lie; his stomach had been unsettled, and he'd been unusually tired. Even that day, with such a long-expected event, he'd only dragged himself out of bed late in the morning.

Stiles hoped he wasn't being punished for his lie by becoming genuinely ill. He would need to draw on every resource within him if these peace talks were to succeed.

The wind was brisk up on the battlements, cutting through the late summer heat, and he pulled the sleeves of his robe down over his hands, narrowing his eyes. The fields around the castle afforded a clear sightline for a good half-mile.

The Argents arrived in an imposing train of carriages and horses and pomp, an orchestrated display of wealth and power which left Stiles rolling his eyes a bit; he hoped they didn't think they were being subtle. He wondered if they'd stopped just over the hill to polish their helmets and wash the dust of travel off their boots.

Derek didn't seem so amused, as far as Stiles could tell. It was impossible to read any facial expression from this height, but Stiles could make out that his fists were clenched, and he felt a pang of unease. Perhaps he should have waited with Derek after all, if only to prevent him from saying something stupid.

At the head of the procession rode a young woman in light armor, a crossbow and quiver prominently strapped to her back. Her hair fell in dark, flawlessly arranged ringlets under a silver circlet, and her features, though stern, were graciously drawn. That had to be Princess Allison, which would mean the older woman riding with her was her aunt, the Lady Katherine.

Katherine's appearance was almost as lovely as Allison's, and unlike Allison, she was smiling brightly—and yet something about the smile was oddly cold. Stiles shivered again in the strong wind.

Two men, one older than the other, came up behind the armed riders in an open, gold-trimmed carriage: that would be Prince-Consort Christopher and his father, Lord Argent. The Queen must have remained at home, to manage her own kingdom, or to send a signal that she didn’t take these talks too seriously—and Stiles was surprised that every other member of the ruling family had chosen to attend the peace talks. It felt like a good sign. Perhaps the Argents were tired of war as well.

The Argents were dismounting now, Gerard accepting his son's assistance to descend from the carriage. Allison vaulted off her horse in a single graceful movement, and Stiles saw Scott run forward to take its reins. The princess said something to him, and he stood there with the horse for a moment, looking after her, as she walked away.

Stiles's unease grew as the two royal families drew together, and he abruptly decided to trust his instincts. He turned and ran for the stairs, taking back routes down through the castle.

At the door to the yard, he stumbled and curbed his pace a moment too late, fumbling his attempt to slide casually into the crowd as if he’d been there all along. Most of them ignored him, including Derek. Only Gerard Argent’s gaze swung towards him, sharp as a pike.

Stiles sidled up beside Derek, who seemed to be finishing up his formal welcome.

"We are at your service," he was telling the Argent delegation, in serious tones, as if he were imparting real information instead of a pleasantry.

"Thank you for having us," said Prince-Consort Christopher, bowing very slightly. His daughter crossed her arms over her chain mail; her grim face looked more honest than her father's smile.

Lady Katherine stood beside her brother. "Well, Derek, you've certainly grown up well," she purred, with unexpected, inappropriate intimacy. Stiles didn't want to betray any reaction by turning to look at Derek, but he thought it was a good moment to step closer to Derek's side, clearing his throat.

There was an awkward, expectant pause while everyone waited for Derek to make introductions. When nothing was forthcoming from that quarter, Stiles gave up and introduced himself, smiling as if nothing were amiss. These talks would go well even if he had to yank everybody through them by the ears.

“Derek’s consort?” Katherine repeated. She sounded amused by the idea.

“Yes,” Derek said, aggressively. He belatedly put his hand on Stiles’s lower back.

“Delighted to meet you, your ladyship,” said Stiles.

“Likewise, I’m sure,” she murmured.

Derek looked about as delighted as a man tied to a stake.

“What a lovely consort you’ve found yourself, Derek,” Lord Gerard Argent said, coming up behind his daughter to clap her on the back. He didn’t offer a bow. “You’re a lucky man.”

“On the contrary, I’m the lucky one. His Majesty is a wonderful husband,” Stiles broke in, putting the slightest possible emphasis on Derek’s title.

“I have no doubt,” Katherine said, with what was nearly a leer. “He was always a man of... talent.”

Derek stiffened, and Stiles narrowed his eyes, opening his mouth to fire something back at her, before he caught himself.

“Well, shall we go in?” he said brightly, instead.

He hung back until the Argents were safely a few yards ahead of them, and then hissed to Derek, “I don’t like her.”

“I’d distrust you if you did,” Derek replied, under his breath.

Oh, this was going to go well, Stiles thought.

 

He barely slept the first night the Argents were in the castle, his mind whirling a mile a minute about the negotiations, the treaty, all the possibilities bearing down on him at once. He wanted to get up and start right then, in the middle of the night. When the sun cleared the horizon he bounced out of bed like a ball on a string.

Derek arose more reluctantly, but he gamely washed his face and went through his morning routine while Stiles talked at him.

“You have to be prepared to mention—oh, come here,” Stiles said, tired of watching Derek mangle his collar. Derek turned obligingly, and Stiles tied a quick, neat knot, brushing his hands over Derek’s shoulders and chest to smooth the linen once he had finished.

“Very elegant,” he said, smiling at Derek. “What was I saying?”

“Corn tariffs, I think,” Derek said, and Stiles was about to continue when the maid bustled into the room, talking a mile a minute.

“If you want to show up that fancy prince with his brocade coat we’re going to have to iron the—oh,” she said. For some reason she had stopped dead in her tracks, looking at the two of them like the cat who got the cream. Derek stepped back, clearing his throat.

“I’ll see you at breakfast, Stiles,” he said, and nodded stiffly to the maid as he left.

“Well!” she said to Stiles, beaming, and was opening her mouth to say more—when she suddenly gasped, darting forward, arms out to catch him. Stiles hadn’t even noticed he was swaying until she was supporting his weight.

“Whoops,” he said, blinking. “I don’t know what happened there.”

“I think you’d better sit down,” she said, disapprovingly. Stiles obediently sat.

“I don’t know why I feel so crappy sometimes,” he whined, tipping his head against the back of the chair and closing his eyes. To his surprise, the maid snorted, and he opened his eyes to look back up at her.

“What’s funny about that?” he asked.

The maid sighed and then bent down a little to look him directly in the face, listing off her points on her fingers.

"You’ve left enough crumbs in the bed lately to make a whole new cake, and you've vomited in the chamber pot four times since Sunday," she said. Stiles swallowed, embarrassed. "Not to mention, I had to let out your stays."

“Well, I suppose I’ve gained a little weight since I came here, but the food is very rich,” he said defensively. The maid dropped her hands and rolled her eyes heavenward.

“Oh, for pity’s sake. Didn’t those tutors of yours teach you anything about the birds and the bees?”

"Oh. Oh," Stiles said. He felt a bit faint. It sounded so obvious when she laid it all out, and it wasn’t as though he and Derek hadn’t been working towards that end, these past months—they could hardly have done more, really. But somehow, it remained the most shocking news he'd ever been given.

Everyone would be waiting for him at breakfast by now, wondering what was taking so long. He couldn’t give in to panic, and so, with the skill which came from practice, Stiles shoved everything he was feeling deep into the back of his mind and ignored it.

“I can’t—I can’t think about this right now,” he said. “I have to go.”

The maid made him drink a full glass of water and eat a scone from her pocket before she would let him leave, and Stiles determinedly did not think about why.

Breakfast was a bit of a non-event, after that. Derek gave him a small smile across the table, and Stiles smiled weakly back, and nodded his head when people looked at him, and ate nine pieces of bacon, one after the other.

 

There was a break after breakfast for a hunting trip, before negotiations would begin, but Stiles begged off. He felt less queasy now, but he wasn’t in the mood to bounce around on horseback for an hour.

Instead, he went down to the council chamber early just to get a feel for it, even though he'd been there a dozen times before. It felt as though everything he'd ever done in this room—even the scuffles with Peter—had been rehearsal, and now, opening night had come. He swept his fingers over the table, thinking.

"I may be new to this, but I don’t think we can start negotiations until the Argents come back from their hunt," Derek said. He stood in the doorway, solid and reassuring, dressed in rich brocades; he was even wearing his crown, for once in his life.

"I know, but I don't have anything better to do," Stiles admitted. His voice came out more nervous than he had expected, and he licked his lips, uncertain. So much rode on these negotiations. He wished he had gotten more sleep the night before, instead of letting his mind run on like a wild thing, but if he pleaded a headache now the Argents would treat it as weakness.

"It'll be fine," Derek said, as if he could hear Stiles's thoughts. It was bizarre to watch Derek, of all people, try to be optimistic. He produced one of his rare genuine smiles and shrugged, arms crossed over his chest. "In any event, you probably can't make things worse."

"Thanks," Stiles said dryly. He kicked lightly at Derek's boot.

"Is there anything more I should know?" Derek asked, and Stiles felt the bottom drop out of his stomach before he added, "about the negotiations."

"Right," said Stiles, weakly. "Um, no, not really. Just—we should present a united front." Which they were, he told himself firmly; just because he hadn't yet told Derek about the—well, it wasn’t a sure thing yet. And he wasn't thinking about that now. "So, you know, agree with what I say. Say 'we' a lot, if you can. Someday it'll be a good idea to let people think they can play us off each other, but it's not the right time for that yet; we're too new, and they need to see our strength."

"Where did you learn all of this strategy?" Derek asked. "Your father?"

"No, statecraft was always my mother." Stiles ignored the pang in his chest at the thought of her; how she would never see this life he was making. "And I had books, lots of books. I like reading."

"You don’t say," said Derek. "I just thought you preferred comic verse and legends about monsters."

"I have depths," Stiles said with dignity.

"I suppose I could make a joke about my nephew plumbing them," Duke Peter interjected out of nowhere, oozing past Derek and into the room, "but it seems declassé."

"And you're nothing if not well-bred," said Stiles, flatly. Derek moved to his side to make room, and Peter smiled at them both.

"My dear, the Hales fought at Gévaudan. My breeding is impeccable. And yours?"

"My family—" Stiles began heatedly, feeling his face flush, but Peter interrupted, waving a dismissive hand.

"No, no, I wasn’t insulting your family line, I was wondering when you planned to add to it," he said, casually. "It has been some time since the wedding, you know."

Stiles snapped his mouth shut. He knew his face must be poppy-red; he hoped Derek would attribute it to embarrassment, and not guilt.

"Uncle," Derek said through his teeth, but thankfully the Argents chose that moment to make their own entrance. Prince-Consort Christopher led his father into the room, his sister and daughter following a step behind.

"Your highnesses, your grace," Christopher said, bowing to them in turn. "Shall we begin?"

 

Stiles hadn’t formed high expectations for the first meeting in ten years between Argents and Hales, outside of a battlefield. But even by low standards, it was astonishing how badly the negotiations went.

“If we were able to establish trade—” Stiles tried, but Lord Gerard only sniffed derisively.

“Then you’d be able to get your hands on our iron for your steel bloomeries, wouldn’t you? Isn’t that what you’d like? My sources tell me you’ve been putting a lot of money into weapons production, for a people who claim to be dedicated only to peace.” He pronounced the word like it was something that had gone soft in the sun.

“We would very much like to import some of your goods, yes,” Lord Deaton said carefully. “But you would also benefit from our exporting—”

“We need nothing of yours,” said Prince Christopher, icy. “We are self-sufficient.”

“You need our weapons enough to steal them off the dead bodies of our soldiers,” Duke Peter said, and smiled. “You strip them naked right on the battlefield.”

An uncomfortable silence prevailed. The corners of Katherine’s mouth were tilted up, and she looked down as though she were trying not to laugh. Allison was the only Argent who seemed at all embarrassed, frowning down at her hands.

“Hey, we’ve got great craftsmen,” Stiles said weakly.

Things didn’t improve from there.

 

After the fourth or fifth unproductive meeting had been adjourned, Stiles wandered down to the stables, where he knew Scott would reassuringly remain Scott, and therefore be willing to drop his work to go hang around with Stiles and do nothing at all.

They lay out in a meadow, half-dozing. Fat bees rumbled over them without interest.

Stiles had spent so much time over the past week deliberately avoiding the thought of his condition that he hadn’t let himself feel anything for the baby itself. But lying in the late-afternoon sun, surrounded by the scent of crushed grass, he finally felt free to let himself think about it—and discovered to his surprise that deep down in him, under all the repressed anxiety and uncertainty, there waited a fierce, bright joy.

He turned onto his side and curled around his stomach, where that new spark was burning, and thought, unexpectedly, that he could love this child more than his own life.

“Hey, Scott,” he said, eyes still closed. “Can you keep a secret?”

“Not really,” Scott said frankly. Stiles laughed. Everything seemed funnier now.

“Well, it won’t be a secret for much longer,” he said. “I’m going to have a baby.”

“Oh my God!” Scott’s voice had gone absurdly squeaky, and Stiles laughed again. He cracked open an eyelid to enjoy Scott’s alarmed face.

“Not in the next five minutes, Scott,” Stiles said. “Probably—I don’t know, January? February?” He considered it, trying to work out the timing.

“So, the next time we make May garlands, there’ll be three of us?” Scott said. His astonishment appeared to be changing to cautious delight. It seemed right that Scott would like children, Stiles thought. He could picture him tickling a fat belly, giving rides on his back, pretending to eat tiny toes.

It was almost impossible to picture Derek doing anything of the sort. But in the heat of the meadow, Stiles allowed himself to try.

“What are you grinning about?” Scott asked, a smile in his own voice.

“Hmm, nothing,” Stiles said. He rolled onto his back again and opened his eyes, watching the clouds go by. “You’re one to talk, though. You’ve been all smiles ever since the Argents arrived. Or should I say one particular Argent?”

Scott sat bolt upright.

“Stiles,” he said fervently, fixing him with a desperate gaze. “She’s perfect.”

“Yeah?” Stiles said, encouragingly. “You’ve been talking to her a lot?” Scott’s face fell.

“I can never think of anything to say when I’m with her,” he said, and brightened again. Stiles had never seen him display so many emotions in a fifteen second period. “But she talks to me! She’s so funny, Stiles, and she’s got these—” he actually sighed, like a village maiden—“these dimples....”

“What do you talk about?” Stiles asked.

“I mean, mostly I just listen. She told me about how she strings her bow the other day, because she was stringing her bow. And she told me about her family. She’s not comfortable with her grandfather, and she doesn’t know why he’s being so hostile to the negotiations, but she likes her aunt and she—”

“Allison didn’t expect her family to be hostile?” Stiles asked. Scott shrugged.

“I don’t know. She said they treat it like a joke in private, like there’s no way they’ll ever make peace. Her dad’s the only one who takes it seriously.”

“Huh,” said Stiles. That was interesting. If Gerard and Katherine were the source of the problem, it might be possible to drive a wedge into the Argent delegation, and then negotiate directly with Prince Christopher.

“Even her hair smells good,” Scott moaned. Stiles thought he was talking about Katherine for a worrying moment before he remembered. “And she’s a princess, and she’ll never marry me.”

“Where there’s life, there’s hope?” Stiles tried, pulling his attention back to the topic at hand. “Anyway, she’s not really that kind of princess, is she? She spends all her time with the knights.”

“I’m not a knight, though,” Scott said sadly.

“Do you want to be?” said Stiles, sitting up. “I bet Derek would let you.”

“I never thought about it. Knights are supposed to be nobles.”

“Erica’s father runs a shop, I think,” Stiles said. “I asked Derek once why all of his knights were inexperienced teenagers, and he just said he picked people who wanted it.”

“And then I could win Allison’s heart!” Scott said, his face like a sunbeam. Stiles thought privately that he’d probably already done that. Anyone who didn’t fall for Scott in the first five minutes of meeting him didn’t deserve him at all.

There were other reasons for Scott to pursue knighthood, too, Stiles thought. The baby would need a godfather. It would be difficult to convince anyone to accept a stable boy in the role.

He smiled into the sunshine, imagining Scott, the goofiest parfait gentil knight, holding the baby at its christening.

 

They were dressing for dinner that night when Stiles braced himself and finally brought up one of the two things that had been on his mind. He wasn’t quite ready to tell Derek about the baby, yet; he didn’t know quite how it was going to affect him, and the negotiations were so delicate. But this, he could ask for now.

“Derek,” he said carefully. “Can I send for my father to help us hammer out this treaty?”

“What? No,” Derek snapped. Stiles flung up his hands, already exasperated.

“Why not? He’s well-respected; he has allies over the mountains, and along most of the Argents’ borders. What could it hurt to have someone like that involved in the negotiations?”

"I can't come running to your father every time I have a problem," Derek said, clenching his jaw like a marble statue of an idiot.

"No, but we can ask him to come running here for this particular problem, because that is what families do—and because that's what rulers do, Derek. What do you think alliances are for? Why did—what reason did you have for making the alliance, if not for moments like this?"

When Derek still hesitated, Stiles played his trump card.

“Besides,” he said, more quietly, “he’s my father, and I haven’t seen him in months.”

Derek buckled under the reference to family, as Stiles had suspected he would. His shoulders sagged.

“Your father,” he repeated. “Yes, of course. Yes, you can send for him.”

Stiles felt his heart speed up at what he was about to ask, but he needed to know. He opened his mouth and closed it again, licking his lips before he spoke.

“What happened, really? With your family?”

Derek crossed to the bed and sat down slowly, as if his muscles were very sore.

“Lady Katherine happened,” he said.

“What?” Stiles thought he must have misheard, but Derek shut his eyes and continued speaking without affect, almost without intonation.

“I thought I would marry her,” he said. “She told us her family was interested in forming an alliance, and she came to spend the summer with us. I thought she was — I took her around the castle, showed her the secret passageways, just for the fun of it. And then one morning, my entire family was burned alive in their beds.”

“Except Peter,” Stiles whispered. Derek nodded, eyes still closed.

“Except Peter, and Laura.”

Stiles took a tentative step forward and put his hand on Derek’s knee, knelt in front of him.

“You think she—”

Covering Stiles’s hand with his own, Derek opened his eyes, and smiled, terribly. “She stood in front of the court and told us she couldn’t marry into a family so weak they couldn’t even protect their own queen; that she was sorry, that she wished things could be different. But she was looking at me when she said it, and she smiled. And I knew.”

“But didn’t she leave any proof?” Stiles said. He swallowed hard, fingers tightening on Derek’s knee.

“Peter and Laura believed it, but no one else would have,” Derek said, shaking his head. “It was why the war started, why it’s lasted so long. The Argents were eager enough to fight us, even though they admitted nothing. The alliance must have been a lie from the beginning.”

Stiles sprung up, as if his horror propelled him.

“And I’ve been forcing you to make peace with that—with that—” he paced a few steps away and turned back to stare at Derek, heartsick. “We don’t have to. We can keep on with the war, we can—”

“No,” Derek said firmly. He stood, too, meeting Stiles’s gaze. “It’s enough, or—it’s not, but it’ll never be enough. I want peace.”

“Are you sure?” Stiles asked him.

Derek nodded and repeated himself. “I just want peace.”

Stiles didn’t know what expression was on his own face, but it must have been too much for Derek, who looked away. Stiles’s mother had died of a wasting sickness. There had been no one to blame. If what happened to Derek had happened to him, Stiles didn’t know that he’d be able to let go, not ever—not if he burned two kingdoms down to the ground with him.

“You’re a good man,” Stiles said finally, putting weight on every word, meaning it. He rubbed his hands over his face. “I’ll send for my father in the morning. It’ll be four—five days, maybe fewer if he rides quickly. We just have to waste time until then.”

“And what do you suggest?” Derek asked. He looked expectant, as if there were no possibility that Stiles didn’t have a plan.

“Continue negotiations, I guess?” Stiles said. “I can try and bring up something new, maybe water rights; they’ve been damming a river over in the southeast that used to flow into our lands. They’re not likely to stop, but I can make noise to buy time.”

“Well, you’re good at that,” Derek said, smiling hesitantly. Stiles smiled back and leaned in to kiss him, pressing his whole body against him, their baby in his belly between them—their little family, together.

 

Gerard actually laughed when Stiles brought up the water rights issue.

“And what incentive do we have here, exactly?” Christopher asked, with the air of a man humoring a child. Stiles rolled his eyes.

“Nothing, except the bigger picture, where we stop fighting and actually get to benefit from trade.”

“Trade,” Lady Katherine said, and giggled. Stiles stared at her. She was very pretty when her eyes sparkled like that; a lovely skin to wrap such a rotten core. Peace, he reminded himself: Derek wanted peace, and he would keep his mouth shut.

“Yeah, trade. Why am I the only one who thinks that’s important? It’s ridiculous. We have lumber, and you have shipyards. You have mines, and we have foundries. Ending this war would enrich both our kingdoms.”

“You make some reasonable points,” Gerard said, as if making a great concession. “However, there’s one fact that you haven’t put on the table. A fact which matters a great deal to the Argents.”

“And what’s that?” Duke Peter asked, taking the bait as neatly as it had been laid down.

“How does one sign a treaty with animals?” Gerard said, and smiled with all his teeth. “You and your people are only wolves, pretending to be men. Does the huntsman agree on borders with the hart?”

The council room was silent. One woman laughed, and then stopped abruptly when no one joined her.

“Isn’t that right?” Gerard asked, turning his cold eyes to Derek, who sat motionless as a stone, glaring down at the table. “Or can you prove me wrong? It’s easy enough. We may be able to find some rowan branches in our belongings. Security is so important on the roads, you know.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Derek said softly. “You’re right.” And he raised glowing red eyes to meet Gerard’s.

Stiles glanced around the table, taking stock of who was surprised, and who wasn’t. Lord Deaton’s expression conveyed only polite boredom, but some of the other courtiers looked shocked to the core. One baroness had her hand pressed to her mouth, as if she might be holding back a scream.

Derek’s eyes faded to green again, but he didn’t shift his gaze. He hadn’t actually looked at any of his subjects since Gerard spoke.

Stiles wondered how this would all fall out when the Argents left. The Hales hadn’t been preserving their secret very well anyway, if—he counted quickly—a third of the room had known what they were. Perhaps it was better to have it out in the open.

“Yes, very dramatic,” Stiles said, when it became clear that no one else would break the pained silence, least of all Derek. “The Hales may be wolves, but they’re more than wolves, as they’re more than men—they’re rulers in this country, and Derek is a king like any other.” Like no other, he thought, staring Gerard down; only the thought of Derek’s peace kept Stiles from punching that sneering face. “Trade is still trade. Peace would still help you as much as it would us.”

“I had hoped for more from you, Stiles,” said Gerard, shaking his head sorrowfully. “But I should have known that anyone who’d marry a Hale would be a fool. The Argents follow a code. It’s the source of our—moral authority, shall we say? Any treaty made with werewolves violates that code, and the army can’t support us if they don’t trust in our honor.” He spread his hands wide, pantomiming helplessness.

"Wait, but what about the—the—" Stiles snapped his fingers, trying to grab onto the fleeting thought—"the thing!" He looked around; no one seemed to have the least idea what he was talking about. "The thing, the agreement—the Treaty of the Mountain!"

At that, there were signs of recognition in some faces. Across the table, Lord Deaton's eyes had gone wide, and Lady Morell was nodding slowly, lips pursed.

"The Treaty of the Mountain," Stiles repeated, sitting up straighter. "It was a border negotiation between the Argents and a werewolf clan in the north. That was before all of—well," he said, and made a vague gesture to encompass murder and war and blood feuds. "But it happened, the treaty was signed peaceably and both parties abided by it for years, until that family line ended. You can't say your family doesn't deal with werewolves, because you did. You have."

“Is there any evidence that this treaty ever existed?” Christopher said, unexpectedly; he hadn’t spoken in some time. “Do you expect us to take your word for it?”

“It wasn’t so long ago—your father should remember the last of their heirs,” Stiles said, narrowing his eyes at Gerard, whose face was unreadable. “But no, I don’t expect you to take my word for it. We have a copy in the library.”

“I’d like to see it,” Christopher said, and glanced at his father, who was now glaring at him, stiff with rage.

Stiles sat back, smiling.

 

Success—even a mild and qualified hint at future success—was an aphrodisiac, and Stiles jumped on Derek the moment they got into their bedroom that night.

“Whoa,” Derek said, stumbling back into the bed. Stiles climbed on top of him, before rolling them both over so that Derek was looking down at him, covering him with the delicious weight of his body.

Derek seemed interested in only kissing for a while, but Stiles had no patience for that. He rocked up against him and palmed Derek’s cock through his nightshirt, licked his ear, sucked gently on the earlobe.

Then he put his mouth against Derek’s strong, bare neck, and breathed, “I wanted to sit on your cock right in front of everyone when you showed them your eyes.”

"Uh—uh," Derek grunted, face gone stupidly slack. He bucked hard against Stiles's hand, before falling forward, crushing Stiles to the pillows underneath him. There was a wet spot soaking through his nightshirt.

Stiles blinked up at the ceiling.

"Did you just—"

"Ungh," moaned Derek, still twitching a little. He looked like a baby animal that hadn’t figured out how its limbs worked. Stiles couldn't help himself. He burst out laughing.

Derek wobbled up on an elbow to glare at him.

"I'm not laughing at you, I'm not, I promise," Stiles said, gasping for air. "Okay, I'm laughing at you a little, but we've all—been there. I mean, I never have personally, despite being a teenage virgin, but you know—" He bit down on another laugh, blinking tears from his eyes.

"You're such an ass," Derek marveled, apparently recovered—and then he hauled Stiles's ankles into the air, and crushed his mouth intimately against Stiles’s body.

"Hey, I—oh my God, what are you doing," Stiles squawked, thrashing involuntarily. If Derek hadn't kept a good grip on his legs, Stiles might have kicked him in the face in sheer panic. "There should be some—oh—leading up to th—that."

Derek's mouth was too busy to answer.

His stubble scratched Stiles in tender places, but his tongue was soft and hot and persistent, perfect, rubbing flat and warm against Stiles's asshole. Every time Stiles relaxed into the sensation, it would change: light, glancing flicks; steady circles; stabbing hard against the muscle like Derek wanted in.

Stiles squirmed against Derek's hands, confused. He wasn't sure whether he wanted to get away, or slide closer to the source of that agonizing pleasure. It felt like something forbidden, such a sharp, immediate sensation that it couldn't be good for him; as if Derek had wounded him somehow, and was rubbing it with salt, and the pain was just about to hit.

He gasped in relief when Derek finally lifted away and opened him up with a finger, putting them back in familiar territory. His heart was pounding like he’d been in a fight.

"You liked that?" Derek murmured, fucking him slowly with one long, clever finger. Stiles looked down at him once, crouching between Stiles’s thighs, and then had to drape an arm over his face to save himself from seeing Derek's hot, eager stare, his wet, red mouth. He nodded weakly against the pillow.

"Mmm," said Derek, low and amused. Then Stiles's cock was surrounded by wet heat, that wicked tongue tapping lightly just under the head—and really, Stiles thought, really, he couldn't be blamed for coming off like popped champagne in the space of a breath.

He was dimly aware of Derek yanking off his own nightshirt one-handed, crawling on his elbows back up the bed to flop next to Stiles.

"That was fast," Derek whispered, breath hot on Stiles’s ear. He tucked Stiles up against his sweaty body and pulled the bedclothes awkwardly up around them, left-handed, not letting him go.

Stiles mumbled into his chest, "You're an—mmm—ass," and fell asleep before he knew he was going to.

 

It was probably falling asleep so early that had Stiles waking up in the middle of the night, or it could have been the sticky heat—August with Derek was making him reconsider his opinion on sharing a bed—or the moonlight shining into the room, bright as day. He closed his eyes, trying to go back to sleep. But his mind was wakeful, racing along at speed, and after a few minutes he gave it up.

Stiles had hardly made his way to the door when Derek sat up, wide awake.

“What are you doing?” he asked, a little wild-eyed, scanning the room for danger. His hair stuck up on one side, and Stiles bit back a smile.

“Nothing, go back to sleep,” he tried, without much hope that Derek would obey. Sure enough, Derek only reached for his pants.

“Where are you going, alone, in the middle of the night?” he asked, standing up and pulling the drawstring tight. His face was pulled into a scowl, but Stiles had gotten better at reading him, and he didn’t quite seem angry. “With enemies in the castle?”

Stiles rolled his eyes. This was exactly the sort of thing that was keeping him from telling Derek about the baby; Derek was already on full, over-protective high alert. The last thing he needed was another reason to worry.

“I was awake anyway, so I thought I’d go find that treaty, so we can show the Argents the next time we convene.”

“But of course I’m coming with you,” Derek said, as if Stiles had proposed to walk into a den of thieves unarmed and covered in jewels.

“Oh, fine,” Stiles said, long-suffering. It was only the library; he wasn’t sure what danger Derek was imagining lurking in their own castle that the guards couldn’t handle.

He followed Derek down the stairs, creeping as quietly as he could, even after Derek turned and rolled his eyes at his exaggerated care. Derek had the supernatural on his side. Stiles’s clumsy human feet—and his recent extra weight, small as it still was—would need all the care he could take.

The library was empty, as expected, which meant the only problem was to determine where in the world Stiles had left the treaty after he read it. Stiles had always been a useless witness to his own recent past. Whenever his attention was caught by something new, his hands tended to abandon what he held on the nearest surface, without making any note of what that surface might be.

He scrubbed his hand through his hair and sighed. Perhaps he had tucked it behind those scrolls?

But Derek was staring intently at something on the floor.

“Look down here,” he said, crouching. Stiles couldn’t think of anything less appealing than bending down right now. If he felt like this already, he hated to think what it would be like in a few months time, when he’d grown as big as a house.

“Just tell me what it is,” Stiles said impatiently.

Derek reached out to pick up something small, lifted his hand to his face to sniff it—and then, horrifyingly, licked it.

"Oh my God, Derek," Stiles says, putting his hands to his face. "Are you eating that? That's dirt. Don't eat dirt."

Derek looked up at him blankly, as if his complaint were irrational. His eyebrows were drawn together, less angry than confused.

"It's a bit of paper that Lady Katherine touched," he said. "She was here."

Stiles narrowed his eyes.

“She was here? What was she here for?”

“She could have been here for a book,” Derek said, sardonic. Stiles huffed a laugh.

“Oh yeah? Big reader?”

But Derek didn’t respond, suddenly sucking in a breath, eyes momentarily distant. When he looked at Stiles again, his face was grim.

“You told everyone that treaty was in the library, didn’t you?” he said. “What do you think the chances are she came looking for it?”

Stiles felt a chill go down his spine, but it was quickly followed by a jolt of realization.

“Well, she didn’t find it,” he said, jumping to his feet. “I remember now.”

 

When Stiles pulled the treaty out from under the wardrobe in their room, Derek laughed out loud.

“Stiles,” he said despairingly, rubbing his forehead as if his head ached. “What—”

“I was lying on the rug reading, and then I remembered I was late for dinner, and I didn’t want the maid to tidy it away. Shut up,” Stiles said. He rolled the scroll up tightly and opened the wardrobe to find a ribbon to tie it with. “It’s a good thing I did put it there.”

“That doesn’t make it a sensible thing to have done in the first place,” Derek said, but Stiles didn’t continue the argument. He had other things on his mind. He put the scroll on the table by his side of the bed, considering how best to phrase what he needed to say. Now that they had some leverage to get the talks going in the right direction, and his father would likely arrive in the morning, he shouldn’t put it off any longer.

“Before my father gets here, there’s something that I should tell you—that I want to tell him, that you should hear first.”

“Oh?” Derek said. His expression was suddenly unreadable, and it wasn’t making anything easier. Stiles rocked back on his heels uneasily.

"My maid says—well, I think—what I'm trying to say is," he said, "I'm expecting your heir."

He spread his hands flat on his stomach, holding the fabric tight against his body, making a frame from the diamond of his thumbs and fingers. There wasn't much to see yet.

Stiles couldn't quite read the reaction he was getting. It wasn't as unambiguously positive as he had hoped, and he couldn't tell why. Something about Derek—his face, maybe, or his posture—reminded him of an egg that had been cracked. Stiles wanted to reach out, but there was nothing to hold together.

"You're—" Derek started, and stopped again, blinking.

"You knew it was going to happen sometime," Stiles said. He lifted his palms away, feeling foolish, and crossed his arms defensively over his stomach.

"But it's only been—" Derek frowned. Stiles could almost watch his mind ticking back, adding up the days, counting back to the first night they could have possibly conceived a child. It must have happened quickly. Stiles shrugged.

"Congratulations, your virility is apparently—you know, potent."

Derek straightened his spine, shaking his head like he was shedding something that clung to him. "Have you been to see the physician?" he asked.

"Why would I? What would he do? Nothing's wrong," Stiles said, confused.

"He could—I don't know," Derek said. His brow furrowed. "How do you know nothing is wrong?" Stiles rolled his eyes.

"People have been doing this since Creation, Derek. I'm sure it's fine."

Derek didn't look convinced, and Stiles bit his lip, annoyance flooding through him. His moods had been more intense recently, and knowing they were likely due to his condition didn't make him feel them less. It was irritating to be treated like a piece of glass, to be wrapped in cotton wool as if he were now less important to Derek than the cargo he carried—even if that might be true.

"Well, I thought you should know," he said shortly, and turned on his heel to get in bed.

"Wait," Derek said. Stiles paused and glanced back. The moonlight from the window was lighting Derek's ears from behind, and he looked oddly vulnerable, his cheekbones too pronounced. "Thank you." His voice was formal.

"I haven't given you anything," Stiles said, cocking his head.

Derek didn't explain, but Stiles felt his mood softening anyway, and moved back towards him. Curiosity, never more than a few layers below the surface for Stiles, was overwhelming his other emotions.

"Do your senses tell you anything about—you know," he asked, gesturing to his stomach. Derek shook his head.

"You smell a bit different, but the heartbeat won’t be loud enough for me to hear until after it quickens," he said. His eyes dropped again to Stiles's navel.

"So you'll know when I do," Stiles said, cheered by the idea. It was rare to be on equal terms with his husband when it came to their senses.

“Thanks,” Derek said again, and shook his head, clarified: “for telling me.”

“Hey, you helped make the batter too. I’m just the oven.” Derek looked disgusted.

“You have a way with words,” he said. Stiles fluttered his eyelashes, mock-overwhelmed by the flattery.

 

Stiles’s father rode in with the hottest day of the summer.

It was surreal to see him again after all this time spent in Derek’s kingdom, living a new life. He looked exactly, painfully the same: the same stance on his horse, the same jacket, the same lined, familiar features. It was as though a bit of Stiles’s world had been folded over, so that a part of his past came to touch his present. He felt an unexpected tightness in his throat.

“Dad,” he said hoarsely, and then his father was right in front of him, swinging off his horse and gathering him up in a fierce, tight hug.

“Stiles,” he said, his voice breaking. Stiles twisted his fingers in the fabric of his father’s jacket and hung on for dear life.

“Let’s never go that long without seeing each other again,” he said, when he could trust his own voice.

“We’ve got responsibilities, we can’t go tearing off to other kingdoms every time the mood takes us,” said Stiles’s father, always the dutiful king—and then he ruined it with a laugh. “But if my court can’t look after itself for a week once in a while, I’ll have the whole damn council locked up.”

Stiles laughed too much at that, but he couldn’t stop. His dad was here.

“We have lunch laid out, if you’d like to eat, your highness,” Derek said, stepping forward a little from where he’d been somehow lurking in plain sight.

“We’re both kings regnant, son,” Stiles’s father said, clapping him hard on the shoulder. “You don’t call me ‘your highness’.”

“Yes, sir,” Derek said.

“Derek’s not great with protocol,” Stiles drawled. He knocked his shoulder into him affectionately as they crowded through the castle door, throwing his weight sideways so that Derek had to reach out to steady him. Derek frowned at him, hand gentle on Stiles’s hip.

Ahead of them, Stiles’s father turned to look, and raised an eyebrow at Derek’s protective embrace.

Stiles barely tasted lunch; he was too busy telling his father about his new life. He felt desperate to get out as much as he could, facts and anecdotes tumbling out of his mouth so quickly they all tangled together.

“And they have these amazing strawberries here, you wouldn’t believe it. I wish you had been here when they were in season.”

But Stiles’s dad wasn’t listening anymore. A piece of meat fell off the hovering tip of his knife, forgotten, as he stared at his son.

“What?” Stiles asked, putting down the roll he had been spreading with honey and pickled cabbage. He hid his guilty hands under the table.

“Your mother used to eat her bread like that, but only when—” King Stilinski paused, putting down his knife entirely, and fixed Stiles with a stern, evaluating gaze. Stiles shrank. “Stiles,” he said. “Is there something you haven’t told me?”

“Well,” said Stiles. He tried on a tentative smile. “Define something?”

His father turned a cool, disapproving stare on Derek. Stiles’s jaw dropped in outrage.

“Dad! He’s my husband, you can’t get mad at him for that! What in the world did you expect?”

“Don’t tell me what I can get mad about,” his father said, still staring Derek down.

Derek twitched nervously.

“Well, now you’ll be seeing a lot of us for sure,” Stiles said, trying to draw his attention back to safer ground. “If this one is going to inherit both our kingdoms, you’d better show him the ropes.”

“Or her,” Stiles’s father said, eyes going a little misty. “So you’re really—oh, son.”

He nearly knocked over his chair standing up for another bone-crushing hug.

“Your mother would be so proud,” he whispered gruffly in Stiles’s ear, and Stiles had to squeeze his eyes shut against the prickle of tears.

 

Lady Katherine looked mad enough to spit when Stiles laid the treaty on the council room table, flattening it out, and Lord Gerard glared at it with snake-cold eyes. Prince-Consort Christopher read it over carefully, expressionless.

“This all looks above board,” he said at last, looking up, and Lady Katherine actually hissed. Christopher cast her a sharp glance, but it was his father he addressed.

“Why is this the first I’ve heard of this? Why is this information about our family coming to me from the Hales?” His voice was cold. Stiles felt an ill-timed thrill of pleasure at being so casually referred to as a Hale.

Gerard pushed his chair back on the stone floor with a loud, grating noise, and stood up.

“You can’t think that changes anything,” he said. “I refuse to abide by any treaty signed with animals.”

“Really?” Stiles’s dad said, smiling pleasantly. “I bet all of my allies would be interested in hearing about that. You know, we put a pretty high value on civility.”

“As do we,” Prince Christopher said flatly, staring up at Gerard. “Father, if you don’t believe you can respect any treaty we sign, it might be better for you to return home and leave negotiations to me.”

“Victoria will agree with—” Katherine began, and Christopher interrupted her.

“The Queen delegated these negotiations to me, as her representative. She expects them to be carried out in good faith.”

Across the table, Princess Allison smiled at her father, and then, tentatively, at Stiles, tucking her hair behind her ear. Lady Katherine’s face was twisted with rage.

Stiles carefully controlled his expression.

“I think it would be best if you both returned home without delay,” Prince Christopher said firmly. He glanced at Derek.

Derek looked stunned, blank-faced, as if he were waiting for the other shoe to drop. But after a moment, he inclined his head, giving Christopher a small nod of respect.

Stiles followed the Argents down to the courtyard. Before Katherine got on her horse to go, he caught her arm, brought his face in close to hers so she could see his eyes, see that he meant every word.

“If it were me,” he said. “If it were me and you alone in a room, they’d be carrying what was left of you out in a bucket.”

Katherine jerked her head back, her smug smile slipping, and Stiles walked away.

 

Without Gerard and Katherine to poison the room, the negotiations went as smoothly as a scripted play. Not even Peter could rock the boat, now that Christopher was taking this seriously. Stiles suspected the prince felt a little guilty for the way things had gone before.

Both parties signed, and it was done.

"I can't believe they gave us the water rights, honestly, I mean they can't have thought it through," Stiles said, self-satisfied, after everyone else had left the council room.

It was only when he turned to share the joke with Derek that he saw he was breathing quickly, fingers clutching the arms of his chair, white-knuckled. Stiles's smile faded.

"What?" he asked. He wasn't sure whether Derek's expression meant anger, or some other emotion. To his relief, Derek's response was a laugh—and yet there was something strained in it, almost frantic.

"The water rights, Stiles? The—you can't—" Derek let go of the chair, pushed his hands through his hair and laughed again, knocking the circlet he wore free so that it clattered on the table. He looked up at Stiles with those eyes like river water. Stiles wasn't sure what was so funny.

"Yes, the—should I have asked for more?" he said uncertainly.

"More," Derek said flatly, staring at him. "More?" Stiles shrugged, shoving his hands in his pockets.

"I was considering asking for a corn trade agreement, but Lady Morell thought it was better left for renegotiations next year."

"Stiles," Derek said, cutting him off, and Stiles fell silent. "I just watched you talk your way out of a war that has consumed my kingdom, my land, my—my family. A war that was meant to consume me too. And you just—" he raised his hand and let it fall. "With talking," he said.

"Oh," Stiles said lamely. "Well, I only—it was nothing. If there's one thing I'm good at," he said, and smiled at his husband.

"Thank you," Derek said, and Stiles could see that he meant it. "Thank you." And before he could say it again, Stiles kissed his mouth to stop him.

“You didn’t have to,” Derek said a few minutes later, touching Stiles’s hair.

“Of course I had to,” Stiles said sharply, kissing him again. He wanted to be angry at Derek for treating him like a stranger, but there had been something more casual than usual in Derek’s tone, as if his words were merely a courtesy, and Stiles wanted to encourage that. Derek was stubborn, but Stiles had bullied his father through extra shield practice, and he had bullied Peter and the Argents through just about every step of these negotiations, and he could bully Derek into taking him for granted whether it took another month, or a year, or a lifetime. “We’re family. You’re my husband.”

My husband, he thought, and gave him another long, lingering kiss, open-mouthed, the thought so sweet that he had to take Derek to bed to prove it all over again.

 

Derek’s instincts were right, though: it had been too easy.

The worst of it was that if Stiles hadn’t gone off wandering into all corners of the castle to tell Derek he’d felt the baby kick for the first time, Peter might not have gotten the opportunity to make his move.

“You must understand, it’s not personal,” Peter murmured, crushing Stiles against the stable wall. A knife was pressed lightly against his neck. Just outside the shadows, the business of the castle courtyard went on as usual, people shouting and loading carts; an ordinary summer day. “I need Derek to break the peace treaty, and this is the best way to make him do it.”

“He won’t,” Stiles hissed, ignoring the knife. “He loves this kingdom, his people. I’m just—you won’t get what you want.” Peter gave him a twisted smile.

“For such a clever boy, you don’t know much about some things.”

“I know Derek’s honor,” said Stiles. “He won’t do it.”

“We’ll see,” Peter said, as if he were humoring him, and then his attention was caught by something over Stiles’s shoulder. He turned Stiles in his grip, the knife tracing a thin, wavering line around his neck, so that Stiles could see Derek and his knights, coming out of the castle and into the courtyard, with the Argents behind.

"Showtime," Peter breathed in his ear. Stiles was still shuddering when Peter dragged him out of the shadows, the knife never moving from his throat.

Everyone froze.

"Good morning, ladies and gentlemen," Peter said from behind Stiles. "Nephew."

Derek looked like he had been turned to granite.

“Uncle,” he said.

I'm fine, Stiles tried mouthing to Derek. Derek shot him a ferocious scowl.

“I think it would be a good idea for everyone to drop their weapons, don’t you?” Peter’s tone was gentle.

Isaac, Erica, and Boyd let go of their swords as if they had turned red-hot, which Stiles was rather touched by, despite the stupidity of letting down their defense. Peter might have any number of minions ready to jump into an attack.

“Do it,” Derek said, equally stupid, and all the other guards bent slowly to lay their weapons on the dirt.

“You can put yours down too, Derek,” Peter prompted. “Although I suppose our best weapons aren’t so easily put aside.”

Derek dropped his sword with a thud. Stiles wondered what the armorer would have to say about all this reckless disregard for equipment.

“What do you want, Peter?”

“What do I want?” Peter spat, the veneer of politeness dropping away. “I want you to have never fucked that little Argent whore. I want my family back. But since you can’t give me what I want, then I’ll tell you what I don’t want. I don’t want peace.”

“You were the one who paid the archer to shoot at Stiles,” Derek said slowly. “You hired the raiders.”

“Guilty,” Peter said. “This little brat just won’t die.” And then, horribly, he moved the knife down to Stiles’s stomach, until it was hovering over that tiny bump. Derek started forward, making a sound in his throat. “Maybe I should try your other little brat.”

“I will rip your fucking head off your neck,” Stiles said.

“You’re welcome to try,” Peter replied.

“What do you expect to achieve here?” The voice was Lord Deaton’s. “You will never be king. The council will not affirm you.”

“I don’t need to be king,” Peter said. “And no one need die here today—at least, no Hale.” Stiles couldn’t see where Peter was looking, but when every knight’s gaze turned towards Allison, he could guess. For once, the princess was not carrying her bow.

Prince Christopher and his knights snapped to attention, forming a protective circle around their lady.

“She’s committed no crime against you,” Derek growled.

“You let those who committed that crime go,” Peter yelled, the insanity finally showing itself in his voice. “Before I knew about it, before I could stop you. Before I could kill them.” He breathed deeply, calming himself; Stiles could feel his chest expanding against his back.

“Your brats don’t need to die. Kill the Argent princess, and I’ll go to the gallows knowing the war will not end.”

Derek lowered his eyes for a moment, but his voice was steady when he replied, inevitable as Judgment.

“It wouldn’t be the first time you murdered a Hale.”

A gasp ripped through the court. Even Christopher’s eyes moved away from the threat for a moment to check whether Derek were serious.

“Laura,” Peter said softly. “That was—unfortunate. How did you know?” Derek rolled his shoulders in a way Stiles knew preceded his change, but he remained human.

“I didn’t, until just now,” he said. “You were the last to see her alive, but when the Alpha power passed to me, I thought she couldn’t have been killed by one of us.”

“Humans can be useful tools,” Peter said. He actually sounded guilty, to Stiles’s shock; he’d thought Peter was beyond guilt. “I was disappointed that it was necessary. But she had been talking in private about peace.” He snorted and tightened his hold on Stiles, the knife digging harder into his skin. “Peace. As if those people—those monsters; we may be wolves, but at least we kill with honor—as if they would keep to your treaties of peace.

“We can be monsters too, Uncle,” Derek said, and there was a sadness in his eyes now, behind the tension.

Allison took a step out of the protective circle that had formed around her and said, in a clear voice, “King Hale, I believe you are not a monster. I believe that you and your consort are men; good men. I will honor that treaty when I am queen, and my mother will honor it now.”

She didn’t bother turning to her father to check the effect of her words, standing straight and proud in front of Peter. Stiles could see the queen she would make, someday.

The only warning was a slight widening of Princess Allison’s eyes, and the faint twitch of a smile on her lips. Then Peter let out an awful, animal roar, and his grip loosened for a moment. Stiles threw his body forward towards safety, and Derek caught him in his arms. He twisted to look back.

Lord Peter was writhing on the ground, already visibly healing from the vicious sword-stroke that had severed his hamstrings. And there behind him, holding the sword in two hands, was Scott the stable boy.

Derek shoved Stiles at Boyd as if he were a parcel, and stalked towards his uncle, his body cracking and shifting into his lupine form. He knelt over him, a parody of intimacy. Stiles could see Peter’s lips moving, but he couldn’t hear the words. Derek bowed his head for a moment.

Then, with a single swipe of his claws, he ripped Peter’s throat from his neck.

 

Allison didn’t seem entirely thrilled to be rescued, probably offended in her warrior’s heart; nevertheless, Stiles saw her eyeing Scott’s sword grip with eyes full of warmth and approval before Derek pulled him into the castle. He thought Scott’s chances with Allison had just improved nearly as much as his chances of getting Derek to train him as a knight.

“Whoa, slow down,” Stiles said, putting his free hand on his stomach as the baby stirred inside him. He couldn’t feel it through his skin, yet, but a living thing touching him from the inside was a thoroughly odd feeling.

Derek stopped suddenly in his tracks and stared at Stiles’s hand. “Is that—” His nostrils flared and he cocked his head, alert.

“Get me to the bedroom and I’ll let you put your ear there and listen,” Stiles said.

They had no sooner closed the door behind them than Derek was taking him up on it, dropping to his knees at Stiles’s feet. He held on to Stiles’s hips with both hands, careless of the blood that still covered his skin, and pressed his ear right against his clothes.

“I can hear her heartbeat,” he said. Stiles looked down at that dark head, overwhelmed with affection. He rubbed Derek’s scalp gently with his fingertips.

“Guess there’s a real baby in there. Tell me that’s not the best thing you’ve ever used your powers to sense,” he said.

Derek stood up, dislodging Stiles’s hand. He took a deep breath, and the words came out in a flood, like he’d been holding them back for months, dammed up: all the things he’d been waiting to say to Stiles.

"When you first came here with your father, I thought it was a joke. I thought maybe—you and your friends, or, or Kate—" he paused, swallowed. Continued.

“And then I thought that I'd figure you out in time. But the longer you're here, the less I understand why you came. You're beautiful, and smart. You could have anyone. Why would you want to live here, with endless war and no allies—"

"Allies can be made. Wars can be ended. Who wants to live somewhere there's nothing to do? I like this kingdom,” Stiles said. He shrugged, trying to break the tension. “And it didn't hurt that you looked like a god.”

"Oh," Derek said, very softly.

"Hey, whoa," said Stiles, alarmed. "What's that look?"

"Nothing." Derek was an awful liar.

"You know it's not just attraction, right? You don't honestly think—" he shook his head, at a loss. "You're brave, Derek. I'd heard that even in my father’s court. You're kind to your subjects, and you never stop trying your hardest, and I saw you at your coronation, and—you were taking it so seriously; your oaths, you meant every word." Stiles took a deep breath. “I thought, maybe you could feel that way about me.”

He could see that Derek was unconvinced, and he abruptly took a different tack.

"When I was little, and my mom was dying slowly, I tried to run away. Anything seemed better than watching her suffer, watching my dad—I got as far as the town before I turned around and came back. Family is a choice." He held Derek's gaze, finally sure of what he wanted to say. "At the end of the day, you have to pick who you’ll fight for. I chose you. I choose you."

Derek reached out and touched his face, very gently, and Stiles leaned into his hand. He thought that was probably the best he was going to get in response, and he closed his eyes and savored it, trying to make it enough.

Then Derek pressed his lips to the edge of his jaw, his mouth, his cheekbone high up near his closed eyelashes, and said, “I love you.”

Stiles clutched at him and swallowed hard, opening his eyes. “Do you?”

Derek licked his lips, nodded. Stiles searched those cool, stream-water eyes, which were now warm as they looked at him, warm and sweet, and so nervous. Did he really think, after all this, that Stiles wouldn’t be saying that back to him?

“I love you, obviously,” Stiles said. “I love our kid.” He took Derek’s hand and drew it to his stomach, hoping Derek could feel the flutter of its tiny heartbeat. He squeezed Derek’s hand and looked at him, looked and looked until Derek began to smile, slowly. “This is going to be really good,” Stiles said. “We’re going to be so good, everyone will wish they were us, Derek. The three of us are going to be world-changing.”

Derek pulled him closer, said, “The two of you already changed my world. My—our family.” And he kissed him then, as firmly as a vow.