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A Bud Beginning to Flower

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Stiles wishes he didn’t have the weight of his own nonexistent marriage hanging over him when he should be enjoying the celebration of his best friend’s wedding finally coming to pass after his betrothal to Princess Allison when they were twelve. Instead, his head has been filled with all the potential matches who will be in attendance and he’s just glad his father will be staying behind to govern the country to give him some reprieve.

For the first time, he actually considers Scott’s single-mindedness a blessing as he’s absorbed by the distraction of his wedding. Not once has he asked about the pressure Stiles is receiving since he arrived a week ago, and Stiles is more than happy to keep it that way.

He’d arrived earlier than most, his friendship to Scott meaning he’ll always have a room open for him. Most other guests will be staying in the city or are already local, but he knows he won’t be the only foreign prince in attendance.

The Hales in the north have sent their crown princess, Laura, along with her husband Jordan, younger brother Derek and youngest sister Cora. They haven't arrived yet but the city is starting to simmer at the news that they're close considering it’s partially down to the Hales that this wedding almost never went ahead at all.

The rest of the blame goes to Allison’s family, specifically her aunt, Princess Katherine, and grandfather, King Gerard, who had been hatching a plot to kill the Hales once Katherine wed Prince Derek. Derek would have been the only one spared, all those in his way to the throne slaughtered, and in his grief Katherine would have governed in his stead.

When the plot was discovered, it split the Argent family down the middle and almost threw their Kingdom into civil war with the Hales eager for bloodshed on either side until Chris managed to assure them he and Allison had had no involvement.

It was all brought to an end when Derek managed to convince Katherine he shared her ambitions, then pivoted at the last moment to betray them.

At least, that’s the story that has been fed to the masses. But there are rumours abound of Derek’s involvement, that he had his own eye on the throne, that switching sides was to save his own neck when he realised he was on the losing one.

Stiles knows to believe all gossip is foolish, but he also believes you can never be too cautious, especially in his position.

With Derek’s engagement to Katherine six feet under, it’s no secret that he’s looking for a match too, a strong alliance to replace the one that was lost — something Stiles’ father has been keen to remind him of.

But even before the Argents, rumours were widespread of the Prince’s undesirable character. According to most, your eyes will want for nothing but your mind will die of thirst, a passionless bore with less personality than a plank of wood.

“You’ve never met the man, Stiles,” his father has grown fond of reminding him. Stiles is glad he isn’t here now to say it in his ear as the Hale delegation rolls up to the palace.

He’s not going to let himself be lulled into complacency by a pretty face.

And what a pretty face it is. That much he won’t deny.

With black hair against tan skin, extraordinary green eyes and a beard accentuating the devastating cut of his cheekbones, Stiles doesn't think he can be faulted for his lips going dry.

Cora shares the dark hair of her brother but Laura’s is a brilliant gold and she's just as beautiful as the stories Stiles has heard tell of. Their clothing is light compared to everyone else present, but this must feel like a heatwave compared to what they’re used to in the north.

After greeting Scott and then Allison (who receives tight hugs from Laura and Cora), the Hales turn to Stiles.

“Prince Mieczyslaw,” the Crown Princess greets, holding out a hand for Stiles to kiss the back of. She stumbles over the pronunciation, something Stiles is used to. “It’s a pleasure to meet you at last.”

“Princess Laura. The pleasure is mine.”

He and Jordan exchange a firm handshake and then Derek is next. Stiles is immediately struck by how warm his skin is, sure his hands could heat his bed in winter better than a warming pan.

“Prince Mieczysław,” Prince Derek greets and Stiles doesn’t blink in surprise at only the perfect pronunciation. He was expecting the man's voice to be gruff and curt (and honestly wasn't expecting to hear it at all after the rumours of his reticence) but instead it's lighter, gentle, and Stiles feels his stomach swoop like he’s missed a stair.

“Prince Derek,” Stiles returns. His surprise clogs his throat and the greeting comes out more like he's a swooning maiden. Thankfully, the Prince doesn’t seem to notice.

Little seven-year-old Cora is next in line, peering up at him from where she stands clutching at her big brother's hand.

“Where’s your crown?” she asks in that blunt manner most children seem to possess.

“Cora,” Derek chides, his voice smoothed further with fondness.

“I just want to know if he has a pretty crown!”

Stiles crouches down. “I bet it’s not as pretty as yours, Your Highness,” he says, taking her hand and kissing it.

Cora flushes with pride and beams. She tugs on her brother's hand, looking up at him as she extends her other to point at Stiles, finger an inch away from his face. “I want you to marry him.”

Stiles gapes but manages to contain his expression after a moment while Derek’s impressive eyebrows climb almost into his hair.

“Cora, that's— that's not how these things work.”

“But I like him,” she says, stubbornly.

Stiles stays silent, biting at his lip to hide a smile as he takes enjoyment in seeing Derek get so flustered.

“You know it’s not a matter of who you may or may not like but of politics and what alliances the marriage will bring.”

Stiles tries not to visibly bristle at the veiled insult.

In comparison to the Hales, the McCalls and the Argents, his country is small, not much more than an inkblot on a map. Though they have no great army of their own and would rely on their alliance with Scott for protection, they’re not without worth. His country is home to fertile land and they have the monopoly over the Ley river trade route where it runs through the centre of the capital. It might not be enough to procure a marriage of the magnitude of Scott and Allison, but it will make a handsome deal nonetheless. That a prince of Derek’s status would not think of him twice is no surprise but to have it implied in his own words has Stiles’ skin prickling.

He rises to his feet, face blank of anger but also of his earlier cheer. The absence doesn’t go unnoticed by Derek who’s eyes widen.

“I did not mean—”

“You must be tired after your journey. Scott has your quarters ready for you.” He bites his tongue as soon as the words are out. His casual address of their host just proves to Derek the only reason he’s here is because he rides on Scott’s coattails.

Derek is stunned into silence and Scott invites them inside before he has a chance to recover.

Perhaps after this story, his father won't be so quick to suggest the Hale prince.

 

*

 

With everything that requires Scott’s attention, it’s no surprise that Stiles doesn’t see him much in the lead up to the wedding. Disappointing, but not unexpected.

He spends his time riding outside the city walls or absolutely slaughtering anyone who dares face him at chess or staving off an alarming number of invitations to dinner and fluttered eyelashes. He supposes the stories will serve as fodder to keep his father happy but his patience will soon wear thin and Stiles will be required to choose a match from one of the many suitors.

He barely encounters Derek aside from their paths crossing at breakfast. The prince is always stiff-backed at the table, only speaking if someone else initiates a conversation first and even then his answers are clipped. By the third morning, no one bothers to engage him at all besides his sisters. Stiles hasn’t exchanged words with him since their introduction other than stony ‘Good morning’s and has no intention to change that anytime soon.

Beyond that, Stiles only ever sees him from afar, usually whenever he finds himself gazing out of a window. He often spies him taking strolls through the gardens with his sisters, swinging Cora effortlessly from one arm, taking lunch beneath the trees. If not in the gardens, he’s practicing the sword with a handful of Scott’s knights, flowing from one form to the next in a mesmerising dance. It takes a formidable effort to tear his eyes away before he’s caught staring.

Two days before the wedding, Stiles is approached by Laura and asked if he’d like to accompany her, Jordan and Derek to see a play in the city in the evening. In honour of their King’s impending nuptials, His Majesty’s Theatre has been putting on a performance of The Dove’s Nest everyday for the past week and it will apparently last out the month. A play is one of Stiles’ favourite pastimes, a passion of his ever since he was a child, and though The Dove’s Nest is a tired choice for the occasion of a wedding and he doesn’t much relish spending an evening in Derek’s vicinity, he readily agrees to attend.

Stiles rides alone in his carriage to the theatre, sliding down the window to watch the passing buildings. His thoughts are lulled by the rhythmic clop of hooves, the creak of tavern signs and their already rowdy patrons. The sun is setting, casting the bricks in an orange glow. It won’t be long until the lamps are lit.

The carriage eventually draws to a halt and Stiles waits for the footman to open the door and fold out the step. He thanks him and joins the Hales in front of the theatre, a grand pale-stoned building dwarfing those around it. His guards climb from the back of the carriage to shadow him while the footman and driver take the carriage further down the street to wait until he wishes to return to the palace.

Inside, they’re led through a blanketing haze of pipe smoke and chatter to the royal box on the second level, refreshments already waiting for them. It’s a bit of a squeeze for the four of them with the ornate chairs arranged inside but Stiles ends up in the rightmost chair, Derek to his left. He allows himself an internal groan. If beside Laura he might have a chance at some conversation but instead Derek is rigid beside him and he knows he’d have more fun watching a candle burn down than trying to engage him.

The angle of their chairs has their knees brushing and Stiles is reminded again of Derek’s  warmth. He distracts himself by casting his gaze around the theatre, at the elaborate gilded friezes looking down from the ceiling, to the chandelier hanging beneath with every candle lit, to the orchestra pit in front of the stage where rich red curtains fringed with gold are drawn closed in the centre.

“I wonder which variation of the story we’ll see tonight,” Stiles comments.

“Yes,” is all Derek says in return.

Even Laura leans forward to give him a judgemental eye and a glance at Derek shows a crease between his eyebrows deepening. He makes no attempt to further the conversation though so Stiles sits back in his seat to await the start of the play.

Thankfully, he doesn’t need to wait long.

As expected, this version of the play differs slightly from renditions performed in Stiles’ home country and picking out all the similarities and differences makes it a more enjoyable viewing than he’d been expecting. Even the masks differ, the heroine’s here big-eyed and full-lipped where Stiles is used to daintier features and rosy cheeks.

“Well that was delightful,” Laura praises when the curtains have closed on the final encore and their palms are buzzing from their applause.

“It was very well done, though I would have chosen Orelius myself.”

“And insult their King? The Dove’s Nest is traditional.” Derek looks at him for the first time all evening, turning his body in his chair to face him.

Stiles turns to Derek in surprise at the display of such feeling.

Safe,” Stiles corrects, something inside him awakening at the challenge. “Orelius has an element of nostalgia for me, I’ll admit—”

“—and in your rosy memories it needs to stay,” Derek teases, a twitch of a smile about his lips. “If we’re talking about a break in tradition, then A Star Away would be better than Orelius, even if they went with the version that ends in suicide.”

Stiles stares at Derek’s burgeoning grin and twinkling eyes, speechless at the hyperbole. It only takes a second for him to recover, fighting a smile of his own. “A Star Away was written not two years past and is already outdated. Orelius is timeless and it's not just by chance that it’s endured for so many years.”

Endured? ” Derek repeats, incredulously, and then launches into an impassioned speech detailing every way and reason why Stiles is wrong. Hogwash, every word of it, and Stiles tells him so.

At one point, they manage to stop arguing long enough to agree By Candlelight is the biggest abomination to have graced the stage in the past ten years, and then they begin discussing their favourite plays — and arguing all over again. When Derek mentions journeying to the east and witnessing a performance by the Otokonai, Stiles nearly falls out of his chair in his eagerness to hear more despite his envy. Tales of the all-female theatre troupe are all he’s had to go on and he dreams about seeing a performance of his own. He hangs on his every word as Derek describes the way they performed without dialogue, just conveying emotion through body language and music and masks.

Derek’s story brings them to the topic of travelling theatre troupes which begins another argument over the best play for a street performance and Stiles takes great affront to his dismissal of Fair Weather.

“You have no imagination,” Stiles sniffs. “And I take offense at your assessment. Whimsical it may be, but it’s merely a polished veneer concealing commentary on the state of censorship in the South.”

“I may be biased,” Derek concedes. “It is Cora’s favourite and there was a time where I had to watch it performed every day for weeks. It’s a good thing she isn’t with us. Though I beg of you, don’t let her hear you mention it. A troupe gifted her a pair of ears after their performance and she almost got away with wearing them to Laura’s wedding instead of her crown.”

Stiles lets a laugh bubble up at Derek’s pained face. His grimace becomes a tentative smile but he ducks his head before Stiles gets a proper look, clearing his throat.

“Speaking of my sisters,” Derek says with a frown over his shoulder. “I don’t know where Laura could have gotten to.”

Stiles starts at only just realising they’re alone. Had he really been so immersed in their debate?

“The Princess and Lord Parrish have already departed, Your Highness,” a guard answers when Derek inquires after her. “They did say farewell but...” He keeps his eyes averted and shifts uncomfortably.

Stiles resolutely doesn’t look at Derek, his face heating. From the corner of his eye he can see Derek doing the same.

“I suppose we should return to the palace ourselves,” Stiles murmurs and they both get to their feet, looking anywhere but at each other.

Stiles feels a little like he’s been doused in cold water, the magic of their conversation slipping through his fingers as Derek returns to his taciturn self for a silent journey in the carriage.

At the palace, Derek is first to climb out, turning to offer Stiles his hand. It’s just as warm as the last time Stiles held it, and in the creeping chill of the night air, Stiles almost wants to hold it to his cheek.

The silence holds until they reach a fork in their paths, their quarters in separate wings of the castle. Stiles is first to break it.

“Goodnight, Prince De—”

“I want to apologise for my perceived rudeness when we met,” Derek interrupts, and Stiles stares, mouth still forming Derek’s name. “I did not mean what I said. At least, not in the way you understood it. It wasn’t your undesirability I was speaking of, but my own.” A humourless smile twists his lips. “I know the things that people say about me. About the Argents, and my character. My faults shouldn’t taint someone as honourable and well-loved as yourself.”

Stiles isn’t sure what expression his face is showing, so numb he is with shock. The one thing he is certain of though is that his mouth is still hanging open in a highly undignified manner.

“I hope you can forgive me,” Derek says, his gaze so intent that Stiles can feel how important this is to him like a weight pressing on his chest.

“Of course,” he manages to murmur, and Derek smiles, small and private and relieved. Stiles’ stomach flips when Derek takes his hand and raises it to kiss the back of it. It’s an unusual gesture between two men and it makes Stiles’ cheeks go hot.

“Goodnight, Prince Mieczysław,” Derek murmurs, again with the perfect pronunciation that has Stiles’ knees going weak.

“Stiles,” he breathes, before he can really think about the permission he’s bestowing.

Derek’s eyes widen almost imperceptibly, a look of wonder and the barest hint of a smile crossing his face like Stiles has just given him a gift to treasure. No one has ever thought of him so highly before.

This is all too soon.

“Goodnight, Derek,” he chokes out, and turns to stride down the hallway to his quarters. Only when he's shut the door and is leaning heavily against it does he realise he forgot Derek’s title.

His heart begins to pound as he stands there, at the memory of having those eyes so intent on him, drinking in his every thought and opinion. Stiles had been just as eager to hear all that Derek had to say, to argue with him some more.

Even now, he thinks about how he didn’t get to finish detailing his love for Orelius and is of half a mind to stride over to Derek’s rooms and make him see sense on the subject, talk until the sun is rising.

As he lies in bed, his thoughts turn to the rumours of Derek he'd filed away over the years, of his reputation as a bore. He thinks of all the breakfasts they've shared since arriving, of that moment before the play began. But then he remembers that moment Derek turned to him, like a spark had ignited behind his eyes, a bud beginning to flower. He was animated and engaged and Stiles can tell he only scratched the surface of what is clearly a vast well of knowledge. Gone was the broody glower he directs at all but his sisters and it’s clear you just need to know how to break through that harsh exterior.

But most hurtful of all, he thinks of the rumours of Derek’s involvement in the plot to murder his own family. Just by the memory of watching him chide his little sister, Stiles could tell there was no malice in him, without needing the evidence of every encounter since.

It makes his heart ache to think of all the cruel whisperings Derek has to endure, moreso when he remembers his own inclination to believe it. Despite his insistence to make his own judgement, in the back of his own mind, he’d already assumed the worst.

That burn of shame follows him into sleep and Derek is the first thing he thinks of when he wakes and he lies there for a few long minutes carefully not examining how far behind he’s left his rationality in regards to the other prince.

Laura finds him at breakfast with an apology over her and Jordan’s departure the night before, a sparkle in her eyes.

“We did say our farewells, but you were more engrossed in my brother,” she teases, and Stiles cheeks flame despite how hard he tries to stay aloof.

“You’ll have to forgive me. I was just astounded someone could be so deluded,” he sniffs, scraping some butter onto a knife. “Someone had to educate him.” Perhaps he would have been a bit more convincing if he didn’t drop the knife with a clatter when Derek entered the dining room a moment later. Laura lifts a hand to her mouth, but it’s not enough to stifle her snort of laughter.

“Good morning, Stiles.” Derek’s voice is no more than a murmur as he takes the seat beside him, like his use of Stiles’ nickname is a secret for them alone, and Stiles nearly drops his knife for a second time. It shouldn’t be sending thrills through him the way that it is.

“Good morning… Derek.”

Derek smiles, head ducked, and Stiles can't take his eyes off him.

When the Hales invite him to explore the gardens later that morning, he eagerly agrees compared to all the requests from others that he’s turned down during his visit. The icy wall erected between them when they first met continues to thaw as they linger behind Laura and Jordan and Cora, and Stiles is only too aware that the three of them would be considered chaperones in this situation.

Still, he manages to continue their discussion of playwrights in a more relaxed manner now they’re in the open air and sunshine instead of the intensity the cramped box at the theatre had brought. But the conversation eventually shifts to other topics, to childhood memories to their shared appreciation of chess to food. A wild bubble of hope rises in his chest when Derek tells him of the fare they serve at his home and his tentative suggestion that Stiles visit some time to try it himself.

Later that evening, after an almost inseparable day they've spent together, the desire to stay up until the early hours is strong where they have their heads bent close together between two arm chairs in one of the palace’s many sitting rooms. Laura ends up being the voice of reason; they need to be up early for the wedding.

As a surprise to no one, the wedding is a beautiful ceremony, the white drapery and bouquets and beaming sunlight almost as blinding as Scott and Allison’s smiles throughout.

Stiles saw the green jacket Derek was wearing when he arrived, the perfect shade of green to bring out his eyes, and he’s glad to be sitting further down the same pew or he wouldn’t be able to take his eyes off him for the entire ceremony.

Once it’s over and Scott and Allison have headed to the palace balcony to greet their people, they can finally get to the part that everyone has been anticipating: an entire day of feasting.

There’s a sense of peace in the air, like everyone knows the recent turbulence is truly over, with the Hale’s present a symbol of their blessing and friendship with the remaining Argents. With any luck, it will last for decades to come.

Stiles sits at the long table at the head of the hall in a seat of honour. The Hales sit at the opposite end of the same table and the only sight he catches of Derek is when he chances craning his neck and watches him help to spoon food onto Cora’s plate where her arms are too short to reach. It makes his heart melt all the more.

Once most people have eaten their fill — for now — music starts and Stiles is bombarded by a never-ending stream of suitors with requests to dance. While he could get away with excuses when asked to dinner or out riding, now he has no choice but to accept each one. But he can give none of his partners the attention they deserve. Instead, with every dizzying turn, he keeps an eye on Derek stubbornly seated at the table.

It seems no one has approached him with a request to dance and his furrowed brow speaks of a dark mood. When Laura squeezes his elbow he shakes her off, lips forming words Stiles can’t make out. She’s persistent though, and whatever she’s saying has Derek eventually slamming his palms to the table and rising to his feet. Stiles can't catch what he says in return, and moments later, his attention is pulled back to the woman in his arms as the dance comes to an end.

All of the partners exchange bows and curtsies and when Stiles turns to find Derek again, he nearly walks straight into him.

The guests around Stiles go quiet as Derek holds out a hand, palm up. “May I have this next dance, Prince Mieczysław?” he asks through a clenched jaw.

Stiles flushes hot and cold all over at everyone’s eyes on him, but their scandalised faces make him bristle.

“You may,” he responds after a deep breath to steady his voice, taking Derek’s hand in his.

His legs are trembling, weak like he’s just run a mile, as Derek leads him further out onto the floor. Derek’s glower is doing nothing for his confidence.

As they begin the steps of the dance, pressing their palms together, Stiles feels his nerves begin to fade, the room shrinking around them until they're the only two in it, the only two who exist.

It sends a jolt through him when they reach the part of the dance that requires them to switch partners, the world suddenly coming back into focus. He’s glad at least that Derek looks as dazed as he feels.

They step apart and Stiles finds a woman in his arms, a golden butterfly pin in her hair, who dances with grace. He feels dizzy with each rotation across the floor, trying to find Derek, and when they finally return to each other it’s a relief. Derek actually has a small smile playing about his lips and Stiles isn't surprised that he does too.

The dance begins to slow and they reluctantly return to their starting positions. Stiles is out of breath and not just from the dance. He already regrets the loss of contact and craves more of it.

The room applauds and more people stand to join the next dance. Out of the corner of his eye, he can see people still waiting for their turn with him, but Derek hasn’t let go of his hand.

“Walk with me?” There’s apprehension in Derek’s gaze and Stiles squeezes his hand tighter.

“To the gardens?” he asks and Derek nods.

He releases Stiles’ hand, leading the way from the hall, and they walk in silence, the raucous chatter and music of the party fading behind them. The air is fresh on Stiles’ face, and after the way his heart was pounding just now, it’s a relief to take deep gulps of it even if having Derek beside him means he can’t entirely calm himself.

It’s not until they’re almost halfway around one of the paths, leaving other revellers taking a breather far behind, that Derek speaks.

“I did not expect—” he begins, voice loud in the silence between them. He must be conscious of it too because he hesitates before trying again. “I did not expect I could meet someone who would make me feel as you have in such a short amount of time.”

Stiles jerks to a halt, speechless.

“I know I did not make the best first impression. I’m sure you thought I was stuck up and unpleasant.”

“You are.”

Derek’s eyes widen as if Stiles’ words had struck him across the face. His expression goes blank, closed off, and he straightens from where they were leaning close.

“You carry yourself like you’re sitting on a throne of needles and look down your nose at those you deem unworthy of your time.”

Derek’s spine gets stiffer and stiffer as Stiles talks. “We should get back to the feast,” he says, already striding away. “My sister is probably—”

“But you’re also charming,” Stiles says after him and Derek freezes. “And knowledgeable, and you dote on your little sister too much, and you have a wicked sense of humour that not enough people appreciate. Or that not enough people are privileged enough to witness because of the throne of needles,” he adds contemplatively.

Derek has turned back to face him, his mouth open and exposing his too-long front teeth, so at odds with the sharp planes of his face and his usually piercing gaze. Now, he’s staring at Stiles like he’s never seen him before, like he’s never heard such compliments, and Stiles’ heart aches in his chest at the thought. Derek is all of those things and more, and Stiles feels a fresh burst of fury at the rumours, the rumours that had coloured his view of him before they ever met.

Derek finally finds his voice. “And you’re an insufferable know-it-all.”

Stiles grins.

“Your taste in playwrights is atrocious, and your mouth— You never close it and it’s been haunting my every waking and dreaming moment since I arrived, and if I may—”

Derek has gravitated closer and closer, so close Stiles can feel his breath on his lips and their noses are almost brushing. Stiles can hear his heartbeat thudding in his ears as he takes a deep breath.

“You may.”

Derek closes the final distance between them and they meet in a kiss that feels long overdue. Derek’s beard scratches against his chin and he’s struck once more by how warm he is, how he yearns to have no layers between them to just feel that warmth against him, to bask in it.

Despite the serenity of the moment, there’s still worry on Derek’s face when he pulls back.

“I know your father will never approve of me-”

Stiles holds a finger to his lips. “My father took to reminding me of your single status every day leading up to this visit. It seems he’s never had any doubt over your character.”

“But you did.” There’s no accusation in his voice but it hurts all the same.

“Yes. Though I am ashamed to admit it.”

Derek shakes his head. “Perhaps if I had possessed a bit more of the same cynicism, my family would never have found themselves in their position.”

Stiles takes his hand. “No one suspected, Derek.”

Derek kisses the back of his hand again and this time, Stiles has no intention to flee.

Instead, he returns the gesture, and Derek laughs. It’s a bright thing, illuminating their little corner of the gardens, and Stiles reaches up to cup his cheek, feeling the rasp of his stubble and the tension of his smile.

It’s a long while before they make it back to the feast and if the looks on all the guests faces at their disheveled appearances are anything to go by, Stiles is going to find himself at the centre of more than a few scandalous rumours of his own.

As long as Derek is at his side, he’ll welcome each and every one.