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Where the Real Beasts Are

Chapter Text

The Crown Prince of Stellaris’ eighteenth birthday dawns blue-skied and sunny, the warmest day of the year so far. The capital is abuzz, fit to burst with those who have flocked from all corners to catch a glimpse of their Prince's procession through the city, to say they were there the day their Prince became a man.

The crowd has been forming for hours, the most avid among them staking claim to the best spots to stand before night even began to fall the previous day. Guards patrolled the streets through the night, settling squabbles of who was where first before anyone could resort to fists. Now, they line the route of the procession to hold back the eager crowd, no loss of enthusiasm despite the sleepless night.

Children sit on their parents’ shoulders or squeeze between legs to the front of the crowds, all carrying sticks tied with lengths of ribbon in the royal colours of blue and gold which they swish through the air.

At some point during the night, daffodils were passed through the crowd, ready to throw to the ground when Prince Stiles passes, a well-loved tradition. They clutch them eagerly as the procession advances amidst swelling cheers, the path behind already carpeted with the flowers.

Prince Stiles rides at the centre of a formation of knights, cutting a regal figure with his fur-lined cape draped from one shoulder and silver circlet sitting upon his head. It’s set with a yellow sapphire cut to the shape of a four-pointed star, symbolic of the four tribes that merged to create the country long ago. In the mid-morning light, it flashes like the sun.

The same symbol reflects back at Stiles wherever he looks, on the pennants fluttering in the breeze from every building and sketched in yellow chalk on every door for the occasion. It even features on the caparison worn by his palfrey, Roscoe, the floral carpet muffling the clop of his hooves as he keeps steady pace beneath him.

On his back, Stiles may make a princely figure to the eye, but he feels anything but. His cheeks ache from smiling and his arm is ready to drop under the weight of two hours of waving. Sweat drips down his back, heat locked in beneath the fur-lined cape, an extra weight he yearns to be free of. But his enthusiasm never falters.

A girl not much younger than he throws her daffodil a little too hard and it lands in Stiles’ saddle.

While the star is a sign of the Stilinski rule, daffodils are a symbol specific to Stiles, and not only because of his spring birthday. He was too young to remember, but he'd apparently become attached to the flower around the time he turned three, insisting on carrying one wherever he went. When he'd dropped it during the procession and seen it trampled by the horses, his three-year-old self had been inconsolable.

The next year, the people responded by each bringing a daffodil ready to calm the little Prince's tears, and so the tradition was born.

Stiles had been embarrassed about it once, a result of much scowling during the processions of his teenage years, but now he sees the joy his people take in it and wouldn't dream of denying them.

Grinning, he picks up the flower in his lap and tucks the thick stem behind one ear as the girl who threw it blushes and hides her face amidst raucous laughter from the crowd. He keeps it there for the rest of the procession.

The route they follow, the same one every year, leads them in a great loop through the city and back up to the castle where they’d started at its pinnacle. His father awaits him there, at the top of the castle steps beyond the open gates.

For all birthdays leading up to this one, the King had accompanied him in joining their citizens in celebration, and when he was too young to ride alone, he’d sat in front of him in the saddle. It was strange, leaving him behind after so many years of that tradition, but with his coming of age, it’s customary to make the procession alone.

With one last wave, the castle gates close behind him, though it still takes a while for the cheering to die down. He knows it will ring in his ears for hours to come.

Stiles grins up at his father and for a moment, the King looks like he might have tears in his eyes. It passes by the time Stiles dismounts Roscoe, but his voice is gruff when he wishes Stiles a happy birthday - for the third time that day.

Stiles can tell those aren’t the words he really wants to say, is sure they have something to do with the absence of the woman who should have been standing beside them. He forces a laugh and plucks the daffodil from behind his ear to hook over his father’s. The King frowns at it from the corner of his eye, but humours him all the same. The moment passes, though the sadness doesn't fade.

“Our guests of honour will be arriving shortly,” his father informs him, though the way his mouth twists over the word honour is a sign he views them as anything but.

Stiles can't help but smile at his father's overt distaste.

“I'll be ready,” he promises, already waving forward Virgil, his manservant, to assist in untying his cape. He finally shrugs it off with a sigh of relief, balance returned, and holds still as Virgil dabs at the sweat on his brow with a handkerchief.

The old man’s lips are pursed, but Stiles knows it isn’t a sign of displeasure. He’s always taken the utmost pride in his duties and it’s often said his stoicism is a counterweight to his charge’s energy. Stiles almost sees him as a second father with his perpetual fussing and nagging. It’s no surprise that even on his birthday it’s no different.

As Roscoe is led back to the stables, Stiles follows, intent on treating him to an apple for his good behaviour - though he doesn’t really need an excuse to spoil him. He pats the horse’s flank as he munches, soothing his hand over his chestnut coat. The quiet moment doesn’t last for long.

It’s barely any time at all until he’s summoned, and he rejoins his father at the head of the castle steps, the knights who had accompanied his procession standing behind. He holds still for Virgil to retie his cape, the manservant wrinkling his nose and producing a vial of sandalwood oil to dab at Stiles’ wrist and neck to mask the smell of the stables. When Virgil deems him presentable, his father signals for the gates to be opened.

A groan of wood resounds throughout the courtyard, sending up a swell of renewed cheering as Stiles stands to attention to watch the royal procession from Venatia trundle through the city.

A delicately gilded carriage is drawn by two horses at its centre, surrounded by men on horseback in their livery of purple and silver. It's just a small force as the rest will have been left to make camp outside the city, no space in the Stellaran barracks to house them all. Stiles knows his father will see to them all being fed generously despite not being able to attend the feast.

Progress of the carriage is slow and Stiles’ mind begins to wander, though years of feigning decorum means his posture doesn't waver.

Their guests were meant to arrive two days ago but lamented ‘troubles on the road’ as the cause for their delay. Stiles is under no illusion that the whole thing was orchestrated to put their arrival after his procession and whip up greater fanfare. There had been a lot of eyerolling when a herald had delivered the news. It wouldn’t surprise him to learn the Argents had been camping beyond the nearest hill for the past two days in preparation for their grand entrance.

At long last, the carriage rolls between the castle gates and draws to a stop at the foot of the steps. A footman jumps down from beside the driver to open the door and the first of their guests of honour steps out.

King Gerard I was always a severe man, and the passing of time has done nothing to soften him. When Stiles was a child, Gerard had always scared him, with his quick, scheming eyes, and voice always on the verge of rising to a shout. It would be unbecoming to say he still feared him now, but he will at least admit the man makes him uneasy.

Stiles’ father too has spoken of his dislike for the Venatian king and it’s common knowledge that Gerard returns the opinion. It's no secret he still holds his grudge from when Stellaris remained neutral in the ongoing East-West War - only taking up arms when a family of their own nobles had been slaughtered and they could stand by no longer.

As King Gerard ascends the steps, his yellowed teeth flash at Stiles in an attempt at a smile that never reaches his eyes. He favours Stiles more than his father, a fact the Prince has always stayed wary of; he can guess Gerard would much prefer him to be on the throne, young blood he can mold to his own ends.

Stiles forces himself to smile back. He may loathe Gerard’s attention but it could one day be used to his own advantage.

“Forgive us our delay,” Gerard says, disturbingly unctuous. He directs another smile at Stiles, attempting the air of a doting grandfather.

“Of course,” Stiles’ father answers, achieving a much more successful smile as he lies through his teeth. He’d been more indignant about the manufactured setback than Stiles. “We are honoured to have you here to celebrate with us.”

Gerard moves aside in time for his daughter, Princess Katherine, to emerge from the carriage.

Unlike her father, Katherine - or Kate as she insists on being called - is fair and charming, and Stiles has long-wondered how she can bear such close relation to the unpleasant King. Her smile is a thing of beauty and the sweet fragrance of roses swirls in the air when Stiles takes her hand to greet the back of it with a kiss. His eyes are drawn to her wedding ring.

The last time he'd seen her had been not long after her husband's passing, a cruelly short marriage of only two months. Her late husband, Lord Harris, had been an unfriendly man, but he clearly adored her. Most had said it was because no other woman had looked at him twice, and Kate’s interest had served as fuel for the rumour mill for months. Now, her mourning is long since over but her wedding band remains faithfully on her finger.

“Princess. You are as radiant as ever.”

Kate throws back her head in a peal of laughter, gold ornaments glinting in her hair. “And you are still in possession of that silver tongue!”

“One day it will get him into trouble,” his father interjects, as eager to engage the Princess over Gerard as Stiles was.

Princess Allison is last to ascend the steps, genuine dimpled smile lighting up her eyes.

It had been thought that they would marry once, especially when it was widely known they’d grown closer after Allison’s mother had passed and Stiles had offered support drawn from his own experience. But it was clear to Stiles she and Scott were the ones who were meant to be. Perhaps he should have fought a bit harder for the strength that alliance would have brought Stellaris, but the decision to bow out of the race hadn’t been a difficult one.

“Ally,” he greets, kissing the back of her hand. “Scott’s a lucky man.”

“He knows,” she says, grinning, but it soon softens. “He’s sorry he can’t attend.”

Stiles nods.

As he thinks of Scott, his mood sobers for the first time that day. He’d been ignoring the absence of his best friend, but the ache has come back strong. He really does understand, though. It’s not been long since Scott’s coronation after turning eighteen himself and assuming the throne from his mother who had been acting as Queen regent since the death of Scott’s father a decade ago.

That was two months ago but he'll see him soon at Allison’s eighteenth birthday and then again at their wedding.

Gone are the days of spending summers in each others kingdoms, of causing mischief for the guards and sneaking into the kitchens. They’re men now and have their duties to their people to consider before their friendship.

“I received word from him yesterday. He said to tell you you look as beautiful today as you do all others and he’ll see you soon,” Stiles recites. He has the sneaking suspicion the note was more for Allison’s benefit than his own, but he’s glad of the sentiment all the same.

Allison blushes and ducks her head, swiftly changing the subject. “My father said to send you his regards and to have a drink for him.”

“Or three,” Stiles laughs. He's not surprised the Crown Prince has remained in Venatia to govern in his father’s absence.

With welcomes made, the Argent’s luggage is unloaded from the carriage and they’re shown to the guest quarters to settle in before the feast that evening. Stiles takes the chance to slip away to his own rooms, eager to strip out of his stuffy clothes and not move for a few hours.

 

*

 

Stiles arrives at the feasting hall to thunderous cheers. Fists and tankards thump on tables and boots stamp against stone, booming in the cavernous space already rich with the smell of roasted hogs and pipe smoke and mead. The din feels enough to shake loose the banners from their hooks overhead, but though the fabric sways, the fastenings hold firm.

Stiles waves to the room as he makes his way down the centre aisle between the tables spanning its length, to knights and nobles and the lucky citizens who won entry to the feast in the raffle held whenever there’s an event in the castle. The servants holding trays bow and curtsy as he passes, the women with mini daffodils braided in their hair and the men threaded through their top buttonholes. More decorate the tables alongside candles amongst the platters of food, loaves and meats and fruits and cheeses to name a few.

Their guests of honour are already seated at the great oak table set on a dais at the head of the room. It would be customary for King Gerard to sit at his father's right, but he’s insisted on leaving the spot to Stiles considering the occasion and has moved a seat along. Stiles would much rather Allison’s company beside him, but the Princesses sit on the other side of his father. He’d reminded Stiles it wouldn't be proper for her to be seen so close to him in light of her imminent marriage to Scott, despite widespread knowledge of his and Scott’s friendship.

With Stiles seated, the feasting begins. Between one blink and the next, his plate is piled with pork, chicken, pheasant and fish, and a platter of every cheese under the sun is set closer to him along with crusty bread, fresh from the oven. His cup is never empty and he’s soon pleasantly buzzed with a full, warm belly.

The hall is filled with chatter and spikes of laughter and by the time everyone has taken their initial fill of the food, the room is bubbling with excitement over a rumour that the Argents have brought Stiles an impressive gift. When King Gerard finally climbs to his feet and calls for it to be brought forth, a hush falls over those in attendance like a blanket of fresh snow.

The doors to the hall open and when the gift enters, flanked by two Argent men, those nearest scramble back, scraping the benches across the floor and scattering cutlery amidst yells of shock. Even Stiles at the back of the room quivers with a frisson of fear, hand twitching at his hip with the desire to reach for his blade. Even if it were present, he’s not sure it would protect him from the beast padding down the centre aisle.

They’ve brought him a direwolf.

It’s a magnificent creature, black fur like the glossy spill of an ink pot across a sheet of parchment, and its size is even bigger than that of the mastiffs who help guard the castle. Its pace remains unfazed by the tumult around it, paws as big as Stiles’ spread hands almost seeming to make the ground tremble. It draws to a halt in front of the dais, close enough to reveal the glint of a thick iron collar peeking out from the ruff of fur about its neck.

They were thought to have gone extinct years ago, until the Argents happened upon some parentless pups and became the only known breeders. Until now, Stiles has never heard of the Argents even allowing one beyond the boundary of their kingdom. To be offering one as a gift? He would never have thought it possible.

Stiles stands frozen, sure it will pounce, and after the initial outburst, the rest of the hall is silent too.

“Don't be alarmed. It’s quite tame!” Gerard declares, lifting an untouched chicken leg from his plate and tossing it forward. The wolf raises up to snatch it out of the air then sinks to its belly, deftly tearing off the meat and cracking the bone in two with one snap of its powerful jaws.

“Prince Stiles, if I could get you to step forward,” Gerard continues. “It would do well to get it acquainted with the scent of its new master.”

Stiles’ first instinct is to gape or snort or squeak, but with the rapt audience watching with bated breath, he reminds himself he is a man, a prince, and he will not show fear.

The wolf doesn't react to his approach, just keeps gnawing at the bone, though Stiles is expecting its lips to curl back in warning at any moment. But its eyes, green and gold, don't show any apprehension. They don't show much of anything at all.

At Gerard’s direction, Stiles holds out his hand and the wolf lifts its head to press its nose to it, cold and wet. Its nostrils flare as it breathes him in, a rush of hot, damp breath swelling over his skin with every puffing exhale.

Carefully, Stiles sinks to one knee and moves his hand until he’s stroking through the fur at the side of the creature’s neck. Perhaps it's not wise to bring his throat so close so soon, but the wolf doesn’t react to his touch in the slightest. His hand brushes the collar, surprisingly warm to the touch and etched with vertical grooves at even intervals around as much of the band as he can see. At the front is embedded some sort of gleaming yellow gem, carved into the shape of the Stellaris four-pointed star.

“It will answer to whatever name you give it,” Kate informs him and her voice makes him jump. He’d been so mesmerised he’d forgotten he isn’t alone.

Stiles stares into the animal's eyes, filled with wonder. He's struggling to fathom that this wolf is his and will be a companion in his life for years to come. The wolf stares back, seeming to look less pleased than Stiles of his new situation, but perhaps that's just his temperament. Perhaps he's proud and standoffish and doesn't want to admit that he secretly likes ear scratches and belly rubs. Perhaps he'll like going for runs alongside Roscoe, or maybe he's lazy and would rather lounge in the sun.

No matter what, Stiles looks forward to getting to know him. That is, once he's gotten past the fangs and the claws and is sure the wolf doesn't plan for him to become the target of either.

“Thank you, King Gerard. He is a generous gift.”

“Generous indeed,” his father agrees, but he’s smiling at Stiles instead of regarding Gerard with distrust.

Gerard lifts his goblet. “To the Prince!” he calls, and it's echoed by the entire hall amongst more stomping and banging.

As the feasting continues, the wolf is coaxed up onto the dais to lay at Stiles’ feet in front of the table with a leg of beef which seems to keep him occupied for most of the evening. Stiles can’t help peering over the edge of the table at him in wonder.

“One thing you need to know with these beasts,” Gerard leans over to tell him. “You never remove the collar.”

Stiles nods and Gerard pats his hand with what might be his version of an ingratiating smile. Stiles busies himself with buttering a new bread roll to move his hand out of Gerard’s reach.

He’s only taken a single bite when the table is approached by Sir Vernon Boyd. Lady Erica, his wife and Stiles’ childhood friend, hovers close behind, head bowed and a hand on her stomach.

“Happy Birthday, Your Highness,” Boyd says after bowing.

“Thank you. I’m glad you could both make it.”

“I’m afraid we have to cut our visit short,” he replies, stepping back to place a supporting arm around Erica’s waist.

Stiles sits straighter in his seat. “So soon?”

“Erica has been feeling under the weather for the past few days and it seems the excitement of the feast has been too much for her.”

“I apologise, Your Highness,” Erica begins, her gaze lowered. “I was sure I would be well enough.”

As jarring as her use of his title is, more jarring still is her demeanour. She’s usually bright-eyed and mischievous, but now she’s ashen-faced and her hands look to be trembling. Wide, fearful eyes flicker to the wolf at Stiles’ feet. The wolf stares back, eyes unreadable. By the hand on her stomach, Stiles wonders if she's with child once more and prays the shocking arrival of the direwolf has done no permanent harm.

“I understand. Please go and rest. If you feel you cannot make the journey, you know you are welcome to spend the night here in the castle. I can have a room set up for you in no time at all.”

“We thank you for the offer, Your Highness,” Boyd says with a bow of his head, “but we’d prefer to get back to our son.”

“Of course. Travel safely.”

Stiles watches them go with concern but doesn’t worry long. Boyd will look after her. They had been lucky enough to marry for love as well as status, an arrangement Stiles isn’t likely to share.

Turning eighteen himself with Allison and Scott the same age and already set to marry, it will only be a matter of time before the pressure to find a match of his own really starts to build. Scott has always looked forward to the prospect of marriage but the thought has never filled Stiles with much excitement. Perhaps if he’d found someone he could be so sure of as Scott and Allison had he wouldn’t be dragging his heels so much. Still, his birthday feast isn’t the time to think about these worries.

The evening passes in the blink of an eye and the moon is past its zenith by the time Stiles leaves the hall, now only sparsely dotted with lingering revellers. The Argents retreated to their rooms for the night over an hour ago, his father not much later.

Stiles is worried to be in control of the wolf alone but he follows obediently as soon as Stiles stands, coming up as high as his hip. With nowhere else to keep him, Stiles supposes he should stay with him in his rooms and he leads the way from the hall after bidding goodnight to those still left.

He pauses before heading deeper into the castle and looks back at the wolf.

“Do you need to go outside to… do your business?” he asks, feeling like a bit of a fool. Though Kate had said it would answer to any name Stiles bestowed, he’s still unsure of the beast’s intelligence.

Without a sound, the wolf heads for the main doors to the courtyard and Stiles trails behind, amazed that that even worked. He waits on the top step, between the guards standing watch either side of the main door, and doesn’t look as the wolf pads into the shadows.

He gazes up at the night sky and crosses his arms over his chest instead. Despite the warmth of the day, the night is still chilly and he’s looking forward to curling up in his bed and getting up long after the sun has risen.

When the wolf returns, Stiles pats his thigh. “This way,” he says and leads him inside.

As they make their way up flights of stairs and along corridors, the wolf’s shadow flickers in the light from the torches, growing and shrinking as the high sconces pass like something looming and inescapable in a nightmare. Whenever he looks back, he expects to see a flash of fangs descending on him, but the wolf just stares. Stiles wishes he could know what he’s thinking.

When they reach Stiles’ quarters, the wolf stands just inside the door, and Stiles marvels at how well-behaved he is. Still, he’s glad he gave Virgil the night off. There’s no saying how he might react to a new stranger appearing in Stiles’ rooms.

After casting about, he gathers some cushions from the little nook he usually curls up in to read and lays them on the floor beside the window to serve as a makeshift bed for the wolf until something more suitable can be found.

The wolf situates himself on the pillows as soon as Stiles steps back, resting his head on his paws. Stiles watches him for a few moments, feeling out of place in his own home. It’s like the floor is littered with needles as he moves to get dressed, scared of angering the wolf with too much noise. He tries to reason with himself that the Argents wouldn’t have gifted him if he was considered dangerous, but the reminder of fangs and claws outweigh his attempts to calm himself.

When he finally crawls into bed, it takes a long time to fall asleep despite the late hour, and even then he sleeps fitfully, sure he’ll jolt awake to the wolf’s fangs sinking into his throat.

Every time he lifts his head to check, the wolf is still awake, gazing longingly up at the night sky. The jewel in its collar gleams in the moonlight.

Chapter Text

Stiles is woken in the morning by a shaft of light lancing between drapes he forgot to close the night before. He groans and rolls over, groaning again when his throbbing head protests the movement. He’s hoping to go back to sleep but something shifts in the corner of the room and his eyes snap open, stomach lurching as they land on the wolf staring back at him. Still in the lingering cloud of sleep, he’d totally forgotten about his new pet.

Stiles is struck once more by how magnificent a creature he is, lying in a pool of sunlight lending a golden tint to his fur and dust motes swirling all around. He no longer feels the same trepidation he had yesterday, reassured knowing he survived the night — though any sense of danger is probably dampened by his hangover.

He lets his head fall to his pillow again, but though he’d love to get more sleep, he realises he needs water more. He reaches over to the bell pull beside his bed and gives it a tug with what energy he can muster. The wolf’s ears twitch, perhaps hearing the bell ring in the room below, calling for Virgil who should have started his day already. Stiles wonders just how good his hearing is.

Virgil arrives not two minutes later with another servant, a boy no older than fifteen, who carries a pitcher of cool water on a tray. The boy remains impressively stoic when he catches sight of the wolf and Stiles is pleased the wolf remains just as unfazed by the new additions to the room, thankfully not considering them intruders to attack.

Virgil dismisses the boy once he’s placed the tray on the bedside table and then pours Stiles a glass of water. Stiles could kiss him for thinking to bring it before he even had to ask.

“Your father has only just sat down to breakfast with the Argent royals,” Virgil informs him as he hands the glass over. “Do you wish to join them?”

The water helps freshen his mind as well as his mouth and awakens pangs of hunger that had been hidden beneath the stirrings of nausea, so he agrees to make an appearance at breakfast.

He glances at the wolf as he swings his legs over the side of the bed to find him watching the pitcher of water intently. With its long neck, it will be no good for him to drink from so Stiles casts about for something more suitable. He spots his fruit bowl across the room, easy enough to replace the apple and grapes and few pears with the water. The wolf acts aloof as it’s set down in front of him but Stiles isn’t fooled.

As the wolf deigns to drink and Virgil readies his clothes for the day, Stiles turns to the small basin in the corner of the room and washes his face. Virgil is waiting with a small towel when he’s finished and then helps him dress, fastening the elaborate clasps and buttons decorating his tunic with practiced motions. He turns him to the door when he’s finally satisfied with his appearance.

The wolf follows Stiles from the room without prompting, probably eager to be fed, and in the dining room where breakfast is being served — a more intimate space than the hall used for the feast — the entire raw hind leg of a cow is waiting for him, the kitchens already informed of his diet. The wolf tears into it with gusto.

The Argents and Stiles’ father are already seated and mostly finished eating, stifling smiles and feigning surprise that he managed to get up at all. He satisfies himself with a light breakfast of toasted bread with a smear of honey, and then manages to stomach a small omelette. When the server asks if he’d like it with cheese, his sensitive stomach cringes and his paling face is all the answer he needs to give, much to the amusement of everyone present.

The wolf finishes his own meal in what must be record time and when Stiles spots his tongue dangling from his mouth, he realises no water had been provided. He knows that the remnants of the pitcher earlier can’t have been enough for a beast that size, but when he asks the server to bring some, Kate waves away his request. “The trough for the horses is suitable enough.”

Stiles supposes it’s true the wolf isn’t going to care where he drinks his water from, but he at least needs to get something more permanent for his rooms so his fruit bowl can go back to serving its proper purpose.

“If we’re visiting the stables, let’s go for a ride,” Allison proposes, perking up. “I’d dearly like to see the Stellaran countryside again without being confined to a carriage. I don’t know when I’ll next get the chance.”

“I’m sure Stiles wouldn’t mind taking you out,” his father says. “Meanwhile, Gerard and I have much to discuss.”

And they’ve finally reached the real reason for the Argents’ visit.

With the threat of King Deucalion of Astran to the north of Stellaris’ border and his alliance with the Yukimuras to the east, the East-West War stretches on without an end in sight. Neither side is gaining ground or willing to agree to a truce, and it’s gone on for so long, Stiles can barely remember a time before it.

He’d been young, no older than four or five when it began and too young to comprehend the situation beyond the adult’s whispered conversations over his head. It wasn’t until he was older that he learned the catalyst for the war, of how one of the Astrani twin princes had been out riding with Gerard during a diplomatic visit — much like the one they’ve paid Stellaris now — when his spooked horse resulted in his unfortunate death. Gerard called it an accident, but Deucalion and his Queen, Kali, called it murder. It wasn’t long before they were at all-out war, born from grief and misplaced anger. Stiles knows those feelings well, saw them mirrored in his own father at the death of his mother, but he can’t imagine ever being so ruled by those feelings that he’d lash out and incite a war.

Stiles is only too keen to leave his father to strategise with Gerard and spend the day elsewhere. He knows the matters are important but he also knows that one day he won’t have the luxury of having his father to deal with them and wants to make the most of it while he can. He'll get the details from him later.

After the Princesses have changed into dresses suitable for riding and the kitchens have provided a hamper of food for lunch, they head to the castle stables where the Princesses’ horses are being cared for alongside Roscoe. After the wolf has drunk his fill from a trough in the yard, Stiles tells him to wait a distance away in the likely case that he’ll spook the animals and he obediently sits on his haunches.

Despite the precaution, Roscoe still catches sight of the wolf as soon as he’s led out of his stable and shifts his hooves with a nervous whinny. Stiles plans to carefully acquaint them but when he turns, he spots Finstock, the castle blacksmith, crouched down in front of the wolf without fear and peering at the collar.

The wolf is shying away from him in the first display of distress Stiles has seen from him yet.

“How did they get this thing on?” Finstock is muttering, reaching out a hand ready to touch. Stiles’ shadow falls over him and he snaps his hand back, turning his crouch into an impromptu bow.

“Your Highness,” Finstock greets. “Some beast you got here. Say the word and I could forge him some armour that would make him unstoppable against those Astrani scum! Straight to Deucalion himself to rip him limb from limb!” he declares, demonstrating the motions violently with his hands.

Stiles bites his lip to stifle laughter at the picture he makes, with his unruly mop of hair and wild eyes. “Thank you, Finstock. If I ever have need of some, I’ll let you know.”

The wolf follows as Stiles leads Roscoe away, the horse’s tail swishing as he eyes the wolf beside him. Stiles runs a soothing hand down his mane and leans close to murmur gentle assurances. That his master shows no alarm at the beast’s presence does much to calm him.

The Princesses are saddled and ready to go, their own horses already accustomed to direwolves. As soon as Stiles joins them, they set out at a trot, passing Finstock who’s yelling for Greenberg. Or at him. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell.

A cluster of Stellaran and Venatian guards make up their entourage, flanking them and bringing up the rear as they travel through the city. Chalk stars still decorate every door he can see and will probably remain that way for days to come, providing that they have no rain. The daffodils have mostly been swept up but a few stems and petals still litter the ground.

Civilians who step aside to let them pass stare open-mouthed at the wolf, crowds starting to form and children running alongside them. The wolf haughtily ignores everyone while Stiles and the Princesses offer smiles and waves until they reach the city gates, passing between travellers entering the city and skirting the small force that accompanied the Argents from Venatia camped against the city wall.

The fresh air is a relief against Stiles’ face, working to sweep away the last vestiges of his hangover, and they spend a pleasant morning tracing a path through the forest that Stiles knows well. He loves this time of year beneath the trees, the sun-dappled path and the vivid green of the foliage overhead swaying in a gentle breeze. A squirrel darts across the path ahead and up the nearest trunk and Stiles wonders for a moment if the wolf might give chase. Instead, he remains at Roscoe’s side, whether because he didn’t see it or isn’t interested Stiles can’t tell. For the entire ride, he never runs ahead or wanders off to explore the trees around them and though Stiles wants to encourage the wolf’s curiosity, he decides that with this being their first ride, it’s probably best if he doesn’t stray.

Allison and Kate are in high spirits, their laughter in tune with the surrounding birdsong and working as a balm to fully cure Stiles’ headache. The only time the mood is dampened is when Allison mentions pitying Gerard and John back at the castle poring over maps instead of enjoying the day. It brings the topic of their conversation to the war and Kate asks how long it’s been since Stellaris joined.

“Five years,” Stiles responds instantly.

Five years,” Kate repeats in disbelief. “Five years since the Hales. It’s a pity. The son was such a handsome boy.”

Stiles’ fingers tighten on his reins, wanting to tear them in two at a burst of white hot anger.

The Hales had been a noble family supposedly with ancestral ties to the four tribes Stellaris was formed from, though the line is now entirely wiped out. Slaughtered.

Stiles’ memory of hearing that news is a vivid one, of the silence sweeping the throne room so swiftly it pushed the air out with it as the herald’s cries hung above everyone's heads. Rumours had sprung up like weeds, but no matter which version of events were told, two things always remained true: that Deucalion’s emblem had been etched into the half-charred door of the Hale manor and that the bodies had been unrecognisable after the fire. All in retaliation for daring to host Kate when she made a detour through Stellaris on her journey from the front lines back to Venatia.

The Hales had been well-loved and it was but days before Stellaris declared they were joining the war.

The boy Kate mentioned was Derek, the middle child and only son, five years older than Stiles. The last time Stiles had seen him, he’d been a man of eighteen, his already-full beard making him look so mature to Stiles’ young eyes. He’d often heard the women of the court whispering behind their hands and tittering as he passed, and even Stiles had been taken with him in that innocent way of children. It makes his stomach squirm to think how obvious his wide-eyed affections must have been.

Not that it matters anymore.

The wolf is no longer keeping pace with Roscoe, instead standing stock still in the middle of the path behind. Stiles wonders what could have caught his eye but at Stiles’ glance over his shoulder, he trots back to Roscoe’s side.

“Let’s speak of lighter things,” Allison murmurs and Stiles silently agrees.

The path begins to loop back towards the palace and they stop at a brook they’d passed earlier for lunch, settling down to eat in the midday sun. The wolf is panting, great tongue lolling out of its mouth, and Stiles coaxes him into the shallow water to cool off while their entourage fans out into the trees to keep watch.

As they eat, the Princesses are eager to discuss Allison’s upcoming wedding and Stiles does what he can to act as Scott’s voice in the conversation, though he knows his friend will bow to all of his bride’s wishes. Before that though is Allison’s birthday, and at the reminder she bombards Stiles with every detail about the masquerade she’s been allowed to plan. He can’t help smiling with her infectious excitement.

When there’s nothing left but crumbs, they pack up their hamper while the wolf finally gets up from his spot in the water where he’d remained unmoving for the entire meal. He steps up onto the bank and shakes out his fur, showering their party in water. Stiles and Allison laugh, doing what they can to cover their faces, but Kate shrieks and spits out an unladylike curse.

“Filthy animal,” she hisses under her breath as she dabs her face dry with a handkerchief.

Stiles steers the wolf to the other side of Roscoe with a gentle hand, away from Kate in case her wrath turns physical.

The wolf’s steps seem lighter after that, like his soak in the brook helped soak up some of his strange mood.

Kate’s glower stays with them all the way back to the castle.

 

*

 

The Argents remain in Stellaris for four more days. Thankfully, his interactions with Gerard remain scarce while the time spent with Allison is plentiful; he’ll be sad to say goodbye.

He still doesn’t have a name for the wolf yet but he’s enjoying his company despite the enduring standoffishness, and that the wolf needs daily exercise is a nice excuse to get out of the castle. He’s been out alone with him a couple of times, leaving even his escort behind and taking it at a brisker pace than his lunchtime excursions with the Princesses. Though at first he’d been worried the wolf might see it as an opportunity to run away, he’s stayed as close to Roscoe as when they have company — and just as devoid of curiosity.

He spends every night on his nest of pillows, padded out with a few more that Stiles pilfered from some of the guest rooms, and he seems to like it despite Stiles never having caught him sleeping. He’s always awake when Stiles finally drifts off and he’s found himself beginning to think of him as a guardian instead of a potential threat. He’s just as alert in the mornings and eager for his morning meal. A basin is a new addition beside his bed of pillows, always ready with water whenever he needs it.

One night before bed, Stiles approaches him on his pillows and sits beside him on the floor. The wolf turns his head away but allows Stiles to spend a few minutes stroking a hand through his fur. More than once, Stiles spots his eyes drift shut in bliss that his turned head isn’t enough to conceal. Stiles can feel the beast’s strength coiled in the muscles beneath his hand and is reminded that, though he may appear tame, he should still consider him an unpredictable wild animal. Despite that, he no longer feels any fear unlike that first night.

As he scratches just beneath the corner of the wolf’s jaw, he takes a closer look at the collar, as wide across as his palm. He remembers Gerard telling him it should never be removed and wonders if it has something to do with keeping the wolf so docile. With the wolf’s head turned away, he can see the back of the collar and that there’s no visible clasp, just a single ring of iron with the vertical grooves all the way around. That must have been what Finstock had been muttering about, the blacksmith taking interest in the strange craftsmanship. When his hand drifts near it, the wolf’s head jerks round to look at him and Stiles decides that’s enough petting for one night.

Oddly enough, the wolf never tries to spend any of his time with the Argents, staying close to Stiles’ heel whenever any of them are present. Kate’s outburst at the brook implies she doesn’t have much love for the animals and since then, Stiles has noticed she only refers to the wolf as ‘it’ rather than ‘he’. The only time she shows affection is when it comes to goodbye at the end of their visit, crouched down and rubbing her hands on the sides of the wolf’s face.

“Are you going to miss me?” she asks, cooing like one does to a baby. “I’m going to miss you so much, yes I am!”

Throughout, the wolf stands stiffly, unresponsive and eyes unfocused. Stiles notes for the future that he doesn’t appreciate babying. He comes to stand beside Stiles as soon as Kate is on her feet and swinging herself into the saddle of her horse. Allison and Gerard are returning to Venatia in the carriage but Kate is heading to the front line.

“Thank you for my birthday gift,” Stiles says to Gerard who has just shaken hands with his father.

“Not at all. I’m sure you’ll take good care of it,” Gerard says, attempted grandfatherly smile back in place which turns to more of a leer when directed towards the wolf.

Allison’s smile is genuine. “I’ll see you again at my birthday,” she says after having thanked Stiles’ father for his hospitality.

“I wouldn’t dream of missing it,” Stiles promises, giving the back of her hand a final kiss farewell.

Aside from losing Allison’s company, he's actually looking forward to the Argents’ departure, and not just because he's more than reached his limit of looking at Gerard’s face. Having guests to constantly entertain becomes exhausting and he’s also eager to spend time with the wolf alone, to slip into his usual routine and to see how he might act without his old masters around. That’s not to say he isn’t nervous about the possibility of losing control of him now that those who have experience with the beasts have gone, but it has to happen sooner or later.

With farewells said and Gerard and Allison in their carriage, Stiles steps back beside his father to watch them go, returning Allison’s wave where she leans out of the window. He glances at the wolf beside him, wondering what he might be thinking as he watches the only masters he’s ever known leave him behind, wonders if he even understands what’s happening.

Stiles scratches gently between his ears. “You’ll see them again soon at Allison’s birthday. I promise.”

The twitch of the wolf’s ears is the only indication that he heard.

“Thank God that’s over,” his father says beside him once the castle gates have closed, heaving a sigh and placing his hands on his lower back as he stretches. “I’m glad that I won’t have to see them again so soon.”

“You’re going to miss the party of the year, if Allison’s descriptions are anything to go by.”

His father smiles. “And I’m sure you’ll enjoy yourself. I, however, will be glad of the peace and quiet,” he teases, gently tweaking Stiles’ ear before he turns and heads inside.

“Hey!” Stiles shouts after him and his father’s laughter drifts through the open doorway.

 

*

 

That night, Stiles shares dinner with his father, just the two of them for the first time in a while — except for the now permanent addition of the wolf, something Stiles still hasn't been able to truly comprehend. He’s actually surprised to see his father now that their guests have gone, used to him taking meals in his study which is often the most he can manage amongst the responsibilities piled on his shoulders.

His father takes this time to tell him of the talks he’d had with Gerard and their differing opinions on strategy. The war has been at a stalemate for months, no more than a few skirmishes here and there, and his father is loath to provoke further loss of life for their countrymen. He’d rather defend and protect their people where they failed when it came to the Hales, but Gerard is eager for blood and has no care for how much needs to be spilt to get him Kali and Deucalion’s heads.

His father looks weary once he’s finished and Stiles doesn’t envy him all the back-and-forths with Gerard he must have suffered for the past few days.

With business out of the way, his father is eager to turn the talk to lighter subjects such as how Stiles has been getting on with the wolf.

“What are you going to call him?” he asks, gesturing towards the wolf with his fork.

Stiles chews thoughtfully on a stem of broccoli. He's given it a bit of thought over the past few days but nothing so far has felt right. “I don't know.”

“How about… Henry? He looks like a Henry.”

Stiles pulls a face. “You know I don't like human names when it comes to animals.”

The wolf lowers his head to his paws and Stiles reaches over to offer him a scrap of roast chicken.

“I’ll come up with one for you soon,” he promises. The wolf looks up at him dolefully before breathing what sounds like a sigh and lifting his head to delicately pick the meat from Stiles’ fingers.

“You're going to spoil him rotten,” his father says, though it's less of a warning and more of a fond observation.

Stiles smiles. “That’s the plan.” He’ll win his affection no matter what it takes.

Despite Stiles’ attempts to dote on him in the coming days, nothing he does can shake the wolf from his bone-deep melancholy. He must feel like he’s been abandoned by his previous masters, or maybe he’s just unhappy under Stiles’ care. He’s unfailingly obedient but shows no signs of warmth, and Stiles is beginning to discover that what he’d originally thought of as aloofness is actually a missing personality. He remembers Gerard’s assurance that the wolf is tame and finds himself wondering what their methods might entail.

The wolf seems to show the most interest when they go out riding, so Stiles makes sure to set aside time amongst his duties to take him out everyday. Whenever they’re in the castle, whether during Stiles’ studies or at mealtimes or even while he practices the sword, the wolf remains by his side. He has permission to come and go as he pleases, as any pet usually would, but Stiles doesn’t know how to convey that without shooing him away, and he doesn’t want the wolf to think he isn’t wanted. It isn’t like Stiles minds having him around. He’s already gotten used to reaching out and running his fingers through his fur as he listens to his teachers, keeping his usually restless hands busy, and he’s come to feel safe under his ever-present gaze.

The knights he trains with can’t stop marvelling about how formidable the wolf would be in battle, just as Finstock had. Stiles can’t deny it would be a fearsome, almost magnificent, sight but he intends to do all he can to keep him away from the battlefield. He’d rather cut off his own arm than turn him into an instrument of war.

 

*

 

A week after his birthday, Stiles arrives at breakfast early enough to catch his father still halfway through his meal. He’s hacking away at a bread roll like it’s personally offended him, and at Stiles’ raised eyebrows, he sighs and lowers the knife.

“I just heard that a citizen went missing on the night of your birthday,” he begins to explain.

A city-wide celebration where alcohol runs like a river is bound to get rowdy and Stiles knows for a fact the city gaol welcomed many guests to the cells that night. At the risk of sounding callous, he's not sure why a missing persons case has rankled his father so, especially when he knows the city isn’t a stranger to murder; there must be more to his frustration.

“What happened?”

“The boy hasn’t been seen since the day of the feast but it wasn’t reported until yesterday by the farmer he worked for. The father is a drunk and didn’t even notice that his son was gone.”

“Could he have been involved?”

His father sighs again. “I don’t know. Judging by multiple accounts, he had no qualms over raising a hand to him, but those same people also say he was never sober enough to stand on two feet. Not since he lost his wife.”

Now his father’s anger makes sense. He’s seeing a possible self in this man, just as Stiles feels a sudden sense of kinship with the boy. After the loss of his own mother, a tumbler of whisky became a fixture of the desk in his father’s study, but with the responsibilities of his position, he could never drown his sorrows as he’d pleased. The weight of his title had kept him putting one foot in front of the other where it would have been so easy to slip if in someone else’s shoes. Stiles’ life could so easily have mirrored this boy’s experiences.

“Where’s the father now?”

“Gaol, which is where he’ll stay without a drop of alcohol for reprieve,” he says, a glint of grim determination to his eye.

“If the stories about the boy’s home life are true, maybe he just ran away,” Stiles points out.

“Maybe,” his father echoes, but a frown still creases his forehead.

He leaves Stiles to his meal not long later, still brooding as he goes to give audience to their citizens. It's something he does once a month as an opportunity to hear ideas and settle grievances, lending a touch of humanity to a figure so easily considered indifferent to the plight of the individual. Stiles accompanies him sometimes to experience what will become his duty someday and is even sometimes called upon to offer solutions of his own. This morning, he has lessons of Philosophy and Literature and will be confined to a stuffy room instead.

The story remains with Stiles throughout the day and come his afternoon ride with the wolf, it only takes a bit of digging to find out the location of the missing boy’s home. At the city gate, instead of heading towards the forest as usual, he steers Roscoe towards the city’s outer ward that extends beyond the wall, in the direction of the Lahey residence.

The road is well-trodden and dusty from the lack of rain, woodsmoke faint on the air but growing stronger as he approaches the patchwork of dwellings. All are built from wood with stone chimneys and most are only one storey, but with the directions he was given, the Lahey home is easy enough to find. From the outside, it looks to have no more than one room and even from afar he can tell there are no signs of life. The windows and doors are all shut, no washing hanging out to dry or smoke curling from the chimney like the other surrounding homes. He can imagine it would look much the same at night, cold and dark with no welcoming glow of candles.

He brings Roscoe to a halt outside, a gasp drawing his attention to two small boys crouched playing between the opposite houses. They look like brothers, the younger a whole head shorter than the older, and they stare in wide-eyed, open-mouthed amazement as Stiles swings down from his horse.

He smiles and reaches into his pocket to pull out the apple he’d brought along for Roscoe, sinking to a knee to hold it out to the children instead. The youngest, maybe five years old, steps out from between the houses, seemingly more courageous than his brother. Stiles smiles and waits patiently for the boy to take it, reaching for the apple with grubby hands. His smile widens when the older boy darts forward and pushes the younger down into a bow with a hand on the back of his head.

“T-Thank you, Your Highness,” the older stutters, offering a clumsy bow of his own.

As soon as his brother lets him up, the youngest dashes away. “Mama!” he cries, waving the apple aloft in both hands. Stiles chuckles as he watches him go, the oldest showing a sheepish, dimpled smile before he runs off after his brother.

With the boys out of sight, he turns back to Roscoe. The horse doesn’t look impressed by his disappearing treat.

“I’ll get you another when we get back,” Stiles promises with a pat to the horse’s neck.

He turns toward the Lahey house, no longer sure what he’d planned to do or hoped to find now that he’s here. The wolf is already sniffing at the door, following his nose around the side of the building, and Stiles has barely taken one step before the wolf’s tail stiffens and he whines like he’s been kicked. He bounds forward, across the grass and towards the forest treeline, faster than he’s ever run during one of their rides.

“Hey!” Stiles calls after him, no name to shout instead, but the wolf doesn’t stop. Stiles swings into the saddle and steers Roscoe in pursuit.

With the wolf’s head start, Stiles has no hope of closing the gap and can only follow the sound of him crashing through the trees, though the destruction he leaves in his wake is hardly difficult to track. Stiles keeps his head down to guard against low-hanging branches, perched above the saddle to absorb the impact of the pace he’s set with his knees.

After a quarter mile, the trees begin to thin and Roscoe bursts out onto the Farringway Road, thankfully empty of any nearby travellers. The wolf has stopped in the middle of it, facing west towards Venatia. Whatever scent he’d caught must have ended here but Stiles has no way of knowing if it was even the Lahey boy’s scent he was following. Whatever it was, he found something he didn’t like.

Stiles climbs down and approaches him slowly, placing a hand on his heaving flank. The wolf doesn’t tear his eyes away from the distance.

“You tried, boy.”

The wolf whines and no matter how much Stiles wants to believe the missing boy jumped on a carriage of his own free will to seek his fortune elsewhere, the wolf’s agitation has done nothing to put his mind at ease. If nothing else, at least this has roused a bit of emotion out of him.

“Come on, let’s head back,” Stiles coaxes, but the wolf doesn’t move until Stiles uses a gentle hand to steer him away.

 

*

 

Strange news is waiting for them when they get home.

Word has reached the city that the Boyd estate is empty, abandoned. No servants or gardeners can be seen in the grounds and there are no signs of the Lord, or his wife and child. With the way the front gates were found swinging on their hinges, they must have left in a hurry. Stiles wonders if Erica’s condition took a turn for the worse, but the nearest medical help would have been the city and it doesn’t explain the absence of all those in their employ.

There are whispers of Deucalion and the Hales, another punishment for daring to host the Argents again, though there’s no symbol of his handiwork this time to send a message, nor any bodies. Fear ripples through Stiles all the same.

It takes another week to hear news of the reason why.

Stiles is already eating dinner when his father arrives, and he can tell something’s wrong without needing to see the leaden expression on his face by the fact that he’s standing there at all. He’s been so busy this past week that Stiles can’t remember seeing him even once. He doesn’t move to sit so Stiles knows he won’t be staying.

His father wastes no time softening what he’s come to say.

“The Boyds have defected to the East.”

For a moment, the world seems to tilt, all sound muted in his ears behind the pounding of his heartbeat. He takes a breath through his mouth, more like a delayed gasp, and tries to form words with numb lips.

“But— They can’t—”

“They can and they have. One of our eyes in the Astrani capital spotted them seeking audience with the King and Queen.”

Stiles’ cutlery drops to his plate with a clatter, appetite vanished. His chair screeches back as he stands, palms flat on the table as he stares unseeing down at his half-eaten meal. He can feel his father’s eyes on him, betrayal and weariness and, beneath, the unbearable weight of pity.

Stiles strides from the room without knowing where his feet plan to carry him, where he could possibly go to escape this, but he ends up standing at the windows in his rooms with no real memory of getting there. He stares outside, running his fingers through his hair and tugging.

Erica’s pale face from the feast hovers in his mind’s eye, her look of fear beside Vernon’s stoicism, and he realises it couldn’t have been caused by the wolf as he’d first thought.

But why come if they knew they were about to flee? Were they taking it as their chance to say a final goodbye, some sort of remorseful obligation to the friendship and respect nurtured between them since they were children? He racks his brain trying to find a sign of guilt for the imminent betrayal, but he can’t remember the details of their farewell. He’d expected to see them again soon enough so the specifics of the apology they made for needing to leave early are hazy, smudged by his stab of worry for Erica’s health.

He cycles through denial and anger and disbelief, one moment consumed with a blind rage that makes him want to destroy something and the next feverishly trying to come up with any way they could have been coerced, wondering if there was something in their words, some sort of hidden message, a reason why. It’s pointless. He’ll probably never know, and he’ll definitely never understand.

Stiles doesn’t know how much time has passed when Virgil enters the room after knocking and receiving no answer. He takes one look at Stiles sprawled lifelessly on the bed and says, “I’ll prepare a bath.”

“I don’t want a bath,” Stiles murmurs, mouth half-muffled by his pillow.

“You’ll feel better.”

“No, I won’t.”

Virgil ignores him.

When the bath is ready, he pokes and prods at Stiles until he’s up enough to get at the ridiculous number of buttons adorning his clothes and then leaves him alone to bathe himself. Stiles’ first intention is to remain stubborn but he can see the steam rising from the tub and catches a whiff of the lavender and sandalwood oils Virgil has poured in and grudgingly admits that it might make him feel better.

He spots the wolf lying stock still on his pillows, watching as he steps out of his smallclothes. He’d entirely forgotten about him in his daze, but realises now he must have abandoned his dinner as Stiles had and followed him up from the dining room, as faithfully at his heels as always.

Stiles sinks into the water and though the oils Virgil has used would usually be enough to render him blissfully boneless, tonight they do nothing to warm the chill he feels.

He lost his mother when he was a child, his father is too busy to share even meals together, and Scott and Allison are about to start a new chapter of their lives he can’t be a part of. Even Virgil, getting on in years, can’t attend to him as he once had. For months now, Stiles has been waiting to hear mention of retirement, even though he knows the stubborn old man would serve their family to his last breath if he had his way.

And now, Erica and Boyd have abandoned him.

Loneliness that’s been draped over his shoulders like a blanket for almost as far back as he can remember is beginning to wrap him up tight, and when he climbs from the bath he can’t bring himself to get under the bed covers. Once dry and clothed, he collapses on his front, face back in his pillow.

Something touches his shoulder and he lifts his head to look at the wolf standing beside the bed, staring back at him with a depth to his eyes Stiles has never seen before. He runs his fingers through the fur of the wolf’s fluffy cheek, smiling sadly.

“That’s right. I have you, don’t I?” he murmurs.

The wolf stares back, silent as ever, then climbs onto the bed.

Stiles yelps in surprise and so does the bed frame, creaking under the sudden extra weight. The wolf settles half-draped over him, throwing him a haughty look with his nose in the air like he’s daring Stiles to complain.

Stiles laughs and throws his arms around his neck, burying his face in the wolf’s thick fur. His burst of delight sobers as quickly as it came, rushing out of him on a shuddering breath, and he allows himself a few minutes of quiet sniffles, soaking in the wolf’s warmth. The wolf noses at his hair, whining softly.

“I’ve hardly been a very good friend in return, have I?” Stiles asks when he finally sits back, wiping his eyes. His voice is choked with sadness. “I still haven’t given you a name. I’ve spent so long just thinking of you as ‘wolf’, I’ve forgotten that you need one.” He trails his fingers through his fur as he thinks, suddenly struck by an idea.

“Maybe I will just call you Wolf. I know it’s not very imaginative but…” He smiles, thinking back. “My mother would always tell me a story when I was younger, a bedtime story, about a princess whose steed was just called Horse.”

“I haven’t thought about that in such a long time. Probably not since— since she died.” A small trickle of memories filter through a haze of the long-forgotten, lit by candlelight and cloaked in the warmth of his patchwork quilt, his mother’s voice as soothing as a lullaby. A daffodil in a little vase on his bedside table.

“For as long as I could remember, she’d always tell me that belief was a powerful thing,” he says, eyes glazing over as he’s transported back to his childhood. “But no matter how hard I tried to believe she’d get better, it didn’t work. I blamed myself for a long time, thinking if I’d believed just a little bit harder, she might have lived. I guess I stopped believing after that.”

The wolf — Wolf — just stares back at him and though Stiles knows he can’t understand, his solid presence alone is enough to make him feel better. He keeps a hand in Wolf’s fur as he lays back and settles his head on his pillow. The loneliness has eased a little at the reminder of his silent, faithful companion.

“Wolf,” Stiles says quietly, testing the name.

Wolf breathes a short puff of air through his nose, but otherwise, there doesn’t seem to be any complaints.

He still doesn’t get under the covers but the heat Wolf radiates is more than enough to keep him warm. Surprisingly, despite the lingering sting of Erica and Boyd’s betrayal, it doesn’t take long for him to drift off to sleep and he doesn’t wake until past dawn the next morning.

For the first time since he arrived, Wolf is still asleep.

Chapter Text

Wolf sleeps on the bed every night after that, much to Virgil’s dismay. He keeps his muzzle held high in the face of Stiles’ manservant’s wrinkled nose and continues to lounge on the mattress at every opportunity. He’s like a furnace radiating heat and with summer looming, it will soon be warm enough to kick the covers to the floor. Come the winter months, he’ll no longer have need of a pan of coals beneath the mattress to warm his feet.

Since their moment of bonding, Wolf has become more engaged in their day to day, finally running ahead when they go for rides and steering them in whatever direction he pleases. It seems he’s even beginning to build the confidence to wander the castle on his own as, one morning after a night of heavy drinking, Stiles rises late to find him already down in the dining hall eating breakfast.

Despite the initial fright of waking up to find him gone, Stiles is pleased that he’s growing the confidence to go off on his own. He makes sure to praise him for it, hoping it will encourage further independence, though a part of him isn't so eager for that to happen. He's grown reliant on his presence in light of his heightening solitude and though he often wishes he had a companion that could talk back, Stiles is more than capable of doing enough talking for the both of them.

Despite Wolf’s improved temperament, Stiles will still often catch him gazing west towards his old home of Venatia and any mention of his old masters turns his mood quicker than the flip of a coin. Stiles can't help feeling a little jealous that Wolf still prefers them over his company. Still, the plan to spoil him has been going well so far, and so long as Stiles carries on as he has, perhaps Wolf's love for him will eclipse that of the Argent’s before the year is out.

Most recently, Wolf has grown so accustomed to him he’s even begun allowing Stiles to run a brush through his fur. He pushes into the bristles like a cat being stroked, encouraging Stiles to press harder and shuddering as they scratch deep itches. However, eyes that drift shut snap open as soon as the brush strays too close to his collar.

Stiles hasn’t once forgotten Gerard’s words on the night that Wolf was gifted to him, first, that Wolf is tame, and second, that the collar should never be removed under any circumstances. They begin to plague his thoughts and he finds himself wondering if the two could be related. If anything is known about Stiles, it's that he can never withstand his curiosity for long.

One night, encouraged by their burgeoning relationship, Stiles actually lays down the brush and dares to place a hand on the strangely warm metal encircling Wolf's neck. Wolf's head whips round to pin him with one watchful eye.

“I’m just going to look,” Stiles murmurs, brushing his fingers over the collar. Wolf holds deathly still and Stiles can’t tell if he’s even breathing.

He runs a nail down every groove around the collar, searching for any concealed joins or clasps that might be blending in, but no matter how hard he looks, he can’t find any possible way it could have been put on short of it being forged around Wolf’s neck. He runs his fingers over the jewel at the front, trying to press it in hopes it might work as some sort of release for a latch hidden inside, but that’s just as fruitless. He can’t even get his fingers beneath the band. In fact, when he tries, Wolf whimpers and jerks away, sinking to his belly. He’s panting and trembling, ears flat to his head, and Stiles holds up his hands in placation.

“Okay okay okay, I’m sorry! I’m sorry,” he babbles, freezing in place when Wolf flinches back again from his reaching hands. He sits there, arms held motionless in the air as he waits for Wolf's breathing to even out.

It takes longer than he’d like and Wolf's eyes remain fixed on him the entire time without even blinking. When he's stopped panting, Stiles tries reaching out once more and is heartened when Wolf holds his ground.

“There, you’re okay,” Stiles soothes. He inches forward until he can scratch him behind the ears the way he knows Wolf likes, but he snatches his hand back with a gasp to stare at his fingertips, at dark stains coating his skin. He holds his hand to the light of the candle on his bedside table and gapes as the marks are revealed to be sticky smears of blood.

He lunges for the collar, desperate to push it aside to find the wound, but Wolf lurches back.

“Wolf, please, I’m sorry, but I need to see! You’re hurt! Please let me help,” he begs, hands still held out in an effort to calm him.

Wolf snarls. His lips pull back to reveal the full length of his fangs and his fur bristles in warning. Stiles yelps and scrambles backwards, toppling off the side of the bed.

I’m about to die, he thinks, screwing his eyes shut and lifting an arm in some futile way to protect himself as he cowers on the floor. He waits for those fangs to plunge into his flesh and tear him open, but nothing comes.

The bed creaks and Stiles flinches, but when there’s still nothing, he cracks his eyes open to see Wolf slinking from the mattress and pressing himself into the far corner of the room. He makes himself as small as he can go, his sides heaving and muscles tense with what Stiles is dismayed to realise is fear.

“I’m sorry,” he whispers, uselessly. He wishes he could bundle Wolf up in his arms despite the impossibility of their size difference and offer him some comfort but he doesn’t dare approach him again.

Instead, he remains on the floor, eyes fixed on Wolf who stares right back, and while at first he feels like prey pinned in the gaze of a predator, it doesn’t take him long to realise Wolf feels just as vulnerable as he does. It spurs him to take initiative and break eye contact, climbing to his feet on limbs stiffened by the cold stone floor. He's become acutely aware of the thin, tacky coating of blood still on his fingers and he bravely turns his back to reach the wash basin. He keeps his ears strained for any movement behind, but still nothing comes. The muscles in his shoulders loosen and he dips his dirtied hand in the basin.

A thin, rust-coloured cloud swirls from his fingers, the colour almost indiscernible as he swishes his hand in the water. He wonders if it will be enough to leave a stained ring around the edge of the basin and hopes Virgil won't notice anything amiss.

With his hand clean and dry, there's nothing left for him to do but get into bed, the earlier light-hearted mood ruined. He sits up against the headboard and spares a glance at Wolf still in the corner who doesn’t yet show any signs of lowering his guard. His pillows are still on the floor even though he hasn’t used them for the last couple of weeks, but he makes no move to lay on them.

Stiles decides the best thing to do is to leave him to recover in his own time. He won’t be climbing on the bed tonight.

Settling down to sleep feels like that first night all over again, lying awake in the darkness expecting Wolf to change his mind and decide Stiles is a threat. But more than worry, he feels sick. What if Wolf has been in pain the entire time he’s been here, enduring it in silence? But if Wolf won’t let him look at it and he doesn’t know how to get the collar off, he’s not sure if there’s anything he can do.

He’s kept awake by his ticking mind for most of the night, and when he does manage to sleep, he drifts in and out, the hours passing in a haze. When the rising sun begins to glow through the curtains, he’s jolted from a fitful doze by Wolf climbing onto the bed. It’s tentative, keeping his eyes on Stiles as he carefully approaches, like the human is the easily-spooked animal. Stiles remains still, afraid even the slightest twitch of a finger will have Wolf bolting back to his corner, and allows him to settle on the other side of the bed. He gets the impression it’s Wolf’s way of telling him they should move on from the events of last night, but there’s no way Stiles can forget the blood that had been on his fingers.

He's distracted all through breakfast, which is a shame as it's the first time in a while his father has been available to eat with him. It's not until his father mentions Princess Katherine has sent word she'll be visiting on her way back to Venatia from the front lines that he really pays attention. At hearing her name, Wolf's head snaps up and by the time his father has finished delivering the news, he’s raced from the dining hall and out of sight.

“Did I say something wrong?” his father jokes.

Stiles bites at his lip, picking at a slice of bread on his plate and squeezing small lumps back to dough. “He probably just needed to go outside.”

It's the first place he checks once he's eaten and Wolf hasn't returned, but the guards outside haven't seen him. He returns to his rooms, the only other place he can think to find him, and sure enough, there he is laying on the bed with his head resting on his paws.

Stiles kneels in front of him. “I know you miss your old masters,” he says. “If it's really what you want, I can ask Kate to take you back to Venatia with her.”

Wolf's nostrils flare as he exhales, whining softly. Stiles isn't sure how to read it, especially when he knows Wolf doesn't understand him.

“It's time for my lessons. Whether you stay or accompany me is up to you.”

As he heads for the door, he's heartened to hear the pad of Wolf's paws as he steps down from the bed, but in the study where he meets his teachers, Wolf sits just out of reach of the hands Stiles would usually run through his fur as he listens. It stings, but he’s aware the memory of those same fingers inflicting pain while tugging on his collar is likely still raw. After his careful progress to make Wolf happy here, they’ve taken five steps back. All he can do is stick to their usual routine and hope he manages to regain some of the lost ground.

Thankfully, it isn’t difficult to coax Wolf out for their mid-afternoon ride, but where the pastime would usually be a welcome reprieve from his duties, he can only think about the collar all the while. He wonders if he should take Wolf to a groom at the stable when he returns Roscoe, or even a physician, to see if they can find the reason for Wolf’s injury. But he isn’t sure that’s a good idea. It might have been only his familiarity with Stiles that kept him from lashing out with his claws and he’s worried about the safety of a stranger attempting the same thing.

But the question is, what if he's right? What if it is the collar that guarantees keeping him tame? Wolf may have just been despising him all this time and would like nothing better than to sink his teeth into Stiles’ throat for the humiliation of being forced to be a pet, a magnificent wild animal who should be roaming free. The thought that Wolf might only be his companion against his will stings, but not enough for him to choose it over Wolf being allowed freedom.

Wolf trots along in front of Roscoe, seeming happy enough to be in the fresh air and sunshine, though Stiles is realising it’s probably because he gets to spend time in what should be his natural habitat.

A twig snaps to their right, pulling Stiles back into the moment, and his eyes dart to scan the surrounding trees. Twenty feet away between two small beeches stands a young buck, the beginnings of new antlers twisting from his head and covered in velvet. The deer stays frozen for a long second of hesitation, until his flight instinct wins and he bolts. Wolf howls as he gives chase.

This is his natural environment, Stiles thinks as he nudges Roscoe after him at a trot.

They emerge into a wide clearing, the grass dotted with daisies and forget-me-nots, while a waning sea of bluebells floods the inside of the opposite treeline. It’s towards this stretch of woods that the buck is headed, but his speed is no match for Wolf’s. If he’d remained in the trees, perhaps he would have been able to slip away, Wolf’s bulk unable to follow through the narrower gaps between the trunks. In the open space, it has no hope of escape. In fact, Stiles is just thinking they’ll be having venison for dinner, but Wolf’s final pounce is cut short and he slows. The buck disappears into the brush, the sound of his escape fading to Stiles’ ears. Roscoe trots forward until Stiles draws him to a halt beside Wolf, reaching down to ruffle the fur on top of his head.

“A direwolf with a conscience,” he marvels.

Wolf huffs and shakes off his hand, turning to plod back the way they came. Stiles watches him go, wondering what could have changed for him to lose the spring in his step of only minutes before. Perhaps he presumed too much by reaching out to touch him. He stifles a sigh before steering Roscoe to follow.

It seems they’re in for a gloomy journey back to the castle, but before they can even return to the trees, Wolf freezes. His head snaps towards the east, ears pricked.

“What is it, boy? Have you found another?” Stiles asks, squinting into the shadows beneath the trees in search of any fleeing white tails.

In answer, Wolf bounds back towards Stiles and plants himself between Roscoe and the treeline, body lowering to the ground like he’s readying himself to pounce as a fearsome growl rips from his throat.

Stiles’ hand flies to the pommel of his sword and he swallows hard. “What is it?”

Wolf’s growl continues, and no matter how hard Stiles strains his ears, he can’t hear any sound of what might have him so agitated.

“Wolf—”

There’s a flash of something red through the trees, something large disturbing the underbrush that his eyes, used to the sunlight of the clearing, can’t focus on. It moves closer to the treeline and Stiles gasps.

A woman is coming towards them, dappled sunlight falling on tan skin and long dark hair, framing a face he remembers well despite not having seen it for many years. The last time would have been before the war began, and an image from his childhood flashes through his mind of that same dark hair gathered up in an elaborate knot, of a sharp smile and low-cut bodice drawing scandalised glances from the nobles also attending the feast, and an arm held out to act as a support and guide for her husband, the Blind King.

“Kali,” he spits, and draws his sword, but he fumbles when she steps into the open and he realises she’s naked, no sign of a pack or any other belongings in sight.

His first thought is witchcraft, some sort of illusion meant to distract him, but he knows Wolf can see her too, unless he’s sensing the threat of whatever is behind the enchantment. But a quick glance shows Wolf has his eyes fixed on Kali still approaching, and though that brings a modicum of relief, fear still has him frozen in his saddle. If this really is the Queen of Astran for some reason part of a harebrained scheme to catch him off-guard, then that means there must be Astrani soldiers hidden in the trees. Where there’s a Queen, there’s an army after all, and he’s wandered straight into their clutches. He chances a glance over his shoulder but mentally curses when he finds he can see as little amongst the trees as he had when Kali had been approaching.

The Queen of Astran shows no embarrassment at her vulnerable state. In fact, she seems not to notice it at all, captivated instead by Wolf snarling in front of her.

“So the stories are true.” She takes a step closer and Wolf takes one back. Roscoe shifts his hooves.

She turns blazing eyes on Stiles. “We heard news you’d received a pet from the Argents, but it was Sir Vernon and Lady Erica who brought us the truth.”

Her words work as well as a punch to the gut.

“Vernon…” Stiles’ wrist weakens and his sword begins to falter, head spinning. To hear confirmation of the Boyd’s betrayal from Kali’s own mouth has his blood running cold. Any denial he’d tried to cling to in the days since their defection crumbles away and the simmerings of fury it had warred with takes its place, helping to bring the current situation into clarity. He isn’t the only one in danger right now. If Kali is here, then an army is probably advancing on the city while he's distracted, wasting whatever precious seconds he has left to warn his people.

While his thoughts have been occupied, Kali has crouched down in front of Wolf and is reaching out a careful hand. “You can come with me now,” she says to him, paying no heed to the growls still coming out of his mouth. Stiles doesn’t know why Wolf doesn’t just bite her.

“You’re not taking him anywhere,” he retorts, glad that his voice betrays none of the tremors that he feels.

Kali ignores him. Her fingers touch Wolf’s collar but she hisses, jerking back with the force of a static shock. She stares down at her hand, then back up at Wolf.

“What have they done to you?” she wonders aloud, staring at the collar. Her face hardens. “You need to come with me.”

“He’s not going anywhere!” Stiles repeats, spurring Roscoe forward.

Wolf swings his head towards him and roars, and Roscoe dances back a few paces. Stiles manages to hold him steady, the weeks he’s spent learning Wolf isn’t a threat making it easier to calm him. Stiles knows Wolf is telling them to run and he’s foolish to stay, but his curiosity — as always — is getting the better of him.

Kali ignores Wolf’s outburst and reaches for him again, but this time Wolf snaps at her fingers and retreats closer to Stiles. She rises to her feet.

“You would stay here? As a pet?” she sneers.

Wolf’s only answer is to remain planted in front of Stiles.

Kali’s eyes flash. “I won’t be offering to save you again.” And with that, she melts back into the trees. Stiles thinks he sees another flash of red but then she’s lost in the darkness, and he’s spurring Roscoe back towards the castle with Wolf at his heels. He doesn’t see any concealed soldiers or hear any telltale clinks of armour but he keeps low in the saddle in case of any arrows let fly. As soon as they reach the trail they’d been following through the woods before the buck, Roscoe increases his pace to a full gallop and Stiles prays they’re not too late.

When they burst onto the plain between the forest and the city, Stiles’ stomach clenches, expecting fire and smoke and screaming. But the city appears to be going about a regular day, oblivious to the danger lurking outside its walls. All of that changes at his approach.

“Close the gates!” he shouts, clutching the reins in one hand and waving the other wildly above his head. “Close the gates!”

After a second of dumbfounded gaping, the guards spring to action and obey without question. Roscoe charges through and a few travellers are ushered in before he hears the creak of the gates being winched shut behind them as Wolf takes the lead, clearing a path through bewildered citizens for Roscoe to follow. Whether the castle guards saw the city gates closing or just know something’s amiss by the speed of his return, the castle gates are already mostly closed when he reaches them, shutting the rest of the way with a resounding boom as soon as he’s safely inside.

His father is already jogging down the front steps, shadowed by the Captain of the Guard.

“Stiles, what—”

“Kali was in the forest,” Stiles gasps as he swings down from Roscoe’s saddle and leans over to rest his hands on his knees. His heart is hammering as if he ran back to the city on his own legs.

His father's spine stiffens and the concern of a parent is replaced by that of a King. “How large was her force?”

Stiles falters. “I— I don’t know. She was alone.”

“Did she try to attack?”

“No. She had no weapons. She—” She was naked. The words lodge in his throat. They’d be difficult enough to say without the look of utter disbelief beginning to cloud his father’s face. The Captain is silent, an intimidating presence at his father’s side.

“Son, are you sure—”

Stiles’ eyes flash. His cheeks are flushed but he raises his head defiantly. “I know what she looks like.” He just wishes Wolf could talk and confirm his story.

His father grimaces and doesn’t pursue the matter. “Did she say anything to you?”

“She was only interested in Wolf. She wanted him to go with her.” He knows how silly it sounds before it’s even out of his mouth, but he suppresses a wince and forces himself not to look away from his father’s scrutinising gaze.

“I’ll lead a force out to the forest myself and see if we can get an idea of where she’s headed,” the Captain says and the King nods. Stiles does his best to describe the exact location of their encounter and then the Captain salutes and marches back inside the castle.

“I know what I saw,” Stiles says before his father can say anything else. “I know how it sounds, but I’m not making this up.”

His father pauses, but not in hesitation. Instead, he holds Stiles’ gaze.  “I know. And because I believe you, you’re confined to the city for the foreseeable future and you will go nowhere without an armed escort.”

Stiles opens his mouth to protest, but closes it again with a sigh through his nose when he realises there’s nothing to argue. He supposes he’s lucky he isn’t being confined to the castle.

With his news relayed and the situation in the Captain’s capable hands, all that’s left for Stiles to do is wait. His father begins his confinement by ushering him inside and Stiles takes the opportunity to retreat to the comfort of his bedchamber. Inside the castle is an organised burst of activity, the Captain already beginning arrangement to tighten the security in the castle. When Stiles reaches his rooms, Wolf at his heel, it’s to find sentries have already been stationed directly outside his quarters in addition to the guards who usually patrol the halls.

Wolf is more at ease as soon as they have the door shut behind them, climbing up onto the bed to stretch out like he hasn’t a care in the world. Stiles sits on the bed next to him. Now his adrenaline is fading, he’s starting to feel shaky, different scenarios of how things could have gone racing through his head, battling a fresh unease as he wonders what the coming days might bring.

But even amongst all that, first and foremost is confusion over Kali’s interest in Wolf. She'd barely looked at Stiles once in the whole encounter, but to think she'd really been there just for Wolf as she'd have him believe is ludicrous.

To occupy his restless hands he runs his fingers through Wolf’s fur, scratching under his jaw and behind his ears.

“What could she have wanted with you?” Stiles murmurs, leaning forward to rest his forehead against Wolf’s.

When the Captain returns, the news is as Stiles feared. Though the scouts found some bare footprints where Stiles specified, Kali’s tracks become muddled by Wolf’s paw prints and give no hint as to which way she went. More scouts have been sent towards Astran and the front lines in search of any news that might not have reached them yet, perhaps of Astrani soldiers breaking through. If it really is as they all fear, they may have reached a turning point in the war.

Tensions in the city and the castle itself remain high for the next few days, and Stiles isn’t the only one who suffers with the heightened security. When the gates are opened again, all passage in and out of the city undergoes thorough checks in case Kali — travelling alone or lightly — tries to get inside. From his window, Stiles can see a line of people waiting to enter the city extending far beyond the wall. Despite all the inconvenience, he’s glad that what should be considered a tall tale is at least being taken seriously.

But more than his own discomfort, he hates that Wolf has to be confined in this way. Their daily rides have had to become walks through the gardens instead which he knows aren’t even close to the sort of exercise a direwolf needs. If Kali hadn’t made it so clear that Wolf is her primary interest, he’d be happy to allow him out of the city to run on his own, but he can’t take any chances. She may have given Wolf the option to accompany her, but if she encounters him alone, he wouldn’t put it past her to try and take him by force. Not that he has any idea how she might achieve that, naked and defencelessly human as she is, but with the strangeness of the situation, he doesn’t doubt that she’d manage to find a way.

“I wish you’d torn her throat out. Then maybe we’d be a step closer to ending this war,” Stiles says to Wolf one afternoon a few days after the incident. They’re sitting beneath a sprawling old oak near the centre of the gardens drawing out as much time as possible before he’s forcibly summoned to his afternoon lessons. He sighs. “Or maybe it would have made things even worse. Still, it would have been proof that I haven’t gone crazy. I’m not crazy, am I?” he asks, a hand on each of Wolf’s fluffy cheeks.

A slobbery tongue swiping up his face is all the answer he gets and he laughs through a grimace as he wipes it off on the shoulder of his doublet. If any good can come from their encounter with Kali, it's that Wolf seems more affectionate than even before the ordeal with his collar.

Stiles knows there are mutterings amongst the guards questioning whether he’s of a sound mind, and he tries not to think about how loud those mutterings might be amongst the rest of their people. They may have found footsteps corroborating his story, but from an outsider’s perspective they could have been left by anyone. He’s sure they’re thinking there’s a higher chance he encountered a madwoman with an uncanny likeness rather than the Astrani queen, alone and so deep in enemy territory. He’s sure even his own father doubts him despite his assurances to the contrary.

At the moment, he feels like Wolf is the only one he can rely on. With his spiritless disposition from when they first met, he’s always wondered how the animal really feels about him, and now his loyalty is confirmed. He put himself between Stiles and Kali, recognising her as an enemy just from the sound of her footfalls, or maybe her scent. He’s grateful to have him as a companion, and he’s grateful to the Argents too. There’s no telling what might have happened if Wolf hadn’t been by his side.

With the bond between them stronger than it had been, it has Stiles all the more eager to remove that collar. If it really has been keeping Wolf tame as he suspects, he’s confident he knows Stiles means him no harm, though all of that is useless if he still can’t work out how the thing is even fastened. Wolf’s reaction to Stiles touching it had been intriguing enough, but then he’d witnessed that strange moment where it seemed to burn Kali’s skin and now he just wants to tear it off any way he can. In the wake of the traumatic experience that was his last attempt to get his hands on it, he hasn’t yet mustered the courage to try again.

Even a week later he can still barely sleep for thinking about it, lying awake tossing and turning. The time of year is at the stage where he’s too hot for the covers, but soon gets too cold without them, and the discomfort is just heightened by his restless mind.

A few hours must have passed by the time he manages to reach the edge of sleep, mind ready to drift. Until he starts to shiver. He heaves a sigh and reaches out for the corner of the sheets to pull them back over himself, searching beneath with his feet for Wolf’s warmth and wiggling his toes to worm them beneath the weight of his body.

Wolf lifts his head and grumbles but shifts closer, stretching out beside him. Stiles’ half-shut eyes snap open. The gem on Wolf’s collar is gleaming just as it always is. But that isn’t possible. There’s no light in the room for it to be reflecting.

How could it have taken so long for him to notice?

Already trembling, he leans closer, mouth agape as he realises the jewel is acting as its own light source. All breath leaves him in a rush and he freezes as the light it’s emitting flickers like the flame of a candle.

He scrambles to his knees, not taking his eyes off the jewel for a second. His hand reaches out to touch, but Wolf’s head jerks up, an amorphous shape in the darkness. He must be worried Stiles is taking an opportunity to start tugging at his collar again, and Stiles doesn’t want to chance him lashing out on half-asleep instincts.

Instead, he snatches his hand back and rolls out of bed to light a candle. Wolf grumbles and tries to hide his face from the light but Stiles pokes him in the side.

“Come on. Up. Up. I just want to look,” he whispers.

Wolf lifts his head with a long-suffering huff and Stiles takes his opportunity to lean close to the collar, careful to keep his hands behind his back in a clear show of keeping them off.

With the room now lit, the light of the jewel is impossible to see no matter how close he gets, and he has no choice but to cup his hands around it despite Wolf’s quiet whimper.

“Shhhh,” Stiles soothes, treating him as he would Roscoe when spooked. “I promise I’m not going to hurt you again. I’m just looking. Just looking.”

Keeping his movements slow and deliberate, he manages to cup his hands around it, murmuring assurances all the while. The metal is as warm as ever, though nowhere near hot enough to cause the sort of pain Kali had displayed. He marvels as pale yellow light illuminates his skin, still flickering and dancing like a flame in a draft, and he finds himself holding his breath as he stares in amazement. His eyes widen further when the light stills between his hands as a candle might when shielded from a breeze.

He blows out a breath between his lips almost without thinking, sure what happened just now must have been a trick of the shifting light of the nearby candle.

The light sputters and he sits back on his heels in shock. He stays there for so long that Wolf starts to lower his head back to the mattress, out of patience for his master’s experiment. Stiles coaxes him back up, ignoring a grumpy glare, and tries blowing on the jewel again and again, and though it doesn’t seem to be getting him anywhere, he’s certain, down to his very core, that he’s on the verge of discovering something important.

After what must be ten minutes of no progress, Wolf huffs and finally pulls away from him, rolling over to curl up with his back towards the light. Stiles refuses to give in to defeat.

“No. No, I’m not finished yet. I’m going to get to the bottom of this if it kills me.”

He clambers off the end of the bed and scurries round to kneel on the floor at Wolf’s side. At Wolf’s dark look, he wonders how long he has before he starts baring his fangs again. He needs to solve this quickly.

This has to work, he thinks to himself. It has to. He closes his eyes and pictures the light going out, every fibre of his being willing it to be true. There’s no other way he can think of to get this thing off and he’s starting to get desperate.

With that image held in his mind, he opens his eyes, leans forward, and blows.

The light quivers like a flame clinging to life in a storm, and though he can’t see any difference from any of his other attempts, he holds on to the picture in his mind, trying to believe there’s a chance, against all possibility that he might will it into existence. The light flickers for so long he almost sits back to laugh at his own stupidity. He's ready to do just that, running out of air in his lungs to blow when—

The jewel goes dark.

Stiles can’t believe what he’s seeing. It has to be a trick of the light, or maybe his eyes, tired after so long of staring at one place. He lifts his hands to cup them around the jewel once more but gasps when his fingers touch cold metal. The collar shifts under his hand and he takes hold of it, watching as it comes away from Wolf’s neck. Whatever that jewel was, it must have been some sort of lock, or in control of an invisible clasp, or—

No. It isn’t the collar.

Wolf’s neck is shrinking. The collar is still a solid band, resisting Stiles’ attempts to pull it open, but Wolf is smaller than he had been only moments before, enough that Stiles can get the tip of his finger beneath the collar all the way around, and then there’s even a gap between his finger and Wolf’s fur. His finger brushes against something on the inside band of the collar, something sharp, and his stomach drops into his feet when he catches sight of half-inch long spikes dark with blood.

He lifts it free over Wolf's head and drops it to the floor with a heavy clank . Wolf’s eyes glow gold, so much brighter than the flicker of light from the jewel, and Stiles scrambles back as he starts to writhe and tumble off the edge of the mattress. On the floor, a nasty crack comes from his body, then another and another like the snapping of bone, and he starts to look misshapen, back legs a little too long and muzzle somehow flatter, the shape of his paws distorted with new protrusions. Worse still, his fur seems to be thinning, pale skin peeking through even though Stiles can’t see it falling out.

Dread sweeps through him so hard he thinks he might be sick. What if Gerard told him never to remove the collar because it was the only thing keeping Wolf alive?

What has he done?

Stiles presses his back to the wall, helpless to do anything but watch as Wolf shrivels up in front of him, the crack of bone becoming more infrequent as he gets smaller and thinner as if he has some sort of disease.

But his mounting panic starts to give way to confusion. He’s beginning to see familiarities in Wolf’s changing form, in the way his ears have moved down to the sides of his now dome-shaped head and how the strange additions to his paws are beginning to look more like fingers.

When the process finally seems to end, Stiles is sure he must have suffered a blow to the head because a man lies curled before him. Mostly a man, Stiles corrects himself hysterically as Wolf weakly lifts his head and reveals a fang-filled mouth and distorted, heavy brow shadowing still-glowing eyes. But he’s definitely no longer a direwolf.

“Holy shit,” Stiles gasps. “Holy shit, you’re—”

He turned him into a human! What kind of dark magic is this?

Wolf manages to get a hand beneath himself to sit up, his legs pedalling uselessly like a newborn foal in an effort to push himself back against the wall. He’s trembling as if from cold or fear — probably a mixture of both. If Stiles is at his wit’s end, he can’t fathom how overwhelmed Wolf must be feeling.

He swallows hard and carefully reaches for the bedsheets behind himself, numb fingers grasping as well as if they've been plunged into icy water for the better part of an hour. When he manages to get hold, he slowly drags the covers from the bed. With one look at the fangs and claws, Stiles decides he's not feeling brave enough to move closer so he throws the sheet towards Wolf instead, the fabric draping over him and at least affording him some modesty.

Wolf grips a corner in one hand, claws shredding the material as he pulls it closer, clutching it to a chest dark with hair, sparse remnants of the fur he’d had only moments before.

Stiles holds up his hands, shaking just as badly as Wolf. “It’s Stiles,” he tries. “Do you remember?” He has to dig deep for some courage, but he holds out a hand slowly, so slowly, hoping his scent might spark some recognition. Those gold eyes track his every movement and though he doesn’t relish bringing his hand so close to those fangs, he’s rewarded by flaring nostrils, a familiar Wolf mannerism even in human form.

Before Stiles’ eyes, Wolf’s angular brow melts away, along with the pointed ears and the thick sideburns, just like his fur had. The eyes don’t stop glowing, but Stiles can better see his sharp cheekbones, his black hair and his longer two front teeth where he pants through his open mouth.

If Stiles hadn’t already been on his knees, they would have buckled beneath him as those features register and he places a name to the person impossibly sitting before him.

“Derek?” he breathes, and just like the glinting jewel in the collar, the glow in the man’s eyes winks out, leaving familiar green and gold in its wake. Eyes Stiles thought he’d never see again.

“St—” Derek is overwhelmed by wracking coughs. “Stiles.”

His voice is so hoarse, Stiles didn’t realise at first that he’d been trying to speak. It sounds more like the growls he’d made when he was a direwolf, his human vocal cords rusty with disuse.

“You’re bleeding,” Stiles murmurs blankly, lifting a corner of the sheet to press to the wounds at his neck. But when he wipes away a trickle of blood, he only finds unmarred skin.

His head hurts, like his brain is a sponge that’s suddenly been tossed into a pool of water, absorbing too much information at once and unable to make heads or tails of it. He wants to bury his head in the bedcovers and pass out for a week, anything other than stop and unpack the fact that Derek Hale, dead Derek Hale, is sitting alive before him and has been his pet direwolf for the past two months.

The sheet falls from Stiles’ limp hand as he slides from his knees and sits heavily on the cold stone floor. Flurries of questions are racing through him, so many that the words become a jumble he can’t order inside his head, let alone voice out loud. Where to even begin?

A hand settles on top of his, warm and real and clawless, and though that should be enough to set his head spinning anew, the contact serves as a grounding weight for him to focus on instead, enough for him to find his voice.

“What’s going on?” he manages, almost slurring.

Derek clears his throat again but his voice still cracks and rasps when he speaks. “Tell me what you know.”

Disbelief sweeps through him and he manages to lift his gaze to Derek’s. “Does it look like I know anything right now?”

Derek’s hand tightens around his and Stiles slumps, the emotions draining as swiftly as they came. He takes a deep breath and lets it rush out of him as he racks his brain to put what he knows — or thought he knew — into order. It’s difficult to do even that with this new conflicting evidence.

“Deucalion burnt down the Hale manor with everyone inside it five years ago, and that’s why Stellaris joined the war,” Stiles manages eventually,  “Only, everyone wasn’t inside,” he amends. “You’re alive—”

“All of us,” Derek interjects.

“All of you?”

“The Argents keep us as wolves in an enclosure in the grounds of their palace.”

“The Argents?” Stiles echoes in disbelief. “But— How? Why?

Derek holds up a hand and Stiles watches as thick, curved claws grow in place of his fingernails, seemingly at his control. “I’m a werewolf.”

“A direwolf,” Stiles corrects. He’s heard of the werewolf myth before, but they’re supposed to be affected by the full moon and still retain some semblance of a human form and they attack people and livestock. They don’t turn into actual wolves.

“No. Direwolves don’t exist.”

“But you’re—”

“What people call direwolves have just been sightings of fully-shifted Alpha werewolves. They’re not a real species,” Derek explains, beginning to sound impatient with him. It’s hardly fair considering every word out of Derek’s mouth so far has been little better than gobbledegook.

“What’s an Alpha? And what does ‘fully-shifted’ mean?”

Derek growls in frustration and it makes Stiles jump. He immediately looks abashed. “I’m sorry,” he whispers, head thudding back against the wall in exhaustion. “There’s just too much to explain.”

Stiles stares at the drying blood around his bared throat, the wounds healed but the memory of them more than enough to churn his stomach. He presses the heels of his palms to his eyes in an effort to relieve some of the throbbing pressure behind.

“I’m going to clean you up and get you some clothes, and while I’m doing it, you can get the story in order,” he says, lowering his hands to stare at Derek with bleary eyes. “Then we’ll sit up on the bed and you’ll tell me everything from the beginning, whether you think it’s important or not.”

Derek’s shoulders are slumped but he nods and Stiles helps him to his feet. The sheet gets lost in the process, and though Derek shows no concern, Stiles keeps his gaze emphatically averted as they stagger over to the bed. He wets a cloth in the wash basin and makes a few trips back and forth, dabbing away the blood and wringing it out in the water, trying not to openly marvel at the disappeared wounds. The colour of the water won’t escape Virgil’s notice this time, especially not with the state of the sheets. Stiles will have to tell him that Wolf scratched himself in his sleep.

That thought makes him falter where he wrings out the cloth. He can’t think of him as Wolf anymore. As his pet. But how is he supposed to refer to him now? And what is he supposed to say when ‘Wolf’ doesn’t accompany him to breakfast tomorrow because the direwolf is now a human? He gives himself a shake. He doesn’t even know the full story yet. He needs to hear Derek out before he starts giving any thought to what to do next.

With the blood gone, Stiles finds one of his long nightshirts and pulls it over Derek’s head, helping to manoeuvre his arms into the sleeves when he fumbles with the material. It’s like helping to dress an infant and Stiles wonders how long it’s been since he’s had the need to wear clothes. Derek keeps his gaze lowered, but it doesn’t hide his pink ears or the glum set of his mouth.

With all that taken care of, Stiles passes him the glass of water from his bedside table. Derek guzzles the entire thing, water dribbling down his chin like he’s forgotten how to drink from a cup. He probably has. So much of this situation could be the first time in years that Derek has had to perform everyday motions. Stiles isn’t going to cause humiliation by commenting on any of it.

He pours Derek some more water from the pitcher and sits back as he takes a small sip.

“Tell me what I need to know.”

Derek starts by telling him more about werewolves, about ‘pack dynamics’ and ‘Alphas’ and what it means to ‘shift’. It isn’t what he’s most keen to know. He’s burning with curiosity over how Derek came to be a captive in the first place, but if Derek considers this ‘need to know’ he’ll have to try wrapping his head around this first. It’s all difficult for him to get a grasp of.

“So, you’re the leader of your pack. An Alpha,” he says when he’s sure he has a better understanding.

“No, my mother is the Alpha of our pack.”

Stiles flails his arms. “But you said direwolves are just ‘shifted’ Alphas!”

“Just— put that aside for now,” Derek says, looking like he’s two seconds away from pinching the bridge of his nose. “I’ll get to that in a minute.” He pauses to order his thoughts again and Stiles holds the inside of his lips between his teeth; he’s going to try not to interrupt anymore.

“Our pack was made up of my family and a few of our members of staff. We still don’t know how the Argents found out about us, but it was probably from a woman named Araya. She’s infamous among our kind as the hunter responsible for driving all werewolves from the south in her crusade to wipe us out. She found like minds in the Argents and saw she could make use of the reach their power gives them. She’s the one responsible for the lovely designs of our collars.”

Stiles looks at the collar out of the corner of his eye, like some sort of hunting trap sat in the middle of the floor.

“The Argents attacked at night. They knocked us out with wolfsbane, a poison that can be deadly to us depending on the strain used. When I woke up, we were already in Venatia, one to a cell in an unused dungeon beneath the palace. Most of it is hazy. They kept us weak with wolfsbane so we were powerless to fight back, but I do remember when they brought a woman to see us, a sorceress named Jennifer Blake—”

“The Lady Jennifer Blake who blinded Deucalion?” Stiles interrupts. Derek looks pleased that that's at least one thing he won't have to explain.

Her name is known across the entire continent, the Astrani Royal Physician who, after years of loyal service, decided to make an attempt on King Deucalion’s life. She disappeared without a trace after succeeding at only taking his eyes. Hearing she’s a sorceress is easy enough for him to believe, but he had no idea that she’d surfaced in Venatia.

“The very same. With her magic, she created a specific strain of wolfsbane that can force a shift in any werewolf if it enters the bloodstream.” Derek holds out his human hands and stares at them. “They put Araya’s collars around our necks while we were still human.” His voice drops to a rasp once more and he starts to shake. “Then would come the wolfsbane and we'd lose control. It burns like nothing I’ve ever felt, and as my body grew, the spikes—”

Stiles grabs Derek’s hands, not knowing what else to do.

“But how could they do that to you?” Stiles whispers, barely able to find his voice. “To think you’d been bleeding all this time...”

Derek shakes his head. “We have accelerated healing. When it couldn’t push the spikes out, I healed around them somehow. When you were taking a look at it, it reopened the wounds, that’s why there was fresh blood when—”

“Don’t,” Stiles pleads, eyes squeezed shut and swallowing down bile. That situation had been awful enough, but to hear the reason for Wolf’s — for Derek’s — distress is more horrific than he ever could have imagined.

“With the size of my wolf body, they wouldn’t dig in as deep as you’d think.”

Don’t,” Stiles says again. To hear Derek trying to make little of it, even to make Stiles feel better, is too gross to comprehend. His heart is hammering in his chest, in disgust and horror and fury.

Derek stays silent for a while, mercifully, but eventually he continues.

Stiles didn’t think it could get any worse. He was wrong.

“Cora was first,” Derek murmurs. “They made us watch.” His voice is tinged with laughter and it sends a fresh wave of nausea through Stiles as he wonders if that was the reaction the Argent’s had, their equivalent of evening entertainment.

The laughter becomes a sob and Derek buckles before his eyes. Stiles flings his arms around him. He wants to offer the same grounding touch Derek had given him earlier, but he also just needs something to hold onto in a world turned upside down.

With Derek safely in his arms and free of his abuse at the hands of the Argents, first to the tip of his tongue are words of reassurance, reminders that it’s over now. But even though Derek is out of the Argent’s clutches, his family have still been stuck in the same hell for the past few months, most likely with no knowledge of what's become of him.

Instead, he stays quiet, not sure what else there is to say. He takes the opportunity to sift through everything he’s witnessed ever since Derek arrived at the feast, examining it through a new lens. The way the Argents referred to him as ‘it’, Kate even going so far as to refer to him as a ‘filthy animal’ while later acting like he was the apple of her eye, claiming she would miss him. He realises now that those were the actions of a tormentor, not a loving owner. And that doesn’t even begin to cover her sly mention of the Hales and their handsome son, right where Derek could hear her while being unable to say a word.

And Kali knew. She knew exactly what Derek was, and she’d come all that way to get him. Which leads Stiles to his most terrifying realisation yet.

“Deucalion had nothing to do with this.” It’s not even a question. It doesn’t need to be.

He feels numb as Derek shakes his head.

“Then— Then our part in this war has all been based on a lie.”

All this time, they believed the Hales were killed by Deucalion, but how easy it must have been for the Argents to etch his royal emblem in the Hale manor door, all that was left standing of their handiwork.

“The Argents wanted you as allies and wanted to remove a werewolf ‘threat’. They fear us. It’s that fear which started this whole war in the first place, when they discovered Deucalion and his family are werewolves.”

Stiles thinks of Kali naked and alone in the forest, her footprints becoming muddled by a direwolf’s prints belonging to her, not Wolf. “And Prince Aiden’s death, he—”

“Not a riding accident,” Derek confirms.

Everything is beginning to make sense, like he’d been looking through a distorted window and is suddenly on the other side of it — or more like the window has been smashed into a thousand, irreparable pieces.

“But why would they give you away in the first place? Weren’t they risking everything if anyone ever found out?”

“You weren’t supposed to have the spark. They never would have given me to you if they’d known.”

“Spark?”

Derek pauses to study him. “You don’t know? It’s the potential for magic, like Jennifer has. But it’s weak in you, so faint I couldn’t smell it until tonight when you managed to undo the magic in the collar.” Derek leans in to sniff him. “It’s faded from you even now.”

“But I had no idea!” Stiles exclaims, staring down at his palms in amazement — and a little bit of fear. “How did I even use it?”

“You told me your mother spoke to you about the power of belief. I think that has something to do with it. Perhaps she intended to explain it to you one day but just never had the chance.”

Stiles’ hands fall limp in his lap as he thinks about his mother, of how impossible it seems that she might have had any knowledge of sorcery or of ‘sparks’. If only she could have imparted some of that knowledge, he may have realised what Wolf was sooner. But more than anything, he just wishes she was here.

Derek must be wishing the same of his own mother, still in captivity along with the rest of his family, his pack. Stiles might not be able to see his again, not until his own time comes, but Derek still has that chance. He can still be reunited. But where are they even supposed to go from here?

“We’re going to fix this,” Stiles says, looking up from his hands to Derek sagging into the pillow propping him up.

“How?” Derek asks, all of his despair distilled into a single word.

“I don’t know yet,” Stiles says, shrugging. “But we will.”

Derek gazes down at his hands, and though his eyes speak of unfathomable sadness, a small smile still manages to curve his lips. “That’s more hope than I had an hour ago.”

Right now, it seems like an impossible task and though Stiles doesn’t have any answers yet, he’s sure they’ll be able to come up with something. The Argent’s don’t know that Stiles has found out the truth and that, at least, will work to their advantage. But before they can begin to formulate any kind of plan, there’s so much more that Derek needs to tell him, starting with why the Argent’s made him a gift in the first place.

“What about the reason for giving you away? You didn’t answer—” But Derek has already fallen asleep.

He looks fragile in comparison to the first sight Stiles got of him, clawed and fanged and neck ringed with blood. His features look delicate in sleep, eyes remaining still beneath his eyelids in what is hopefully a dreamless sleep, breathing softly through parted lips. He deserves a few peaceful hours of uninterrupted sleep.

As Stiles watches him, he marvels that he’s finally gotten his answer about the collar but it was the absolute furthest thing from what he’d been expecting. From just wanting his pet direwolf to live a free life, he’s unearthed a conspiracy and as good as brought someone back from the dead.

There’s still so much he doesn’t know, and though a part of him wants to nudge Derek awake to make him fill in all of those blanks, it’s not difficult to stay his hand. Derek must have been tired enough from the day before, let alone the addition of whatever exhaustion he might be feeling from his transformation and everything he’s had to relive.

There’s time for more talk in the morning. For now, Stiles will let him sleep.

Chapter Text

Stiles doesn’t think he sleeps at all that night. He has all this new knowledge swirling through his head, but even without that, he feels like he needs to watch over Derek, no matter the two dozen guards between them and the castle entrance. There's nothing else he can do. He’s the most powerful man in the realm aside from his father, and still he’s helpless.

Every time his eyes begin to droop, he jolts back up after only moments, sure it must have all been a dream. He expects to see Wolf curled up beside him, the collar around his neck, trapped once more. But there Derek still lays, unmoved from the moment he drifted off with his hands settled on his stomach on top of the sheets. Stiles can’t even imagine how it might feel for him when he’ll wake up to find that he really is free.

But that thought just starts his heart pounding in his chest. What are they going to do? To an outside eye, his direwolf has disappeared without a trace, and even if he manages to keep Derek hidden, there’s no way for him to explain it. How long can he keep it a secret from those in the castle, let alone those outside of it? It can’t become common knowledge that Wolf was Derek Hale, and it can’t get back to the Argents that the pet direwolf they bestowed hasn’t been seen for weeks. They have the advantage of their confinement to the city right now, but how much longer will that excuse last? Even that does nothing to explain why the cuts of meat prepared especially for Wolf will be going uneaten.

It's difficult to breathe under everything stacking up on top of him and he doesn’t have long to think up even a temporary solution. The dawning sun is glowing around the edges of the drapes and his mind is only moving in circles, listing their problems over and over as he wastes the time he has worrying over what little time he has left. It feels like only a minute more passes when Derek’s eyes snap open beside him a second before a knock comes at the door.

“Son?” comes his father’s voice, and Stiles’ topples off the edge of the bed. He scrambles to his feet and he and Derek stare at each other in horror.

“Transform!” Stiles hisses.

“I don’t know how!” Derek hisses back.

Stiles flails. “Under the bed!”

Derek rolls from the mattress with more grace than Stiles had, and Stiles gets a knee back on the bed before he spots the collar still sitting in the middle of the floor.

“Just a minute!” he calls to his father, diving towards it. He hates himself for it, but he shoves the collar under the bed with his foot, wincing as it skids from the rug and grates along stone.

He clambers under the covers, clearing his throat before calling, “Come in!”

The door opens and his father peeks his head inside like he’s double-checking Stiles is actually decent before opening the door fully.

“Good morning.”

Stiles forces the same pleasantry past his lips in reply.

“I thought you’d want to know we've just received word that Princess Katherine will be here tomorrow evening. If the scouts aren't back by then, I'm sure she’ll have the answers we seek. If all is well, I won't need to coop you up inside much longer.”

A pit opens up in Stiles’ stomach. Kate . Amongst the excitement, he’d entirely forgotten about her imminent visit.

“That's good news,” he squeaks.

His father raises an eyebrow then casts his gaze around the room. “Where's Wolf?”

Stiles is sure he can hear Derek holding his breath beneath the bed. “He, uh, must be outside.”

His father pauses, a suspicious squint to his eyes. “Is everything” He cuts himself off and his eyes flicker to Stiles’ groin beneath the sheets and straight up to the ceiling. “Never mind,” he finishes, clearing his throat. “I'll see you downstairs.”

Stiles would cringe at the conclusion his father has come to, but it’s honestly better than the truth of the alternative. He smiles tightly as his father backs out of the room, but before he can close the door, in bustles Virgil, and Stiles has no choice but to get out of bed and scream internally as his manservant fusses over his choice of clothing for the day. Like it even matters right now.

He’s entirely forgotten about the blood until Virgil gasps and snatches up his bedsheets, horrified.

“Your Highness, what

“I’m fine!” Stiles hurries to assure him. “Wolf scratched himself in his sleep, that’s all.” He should have known that would do nothing to assuage him.

“‘That’s all’?” Virgil repeats, incredulously. “That could so easily have been you! You can’t share a bed with him any longer. I’ll not have it!”

“Wolf would never hurt me.” Even before he discovered Wolf was actually a person, he wasn’t afraid for his safety, and definitely not since Kali. With Derek listening, he feels he has to defend him, especially considering Virgil is getting worked up over a fabrication.

His manservant purses his lips and remains silent, but he tugs all of Stiles’ laces tighter, either to demonstrate his displeasure or out of the hope that the more layers he smothers him in, the more protection it will offer.

Once he’s buttoned and trussed, Stiles has no choice but to leave the room for breakfast as he always has.

“I’ll bring you some food,” he mutters to Derek under his breath as he heads out the door. Thankfully, Virgil exits too and shuts it behind him. Hopefully that means he doesn’t intend to return with a team to do some cleaning. Stiles doesn’t want to even imagine the situation if the old man and some servants happen to encounter a mostly-naked man hiding beneath their Prince’s bed.

In the dining hall, a cut of beef is waiting for Wolf and Stiles has to tell the staff that he seems to be feeling under the weather and so probably won’t come down for it. That excuse will work for today, but what can he do going forward? It will soon be noticed if the direwolf who had been attached to his hip never accompanies him for meals anymore and doesn’t seem to be eating at all. Even his confinement to the castle isn't going to last much longer, if Kate’s news is as he expects. He knows now how and why Kali slipped past the Stellaran and Venatian defences and that there is no Astrani force of soldiers heading their way as they'd feared.

But as worrying as all of that is, that's the least of his problems right now. It's Kate’s visit he needs to focus on. What is he going to do when she arrives and he’s unable to produce a direwolf when she asks after him? She’ll discover that he knows about Derek. That’s the only outcome he sees in this. And then what? He takes her hostage, as the Argents have with the Hales? Every possible route he can fathom only leads to disaster.

He’ll need to tell his father. That’s the best option open to him right now; he can't deal with this alone. But the more people that enter the equation, the higher the chance of something being let slip. Piquing Kate’s suspicion is the last thing they need, especially when the Argents have the rest of the Hales in their clutches.

Breakfast is spent jumping at every little noise, and for once he’s thankful his father isn’t eating with him to witness his strange behaviour. He’s just expecting an alarm to sound at any moment, to hear guards rushing around outside and up to his rooms to apprehend an intruder. He has half a mind to leave before he’s even finished his meal, but he doesn’t want it to get back to his father and have him start asking if Stiles is feeling well. He does his best to eat at a measured pace, and then he plates some of the many leftovers arranged on the table  bread and cheese and bacon and a cooked tomato  and carries it from the room with his head held high. He walks with purpose, nodding at the familiar faces of the guards and servants he passes who all smile in return and are quick to bow their heads.

When he opens the door to his rooms, he almost leaps out of his skin.

Wolf is laying on the bed, tongue lolling out of his mouth in a grin like he’s pleased with himself, and Stiles might think he’d dreamed the whole Derek thing if it wasn’t for the fact that he isn’t wearing the collar.

“How did you do it?” Stiles asks, foolishly expecting an immediate reply.

He averts his gaze as Derek starts to go through his terrifying transformation again before him, wincing at the crack of bone and the memory of the grotesque shapes he’d twisted through, but it's mainly to give him some privacy at the moment it’s complete. He only turns back after the rustle of sheets as Derek pulls them over his hips. There’s no disorientation this time, and he’s gotten a hold of his human side immediately, experiencing no trouble when he talks.

“I could feel something different about my normal beta shift,” he explains, his eyes glowing gold as thick sideburns sprout on his face and his ears sharpen to points. Stiles wonders if it will ever not make him jump. “It was like there was something beyond it that I just needed to stretch to reach. Whatever Jennifer did, it looks like it’s permanent,” he says, looking down at his hands and clawed fingertips.

Stiles’ worry eases slightly at this shred of good news. If Derek has control over his shift, then perhaps they'll be able to keep up the façade just long enough to emerge on the other side of Kate’s visit unscathed.

“At least that’s one of our problems solved,” he says, approaching the bed with the plate of food. “But for now, eat. You must be starving.”

As soon as Stiles sets the plate on the bed beside him, Derek falls upon the food like he's ravenous. He pauses, though, at the first mouthful of bread, his eyes closed and his jaw working slowly, savouring. When was the last time he ate food like this? Could it have been the full five years of his captivity?

“I suppose it’s nice to enjoy a proper meal,” Stiles says, sheepishly, thinking of the diet he’s had him on since he arrived here.

“You don’t need to worry about that,” Derek assures him, voice thick around a mouthful of tomato, probably cold now but he seems to be enjoying it all the same. “My palate is different as a wolf, so this sort of food was never appetising. You couldn't have fed me better.”

It doesn't assuage the guilt. 

While Derek eats, Stiles notes the bed covers have been changed, the blood no longer in sight and sheets neatly tucked in around the edges. Belated panic courses through him, but Derek obviously got through it undiscovered so he's quick to calm himself. He’s got enough to worry about without letting himself be consumed by all the what-ifs of any close shaves.

When the plate is empty, Derek licks his finger to pick up every crumb and smear of bacon grease, and Stiles fetches an apple for him from his fruit bowl. Derek accepts it with a grateful smile but doesn’t take a bite straight away, instead turning it over slowly in his hands. He doesn’t take his eyes off it as he speaks.

“Kate will be here tomorrow.”

“Yes.”

Something changes in Derek’s expression. Settling, hardening. “I’m free now. Without the collar, I can hunt. I can kill. She won’t be leaving alive.”

“You can’t!”

At his outburst, Derek’s eyes narrow, mutinous, his hand squeezing the apple tight. Stiles almost takes a step back. 

He understands Derek’s thirst for vengeance, but the idea of killing  of Derek killing  fills him with intense revulsion. He doesn’t want to see him reduced to that, to have that be the culmination of all he’s had to endure. Derek would never accept that reasoning, but there’s another argument he can use that he knows Derek won’t be able to ignore.

“If we want any chance of rescuing your family, she can’t know that I’ve removed the collar. If you kill her, that will put us at war with Venatia, and this will become a hostage situation.”

Derek’s jaw sets and Stiles knows he sees the sense in his words even if he’s not happy about it. 

“When all is said and done, she’ll meet her end, whether it’s by my hand or someone else’s," he vows.

Perhaps Derek would be justified after the ordeal he and the rest of the Hales have been through, but it’s not going to be that easy. The Argents are royalty. Their deaths would throw their country and the continent into turmoil. He doesn’t want to imagine what might happen if anything was traced back to Stellaris, or if it was discovered that the Hales are alive and were the perpetrators.

He wonders if Derek has killed before. He wonders why Derek hadn’t killed her already.

“You said you can hunt now without the collar.” Now it’s on his mind, he’s sure he can feel the weight of it still lurking beneath the bed.

“They prevent us from attacking living things. Araya came up with the idea for the spikes, but Jennifer is the one who wove them with magic.”

Stiles remembers the buck that escaped to live another day and supposes he was right that the collar was keeping ‘Wolf’ from living as he would like. He thinks about all the times they went riding without an escort, how he thought ‘Wolf’ would be able to protect him. It turns out he wouldn’t have been any help in a fight at all.

“The spell wasn't entirely successful, but it didn’t do us any good.”

“What happened?”

Derek stares at his hands, at the apple he’s still holding, and Stiles waits for him to order his thoughts. “We can’t attack with the collars on, but we realised an indirect approach might work, so we wore away at one of the tree trunks in our enclosure. When Araya came to feed us, we threw our weight against it to bring it down on her, but she had better reflexes than we’d planned so we only managed to break her leg. The door was still open though. We thought we were free if we could just get to some mountain ash.” Derek pauses at Stiles’ questioning look and explains that it’s a powder people without magic can use to take the collars off. “Jennifer would give it to the Argents, and I knew Kate had a supply in her rooms. I was the only one who knew where they were, but I was caught before I could get there and was unable to fight back.

“It’s why I’m here. A warning to never try something like that again. They did threaten to send Cora, but she’s worth too much leverage for them to get rid of her. I almost wish they had, though, just to get her out of that place. At least then she'd be safe with you, here. Though I don't know if she would have coped without my mother." Derek shrugs. "They wanted to send away one of the Alpha's children though, and in the end, I think it was decided I was the most dangerous for the Argents to keep around. Kate liked the idea. Even though they think of us as beasts, the fact that we could understand them was at least acknowledged in some small way. Here with you, I was just an animal. Sent back to my own country as a pet to my Prince.” Derek offers him a humourless smile. “It made a fool of you too. It was so funny to them.”

Stiles feels numb, even as there’s a sharp pain in his chest. “I’m sorry,” he murmurs, voice hoarse, rasping in his throat.

That shadow of a smile slides from Derek’s lips as his face hardens. “ Don’t . Don’t ever apologise for something you had no way of knowing. I don’t blame you for any of this. If it wasn’t for you, I’d still be stuck in that collar and I would have remained that way until I died.” The fire drains out of him and his shoulders hunch, like he’s shrinking under the futility of it all. “I don't even know if my family know where I’ve gone. I’m probably being used to keep them compliant, but they may even think me dead.”

“You will find your way back to them. This isn’t over.”

Derek’s head is still bowed, but he nods. He considers the apple in his hands once more and then finally takes a bite, wiping at a trickle of juice at the corner of his mouth.

“For now, we need to think about what we’re going to do tomorrow,” Stiles says, trying to be gentle. “Being able to transform solves one problem, and maybe we’d be able to get away with it for a little while, but Kate will probably notice instantly that you’re not wearing a collar.”

He wonders if Derek would still be able to transform at will if they were to put the collar back around his neck minus the enchantment, but he stamps that idea out as quickly as it crosses his mind. He'd rather put the collar on himself than ever ask that of him. But they do have another option.

He sinks to his knees on the rug and reaches beneath the bed, pulling the collar out gingerly, marvelling at the heft of it and cringing at the sight of all the dried blood. A glance up at Derek shows his eyes squeezed tightly shut and his nostrils flared. Stiles’ stomach clenches with shame and disgust. To Derek’s sensitive nose, the collar has probably been stinking the room out with the stench of his own blood, a reminder of all the pain and fear he’s had to endure so far.

He snags the silk runner from the end of the bed and wraps it up in it, hiding it from Derek’s sight.

“I’ll take this to Finstock and see if he can forge us a replica without spikes.” Stiles doesn’t like the idea of putting him in a collar again even if he can shift back at will and remove it, but Derek nods. “I don’t know what he’ll do about the jewel, but he’s not the castle blacksmith for nothing.”

Stiles moves for the door and Derek sits up straighter like he intends to come with him, half-eaten apple still in hand. He doesn't want Derek to have to spend any more time with this collar than he needs to, so he waves him back. “Stay here and get some more rest. I’ve got this.”

He leaves Derek to enjoy the rest of his apple and carries his bundle through the castle under one arm, walking as he had when carrying Derek’s plate of food. He knows no one will stop him to ask what he’s carrying or where he’s going, but looking furtive will just stick out in people’s minds. The last thing he wants is for this to get back to his father. For now, at least. Now that they know Derek can shift, the urgency has diminished, and Stiles thinks it would be best to inform his father after Kate departs through the castle gates. It’s another layer of stress Stiles doesn’t want to place over him.

He makes it to the main doors and steps outside, almost blinded by the early morning sunshine. It would have been the perfect morning for a ride beyond the city, if only he were still living in ignorance. He descends the steps into the shadow of the castle gates and traces a path towards the stables, stepping back out into the sun along his way, basking in the simple warmth of it.

He hears the forge long before he reaches it, the rhythmic clanging offset by cursing that grows louder the closer he gets. Smoke billows from the chimney and the scent of burning charcoal tickles his nose, turning acrid when he steps inside and is hit with the full force of it. It takes his eyes a moment to adjust to the interior of the smithy after the bright sunlight outside. And what a sight it is.

Finstock is intent on his work, his eyes wild and hair on end. With his face lit from beneath by the glow of what might be a fire stoker he’s working on and shimmering in the haze of heat, he looks half-crazed and locked in a trance. It’s no wonder he sends children running.

When Finstock spots him, he sets the tool he’s working on in a bucket of water, steam billowing up as it sizzles. Stiles knows if he doesn’t head him off, he’ll launch into some scatter-brained tirade or other, so he unwraps the collar before he has a chance to begin and drops it on his workbench.

“How soon do you think you could make a replica, without the spikes?”

The crazed glow intensifies in Finstock’s eyes as he looks it over, already calling out to his assistant. “Greenberg! Get me my whistle!”

Greenberg’s head pops out from the doorway leading into the back room, all colour drained from his face. His gulp is audible. “Your w-whistle?”

Finstock snaps his fingers at him and he leaps a foot in the air before scurrying out of sight. Stiles doesn’t even want to know.

Finstock has lifted the collar to the end of his nose and is muttering to himself as he examines it, turning it in every direction. Stiles is apprehensive to interrupt, but urgency weighs on him. “Finstock? I need it by tomorrow.”

Finstock shows no indication that he heard him, but with his flurry of activity, it at least seems to have taken precedent. Stiles picks up the silk runner and backs out of the stifling heat into the sunlight, taking a refreshing breath of clean air. He knows it would probably have been easier to just ask Finstock to remove the spikes from the original, but all he can think of is the way Derek’s nostrils had flared when faced with it again, and he knows that no amount of cleaning could ever get rid of the stench to Derek’s sensitive nose.

He's slow to return to the castle, mulling over their remaining problems and which of them is their next to worry about. He feels lighter, at least, than he had this morning. But there’s something that's been steadily brewing at the back of his mind since discovering the Argents’ involvement in the Hales’ disappearance, something growing like a tangling knot in his stomach, taking root. 

Allison.

Has she known all along? Is she involved, a perpetrator? He knows he should have asked Derek already, but he's afraid, so afraid, of what the answer might be. He doesn’t know how he could face it. And what of Scott? Of their marriage? He feels so lost.

When he makes it back to his rooms, Derek is on the bed with a book in his hand, closed on his thumb to mark the page, and he's only just gotten the sheets over his hips in time for Stiles’ return.

“Finstock will have it ready in no time,” Stiles says, forcing a smile at the good news, but Derek doesn’t return it. How could he, when Stiles is talking of another collar he has to wear?

Stiles stands at the window, staring unseeing at the city sprawling below as he steels himself. He takes a deep breath. “I need to ask you something.”

Derek remains unmoved from when Stiles entered, as if he’d sensed there was something on his mind. Stiles wonders if it was his werewolf senses or just plain old intuition. He almost asks, but that would just be avoiding what he really needs to say. 

“I'm not sure I want the answer to this question, but I need to know.” He swallows hard. “Is Allison…?”  The sentence dies on his tongue, so unthinkable to even put into words. But Derek knows what he’s trying to ask.

He stares down at the back of the book in his hands, frowning. “I don’t think she knows,” he says, though it's grudging, like it physically pains him to say it. “She was barely a teenager when they took us, and it doesn’t seem like they’ve told her what we really are. She was always accompanied when she visited the enclosure, and didn’t have much interest once she discovered we weren’t as cuddly as she’d been hoping.” Derek finally looks at him, gaze sharp. “But maybe it's an act. Considering she shares the blood of Kate and Gerard in her veins, it wouldn't surprise me.”

Relief courses through him despite Derek’s final warning. “I have to believe.”

Derek shrugs. “It's your funeral.”

“I just don't think I could take it if another friend revealed themselves as” Stiles’ eyes go out of focus as it hits him, almost making his knees buckle. Why did it take him so long to realise? “Erica and Boyd didn't defect,” he says in wonder. “Well, they did but

Derek waits, watching him piece the truth of it together. Erica’s pale face at his birthday feast, her fear, their desire to get back to their son, every member of their estate disappearing overnight.

“They knew what you were.”

Derek nods. “They're werewolves. The Lahey boy too.”

“Lahey?”

“The one who was kidnapped.”

The one with a drunk for a father. “So he ran too.”

“No. Perhaps he tried, but the Argents got to him. Of that I'm certain.”

He remembers Wolf's  Derek’s  distress when following the scent trail, how it led towards Venatia. How Kali came all this way just to take him back with her, Erica and Boyd doing what they could to help Derek by informing her and Deucalion. He's been blind, to everything.

He joins Derek on the bed, needing to sit down.  “And they took their entire staff. All werewolves?”

“Probably some, but not all. Though I imagine they would have all known. Human relatives of werewolves perhaps. The Boyds may have acted as a haven for werewolves in these parts, as my family used to.”

“Human relatives?”

"Humans can be bitten to become a werewolf, though it's usually only used to save a life."

"So you could bite me and make me one too?”

“No,” Derek says sharply. “Only an Alpha has that power, and you especially would do well to be wary if one ever offered it.” At Stiles’ confusion, he elaborates. “A werewolf made by a bite is tied to the Alpha that made them until the Alpha decides to release them from it, if they ever do. They have a different level of control over those betas, able to bend them to their will if they really want to. As a Prince to become King one day, the danger of a situation like that can’t be understated. That’s why it’s usually reserved for saving someone’s life if they’ve suffered a mortal wound.”

“But couldn’t that sort of power be abused?”

Derek looks reluctant to follow the course the conversation has taken, but he does anyway, and Stiles appreciates the transparency.

“There have been cases of that happening, or of werewolves losing control, usually those newly-turned. It’s rare,” Derek says, emphatically, and Stiles nods his understanding. “But it’s cases like those that Chris Argent fears.”

Stiles had forgotten about the Venatian Crown Prince, so shocked he’d been over Allison and Kate. “You haven’t mentioned him yet. Is he the worst of the bunch?”

Derek shakes his head. “He’s not like his sister or his father. He takes no pleasure in torture. But he’s still not opposed to locking up all werewolves just to be safe.”

Stiles frowns, roused by that ridiculous way of thinking. Just from this short time he's spent with Derek, let alone everything he knew of the Hales from when he was young, he doesn’t believe them to be dangerous. He doesn't understand how anyone could have considered them a target for evil. It’s still so strange living with his memory of the day the news came that the Hales had been massacred and how it wars with Derek here in front of him.

“Humans are responsible for plenty of atrocities. By that logic, we should all lock ourselves up and throw away the keys.”

Derek smiles, a hint of gratitude in his eyes.

“Just look at the Argents,” Stiles continues, coming to a new realisation that makes his stomach churn with nausea. “When we learned that your family had been attacked, my father went to your manor. There were bodies, burned beyond recognition in the fire, the exact number of your household.” It makes him shiver at this new discovery. “Who were they?”

Derek looks stricken. “I don’t know. More innocent victims of the Argents, no doubt." He shakes his head. “We always wondered how the Argents would have covered it up, the fact that we’d gone missing. I had no idea that was how they’d done it.”

And it had all been disguised under Deucalion's symbol. The deeper Stiles digs into the layers of that event, impossibly worse the knowledge becomes. Deucalion and Kali are as much victims, their son murdered by the Argents and then the atrocity that befell the Hales blamed on them. Stiles doesn’t understand why Derek had shown Kali such animosity that day in the woods.

“Why didn’t you go with Kali when she came for you? She knew what you were. She must have been able to take you to Astran and find some way to get your collar off.”

Derek scowls. “They might be werewolves, but we’ve never considered Kali or Deucalion friends, and definitely not allies we can turn to. They knew what we were before the Argents took us and yet they’ve done nothing. To come here now to rescue the werewolf given as a gift was too little too late as far as I'm concerned. I’d rather be here with you.” Derek’s gaze is hard and clear. “I made the right decision.”

Stiles is heartened by Derek's faith in him. He feels like he's been stumbling in the dark ever since he blew out the light in his collar. For now, all he’s able to really do is face one hurdle at a time, and when they find space to breathe, they can maybe start thinking about what they should do moving forward. How they can even begin to face the impossible task of a rescue.

Derek’s thoughts seem to have drifted in the same direction and they sit in silence, weighted by the enormity of it and sick with worry. Stiles wishes they could just stay there in his rooms, forget about the rest of the day, about Kate’s visit. But his schedule beckons and the time soon comes for them to head to his lessons, to go on under a façade of normalcy. At least with Derek’s discovery that he can achieve his transformation on his own, the rest of the day is able to pass as it usually would, with the other people of the castle none the wiser.


*

 

Their next morning follows the same routine, except his father doesn't make a surprise visit and Derek doesn't need to dive under the bed. Stiles promises to bring him food and heads down to the dining room for breakfast, but he doesn’t make it. While passing the doors to the entrance hall, the voice of one of the guards standing just outside carries towards him.

“It sounds like Princess Katherine has arrived early.”

Stiles’ feet root themselves to the floor as he stares wide-eyed out of the open doors, expecting to see her at the bottom of the steps, swinging down from her horse. She's nowhere in sight and the castle gates are shut, but now he's focused, he can hear the far-off hail of a trumpet. She's at least within the city walls. 

There’s no time to lose.

He tears out of the doors and leaps down the steps, knowing he’s creating a spectacle, but it can’t be helped. If Kate sees Derek without that collar…

He’s running so fast it feels like the ground is rushing up to meet him, that he’s barely staying up on his feet, about to go head over heels. He skids around the corner and grabs the post supporting the roof outside the smithy to swing himself inside.

“Is it ready?” he asks, frantic.

Finstock turns to the bench behind him and unveils the collar with a flourish, a glint to his eyes like he can’t wait for Stiles' awe. But Stiles has no time for praise. He snatches up a burlap sack on the workbench behind him, shaking it upside down to empty it of horseshoes before stuffing the collar inside.

“Thank you!” he shouts over his shoulder before he’s racing back the way he came and almost trampling a chicken. He tears around the corner and skids to a halt so hard he almost ends up flat on his back on the cobbles.

Kate is already through the gates, riding the same horse she’d left on after their visit for his birthday, and she’s dismounting to greet his father who’s appeared at the top of the steps.

Stiles scrambles back and dives behind the nearest wall, allowing himself a moment to hiss fuckfuckfuck before darting the few steps towards a small servant entrance that will take him to the kitchens. He bursts inside, startling a maid heading to the well with a bucket who shrieks in surprise, but Stiles doesn’t have time to pause and offer an apology. He needs to get across the entrance hall and up the staircase before his father can lead Kate inside.

The kitchen passes in a blur, and though he doesn't collide with anyone else, he does hear a tray clatter to the floor behind him, but he doesn't know if it was because of him and can't stop to look. He's out the door and through the dining room where his breakfast sits on the table untouched, pausing a few steps towards the entrance hall to listen and make sure Kate and his father aren't already inside. He can't hear words, but he thinks he catches the tinkle of Kate’s laugh. He's glad the expected rules of age-old propriety mean their greeting has bought him some time. He dashes across the entrance hall and gets a foot on the staircase just as the voices outside begin to grow louder, and he has no choice but to duck down behind one of the thick balusters before he can reach the top.

He holds his breath, heart hammering in his chest where he's clutching the sack to it, their footsteps echoing on the stone below as they step into the entrance hall. With the angle of the staircase, his view of them is obscured by the other balusters running the length of the stairs, and he just hopes it means they can't see him in return. 

“I’m not sure where Stiles has gotten to,” his father is telling Kate. “He should be eating breakfast, but it seems he hasn't risen yet. I'll send someone to fetch him and perhaps we'll eat together.”

“That sounds wonderful. It was the thought of a Stellaran breakfast that made rising so early this morning easier to bear.”

They head towards the dining room and Stiles creeps up the few remaining steps and around the corner, safe. He springs to his feet and hurries on, not stopping until he’s bursting through the door to his rooms. Derek is already alert on the bed, about to pull the sheets back with one foot on the floor.

“What is it?” he asks warily. His book lies discarded on top of the covers.

“Kate’s here,” Stiles pants, and there’s the sound of ripping cloth where Derek’s hands have clenched in the sheets.

Stiles drops the sack on the bed and is at Derek’s side and wrapping his arms around him before he's thought about what he's doing. Derek is rigid, finding no comfort in the embrace, but nor does he flinch away.

“I’m sorry, Derek. I’m so sorry,” Stiles whispers into his ear.

After a few moments, Derek lifts his hands to Stiles’ shoulders and eases him back. “It’s okay,” he murmurs, but there’s no feeling to it and his gaze remains blankly in his lap. “We knew this was coming.”

Stiles bites his lip as he reaches for the sack and pulls out the collar. The first thing he notices is that it's cold, and though Derek’s body heat may warm it a little, it won't be enough to match the warmth the other collar had had when imbued with its spell. When it emerges, he's relieved to find it's indiscernible from the original, the spacing of the grooves identical and even with a matching jewel set into the centre. It's so well done, Stiles might even think Finstock handed him the wrong collar if it weren't for the missing spikes. 

“I’m sorry, but I have to put this on you.”

He holds up the new collar and Derek’s eyes rove over it.

“I’m sorry,” Stiles says again, this time barely more than a whisper.

“It’s okay,” Derek says again, but his voice is hoarse and his hands tremble as he pulls back the sheet to shift.

Stiles hands it over and turns away, to give him privacy but to also wipe his eyes. He doesn't want to see Derek put the collar over his head. 

“Try not to let her touch it,” Stiles says, quietly.

Derek’s quiet exhale of a tiny sigh is the only indication he heard him before the shift begins.

When it’s over and Stiles turns to look, Derek looks limp, his tail and ears flat and no spring to his step as Stiles came to expect after some distance from the Argents. If nothing else, he takes comfort in knowing those spikes are no longer embedded into his skin. It makes his stomach roil to think of the months he’d been living with that constant torture while Stiles was blissfully unaware.

“Are you ready?”

Derek doesn’t nod but he leads the way from the room.

“I think they’re in the dining room,” Stiles murmurs to him as they make their way down the passage towards the main staircase. “Your daily meat will probably be waiting for you, but you don’t need to eat it if you don’t want. I can sort you out a proper meal after.”

He hates that Derek can’t respond.

Downstairs, Stiles takes a deep breath before heading into the dining room, though Derek shows no such hesitation. He pads inside and straight over to his usual position on the floor before anyone has time to react. Stiles is the one who needs to put on a show.

“Princess Katherine,” Stiles greets, feigning surprise. “We weren't expecting you until this evening.”

“We made good progress,” she explains as Stiles approaches and takes her hand to kiss the back of it as he always has done in the past. It takes everything he has not to squeeze her hand in his and break her fingers, and they’re lucky he’d already let go when she turns to Derek or it could have become a reality. Her voice takes on the same tone he remembers from her goodbye last time, as if she’s talking to a baby. “And what do we have here?”

She rises to her feet and glides over to him without apprehension and immediately cups his face, scrubbing her hands roughly back and forth over his cheeks.

“Oh, how I’ve missed you!”

With the undeniable evidence of seeing Derek Hale alive in front of him, transformed from the skin of a wolf, Stiles had accepted without question that everything Derek told him was the truth. But even then, it had all had a sense of detachment, warring with his own experiences with Princess Katherine Argent, of her beauty and warmth. Having her before him now, seeing the way she treats Derek with what could easily be considered affection but that Stiles now sees is barely-restrained glee... He’s overtaken by rage so potent that he actually goes dizzy with it. He wants to tangle his fingers in her immaculate flowing locks and smash her face into the table edge, over and over and over, until she’s choking on her own blood, until her face is unrecognisable, until he cleaves her head in two. The fantasy is so vivid he has to clench his fists at his sides to keep from falling into a trance and actually carrying it out, nails digging into his palms and close to breaking skin.

But worse than Kate’s grating delight is how Derek’s eyes have glazed over, the same expression he’d had for the first few weeks they knew each other. To know now what it means that he’s escaping inside himself from his tormentor  cuts to the bone, to remember that he’d once assumed it was just the temperament of an animal.

They take their seats at the table and Stiles is glad of the one Kate had already chosen. It means Stiles is sat opposite, a barrier between her and Derek lying on the floor behind him. Throughout the meal, he smiles and laughs in all the right places and exudes the same charm as he normally would in Kate’s presence. He would say it’s his upbringing that's forged the façade, but really it’s that image of her face mangled beyond recognition that’s getting him through this. He’s honestly considering revoking the reasoning he made to Derek for not killing her and telling him to pounce. He takes satisfaction in knowing that Derek could do it now he’s out of the old collar’s binding spell and she doesn’t even realise it. The shock on her face as Derek’s fangs would tear her apart would no doubt be a thing to behold. With the way Derek is tearing into the meat he’s been provided, it seems he’s having similar thoughts. He does need to remind him frantically under his breath at one point to stop his eyes from glowing gold, a new danger now the collar isn’t there to keep it at bay.

Once breakfast is out of the way, they listen to the news Kate has brought of the state of the front line  unchanged from the stalemate of the last few years  but the most interesting development came from here in Stellaris with Stiles’ sighting of Kali. 

“We received word from our eyes in Astran that the Queen hadn't been seen in the capital for days. Now we know where she went.”

“But how would she have gotten past our defences, alone and entirely defenceless herself? And why?” his father asks. 

“Your guess is as good as mine,”  Stiles wants to wring her lying neck  “But I don't doubt that it was her. Stiles would know what he saw.”

Before finding out Kate’s true colours, he would have appreciated someone showing faith in him. Now, he wishes he'd found out about Derek earlier so when he encountered Kali in the woods, he could have kept his mouth shut about it. Kate would have visited them on her way back to Venatia regardless, but at least they wouldn't have had to endure this sort of scrutiny.

“Thank you. I'm aware of how impossible it sounds to have seen her here. I've questioned myself many times over the past couple of weeks.”

“I'd like to see the place where you encountered her, to see what I might glean.”

“Not a lot, I don't think. She vanished without a trace,” his father warns.

Kate doesn’t back down. She waves off his father’s invitation to rest a while before she heads out on her horse again, but she won’t hear of it. Stiles is only too happy to be getting rid of her for a few hours, but then she turns her sights on Derek.

“Why don’t I take you out with me?” she coos. “Just the two of us, for old time’s sake.”

Stiles’ blood runs cold. “I’ll come with you,” he announces, about to reason that he’s not been for a ride for days what with this Kai situation, but his father cuts him off.

“Come now, son. She’s travelled all this way. She can spend a bit of time with him. God knows it might do him some good to detach himself from your hip.”

Stiles has never wanted to murder his father before this moment. He’s about to insist the three of them go together when Derek pads to her side and turns to look back at him. His stomach drops into his feet.

“We’ll gather some guards to accompany you,” he says, desperate.

“Oh, that won’t be necessary. My own will be more than enough.”

“Stiles is right,” his father agrees and Stiles’ desire for blood abates slightly. “Our men know these lands and they'll show you where Kali was sighted. It's my duty to make sure you're protected within our borders.”

Kate smiles and thanks him for his consideration, but Stiles can tell she isn’t happy. Who knows what she planned to do to Derek when she got him alone?

They follow Kate to the gates to see her off, Stiles’ heart just about pounding out of his chest. He feels sick. What if they don’t come back? What if this is just a simple ruse to restore Derek to her possession and whisk him back to Venatia? Derek could stop her now if he really wanted, but that’s hardly a comfort. It would mean she’d discover that they know.

As soon as they’re through the castle gates, Stiles heads for the entrance hall staircase, racing to the east wing of the castle to the topmost window of the tallest tower facing towards the forest. He feverishly traces the path through the city Kate and Derek will be taking, seeing nothing for a few minutes and wondering if he’s already missed their passage. But then a group of horses trot through the city gates, disappearing behind the wall. A minute later the party rides back into view, heading towards the treeline, and he can make out the dark blot of Derek moving alongside the lead horse. He’s comforted by the presence of the guards on the other horses, gladder still to see them accompany Kate and Derek into the trees. He’d half been expecting to see Kate order them away as soon as she was out of the city walls. It doesn’t mean she won’t find some way to lose them in the trees, but there’s nothing he can do about it. It’s just made all the worse knowing that whatever dread he’s feeling, it’s nothing compared to the hell that it is for Derek.

He remains at the window long after they’ve disappeared, hoping for just one more glimpse or some sort of sign that Derek is okay. At this distance, his eyes keep playing tricks, a shadow of the swaying foliage becoming Derek tearing from the treeline. Or is that the sun glinting on a drawn sword? And is that a howl he hears carried towards him on the breeze?

He doesn’t know how long he waits there, chanting It’s nothing, it’s nothing in an attempt to put himself at ease, but his father must hear of his whereabouts because there’s no other reason for him to climb this tower. He joins Stiles at the window, eyebrows raised in dismay.

“Come now, son. She’ll return him in one piece.” He actually sounds worried, like Stiles is overreacting, like it’s another point of concern after the doubt over his sighting of Kali.

Stiles can’t help the laugh that bubbles up, tinged with hysteria. Derek wasn’t whole when he arrived. Who knows what else she might carve off by the time they return.

He opens his mouth and imagines telling his father everything: that his wolf turned into Derek Hale, that the Argents have the rest of the Hales held in captivity, that Kali is a werewolf too. But the words turn to ash on his tongue. He could scarcely believe it himself when it was happening before his eyes. To tell him now would, to his father’s eyes, be the final nail in the coffin of Stiles’ sanity. But he can’t leave his behaviour unexplained.

“I have reason for my concern,” he says, and continues when his father tries to speak. “I can’t tell you why right now. But once Kate has gone, I’ll show you.”

“Stiles...” The tone of his voice is like someone imploring a child to be reasonable.

Stiles can’t bear to hear it. “Do you trust me?” Stiles’ tone stops his father short.

Only a beat passes before his father sets his shoulders, steadfast. “Yes.”

A burst of affection flares in Stiles’ chest, alongside relief, and he nods once before turning back to the window. He can feel his father watching him for a few long seconds before retreating without a word.

He remains there for hours, so long that his father sends a servant to bring him his lunch, the boy showing clear bemusement at the request and the position he finds Stiles in. Still he doesn’t move, and the sun is crawling into late afternoon by the time the party emerges from the treeline, the formation exactly the same as when they entered it. He waits until the party has entered the city and he can be sure Derek is returning instead of being forced to spend the night out with Kate and the Venatian soldiers  or worse  before finally making his way down from the tower to meet them back at the castle gates.

Derek pads immediately to his side and Stiles runs a reassuring hand through his fur before he can really stop and think. Is it an offensive gesture now he knows the ‘direwolf’ isn’t a pet to be coddled? Either way, it’s a comfort to him to have Derek back within his reach.

“Did you find anything?” he asks as Kate hands the reins of her horse over to a stablehand. He’s using his curiosity as an excuse for being so eager at their return.

“Nothing, though that isn’t surprising.”

Stiles nods, at first taking what she says at face value, then reminding himself he can’t trust a word she says. He’ll have to ask Derek later if the outing was as fruitless as she wants him to believe.

With the beautiful weather and presence of the visiting Princess, dinner is being held out in the gardens, a feast of five courses. It had been planned as a way to greet her when she’d originally been expected to arrive in the evening, though her early arrival doesn’t mean it will go to waste. Stiles curses the idea. He’d give anything to snatch some supper from the kitchens and then retreat to his rooms for the night, Derek with him. He’s just glad that the wrought iron table outside is arranged in the same way as it had been at breakfast, with Stiles opposite Kate and Derek as far away from her as they can get him.

As the day creeps into evening, Stiles is glad of the sun sinking behind the castle and casting them in shade, offering a little bit of relief from the heat of the day still lingering. Red and yellow and deep pink flowers that he’s never learned the names of surround them in the shrubbery and trees, butterflies fluttering from perch to perch, and the burble and splash of a fountain deeper in the gardens just about reaches their ears. It’s a shame the company couldn’t be as soothing as their surroundings.

His father is as accommodating to the princess as ever, showing no sign of Stiles’ mysterious warning, not even a glance of curiosity in Stiles’ direction even though he knows it must be thrumming in his veins.

Even though Stiles tries to go through the motions of eating, he can’t conjure an appetite, not when Kate is sat opposite him with a smile on her face. He remembers Derek’s earlier words to him, about how the Argents wanted to make a fool of Stiles and his father by gifting them a subject they presumed dead. How they would laugh. That’s all he can see in her smile. Her enjoying their little joke. It makes him sick, all their layers of cruelty. 

The courses of food pass one after the other at a snail’s pace, though when dessert is over, he thanks God that it isn’t only him that seems to want to finish the night early.

“If you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll retire for the night. It’s been a long day,” Kate says, gracefully draining the final sip of her wine as soon as she finishes her last bite of strawberry tart.

His father doesn’t show any surprise at the abrupt request. “Of course. And you’ll have an early start in the morning?”

“Yes. I must return to Venatia before the week is out.”

Stiles takes a sip of his own wine, a solitary toast to the idea of getting rid of her so soon.

She gets to her feet and Stiles and his father stand too, bidding her goodnight. She rounds the table and crouches in front of Derek, Stiles making an aborted move to plant himself between them.

“How about you join me, hm?” she asks Derek, running her fingers through the fur on top of his head. “For old time’s sake.”

And Stiles thought what he’d felt earlier had been terror.

He has to do something.

“You get grumpy if I don’t let you sleep on my bed, don’t you?” He hates himself as the words come out of his mouth, but Derek starts wagging his tail, joining the act. His father doesn’t rule in Kate’s favour this time, even when she turns her imploring gaze on him. Stiles is glad he planted a seed of distrust with him earlier, to have saved Derek from this.

“I think the beast will have to decide where he lays his head tonight.”

Stiles cringes inwardly at his father’s use of the word beast, but he doesn’t have time to dwell on it.

“Bed,” he says sharply, like it’s a command to a dog, and Derek climbs to all four paws and trots away from the table and into the castle. Kate’s expression twists into a sneer disguised with a smile, an expression to fool everyone except Stiles’ knowing eyes.

“Well. It’s heartening to know he’s in such a loving home. He's gotten quite lively.”

“He's really come out of his shell,” Stiles agrees, smiling his first genuine smile of the day to have bested her. “Thank you for entrusting him to me.”

“The pleasure is all ours.”

And there it is again. That amused smile. Genuine this time, reminding herself that Stiles is a fool treating a human like a mutt.

He holds his own smile though, reminding himself that he’s the one getting the last laugh.

They say their final goodnights and Stiles’ tension drains away as soon as she’s inside.

His father takes his seat again, eyes fixed on Stiles, his curiosity no longer masked.

“Tomorrow,” Stiles promises, before leaving the table to join Derek in his quarters. He pauses just before the castle doors. “Goodnight.”

“Goodnight, son.”

To his dismay, Virgil is waiting for him in his rooms when he gets there, a steaming bath drawn for him, and Stiles tries not to fidget as he waits for Virgil to loosen the ties of his clothes. He thanks him and says he’ll see to the bath himself, discomfort draining from his shoulders when the door finally closes behind him.

Derek starts to shift and Stiles turns away, taking off his doublet the rest of the way so he’s left in his undershirt. When he turns back, Derek is sat on the edge of the bed with his back to him, lifting the heavy collar over his head.

His shoulders are hunched, and Stiles wants to fill the silence, but the air feels taut, like any sound will cause something to snap. He holds his tongue, choosing to settle a blanket around Derek’s shoulders instead, but Derek doesn’t move or make any sign of acknowledgement. Seeing his glazed expression as a wolf was bad enough, but now he knows how it looks when human: empty and fragile, like the shell Stiles had so proudly told Kate he’d come out of.

Stiles regards the bathtub behind the ornate wooden screen, steam curling upwards, and decides Derek is probably more in need of it. He steels himself with a careful breath before he dares to speak.

“You can take the bath. The warm water will do you good.” His voice is hoarse, barely more than a whisper. It feels like that’s all Derek will be able to bear.

Derek says nothing but he does get to his feet, blanket still around his shoulders as he moves to the bath in the corner of the room behind the screen like he’s in a trance. The blanket, carefully folded, gets hung over the top of the screen and then it’s followed by the gentle splash of Derek climbing into the tub.

Stiles takes a seat on the edge of the mattress, drained. It’s been the longest day of his life. He doesn’t think his heart has stopped beating double-time since the moment he heard the guards speculating over Kate’s early arrival that morning. And even now it’s hard to breathe, knowing she’s still here, one floor and a wing between them. It’s stifling.

He sits staring at the wall, his thoughts blurring in his exhaustion, so it must be minutes before he realises only silence is reaching him from behind the screen. There’s no movement, no disturbance of water. He should have noticed it sooner.

“Derek?” he asks, approaching the screen, staring at the swirling pattern of the pearl inlay as he strains his ears.

There’s no answer.

“I’m coming round, okay?”

After a few beats more of silence, Stiles inches his head around the screen and what he sees stabs an ache into his chest so vivid he can’t breathe.

Derek is sat motionless in the water, staring unseeing straight ahead, but instead of the blankness he’d displayed as a wolf, now he looks like someone paralysed by grief. It’s a haunted expression, like he has his greatest fear displayed before his eyes but can’t look away, and Stiles supposes that isn’t too far from the truth. Derek’s hands are clawed where he grasps the sides of the wooden tub, embedded in deep gouges.

The throb in Stiles’ chest draws him forward and down onto one knee, reaching out with a shaking hand to clasp one of Derek’s, paying no heed to the lethal-looking claws. As soon as Stiles’ hand closes over his, Derek crumples, his head tilting down as his eyes screw shut and he’s racked by silent sobs.

Stiles envelops him in his arms, like he might work as a shield to protect him from all he’s had to endure, or perhaps even hold him together.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Derek,” he whispers. He doesn’t know what else he can say.

It’s so difficult to fathom that this one day of torture was something Derek had to endure for five years. And his family are still in captivity, without even this much to comfort them. At least here, he can offer Derek an escape from the nightmare that wouldn’t end. A place where he can be safe.

“It’s okay, I’ve got you. I won’t let her get to you. I’ll keep you safe.” He doesn’t know how much comfort those words will give him, or if all Derek hears are empty promises, but he repeats the phrases over and over anyway, helpless to do anything else.

Derek still doesn’t speak, and Stiles doesn’t push him to. He’ll hold him for as long as he needs.