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Perdidit Puerorum

Chapter Text

Derek’s been on the road for thirty-nine days and now that he’s arrived, he can’t move. He knows he must, that his sisters and his household await him on the other side of the door, but the aching wound that’s become his heart knows what’s missing and it won’t let him take those final steps.

 

Parrish’s hand comes down on his shoulder, warm and steady as always. “Need a drink first?”

 

Derek shakes his head, knowing all the wine in Rome won’t make anything easier in the long run.

 

“You know, I haven’t seen my wife or my daughter in six years,” Parrish muses. “And I can’t leave until you’re safe inside, so…”

 

“You’d use guilt to force me to it?” Derek asks, settling his hand on his short sword.

 

Parrish grins. “Only because it always works so well. Come, let me forge the path for you this time.”

 

He reaches for the door, but Derek stops him, fingers digging into the muscle of Parrish’s bicep. “Don’t.”

 

Derek takes a steadying breath and unsettles the latch, letting the door swing inward to reveal the dark atrium and the domus that lays quiet beyond it. He’s known this house since birth and always found it welcoming and bright after being away. This time, however, all he can see are the rooms his parents will never again inhabit.

 

A light appears from one alcove, and a figure steps forward, tall and graceful, and Derek nearly goes to his knees because she looks just like his mother the last time he saw her.

 

“Derek?” Laura asks softly, coming forward until she can shove the lamp in his face.

 

She’s older and even more lovely than the last time Derek saw her, but he can’t find the words to match the fondness in her eyes, so he bows his head and mumbles, “Forgive me for being away so long.”

 

“Don’t you dare,” she spits, grabbing his chin in her warm fingers. “Don’t pretend like emotions are beyond you. You’re not a soldier within these walls, you’re my brother and we will mourn together, as we should.”

 

Derek’s throat betrays him and loosens the sob he’s been holding in since he received the news of his parent’s deaths over a month ago. He hears Parrish back away and slip out the door, and then he collapses into his sister’s waiting arms.

Chapter Text

In another month, Derek has settled into the daily routine of the house, familiarizing himself with the accounts and learning the names of the newer slaves. His parents prospered while he was away, taking advantage of the relative peace in the Empire to purchase more land and expand their business dealings, and truth be told, Derek is a little intimidated with everything there is to manage.

 

“Your face is going to freeze like that and then you’ll never find a wife,” Laura tells him, rubbing her thumb between his eyes where his brow is wrinkled in concentration.

 

“What need do I have of a wife when I have you and Cora?” He asks, gently batting her hands away.

 

Laura scoffs. “Because I plan to marry in the next year and Cora has schemes of her own. Don’t expect us to cater to your grumpiness forever.”

 

“You’d leave me?” Derek asks sharply.

 

The look Laura gives him is indulgent and she perches on the corner of the table, taking his hand in hers. “I said nothing of leaving you, but if we want our good name to live on, someone is going to have to get busy on babies.”

 

“But you’ll stay? Even if you marry, you know you may stay. Here,” Derek tells her.

 

“Of course, but there is a chance my husband and I may want a home of our own. Us living apart does not mean we are no longer here for each other.”

 

Derek nods, relaxing a little. “Of course, my apologies. I was away for so long I quite forgot my sisters are independent spirits with minds of their own.”

 

“Too used to taking orders,” Laura teases. “It’s left you with no imagination.”

 

Derek scowls. “I was Legion Legate for the Roman Empire, had I no imagination I would hardly be sitting here in front of you.”

 

Laura rolled her eyes. “Yes, you’re very impressive, my dear.”

 

“Off with you, woman,” he says, shoving at her hip. “I’ve accounts to read and then immediately forget.”

 

“You do know all this is not required of you, yes? Father trained me in your absence and I’m quite good at it.”

 

“Truly?” he asks, shoving the ledgers away when Laura nods. “Thank the Gods, I’m utter shit at it.”

 

Laura laughs and the sound fills him with a lightness he hasn’t felt since he got word of his parent’s murders.

 

“We’re going to be alright,” he says abruptly, frowning when the words cut his sister’s laugh short.

 

“Of course we are,” Laura assures him, laying her hand on the side of his face.

 

“This is the first time I’ve felt it,” he admits. “Gratitude.”

 

“Oh, Derek,” Laura slaps his cheek lightly. “Nothing’s ever as dire as it seems.”

Chapter Text

The next morning, the household is roused early with the appearance of Deucalion, the Emperor’s aide-de-camp, with the announcement that the Emperor himself will be along shortly.

 

Cora fusses with Derek’s clothing while Laura instructs the slaves on readying the house and setting out food. It all seems a bit silly to Derek, as the Emperor is someone they’ve known since birth. Having grown up with Derek’s father, Emperor Jovius had been like an uncle to them when he wasn’t off winning military campaigns. If Derek’s honest, he’s been sore about how long it has taken Jovius to call on them.

 

“I don’t know why you’re fussing over yourself, Derek’s the one he’s coming to see,” Laura tells Cora as she changes her necklace for the fourth time.

 

“If he only wanted to see me, he’d have summoned me. He’s coming to check in on how we’re doing,” Derek assures her.

 

Laura raises an eyebrow. “Or he wants something.”

 

“In which case we will give it to him,” Cora declares, finally pleased with her jewelry. “Because he is the Emperor and we are good Roman Citizens.”

 

“Who wish for invites to all the best parties, garnered by being close to the man in charge,” Laura says shrewdly.

 

“I see no reason not to take advantage of our family’s connections,” Cora dismisses, checking her reflection. “It’s not as though Derek earned his first military appointment because of his expertise or that the three requests for your hand after mother and father died were based on your charms.”

 

Derek watches with slackened mouth as Cora saunters from the room. “She’s how old again?”

 

Laura snorts. “Fifteen.”

 

“I don’t remember you being quite so…”

 

“Impudent?”

 

“Honest,” he says with a laugh.

 

“That’s because I’m a delicate sort, like a flower. I require sunlight, a soft hand, and constant attention in exchange for grace and obedience,” she tells him, batting her eyes. 

 

“Of course you are,” he nods solemnly. “In fact, you remind me of the Yateveo tree of the African continent.”

 

“Sturdy and pleasing to the eye?” Laura asks, adjusting her dress.

 

“Assuredly, but when it grows hungry it’s said to make a demonic hissing noise until a nobleman is sacrificed to it’s razor-sharp spines. Eats the poor man whole,” he finishes with a straight face.

 

“An intelligent man would not ask why he was chosen as sacrifice, but how best to satisfy the tree’s appetite,” Laura tells him with a dangerous smile.

 

Derek laughs and offers his arm. “I have missed you, sister.”

Chapter Text

Emperor Jovius arrives with little fanfare, his Praetorian Guard left at the doors as a sign that he trusts the Hale’s implicitly and Cora’s smile grows so wide Derek thinks it must be painful. After an hour of recounting tales of military skirmishes and hearing Laura’s opinion of the newest elected Magistrates, Jovius asks Derek to join him in the garden.

 

“You’re wondering why I’ve waited so long to speak with you,” Jovius says, cutting through the pleasantries, as usual. Derek has always admired the Emperor’s economy when speaking to those closest to him.

 

“I am,” Derek admits, rubbing a thumb over the waxy leaves of a tree.

 

“In truth, I wanted to give you time to adjust to being a Citizen again. It’s been quite some time since you’ve been troubled with the mundane issues of living in the city, and you had a household to put in order.”

 

“Laura had that managed before I got back. On her worst day she’s twice as competent at it as I am.”

 

“Best leave her to it, then,” Jovius tells him with a kind smile. “If I have my way, you’ll be too busy for it anyhow.”

 

“She guessed you wanted something,” Derek says, slyly.

 

To his credit, Jovius doesn’t look insulted. “An Emperor is nothing without the support of his people, Laura knows that. And those people include the military.”

 

Derek frowns. “The Legions are loyal to you.”

 

“I know, but I haven’t been on the field of battle for many years, Derek, and I need men beside me who command the hearts and minds of the soldiers.” 

 

Derek stares at the hand Jovius has settled on his shoulder and feels a dreadful apprehension. “By your side how?”

 

Jovius takes a breath and his hand slides to Derek’s neck, making him shiver with familiarity of his father’s mannerisms. “You father’s seat in the Senate has been empty far too long.”

 

Derek’s shaking his head before he can open his mouth to refuse, but Jovius tightens his hold and pulls Derek to him in an embrace.

 

“I know what you’re going to say, but you are intelligent and you are a natural leader, just as your father was. He was a man of few words, like you, but he knew how to make those words count. He inspired hope and action and that’s exactly what we need in the Senate now.”

 

“Thought that was your job,” Derek mutters into Jovius’ shoulder, making him laugh.

 

“I serve the people of Rome, Senators serve the Republic, there is a difference.”

 

Derek closes his eyes in defeat because he knows there’s no real way to refuse. Senate seats are primarily hereditary and though his sisters have been careful not to mention it, Derek’s known this request was coming, as much as he tried to pretend he didn’t.

 

“Then I shall serve the Republic, and through that, its people,” Derek says once he’s pulled away.

 

Jovius smiles and Derek sees the shadow a much younger man, one who had just been elected to lead them, his wife and child alive and by his side. The vision doesn’t last long as it brings along his own sorrow with it, and then they’re reentering the house to tell the women of his new designation.

 

Cora is ecstatic, and Laura proud, but there’s a bittersweet twist to her smile Derek can’t interpret, but it’s a time of celebration and Cora is conspiring with Deucalion about a party to celebrate and Jovius has pulled Laura into a discussion about taxation, and before Derek can ask about it, she seems bright and happy once again.

Chapter Text

Derek’s first day in the Senate isn’t the tragedy he worried it would be, and Parrish is there, fidgeting by his side in his new robes, adjusting, then readjusting the red stripe on the toga draped over his shoulder.

 

“Not quite as comfortable as armour,” someone remarks from behind them and Derek turns to see Chris Argentus grinning at him.

 

“Salvus, I haven’t seen you in an age!” Derek clasps Chris’ arm in greeting. “Do you know Parrish?”

 

“I do not,” Chris says, clasping Parrish’s arm next. “Well met, Senator.”

 

Parrish goes pink at the greeting, mumbling a reply.

 

“Not used to it yet, then?” Chris laughs.

 

“Doubt I ever will be,” Parrish admits, adjusting his toga again. “Above my stature, is this.”

 

“Nonsense, we are all Romans, none of us above the other,” Derek tells him.

 

“Don’t let my father hear you say that,” Chris says dryly.

 

“How is he?” Derek asks, turning further in his seat. “And your family?”

 

“Father is...Father. Much the same, only his health keeps him from sharing his opinions in public like he used to, of which many of us, the Emperor included, are thankful.”

 

“I am sorry he’s not well, but I’m sure your voice has been a breath of fresh air on this floor,” Derek tells him quietly.

 

“To some,” Chris nods. “But a lot of the old guard is still here, refusing the Emperor’s requests out of habit.”

 

“I suppose that’s why we’re here,” Parrish comments.

 

Chris nods. “A little. It’s also part of his attempt to bring Rome into a new era. One where Citizens and Freedmen are not punished for having opinions in public.”

 

“For shame,” Derek jokes as Consul Deaton calls for order.

 

The session is an easy one with only three Magistrates bringing forth issues to be decided upon, but Derek has to step on Parrish’s foot when he starts to lose control of his reaction for Senator Flavius’ oration. There is a lot of dramatic language and enough flailing about that the other Senators in Flavius’ vicinity can be seen inching out of arms reach in fear of being struck.

 

Derek and Parish follow Chris home once the session closes and are greeted warmly by his daughter Allison, whom Derek hasn’t seen since she was a child.

 

“We were so happy to hear of your return to the city,” Allison tells him. “I only wish it were under happier circumstances.”

 

Derek gives her a warm smile because if anyone knows how to live with the death of a loved one, it is she. Her mother, Victoria, drowned when Allison was barely old enough to belt her tunic, and since Chris has yet to remarry, she has dealt with false pity and insincere concern for most of her life.

 

“She’s to be married,” Chris says pointedly to Parrish, once Allison has departed. 

 

“I mean no disrespect,” Parrish says to his sandals. “I’m still not used to being in the company of...proper women. Please don’t tell my wife.”

 

Chris laughs and Derek cuffs Parrish on the side of his head.

 

“So, who is the lucky man, then?” Derek asks, lowering himself onto a divan and grabbing a handful of figs.

 

“Scevola Maximus,” Chris says with a heavy sigh. “She calls him ‘Scott’. His father is Magistrate of the Templum Pacis.”

 

“A Magistrate?” Derek asks in disbelief. While an honourable position, the son of a local Magistrate is hardly a match for a Senator’s daughter.

 

Chris puts his hands up in defence. “I know, I know, but she’s in love and I can deny her nothing. He’s a good man, will make a good Magistrate himself one day. He has an equitable nature.”

 

“Will you appoint him to take your place in the Senate when the time comes?” Parrish asks.

 

Chris slaps his hand to his chest and sways back. “Gods, man! I just took my seat, give me a few years before you’re replacing me!”

 

Derek laughs and samples his wine. “What does your father say?”

 

Chris’ good humour fades, and Derek regrets the question because he knows Chris struggles to find happiness when it concerns his extended family and he’s now robbed him of his cheer, something Derek seems to excel at lately.

 

“He is against it, which comes as no surprise. He tried to forbid it, but I reminded him that while he is still the head of the family, I am the head of my household and I will decide who is, and is not good enough for my daughter.”

 

“Your family discussions always sound like a spectator sport,” Derek tells him, trying to lighten the mood.

 

“I would no doubt fair better if they were conducted in the arena,” Chris grouses. “Kate has tried to sway his mind for Allison’s sake, but as she’s turned down every suitor since her husband died, he’s angry with her as well.”

 

“I heard about that,” Parrish says, tearing apart a small loaf of bread. “Just disappeared, didn’t he?”

 

“Dirty business,” Chris spits. “I’m just glad they found his body or she would be unable to move forward.”

 

“She has, then? Moved forward,” Derek clarifies, willing his body not to betray him by flushing. He’d had a longing for Kate when he was a boy of thirteen and just coming to know his own wants and desires. She was five years older and willing to guide him, but when, at fifteen, he’d proposed, she’d laughed at him and married a man twice her age with ties to the sitting Consul. He’d been heartbroken and terribly angry so his father sent him to the front, saying it was time for him to focus on his future, and not his past. For the most part it worked, any feeling he maintains for Kate relegated to that of nostalgia for a simpler time when he had the freedom and desire to sneak his hand up a woman’s skirt.

 

“Hmm,” Chris nods, chewing. “She says she’s waiting for the right man, whatever that means. Was awfully interested when we heard you were on your way back.”

 

“Meaning what?” Derek asks blankly.

 

Parrish snickers and Chris smiles. “Meaning she may have been waiting for a particular ‘right man’.”

 

“You can’t be serious, we don’t even know each other now. I was gone for six years, and four more before that, with no contact whatsoever with her. You can’t tell me she’s been harbouring some feeling for me.”

 

“Now, she’s my sister, and I am unwilling to speak against her,” Chris says delicately. “But I gather she remembers you as the obedient youth you were, not the decisive man you’ve become. Your appointment to the Senate doesn’t hurt, either.”

 

“I hear she’s a woman of beauty for her age,” Parrish offers.

 

“Watch yourself,” Chris warns.

 

“Let us move on to other matters for I have no need, or plan, to take a wife,” Derek huffs.

 

“Fine, but don’t be surprised when a summons from my father appears on your doorstep before the month is out. Now that you’re out of mourning, she’ll consider you fair game.”

Chapter Text

The summons doesn’t arrive, but it’s only because Cora sends out invites to a dinner to celebrate Derek and Parrish, and the House of Argentus are on the list.

“I don’t see why we couldn’t just invite Chris and Allison,” Laura complains as Gerard and Kate are announced.

“Because it’s rude,” Cora tells her for the umpteeth time.

Laura shrugs. “I’m at peace with that.”

“Behave yourself,” Derek tells her, pretending to hear his name called so he doesn’t have to greet Gerard personally. Jovius raises his cup in Derek’s direction, but Derek knows better than to go directly to him. Gerard Argentus’ hatred for the Emperor is not in response to Jovius’ quest to broaden the rights and freedoms of Rome’s citizens, its roots go back to before Jovius took power, when he was a young and brilliant military strategist who returned to Rome and fell in love with a woman another man had his eye on. That other man was Gerard, looking for a third wife with a soft hand to care for his young children and a respected name to add to his influence.

Anyone who saw Jovius and Claudia together knew Gerard never stood a chance, but the old man can hold one hell of a grudge. When Claudia and her child were lost to a fire barely a year after Jovius became Emperor, Gerard did not attend the mourning procession and sent no words of comfort, striking an unforgivable stake in any amity that may have grown from their shared sorrow.

To be at Jovius’ side while Gerard is announced will only cause strife and Derek has enough of that in his life lately; so he catches up with people he hasn’t thought of in nearly a decade, accepting their sympathies and congratulations in turn and trying to disengage before they start asking for favours and influence. He spends some time with Parish and his wife, Lydia, whose father is also there but seems devoted to ignoring their presence despite the quick glances he keeps sneaking at Lydia from across the room while he speaks with Jovius.

When Lydia and Parrish announced she was with child and they were set to be married, old Martinus told her to be rid of the man and the child or find herself on the street. Lydia married Parrish anyway, inviting her father to reconsider once his granddaughter was born. He agreed, but chooses to keep up the pretense that he strongly disapproves of the marriage, lest anyone think him weak of nerve. Derek doesn’t understand the ins and outs of their relationship with the old man, but he can’t say he dislikes the ridiculous drama it creates.

His reprieve with friends doesn’t last long, however, before Gerard corners him by the piscina, badgering about his loyalty to the Emperor and demanding to know what he’s doing to further his family name.

“I’m sorry?” Derek chokes out, looking beyond Gerard for a way out of the discussion.

“S’not like you had the opportunity to seed a proper woman out there,” Gerard wheezes, gripping Derek’s shoulder with his thin fingers. “The time has come for you to see to your duty, son.”

“With respect, sir, I am not—”

“Kate’s a fine woman,” he continues loudly. “Proven fertile and knows her way around a marriage bed.”

Others are starting to take notice and Gerard’s voice is no doubt carrying into the house because Laura appears from within, a look of carefully controlled horror on her face and Jovius at her side, poorly masking his laughter at Derek’s predicament.

“A fine mind, as well. She’s a good hand at strategy and runs her household with an iron fist.”

“Father,” Chris interrupts, curling his hand around Gerard’s elbow. “It is not the time for this.”

“Why not?” Gerard demands. “You think no one else here is angling to take the Hale name into their fold? You’re a fool for not putting Allison on the block, but I’ve no such softness in me.”

“Derek!” Cora breaks in. “You have to come see the lovely cuffs Sevenius brought us from Egypt. You’ll excuse us, won’t you?”

Gerard smiles at what he obviously thinks is a frivolous and proper young woman’s joy at simple trinkets, and they make their escape. Cora drags him through to the kitchen, grabbing a jug of wine on her way and not releasing him until she’s filled two goblets and even then it’s only to thrust one of them into his hand.

“That vicious, impotent, greedy, old snipe!” she hisses, panting from emptying her goblet. “How dare he be so bold in this house?”

“He’s probably half senile,” Derek comments, taking a healthy swallow of wine and looking around the room. His gaze settles on a mostly naked young slave, painted head to toe in gold, with a purple ribbon tied around his sizable cock. Derek’s eyes linger in appreciation for a moment before Cora’s words pull him back.

“No wonder Chris took over his Senate seat, the man’s a lunatic. Under the same roof as the Emperor and yet speaking against him! And Kate,” she sneers, her voice going dangerously quiet. “To think they can worm their way into our family like that, as if they aren’t to blame for maring their own name.”

“What do you mean?”

“Gerard has nearly ruined them by spouting his anti-Republic rhetoric to anyone within the range of his voice. They had to drag him out of the Senate and the Emperor himself spoke to the Consul to have him recuse himself and give the appointment to Chris.”

“Jovius protected Gerard? He’s kinder to his enemies than I am to mine.”

Cora scoffs. “That’s why he’s Emperor and you’re a lowly Senator. Jovius knows how to handle the two-faced, self-promoting wretches who clings to him.”

“How do you know all this?” Derek questions, glancing back at the young slave, who now seems to be eyeing him as well.

The look Cora gives him is unimpressed. “My interest in following the goings-on of the elite of Rome is not selfish, brother. I have a duty to this family, just as you do, and my talents lie in fostering confidence and gathering information. I know Gerard is desperate to marry into a prominent family and since Chris has given his blessing to Allison to marry that Magistrate’s son, he’s set his sights on you.”

“Because Kate and I have a history,” Derek guesses.

“Exactly. And it’s well known how you mooned after her when she married. I think they hope those feelings linger.”

“Then why hasn’t she approached me herself?”

Cora smiles at him like he’s something small and adorable. “Because Kate is just as devious as Gerard and knows if she plays smitten with you but embarrassed by her father, you’ll feel the need to play the hero.”

Derek is speechless. It all sounds like the plot of some ridiculous Greek tragedy; tales of deceit and manipulation acted out in dramatic fashion, but he has no reason to doubt the information.

He takes a closer look at Cora and this time sees not the playful baby sister he left behind, but the cunning young woman she became in his absence.

“You’re terrifying,” he tells her, in awe.

Cora laughs and refills her wine, tapping it against his in agreement.

“So if you know everything,” he continues, turning back to the golden slave. “What is that?”

Chapter Text

“A stud slave?” Derek demands, once their guests have left. “Has Gerard lost his mind? What the hell kind of gift is that?”

 

“A fashionable one,” Cora tells him, walking around the young man. “He’s not the biggest I’ve seen, but he’s pretty.”

 

“And just where have you seen others?” Derek demands.

 

“Prisca’s mother gave her one when her husband left for his command in Gaul,” she says matter-of-factly, crossing her arms.

 

“Did our Mother know?”

 

Laura giggles. “Mother was there when Prisca received him and as I recall was quite impressed.”

 

The slave gives a quiet snort of his own, and Derek has to pry his eyes away from how it makes his cock bob. There’s a bell on the ribbon and it chimes with the barest movement.

 

“I am scandalized,” he declares. “This family has gone mad while I’ve been away.”

 

“Do you think they meant him as a family gift?” Cora wonders, examining where the gold paint has transferred to her fingers after touching the slave’s shoulder.

 

“The real question is, why a man? Does Gerard know something about our dear brother that we do not?” Laura eyes him speculatively, but Derek refuses to squirm. There is no shame in taking another man to his bed, an action well practiced in the military. Lust was lust, after all, no matter the gender.

 

“It's more that Kate knew something about me that you didn't,” he tells them. “And this is her way of telling me she hasn't forgotten.”

 

“And of showing you she won't mind, should you marry her,” Cora adds.

 

“We’re returning him,” Derek tells them sternly and the slave’s eyes wide eyes snap to his.

 

Laura waves him off. “We can’t return a gift like this, Derek, it’s bad form. We don’t have to use him, but we can’t return him.”

 

“We can’t keep him!” Derek insists, any interest he felt in the slave shrivelling in light of his origin.

 

“Yes, we can, calm down. You’ll be useful, won’t you?” Laura asks the young man.

 

“Yes, Domina,” he answers, bowing his head.

 

“What can you do besides rut?” Cora asks and Derek groans from behind his hands.

 

“I am skilled with words and numbers—” he starts.

 

“You can read?” Derek blurts, biting his cheek when the slave’s jaw twitches in anger.

 

“Yes, Dominus,” he grits. “I can also sing and play the tibicen.”

 

“That’s useful,” Laura tells him. “None of us have any musical talent.”

 

“Speak for yourself, I’ve been told I have a charming singing voice,” Cora says.

 

“Charming is code for awful, my dear,” Laura tells her cheerfully. “Used by people who want something from you.”

 

Derek pulls at his hair in frustration. “Can we be finished? I wish to sleep for a year or two. Perhaps when I wake you’ll both be married and no longer my problem.”

 

“You’re so charming, Derek,” Cora tells him sweetly and the slave laughs again, a quiet whisper of a sound, but Derek hears it nonetheless and once again, the sound of the bell draws his attention, which he now realizes is the point of it.

 

His sister’s retire after ignoring his protest again, and he calls for Albina, who runs the house under Laura’s hand, to have the young man bathed and clothed. He takes a few Senate parlance guides to bed with him in the hope that they’ll bore him into sleep, but just as his eyelids start to droop Albina shuffles into his room.

 

“Dominus, your sister requested the boy be brought to you,” she explains.

 

“Why?” he asks cautiously.

 

“She says you need a body slave. Someone to aide you now that you are a man of honour.”

 

Derek rolls his eyes and sets aside his scrolls, knowing he’s too tired to fight the issue tonight. “Bring him in then. Have we a pallet for him?”

 

“Yes, Dominus,” Albina says, ushering the boy in. Without the paint he’s leaner than Derek first thought, but long and well angled with delicate moles dotting his skin. He’s carrying a blanket and a thin rug for his bedding, but his eyes are glued to the floor.

 

“Well, it’s good to see you’re not actually made of gold,” Derek remarks, getting out of bed to take the rug from him. The boy watches him spread it at the foot of his bed, an odd look on his face. “There you are.”

 

“Gratitude, Master,” the boy mutters.

 

“Dominus is fine,” Derek tells him, crawling back into bed. He waits for the boy to settle on the floor before he blows out the lamp and as he lays in the dark, listening to the stranger breathe, a thought occurs to him. “You’re not here to murder us in our sleep, are you?”

 

The boy’s response is a quick and firm, “No, Dominus.”

 

“Good,” Derek says, pulling his blanket higher over his shoulder. “Are you here to spy on us, then?”

 

“Yes, Dominus,” the boy replies and Derek can hear the humour in his voice as he drifts off to sleep.

Chapter Text

For the next month, the boy, well, man, really, for he’s older than Derek first thought, follows Derek around at the behest of Laura and the amusement of Cora. His name is revealed to be Stiles and he’s there every time Derek turns around, waiting. 

 

“What are you doing?” Derek asks as he blinks awake to find Stiles standing at the end of his bed, staring at him.

 

“Waiting for you to wake,” he replies easily.

 

“Are you certain you were not about to stab me where I sleep?” Derek grumbles, rubbing his hands over his face.

 

“No, Dominus,” Stiles says cheerfully. “If I were, I’d be standing much closer.”

 

Derek opens one eye to glare at him, but Stiles’ smirk makes his stomach swoop and he has to groan and roll over to shove his head under his pillow before Stiles sees him blush.

 

“Shall I bathe you now?” Stiles asks and Derek throws the pillow at him.

 

Later, Stiles follows Derek to the Senate, barely a step behind him the whole way. Chris and Parrish are waiting for him on the steps, laughing companionably.

 

“You’ve got a shadow,” Chris comments, when Stiles tries to follow him up the stairs.

 

“Stay put,” Derek tells him sternly and Stiles bows respectfully, portraying himself as the perfect slave and not the gnat that asked more than a dozen questions on the short walk over.

 

“Still breaking him in?” Chris asks with a teasing wink, leading them inside.

 

“Tell your father the next time he wants to gift me with something, I prefer wine.”

 

Chris wrinkles his nose. “My father gave him to you? When?”

 

“At the party. Laura thinks he’s trying to entice me to marry your sister.”

 

“By giving you a slave?”

 

“By giving me a,” Derek looks around discreetly and lowers his voice. “A stud slave.”

 

Chris’ eyebrows meet his hairline.

 

“What’s a stud slave?” Parrish asks just as the Senate floor falls silent.

 

A few men chuckle, but the majority look disapproving, and Derek hurries them to their seats, his face aflame.

 

Three hours later finds them at Chris’ domus, where he is retelling the story and still wiping tears from his eyes. Allison looks demurely amused, but her betrothed is clearly as scandalized as Derek was. 

 

Gerard gave him to you?” Scott asks again, staring openly at Stiles, who, Derek can tell, is doing his best not to fidget under the attention.

 

“Did you not receive the same when you asked for Allison’s hand?” Derek asks dryly.

 

“No, he sent his private guard after me,” Scott replies, clearly relieved.

 

“But where did Gerard get him?” Allison asks. “You don’t suppose he had Kate find him, do you?”

 

“Gods, I hope not or she’ll never be remarried,” Chris says, draining his wine.

 

“Does it matter where or why?” Scott asks. “He’s part of your household now, that’s what’s important.”

 

Allison beams as him as Chris rolls his eyes. Derek smirks because he knows it’s all for show and Chris wouldn’t let Scott near his daughter if he didn’t approve of him. 

 

“Stiles, come and I will show you the piscena. There’s a chip out of the stone where Allison threw a rock at a rat.” Scott jumps up and leads Stiles into the garden.

 

“Are you a witch?” Derek asks Allison, who throws a handful of almonds at him. “I’m serious, when we arrived he told me he’d discovered that you have seven different smiles, not the six he’d initially thought. The man is mad on you.”

 

“As he should be,” Chris says, raising his wine to his daughter.

 

Parish pats Derek’s leg. “He’s in love, it will calm down.”

 

“Will it? Because I’ve been listening to the finer, and less delicate aspects of Lydia for the past six years.”

 

“That doesn’t leave this room, swear it!” Parrish begs them, setting Chris into another laughing fit.

 

When they arrive home Laura requests that Stiles accompany her to another domus for lunch so that he may sing for her hosts and the moment the gate closes, Derek hurries to the bath, calling for hot water and submerging himself to his chin. He requests solitude and for the first time since Stiles appeared, he feels alone. He’s chased this calm isolation every day, aching for it, but now that it’s here, he can’t help but feel the Stiles-shaped hole that exists just to his right and one step back.

 

In just over a month, Stiles has become a fixture in Derek’s life, which, Derek fears, is his purpose. He’s not blind to Stiles’ charms or his appeal, but Derek can’t bring himself to trust that Stiles doesn’t have an ulterior motive. Not when his very presence is due to Gerard Argentus.

 

The old man has been quiet since the party, but Derek has seen Kate at several dinners, still as striking and dangerous as she was all those years ago. So far, Derek has avoided speaking to her, but he knows it’s only a matter of time before Kate grows tired of her game and arranges to happen upon him in private, like a repeat of their time together as youths. She will seek him out and Derek fears he’ll be just as unable to turn away as he was then.

Chapter Text

The next week word arrives from Tarracina that no progress has been made in the search for the men who took his parents' lives, and Laura gives him an expectant look when Cora barricades herself in their parent’s bedroom.

 

“You must go to Tarracina,” she tells him. “Those fools will not be moved to act without fear or coin and you can provide both.”

 

“I have duties here, I will send someone in my stead,” he tells her. He’s angry with the news and more shaken than he’ll admit by his sister’s reactions. Where Cora is loud and destructive, Laura is quiet and severe, her skin and lips gone ashen and tight.

 

“Do you not wish for retribution, brother? Did our parents lives mean so little that you would brush aside the matter of their murder?” Laura demands, frighteningly calm.

 

“Of course not!” he snaps, filling his goblet with wine and then draining it.

 

“Then you will go to Tarracina and you will light a fire under the Magistrate. These men forced their way into our villa, Derek. They slaughtered our mother and father and painted the walls with their noble blood. They are beasts and must be hunted as such.”

 

“And you think I will find some clue the Magistrate did not? I cannot simply leave the Senate—”

 

“You can and you will!” she hissed. “Consul Deaton will give you leave, he was one of Father’s closest friends and he understands the need for vengeance.”

 

Derek slumps because he knows she’s right. He will go to the seaside villa where his parents drew their last breaths and he will uncover the guilty parties. But it will be with a heavy heart for he has no desire to ever set foot in that city again. All the happy memories of their time there are tainted. The murder of his parents has erased any goodwill he holds for the place.

 

“I will go,” he concedes. “And I will turn the villa over to the city.”

 

Laura nods and folds her hands in her lap. “Turning profit from such an event is distasteful, I agree.”

 

“I will meet with Deaton this day and leave in the morning if he agrees.”

 

“Take Stiles with you,” Laura tells him, fixing her dress.

 

“Who?”

 

Laura’s sigh is entirely for his benefit, but he’s glad for the teasing. 

 

“I don’t need him. He will stay here and amuse you.”

 

“You’ll need someone to attend you on the road. Perhaps a guard or two as well, considering the nature of the task,” she says, and Derek hates to argue when he knows she’s in distress, but in this, he is the authority.

 

“No guards, they’ll only draw attention. I’ll take Stiles under the guise of handing over the villa. We’ll rouse less suspicion that way.”

 

“Very well,” she says, laying down on the divan. “You know best, brother.”

 

“Say that again, I missed it,” he teases lightly and she gives him the ghost of a smile.

 

“Before you see Deaton, talk to Cora. She needs reassurance and I am quite out of good spirit to provide it.”

 

Derek bends to lay a kiss on Laura’s forehead and leaves her to rest. He sends a man to Deaton’s with the request of a meeting and goes to his parents' room. Stiles is kneeling beside the entrance, murmuring into the space between the door and the wall, his tunic resting high on his pale thighs. He blinks wide eyes up at Derek when he approaches, but doesn’t stop speaking.

 

Derek slides to the floor on the other side of the entrance and tilts his head against the wall. He closes his eyes and focuses on the soothing cadence of Stiles’ voice. The words flow together, melodious and constant, and Derek realizes he’s singing. 

 

Stiles wasn’t boasting when he spoke of his talent and Derek doesn’t recognize the tune, but he finds himself smiling as Stiles sings. The young man is surely an acquired taste, but he’s quick to learn, if often taxing in a way wholly unbecoming of a slave. He vexes Derek with his opinions and often overstays his usefulness when Derek prefers to be alone, but there are times when Stiles grows distant and quiet, his attention leagues from the present, when Derek feels free to look his fill of him and he can’t help but appreciate what he sees. It’s in those moments when Derek desires to be the one to speak, to ask where Stiles’ mind has wandered. Derek comes back to himself when Stiles’ starts anew and he registers the bawdy song now falling upon his sister’s ears. 

 

“Cora?” he interrupts, giving Stiles a frown. Stiles shrugs and Derek shakes his head at the small smirk that tilts Stiles’ mouth.

 

“I’m not coming out,” Cora tells him, her voice muffled by the door and her tears.

 

“That’s fine,” he says, tracing the pattern on the tile under him. “Tomorrow Stiles and I leave for Tarracina.”

 

Stiles’ gaze jerks to his and Derek returns it, forcing himself to remain steady and calm in the face of Stiles’ excitement. 

 

“Why?” Cora inquires, sounding stronger.

 

“Because our parents were taken from us and I intend to find out why.”

 

There’s a shuffle and the sound of wood scraping across wood, and then Cora is flinging herself into his lap, her fingers biting into the skin of his back.

 

“Promise me you’ll do everything required to find them,” she demands, a steely look in her eyes.

 

“I promise.”

 

“I want their hearts on a plate, Derek. They have stolen mine and I demand theirs in return.”

 

Derek pushes hair out of her face and and presses his forehead to hers, wishing he could soak up her pain. “I promise, sister, vengeance will be ours.”

Chapter Text

“Have your sisters always been so bloodthirsty?” Stiles asks as soon as they’ve cleared the walls of the city. He’s walking alongside Derek’s horse, his hands wrapped around the pack strapped to his chest.

 

Derek looks down on him with a raised eyebrow, but Stiles doesn’t acknowledge him, just stares at the road ahead.

 

“Yes,” he answers honestly. “When we were little Laura used to hold me down and spit in my face if I touched her things.”

 

“And Cora?” Stiles asks, now smiling.

 

“She was still a child when I left, but I have very clear memories of my Mother calling for Medicus to treat a bite mark Cora left on one of our cousins. It bled for a full day and he still bears the scar.”

 

Stiles chuckles and kicks at a rock on the road. “How old was she?”

 

“Two,” Derek tells him and is rewarded with an actual laugh. He’s fiery, Derek thinks, and he wonders how he held onto that while living under Gerard’s roof. “And you, were you a spirited child?”

 

Stiles’ laugh fades and a shadow crosses his features. “Not for long.”

 

Derek lets the subject lie and they continue in silence until they break at sundown. It’s three and a half days travel to Tarracina and Derek has to constantly remind himself that though Stiles is fit, he is not a soldier and is not accustomed to the pace Derek keeps. The fourth time he has to slow for Stiles to catch up, he vows to purchase an ass in the next town to speed their journey. If the grin Stiles wears the whole of the second day as he rides stirs something warm and curious in Derek’s belly, he’ll keep it to himself.

 

A comfortable Stiles apparently means a companionable Stiles because by the time they break for the day, Derek is gritting his teeth against a headache from the constant chatter. It would be one thing if they carried a discussion, but as Derek isn’t known for being a man of words, Stiles carries both sides of the conversation, prattling on and on about whatever random subjects occur to him. By the time they break for the day Derek has heard more than enough about Greek philosophy, the Egyptian economy, and Hispania death rituals. Not to mention the goings on of his own household.

 

“How on earth do you know all of this? You’re always by my side and I know none of it.”

 

Stiles colours and ducks his head. “I am quietly observant when required.”

 

“I somehow doubt that,” Derek says flippantly and spreads out his bedroll. He doesn’t realize his mistake until the silence becomes uncomfortable; the night air absent of Stiles’ passionate retelling of the Galatian War.

 

“You must have been a bright child, to have learned so young,” Derek remarks once they’ve started their meal. “You said you were four when you were sold?”

 

“Yes, Dominus,” Stiles answers quietly, his eyes on his bowl.

 

Derek nearly groans in frustration because he knows if he wants Stiles back to himself, Derek is going to have to make the first move.

 

“How is it that you know the figures for the grain shipments of three years ago, then? Did whomever had you before Argentus encourage your education?” Derek’s seen the small mark on Stiles’ lower back, but he’s not familiar with it and Stiles does not bear the mark of Agentus.

 

“I have always been with the house of Argentus,” Stiles tells him, finally raising his head. “At the villa in Sicilia.”

 

“You don’t bear Gerard’s mark,” Derek says between bites of bread, motioning at Stiles’ forearms, where a slave’s branding usual sits.

 

“Do you know of the villa there?” Stiles asks, continuing when Derek shakes his head. “There was no need for a mark because there was no chance for escape. The walls are high, the doors are thick, and the cliff along the fourth edge is deadly. Only one other save Master Argentus ever came to the villa, and that was before my voice began to change.”

 

“Did you know him?”

 

Stiles worries his bottom lip. “No, but he had a carved gold armband and the breath of a rotting goat,” his nose crinkles at the memory. “Argentus struck him when the man tried to enter my chamber one evening.”

 

“Your mother was already gone?” Derek asks, his stomach squirming at the ease with which Stiles describes his captivity.

 

Stiles nods, his mouth a firm line. “I don’t remember her death, but they showed me her body before we left for the villa. As a warning.”

 

“Seems a lot of dramatics for a simple slave child,” Derek says, offhand.

 

“I do not presume to know the minds of noblemen, Dominus.”

 

Derek thinks on Stiles’ words for a moment, unable to see the reason for such actions. “But he educated you. Surely he had a purpose for you.”

 

“Forgive me, Dominus, but you seem to be it.” Stiles says with a tilt of his head.

 

Derek goes back to his meal, trying to parcel out how to ask his questions without Stiles closing down again. He’s clearly intelligent, maybe more so than any other slave he’s met. Certainly on a higher level than Derek, who knows to focus on the skills he excels at and leave the rest for those more suited.

 

In the end, he decides to let his questions go idle. It won’t do to push Stiles, lest he prove loyal to Argentus after all.

 

It rains the following morning, making conversation difficult and they lapse into a disgruntled silence as they make their way closer to Tarracina. There are more travellers on the road here, small coastal hamlets appearing in the distance, and people stop to let them pass, bowing to Derek and whispering behind their hands. Stiles quickly grows bored of the quiet and begins to shift and sigh, nearly falling off his ass when it brays in annoyance.

 

They end their travels early on the third day, exhausted and soaked to the bone, but at least there’s an inn with a dry bed to recharge them. Stiles is reticent while Derek arranges for a room, holding their packs and dripping on the floor. The man behind the counter offers Stiles a dry pallet in the stable, but Derek declines, able to see for himself how the other men present watch Stiles, hungry and half drunk. 

 

When they reach their room, Stiles locks the door and drags a bench in front of it. It won’t keep anyone out, but it will at least offer warning and Derek claps him on the shoulder for the effort.

 

“We cannot sleep in our clothes if we wish them to dry, but thankfully my sword doesn’t require such a service,” Derek remarks, shrugging off his cloak.

 

“Keep it close,” Stiles suggests, crouching to start a fire in the grate. “Those men were more interested in your purse than my ass.”

 

“Their lust was a least half and half,” Derek says, grinning when Stiles gives him a wry smile.

 

“You flatter me, Domnius.”

 

“Just trying to keep you from slitting my throat in the night,” Derek quips easily. Joking with Stiles feels easier out here, where no one knows them or their purpose. Derek feels in between, somehow. Free of the expectations of Rome and the gruesome tasks that await them in Tarracina.

 

“Hanging up your own clothes would surely stay my hand,” Stiles tells him, shucking off his tunic to reveal smooth flesh covered in goosebumps. “For the night, at least.”

 

“A high price, but I’ll pay it. Arrange the table in front of the fire and I’ll spread everything out.”

 

Moments later, Derek lays the last of their things out, his hands lingering on the rough fabric of Stiles’ shirt, wondering why there needs to be such a difference between a thing as inconsequential as clothing. Surely dressing Stiles in finer linens wouldn’t cause a fuss, would it?

 

“Come,” Stiles calls, dipping a cloth into the cistern provided before wringing it out. “It’s not warm, but it’s clean and you should wash before you sleep.”

 

Derek allows it, shivering at the first touch of the cloth. Stiles’ mouth twitches with amusement as rivulets of cold water snake over Derek’s shoulders and down his arms. Stiles cleans him with long, firm swipes, clearing away the layers of sweat and dirt. Derek leans into the touch, eyes closed and losing himself in the press of Stiles’ long fingers as though the square of linen isn’t between them.

 

His mind wanders further as Stiles drags the cloth across his ribs and under his arms, wondering what Stiles’ ministrations would feel like under different circumstances. If his touch would be as firm and economic as it is now, or would he linger if it drew a reaction from Derek. Would his mouth follow his fingers if Derek wished it so?

 

He doesn’t notice his reaction until Stiles stops, his hand pressed flat over Derek’s navel. When Derek’s eyes open, Stiles’ cheeks are flushed and he’s staring at the erection just a breadth from his hand. There’s a tension in the air between them, and when Stiles’ tongue darts out to wet his lips, Derek’s twitches.

 

“Would you,” Stiles’ pauses to clear his throat. “Shall I to see to it?”

 

The breath Derek sucks in at those words is ragged, but he knows Stiles only asks because he thinks it his duty, and if Derek is going to have him, it’s not going to be like this, when Stiles feels he has no choice.

 

“Leave it,” Derek grumbles, taking the cloth from Stiles and finishing the bath himself. He can feel Stiles watching him from where he still stands nearby. Close enough to touch, but too far for it to be accidental. Derek feels warmed more from Stiles’ gaze than by the fire and his erection doesn’t lag as he scrubs over the hair of his calves.

 

Stiles falls to his knees and Derek swears under his breath, what blood is left in his head rushing to his cock, but Stiles only takes the cloth and cleans Derek’s feet, slowly spreading his toes and running the cloth between them with the barest hint of a tickle. Derek’s desire must be clouding his mind because Stiles’ touch feel revenant; like it’s an honour and not a duty to see to Derek’s needs. Derek briefly wonders what else that revenance might extend to and then he’s pulling Stiles to his feet and taking back the cloth. He tosses the water out the window and pours more from the jug.

 

“It’s not warm, but it’s clean,” Derek parrots back to Stiles, preening when amusement sparks in Stiles’ eyes. “We’ll share the bed for safety and I’ll not suffer the smell of ass all night.”

 

Stiles chokes out a laugh, covering it quickly with a cough when Derek raises an eyebrow. “Ahem, yes, Dominus.”

 

“You know what I meant.”

 

“Yes, of course,” Stile nods emphatically. “No ass for Dominus.”

 

Derek huffs and throws the cloth at Stiles’ chest. “For that you can do it yourself.”

 

Within minutes Derek and Stiles are pressed shoulder to shoulder on the bed, finishing off the last of their bread and dried fruit because Derek won’t let Stiles go down to order a meal. After washing, Stiles wrapped himself in the only blanket, but even with the heat of the fire he’s still shivering.

 

“We’ll leave as soon as our clothes dry; no need to overstay our welcome.”

 

“May our arrival in Tarracina be more welcome,” Stiles grumbles.

 

Derek takes hold of the blanket where it has slipped from Stiles’ shoulder, and rights it, fighting the desire for his hand to linger. “Where we are staying, it will be.”

 

“We will not go to your villa?” 

 

“I cannot sleep there.” Derek shudders at the thought and Stiles presses closer, the roughness of the blanket dragging across Derek’s arm.

 

“Forgive me, Dominus,” Stiles whispers in apology.

 

“There is no need—” Derek is interrupted by heavy footsteps outside their door. Stiles’ cold hand grips his thigh and Derek takes hold of the sword laying beside him. He positioned himself between Stiles and the door, insisting they share the bed as to not be easily separated should someone force their way in, but he did not account for how Stiles’ hands on his skin feel. Couldn’t have imagined Stiles clinging to him like he is, distracting and tactile.

 

The latch on the door jiggles lightly, as though whomever is on the other side is testing it, then the footsteps fade.

 

“Giving up or going for help?” Stiles asks, his breath warm on Derek’s neck.

 

He reaches back to pat Stiles’ blanket covered arm. “Giving up. We’re not so great a prize that could be shared among many.”

 

“Speak for yourself.”

 

Derek chuckles, but his eyes don’t stray from the door. “We’ll watch in shifts; you sleep first.”

 

“I will not argue that order,” Stiles declares, sliding down until his head is next to Derek’s hip. 

 

“I shall mark the occasion,” Derek says softly, knowing his smile is fond, but unable to keep it from growing.

Chapter Text

They leave minutes before daybreak, their clothes stiff but blessedly dry. It’s another half day to Tarracina, but they make good time and it’s barely mid-day when they arrive. Derek instructs Stiles to hide the Hale insignia on their packs and cover his head. Derek does the same and they pass mostly unnoticed through the gates.

 

“You have a plan,” Stiles says, quiet but confident.

 

Derek hums in affirmation and leads him toward the far end of town, where the domi look out over the clear blue waters of the Mediterranean. His heart aches for this city and the memories it holds for him, but he knows this is the last time he will travel its streets. His parent’s villa is just beyond the southern wall, on a hill that looks out across the city and the sea, with Mount Circeo in the distance. It’s the best view in the province and Derek never wants to see it again.

 

He slides from his horse before they enter the private entrance of a colourfully painted domus, motioning Stiles to do the same. He hands over his reins and knocks on the door, Stiles coming to stand behind him once he’s tethered their mounts. The guard that opens the door is full of suspicion, but steps back to allow entry when Derek uncovers his insignia.

 

“I wish to speak with the Dominus,” he tells the guard, who snaps his fingers at a slave Derek doesn’t recognize, never taking his eyes off the sword at Derek’s hip.

 

“Friendly reception,” Stiles mutters behind him.

 

“What is this disturbance?” a voice demands, and Derek feels a smile spread across his face despite the nature of his visit.

 

“Erica,” he breathes, laughing when the woman shrieks and launches herself into his arms, swollen belly and all.

 

“Salvus, the gods have blessed us!” she cries, pressing kisses to his cheeks and brow. Behind them, Stiles clears his throat and Erica pears at him over Derek’s shoulder. “Found yourself a jealous pet, have you?”

 

Derek chuckles at the indignant sound Stiles makes, but shakes his head. “This is Stiles, my new keeper.”

 

“I’m sure he keeps you busy,” Erica says to Stiles with a smirk.

 

Stiles bows his head respectfully. “It’s a never-ending trial, Domina.”

 

Erica laughs and slaps Derek on the shoulder, but before he can defend himself, a trio of children peek around the corner of the room, three curly-haired girls with pomegranate stained faces.

 

“Who are these beauties?” he asks.

 

Erica turns a frown on the children. “Trolls who do not bide their mama,” she scolds, motioning the children forward. “You were supposed to stay in the garden.”

 

“We heard you laughing,” the eldest girl says, staring openly at Derek. 

 

“When I give an order, I expect to be heard, Cassandra. It’s your special task to keep your sisters in line, remember what Papa told you?”

 

“Yes, Mama,” Cassandra whispers, her eyes intent on Derek’s face.

 

“Come, let’s see you to some wine, you must be weary from your journey. You come from Rome, yes?” Erica leads them through dark, gauzy curtains to an arrangement of divans, and calls for food and drink.

 

Derek nods and accepts a goblet of wine, swishing it around to clear the dust of the road from his mouth. “My sisters send their love.”

 

“I long to see them again,” Erica tells him wistfully. “I fear we are not to return in my lifetime.”

 

Derek looks to the girls at their feet, then at the contingent of guards around the house. “What’s your name?” he asks the smallest girl. She’s of darker skin than the other two, but her hair is almost white and stands out from her head in tight springs.

 

“Gala,” she tells him seriously. “I’m three.”

 

“A big girl, then. Very impressive. And you?” he turns to the third child, who is practically vibrating in place.

 

“Vita. Who are you? Why are you here? Is he your slave?” she blurts, pointing at Stiles.

 

“Vita, slow down,” Cassandra tells her. “He’s a Nobleman.”

 

“This is your Uncle Derek, girls. We have not been graced with his presence since Cassandra was born,” she says pointedly.

 

“I was fighting a war,” Derek protests. “And this is Stiles, my companion.”

 

“Companion?” Erica asks, eyebrows raised.

 

“He promotes me when my mouth stays closed,” Stiles says.

 

“How interesting, usually an open mouth leads to promotion,” Erica teases and Derek chokes on his wine. Stiles slaps him on the back until he can breathe again, then asks the girls if they’ll show him the garden.

 

“Your girls are beautiful,” Derek tells her, watching them lead Stiles away.

 

“Gratitude. Heaven help this one, I fear it’s a boy,” she says, rubbing a hand over her belly.

 

Derek smiles. “Being the only boy isn’t that terrible.”

 

“Why are you here, Derek?” she asks, growing serious. “I know it’s not for our benefit.”

 

“You are a happy coincidence, but no. I’ve come to see why the men who slaughtered my parents have yet to be brought to justice.”

 

Erica nods. “I thought as much. We mourn with you.”

 

“I know,” he tells her, draining his glass.

 

“There is tension in the city. My husband is better equipped to tell you this, but he lacks the delicacy it requires. Your parents were well loved and their deaths have put the nobles on edge.”

 

“What says the Magistrate?”

 

“We are without since good Bantius died, two years past. It was Boyd’s plea for your parents involvement that drew them here, I regret.”

 

“And then they were murdered.”

 

Erica nods and refills his wine. “And three more nobles since.”

 

Derek’s head snaps up, his hands balling into fists. “We’ve heard nothing of this in Rome.”

 

“It happened only last month and the Quaestor, Valerius, and the new Praetor have convinced most of the city that matters are well in hand. But the only ones to fall have been opponents of theirs.”

 

“And the old Praetor?”

 

“Disappeared, along with his entire household.”

 

Derek grunts in displeasure. “Paid off or run out?”

 

“Does it matter,” Erica raises an eyebrow. “When the outcome is the same?”

 

“This new Praetor, the one to fall upon such good fortune, what name bears he?”

 

“A noble name for sure, friend. He is a Hale.”

Chapter Text

The sun is going down when Boyd and Isaac return and it’s not the happy reunion Derek had longed for.

 

“Rome has finally decided to answer my missives, has it?” Boyd demands the moment he lays eyes on Derek. “Do they think our acquaintance will sway me?”

 

Derek raises his eyebrows, stunned and insulted. “Our acquaintance? And here I thought we were brothers.” He draws his finger over the scar across his palm where he and Boyd had sworn themselves to each other as children.

 

Boyd straightens his shoulders and glares at Derek. “Not if you’ve come here to press me into ignoring what’s happening in this city.”

 

“I’ve come to find out why no one has been brought to justice for murdering my parents. Why the Nobles of this fine city sit on their hands and allow their citizens to be preyed upon.” 

 

Boyd’s face softens minutely and he extends his arms to Derek. “Then I bid you welcome home, brother.”

 

Derek grips his arm and pulls him into a hug, closing his eyes and leaning into the strength of the man he’s known since birth.

 

“The dramatics with you two,” Isaac drawls behind them. “Like hens, you are.”

 

“Isaac, you’ve still not grown into your scorn, I see,” Derek jests, hugging him in turn.

 

“It’s good to see you, Derek,” Isaac says against his neck, squeezing him tight before letting him go. “I’m starving. Woman, where is my meal?”

 

Erica throws an apple at his head and the girls giggle. “Cora’s of an age to marry, is she not? This one desperately needs a wife to beat him into submission.”

 

“I shudder to think of the offspring the two of them would bring into this world,” Boyd says, bending to kiss Erica on the brow and running his hand over her stomach.

 

“Ouf,” Erica huffs. “Your son always knows when it is you and kicks me to pieces.”

 

Boyd smiles, and Derek sees the youth he once was, scared witless at the thought of speaking to Erica, but in love with her already. Abruptly, he misses the people they were before they were grown.

 

Who is that? ” Isaac drawls, laying across the divan to get a better look at Stiles, who is still playing with a tireless Vita in the garden.

 

“Tha’s Stiles,” Cassandra tells him from her spot on the floor where she’s stacking blocks into towers just to watch them fall. “He’s fun.”

 

Isaac grins. “I bet he is.”

 

“Hands off, he belongs to Derek,” Erica warns, offering Boyd a plate of food.

 

Isaac clucks his tongue. “Derek wouldn’t mind if I introduced myself. Friends share.”

 

Derek absolutely does mind, and he could say no because Stiles is his property, but he has made no claim on Stiles’ body in that way and he’s reluctant to do so without speaking to Stiles about it first.

 

“I need him focused until our business is complete,” Derek mutters.

 

“Anticipation makes life all the sweeter, does it not?” Isaac asks with cheek, popping a handful of nuts into his mouth.

 

Derek’s gut twists unpleasantly, but he forces the feeling down with more wine. Gala climbs onto the divan beside him and pats his cheek, gifting him with a half-chewed date from her tiny, sticky fist with an endearing grin.

 

“Thank you,” Derek tells her seriously. “You two should join Vita in the garden. If you ask nicely, Stiles will sing for you.”

 

She’s off like a shot and Derek watches as she launches herself into the legs of an unsuspecting Stiles, who laughs brightly and swings her around until she squeals with delight. A heaviness settles in Derek’s chest as he watches them. He always thought he’d have children of his own someday, but now that feels nothing more than a young man’s fancy.

 

He turns back to the group, Boyd’s eyes heavy and knowing on Derek’s face. He presses his lips to the palm of Erica’s hand, but before he can speak, she covers his lips with her fingers.

 

“I’m not leaving so best you tell Derek what he’s come to hear, husband.”

 

Boyd sighs and shakes his head before turning back to Derek. “Have you heard from your uncle since you’ve been back?”

 

“Laura said he sent a note to the house when he heard of my mother’s death, but he was in Egypt and couldn’t get away. Now Erica tells me he’s Praetor.”

 

“Arrived just in time to take over, what chance,” Isaac says.

 

Derek raises his eyebrows, but says nothing. His mother’s younger brother’s reputation as one of the most ruthless men in Rome was well known by the time Derek left for the front. In his time away he heard Peter’s relentless quest for prestige had made him a very rich man, but he was also an enemy of the Republic, often to be found spouting Hellenistic ideation and backing gangs in the streets of Rome itself.

 

To discover such a man is now in charge of not only the judicial office of Tarracina, but of a personal army as well, does not bode well for Derek finding the answers he seeks. 

 

“The Quaestor?” Derek asks, fearing the worst.

 

“In Peter’s pocket,” Boyd confirms. “He controls the money and the men.”

 

“But you are still Aedile, are you not?” Derek protests, growing angry. “Have you done nothing to prevent this?”

 

“I’ve written to the Senate, to Consul, to the Emperor himself, but none have replied.”

 

“Nor a messenger returned,” Erica adds. 

 

“You think Peter is waylaying them,” Derek infers, dragging a hand down his face.

 

“He has taken over the villa as well,” Boyd tells him, nodding. “Before your parent’s bodies had grown cold.”

 

A sharpness pierces Derek’s chest, a sudden, hot spark of pain that hooks between his ribs and forces out a ragged breath. Stiles appears beside him, sliding to his knees at Derek’s feet, his body warm and heavy against Derek’s legs in silent support.

 

There is much more to discuss, but Derek is suddenly weary and homesick for the ordered chaos of the battlefield where he can plan and attack without the quicksilver tide of Roman alliances to consider. He presses his fingertips to the downy hair at the nape of Stiles’ neck drawing comfort from the shiver it elicits.

 

“You’ve gathered a resistance,” Derek surmises, squaring his shoulders. Some details can wait, but others he needs before he may rest.

 

“Over half the patricians back us,” Boyd confirms with a nod. “And the plebeians as well. The streets are not safe thanks to Peter’s gangs and the people want their peaceful city back.”

 

“But why stage his coup here? He had no title to gain by killing my parents.”

 

“Perhaps their deaths serve as a warning,” Isaac says.

 

“To me?”

 

The others share a glance, but none give voice to what they clearly all presume.

 

“What proof have you of this?” Derek demands.

 

Boyd sighs. “None.”

 

“Then hold your tongues,” Derek spits. “My uncle may not be a man of honor, but to murder his own sister to gain favor is to shit upon the Gods. What cause could be so great as to drive him to such evil?”

 

“Well,” Isaac drawls, swirling his wine. “It brought you home, did it not?”

Chapter Text

"Do you remember your parents?” Derek asks later that night, after Stiles has washed and dressed him for sleep. He’s sitting in bed, watching Stiles flit about the room, seeing to a hundred tasks that never occur to Derek. His clothes are laid out for the next day and his dagger has been sharpened and shined so thoroughly Derek can see his reflection in the blade.

 

Stiles flushes and turns away when Derek meets his gaze. 

 

“I remember them,” he says quietly, sliding his fingers along the rigid line of Derek’s torc. “In bits and pieces. Mostly I remember my mother’s face.”

 

“What did she look like?” Derek asks, pulling his legs up and crossing them under the bedclothes. 

 

“Beautiful,” Stiles whispers, sitting in the space Derek has provided. “With dark hair and a round face, and a mole right beside her left eye.” His finger brushes over the spot, lingering at the memory.

 

Derek smiles at the image Stiles’ words conjure, a woman in a yellow stola with half her hair in an intricate braid around the crown of her head, the rest free to cascade down her back. Her smile is warm and she doesn’t scold him when he knocks over a tray of nuts.

 

“Were you born Roman?” Derek asks, wondering at his vision.

 

Stiles’ soft smile disappears. “Does it matter?” 

 

“I only wonder how you came to be where you are.”

 

“Yes, Dominus,” Stiles mutters, dipping his head in servitude and sliding off the bed.

 

“Stop that,” Derek tells him, being sure to keep censure out of his tone. “You think it wrong for me to question your true purpose when you come from a man such as Gerard Argentus? My sisters and I make no secret of our mistrust in him and I promise you, it is well earned.”

 

“Forgive me, Dominus. I know more than most the nature of Argentus; I only fear you will send me back to him should I displease you.” There’s real distress in Stiles’ face and in the whisper of his voice, and Derek can’t help but move closer, wrapping his hand around Stiles’ wrist to keep him from fleeing.

 

“I swear to you on the lives of my sisters that I will never return you to that wretch.” The words are out before Derek can examine them, but he does not regret offering the assurance. Especially when Stiles’ shoulders slump in relief and he looks at Derek like he’s delivered him the moon.

 

“I remember the walls of Rome,” Stiles confesses quietly. “I do not think I am meant to, but I do.”

 

Derek loosens his grip on Stiles’ wrist but does not release him. “Will you tell me?”

 

“They’re no doubt visions cobbled together from my readings, honestly. They can’t be real.”

 

“Tell me anyway,” Derek insists. “I enjoy hearing the thoughts that spring from your quick mind.”

 

Stiles ducks his head, but not before Derek catches sight of his smile. “You flatter me, Dominus.” 

 

“Don’t tell my sisters, I’ve a fearsome reputation to uphold.”

 

“Your secret is safe with me,” Stiles laughs, leaning closer. “I remember a courtyard with painted walls. Blue and red with a yellow thread running through it. I used to imagine the yellow was being chased by the other colours because it shone so much brighter and the red and blue were jealous. Yellow was my mother’s favourite colour, I think.”

 

“It sounds a happy place to remember,” Derek tells him, his fingers growing warm against the thin skin of Stiles’ wrist. “What else?”

 

Stiles frowns, a far away look to his golden brown eyes. “A fountain. It’s a giant in my memory, but I was too small to see inside the cistern, just the stone beast whose mouth birthed the water. It was fearsome and I was equal parts terrified and in awe of it.”

 

“A beast spewing water? That’s hardly rare, but there’s a drinking fountain in the square outside the Basilica like it. Perhaps you lived in the area,” Derek offers. 

 

“Perhaps,” Stiles allows, looking away. 

 

“Did Argentus tell you why you were turned slave?” Derek asks as gently as he is able.

 

“To pay the debts of my father,” Stiles admits, shamefaced. He pulls his arm out of Derek’s grasp and changes the subject. “What memories have you of your mother?” 

 

Derek clears his throat and leans back before answering, buying time to compose himself. “My mother was handsome, with dark hair like my sisters and a grace that even Laura cannot match. She was commanding and serious, but she had a laugh that lit up the room.”

 

“Like you,” Stiles remarks softly.

 

“No, not like me. I am borish and dull in comparison to her. I lack her discipline and her quick wit.”

 

Stiles studies him for a moment, the same look he had his first night, when Derek helped set up his bedding. “Forgive me, Dominus, but I do not think you see yourself clearly.”

 

Derek chuckles. “Now you sound like Laura.”

 

“She does always knows best,” Stiles tells him, but his seriousness is betrayed by the tilted corner of his mouth. “Do you truly believe your Uncle had a hand in your parent’s deaths?”

 

Derek sobers, running a hand over his face. “I regret that I do. Peter is...selfish. And greedy. He was jealous of my Father with his title and connections. Angry that Father wouldn’t use them to line Peter’s pockets.”

 

“How well do you know him as a man?” 

 

“He and mother were quite close growing up and she made sure he was in our lives as much as he was able. But even a decade ago his reputation had begun to tarnish. Bad dealings with shady men, the death of his wife in childbirth, gambling debts; I can only imagine it grew worse in the time I was gone.”

 

“How will you question him?” Stiles asks and Derek gives him a grim smile.

 

“Directly. And if he’s guilty I will gut him on the spot.”

 

Stiles eyes go wide and he nods. “Then we best get some sleep; swords do not direct themselves.”

Chapter Text

Derek dreams of Stiles. Long and lithe where he’s spread out over the divan, squirming in Derek’s grip and arching into his touch. Derek catches sight of them in the mirror, gold paint a smudge across his mouth, erection tenting his robes. Only Stiles isn’t squirming in the mirror, he’s unbearably still. It’s such an unnatural state for him that Derek stops his worship and cups the back of Stiles’ head, pulling him forward. It’s then that he sees the marks around his neck; livid bruises against the gilded hue of his skin. His mouth is open, his eyes clouded over, and yet the bell around his cock rings. Trills out a steady chime that should be joyous and bright, but instead Derek feels as though another stone is heaved upon him with every brash note. Until the weight of them are crushing him and he can hardly see Stiles’ lax face through the darkness that clouds his vision. And still the bell tolls, growing in sound and intensity as it mocks him.

 

He jerks awake to Stiles’ surprised face. Derek’s dagar is at his throat, a pinprick of blood appearing at Stiles’ sharp breath. Derek releases him and Stiles steps away until his back is against the door.

 

“Apologies, there were demons in my sleep,” Derek says, his chest heaving from the shock of the dream.

 

Stiles nods, more wary than scared, but the hand at his throat reminds Derek of his dream and he carefully lays the blade aside and approaches Stiles, hands raised in front of him.

 

“Forgive me,” Derek breathes, the ache in his chest unclenching when Stiles tilts his head and allows Derek so see the wound. “To prick your flesh is to cleave my own.”

 

“Yes, Dominus,” Stiles whispers, staring at him with wide eyes. Derek’s hands are still on Stiles’ throat and he can feel the life and vigor pulsing under his palms. When Stiles swallows and the notch of his larynx shifts against Derek’ skin, his cock twitches, still half hard from slumber. The thought that someone would try and wrestle this away from him and leave Stiles cold and silent douses Derek’s desire and he releases the long silk of Stiles’ neck, shamed by his own nudity.

 

“I am pleased with your,” Derek starts, pulling a sheet from the bed to cover himself. His voice peters out when his words aren’t what he intends. “You please me,” he tries, huffing when Stiles raises an eyebrow. “You’re of use to me.”

 

Stiles’ eyes shutter, his body going ridgid. “Gratitude, dominus.” 

 

“That is not— I did not mean…” Derek turns from him and sits on the edge of the bed. “You’re bright and intelligent. I appreciate that.”

 

“I provide what Dominus needs of me,” Stiles tells him in a hollow voice.

 

“You care about my sisters, that they are happy,” Derek states, silently pleading with Stiles to understand.

 

Stiles frowns. “Of course.”

 

“I appreciate that . I honour it. As I honour the friendship you have shown me,” Derek meets Stiles’ stare. “It means something to me.”

 

Stiles opens his mouth to respond, but appears confused when no words come out. Derek laughs and stands, letting the sheet fall to the floor, baring more than just his heart. “I trust you, Stiles.”

 

“Gratitude, Dominus, that…” Stiles swallows thickly, but does not look away from Derek’s obvious interest in him. “Knowing that fills me with... pride.”

 

Derek smiles, wanting to embrace him. To have Stiles, warm and solid in his arms. To feel him. But there’s a bell ringing, the bell from his dream, and he grows worried. 

 

“What is that?”

 

“The reason I woke you,” Stiles explains, rushing to gather Derek’s clothing, face aflame. “A messenger arrived a short time ago and sent the household into a panic.”

 

“Why?” Derek asks, fighting through the robe Stiles has thrown over him. “Stiles, who is coming?”

 

Stiles tugs on the bottom of the robe and frees Derek’s head. “Peter Hale.”

 

*****

 

Derek reaches the atrium ahead of Isaac, but behind Boyd, who gives him a dark look before turning back to Erica.

 

“Woman, I told you to take the girls and go,” Boyd says. The tone of his voice tells Derek they’ve been arguing since the messenger arrived.

 

“I will not,” she tells him, crossing her arms. “The girls are hidden, but I will not leave you alone within reach of that serpent.”

 

“Erica—” Derek tries, but the look she sends over Boyd’s shoulder quells him.

 

“Don’t get involved,” Isaac says, appearing beside him, his robes in disarray.

 

“I see I wasn’t the only one still abed,” Derek says, rolling his eyes at the flower petals in Isaacs hair.

 

“And hopefully you weren’t alone, either,” Isaac teases, watching Stiles cross the floor to stand with the slaves of the house. “Why is Peter showing up here?” he asks when Derek ignores his teasing.

 

“He must know you’re here,” Erica answers, brushing past Boyd. “He’s come to you before you can get to him.”

 

“But surely he would prefer to meet you on his territory. Give himself the upper hand,” Isaac states.

 

“This does give him the upper hand,” Derek tells him, tightening his belt. “He knew he would catch us off guard and before we could gather reinforcements. If he murdered my parents I doubt he would pause in slaughtering this entire household to silence us.”

 

Boyd swears and wraps his arm around Erica’s waist. “Isaac, go put on your sword.”

 

“No, don’t,” Stiles says, crinkling his nose as they all turn to him. “Apologies, Dominus, but there is another option.”

 

“Then speak it for we have little time,” Derek responds, motioning Stiles closer.

 

“We need witnesses. Preferably someone neutral who doesn’t stand to benefit from you or Peter dying. Someone who will be missed should Peter have murder on his mind.”

 

Derek looks to Boyd, but he’s already looking to Isaac. “Leave your sword and find Danus Mehelanius and his pet, what’s his name?”

 

“Whittemore,” Isaac responds, signalling for his cloak. “They’ll be at his ludus.”

 

“Danus owns half the farming lands in the area, what use has he of a ludus?” Derek asks.

 

Isaac smiles like he’s got a secret so it’s Erica who responds. “Whittemore is known for having the prettiest gladiators in all of Rome. The man himself is a pleasure to lay eyes upon.”

 

“Something a married woman should not be taking note of,” Boyd reminds her, but there’s no heat in his words and he once again rubs a hand over Erica’s belly.

 

“Married, not blind,” she chides. “I think it best we not show Peter how unprepared he caught us. Stiles, will you watch over the girls? You’ve skill at quieting them.”

 

Stiles looks to him for permission and Derek nods, removing his dagger and offering it to Stiles. He keeps a hold on it when Stiles’ fingers curl over the hilt. “Keep it close.” 

 

Stiles slips the blade beneath his robe and hurries to join the girls. Derek watches him go and when he turns back to Boyd and Erica, they stand with heads close together, whispering assurances and whatever else married people tell each other when they’re scared. He wonders what it’s like to be loved unconditionally. Not that Derek is a stranger to love, but he hardly thinks his sisters or parents count. The love Derek longs for comes from someone who doesn’t feel required to do so, but loves completely because it’s what their heart tells them is right. 

 

Erica pushes them to sit and calls for refreshments. Boyd and Derek start a game of Tabula, but they’ve only taken a half a dozen turns when a pounding starts on the main door. They share a look of anticipation, Erica not faltering from the flowers she’s arranging. 

 

“Danus Mehelanius and Citizen Whittemore, Dominus,” a slave announces.

 

“By the Gods, you got here quickly,” Boyd says, getting to his feet to welcome the men.

 

“We spent the night in the city and ran into Isaac by the gate,” Danus says, bending to kiss Erica’s cheek.”

 

“What luck,” Derek says and Danus turns to him with a critical eye.

 

“Salvus, but you’re a sight, Hale.”

 

“A welcome one, I hope,” Derek says, extending his arm.

 

“Always,” Danus laughs, pulling Derek into an embrace. “I enjoy knowing I’m still prettier than you.”

 

“Speaking of petty ,” the other man says, “Isaac told us Praetor Hale is expected?”

 

“Apologies,” Danus says, clapping the man on the shoulder. “Derek Hale, this is Whittemore, purveyor of the fiercest and most fearsome gladiators in all of Rome.”

 

Whittemore takes Derek’s arm, his eyes flickering over him in assessment. “Danus speaks highly of you.”

 

“I should hope so, I saved his life once,” Derek says, smirking when Danus groans.

 

“And here I thought my debt was paid when I let you win your father’s ring back in that game of dice.”

 

Derek raises his eyebrows. “Let me?”

 

“Gentlemen, as happy a reunion as this is, we have more pressing matters to attend,” Erica reminds them.

 

“I’ve heard the rumors surrounding the death of your parents,” Danus says, bowing his head in respect. “Is Peter poised to make a move on you?”

 

“We hope not. He may only come to test the waters and see if I suspect him.”

 

“And you do,” Whittemore notes. “For how could you not.”

 

“We will stand by your side,” Danus swears.

 

“All we ask for this morning is your presence,” Boyd interjects, sitting down. “As witnesses to anything that may be said.”

 

“Two of my best are outside,” Whittemore tells them. “I have instructed them to keep close watch of the Praetor’s men.”

 

“Gratitude,” Derek nods, wondering at Whittemore’s quick loyalty.

 

“Are we set?” Isaac pants, coming in through the garden.

 

“Where did you get to?” Erica asks, wiping her hands on her skirt and lowering herself carefully to a stool.

 

Isaac accepts a cup of wine from a slave and grins. “It’s remarkable how a handful of coins can slow the opening of the gates.”

 

“Peter will speed the guards with his own coin,” Derek tells them.

 

“Yes, but it will take twice what I paid.”

 

“It’s the little things,” Danus says, smirking. “A coin wasted is a coin wasted, after all.”

 

“It’s childish,” Erica remarks.

 

“And thus fitting for our foe,” Isaac says with cheer.

 

“It will take more than a few bought guards to bring down Praetor Hale and come away clean,” Whittemore warns with a sour temper. “You’ll need connections.”

 

“I will not ask more of you than this,” Derek swears, shaking his head. “This is between Peter and I.”

 

Danus rests a hand on Derek’s arm. “That wasn’t a threat, Derek; it was an offer.”

 

He glances from Danus to Whittemore, stunned by the graveness on their faces. When he looks to Isaac, then Boyd, the men nod in agreement.

 

“You will not be alone in this, Derek. Your parents we’re family to us all and they will be avenged,” Erica tells him, perched on her stool like the very image of a Goddess of Fertility and Wrath.

 

Derek raises his glass in toast. “Then may the gods have mercy on his soul.”

Chapter Text

Within a half hour, the wolf is at the door. Peter arrives with little fanfare, which surprises Derek. He supposes the lack of personal guards is his uncle’s way of showing how toothless he believes Derek to be. It’s a mistake, but Derek knows better than to show his hand this soon. 

 

“Praetor Hale, Dominus,” a slave announces, backing away to allow Peter entrance.

 

“Boyd, Erica, it’s been an age!” Peter calls, stepping forward with arms wide, the gaudy hue of his robes a direct affront to the mourning period he should still be observing. A false sense of shock steals over his face when he spots Derek. “Nephew! What luck! Salvus, you have returned from war unscathed!”

 

“Is it so shocking?” Derek asks, getting to his feet to clasp Peter’s arm. The man’s touch is cold and firm, much like Derek imagines his heart.

 

“Ten years is a long time, dear boy. A lot can happen.”

 

“Such as a boy growing into a man,” Derek drawls.

 

Peter laughs, his tone saccharine. “Yes, of course, I simply find it hard admitting my own age. It benefits me to see you as the boy you once were.”

 

“I’m sure it does.”

 

“And what is this?” Peter exclaims, brushing past Derek. “Such a grand welcome for your Praetor!”

 

“I assure you we had no prior knowledge of your visit before we stopped,” Danus tells Peter, eyeing his opulent robes with a lazy glance over the rim of his cup. “Or we might have dressed for the occasion.” Derek has often wondered how Danus can make something sound like praise and scorn in one, but Peter’s sneer leaves no doubt in his mind that it’s a gift.

 

“Don’t you have dirt to manage?” Peter asks, looking down on Danus, who waves him off.

 

“My lands are well in hand, leaving me to more gratifying pursuits.”

 

“Oh yes,” Peter drawls, flicking his gaze over Whittemore. “You have your hand in the games now. No doubt reaping the benefits of your pet’s stock.”

 

Danus smirks. “Now Peter, don’t be rude because you know not how to plant your seed in willing land.”

 

“Need I remind you both of my wife’s presence?” Boyd snaps, glaring.

 

Danus bows his head to Erica in apology, winking at her mischievous grin. 

 

“Yes, of course, how are you, my dear?” Peter asks, not moving to greet Erica as he should. He seems content to stand over the rest of them, but Derek forces his body to loosen and sit as though his uncle’s presence doesn’t inspire him to violence.

 

“Large,” Erica tells him casually. “Your dealings in Egypt were prosperous, I hear.”

 

“Well, you know how the Egyptians are,” Peter waves his hand in the air.

 

“Not really, no,” Erica responds with a smile that’s all teeth.

 

“Let’s not discuss business on such a happy occasion. Nephew, how fair those lovely sisters of yours? Married them off yet?”

 

“Not quite,” Derek tells him, picking up his wine. “So imagine their sorrow when neither of the remaining men of the House of Hale were there to aid them in their mourning.”

 

Peter makes a face like he’s tasted something bitter. “Nasty business, wasn’t it. I was heartbroken when I learned of it.”

 

“I’m sure you were,” Derek says, flatly. “How kind of you to avoid Rome and move to secure our holdings here. Very forward-thinking.”

 

Our holdings?” Peter asks, eyebrows raised.

 

“My holdings, really, since I am now the head of the House of Hale.”

 

Erica hides her smile behind her hand and leans to the side to see Peter’s reaction. It’s subtle, but Derek sees his nostrils flare and his eyes harden.

 

“You are mistaken, dear boy,” Peter tells him smoothly, the barest hint of tension in his voice. “Your father took the Hale name because it was higher in station than his own and it benefitted him to do so, but that does not grant you authority now that he is gone.”

 

Derek clenches his hand around the stem of his glass, trying to keep calm. “My father took the Hale name when he married my mother because your father had banished you and there was no one to carry on his good name. You have no more claim to it than a beggar in the street, Uncle .”

 

“Oh, Derek, you are so young,” Peter simpers. “So naive.”

 

“How is that?”

 

“Look, we can settle this amicably, can we not? You go back to Rome and I stay here, separate, but equal in standing.” 

 

Peter’s smile and easy manner grates on Derek’s nerves, but he‘s saved from having it show when Boyd speaks.

 

“It is not that simple, there is property to consider. And lineage. If you were stripped of the Hale name you cannot be Praetor.”

 

Peter turns on him, his eyes flashing in anger. “Talia never held me to Father’s declaration. I was granted a rebirth of sorts, shortly before her... tragic death.”

 

Derek stands, ready to demand if Peter murdered his parents when Vita runs past him, barrelling into Boyd’s lap.

 

“Apologies, Dominus,” Stiles babbles, appearing bent in two and panting. “I could not keep hold of her.”

 

“Stiles, wha—” Derek starts.

 

“Who are you?” Vita demands, eyeing Peter with mistrust. 

 

“My, aren’t you...loud?” Peter asks, put off by Vita’s appearance.

 

“Come, darling, let’s go find your sisters,” Erica says, taking Vita by the hand and leading her toward the back of the doma. Vita turns to glare at Peter until she disappears from view.

 

“And who is this lovely creature?” Peter asks, drawing Derek’s attention. His gaze wanders over Stiles’ body and Stiles goes bright red.

 

Danus kicks Derek’s foot when no one answers. Derek’s become accustomed to Stiles speaking for himself and it feels unnatural to need to do it for him.

 

“My body slave,” Derek mutters, hating the way Stiles is staring at the floor, eyes dulled of their usual brightness.

 

“He looks familiar,” Peter muses, frowning. “Where did you get him?”

 

“Apologies, Aedile,” Whittemore says, leaning toward Boyd. “But if we could return to our discussion before Hale interrupted.”

 

“That’s Praetor Hale, citizen,” Peter tells him sharply, attention moving away from Stiles.

 

“That seems up for debate,” Whittemore dismisses, not sparing him a glance. Derek doesn’t know much about the man, but he’s impressed with his mettle. Peter simply gawks in return.

 

“I see no better way to lift the spirits of the city,” Boyd remarks, following Whittemore’s lead.

 

“If you will grant the order I will supply the coin to improve the arena,” Danus adds. “The people of Terracina have been living in fear and deserve a reprieve the games will provide.”

 

“What games?” Peter demands, spinning from Boyd to Danus, and back again. It’s comical to watch but Derek has to suppress his anger. Stiles remains quiet and still at his side, like his aim is to disappear into the background, and it’s so unnerving an action that Derek wants to shout at him. To remind everyone of his presence. The only thing keeping him silent is the look on Stiles’ face, the one that tells Derek Stiles has retreated inside himself, mind spinning as it works out something Derek has clearly missed.

 

“The games we’ve come to discuss, do keep up,” Whittemore says, eyes staunchly avoiding Peter.

 

“Games sorely needed to show our citizens that Rome is still here for them,” Boyd explains before Peter can respond. “To tell them that as their leaders, we will not let these evil deeds go unpunished.”

 

“If we find the culprit, we could have him fight for his life against one of my men,” Whittemore offers.

 

“An elegant idea!” Danus crows. “That is sure to raise the people’s spirits, don’t you agree, Peter?”

 

“Of course,” Peter answers, smoothing down his robes. “I’m sure the matter will be well in hand by then.”

 

“The ‘matter’? My parents were murdered in their home, Uncle, surely you are not dismissing that as a trifle occurrence,” Derek demands, fingers digging into his thighs to keep from getting to his feet.

 

Peter presses a hand to his breast and bows his head to Derek. “I take the death of my sister and her husband with the gravity it deserves, Nephew. And I will not rest until punishment for the crime has been dispensed, you have my word.”

 

Derek wants to throttle him. Choke the false sorrow out of his tone along with his last breath, but the smallest of Stiles’ fingers brushes against his bicep, arresting his anger and reminding him that Peter’s time will come if Derek is patient.

 

“I hold you to that, Uncle. Until then, I’m afraid you’ll have to vacate the villa as I’ve turned it over to the city—”

 

“You what? That’s absurd!” Peter cries, his mask of calm slipping for a moment.

 

“It will be used to quarantine those who have contracted the sailing sickness, so that they may experience comfort in their last days,” Boyd says, standing on the other side of Peter.

 

“Surely it is too grand for such a purpose,” Peter argues. “I’ll buy them another building to keep the wretches. That was my father’s house.”

 

Derek frowns with false concern. “It was always intended to be given over upon the death of my father, the legitimate Hale heir.”

 

“This should be no matter if you’re of the coin to buy a home for ‘the wretches’,” Danus smirks. “With all the untimely deaths in the city, there are many fine villas standing empty, just waiting for a usurper to claim them.”

 

“Are you challenging your Praetor?” Peter demands, but before he can take more than a step, Whittemore has slipped between him and Danus, one hand on the hilt of his blade.

 

“I think you’ve outworn your welcome, Praetor,” Erica tells him, appearing behind Derek and laying her hands on his shoulders. “We have business yet to discuss and games to plan. Nothing that would interest a man of your station.”

 

Peter’s glare melts away, a saccharine smile taking its place. “Of course, my dear. It wouldn’t do to overwhelm a woman as beautifully ripe with babe as you. A word of advice, if I may?” Peter continues before she can answer, his cloak slipping off his shoulder when his step forward is halted by Isaac’s hand. “Do not let these heathens draw you and your precious children into the mire of the damned thoughts they speak so freely in front of their betters. You’ve always been a favourite of mine, Erica, since you were but a girl,” Derek grits his teeth as Erica’s nails dig into his flesh. “It would be a travesty if your choice of husband was to be your downfall.”

 

“Get out,” Boyd growls, low and dangerous. Derek can see the shine of Whittemore’s blade and Isaac steps in front of Peter, eyes aflame and hands ready to defend his family.

 

“Of course Aedile, I would never overstay my welcome,” Peter gives him a dark smile and rights his cloak, the golden armband he’s worn all of Derek’s life slipping to his wrist. He notices then that Peter is thinner he’s ever seen him. It’s hidden well by his garb, but his arms are no longer cords of defined muscle; the leather braces at his wrists hang loose. Peter pushes the band back up and Derek sees a small, rust-coloured sore under his arm. When Peter heads for the door there’s a thin spot on his scalp, but before Derek can parse the meaning of it all, Peter stops and turns back to them.

 

“Should you find yourself in need of a protector, my dear, you’ll find my door open,” Derek can practically hear Boyd’s teeth grinding, but then Peter’s eyes land on Stiles once more and it’s all he can do not to lunge at his uncle. “And Derek, send me your toy when you’re done with him, hmm?”

 

With a cruel laugh and the slamming of a door, Peter is gone, leaving Derek quaking with anger and doubtless as to who is responsible for the death of his parents.

 

No sooner than Erica’s hands have released him, are his arms wrapped around Stiles, pressing him close.

 

“He’s gone,” Derek tells him. “I would never hand you over to him, I swear it.”

 

But Stiles’ skin is waxy and his lips are white. His eyes, when they meet Derek’s, are wide and full of worry. “He’s the one,” Stiles whispers, trembling. “The one who came to the villa with Argentus.”

Chapter Text

Their return to Rome is uneventful, elevated as it is with two guards borrowed from Boyd and all four of them wearing the Hale crest in plain sight. Other travellers step off the road to let them pass and either gawk or shield their eyes completely. Stiles has been quiet since his revelation, nearly perfecting the art of falling asleep on his ass as it plods along. The second time he nearly falls off, Derek stops them at a farmhouse, turning down the offer of a warm bed and electing to sleep in the field with the others so that they may rise and press on at first light.

 

He wants to press Stiles for more information on his connection to Peter, but Stiles asked for time to sort his memories and attempt to uncover the details on his own. Logically, Derek knows this is best but the thought of Peter trying to touch Stiles makes his skin crawl and his thoughts turn to murder when he thinks about Peter having something to do with Stiles becoming a slave. The sooner they deal with his treacherous uncle, the better.

 

Before they left it was decided that Danus, Whittemore, and Boyd would move forward with planning the games in the hope they’d have the evidence to feed Peter to the lions by the time they happen. Derek thinks it more likely that Peter will sacrifice a pawn to bring order to the city and keep his true actions hidden. Derek only prays that none of his friends suffer for Peter’s cause. 

 

Boyd wanted Erica and the girls to accompany Derek to Rome, but Erica refused, claiming she’s too close to birthing and the Aedile’s wife hiding behind Rome’s walls would cause panic amongst the citizens. Boyd conceded, but made her swear that as soon as she and the babe are able to travel, she’ll announce her intent to visit Derek’s sisters and stay there until matters with Peter are settled.

 

Danus promises to name the games after the child and he and Whittemore retire to the ludus to plan. With no proof that Peter is behind the murders, there isn’t much to do but wait and hope he shows his hand. Derek signs over rights to the villa and Isaac sharpens his sword in preparation of evicting Peter. Derek leaves them with a heavy heart, but getting Stiles back home is his focus because he’s confident Argentus stole him away for a reason. Why else would he keep Stiles so secluded? And what did Peter have to do with it?

 

His grandfather would have already banished Peter, so teaming up with Argentus could have been Peter’s attempt at gaining favour in Rome once again, but then he remembers Stiles telling him Gerard beat Peter for trying to assault him and he loses all ordered thought and has to reach out and touch Stiles. Reassure himself that he’s safe and whole. That Stiles didn’t suffer at Peter’s hand.

 

The sight of Rome’s walls on the third day is a welcomed relief. It’s early still, but the outer neighbourhoods are alive with activity; citizens, freedmen, and slaves all up and bustling about. Derek gives Stiles coins to hand out among the children they pass, and smiles when he uses sleight of hand to make the coins appear from behind the ear of a dark-haired girl.

 

His joy fades as he detours them past the Basilica and Stiles’ eyes wander to the fountain along the wall. The giant lion’s head spews water into the basin while people line up dip their flasks and Derek slows his horse to ride beside Stiles.

 

“Is it the one from your memory?” 

 

Stiles nods, eyes on the stonework. “I’m sure of it.”

 

“We’ll find where you belong, Stiles, I swear it,” Derek tells him, letting his hand rest on Stiles’ fingers where they clutch the lead of his beast.

 

Stiles give him a small, shy smile. “I feel I’ve already found it, Der— Dominus.”

 

Derek inhales sharply at the slip, his heart rate spiking at his name from Stiles’ lips. He squeezes Stiles’ fingers, noting the panic in his eyes.

 

“Let’s go home,” he says, returning his hand to his own mount, unable to keep the flush of pleasure from his own cheeks.

 

*****

Derek wakes alone in his room, the luridness of his dream lingering as a buzz under his skin and vigor in his cock. He can smell the clean musk of Stiles mixed with his own arousal and his hand is under the covers before he can give thought to it. Derek closes his eyes and returns to the images of his dream. Stiles’ pale skin tinted pink and turning red under Derek’s mouth as he explores all the glorious inches he hasn’t been able to stop thinking about since the first night. The curves and folds that hide under his tunic, tantalizing Derek every time Stiles bends at the waist or reaches over his head. He imagine drawing his tongue over Stiles’ ribs as he tugs his own cock, fluid seeping from the head and spreading pleasure as he works it around. 

 

The taste of Stiles is salty and sweet, awakening Derek’s senses to desire he’s never felt before. He wants Stiles. All of him. Wants to bite and devour him. Wants to slide deep and plant his seed where it will grow into something strong enough to keep them cemented, but delicate enough to make them shatter apart in each other’s arms for eternity. He wants Stiles inside him, giving back to Derek as much as he’s taken. Fucking him, marking him as his own.

 

In his fantasy, Derek’s teeth scrape over Stiles’ nipple, his lean chest arching closer to Derek’s mouth and into his open arms. He pumps his cock faster, running his nose through the strip of hair he knows trails down from Stiles’ navel. His cock throbs, making him ache from its tip all the way to the ball of heat that’s growing behind his sack. He teases Stiles, licking broadly up his cock, never quite reaching the head, waiting until Stiles’ long fingers are wound in his hair and he’s forcing Derek’s head right where he wants it. He closes his lips over the crown of Stiles’ cock, the delicious tang of his sensitive skin exploding across Derek’s tongue as his cock pulses and shoots, erupting over his hand and spurting halfway up his chest as he bites back the name on his lips.

 

He cleans up slowly, refusing to acknowledge the embarrassment that keeps trying to creep into his mind and tossing the linen he used into the pile of their discarded travel clothes. He stretches and splashes water on his face, wandering the villa looking for food once he’s dressed. It’s midweek and the servants are off on various errands, Stiles no doubt along with Cora on some social visit or simply gossiping in the garden, filling Stiles in on everything that happened in his absence.

 

Laura finds him at her desk, using some of her good parchment for a letter to Erica, announcing their safe arrival.

 

”I wish to be married,” she tells him in lieu of a greeting. 

 

Derek looks up to where she’s standing on the other side of the desk, arms crossed and a determined look on her face.

 

“Okay. Are you asking me to find you someone to-”

 

Laura scoffs and drops her arms. “Gods no, but I cannot do so without your approval and so I have come to ask,” she glares at him sourly. “Permission.”

 

Derek shuffles through the scrolls on the desk for a spare bit of parchment. “Hold on, I need to write this down.”

 

Laura smacks the side of his head while he laughs. “I've changed my mind. I've come to tell you I AM to be wed”

 

“Am I permitted to ask to whom you are giving yourself?” he asks, sitting back with a smile.

 

“Chris Argentus.”

 

“Chris?” Derek balks. “Why is he not here, asking me?”

 

“Well, I haven't told him yet! I wanted to give you time to adjust to the idea,” Laura explains.

 

Derek shakes his head because he should have expected something like this from her. “I do hope you plan to tell him before the ceremony. Or will you simply invite him over for the midday meal and surprise him with a holy man?”

 

Laura is unamused. “I don't know who sold you this new sense of humour, but you should demand the return of your coin. Plus interest for the hardship your family has endured at its mercy.”

 

Derek chuckles, but it fades as he realizes the outcome of such a marriage. “Speaking of family, you do know that marrying Chris means marrying the rest of them?”

 

“Of course I do.” Laura says, raising her head.

 

“Laura, you loathe Kate and think Gerard a viper,” he reminds her.

 

Laura shrugs. “I quite like Allison.”

 

Derek takes her hand and pulls her closer, until she’s perched on the corner of the desk. “Are you certain about Chris? Because you need to be. Gerard and Kate are a heavy price to pay for an infatuation that may pass quickly.”

 

“I am not the girl you left, Derek. I know my mind, and more importantly, my heart. Chris was there for me, for us , when Mother and Father died. He is a cherished friend and a good man. You must trust me in this.” 

 

Derek searches her face and can find no uncertainty so he kisses the back of her hand and smiles. “Then you have my blessing. I will take Chris as my brother with pride and honour.”

 

Laura nods sharply, gathering the hem of her robe and slipping off the desk. “Then you must excuse me for I have a husband to claim.”

 

“Don’t keep him up too late,” he calls after her with a chuckle. “Senate sits at sunrise!”

Chapter Text

Before they leave for the Senate the next morning, Derek stops Stiles just inside the gate. The sky is starting to lighten but the streets are empty, the atrium so quiet Derek can hear Stiles’ every breath. He fingers the sleeve of Stiles’ new tunic, fine linen as soft and warm as the skin that lies beneath it. 

 

“An improvement, I hope.” It’s nothing more than one of Derek’s old pieces repurposed, but seeing Stiles in it ignites something bright and primal inside him. His palm skims down Stiles’ arm and he grins when it elicits a shiver.

 

“If Dominus is pleased then I am as well,” Stiles says quietly, eyes following the path of Derek’s hand. 

 

“It pleases me greatly to see you in them.”

 

Stiles ducks his head, mumbling, and Derek has to press a finger under his chin to raise his head and hear.

 

“Your scent lingers on them,” Stiles repeats, a lovely flush creeping up from the neck of the tunic. “It feels an indulgence.”

 

Derek’s breath catches and he has the sudden need to kiss Stiles. It’s not out of the question, their attraction is obvious, but there’s that voice in the back of Derek’s head that tells him he can’t be sure that Stiles’ actions are his own as long as he’s a slave. And until he’s sure of Gerard’s reasoning for sending Stiles to him, he cannot free the man. So instead he cups Stiles’ cheek and rubs his thumb over the curve of his jaw.

 

“I desire to spoil you with affection,” he says honestly, feeling his own face warm in the cool morning air.

 

Stiles laughs, gripping Derek’s wrist. “Then it’s fortunate we’re both strong-willed for the sun is rising and you’re expected, Senator .”

 

Derek breathes out a sigh of frustration and lets his hand drop away. “Then we best be on our way.”

 

When they arrive Chris is clearly still in shock from Laura’s news, mouth open and eyes wide when Derek slaps him on the back and welcomes him to the family. Parish laughs when Chris babbles his thanks and trips on the way to his seat.

 

“Did I not know better I’d think my sister robbed you of your virtue,” Derek jokes.

 

“Your sister,” Chris sputters, pausing to pull himself together. “Your sister is...a determined woman.”

 

Derek raises his eyebrows. “Are you not amenable to this marriage?”

 

“I am,” Chris assures him, eyes a little glazed. “However, I did not know that to be the truth until Laura told me it was.”

 

Parish laughs harder. “Solidarity, brother. Lydia is the same with me.”

 

“It’s advantageous to have a strong-willed partner,” Derek tells them, remembering his father’s words. “They will help you forge your path in life.”

 

“He’d have known,” Chris says, fondly, and Derek nods, proud of the pairing his parents made.

 

“Will you marry before Allison and Scott?” Parish asks.

 

Chris nods. “Allison insists. She told Laura she is honoured to serve both a mother and a friend at her wedding.”

 

“I know Laura is grateful to call her daughter and sister,” Derek tells him.

 

“I am double blessed,” Chris agrees. “And double vexxed for they’ve decided the new moon will mark our joining.”

 

Parish blows out a breath. “That’s soon. I should send word to Lydia so she can have a new dress made.”

 

They watch him hurry out, off to send a messenger to his wife. Once he’s gone, Chris grows serious.

 

“Now that we are to be family, will you share with me news of your errand in Terracina?”

 

Derek grimaces. “I do not wish to trouble you.”

 

“And yet I wish you to. I cannot aid your campaign if I know nothing of it.”

 

“We will speak, but not here. Come for dinner. We will celebrate your engagement and speak freely.”

 

“Dinner?” Parish asks brightly, falling back into his seat.

 

Derek chuckles. “Aye, I suppose you can come, too.”

 

Deaton calls for quiet and the session starts. They’re in the middle of Senator Cyrus’ argument for financing a new raid on the Picts when Jovius walks in, seeming pleased to have caught them unaware. 

 

“Emperor, we were not expecting you,” Deaton says, clasping Jovius’ arm with his own.

 

“Is that not the best time to appear?” Jovius laughs, clapping Deaton on the back. “I’ve come to offer felicitations to Senator Argentus on his impending marriage.”

 

Chris stands, raising his hand in thanks. “Your blessing is and honour, Emperor.” 

 

There are whispers starting around them. Friends and enemies of the house of Argentus alike, buzzing about the Emperor endorsing the son of his enemy. Chris hasn’t told him of Gerard’s reaction to the news, but Derek doubts it was favourable considering his bride’s loyalty to the Emperor. Forcing Kate on Derek is quite different than Chris marrying Laura, and they all know it.

 

“When are we to celebrate the union?” Jovius asks with a smile, ignoring the gossip he’s created, but clearly enjoying it’s progress.

 

“As soon as Laura tells me we do,” Chris jokes, sparking laughter.

 

“Excellent,” Jovius says, backing up. “I shall leave you to your duties.”

 

Deaton nods and turns back to the room, but before he can speak, Jovius interrupts again. “I will have a word with my Godson, if he may be spared.”

 

Deaton’s eyes flick to Derek. “Of course, Emperor. Senator Hale, you are excused.” 

 

Derek keeps his eyes forward as he descends, crossing the Senate floor to follow Jovius. Stiles usually stays near the open doors, listening to what’s said so he can follow Derek’s venting about the sessions in the evening before bed, and Derek hopes he knows enough not to try and follow them. 

 

“You’re gloating,” Derek accuses once they’ve cleared the building and left the Emperor’s guard behind to stroll the gardens.

 

“I’ve always been told I’m a humble man,” Jovius protests, but there’s a curl to his lip.

 

“You named me ‘Godson’ in the middle of a Senate session. I am not a child, Jovius, and I’ll thank you not to treat me as one.”

 

“Okay, I was gloating. I’d say I deserve it, wouldn’t you?”

 

There’s a gleam in his eye and as Derek stares at him, Jovius breaks into a wide smile. Derek’s stomach swoops. The humour and mischief in his visage strikes Derek as hauntingly familiar, though he was but a boy the last time he saw it there.

 

“You put the idea of Chris in Laura’s head,” Derek accuses.

 

“No, I simply sped her along the path she was already on. I’ve witnessed them together and their affection for each other is evident.”

 

“I never noticed,” Derek exclaims and Jovius gives him an unimpressed look. “Gerard will be furious when he finds out you congratulated Chris in public like that.”

 

“I know,” Jovius sighs happily. “It’s a petty victory, but a victory nonetheless.”

 

Derek shakes his head, but says nothing. There was a time when Gerard would have killed Chris before letting him marry into a family so deeply connected to Jovius, but Gerard is nowhere near as powerful as he once was. Jovius saw to that. They’d never been able to prove Argentus was behind the fire that stole the lives of the new Emperor’s family, but even on the battlefield years later, Derek heard the whispers. Jovius was a much more forgiving man than Derek and he threw himself into leading the Empire, decimating Gerard politically, and letting the old crone destroy his own reputation and finances. Meanwhile, Derek had every intention of seeing Peter dead for his sins, and the man was his blood.

 

“Cora tells me you’ve a new body slave,” Jovius says, pulling Derek out of his dark thoughts. “A comely one.”

 

Derek clasps his hands behind his back, squaring his shoulders. “Stiles has attributes that far outweigh his attractiveness.”

 

“But it doesn’t pain you to gaze upon him,” Jovius surmises, smiling fondly when Derek blushes. “There’s nothing wrong with taking comfort, Derek.”

 

“I have plenty of comforts, Stiles need not be one of them.”

 

“To hear Cora tell it, the boy is enamoured with you.”

 

Derek grunts, halting along the path. Jovius turns to laugh at him, patting him consolingly on the back to get him moving again. They walk in silence, Jovius thankfully letting the subject drop, but there’s something niggling at the back of Derek’s mind. A connection all too easy to forget with Stiles fitting so seamlessly into their lives.

 

“Stiles came from Gerard,” he says abruptly. 

 

Jovius stops Derek with a firm hand on his arm. “Explain.”

 

“The party upon my return, Gerard offered me Kate’s hand and left Stiles behind as a, a gift.”

 

“A gift?” 

 

Derek flushes. “A stud slave.”

 

One of Jovius’ brows twitch, but he quels it before Derek is any more humiliated. “Part of Kate’s dowry?”

 

Derek scoffs. “It would take more than a pretty cock to lure me into that trap.”

 

Jovius hums. “But you trust the boy.”

 

“He’s hardly a boy, though he has the look of one. But he’s given me no reason not to trust him.”

 

“Still, best be careful. Keep him at a safe distance.”

 

Derek looks away.

 

“Or is it too late for that?” Jovius asks, watching him closely. “Is that why you won’t take him to bed, Derek? Are you in love with him?”

 

“With respect, Emperor, I have no desire to discuss this with you,” Derek tells him bluntly. Jovius raises his hands in supplication.

 

“And I will not push. You’re as stubborn as your mother, you know.”

 

“I like to think it’s one of my finer qualities,” Derek grumbles, offering a small smile when Jovius laughs and claps him on the back. 

Chapter Text

“So Peter’s untouchable?” Cora asks, anger clear in her tone.

 

“No, but we need to be careful. He’s been amassing power and his army is sizable,” Derek explains. They’re still seated for dinner, his sisters and Chris not content with idle talk when there is information to share. Stiles had been withdrawn when Derek returned from speaking to the Emperor and excused himself to bed with a headache, but Allison and Scott are there, as are Parish and Lydia. He’d hoped to leave the women out of the worry, but they wouldn’t hear of it. Lydia had subtly flashed a knife in his direction and Laura had laughed in his face. Allison and Cora had the decency to simply ignore him.

 

“But if he brings his army to Rome he forfeits his right to rule anything,” Lydia reminds them. “It’s illegal.”

 

Chris nods. “From what’s been said, he seems happy to stay where he is.”

 

“With absolute power,” Laura says, angry. “And should Derek return to try and oust him or challenge him as heir, he’ll arrange another tragic accident.”

 

“That seems likely,” Derek admits. “But ignoring his part in the death of our parents is impossible. I cannot forgive what he’s done and Terracina deserves better than his self-serving brand of leadership. He already has the nobles in conflict for his own amusement and good people like Boyd and Erica are bound to get caught in the middle.”

 

“I agree,” Chris says from his place beside Laura. “Peter cannot be left to do as he pleases.”

 

“Why have you not told Jovius this?” Cora demands. She’s seated between Allison and Lydia, both of whom have tried to soothe her anger, to no avail.

 

“It would be best if this matter is kept private,” Derek tells her, feeling helpless. “Lest others see an opportunity and side with Peter.”

 

“Can he not demand Peter’s death? We all know the bastard killed Mother and Father.”

 

“Even Emperor’s need to obey laws,” Laura tells her. “Else he’d be a tyrant.”

 

“What use is it being Emperor if you can’t do what you want?” Cora complains, her lips white with rage.

 

Chris reaches across the table to take her hand. “Jovius is a good man, Cora, he won’t act without assurances. My family would be long dead if he wasn’t.”

 

Cora slumps, nodding and taking her hand back. Allison rubs her back but the fight has gone out of her and not long after that she excuses herself to bed. Derek itches to share Stiles’ story of Peter with the others, but he can see how tortured Stiles is by his memories and he’s not about to add to that. He knows Stiles worries the others will turn on him and convince Derek to cast him out, and nothing Derek can say at this point will dissuade him of the notion.

 

“If we might move to a happier subject,” Chris says after clearing his throat. “There’s something I wish to ask of you, Derek.”

 

“I’ve already given you my sister,” Derek teases tiredly. “What more could you want?”

 

Chris and Laura share a look and Laura nods for him to continue. “Your name.”

 

Derek is dumbstruck and the table goes quiet. He chokes out a laugh to break the tension. “Won’t it be confusing if we’re both named ‘Derek’?”

 

Chris smiles, but his eyes are serious. “I wish to take the Hale name when Laura and I wed.”

 

Derek looks to Laura, who is beaming at Chris. He’s never seen her so happy and now that he knows it’s there, he can see how much she adores her betrothed.

 

“My name is not what it once was and I take no pride in it. I’m ashamed by the damage my father has done to the republic and marrying Laura is the second chance I’ve been praying for. Allison will be of the House of Maximus once her and Scott have wed so there’s nothing left tying me to the name.”

 

“Save your father and sister,” Derek reminds him. 

 

Chris shakes his head sharply. “I owe them no loyalty. The things they’ve done…”

 

Laura clasps Chris’ hand in both of hers, bolstering him. “Father did this for Mother.”

 

“I do not with to be named an heir,” Chris adds, quickly. “Our children will still follow yours in succession, but they would have the good, honourable Hale name. I do not want them, or Laura, to be haunted by the deeds of the House of Argentus.”

 

“Chris, I,” Derek starts and stops. He looks around the table, at the friends and family that surround him. At the people who’ve stood by him, and he stands. “I am touched by your fealty and welcome you with open arms as a friend, a brother, and a Hale.”

 

Chris jumps to his feet and wraps Derek in an embrace, planting a firm kiss to his cheek and squeezing him tight.

 

“I will bring honour to this house, I swear it.”

 

Derek grins at Laura over Chris’ shoulder. “You already have, brother.”

Chapter Text

The morning of Laura’s wedding, Derek is jolted out of sleep by a pillow colliding with his head and nearly knocking him from bed. He reaches for his knife, frowning sleepily when he finds it missing. A jolt of fear goes through him, but then Stiles cackles and his shoulders melt in relief. He snags the front of Stiles’ tunic in his fist and pulls him to the bed. Stiles yelps in surprise, but settles his knees on either side of Derek’s hips, hands braced on Derek’s shoulders.

 

“You took my knife,” Derek accuses, staring up at Stiles perched above him, body held carefully away from Derek’s. A jolt of want goes through him at Stiles’ cocky grin and Derek is tempted to pull him down, disappear the blankets between them, and finally realize the feel of Stiles’ long limbs against his own.

 

“And you’re suitably grumpy about it,” Stiles laughs. “You have these lines, here,” Stile lifts a hand to Derek’s face, smoothing the line between Derek’s brows with two calloused fingers. 

 

Stiles gasps when Derek nips at the bony protuberance of his wrist, losing his balance and crashing down onto Derek with a grunt. Derek’s breath is forced out in a groan as Stiles’ pelvis presses into him. He’s still hard from sleep, and Stiles’ armpit is next to Derek’s face so he turns to the side and inhales, his hands fighting through the bedclothes to keep Stiles exactly where he is. 

 

Stiles smells of oil from bathing and the light musk he carries that is all his own. Derek’s cock stirs and before he can stop it, his hips lift, grinding into the body above him. Stiles’ breath stutters, but he remains frozen in place, body rigid and eyes closed tight. Derek wants to wrap his arms around Stiles’ broad shoulders and roll them, put his mouth to Stiles’ warm skin until the tension melts away. 

 

“Stiles,” he whispers, reverent.

 

“Yes, dominus,” Stiles answers and that’s it. The spell is broken by the panic in Stiles’ voice. Derek pushes him off gently and sits up, horrified at his actions.

 

“Apologies. I didn’t, I don’t—”

 

“Yes, you did,” Stiles says quietly, now standing by the bed. He’s meant to look obedient, Derek knows, but the line of his shoulders and tight fists at his sides betray him.

 

“Yes, I did,” Derek admits. “But not like this. Never like this.”

 

“I am your slave, dominus, you have the right to my body and I cannot stop you from taking it.” Stiles glares at him, daring Derek to deny it. And he wants to, gods, does Derek want circumstances to be different, but there’s too much at stake to let Stiles go.

 

“I would never force you to it. This was, I got lost in a fantasy. In dreams. Apologies for betraying your trust,” Derek feels vulnerable and exposed, and it has nothing to do with his nudity.

 

“You dream of me?” Stiles asks bluntly.

 

Derek stares at him, searching for the truth that will satisfy Stiles, and it’s there, in the wide curiosity of his amber eyes. He wants to know.

 

“Every night,” Derek tells him, sliding his hand closer on the bed and leaving it there, palm and fingers open. “I dream every dream of you.”

 

Stiles bites his lip, glancing at Derek from beneath his lashes. “Tell me?”

 

“I have no desire to make you uncomfortable again—”

 

“Tell me,” Stiles demands, voice quiet, but powerful, making Derek’s pulse quicken.

 

“Some are of the two of us here, in bed. Limbs twisted, bodies flush, sweat and oil easing my way inside you.” Derek watches Stiles’ closely, delighting at the flush sweeping over his skin and the tight grip Stiles has on the fabric of his tunic. On Derek’s clothes. “Some are of me on my knees for you, always open, always willing.”

 

“Futuo,” Stiles swears, swaying on his feet.

 

“But others,” Derek tells him seriously, moving closer. “Others are reminiscent of this morning. You waking me with a smile and warm press of your body. With no other purpose than to lay together. Sharing a meal with you at the table. Kissing you in the street. Being with you .”

 

Stiles’ lip quivers, but he takes Derek’s head in his large hands, cradling it. “Some things can never be.”

 

“I could free you,” Derek tells him, terrified of the words, but willing to do it if Stiles will just stay with him. “I could never take such a thing from you unless I knew you were not doing it out of duty. I only want what you’re willing to give freely.”

 

“You’re a good man, Derek Hale, but my desire for you frightens me. It’s fierce, but it’s heavy , and I’ve never—I have no desire to be free from you and yet you will not have me as I am. I fear we are on a path to misery.” The smile Stiles gives him is tinged with sadness and Derek hates being the cause so he buries his head in the softness of Stiles’ belly, taking comfort from the proximity and attention of the man he loves. And he does love Stiles. It’s a wonder he’s only now realizing it as truth. 

 

Stiles’ fingers scratch along his scalp, drawing out worry and tension, and Derek wishes he could return the favour but he does not know the words that will free them. Perhaps at Saturnalia, when he’s permitted to serve Stiles as Stiles has served him. When he doesn’t need and excuse to shower Stiles with gifts and attention. When Stiles is free—

 

Derek jerks away, staring up at Stiles’s surprised face and cursing himself for not thinking of it sooner. 

 

“Saturnalia,” he laughs. “Allison and Scott’s wedding will kick off the Saturnalia festivities.”

 

“Yes?” Stiles says, fingers still carding through Derek’s hair.

 

“During the week we will be but two men. Equals.”

 

Stiles rolls his eyes. “That’s not exactly what happens.”

 

“But it could,” Derek argues. “It should. That’s what it’s supposed to mean. You will be seen as my equal, with agency over your body and mind. Cora has already planned the meal we will serve you.”

 

“Serving me a meal and freeing me from your rule are two very different things,” Stiles reminds him seriously.

 

“Then I shall free you,” he blurts, not realizing it to be true until the words have tumbled out of his mouth.

 

Stiles’ smile is fond, but wry. “What use would I be to you then? A man of your stature cannot be known to free his slaves but keep them employed as freemen. You would face ridicule.”

 

“So be it,” Derek swears, growing anxious at the implications but doing his best to keep it hidden. 

 

“And what of your sisters? Of Chris? You would not only damage your own reputation, Der—” Stiles snaps his mouth shut and looks away, flushed. 

 

“Say it,” Derek asks, taking hold of Stiles’ hands. “Just this once. With no one else here. Say it for me.”

 

Stiles gazes at him like Derek is everything he’s ever wished for and strokes his thumbs over the back of Derek’s hands.

 

“Derek,” Stiles whispers, pained. “My Derek.”

 

Derek sighs, all the tension bleeding out of his body as he wraps his arms around Stiles’ waist, pulling him close. “Gratitude.”

 

They stay like that as the house bustles around them, breath matching, fingers twitching to touch, to explore. 

 

“Saturnalia,” Stiles says decidedly, tilting Derek’s head up. There’s determination written across his face and Derek’s heart soars. 

 

“Saturnalia,” Derek agrees.

Chapter Text

Laura is dazzling in her white robe and pale yellow veil, everything falling in such a way as to accentuate her in a way that is alluring, but virtuous. At least that’s what Cora tells him. It’s important, she says, that Laura seem both ready for the responsibility of marrying a Senator, but also innocent and naive for an unwed woman of her age.

 

Innocent and naive are not words Derek would ever use to describe Laura, but he knows better than to argue and Cora knows best what’s expected of them so he stands where he’s told and watches two people he loves bind themselves to the other. It’s a happy day, even with the cloud of an absent Gerard and Kate eyeing him from across the room. 

 

They’d spoken of it the night before, Derek, his sisters, Chris, and Stiles. Gerard had announced his opposition to the marriage almost immediately and wasn’t expected to attend, but Kate was and they had to assume it was at least partly to check up on Derek’s attention to Stiles. Ignoring the man who should be at his side is proving to be as difficult as holding water in a sieve, however. Stiles has become Derek’s compass in navigating the outside world; who he looks to first to gauge reactions and share private amusement and judgements. To rein in those impulses in his own domus is almost more than Derek can abide. It’s taking every ounce of discipline he has not to seek out Stiles among the rest of the slaves, to share his pride and happiness at the union of his sister and his friend. 

 

Cora takes pity on him after the ceremony and sends Stiles to help in the kitchen. She threads her arm through his and drags Derek around the garden to accept congratulations on a well-made match, as if he had anything whatsoever to do with it. It’s a long day but when he spies Chris watching Laura from across the room and sees the pretty blush that rises to her cheeks when she catches him, any weariness he felt melts away. 

 

Hours later he’s on his way to relieve himself when a strong hand on his wrist pulls him into an alcove and he’s pressed against the wall, a body warm and soft against his. He’s deeper in his cups than usual so it takes a moment to realize the hands on his arms aren’t calloused, the lips smooth, not lightly chapped and on level with his. His head is bent to accommodate and when he pulls back in shock, it smacks the wall hard enough to have him blinking against crowding darkness.

 

“Kate,” he spits, wiping the back of his hand over his mouth. She tastes of sweet wine but there’s bitterness there from food or memory, Derek’s not sure.

 

“Senator Hale,” she drawls, her hands going to his chest. “Derek.”

 

“What are you doing? What if someone saw?”

 

Kate laughs, her smile dangerous. “I’m no virgin child, Derek, surely you remember that.”

 

“There is no reason for us to be lurking in the shadows, we are children no longer,” Derek reminds her, forcing space between them by firmly moving her back.

 

“I must admit I expected a warmer response from you,” Kate sighs. “Perhaps I’m lacking the correct anatomy for what you desire these days.”

 

Derek freezes.

 

“I’ve been told you’ve grown quite close with your new body slave. I imagine my father will be pleased to know his gift has been so well...accommodated.”

 

Derek raises his eyebrows. “I’ve received better bribes.”

 

“Really?” Kate pouts coquettishly. “Father assured me the boy was fresh. Untouched, in fact. I do hope you’ve remedied that. I remember how thankful you are for firsts.”

 

Derek scowls at the visions that flood his mind. Kate’ hand on him, his mouth on her, his cock spent and softening as she laughs at his inexperience. He wants to shake his head until the memories fall out but the Kate in front of him is much more dangerous than the one in his head and it’s her he needs to deal with first.

 

“Why don’t you call for him and you can show me the work you’ve done. Have you taught him to please a woman or simply take a cock?” Kate asks with a knowing smile. “Hard to teach what you don’t know, I suppose.”

 

Derek’s grateful at that moment for the darkness because he can feel the heat in his cheeks, the shame in his eyes. That he could never please her was always a strike she held against him, no matter what else they set alight. Derek had once thought it passion, but he is experienced enough now to recognize that it was merely obsession. Neither was the person the other thought them to be. Not anymore. 

 

“My sister’s wedding is hardly the place to make such a request,” he tells her, forcing dryness into his tone.

 

“It’s my brother’s wedding, too. We’re family now,” she reminds him, pressing in close again.

 

Derek smirks. “For now.”

 

He slips out of her grasp and into the hall, leaving her starting after him in anger and confusion.

 

“And stay away from my slaves,” he calls, loud enough for those nearest them to hear.

 

Derek forces himself to use his chamber pot and not go in search of Stiles. He knows for sure now that Kate is watching them closely and it’s not worth the risk of drawing Stiles any deeper into Argent’s plans. He does, however, send Kate a sympathetic smile when he and Chris stand to announce that Chris will be taking the Hale name. She covers her shock and betrayal well, but there’s a tick in her jaw when she smiles that has him worried about being at the top of her enemy list.

 

Kate disappears from the festivities as they’re preparing for the walk to Chris’ domus and Derek keeps their encounter to himself. Chris has gone along ahead to prepare his household’s welcome of its new mistress and Laura clings to Derek and Cora as they make the trek through the streets. It’s dark outside with no moon in sight, but slaves carry lanterns to guide them along their path while Laura’s cold hand squeezes his fingers so tight they go numb.

 

“Are you nervous?” Derek asks quietly.

 

Laura laughs at his worry. “Gods, no! I’m thrilled. Eager. I’m charged, awakened, aroused!”

 

“Yes, yes, I get it,” he rolls his eyes and smiles. “I am happy for you.”

 

“I know,” she assures him. 

 

“It’s a good match,” Cora chimes in. “Especially with him taking our name. I think I shall insist my husband do the same.”

 

“Good luck with that,” Derek tells her.

 

Cora frowns. “You don’t think a man would? We’re very rich, brother, and men are easily persuaded.”

 

“I meant good luck with finding a husband,” he teases.

 

Cora smiles serenely. “Perhaps I’ve already found one.”

 

“What?” Derek demands, the smile falling from his face. “When? Who? I forbid you to marry for at least a year. Two years.”

 

“Relax, Derek,” Laura says, patting his forearm. “She’s not going anywhere yet.”

 

“Yet,” he grumbles.

 

“You’re right, dear brother,” Cora says, tapping her chin. “If my husband is to take my name, why should he not live in my father’s house?”

 

“I don’t. That’s not,” Derek chokes out, his mind stuttering at the implications of living with newlyweds, especially when one of them is his sister.

 

Laura tuts. “Cora, you’re positively cruel.”

 

“He missed ten years of my life, I’m just making up for lost time.”

 

“Remind me never to have daughters,” Derek tells them.

 

His sisters laugh and then they’re turning the corner and Chris’ house comes into view. Every window shines with light and the household staff have been decorated with flower crowns and necklaces, lacing the night air with the heavy scent of jasmine and hyacinth.

 

Chris’ smile is brighter than the sun and Laura goes to him without a backwards glance, leaving Derek and Cora to smirk after her haste. Derek stands in the street for a moment once the door is closed and the others have wandered off. He stares at the cloudy sky and allows himself a moment to bask in the joy he feels. One sister married and happy, on her way to everything she’s ever wanted, the other young and strong, and plotting her domination of Roman society. They’re embroiled in the mystery of their parents' deaths and happiness rarely lasts in Derek’s experience, but for right now he’s content to let the feeling rush through him.

 

Cora loops her arm through his and tugs, bringing him back. “There’s still work to do,” she tells him and he knows by the severity of her tone that she’s speaking of more than the state of the house.

 

“Tomorrow,” he assures her. “For tonight let’s just enjoy the victory of life.”

 

“Sentimental,” she accuses.

 

“I prefer ‘romantic’,” he informs her, leading the way back to their doma.

 

“Hmm, is that why Stiles is wearing your old clothing? Is it romantic to see him in your things?”

 

Derek fights the instinct to deflect the question. This is Cora. His sister. He should want to share these things with her as she shares her truths with him.

 

“It is,” he admits. “His position calls for finer attire, and reusing the cloth saves money.”

 

“But,” she prompts.

 

Derek smiles softly. “But it is the thrill and passion I feel when I see him in them that truly motivates my generosity.”

 

“Passion and not merely possession?” she questions, and from anyone else Derek would take offense, but he knows Cora’s open curiosity is behind the question. He sees now how she entices others to confide in her.

 

“I do not possess him, not really,” he explains. “I will not force him to it.”

 

“Has he not offered it willingly?” she asks, surprised.

 

“He has, but I cannot trust that isn’t simply giving me what he thinks I want. He’s my slave, but he’s also a man and I cannot confuse the two.”

 

“Oh brother, you’re in love with him,” she says, wonderingly. 

 

“I am,” Derek confirms. “And I will not destroy him because of it.”

 

“Then you’ve decided he’s not working in secret for Gerard,” Cora hums, thinking it over. “Do you trust him?”

 

“Of course.”

 

“And you allow him to be his own man? He has a say in what happens to him?”

 

“I could hardly claim to love him if I did not.”

 

Cora scoffs. “You are woefully ignorant of most of the men in Rome, Derek. A man may claim to adore a woman, but the moment the priest leaves, her best interests are at his whim.”

 

“I trust we will not be entertaining proposals from such men,” he teases.

 

Cora glares at him, but it softens as she continues. “It seems to me that if you love Stiles, and you trust him, and you take his advice over that of others, as you do, then perhaps you can see your way to trusting him when he offers himself. I’ve seen the way he looks at you, Derek, and he feels what you do, I know it.”

 

“I believe he does,” Derek agrees, kicking a stone. “But in this I cannot surrender. There is a fire inside of me, and it burns for him, but what I desire even more than I desire him, is to know I have treated him as an equal. I will not rest until I have made it so.”

 

“Aristotle believed that all men can be equals,” she tells him. “But Romans tend to skip over those parts of his philosophy.”

 

“For their own purpose,” Derek agrees, heart steady and determined as their doma comes into view, Stiles waiting at the gate. “For my purposes, I will not rest until it is so.”

Chapter Text

Tension builds between Derek and Stiles as the days bring them closer to Saturnalia. It’s the oddest of circumstances, Derek thinks, because he’s no longer the blushing youth afraid to make the first move. On the contrary, he knows every deliciously wanton action he wishes to introduce Stiles to, and while he’s eager to start, every day brings more apprehension. Because Stiles has never been touched and Derek wants with every fibre of his being to make it good for him. Every moment of every day, he craves to touch Stiles. And yet he’s stopped touching him altogether. They communicate with soft words and lingering glaces, and nothing more. 

 

Cora’s declares them both children after the first week and takes to spending as much time as possible out of the domus, using the final details of Allison and Scott’s wedding as an excuse to flee. Derek cannot blame her since most of his days are spent trying not to crawl out of his own skin with desire and frustration. Stiles seems to be faring better, but at least once a day Derek finds him staring at the bed, head cocked and mouth soft as he retreats into his thoughts.

 

To distract them both, he puts Stiles in charge of organizing the donum for the other slaves; special trinkets the House of Hale will provide for them in exchange for their honesty and trust when the time for remonstrating comes. Derek’s grandmother started the tradition the first Saturnalia of her marriage to his grandfather and Derek’s mother had taught he and his sisters to continue it since while they themselves have nothing to lose during remonstration, the slaves have everything. Even during Saturnalia there are stories of masters taking offense at the comments of their slaves and disciplining them. Talia had always taken pride in how seriously Hales took the well-being of those under their name and Derek is keen to make her proud by carrying it forward. If he spent an inordinate amount of time thinking on what Stiles’ complaints may be and how Derek could make up for them, no one knew to shame him for it.

 

The morning of Allison and Scott’s wedding dawns bright and cold but Derek’s plan to linger in bed is upended when Stiles stumbles into the room, wet and naked. He’s using a linen to dry himself and he grins at Derek’s attention. 

 

“I just took a bath in your tub,” he announces proudly as Derek’s eyes travel down his body. “I would have woken you to ask permission but I didn’t want you to scold me for taking Saturnalia liberties early,” Stiles explains, rubbing at his chest. The towel hangs between his legs but Derek can still see the outline of his cock and the shadow of the nest of hair around it. His mouth floods with saliva and he’s forced to swallow thickly.

 

“Dominus?” Stiles questions, an amused look on his face telling Derek it’s not the first time he’s said it.

 

Derek clears his throat and wills himself not to rut against the bed. “I have something for you.”

 

“I welcome it,” Stiles tells him and there’s a depth in his voice and a heat in his eyes that makes Derek shiver.

 

“Cenatoria,” Derek croaks, sitting up and gingerly covering his lap with a pillow because if he misses Allison’s wedding Chris will never forgive him, and if he doesn’t focus on something other than Stiles’ naked body, he will definitely miss the wedding. And perhaps the birth of their first child. “For tomorrow.”

 

“Really?” Stiles asks brightly. “Where?”

 

Derek points to the cabinet behind his desk and Stiles drops the towel to search. He watches unabashedly as Stiles leaves every door and cubby open once it’s been explored, his backside and the small mark above his cleft on full display. 

 

Stiles crows when he finds the packages. “How did you manage this without me?” He tears at the plain linen wrappings, then stops to roll his eyes and answer his own question. “Cora.”

 

Derek smiles at his excitement. “She was more than willing to help me spoil you.”

 

“And herself, I saw the saffron—” Stiles words fall away as he pulls the red fabric from its trappings.

 

“Do you like it?” Derek asks, nervous.

 

“Derek,” Stiles whispers, and that’s all Derek needs to have him up and crossing the room to where Stiles stands caressing the smooth wool.

 

“The red will suit you, I think.”

 

“It’s so fine,” Stiles says, rubbing the robe on his cheek.

 

“And warm,” Derek notes, feeling it for himself. “So we can join the festivities outdoors.”

 

“What’s this?” Stiles asks, studying the embroidery on one sleeve.

 

“The name Hale means strength,” he explains, tracing is fingers over the swirls and stalks of the symbol. 

 

“And the grape leaves?” Stiles follows the gold stitches around the fabric until he’s back where he started. 

 

Derek clears his throat, apprehension halting his words as Stiles waits for an answer. “Liber. He, um, you bring him to mind. To me.”

 

Stiles mouth curls at one corner. “I was born in March. During the Liberalia.”

 

“I did not know that,” Derek confesses, emboldened by what feels dangerously like fate. “He’s the father of freedom. And wine, hence the grape leaves.”

 

“Hmm, tell me more,” Stiles says, nothing but the fine wool of his new robe between them.

 

“He brought us honey, like the colour of your eyes in sunlight,” Derek tells him softly.

 

“Charmer,” Stiles accues with a fond look. 

 

Derek grips the robe, using it to pull Stiles closer. “His temple is adorned with phalluses and he holds procreative power.”

 

“Is that so?” Stiles asks, rubbing Derek’s chest through the fabric. “What else?”

 

Derek shivers when Stiles’ fingers graze his nipple. “During Liberalia a procession of soft seed travels the valley, a carnal offering to encourage crops to grow.”

 

“What kind of animal do they use for the seed? What beast is deemed worthy to mix with the seed of a Roman? A Bull?”

 

“Wolves,” Derek growls, baring his teeth.

 

Stiles snorts and dissolves into a fit of giggling so great Derek has to hold him up by his arms. The robe falls to the floor between them and Stiles’ laughter dies in his throat. Derek’s breath quickens when Stiles’ tongue swipes across his lower lip, leaving a wet shine on the plump flesh.

 

“For the love of the gods, dress yourselves!” Cora shrieks from the doorway, startling them. 

 

Stiles curses and lunges under Derek’s desk and Derek grabs the robe from the floor, covering himself. “Gods woman, announce yourself before walking into a bedchamber!”

 

“My eyes!” she cries, gagging loudly. “I’m ruined! ” Cora peeks between her fingers when she hears Stiles’ laughter from his hiding spot.

 

“Considering your reaction to having Stiles naked and adorned upon his arrival, I doubt your claims of ruin,” Derek tells her.

 

“It’s you, darling brother, I have no wish to see disrobed. Stiles has nothing to shame him.”

 

“Cora!” Derek scolds as Stiles says, “Gratitude, Domina,” with a bashful smile.

 

“We’re expected to join Chris and Laura within the hour for prayers so quit playing and get dressed,” she tells them, now ignoring their nakedness. “And not in that,” she says, swirling her finger at Stiles’ new robe. “Saturnalia starts tomorrow and I’ve a reputation to uphold.”

 

“She’d wear hers if she could,” Stiles tells him once Cora has gone.

 

Derek laughs and folds the robe. “She would, but it’s not proper and her natural beauty shines brighter than any gown.”

 

When Derek glances up he finds Stiles starting at him with a fond look. “What is it?”

 

Stiles shakes his head lightly and smiles. “Your affection for your family is inspiring.”

 

“They’re my sisters and I love them,” Derek explains.

 

“Love is a different animal,” Stiles argues, gathering Derek’s wedding clothes. “You may love someone and still treat them poorly. But you cherish your sisters. You respect who they are and you take pride in their happiness. It was on display at Laura’s wedding; her adoration for Chris was mirrored in yours for her.”

 

“It’s not the revelation you make it out to be,” Derek dismisses, brushing off the warmth building in his chest. Stiles is putting him on a pedestal and Derek knows it only a matter of time before he tumbles to the dirt below. “Plenty of people admire their siblings.”

 

“Why can you not see how wonderful you are?” 

 

Derek huffs as Stiles drapes a toga over his shoulders. “I mean you no offence when I say this, but Stiles, we have led very different lives until recently. Your family was taken from you and you grew up alone under the thumb of Argent. It skewed your view of the world. Your life has been barren of love and I fear you romanticize it as a consequence.”

 

“My mother loved me,” Stiles tells him sharply. “She loved me enough for a lifetime before she died so don’t tell me I don’t know it when I see it.”

 

“I didn’t mean—”

 

“And you can pretend all you want, but our lives are still very different. Dominus .” Stiles steps back from him, eyes hard and hands curled into fists at his side.

 

Derek’s stomach drops. 

 

“I need to get dressed,” Stiles mutters, grabbing his own tunic and fleeing the room.

 

Derek sits on the edge of his bed, dropping his head into his hands. He truly has no idea how the two and them can go from spirited and prurient to cold and abashed so quickly. His only desire is to have Stiles happy at his side, but the path to that feels littered with shards of broken pottery and he has to continually stop to clean their wounds. He has no idea how to navigate them to a happy ending where no one gets hurt.

 

Stiles is the perfect slave for the remainder of the day, subdued and respectful throughout the prayers and the wedding itself. He stands behind Derek, hands folded and head down, ready to do as he’s told and Derek hates every moment of it. He feels like he’s doused the fire Stiles holds inside himself; the one he’s carefully hid and fed, keeping it lit in the storm of his life. All Derek wanted was to stoke it into a healthy blaze of passion and light, and instead he’s smothered it with the sand of his own doubts.

 

He’s not skilled at keeping his mood hidden and by the time Allison and Scott are wed Laura, Chris, and Parish have all tried to rouse him. But all Derek can do is stare mournfully at Stiles from across the room where Cora is keeping him close. It’s not until Allison drags him into the garden and away from the others that he realizes the effect he’s having on the others.

 

“What’s happened?” she asks delicately, her lovely face etched with worry.

 

“Apologies, friend, I did not intend to tarnish your happy day,” Derek tells her, feeling lower than the mud on his sandals.

 

“We’re family now, Uncle ,” she says with a wry smile. ”Our pain is shared. Now, what did you do?”

 

Derek groans and throws himself on a bench, giving into the dramatics he employed so much in his youth. 

 

“It can’t be that bad,” Allison laughs, sitting beside him. 

 

“I’ve hurt Stiles,” he confesses quietly, wringing his hands together.

 

Allison stiffens. “You struck him?”

 

“No, no, gods no,” Derek assures her. “I told him, I told him he doesn’t understand what love is.”

 

Allison whistles and it’s just uncouth enough to startle a laugh out of him. He relaxes enough to lean against her, shaking his head.

 

“How did I make this mess? All I want is him. To want me, to love me and let me love him in return. I want him to be mine.”

 

“He is yours,” Allison points out.

 

“Not, not like I want him to be. I want to free him, but he insists a man of my standing cannot consort with a freeman, yet I cannot trust that anything he gives me as my slave is not done so out of duty.”

 

Allison hums. “Does he love you now?”

 

Derek stares at her. “I— I haven’t asked him.”

 

Allison gives him a look that has him hanging his head in shame. “Does he know the depth of your heart or does he simply know that you covet him?”

 

“I’m an idiot,” Derek says.

 

“Yes, you are. For the sake of all of us, Derek, talk to him . And actually listen when he speaks, don’t just hear what you want to.”

 

“How do you make it work with Scott?” he asks abruptly. “He’s of a lower class and yet you’ve married him. He doesn’t seem to resent you for your wealth.”

 

“Because we love each other, Derek,” she tells him, taking his hand. “And we communicate. At first, I’ll admit I was resistant to his affection because I worried about my reputation, what people would say. I thought it was simply a lustful attraction, but once we’d exhausted that route—”

 

Derek chokes in surprise but Allison ignores him.

 

“I still couldn’t get him out of my head. His smile, his words. He was open and kind, and every time I saw him I felt like he gave me everything of himself.”

 

“How did he convince you?”

 

Allison laughs. “He didn’t! I convinced myself. Derek, being half of a whole isn’t one person’s decision. You have to be in it together or it will never work.”

 

“So I should ask Stiles what he wants,” he surmises.

 

“And don’t argue with his answer. Trust him to tell you his truth.”

 

“Allison,” Scott calls from the doorway of the Domus. “It’s time to go.”

 

Her smile is huge and Derek cannot help but let her happiness buoy him. 

 

“Apologize. Listen. Trust,” she tells him sternly before hurrying back to her husband.

 

“Apologize, listen, trust,” Derek repeats under his breath, bracing for whatever may come.

Chapter Text

Derek catches Stiles’ hand as the others follow the procession of the newlyweds toward the house Chris and Laura have given them as a gift. His surprise turns to wariness as he sees it’s Derek’s hand stopping him.

 

“Will you walk with me? Please?” Derek asks once he’s released him. He wants Stiles to go with him of his own accord and not because he thinks he has to. “We’ll stay close to the oth—”

 

“Can we go home?” Stiles asks, giving away no emotion.

 

“Of course,” Derek tells him, signalling for his private guard to follow them. Cora is staying with Chris and Laura to prepare for the festival so he needn't worry for her safety.

 

Stiles starts walking, forcing Derek to quicken his steps to keep up. 

 

“I don’t like this,” Stiles tells him, wrapping his cloak tighter around his shoulders. “Quarrelling with you. It frustrates me.”

 

“Apologies,” Derek says earnestly. “I feel I have caused this out of simple bullheadedness.”

 

Stiles is silent a moment before he glances at Derek. “If you’re waiting for me to argue, you’re going to be disappointed.”

 

Derek sighs. “I am never disappointed in you, Stiles.”

 

“No pressure,” Stiles mutters.

 

Derek sighs, unsure of how to continue without making matters worse.

 

“I heard a rumour today,” Stiles says a minute later, saving Derek from his floundering. “About you and Kate Argent.”

 

Derek sucks in a breath and tries not to look guilty while Stiles stares at him.

 

“Some truth to that rumour, then.”

 

Derek clears his throat, knowing it’s best to get it all out in the open. “What did you hear?”

 

“That you were in love with her. Before. When you were younger,” Stiles says, continuing before Derek can speak. “That you’re still in love with her.”

 

“Stiles,”

 

“That the two of you were caught together at Laura’s wedding.”

 

“Stiles.”

 

“That a third wedding is about to be announced,” Stiles finishes, his tone and face so controlled and blank it makes Derek’s heart ache. He needs to address all of the rumours, but he also needs to keep Stiles from fleeing from the truth.

 

“There will be no third wedding,” he says sternly. “Not between me and Kate. Or anyone else, for that matter.”

 

Stiles doesn’t respond and doesn’t look relieved to Derek decides to plow ahead. “I thought I loved her, once. I was barely Cora’s age and she was beautiful and attentive. But she was cruel, too. I couldn’t see it then, but I was merely a plaything for her. Once she found a suitable husband I was discarded.”

 

Stiles wraps his arms around himself and stares straight ahead, giving no indication of his reaction, so Derek keeps going.

 

“I was… I thought she broke my heart. So I went away to war to prove myself a man. I admit that at first I entertained fantasies of returning awash in glory and luring her away from her husband, her child.” Derek’s voice breaks in shame but there’s no going back now. “But after the first campaign I started to find myself. I grew a confidence I never had in my youth and I saw that there is more out there in the world than what’s hidden under Kate Argent’s skirts.”

 

Stiles snorts and tries to cover it with a cough, but it emboldens Derek and he wanders closer to him. The guards are out of hearing range, but this is a story he’s only telling for Stiles.

 

“The first time I bedded another man was a revelation. It was pure lust and in the moment I felt sure we would tear each other to pieces.” He chuckles, thinking back on it. His body remembering every bruise and scratch he carried the morning after. “The practice is common in the army, but there are rules. Being penetrated by a man under your rank is dishonourable. They’ll strip you of your command for it.”

 

He pauses to relish the hitch in Stiles’ breathing and he waits. He knows Stiles must be burning to know, but he’s been silent long enough and Derek knows he has but to wait him out before his curiosity gets the better of him.

 

Stiles shudders when their arms brush and he finally blurts out his question. “What rank was he?”

 

Derek smiles. “The same as mine.”

 

Stiles’ head whips to the side and Derek’s there to take in his surprise. “What did you do?”

 

“We did what any two soldiers do at an impasse,” Derek explains, licking his lips. “We strategized. Changed tactics until we found something that suited the situation.”

 

“Meaning?” Stiles prompts.

 

“Meaning once we had torn our clothes off we took each other in hand and found our pleasure simultaneously,” Derek explains.

 

Stiles lets out a long breath, then clears his throat and stares forward once again. “What does this have to do with Kate Argent?”

 

It’s like Stiles pours cold water over his head and Derek realizes he’s veered wildly off path. Somehow he can’t help but want Stiles aching for him and his mouth dribbles out every lewd and lascivious thought in his head.

 

“The point is that’s when I realized what I felt for that soldier was no different than what I felt for Kate, only more honest. He and I knew what we were doing and where it would lead, whereas Kate kept me on a leash, giving me only enough to keep me interested and begging. The soldier and I at least respected each other afterwards.”

 

“You don’t respect Kate?”

 

Derek grimaces. “Over the years I excused her behaviour towards me as youthful hubris. It wasn’t that she didn’t want me, she just got lost in the power she had over me. She was a woman unsure of where she would land. Her father’s wealth was in jeopardy and she knew she’d be used to ensure their fortune. Who was I to begrudge her a little control? She didn’t want to leave me behind, but once her marriage had been announced what else could she do? It’s not as though I had no expectations on me, either. I couldn’t keep her as my mistress until I’d taken my place at my father’s side, and even then it would be at the opposition of her very wealthy new husband. Her cruelness towards me was simply her way of saving us both from heartbreak.”

 

“Do you still believe that?” Stiles asks quietly.

 

“I did when I returned home. Mostly. My obsession with her had faded, but I still counted her a victim. Now I know better.”

 

Stiles slows his feet as their Doma comes into view. “What happened at Laura’s wedding?” 

 

“She revealed herself as the viper she truly is,” Derek spits. “She cornered me and kissed me. I was drunk and it took a moment to push her away. Stiles, I promise you I did not seek her out. Any feelings I carry for her are no more than memories.”

 

“What did she want from you? Besides the obvious,” Stiles grumbles.

 

“She taunted me with the things we’d done; either to inspire of provoke me, I’m not sure. And she asked after you. Asked, well, I’m sure you can guess.”

 

“What did you tell her?”

 

“I told her she was being inappropriate and to stay away from my slaves.”

 

Stiles flinches at the word, but moves one quickly. “Did she give any indication of why I was sent to you?”

 

Derek thinks back, shaking his head. “No, just that she knew Gerard had sent you and that you were untouched.”

 

“I’ve always thought that odd,” Stiles confesses. “The purpose of a stud slave is to… well, to rut. But I’ve never done that. You’d think he’d have me properly educated before expecting me to please anyone.”

 

“I don’t think you were meant to please me.”

 

“Did he wish for me to anger you? Gods, did he expect you to beat me for not performing?” Stiles asks, disgusted.

 

Derek stops at the outer gate of the domus, pieces of Stiles’ appearance finally starting to come together. “Gerard kept you in seclusion until he gave you to me. Without reason of obvious purpose. To perform a task you knew nothing about.”

 

“Yes,” Stiles responds, opening the gate.

 

“What if he expected me to tie up his loose ends for him?”

 

Stiles eyes grow wide. “Murder me, you mean?”

 

A sour taste seeps into Derek’s mouth at the words, but he can’t deny that it makes sense. “What if Gerard had to keep you hidden? Because you witnessed something or knew something?”

 

“But I don’t know anything .”

 

“Not anymore, but what if you’ve simply forgotten? And now that he’s sure you can’t reveal the truth, he has no need to keep you alive.”

 

“So he sent me to you? You’re hardly a brute, Derek.”

 

Derek’s stomach flips at Stiles’ use of his name, but he can’t afford to get distracted. “But Gerard doesn’t know that. All he knows is the angry boy who ran away to war. I have a reputation on the battlefield, Stiles.”

 

“What kind of reputation,” Stiles asks cautiously.

 

“The call me Lupus Bellum.”

 

“War Wolf,” Stiles whispers. “Why?”

 

“The stories that made it back to Rome were that I was a violent and expedient killer. That I could track a contingent of men and lay in wait until I found a weak spot to attack, killing them all before an alarm could be raised.”

 

Stiles bites at his quivering lip before speaking. “How much of that is true?”

 

“As with all myths, parts are based in truth. I do hunt the enemy, but I’m hardly alone. I’ve trained my men to stay silent and unseen until it’s time to strike.”

 

“And the violent killer part?” Stiles laughs nervously.

 

“All parts of war are violent, Stiles, that’s the nature of it. There’s no way to keep your hands clean when you’re fighting for your life,” Derek tells him, praying he understands.

 

“And here I thought the name was because you like to be scratched behind the ears,” Stiles says, trying for levity and failing miserably.

 

“Well, there’s that too,” Derek says, stepping through the gate. “Can we continue this inside? You’re shivering and I’m parched.”

 

“I think you’ve spoken more tonight than the entire ride to Terracina and back,” Stiles teases and leads the way inside.

 

Derek smiles softly, relief flooding through him that Stiles doesn’t hate him on principal. He knows it’s hard for those who don’t witness the hellscape of war to understand the decisions made and the actions taken by those who fight to keep Rome strong.

 

Derek calls for warm wine once they’re inside and pours Stiles a glass before serving himself. Stiles looks embarrassed, but doesn’t comment on it. Instead he perches on the edge of a divan and stares up at Derek, expectantly.

 

“You asked for time with your memories, and I’ve given you that,” Derek starts, forcing himself to hold Stiles’ gaze, even when dread replaces the openness Stiles reserves for him. “But I need to know what you remember of my uncle. Until we know how he and Gerard are connected, I fear any attempt to stop them could end badly.”

 

Stiles drops his eyes to contemplate his wine. He gives a short nod and drinks deeply, the phantom of the wine still on his upper lip when he returns his gaze to Derek. “The first time I remember seeing him was when my mother died. She’d been sick as long as I can remember, always with a cough, and she couldn’t be out of bed for long.”

 

“How old were you when she died?” Derek asks softly.

 

“Ten, I think. That’s the last celebration of my birth I remember. She had a bull sacrificed in my honour. To bless my transition from a boy to a man. It was Peter who brought her the bull.”

 

Derek’s blood runs cold. “In exchange for what?”

 

Stiles blinks a him, realization dawning on his face. “That’s not possible. She would never have given me over to Peter.”

 

“Stiles, I know your memories of your mother are… delicate, but is it possible she was Gerard’s mistress? I can see no other reason for him to keep a slave who cannot work. And for her to have the power to demand a bull be sacrificed for you…” he trailed off, bracing himself for Stiles’ anger. But it doesn’t come. Stile stares at his hands, brow low as he sorts through his memories for the truth.

 

“You think I’m Gerard’s son,” Stiles says, voice empty.

 

“I don’t know,” Derek admits, wishing he could deny it. “But we cannot ignore the possibility.”

 

“After my mother died, Gerard was darker. Angry all the time and quick to strike out. When Peter arrived and tried to claim me I thought Gerard would kill him. He beat Peter with his own hands. That would make sense if I was his child, born a bastard or not.”

 

Derek grimaces. “Do you remember anything that was said between them?” 

 

Stiles shakes his head. “I was in a stupor. My mother was dead, my hope was gone. I guess Peter’s bull really did signal the end of my childhood.”

 

“But Gerard kept Peter away. Surely he still had affinity for you.”

 

“Gerard hates me. I look like her, he said. A constant reminder of what had been taken from him. He blamed me for her illness. For her death. Once she was gone things changed. I was tossed from our rooms and became a common slave. The few other slaves at the villa hated me because I’d been favoured. They saw my new position as deserved. A fall from grace,” Stiles scoffs. “Maybe they knew he fathered me.”

 

Derek slides to the divan beside Stiles, taking his hand in support. He wants to tell Stiles to stop, that none of it matters now, but he cannot. Because it does matter. They have to know Gerard and Peter’s motivation in keeping Stiles and his mother hidden.

 

“He stayed for a while after that, but I think her memory haunted him there. He gave instructions that I was to remain untouched and in good health, but beyond that, he left me alone until he sent me to you.”

 

“Did he speak to you before you came to us?”

 

“No, have not seen him in years. I have no idea why he sent me to you,” his voice cracks on the last word and he shudders.

 

They sit side by side in silence, Derek’s thumb sweeping over the back of Stiles’ hand until his pulse slows, his breaths coming even and strong. 

 

“It’s still possible you are a Roman citizen,” Derek says, trying to keep his voice even. “That Gerard took you and your mother as spoils of a war between him and an enemy. I don’t know who you were, Stiles, but I swear to you I will not rest until we find out.”

 

Stiles stares at him with tired eyes. “What if who I was is worse than who I am?”

 

“Then I shall still want you by side,” Derek tells him with confidence, fighting a smile when Stiles’ eyes grow impossibly large. “There is so much I need to say to you.”

 

“I’m right here,” Stiles whispers.

 

Derek sweeps his fingers down Stiles’ cheek, pressing the tips to the moles that decorate Stiles’ skin. “It’s been brought to my attention that I’d do well to listen more and argue less.”

 

Stiles snorts, exhaling across Derek’s hand. 

 

“And I realize that I’ve never explained my...feelings toward you.”

 

Stiles’ eyebrows are nearly at his hairline, but he settles himself deeper into the divan and folds his hands in his lap, the very picture of perfect attentiveness.

 

“I said being with the soldier helped me realize I never loved Kate, but he wasn’t the only person who showed me.”

 

Stiles’ head jerks in a nod. “There were others.”

 

“No, well, yes, but that’s not what I—” Derek stops and blows out frustrated breath. “Yes, I have taken other lovers, but none of them were more than a warm body on a cold night or a release of tension. You, Stiles. You have shown me that my feelings for Kate were nothing close to what being in love feels like.”

 

“You said I don’t know what love is so how could I do that?” Stiles asks, pain clear in his tone and in the lines of his face.

 

“I acted an ass and I was wrong. I had no right to say that and what you said was true, I was trying to turn away from the praise you were giving me. I do love my sisters, and I want the best for them. But Stiles, I also love you and that has nothing to do with how I feel for them. What I feel for you is a burning. But instead of shrinking back from the flames I want to throw myself into them. I want to love you and be loved by you, until my last breath. But I don’t want you to feel trapped, or that we are not equals. I want to stand beside you. With you. That’s all. Forever.”

 

Stiles is gripping the edge of the divan so hard his fingers are white and there’s a tremble in his shoulders as a tear escapes down his cheek.

 

“Futuo,” Derek swears, pulling away. “I did not wish to upset you, I only sought to explain my desire so that it might be easier for you to explain yours, and now I’ve ruined everything.”

 

“I thought,” Stiles chokes out with a sniff. “I thought you were going to argue less.”

 

“I’m not arguing with you,” Derek exclaims with panic. “Whatever you decide is fine, I will accept it.”

 

“You’re arguing with yourself, I’ve barely said a word,” Stiles points out.

 

“Apologies,” Derek tells him, contrite. “Again.”

 

Stiles wipes at his cheek and takes a mouthful of wine before he meets Derek’s gaze. “I did not realize you felt so deeply for me. I had thought, sometimes it seemed, but I told myself it was impossible. Because you’re Senator Hale, and I’m a stud slave who can’t— and there’s no way for that to…” he trails off, taking another gulp from his cup. “This is, it’s more than I expected, truthfully. I’ve seen the way you look at me and you’ve never hid your reaction to my body, so I thought you wanted that.”

 

Derek has to bite as his lips to keep from speaking because he does want Stiles’ body, but if it has to be one or the other, he’ll be content with his heart.

 

“Because that’s my purpose for being here, and I’ve been lucky you’ve been patient with me. And then I offered myself to you and you refused, and I thought it was because you thought it beneath you to take a slave as a lover. And you spoke of freeing me, but what would I do then? I’ve no skills, no more to offer than a freshborn babe in the street. People expect you to fuck your slaves, but a Senator fucking a freeman could ruin you and I didn’t, I don’t, want that. I’m safer here, as your slave and I could think only of saving myself. I couldn’t allow myself that hope,” he finishes on a sob, draining his cup and shrugging, helpless. “Say something for Jupiter’s sake!”

 

“So you... do love me?” Derek asks.

 

“Of course I do!” Stiles groans, throwing up his hands.

 

Derek’s on his knees in front of him in an instant, snaking his arms around Stiles’ narrow waist and pressing in until he can hear the quick tattoo of his love’s heart under his ear.

 

“Gratitude,” Derek whispers, going pliant when Stiles’ arms wrap around his back. “Gratitude.”

 

“You deserve love, Derek,” Stiles tells him, tilting his head up so Derek’s forced to meet his gaze. “You are so, so worthy.”

 

“So are you,” Derek answers and the smile Stiles gives him has Derek pushing forward to meet his lips. It’s soft, and dry, but it warms Derek to his toes. When he pulls back Stiles looks stunned. “What now?”

 

Stiles licks his lips and runs a hand through his unruly hair, his cheeks a delightful shade of pink. “Now we should go to bed.”