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Golden Boy

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It's getting late, and Derek frowns in frustration. They still don't have a workable plan for dealing with the Argent advance forces that are closing in on their location, and there isn't much time left before they'll be cutting into their rest. It's coming hard upon the time when they'll have to make the decision to break camp and make an emergency retreat towards more defensible territory, or take their weary soldiers back for a risky battle.

He knows it annoys his Uncle that they're on a defensive campaign instead of an offensive one. There's much less anticipatory predatory excitement in it, and a bit more fear. Derek, on the other hand, finds he mostly prefers it, at least on principle. He's never approved of his Uncle's determination to expand his territory to the south or east, even in the limited ways his Mother has permitted.

"It's too risky."

"Not if we wait till morning and I flank them from here," Derek points out, moving the little carved wooden horses representing his cavalry around behind the meticulously-drawn maps. Isaac certainly has an eye for detail when given the time. These maps are from before the fighting had begun, when they'd mostly been doing patrol routes.

Peter rubs at his beard with his gauntleted thumb.

Derek is used to the long silences that accompany Peter's deeper thought processes. He just turns and finds his way over to the wine-skin sitting on the nearby table. He refills his mug and then Peter's, waiting while his Uncle thinks through the foreseeable outcomes. Probably even some possibilities that Derek hasn't and can't imagine. Peter's always had an exceptional level of foresight.

"Good. That should work. Just leave me a squad of horsemen with the main force."

Derek nods. "Very well. We'll move at first light. I'll notify the lieutenants, if there's nothing else?"

Peter waves a dismissive hand at him, still staring at the maps as he sips his wine. Derek nods and turns to go.

"Oh, one more thing," Peter interjects. Derek turns, completely unsurprised at the ploy to catch him off guard. Peter smirks at him. "I've brought you a present to enjoy in the meantime, just arrived today. I really think you'll like this one."

"I really wish you wouldn't," Derek says, but it's merely a force of habit at this point. He knows Peter won't give up on his little manipulations. He almost wonders whether it's Peter's only real form of entertainment in his life. He just shakes his head as his uncle waves him out of the tent into the cool night air.

Boyd and Isaac are waiting a little ways away at the main campfire. They rise as he approaches, and fall into easy step alongside him.

"We'll move at first light to flank them at bluecourt pass while Peter's troops will head them off at the base of the mountain backed by a squad of our riders. Isaac, be sure to have another discussion with Mahealani about what his scouts have seen. We don't have time to send out our own." By which they all know he means Peter won't let them. But such things are best left unspoken.

"Right, because going in blind is totally the best plan," Isaac mutters, earning himself a stern glance from Derek.

"So keep your eyes open," Derek orders, and Isaac ducks his head deferentially.

"Yes My Lord," he murmurs and Derek sighs, setting a hand briefly on his shoulder.

"I don't like it either, but it's what we have to work with."
When he turns his gaze on Boyd, he gets a precise nod from the tall soldier.

"I'll assign squads and arrange the watches so the holdbacks mostly get the last shift. And I'll let Erica know so she can organize the grooms to wake early."

Derek just nods, having nothing to add. At his approval, they both fall away from his flank, heading off to do their duties. They've both been with him for years now, and they all know each other's strengths and habits well. It makes for smooth operations and success in their campaigns.

Peter seems to enjoy the excitement of a bumpier ride. A campaign with him is never boring or straightforward. His 'gift' is typical disruptive behavior. Derek ducks into his tent with a resigned sigh, prepared to dress and reassign whatever new beauty Peter has brought him. His enclave is already rather full of such slaves, most of whom seem eternally grateful to him for sparing them from his bed and letting them do simple, useful work for him. He can't bring himself to sell them when they all do good work, each of them determined to prove themselves worthy of remaining under such a bearable master. They do make for loyal servants, so he can't really complain about Peter's 'gifts'. But it is annoying to deal with, to have to spend his evening sorting out a slave instead of being able to go right to bed. It's just something he has to learn to accept as a byproduct of serving alongside his uncle.

But when he lays eyes on the boy laying amid his furs, he finds his breath catching in his throat. His skin is golden with the candle-light glimmering against the sheen of oil that has been slathered on his bared body. His hands and feet are bound in turn behind his back by simple leather strips, a sister strip wrapped around his head, blindfolding him.

He doesn't quite lay still, body shifting ever so slightly as he rubs himself against the furs beneath him. His lips are parted, and they work over inaudible words or sounds. His skin is flushed, nipples peaked and pierced with simple but unexpected golden rings. He's spectacularly beautiful in the candlelight. The many glowing candles that have been added to his usual lighting cast glittering edges and shadows, imbuing an almost unearthly golden color to his skin.

It's enough that Derek hesitates.

The slave's tense and, Derek realizes when he moves closer, he's hard as can be, cock glistening with oil and flushed almost purple. With the trail of hair on his belly and groin and the breadth of his shoulders he's clearly a man - a young man, yes, but not a boy, though in comparison to the battle-hardened soldiers Derek is used to, his physique seems particularly slim and youthful.

Before he can stop himself, he's crouching down and reaching out to run a calloused hand down the golden flank, reveling in the softness of it, the contrast. The young man moans, twisting his head though he's still blindfolded. His chest is fluttering rapidly with his breath, perhaps in fear.

"Oh please," he begs, voice accented enough to suggest he comes from the plains far, far to the north. "Please."

Derek amends his assessment. His tension is perhaps almost entirely arousal. When Derek doesn't move or speak, the foreigner lets out a frustrated little groan. He doesn't have much maneuverability, hands and feet bound as they are. But he does squirm onto his back, shifting his hips and setting his cock bobbing. He groans and grits his teeth when his length collides with his belly.

"It aches. Please, whoever you are, bring me off this time. I can't take anymore."

Derek's breath catches at the plea. Peter seems to be getting more persistent, dosing the poor young man with vainpetal and leaving him for Derek to find already teased and trapped in a state of desperate arousal. As much as he doesn't want to break his rule of not using slaves to satisfy his sexual urges, he thinks it would be more cruel to leave the young man to suffer. He could just free the boy's hands and let him take care of himself until the herb wore off. But…

The scent of oil and sex is thick and sensual in the air. Hot, slickened flesh pulses just a few inches away from his fingers. Derek feels the breath shuddering out of the young man as he squirms to his side again to try and put his cock into contact with something, even something as ineffective as the furs. It would be so easy just to reach out and touch him, to make the young man's necessary release something they both enjoy. Plus there's the fact that the boy doesn't seem to know who he is. Few in this region are not either familiar with his face or his reputation, but with the blindfold covering his eyes…

He can't help the hand that slides up along the golden creature's thigh. His skin is so soft, so warm with the oils and the heat of his own arousal. He doesn't shrink away in fear, doesn't bravely tolerate the touch of a monster. He begs for Derek's touch.

"Oh yes," the boy murmurs, "Oh. Please."

Derek's thoroughly aware that his trousers are uncomfortably tight, trapped under the leather armor and his sword-belt. He is not known for his patience, or for his indecision. He's certainly not known for his mercy except in this particular self-imposed regard. It only takes a moment for him to decide. He grimaces and stands away, stripping out of his weapons and his armor with quick, efficient and practiced motions. The clatter of objects on the table or chest are punctuated by the soft moans and occasional pleas coming from his furs. The excited thrill of anticipation curls in his abdomen at the forbidden and selfish choice that lays spread before him, literally begging to be taken this time. After a moment's hesitation he strips out of his tunic and trousers as well.

The boy is still rutting awkwardly against the fur, making filthy, needy sounds, throat long and taut and bare. Derek kneels again at the edge of the furs, then reaches out to set a hand to the long leg before him, savoring the smooth feel again.

"Yes, please, yes," is murmured deliriously in response, his muscles tensing while pushing back against Derek's touch.

Derek trails his palm up to the boy's backside, hand going slick with the oils as he kneads the firm curve of him, transfixed by the smooth golden tones in the dim light. The boy sucks in a tight breath as Derek dips his fingers into the cleft between his buttocks, teasing at the sensitive flesh that has plenty of slick oil coating it already. The boy lets out a stuttered moan when Derek presses a thumb into him.

"Oh yes," he moans.

Dosed or not, that's not a sound a virgin makes. Derek takes a slow breath as the last potential barrier to his progress falls away. There's nothing left that keeps him from reaching down to tug his cock free of his loincloth, so he does it. He runs slick fingers over it and then draws himself up the rest of the way into the piled furs, spooning his body tight behind the boy's, cock brushing at the backs of his thighs.

"Yes," the boy murmurs again, "Please."

It's been a long time since he's satisfied himself with someone. Longer since he's satisfied someone else, preferring to keep his very occasional visits to brothels as brief as possible and avoiding the formality of Kahlah's temples.

He slides his hand around to cup the painfully-taut flesh of the slave's erection, getting a filthy, wrecked moan for his troubles. He starts a slow, steady stroke, knowing any more than that would be painful. Vainpetal is rare and expensive, but growing up a wealthy member of the aristocracy and now a hardened soldier, he's seen its effects and other exotic debaucheries before. The young man squirms against him, thighs pressing against Derek's cock, slickened skin making it an easy pleasure no matter the location.

He could satisfy himself quickly like this, pressing the boy's thighs tight and fucking the cleft of them, but he finds that he doesn't want to do that, not yet. He pushes himself upright, sacrificing the delicious contact on his cock for the more intriguing pleasure of watching the heated flesh pushing against his palm. He twists his fingers, leaving the boy gasping and thrusting more desperately despite the awkwardness of his bonds.

It's hypnotizing, watching his tip push through the fingers curled around the head of him. His accent isn't the only foreign thing about him. The foreskin has been shorn short, though the scars are old and barely visible now. Something probably done when he was a child. Derek's heard that the practice existed up north, but he's never held such a one in his hand. In addition to the foreign cut of his cock, there's the glint of gold on his chest. Leaning over him and reaching with his other hand he slides a rough palm over the soft skin at the boy's chest, framing the peak with his fingers before he teases at the gold ring that pierces exotically through his nipple, giving it a tug. The young man keens.

He likes that. Oh he likes that a great deal. Derek lowers his head to his skin, dragging in the scent of sweat and sex and desire. There's a faint spice to his scent that just adds to the exotic impression. Derek lays down again, pressing himself tighter to the boy's back as he redoubles the efforts of his fist. He presses his nose in behind the boy's gold-pierced ear, darting his tongue out to feather against the delicate skin of his neck where it's curved before him.

Dosed as he is, it doesn't take more than a couple more strokes before the boy cries out against the fur, going stiff and spilling himself in thick, hot spurts against Derek's hand. Derek slows to let him catch his breath, touching him gently with soothing little strokes. But as expected, even when they pass the point of a normal comedown, the stranger's cock only eases a little, nowhere near the place it should be after eruption.

"What… why isn't," and for the first time Derek hears something other than lust in the boy's voice. For the first time he hears frustration and fear, perhaps even the edge of angry tears.

Derek sighs and finally breaks his silence. "It appears they dosed you with vainpetal. It won't wear off for a while yet."

"Oh," comes the soft reply, sounding distinctly washed-out.

The young man lays silent for a long moment, still pressed tightly to Derek's body, chest rising and falling rapidly as he struggles to catch his breath and remain calm. Derek grimaces at his selfishness and reaches down to undo the leather strip binding his legs. But as he does, the young man twists his head. The blindfold means that the boy hasn't seen him. It means that Derek doesn't have to see the inevitable fear, or the nervous stares that his scars often evoke. He leaves it, is glad of it.

The boy wets his lips in a gesture that blends nerves with desire. "You haven't…"

"No," Derek admits, all too aware of the pulsing hardness at his groin.

"Are you going to?" the boy asks, surprisingly bold for a slave. As far as he can see his back bears no scars from the whip, though, so perhaps he has only recently been put up for sale. There are some fortunate enough to have grown up in a comfortable and benevolent household or groomed specifically for the purpose which the boy has been bought.

"Do you want me to?" Derek asks, lips brushing against the shell of his ear. The foreigner's breath hitches.

"I think… yes." The nerves are still there, but the lust is clearly back in his voice.

Derek shifts his hips, dragging the head of his cock up that soft oiled skin and positioning himself behind the boy.

"Yes. Definitely yes," he adds, voice a little breathless.

Derek doesn't hesitate or second-guess. It's not in his nature, not anymore. He puts a hard hand on the boy's hip to steady him and then starts pressing forward, slipping himself into the tight ring of oil-slickened muscle.

"Oh please," the man begs, even as Derek pushes too fast, too deep to possibly be comfortable. His bound hands splay awkwardly against Derek's chest, clutching at the ripple of muscle that bunches as Derek drags back out of him. He moans, a long, low sound as Derek slides deep again, burying himself to the hilt.

Derek curls his hand hard over a trim hipbone and pulls him tight, pressing as deep and as close to the beautiful golden warmth of him as he can. Now that he's made the decision to do this, he does it with abandon, giving his impulses free rein. He sets his teeth against the nape of the boy's neck, scrapes his fingers still slick with spilled seed through the narrow trail of hair that edges up from his groin.

He savors the sensation for a long moment, dragging in a breath against the side of his neck. Then he lets his hand relax its hold and sends it sliding over the boy's belly as he strokes steadily out and back into him, starting up a pace that's focused and a little ungentle.

It's not unappreciated. The slave puts his newly-freed legs to good use, tangling one among Derek's and curling the other over Derek's thigh. Then he starts pushing back against him, with a slap of skin on skin to accompany his hum of pleasure as he picks up the pace.

Derek obliges him readily, tightening his grip and matching his rhythm. The stress of the impending cold night and weight of the day are a sort of intangible thing. His senses are full of the heat against him and the slick sound of skin on skin. It's been so long… but it's not enough. With a frustrated noise he turns them, pushing the boy's top thigh forward so that he can push into him with more leverage. He doesn't quite roll him to his belly, a concession for where he must still be almost painfully hard. But it does give him leave to thrust more quickly, more firmly than before, and the change is met with some very encouraging sounds.

He scorns himself for enjoying the way the binding on the young man's wrists twists his arms back, the way the muscles in his back stretch and tense against it. A part of him knows he should rein himself in, but the harder he pushes, the more weight he uses to pin this stranger to the ground, the more wanton his moans become. He even thinks he spots the edge of a grin on the boy's mouth as he twists his face against the furs on a shuddering gasp.

It spurs him on even further, and despite his reservations, the heaviness and apprehension the rest of the day had left him with have fled. Now all he feels is the drive onward. To drive this young man right to the precipice and then watch him fall. He aims a hand down the creased line over his hipbone and strokes a rough palm over his length. He abruptly breaks his rhythm to time his hips to his hands and with two more rough thrusts, the boy tightens around him. It's both rougher and weaker than before, what little breath he has left rushing from him on a silent cry as he shudders through his peak.

Derek gives him no more than a moment's reprieve, still chasing his own release. The boy is almost boneless in his hands as he wraps his arms around his waist, holding him tight and burrowing his face into the curve of his neck as he continues at a punishing pace, letting himself go completely. The soft moans that vibrate against him are echoed in his chest as he pushes on towards his finish. He comes silently but intensely, as always, leaving him gasping for breath against the slave's soft skin.

He lets his weight drag them to one side, though he doesn't disengage just yet, savoring the sensation for a few minutes longer. The boy leans heavily against him, still breathing a little fast, perhaps from their shared exertion, perhaps from the vainpetal not quite having run its course.

Derek slips from him, running soothing hands over his skin before laying back in the furs and covering his face with an arm thrown over his eyes, more than ready to be done with the night. He'll give him a minute or two of rest, to give his body a chance to ease back from where the herb is pushing it.

"How long, how long will it…," the boy gasps when it becomes clear his hardness isn't lessening.

Derek reaches forward to run a hand over the slave's cock to check and finds it still mostly hard.

"Fuck," the boy mumbles, shuddering at the touch.

"Not long," Derek replies. His voice is low and rough from the effort expended. "Faster if you come. There should be no lasting effects."

The boy twists his face into the furs with a pitiful sigh. Derek's exhausted, but he can hardly go to sleep when the boy is panting against the furs next to him, faint mewls of need coming every few breaths. When his hips start slowly rocking against the ground, Derek takes pity on him and strokes his hands up his thighs.

He earns himself a grateful moan when he pulls the slave's hips over so that he can reach the straining erection. Even so thoroughly spent twice already, smeared with sweat and spilled come, his cock is throbbing, swollen and reddened as it struggles to harden the rest of the way. It would be just as cruel to try and rush it as it would be to leave him untended.

Derek toys with him gently then, indulging himself in exploring the strange cut of the foreigner's cock while the fire still moves through his veins. His fingers are sticky with the boy's drying excess, letting him create a mild friction and drag little trembling sparks of sensation from him. It's not often that Derek does this, touches someone else. Partly, that's due to his status, to the fact that if he's paid for some satiation of his needs, it's not necessary to satisfy the professional whose services he has acquired. It's also due, however, to the fact that most people are too frightened or disgusted by the sight of him to enjoy his touch anyway. This boy knows him not, sees him not, and it pleases Derek to watch his unadulterated pleasures. He thinks that perhaps, in the future, any whores' services he purchases will be done with the preemptive inclusion of a blindfold. Assuming he survives the campaign long enough to return to a city at some point.

After a while the boy's cock hardens to full-mast, and his body tenses and presses against Derek more and more frequently, his voice tightening on breathless little hums. He opens for Derek, knee lifting and spreading his backside wider, the slickened smear of oil combined with Derek's release glistening around his opening, inviting him in.

Derek waits till his moans are more desperate before sliding fingers slowly inside of him. Stretching him, gliding into him in search of the extra sensations that will bring the boy release, Derek slides two fingers through the loosened rim, smearing his come back into him. It may have been a long time since he's done this, since he's put aside his own needs for someone else's like this. But he hasn't forgotten how, if the crescendoing broken moans are anything to judge by. He keeps it up until the young man spills himself again with a choked whimper, body limp and completely exhausted.

This time the swell of his cock dissipates much more, finally leaving him some relief. Derek eases the binding on his hands then, but he just murmurs incoherently, too tired to do anything but curl into the furs piled beneath his slim body.

Derek grimaces at himself as he stands away, gazing down at the debauched young man, skin smeared with oil and come and hair dark with sweat, wrists and ankles red from his bindings. This anonymous slave he's wrecked. He tries to keep his mind quiet, to avoid the internal remonstrations he'll inevitably have to face. Regardless, now is not the time. Nor is tomorrow, considering he may not even return from the battle. He cleans himself with sharp motions, then extinguishes the candles and returns to the furs to finally sleep. What he should have done hours ago. Despite the fact that his cock twitches with renewed interest as he slips in against the warm skin, he pushes the idea from his thoughts and surrenders himself to sleep.

He'll need his strength in the morning.

 

-o0o-

 

He rises well before the dawn, at the changing of the early watch. He always rises earlier than everyone else on days of war. Of course, he'd like more sleep, but he'd squandered half of his night on other physical pleasures. The remaining couple hours of sleep will have to be enough because he has much to prepare. To him, his status and honors as a prince have always meant that he needs to be the most prepared of all his troops, not the most indulged.

Plus he still has to deal with the boy snoring softly amid his furs. He watches him sleep as he silently dons his clothing and armor. As he belts on his sword, he is momentarily tempted to keep him as he is, naked and beautiful and, most importantly, in his bed. But a wave of self-recrimination overtakes him, reminding him that he has never before slaked his desires with someone he owned. Never taken something he hasn't paid a negotiated fair wage for or been given freely. And he would not.

Last night had been an anomaly. And a mistake.

So he finishes strapping on his sword and ducks out of his tent. Despite the many preparations needed with his soldiers, his first stop is the slave pavilion.

He finds the tent in question and ducks inside, nudging the toe of his boot into the footfolds of the piled blankets on the floor, earning a grumbling curse. When she peeks out from the blankets and sees that it's him above her, Erica quickly fights her way upright in the bedclothes, casting about in the dark for her discarded tunic. Boyd doesn't stir, only grunting when her elbow connects accidentally with his solar plexus.

"Don't bother yourself. It's nothing urgent," he murmurs, and she relaxes. "Just wanted to catch you before I leave."

"Of course," she says, brushing sleep out of her eyes, unselfconscious about her nudity. Six years they've known each other now, and the trust is as strong between them as it is with his two lieutenants.

"Peter's bought me another present."
She grunts in annoyance and shoves her mass of golden hair back, the move causing her bared breasts to bounce sympathetically. As Boyd had once remarked when a cup too deep into the wine, they have a voice all their own. A pair worthy of admiration indeed. Mind still fuzzy from lost sleep, he wonders if she would have felt more at home in the northern plains where women tended not to wear any more clothing than the menfolk. She has the rich blonde hair that speaks to some northern blood in her.

If he lives through the day, perhaps he'll ask her of it.

"They dosed him, too," he remembers to add, forcing himself to focus back on his duties instead of his companions. Feeling nostalgic will only get him distracted and subsequently killed.

"So unnecessary."

Derek nods his agreement with the sentiment. "He's sleeping it off in my tent but please see to him later and put him to work."

She nods sleepily and he rises. He has no need to direct her otherwise, knowing she'll do her duty well. He steps back to leave her to the last hour or so of sleep she'll get.

"Don't die," she calls after him, and he grunts in reply before ducking out of the tent.

 

The next few hours are spent reviewing plans with his lieutenants, checking on preparations of his troops, and finally making sure his horse Camaro is prepared. The black warhorse has almost as much of a reputation as he does, standing seventeen hands and bearing a coat of perfect unrelieved black. She has a temper to match and will accept no hand save Derek's. He keeps her separate from the other horses, nearer his tent. It serves his purposes as well as those of the other horses and men. Both sorts have members among them who bear the scars left by her teeth and hooves.

So Derek tends to her alone in the pre-dawn haze, cleaning her hooves and brushing down whatever dirt she's been rolling in this time. It also means that it's almost time for them to move out. He traditionally saves this for last, the repetitive grooming motions centering after the tensions of the morning plans. It fails, however, to keep his mind from wandering to certain other repetitive motions he'd engaged in last night. Still, it does keep him from thinking about anything in depth, keeping him focused on making sure it's done correctly. When he finishes buckling on the last bit of studded-leather tack and mounts, the sun is just cresting the horizon. He cuts back through the camp to join his cavalry gathering beyond its bounds.

The slaves' tents and those of the common footsoldiers are ahead of him, people slowly spilling from them and preparing for their days. The slaves will begin by tearing down the tents and loading up the pack animals in preparation for the inevitable movement of the camp after the battle. The infantry prepare breakfast and arm themselves in preparation for the march that will begin sometime after the cavalry has gone.

Erica waves to him in parting, one of the only people who would ever be so bold as to do so. Then again, she manages his pavilion, having the highest rank among his slaves.

She had been the first slave Peter had bought him and left in his bed on their first tandem campaign in the south. A gift, to celebrate his nephew's first real war and show him what he was supposedly missing about the spoils of being a lord even at war. Derek hadn't touched her, of course, though she'd spent the night in his bed, for lack of anywhere else to put her. In the morning she'd prodded him about her fate, nervous that he hadn't done what she'd expected him to do to her. Exasperated with the entire situation and anxious about the mission at hand, he'd told her to make herself useful and not spared her another thought.

When he'd come back, exhausted but successful in his first battle of that campaign, he'd found that she'd set up simple triage stations at the forward edge of his camp, prepared to deal with casualties in efficient tiers rather than at one centralized location. And within hours of his confirmation that they'd be breaking camp, she'd thrown herself into a determined effort to prove her worth and organized the slave tents to prepare to move such that the most important supplies were in even distribution throughout the group, making for the smoothest march he'd experienced yet.

He's never gone to war without her since.

She's been with him the longest and has built a strong rapport that allowed her to keep the fiery side of her spirit despite her long term of indentured servitude. Loyal as they are, none of the others are so bold as to wave at him, most of them pausing to watch him pass, nervous and attentive expressions on otherwise happy faces, and he hardly does more than glance at them, much to their probable relief.

But when he passes Erica he sees the newest of his acquisitions standing just beyond her, gazing up at him with wide eyes. Those eyes, which he hasn't seen till now, are a startling amber, so unlike the blues and greens and deep browns of the people of his lands. Eyes which are now flicking up to meet Derek's, wide with awe.

As he approaches, he realizes he should have looked away long ago but he hasn't, too drawn-in by exotic eyes. He frowns and braces himself against the impending inevitable reaction of fear or disgust in the young man's first sight of Derek's face and the mottled scarring that mars much of one side of it.

It never comes. In fact, the one thing he doesn't expect is what happens; a look of blatant appreciation passes over the man's features.

He wonders whether he knows. Whether he's spoken to the other slaves or Erica and discovered whose tent he'd been in last night. Who exactly it was that had fucked him halfway till dawn and left him blindfolded and trembling his way to sleep. A wistful little voice wonders whether maybe, just once, the young man is looking at him that way yet ignorant of his personage.

But he has other, far more important things to attend to now, so he gives Camaro her head and they ride quickly to take their place amid the gathering soldiers.

Chapter Text

It doesn't go poorly, but he can neither characterize it as having gone well. He loses an unacceptable portion of his rear squad to an ambush, and if that weren't frustrating enough, he then has to split his troops, leaving Boyd to finish putting down the ambush while he leads his remaining troops to the front in order to be successful in their main mission. The ambush had forced him to push up their timetable, knowing that their maneuver has sprung the trap awaiting them and any delay would make things worse.

Though they were down in number and too early to be guaranteed Peter's support anytime soon, they arrived quickly enough to send the Argent troops into disarray, halting their fast march to the base of the pass. Had they made it there unchecked, the Argent troops would no longer have been limited to so narrow a place to fight. It would have given them almost a fighting chance against Peter's force as a whole. Instead, Derek's forces take the immediate casualty in order to prevent a greater loss of Peter's soldiers.

Argent's forces hadn't had a chance after that.

So in the end they win the day, slaughtering their enemy without mercy. But they are not without casualties, heavier on Derek's forces than they should have been. He's furious with Peter - most particularly with Peter's scouts who had assured them there was no ambush ahead. He certainly didn't blame them for the ambush, but he was not going to accept them missing such a poorly-concealed one. Peter, however, viewed the casualties as minimal and unimportant, and still refused to give charge of any scouting operations over to Derek's people.

He likes being in control of what Derek knows. That fact is not news to him, but it does rankle more now than it had in the past, now that he has several successful campaigns of his own under his belt. And when it's his soldiers' lives at stake. His own life at stake.

Once the battalion arrives back at camp and the wounded are settled in to be cared for while the intact remain on vigilant patrol, he finally heeds Boyd's quiet but adamant requests and relinquishes control of the troops entirely to his well-capable lieutenants. Whether Boyd's insistence is for the sake of his health or to remove his glower away from the troops he isn't sure, but either way he goes.

Despite the fact that he is caked in blood - some of it his own, he doesn't head to his tent. As always, he tends to Camaro first. But his mood is thunderous, much like the clouds on the horizon. He bellows at the nearby slaves to get Erica for him as he methodically but quickly strips the armored tack from his horse. When she arrives, he stands there barking orders at her about preparations to move camp while he begins stitching closed one of the longer slices on the mare's flank.

Erica puts up with it - not that she has much choice, given that he literally owns her. But normally his post-battle gruffness is met with calm or even affection. Today her face is sour by the end of his suturing, and upon recognition of that he clamps his mouth shut then and lets her go about her duties. After all, he's only giving her the sharp side of his tongue because he can't give it to his Uncle who actually deserves it.

After he's seen to Camaro's wounds and freed her coat of blood and muck, he heads in to check on the wounded among his men. The puncture he'd seen gouged in Isaac's armor has him worried despite the assurances he'd made that he was fine. He'd kept up his usual lighthearted jokes the whole way back but there had been a pallor to his skin that concerned him.

He finds him in high spirits, however, chatting with one of Peter's lieutenants; Scott, who is having a gash of his own stitched up beside him. They're eyeing each other with enough personal interest that Derek makes a mental note to talk to Isaac later about being careful with his attention. Scott's decent enough, but he still belongs to Peter. Isaac's not always the most circumspect with his words. But it's not something he needs to intervene with now. Derek stands a moment and surveys the lot of them, but they all seem to be in good hands, so he turns and leaves before anyone can start bothering him about his own wounds.

Duty discharged, he turns from the camp's center and finally, finally moves towards the peace of his own tent. The sun is starting to approach the horizon and clouds are approaching from the east in its wake. Best that he settle in now and get what rest he can before they start the march tomorrow.

"Priestesses' pampered pussy!"

Derek jerks to a stop just inside his tent, hand snapping to the hilt of his sword in response to the unexpected outburst. The boy from last night is there in a heap on the floor having just tumbled from the stool he'd been sitting on when Derek had come in. His eyes go wide as he processes the sight of Derek looming over him.

"This is your tent? I mean. My Lord." He swallows, biting his lip nervously. His face had been intriguing even half-covered by a blindfold. Now, with his fire-opal eyes visible, it is entrancing to look at.

"If it… she said it was Lord Hale's - yours. I mean unless you're - but why else…" His face changes abruptly, eyes narrowing on Derek's torso. "Oh Kahlah, you're hurt," he blurts, suddenly forgetting his nervous babbling about Derek's personage, scrambling to his feet. Before Derek can do more than blink the boy is surging closer and jerking to a halt a pace away, eyes tracking rapidly over Derek's body and attaching to where the majority of the blood is drying over superficial lacerations.

How is this his life?

Oh, but he knows exactly who's to blame for this. Before the boy can get any closer, Derek just turns sharply and strides right back out of his tent, leather falling with a slap as he jerks into motion. He sets a brisk pace, marching furiously towards the culprit, tuning out the sounds of the camp and the worried and surprised faces around him. When someone - Matt, one of Peter's lieutenants, steps into his path, raising a hand and opening his mouth, he brushes past him snapping, "Not now."

Wisely the man does not follow.

"Erica!" he bellows, when he approaches his slaves' tents, voice rough. "Erica!"

His slaves scatter at his glower, either in search of Erica or hiding. Regardless, Erica comes running not much later, looking worried but still displeased. Her frown deepens when she skims her eyes over his appearance, lingering on his yet blood-smeared torso.

He huffs a tight, annoyed breath through his nose, jaw tight. But Erica deserves him getting a handle on his tongue before he tersely asks, "Acathee's blood, what is that boy still doing in my tent?"

He knows still isn't precisely correct, given that the boy had clearly washed and been allowed clothing again. And he'd seen him this morning out on the camp, he recalls. But the sentiment is the same. He'd ordered her to deal with him, to remove the evidence of his weakness from his tent to somewhere it wouldn't shame him. To remove the temptation he was clearly already too weak to resist. To let him return to a tent that is entirely his domain.

Erica lifts her chin, eyes bright with anger in a manner that would earn her a cuff or worse from any other master. She silently turns and strides past him, though she moves with purpose, leading the way back to his tent. He follows her, all the way to it and into it. The boy jumps at their arrival, having been standing where Derek had left him, fingers playing with the loose tassels decorating the center tent-post. He looks at them with wide eyes but they ignore him.

Erica is clearly still angry from Derek's poor treatment of her that afternoon. She fetches the shallow catch basin from the corner and shoves it down at his feet with sharp, efficient movements. Then she grabs him by the belt and hauls him forward a step till he stands in it.

"By Acathee's cunt you make me so angry," she snaps as she turns and fetches the oil pitcher from the table. She strides over and shoves it into the boy's waiting hands, then jerks around again and starts in on Derek's buckles. "You take better care of your horse than you do yourself."

He fails to resist a petulant huff of breath. Of course he does. Horses are important, a priority for a cavalry soldier. "So? I'm fine, Erica, what else do you think I ought to be doing?"

The boy's sharp intake of breath at the sound of his voice draws Derek's eyes in a snap. His strange amber eyes are wide, and his cheeks are flushing hot. Abruptly Derek realizes that it's the first time he's spoken in front of the slave with the blindfold off. The sound of his voice would be the only thing for him to recognize. There's no chance the boy doesn't now know Derek had been the one to fuck him. He grimaces, far too tired to deal with the effects of Peter's manipulations and his furious embarrassment that he had succumbed this time after all.

"And what does that have to do with him?" he demands, turning his eyes away from the boy so he doesn't have to see the arrival of disgust on those fascinating features.

She snorts, looping the leather strap of his belt's excess through with a smooth buzz and then snap. "You liked him well enough last night, didn't you? What's wrong with him today?"

Derek glares at her, annoyed that she knows, that she doesn't seem to understand that it makes the sight of the slave now even more unpalatable.

"What's wrong is that I told you to put him to work with the others."

"No," she says, yanking his sword-belt off and tossing it onto the table in a loud and irreverent clatter. "You told me to put him to work. And I have. You're his assignment. He's to tend to your personal needs."

"No," Derek says flatly.

"Yes," she snaps in reply.

He sets his jaw, drawing his eyebrows down fiercely. She just crosses her arms under her generous bosom.

"Do you even realize that you're still bleeding?" she demands.

His breath slips from him in a rush of deflation. He hadn't, as it turns out. He glances down at himself, looking for the culprit. There's a trail of blood oozing out from beneath his curiass, and when he twists to look at it, he feels the pull of the armor against the place along his side where he'd been slashed.

"You need someone to tend to you if you won't do it properly yourself. And if you won't take him, then I will attend you. Because one way or another you're going to have someone to tend to you. Too many people depend on you to throw it away over something as stupid as an improperly-tended injury."

And she has a point there. A particularly irrefutable one considering he'd lost his uncle Conall to just such an injury a few years back. He'd taken an arrow to the thigh, but had pronounced it a mere flesh wound and ridden on, refusing to stop and rest. By the time he'd fallen ill enough that they'd gotten him a healer, the infection had spread too deeply for him to survive.

But he's not riding on. He's about to bed down for the night and can tend to his own wounds.

"You have more important things to do," he points out.

"You bet your bollocks I do. That's why he's here," she says, tossing a thumb over her shoulder. "So pick one. Me or him. And no. There aren't any other choices. Everyone else already has their duties."

He sighs, gazing at her mutinous expression. She won't be budged by anything less than force, he knows it. And he's not going to let her be his attendant. She's far too valuable to him as she is. Not just as a servant, with her resourcefulness and expertise running his camps, but as a… friend. A person he can count on beyond the mere bounds of their respective roles. It would be a waste to have her in his tent.

So he shifts his gaze over, eyes the boy a long minute, steeling himself against the impending discomfort of seeing judgment or fear or revulsion reflected in another's eyes. To his surprise, however, there's no sign of disgust in the boy's features. In fact, there's even… hope? Just faintly, though his face is being kept studiously blank.

Derek closes his eyes briefly, realizing he's fighting a losing battle by pitching his will against Erica's fiery determination as well as his own carnal desires, especially as tired as he is. He allows himself another frustrated sigh. "Fine," Derek says, voice tight with annoyance. "He can stay."

"Good," she snaps back, voice sharp but pleased. She whirls to face the boy, golden mane unfurling as she moves. "Stiles, your sole purpose now is to see to his comforts. If he's dirty, bathe him. If he's injured, tend his wounds. If he's hard, relieve his cock. If he's hungry, feed him. If he needs anything, you find a way to make it happen. If you need help, come talk to me."

She takes a moment to see that he's listened. To give her words final weight she steps forward and looks him hard in the eye. "And if you fail him, I will personally cut your heart out and feed it to you. Do you understand?"

"Yes m'lady," he replies, eyes wide.

"Erica," she corrects.

"Yes, Erica."

She settles back into her hip, giving him a pleased look before she nods sharply. "Good. Now clean him up. I have work to do," she says with a pointed look at Derek, before she steps past him and out of the tent.

Stiles stares after her a moment, then jerks his eyes back to Derek, swallowing hard. He sets the oil pitcher down carefully, then moves forward, hesitating at Derek's glower.

Derek sighs, reminding himself that regardless of everything else, none of this is the boy's fault. He sticks his arm out towards Stiles, still clad in his blood-caked gauntlet and considers the newest addition to his space. Stiles. A foreign name for a foreign man.

"Oh," Stiles says after a moment, then hurries to drag it off the offered limb. His fingers are surprisingly deft with the buckles, perhaps a benefit of not having spent the day swinging a sword and controlling a fiery mount. It takes him far less time to get Derek out of his armor than it normally would have taken Derek; he concedes that point, at least, to Erica.

He drags his tunic over his head himself, then loosens and tosses aside his loincloth, avoiding bothering with the boy's hesitations. Bare, he does take a moment to lift his arm and inspect the wound on his ribs. It's still bleeding slowly, but only because he keeps moving. It's not deep and will only need a bandage for a few days.

Satisfied, he drops his arm and turns back to Stiles, who is watching him with wide eyes. He's almost of a height with Derek, and he does have some noticeable muscle in his shoulders and arms, definitely putting him in the category of adult, which fact pleases Derek to belatedly confirm. Derek gestures silently to the pitcher, and Stiles jerks into motion, retrieving the pottery from where it sits. He moves in close to Derek, closer than he's been since last night, eyes darting everywhere like he's not sure where to look. But he at least knows what to do next and lifts the pitcher to Derek's head without instruction. When he pours the oil it is with shaking hands, drawing a sigh from Derek.

"You have nothing to fear from me. I'm not going to hurt you or take you to my bed again," he says flatly, closing his eyes and letting himself relax a little into the soothing sensation of the oil coating his dry, sweat-stained and battle-chafed skin.

"Oh," Stiles replies.

He sounds… disappointed?

"Why not?" Stiles asks after a moment. "I mean, the not-bedding part. I'll be glad of the not-hurting part."

Derek opens an eye, frowning down at him. Again with the impetuous tongue of his. It seems to be in residence not only when he's drugged.

Stiles licks his lip reflexively. "I thought you enjoyed it," he adds softly, eyes flicking away as he curls the pitcher to his chest, then turns to set it aside on the table again. His eyes are lowered when he approaches again and steps into Derek's range with less hesitation. His hands come up to start working the oil, and his face remains shuttered.

"I did," Derek admits gruffly. Perhaps too much.

"Oh," he says again, eyes flicking up to Derek's face for an instant before flicking away again. But a small smile graces his lips as he works.

Stiles's fingers are soft against his skin, spreading the oil over him, working it into the places the pour had missed. It's slower than when Derek does it himself, but only for his thoroughness. And perhaps the boy lingers a little but it feels good to have the oils massaged into his skin where his muscles ache from a hard day's work. It's clearly not incompetence that has it taking long. Nor does Stiles shy away from the uglier scars that span Derek's body, not like so many before him. Instead he works the oils into even the most scarred tissue without any hesitation and perhaps only a little too gentle a touch.

Derek eventually begins to admit that perhaps Erica has chosen well. He gives no credit to Peter, though his uncle had made the purchase on Derek's behalf, except perhaps for picking a pretty package.

He closes his eyes to avoid seeing the flushed cheeks and nervously-licked lips that would accompany the smooth touches that slide down his buttocks and along his groin and thighs. It turns out to be inevitable, though, since that's precisely what he sees in his mind's eye when he closes his eyes, accompanied by memories of wanton moans.

It annoys him that he's half-hard by the time Stiles moves on, but thankfully he doesn't linger or comment, and Derek continues to stand silently and determinedly thinking of other things.

After the oils have been worked in and loosened the dirt and blood that had attached to him, Stiles fetches the strigil, starting the long, slow strokes to draw the excess oil and dirt down to the catch-basin. Derek usually does it in sharp, quick motions that are rough on his skin, but the way Stiles does it makes it a distinctly pleasurable process. Slow, but not inefficient. His eyes drift closed again on a heavy sigh and he finally relaxes under the smooth, repetitive motions scraping over his body. The weight of the long day is finally weighing down on him now that he has nothing left to tend to but himself, and even that is being taken from him. It leaves him without a sense of passage of time.

Eventually he blinks his eyes open in surprise when Stiles shakes his arm, saying "My lord," for the second time. He'd almost dozed off.

"Come lay down and I'll tend your wounds."

Sometime during the space between his eyes closing and reopening, Stiles has gathered Derek's medical kit from amidst his chest of armor and weapons. He carries it over to the piled furs, setting it aside and kneeling smoothly, looking back expectantly.

Derek does as bid, shaking the oil from his feet and stepping along after him, all while trying to keep his mind clear of other uses for the boy kneeling in his bed. When he spreads his tired, naked body out on the pelts, Stiles hesitates a moment. He casts his eyes over Derek's body carefully, then gathers a cloth and waterskin from the kit. After a quick glance at Derek's face, he sets about cleaning the slice on Derek's ribs first.

Derek closes his eyes to rest. Stiles's touch is gentle and deft enough, though a bit hesitant in places. Still, Derek begins to appreciate it, considering how awkward it would have been trying to reach the wound himself to clean it properly. He would have been able to reach it, but not see it to the degree required to make sure it was clean and free of grit. Eventually Derek realizes Stiles has stopped, and he opens his eyes to look at him.

"Should I… do you want me to… stitch it?" Stiles asks, swallowing nervously, eyes riveted on the wound.

"Acathee save me from squeamish nurses," Derek grumbles, reaching to take the bandages from him.

But Stiles jerks them away, half falling over in his flailing haste. Derek refuses to be amused.

"No. Not squeamish, not really. I've stitched enough horses in my life. I've just never been around soldiers. I've never seen wounds like these, or anyone who would ignore them like they were nothing. I mean, doesn't that hurt?"

Derek sighs and tips his eyes skyward, pressing his fingers to the bridge of his nose. "Of course it hurts. And no, don't stitch it. I'd just tear them tomorrow when we ride out. All it needs is a clean bandage."

Stiles shakes his head and presses gently at the tear in Derek's flesh. He bandages it and binds the bandage to Derek's chest, perhaps a little more securely than necessary, but not worth complaint. Derek finds his eyes drifting to trail over the toned thighs curled next to his, following them up to where they disappear under a plain tunic.

Once Stiles sets to tending his other, more minor wounds, his touch is so gentle and deft that Derek finds himself drifting off despite the boy's presence.

 

He wakes in the morning to the sensation of a hot, wet mouth on his cock.

It is a foreign sensation to be woken to on a campaign, to say the least. He curses, shoving himself to a sitting position, then curses again as his movements both dislodge the mouth and pull at the wound in his side. It takes him a moment to realize that this is not so unexpected. That he has an attendant now. One who is currently kneeling beside his thigh, naked and beautiful in the faint dawn light spilling through the gaps of the tent.

Derek's cock is hard, as it often is in the mornings. He frequently ignores such occurrences, rather than bother to take himself in hand. But now, having been encouraged, it's desperately thick with arousal, and tingling with the cool air hitting the saliva that remains.

When Stiles silently reaches for him again, setting smooth fingertips to the shaft, he can't seem to find the words to tell him no. It's already happening by the time his sleep-addled thoughts turn to anything resembling sense. And when those perfect, pert lips part and brush along his foreskin, he can't seem to do anything but stare.

His tongue is smooth and quick in turns, and he doesn't neglect the parts his mouth cannot reach. It's delicious, to say the least. For all his youth, Stiles is clearly not inexperienced. He's not destroying innocence by accepting his attentions. Perhaps -

"I told you I wasn't going to do that," Derek says roughly, pushing the boy off of him and rising away from the thick furs, cock jutting out from his hips. But the lines of tension that tangle around him don't let him go any further. He stands in the middle of the tent, painfully hard and every instinct urging him back to the heat of Stiles's mouth and the warmth of his furs.

"Why not?" Stiles demands, frowning up at him from the bedding, beautiful naked body on careless display. His cock is full too, laying heavy against the crease of his hip.

Derek scowls at him, unable to furnish a good answer. But unexpectedly, the boy laughs. So unlike any other slave, he grins up at Derek, shaking his head as he flops backwards.

"Mavet's balls, Erica's right, you are piss-all at taking care of yourself, aren't you?"

Derek's scowl deepens.

"Come on," Stiles says lightly, ignoring the glower and patting the furs beside him, foregoing any sultry looks or seductions that would surely have further warded Derek away. He just runs a casual hand over his own cock and quirks his mouth, gazing up at him with honest interest. "Let me do this for you. I'll enjoy it, and so will you, so why not?"

Derek stares at him a long moment, then his eyes are dragged down at the easy motion of Stiles's hand where he's dragging fingers along his length again. Would he enjoy it? Servicing his master? It seems improbable but the filling of his cock would suggest so.

"Come on," Stiles whispers.

Derek finds himself drawing closer, kneeling stiffly back down on the furs.

"Just relax," Stiles says, setting gentle hands on his sides like he's calming a spooked horse, easing him back into the warmth of his furs and sliding close to him.

When Stiles bends to him again it's almost like a hunger drives him to put his mouth to Derek the way he takes to him. His eyes flutter closed and he makes a soft sound of pleasure. Derek curses under his breath. The vainpetal hadn't been to blame for those perfect filthy sounds at all, only their unrestricted volume.

Derek watches as Stiles's free hand slips down to his own cock, driving over his hardness in uneven, distracted little kips. But he's thoroughly hard, proving true to his word when he'd claimed he'd enjoy it as much as Derek. The muscles in his abdomen and chest flex gracefully as he bends to Derek's body, and Derek catches sight of the nipple piercings again, as intriguing as they had been the first time he'd noticed them. After a moment's hesitation, Derek reaches down to flick a finger at the little gold ring that's swaying slightly with Stiles's motions. Stiles jerks and his throat tightens around Derek's length on a low moan.

"You really do enjoy this," Derek says, stating what is clearly obvious.

Stiles lifts his lashes and turns those exotic amber eyes on him, the corners crinkling with a smile his mouth is too busy to make. His eyes flutter closed as he focuses, mouth working even harder as he moves his head in counterpoint to his own hand.

When Derek tugs at the ring again Stiles's head bows back as his body arches against Derek and he moans low and hot as he reflexively picks up his pace in stroking his own cock.

"Yes. Show me," Derek orders. Perhaps that will settle his unease.

Stiles's eyes flick up to his, surprised, a little confused, but he understands when he tracks Derek's gaze back down to his cock.

"Oh," he whispers, cheeks flushing further as he looks down at his lap a moment. After a moment's hesitation he draws away from Derek's cock to focus attention on his own, leaning his body against Derek's thighs in a position that's draped in such a way to put himself on better display and yet maintain significant contact with Derek's skin. It should be uncomfortable, for both of them, but somehow Stiles just bends to fit him. Stiles takes a shuddering breath and drags a firm stroke over his cock, abdomen fluttering with the sensation as they both watch. Though the next few strokes are uneven with hesitations, it's not long before his hand takes up a steady pace.

Now and then Stiles leans over and takes a careless pass at Derek's cock, gliding his lips along it and moaning as his hips tighten. Then he lets his head loll back on Derek's thigh as he takes deep breaths, hand moving fast on himself now. Weight held on his elbow between Derek's legs, he runs his free hand almost drunkenly over what he can reach of Derek's thigh and abdomen, like he genuinely takes pleasure in touching him.

Derek sits up, ignoring the twinge in his wounded side, curling his body around Stiles and slides a hand down the plane of the boy's smooth chest, returning the touch. He leans in close so that he can slide his mouth against the taut side of his neck, listening to his stuttering breaths and pounding pulse. But it isn't long before his fingers stray to the attractive and exotic gold ring again as Stiles's body shudders and his breath hitches. He circles it with a finger, then, when Stiles makes a pleased sound, pulls the ring tight. Stiles curses under his breath, lips catching at his teeth as he moans. The way the sounds just spill from him, the way he twists with the sensations that ride through him. He's nothing like anything Derek's taken to his bed before.

Stiles makes desperate little sounds as he moves his hand even faster, pressing tight against Derek's body and panting through his breaths.

"Please," Stiles whimpers, though whether it's for release, or for approval, it doesn't matter, because it's then that Derek gives in to his own temptation and bites down on the taut curve of his neck.

"Fuck," Stiles spits at the unexpected move, body squirming and when he erupts, he splatters himself against Derek's thigh and belly. He shudders through his peak leaving thick, glistening streaks dribbling down Derek's leg, pooling against the edges of an ugly scar from an old wound. His cheeks flush hot as he twists away and glances up at Derek with wide, somewhat nervous eyes.

As well a slave might be, after indulging his own pleasure before his master's, even so ordered.

There's a horrible tension in the moment after, a silence he knows not how to bridge without slipping further into depravity. His cock aches with the reflected pleasures, with his own unsatisfied needs. Yet the shame of breaking his personal rule not to bed slaves is already burning hot in his belly, despite Stiles's clear evidence that he is enjoying being used this way by his master. His hand lifts to curl around the back of Stiles's head, cradling his sweat-dampened scalp. He knows where he wants to direct his mouth, and though he tries to resist, to remember his honor, whatever self-control he'd had seems to have gone in the presence of this boundlessly sensual young man.

It leaves him feeling exposed, feeling his darker aspects uncovered and free to fend their way past his control. Now it's no longer a question of whether he'll be having Stiles suck his cock, but rather a question of which further depravities he'll be demanding. His tongue answers for him.

"You make a mess, you clean it up," he says, voice rough with stymied need as he cups his hand more firmly around the back of Stiles's head, drawing him slowly down, slowly closer to said mess cooling along his leg.

But Stiles, for his part, seems completely unfazed by this dirty demand. A flash of a smirk graces his features and he needs no more hint than that to pursue his master's desire. He bends his head to Derek's thigh and slips his tongue out to drag in long, slow strips over his skin. He somehow even makes lapping up his own seed seem enjoyable as he tackles it with fervor, leaving some of it to smear over his lips as he makes soft, needy little sounds. Stiles doesn't hesitate in the slightest at the imperfect skin. His breath is hot on Derek's leg where the residue dampens it and the scarred tissue makes for uneven and sometimes tingling sensation.

Derek curses, more aroused than ever as Stiles works his way towards the smaller droplets that trail closer to Derek's cock. He takes his teasing time dragging his tongue up the jutting length of it, even past the last drop. He flicks bright eyes up to check Derek's face. Whatever he sees there must be encouraging because he puts those perfect bowed lips to the length of him, then redoubles his earlier efforts, swallowing Derek down as far as he can.

The pace he sets then is rough and messy. The sound of his mouth moving over the slick flesh is loud in the tent as excess saliva dribbles down and provides lubrication for the hand that curls around his base, working him in tight little motions.

Though Derek hasn't been the recipient of overly-many such acts, he recognizes expertise when he sees it. Messy though it may be, it's not through a lack of technique but rather that the boy is so practiced that he can simply cut loose. There's no tentativeness but also no mistakes. No gagging or bumps of teeth. Like an expert swordsman laying it all out on the battlefield he goes far from the basic forms but never loses their underpinnings.

He makes his own sorts of battle sounds, moans and hums against Derek's flesh that speak to his fervor and his own enjoyment of the act. He is like nothing Derek has ever seen in this context and it has him growing ever increasingly tense under him, fingers curling into the furs as his thighs lock up. Before long Stiles is sucking hard on the tip of him while his hands stroke quickly over his shaft, exotic eyes watching Derek knowingly as his abdomen tenses and moments later he jolts, spilling himself into the boy's mouth.

Stiles lifts off him with a self-satisfied smirk, swiping a thumb at the smeared saliva along his lip as he sits back and watches Derek come down from his peak, a little breathless. After a moment he tentatively lays himself back down in the furs beside his new master, gazing up at him with irrepressible query in his eyes.

Derek gets to his feet instead of lying there with him, leaving the boy where he is. Those eyes had spoken of further debaucheries to be had, further ways to soak in the pleasures of remaining in the furs. But this time he must get up, and Stiles doesn't interfere, having accomplished his task. This time Stiles simply watches as Derek ignores him and sets about his normal routine instead of trying to decide what to do with the slave.

Stiles's attention eventually shifts from lazy towards something more attentive, eyes searching for what he ought to do. He starts to get up when Derek starts dressing but Derek just waves him off. He's hardly doing more than slipping into a padded leather tunic in addition to his usual clothes and boots. Regardless of what Erica says, he doesn't need someone to actually dress him. Not for something this simple.

He settles his cloak around his shoulders after strapping on his sword belt and grabbing an apple from the bowl on the table to tuck into his belt pouch for later in case Peter wasn't in the mood to provide food while they worked. After a moment he grabs another apple and tosses it to Stiles who mostly catches it, though he bobbles it a bit.

"Eat if you like," Derek says, digging out his copy of the region's map to bring along. He doesn't bother looking back as he turns to head out of the tent.

"Hey wait," Stiles says, shuffling around in the furs behind him. "Uh, My Lord. What should I do in the meantime?" he asks.

Derek sighs in exasperation, turning and looking back at him. But his attention gets stilled on the bare, flushed skin laid out in his bed. He frowns, then turns to go as he says, "Make yourself useful."

"Helpful," Stiles calls after him, voice full of insubordinate annoyance.

It has, to his surprise, the wry edge of a smile coming over his mouth as he strides away towards his Uncle's war-tent.

Chapter Text

They begin the process of moving the entire camp that same day. Despite having defeated them, they know that it's likely some of the Argent soldiers sent a scout back to their main encampment with messages about their location and strength before the battle had occurred.

Derek doesn't really see Stiles during the day while they march, too busy coordinating the safety of the camp. His ribs ache but not badly, having been well cleaned and dressed. He marches on foot most of the day, since the pace is slow and Camaro could use the rest to help heal her own wounds. A horse's hide is tougher than a man's but he'll not risk her.

When night falls and the forward movement of the army stops, the day's work is not yet over. Derek rides the perimeter till he's satisfied with the way Boyd and Isaac have blended their forces with Peter's to maintain defensive formations and security positions. Only then does he return to the space Erica has designated as his amid his servants' encampment. There's the cart of Camaro's supplies, and a little further away his own small fire and bedroll. A familiar sight.

But this time, unlike the camps of years past where the fire and accompanying meal has been laid out to wait for him before his arrival, tonight his camp isn't empty. Tonight it is being tended by Stiles. Stiles, with his rumpled thin tunic and bare feet and sweat-dulled hair who looks directly at him, eyes bright. Derek frowns at him as he approaches, but he has Camaro to tend to first, so he rides past him to the cart and dismounts. Her care always comes first. It's a familiar task stripping her down of her tack and brushing her dry before giving her grain to feed on and haltering her loosely to the cart for the night.

Finally he sighs and makes his way to the fire. Stiles glances up at him, smiling at him with a faintly flirtatious set to his mouth. But he pauses instead of propositions, assessing Derek's mood. Whatever he sees there has him silently handing Derek a bowl of stew, still hot for once, thanks to his tending. Derek sits with a sigh, grateful for the silence. Hot soup wouldn't be enough to offset the loss of his privacy if Stiles were to chatter at him.

For a while Derek eats, staring into the fire, mind still running over the details of the campaign, the mistakes made in the last battle, plans for what he might do to prevent more losses. But eventually his gaze slips over and lands on a person, not just the scenery created by the confines of the camp. Something about him is off, and it draws him back to the present as he squints at the slave.

Stiles has been waiting silently, unmoving, bowl cooling at his feet untouched. A bowl he's looking at with longing. Abruptly, Derek understands.

"Eat," he orders as he stabs a chunk of dry bread into the bowl. "Eat any time you wish unless told otherwise."

Stiles grins over at Derek for the merest moment before he snatches his food up. He eats with fervor, hissing as the too-hot soup touches his tongue and he pants on it a moment. Derek sighs, annoyed, then shoves the waterskin his way. Stiles takes it and sips gratefully, laughing in self-deprecation. The quiet had been too good to be true, it seems.

Though now that he's settled, with warm food and a good fire to keep the cool night air at bay, he's perhaps less discomfited by the lack of the solitude he'd implicitly expected to find. The fire crackles low and frequently, wood gathered on the move often not as dry as is ideal, leaving it to spit and churn on occasion. It's built low enough to stay through the night, done rather expertly. He wonders idly if Stiles had had a hand in that, whether he has more experience than Derek has been giving him credit for because of youthful features and soft skin. He knows very little about him, actually. Nothing, in fact, outside of the bed.

He sits, chewing through a tough bit of stew-meat, staring at Stiles since he's the newest and most interesting part of the camp. Stiles doesn't look his way much, being surprisingly subservient for once. That's one thing he knows, Stiles is not the most submissive slave he's ever had. Far from it. But then, Stiles has been on the march all day too, so perhaps he's just tired.

But no. Stiles doesn't stare at nothing, chewing his cud. Though he's not insouciant with words, when Stiles does glance his way it's speculative. Hopeful. Appreciative. Interested. Never dull. He finds he almost wants to know what's on his mind.

Almost. He wants to eat quietly more. But still, the inclination surprises him.

The stew goes quickly without talk distracting them. He pours water from the skin into the bowl to rinse it, drinking the cool liquids down to cleanse bowl and palate alike. Then he hands it off. Stiles does the same as Derek gets up and starts stripping down his armor. Stiles takes the empty bowls away to the cart to dry, then returns quickly to help Derek with his garb, setting deft fingers to small buckles that make quick work of the fastenings.

Despite his remaining conviction that he needs no help dressing himself, Derek finds he's starting to appreciate the help that lets him free of his armor more quickly at the end of the evening. He's more than ready to sleep, to be done with the weight of command for the day. He leaves his armor for Stiles to tend and stow instead of taking the time to do it himself like he used to. It's nice to simply shed the armor and take his sword-belt along with him to settle by his bedroll, leaving sword and daggers alike within easy reach. All that's left is for him to strip down to his smalls and slip into his furs to sleep, and with the way the temperature is starting to drop, the furs will be a welcome comfort against the impending cold.

Stiles tends to the armor quietly, giving the leathers a rub-down and a light coat of protecting oil, checking for scratches or tears. Derek turns his gaze on the star-studded sky overhead and tries to relax, but Stiles's presence is too strange yet to not be distracting, even as quiet as he is. All he can do is lay there, watching the smoke ripple across the stars and listen to the soft sounds of the camp while trying to grow accustomed to his presence.

Eventually, Stiles finishes the chores of tending to Derek's things, and the sudden silence once he's put away the armor soon draws Derek's attention back from his thoughts.

Stiles hesitates a moment, then drifts back to the fire. He stands awkwardly there for a little while, glancing over at Derek surreptitiously a few times, then eventually squats down beside it. He pulls his tunic down over his folded up legs and wraps his arms around himself, curling up tight and resting his head on his knees.

After a moment Derek realizes that he's not planning to go to wherever Erica's set him up. That he's going to wait, like a good slave, until his master has given him direction.

"You can go to bed now," Derek says, annoyed that he can't just go right to sleep.

Stiles's head snaps up from his knees and he looks at Derek, face scrunching up as he makes no move to get to his feet. "I don't have one, My Lord."

"One what?" Derek asks, pressing the heel of his hand between his eyes, far too tired to follow.

"A bed."

Derek drops his hand, sighing heavily as he casts his gaze up to the distant stars in the night sky. "Why not?"

Stiles doesn't answer and when Derek turns his gaze on him, Stiles ducks his head, cheeks tightening and lips pursing together.

"Out with it," Derek orders, impatient.

"Erica said if I was doing my job properly I wouldn't need one. That you'd…," he gestures vaguely at Derek's prone form. "But you… I don't think you're interested in a fuck tonight and she's overestimating how much I appeal to you otherwise," he adds with a self-deprecating laugh as he glances down at himself, plucking at his travel-stained tunic.

He's also shivering.

Derek sighs heavily, understanding the extent of Erica's ploy now. Regardless of what she'd told Stiles, she'd known it was likely that he'd end up here, and would rather have Stiles bed down with him than go through the trouble of finding him other accommodations. Oh, he's sure Erica would get him one if he ordered her to, but it's far simpler for him to simply throw the canvas top of the bedroll back and gesture Stiles over to him, despite it being an annoying concession to Erica's machinations.

Stiles hurries closer, face both relieved and wary.

"But take that off," Derek orders, pointing at the dirty tunic.

Stiles obeys quickly, stripping off his tunic and leggings despite the chill air. When he slips down inside the fur-lined bedroll beside Derek his skin is cool to the touch, his nipples rigidly hard from the metal rings which are like ice where they brush Derek's bare chest.

Despite Stiles's doubts, Erica's not wrong about the appeal Stiles holds for him. He looks beautiful in the firelight and Derek can't deny the pleasure that a warm body in the cool night will bring. Stiles's face bears not only relief but pleasure at being pulled tight against him, sharing warmth and softness. Derek shifts a little so that he can lay on his back as is his habit, letting Stiles sprawl half over his chest. It's not what he's used to, and it takes a while for him to get to sleep with another's breath against his skin, but he's warm. Though travel-stained, Stiles smells also of spice and oil and fire and Derek realizes he doesn't actually mind.

Not that he'll ever tell Erica that.

He wakes feeling rested, and he breaks fast without having to go in search of food himself since Stiles takes care of that. He leaves things in Stiles's capable hands and gets out on Camaro more quickly than usual, leaving him more time to help organize his troops and oversee the problems inherent in moving armies.

That next night they don't even bother with a discussion. Derek just points to the furs after they finish their bread and Stiles strips down and slides inside. He's warm by the time Derek joins him, having had time to settle while Derek detoured to Camaro to feed her half his apple. Derek finally concedes that Erica might be on the right track when he falls asleep almost immediately and never once wakes from the cold in the night.

The third night he beds down with Stiles as has quickly become familiar, but in the morning he wakes alone. He sits up, hand going automatically to his sword as he blinks back sleep, but the camp is quiet. Nothing is amiss. He glances around and spots Stiles not far away, already dressed. He's alert, though his attention is directed elsewhere. Derek follows his line of sight and lands on his horse, who is standing several feet in front of Stiles, head turned slightly so that she can focus on him. Her ears are turned Stiles's way, though they're flicking occasionally around at the other sounds in camp.

Camaro's head hikes up instantly when Stiles steps in her direction, but it is only one step, no more. Derek watches skeptically, wondering if no one has thought to warn Stiles about Camaro's temper. But there's an ease about the set of Stiles's shoulders, turned slightly away from Camaro, relaxed but not casual, that has Derek sitting up quietly and watching instead of barking out an order for Stiles to stop bothering his horse.

Camaro's ears waver, then her head lowers to a more comfortable position, though she keeps an eye on him. Stiles stands there, waiting, and to Derek's surprise, his wait is not in vain. Camaro's nose twitches in his direction, scenting the air, ears relaxing a moment though they remain on Stiles. She remembers herself after only a moment, turning her head warily again, but her interest has been piqued. This time when Stiles takes a single step closer, her ears sharpen, but the rest of her does not.

He's still two arm-spans away, but it's probably closer than anyone but Derek has been to Camaro in a while. When Stiles lifts his hand, Derek realizes he's holding an apple, left over from his rations last night. He takes a bite out of it, the sound of the crisp fruit loud in the quiet morning. Camaro shifts her weight, ears flicking actively at the sound. Her mouth moves slightly, an absent imitation of chewing at the thought of such a treat. When Stiles takes another step forward, her nostrils flare - not in alarm but in curiosity. She's sniffing him.

Another bite of apple. Another shift of hooves. One more step closer. Derek watches, amazed as Stiles reaches out his palm, and Camaro presses her nose into it, taking some deep heaving breaths to draw in his scent. After a moment she lifts her nose to bump against his chest, sniffing further. He smiles, sets his palm to her raven brow and gives her a scratch, bringing his other hand from behind his back with the remaining half of an apple. He guides it up to her lips and she takes it with a pleased nicker.

Stiles backs away then, and she seems to remember herself now that she's obtained her prize, turning her head again to watch him with lowered ears. But when he does nothing but remain at a small and reasonable distance, her ears relax after just a moment of chewing and eventually she glances away to observe other things, having decided that his being in the general vicinity is tolerable.

When Stiles turns and sees Derek watching him, the happy grin fades immediately. His eyes are downcast as he turns and returns to Derek's side, shoulders growing tense and hunched in anticipation of a rebuke. As well he might.

Derek sighs and pushes himself the rest of the way out of the furs.

"I'll wear my riding armor today," he says.

Stiles flicks a glance up at him, perhaps surprised at his lack of reprimand. And so he should be. Approaching Camaro was a deep presumption on his part. But… Derek finds that he doesn't disapprove. It might be nice to have Stiles be able to check on her or bring her grain or groom her when Derek was needed elsewhere. There have been a few times, not many, but more than none, where his duties as a soldier forced him to put aside his personal duties as Camaro's rider, leaving her to wait longer than she should to be tended to.

Stiles slips away to the requested gear and brings over a clean set of trousers and under-tunic back to Derek. Though Derek changes his loincloth and tugs the trousers on himself, he lets Stiles be the one to drape the tunic down over his shoulders. He's not sure why, since he's never let slaves dress him before. But nothing is proving quotidian when it comes to Stiles. And he certainly doesn't mind allowing Stiles to smooth his hands in a long, unnecessary, appreciative stroke of his torso. The more complicated armor comes next, and it's when Stiles's fingers are busy with the multitudinous belts and buckles that Derek speaks.

"You're a horseman," Derek says.

Stiles glances up at him, eyebrows going up. "I'm from the north."

Derek lifts an unimpressed eyebrow with that response.

Stiles just snorts. "It's what we do. Especially herdsmen like my…," he trails off, clearing his throat. "Taming a wild pony is practically a rite of passage." He glances at Camaro and tosses a thumb over at her. "She's from northern stock. Andalan at a guess."

"Not Friasan?" Derek says with an eyebrow lift. That's what most people would guess.

Stiles squints over at her. "Nah. She's too smart for a Friasan. Plus she's got too much chest muscle. Bet she likes to shoulder-check, huh?" he asks, thumping the heel of his hand lightly against Derek's breast as he finishes settling his armor.

Derek looks at him, then shakes his head incredulously at Stiles's correct assessment. "She favors it above many things. You surprise me."

Stiles just grins and shrugs as he slings Derek's cloak around his shoulders and fastens it, smoothing his fingers down Derek's arms to arrange the drape just so. He bites his lip as he glances at Derek's mouth. "Anything else?" he asks, lifting his gaze to Derek's with a little eyebrow-waggle.

The lascivious thoughts are written over his features plain as day, just like they have been every morning he's asked the question. Derek snorts as he gives his armor a settling tug. But this time, he leans close to Stiles.

"Don't you think you should've asked that before I got dressed?" he teases, and then smirks at him as he turns to go.

Stiles's indignant huff amuses him the rest of the day.

 

In the evening he finds himself looking forward to bed with even more eagerness than a usual day on the march engenders. And it's no great mystery as to why. Stiles is waiting with an apple in hand. It gets tossed up to Derek as he rides in. Stiles grins up at him and heads over to get out the brushes to set at the post as Derek dismounts.

Derek switches the apple to his free hand and drags the reins over Camaro's head and tosses them over the post. He slips the latches on the bridle one-handed as he takes a bite out of the apple and gently lifts the band over her soft, hot ears. Camaro glances at Stiles who is standing closer than she'd normally let anyone but Derek stand, holding the bit in her mouth even though Derek's lifted it free. But as he takes another bite of his apple, she grows far more interested in the apple he's holding and lets him pull her bridle in hope of a trade. It's a trade he's pleased to make, and he scratches calloused fingers behind her ears, rubbing the sweat-damp fur that had been under the bridle leather.

"Soup tastes good tonight," Stiles says, drawing Derek's gaze his way while the horse chomps at his offering.

Derek tosses the bridle over the edge of the cart and then gazes at Stiles for a long moment, eyes skimming over his half-curved lips. His appealing face. His apparent interest. Thoughts of that morning's innuendo have remained in the back of his mind all day.

"Does it?" he says, voice soft. "Then I look forward to it."

If the look in Stiles's eyes is anything to go by, he catches that the underlying sentiment in Derek's words is not much different from the underlying reason he'd spoken up about mundanities in the first place. It's about interest and engagement, not about the taste of soup. Stiles ducks his head over a smile as he takes the bridle leathers in hand.

Derek sets to work on the saddle and smiles over the mental images conjured by thoughts of Stiles and tastes. It's been several days now, but not once has Stiles pulled away from him, or looked at him with the mask of neutrality that he's come to know is a cover for people's disgust at his appearance. He seems interested not just in his duties as a slave but in Derek himself, for himself. It's been on his mind, and he's come to a conclusion he'd never expected to make about taking a slave to his bed.

Stiles is dawdling with the brushes, dragging his fingers over them to free old dirt, leaning against the cart as he watches Derek set the saddle aside. Derek moves closer, pleased at the way Stiles's eyes widen and linger on his body as Derek leans close and takes the brushes from his fingers.

"Go dish me up some soup then and see if you can find some bread for me. I'll want to eat and get us to bed soon."

Stile's eyes widen in surprise, and a smile spreads across his lips as he glances away, cheeks heating a dusky pink in the twilight. Stiles licks his lips and glances back at him, then disappears to go do as ordered.

When Derek's done with Camaro, he strips out of his own armor, leaving himself bare down to his trousers as he makes his way over to the fire where Stiles waits for him with a bowl of soup warming by the flames, as well as a large crust of bread. Dinner is an exercise in teasing his anticipation of pleasure. He has Stiles stay when he would have risen, watches him fiddle with the bits of trampled grass by his knees as he watches Derek eat. Stiles doesn't talk, which is rare enough, Derek's learned. He feels the tension in the air too, the promise of the shared bed to come as teased at the moment they rose that morning. So Derek keeps them both waiting for him to finish eating his bread before he tips his chin over towards the bedroll which Stiles has laid out for them.

"Warm it for me," Derek says.

Stiles scrambles to his feet and heads over to the bedroll. After a moment's hesitation and a glance back over at Derek, he strips his tunic over his head. His trousers get untied and dragged down his thighs too, though he glances Derek's way to watch him watch. Whatever he sees on Derek's face has him smiling slowly as he folds his clothes together and takes them over to their gear, unselfconscious in his undress. Then he returns and kneels at the canvas-wrapped furs and slips inside, making a soft sound of contentment as he does so.

Derek tips back the rest of his soup quickly then and makes quick work of his own final chores, putting aside his trousers and boots as Stiles watches him from the furs. The furs are nice and warm when he slides in beside him, something he's come to appreciate. He shifts over till he's up against Stiles's back, tugging the furs up and high around their shoulders. Settling in against Stiles is somehow already familiar. Already a comfort he's not going to want to go without.

His hand slides slowly along the inside of Stiles's thigh, smoothing through the light leg hair on his skin, back and forth in a pattern that's barely more than soothing. They both know what's coming, but it's an easy thing now, not urgent. Stiles shifts back against him, making a soft, pleased sound, sinking into his touch. Derek sighs into his hair, wondering how he's gotten to this place, fondling a slave in his bedroll and the both of them being pleased with it. Derek firms up the hand on his leg, guiding it up under the bump of his groin as Stiles pushes against him.

He loosens Stiles's loincloth, slipping his fingers underneath it to curl around the thick heavy roundness there. Stiles's fingers join his, pulling the cloth away so that his cock is free to thicken and elongate in Derek's hand.

He pushes his face against the back of Stiles's neck, humming a low growl into his skin as he reaches down to free himself from his own loincloth. The slow teasing of his appetite over dinner has him more than half hard already, and pressing himself against Stiles's skin is enough to have him stiffening the rest of the way. His cock nudges up under the curve of Stiles's backside and he slides his hips forward to press his cock against the warm smooth skin it meets.

"You want me to-"

"No," Derek says, brushing away any movement towards fetching the oil. "Just…" He pulls up on Stiles's hips to reposition him slightly so that he can slide his cock down the curve of his ass and into the gap between his trim but well-muscled thighs. Shifting his grip he pushes down on Stiles's thigh to add pressure, leaving only a tight channel for him to fuck into. Stiles hums his understanding, his pleasure and tightens his knees further. His fingers slip up to his mouth, then down to slide a slick layer of saliva along the head of Derek's cock pressing up against the back of his balls.

He rocks his hips in shallow little thrusts, having little room to work with in the narrow bedroll. But the saliva is sufficient lubrication to make even the shallow friction an exquisite torture. Stiles's free hand roams backwards, sliding warmly over Derek's forearm, then along his scarred thigh, heedless of the imperfection he finds there. The uneven sensations, skin so rarely touched, sends arousal twisting through him like a cracked whip.

Derek slips his lower leg forward to tangle around Stiles's shins, pinning his legs even more firmly and giving himself a little more leverage with which to thrust. His cock is hard as stone as he grinds them together, the tip of it pushing up against the weight of the back of Stiles's balls.

It would be uncomfortable, surely, for someone not aroused by it. But Stiles makes a pleased, need-filled sound, hand flexing against Derek's forearm. Derek licks at the back of his ear and murmurs, "Touch yourself if you like."

Stiles's hand immediately draws away from Derek's skin to reach for his erection, curling around it with a breathy sound of anticipation. He doesn't hesitate to join Derek in pursuing pleasure, not even the slightest, a fact that only has Derek's heat rising. Indeed, Stiles pauses only to swipe his fingers over his tongue and then resumes stroking his cock vigorously.

The sound of Stiles's slick hand running over his cock and his soft huffing breaths only add to Derek's pleasure. He drags his hips harder, sliding against the smooth skin with more force, more pressure. It doesn't take much before he's breathing hot, panting breaths against the back of Stiles's neck, burrowing his face there, surrounding himself in the scent of him. His exotic scent has faded a bit, become more layered with the dirt of travel and secondary oils, but there's still something different about him, enticing even in his unwashed state.

Derek slides his hand forward from Stiles's hip and down to rub his thumb over the top of the base of Stiles's erection. He curls his fingers down to wrap around Stiles's balls, pulling them tight against his cock. Stiles sucks in a tight breath through his teeth, fingers tightening more quickly over the exposed head of his dick. He trembles against Derek's body as his pace shifts abruptly for the slower, not pushing himself over the edge.

"Are you close?" Derek growls, dragging his teeth against the smooth skin before him.

"Yes My Lord," Stiles whispers, breath hitching.

"Then give it to me," he demands, fucking harder between his thighs, moving quickly to catch up to Stiles without any consideration for discretion now, uncaring of the sight they make to anyone passing by. "It's mine," he claims, pleased when Stiles breathes a 'yes' in response. He nips hard at Stiles's gold-bedecked ear and orders, "Give it to me, now."

Stiles groans when he tightens his hand and goes stiff against him, inner thighs tightening even further as his body goes rigid and he spills himself into his palm. Derek gives a few more thrusts into the tight gap and lets himself fall too, body bowing tight against Stiles, curling them together from head to toe.

They're both a bit breathless when the sounds of the night returns to his consciousness and he lets out a sound of approval, pleased with Stiles's responsiveness. How strange it is to have such a bed companion, not only willing but eager. He drags Stile's loosened loincloth up to sweep up their excess, then lobs it carelessly out of the bedroll. With a thoroughly satiated sigh, he curls Stiles tight to his chest, relaxed and warm and ready for sleep.

 

 

Derek awakens to a hard kick to the ribs. Then a heavy weight slams down over his legs and Stiles is shouting "Fuck," as Derek fights to get free of the furs over his face. Stiles pushing out, though uncomfortable as he uses Derek's ribs for leverage again, leaves more room and abruptly Derek is able to get free. Free to see the dark of night and to realize just what - or rather who is pinning his legs.

"To arms!" he bellows, shoving Stiles's errant leg aside and reaching for his own sword as he kicks the wheezing man off of his knees.

"To arms!" he shouts again and again till members of the watch approach and then start running away, carrying the call to arms through the camp. It spreads like wildfire and soon there are more shouts and bellows of pain as others fall and clash.

Derek kicks his way angrily out of the bedroll, sending the body rolling. He'd had no warning till Stiles had been fighting - killing to protect him. Heedless of his nudity he pushes to his feet, sword bared and gleaming in the reflection of the firelight. He stares at Stiles who is staring at the man currently choking on his own blood at Derek's feet.

"How?" Derek asks, voice oddly flat against the commotion still swelling around them.

Stiles points at Camaro who is shuffling restlessly against her halter, lead line pulled into her teeth like she's thinking of biting through it or ripping it free from the cart, sclera showing bright around her eyes as her ears flicker between listening and pinned back against her head.

"Her. She. I heard her query-nicker just in time to. Up north we. Sleeping in the fields and. Horses. Signals," he babbles, hand gesturing senselessly at the steed, but Derek gets the point.

But Derek hadn't heard a thing.

"Is he dead?" Stiles asks, voice breaking, eyes wide.

Derek strides over to the body. It's a mortal wound, angled up between his ribs. His eyes are unfocused and blood leaks from the corners of his mouth. He'll be dead in a matter of minutes and of little use. But even still his heart pumps sluggishly. Derek pulls the knife from the man's chest and then puts it to his neck, cutting deep and making certain that he is well and truly dead. He's already lost enough blood that there's little arterial spray when Derek opens his throat.

"Yes," he says with certainty as he straightens, shaking the excess blood from his hand and the dagger. "He is."

Stiles's laugh is choked and wild, mirthless. He stares at the corpse, shivering and naked in the cold night air.

There are more shouts and soldiers rushing through the tents, checking for more enemies, heading for their posts on the perimeter. Derek needs to go, to check in with Peter and his lieutenants. "Stiles. I need my light cuirass," Derek says as he moves to his trunk and throws it open to dress quickly in his tunic and trousers. Stiles is still staring vacantly at the body on their bedroll. It's a look Derek's seen on young soldiers their first time at battle, one he's pushed them through innumerable times now. "Stiles," he barks again. "Get the armor, now."

Stiles is still shaking but the order pushes him into motion, giving him a task to focus on. As always, the armor is readied and boots cleared in no time. Derek replaces his weapon in its scabbard when Stiles buckles on his sword belt. Though shaking, Stiles's fingers make quick-enough work of the buckles as Derek draws on his gauntlets quickly as he shoves his feet into his boots. He takes the offered dagger from Stiles's numb fingers and slots it away as he steps away from his camp, eyes on the lookout for additional threats and mind already focused on what this turn of events means for their armies.

Almost. Almost focused on coming decisions.

He makes it five paces before he heaves a frustrated sigh and comes to a halt. Turns.

Stiles is staring at him with wide eyes, bare and completely vulnerable in the cool night air. In shock. There's blood on him, Derek notices for the first time. Splashes on his arms and chest where their assassin's life's-blood had first fallen.

Derek walks back to him, drawing the dagger once more and spinning it on his palm till the grip is facing out. He extends it to Stiles, presses it into his hand, closes his fingers tight around it. He grips the boy's chin, drawing his exotic eyes up sharply. "Get dressed. Get a blanket. Keep watch by the fire," he orders.

He holds his gaze till Stiles nods.

When he turns this time, Boyd is already running towards him, his usually stoic face breaking into a mask of relief when he lays eyes on Derek, and then crumbling to consternation when he sees the body.

He sets out a quick march towards Peter's camp, Boyd falling into step beside him. Boyd glances back at the campsite, at the body, or more probably, Stiles. Derek doesn't look again, avoiding the hindrance of the distraction.

"Losses?" he demands instead.

"Still finding that out. A few sentries it sounds like. Jackson's been wounded, we're not sure how badly," Boyd informs him, voice unmoved by the possibility.

"Isaac?"

"Fine. Rallying patrols. He's got some men collecting the bodies, others on patrol and I sent mine on perimeter watch. Erica's organizing the headcounts among the slaves. Everything seems under control. You're going to meet with Lord Hale?"

He nods sharply, then gestures back towards the body of the would-be assassin. "Fetch that body along to his camp."

Boyd is already falling back, ready to do just that.

The air is thick with smoke from quickly-stoked fires and the stench of blood and fear. He shoves his way past a few of Peter's men who are drifting aimlessly in places. There is only one body laid out in the space around the fire, but it's not one of Argent's. Greenberg's messy curls are matted with blood that's pooled beneath his head now, eyes vacant as ever, though this time they don't even hold a spark of life. Peter's standing beyond him, face dark with anger. There's no sign of the assassin's corpse, and Derek's gut sinks.

Jackson's limping his way into the light of the fire, arm around Danny's neck. His face is dark with anger.

"Tried to stop him but he got my leg and turned tail."

"You saw him away?" Derek confirms.

"Had horses waiting outside the clearing. He took off alone. Three other horses were there."

Just the four assassins perhaps, then. McCall arrives with a body slung over his shoulder. He lays it out before the fire looking grim and bearing a moderate laceration to his face, but reports no casualties. A few moments later Boyd arrives with the body from Derek's campsite, another two members of his platoon hauling a third body with them. At a gesture from Derek the soldiers set out the corpses and begin stripping them down for any information.

Peter turns his gaze on Derek and he motions sharply to him, turning and striding towards his bedroll where the precious maps bag sits. As Derek nears, Peter spreads out the map of the region.

"This is unacceptable," Peter spits, glaring at Derek like it had been his troops on sentry. Derek bites his tongue against the urge to point that out to his Uncle, to demand why he'd almost lost his own life.

"Did any of them reach you?" Peter asks with a sigh.

Derek grimaces. "And he'd have had me if not for my bedmate."

Peter frowns at him a long moment, face unreadable. Then he sighs and returns his attention to the maps. "They'll know our location here now. It's not a good place to set up. We should march onwards. East might be wise. South perhaps."

Derek frowns but doesn't disagree. He drags a finger south. "It would be an extra two days, and not easy going, but we could move down to Baelen Valley. The trade routes through there are better anyway, which will need protecting from Argent."

Peter thinks on it a while, looking at other positions on the map, thinking about alternatives. Derek watches him closely, watches every movement of his eyes and mouth as he thinks. There's so much going on behind the faint smirk and he wishes he could read it.

McCall comes over with the meager belongings from the assassins' bodies. As expected there's no sign of anything informative, no maps or orders. Peter heaves a sigh and rolls up the maps again.

"We're moving south."

Chapter Text

South isn't an easy direction to take. Though the distance they'll cover isn't much as the crow flies, it's a full two day march to get through thick woods that bridge the mountains and separate the two valleys. It could be traversed faster, but there's plenty to do beyond just marching. The forest is full of resources, allowing them to collect much in the way of fruits and vegetables as well as small game and protect their stores. The servants have a busy time of it indeed.

Camaro is used to such terrain, though she doesn't favor it much. With only his bulk to carry, her strength and endurance have her impatient of the slow pace, so Derek spends much of the day riding back and forth along the full length of the marching armies. It isn't unusual for him to do so, to keep an eye on things and give direction where needed, but Erica arches an eyebrow at him when she spots him for the fourth pass through his own slaves' grouping.

He frowns back at her, but he can't deny that his patrolling has increased in focus, nor can he deny the obvious cause of his attention. Her smugness is annoying, though, since having anyone made his sole responsibility would be distracting, so he rides off and makes himself stay back with his soldiers and leaves her stewardship of her domain.

By nightfall, no one is cheerful. Derek rides back up from the close quarters of his soldiers to find whatever space Erica has staked out for Camaro's temper. The smile she offers him is tight when he rides up, and she gestures over to a bit of space below a felled tree a little ways up the mountain. Stiles is already there, in the process of laying out their bedroll.

As Camaro rides closer, Stiles turns to look up at him in the dusk, face creased with weariness but also warmth for the both of them. Camaro paces right up to him, taking meaty strides that have her shoving her nose against his chest and knocking him a pace back. Stiles just laughs as she lowers her head and rubs her face against him, using him as a scratching post to tug at a bit of her bridle.

Derek drops down from Camaro's saddle and makes quick work of the basics of taking down her tack. For all that Camaro had greeted him with benevolence, she lofts her head away and eyes Stiles when he moves as though to help, and Stiles takes the hint easily enough, heading back to continue laying out their meager comforts for the night. He fusses with the canvas, trying to get it situated somewhere comfortable in the very limited space, and it takes Derek a moment to realize that Stiles is limping as he moves.

"That's fine," he says sharply as Stiles frowns and goes to try and reposition it again. He tosses Camaro's lead over a gnarled root sticking up into the air and then makes his way over to the young man who's staring at him with some hesitance. He doesn't care about the bedroll. They're going to be forced to bed-down on a slope since all the level ground is reserved for the carts and horses.

What does concern him is the sign of injury. Marching is not a forgiving endeavor.

Derek takes Stiles's chin in hand and looks him over. He bears a number of scratches, tacky patches of sap on his skin and clothes. He's keeping his weight on one foot, and though the light is fading fast, his other ankle looks like it might be swollen.

"You're injured," he says, frowning.

Stiles's face wrinkles apologetically as he shakes his foot a little. "Just twisted it a bit. I'm not used to hills."

Derek huffs a breath through his nose at the obviousness of it and lets him go, points him down to the bedroll.

"Sit," he says. "Don't make it worse."

Stiles blinks at him, then obediently lowers himself to the ground and waits, looking up at him with speculative eyes as Derek goes back to setting up their little camp for the evening. There's no fires, not here in the moisture-rich and crumpled terrain. They're subsisting on dried fruits and stale breads for their supper, and though there's plenty more in their stores, preparing it takes time that's better served covering distance. They keep it to a minimum on the move like this, so they can travel right up till the dusk as they have done tonight. Once he fishes out some food from his saddle bag and tosses it to Stiles, all that's left to do really is tend to Camaro and get himself out of his armor.

"Are they all like this?" Stiles asks, watching Derek with a funny little frown on his face. "The mountains, I mean."

"No," Derek says as he loosens his sword belt and bundles it up before tossing the weapons down beside the bed, in ready reach of their pending sleeping arrangement.

Stiles makes a face at him when he doesn't continue, and instead of continuing to silently watch Derek strip out of his armor, he starts talking about the plants. About having to learn which of the new berries were edible and which weren't. About how strangely large the fen are that he'd spotted occasionally in the brush. Derek only listens with half an ear as he finishes brushing down Camaro and gnaws his way through some pear-leather, but it's oddly soothing to have company after such a tedious day.

The bedroll does seem particularly small, though, by the time he makes his way to Stiles's seated shadow in the dull twilight. The uneven terrain makes it even more difficult to get them both settled inside, and Camaro just as displeased with the close quarters, shuffling about in her tiny bit of clearing. Weariness from the day's ride should make it easy to fall asleep, but even long after most of the camp has gone quiet they have a hard time drifting off, especially given how Stiles manages to somehow knock his sore ankle against Derek more than once, waking both of them with his squirming and mutters of pain.

Still, he doesn't lack for warmth on a cold night.

Morning comes too soon, heralded by Erica with a basket of berries and an update on the movements of their support crew. There's not much to be said that hasn't already been passed along through Boyd as usual, but she lingers while Derek shoves the basket into Stiles's hands and then drags himself from their bedroll. Erica hands Derek up bits of his armor. She inspects Derek with narrowed eyes, then glances over at Stiles.

"I hear he saved your life," she says softly, tightening the strap on his bracer for him.

Her eyes flit over to Stiles and Derek follows her gaze. Stiles is still with the basket of berries, lips stained red as he eats slowly and with a curious but sleepy focus. His hair is sticking out in odd directions from their tangled sleep, his tunic rumpled and riding high and unnoticed.

When Derek glances back at Erica, he finds a particularly smug look on her face and he glares.

"Good thing I settled him with you. I hope you've… thanked him properly."

He grunts and tugs his hand back from her to yank on his glove. Innuendo or no, he has not, in fact, thought to thank the slave for saving his life. Annoyance worsened by a poor sleep has him saying, "Perhaps I should reward him with his own cursed bedroll."

"Right, because that would have helped against the assassins," she replies under her breath.

Derek just walks away from her and heading for Camaro's saddle where it's draped over a chunk of dead tree. With the light just spilling over the crown of the hill, they've got more pressing matters to attend to than his interpersonal issues.

Camaro seems to share his mood for the morning and nips irritably at him when he tosses the weight onto her withers. Erica gives him an arch look over the mare's back, but she takes her cue and leaves them to it.

By the time he's finished getting Camaro saddled up, Stiles has roused himself enough to pack up the bedroll and is holding the nearly empty bowl of berries against his belly and is silently watching Derek with almost wary eyes. Derek frowns at him a long moment, then sighs and digs into his saddle bag for some supplies.

Stiles offers the bowl up when Derek walks over to him, but lowers it again when Derek shakes his head curtly. He doesn't bother to clarify his intentions, since words take more effort than he feels like in the dull morning light. Instead he kneels at Stiles's feet and takes in hand the one Stiles had favored the night before. It's swollen even more clearly now, though not badly and not obviously bruising. Derek rolls out the bandage he'd retrieved from his bags and wraps the joint with it, the task familiar enough to go smoothly as he overlaps the strips evenly and then angles the ends together to draw tension through the joint.

Stiles winces as he pulls it tight, opens his mouth over a loose, "Hey!"

Derek ignores him and stands away, heading for Camaro's impatient form.

"Thank you," he hears softly behind him as he mounts up. He doesn't look back, he just rides away.

 

The next day is much the same, though it's decidedly sloping more downwards as the day progresses and by the morning they're out into meadowed hills in the great valley that runs from Beacon Hill all the way west to Argent lands. They march a bit under half a day further to get to what Peter has decided is their destination and the signal to make camp is a welcome one.

While Erica marshals their people into an orderly encampment, Derek's busy working out new patrol routes with Isaac and Boyd and then meeting with Peter to discuss the nearby trade route information with the scouts and where they should start sending messengers for supply runs. Eventually, he just rides around the camp, keeping an eye on things as they dig in to their newest base of operations. It's chaos, setting up an army, especially a tired one. The march hadn't been that long, but it had come as an unexpected addition, which always clashes with expectations and makes things seem harder than they usually are.

Dealing with the changes to the platoons based on recent casualties doesn't help either. It's harder on the infrastructure than anything. Deciding how many slaves are still required to support the army, how many can be sent on foraging missions or even back to the capitol, depending on the distance and whether they're needed to accompany any wounded soldiers that would be better off returning home to heal. Erica's busier than ever on a day like this, sorting out who is needed where.

Derek doesn't envy her work, since all he has to do is assign a few soldiers to new squads. Still, his work isn't done with just some reorganizing. As a leader, he needs to take the time to get his eyes on all aspects of the situation. That much he and Peter agree on. The both of them spend most of the day riding around the army, mostly observing.

The simple act of making his presence known by moving through the ranks goes a long way. Over the years, the reputation he's developed means that soldiers and slaves alike work hard to set up their new temporary home. It's true, they tend to march with more slaves than are strictly needed, but the extra manpower makes for more efficient troop movement, better medical care, and more flexibility. It is more costly in raw resources and sheer speed, but Derek will take efficiency over speed most days when it comes to the long war game.

Having his tent set up for him while he works is something he expects from his slaves when they set up camp, so he's unsurprised to see it standing like it's always been there when he returns to his encampment late that afternoon.

But when he actually walks into the tent, he stops short.

It's getting to be a habit.

Stiles is sitting front and center in the furs, naked. His fingers shine with the soft golden oil as they stroke slowly over his cock. His legs are spread casually, enough that he has the space to be pushing into himself with two slick fingers on his other hand.

He grins up at Derek, eyes hot and flashing in the candlelight. There are a few candles lit around the tent, even the light scent of warming oil releasing a pleasant fragrance into the air. The place is welcoming… enticing.

"What are you doing?" Derek demands, annoyed at both how tight his voice sounds and at the stupidity of the question given that the man is clearly masturbating.

"Waiting for you," Stiles replies breathily, countering his assumption. "Making your bed ready for you."

Perhaps not so stupid a question after all. On closer inspection he sees the way sweat is beaded on Stiles's brow, the way his muscles are trembling, like he's been at this a while, keeping himself teased and ready, making sure his body is as welcoming as the rest of the tent. It seems his repeated attempts to convince Stiles, and himself for that matter, that Stiles need not warm his bed are doomed to fail from both sides. The lust and anticipation is unmistakable on Stiles's face, as is the almost painful quickening in Derek's trousers. He can't even bring himself to say it again, to tell Stiles he doesn't need to do this. He is growing ever-more certain that it is no longer true.

Stiles is his. They both know it. There's little point in pretending otherwise.

Those pert lips split over a wetting flick of tongue, eyes bright as he watches Derek's face. They widen as Derek comes to his decision, reaching down to the ties holding his trouser-front closed. He yanks them free, not even bothering to remove his gloves. He just drops the flap, then drops to his knees between Stiles's thighs, tugging himself roughly free of his loincloth.

Reaching down he grips Stiles's thigh and tugs, hooks the back of his knee over the hilt of his sword, pinning his leg tight between the hard, cold metal and the rough studded leather of his jerkin and belts.

Stiles's eyes are wide but there is only excitement in them as Derek yanks the bunched furs out from behind his back, pressing him flat into a luxurious hollow of them. Stiles's fingers fall away from himself, and with no preparation beyond that, Derek angles the tip of his cock down and presses himself home.

It's a rough thrust, a hard, muscle-bound movement of hips that has Stiles's whole body flexing in response. The following thrust is just as hard, if not more-so. After that it's almost a competition to see if he can outdo each previous thrust. It shouldn't be pleasing but Stiles just makes those raw, needy little sounds, mouth ajar in nothing but pleasure as Derek pounds him into the fur.

It's not gentle by any stretch of the imagination. There's a certain irresistible thrill to having Stiles golden and clean and naked underneath Derek's dark, armored, and scarred form. Some spirit of the northern plains made flesh in his bed, eager to be wrapped around his cock and transport him to a lighter plane. He's never felt such transcendent pleasure before this boy had been made to cleave to him.

"Yes," Stiles moans, fingers curling into Derek's leathers, eyes fluttering.

Derek isn't so far gone that he doesn't notice the small lacerations he's causing on Stiles's naked, unprotected skin. The buckles and studs and the roughness of the leather are leaving behind scratches and bruises as they go. Though he doesn't manage to slow down, let alone stop himself from fucking into Stiles, he does manage to make himself say, "You can't possibly be comfortable like this."

But Stiles's eyes flash open at that, meeting his unerringly over a wicked grin. "No. But who said anything about comfort? I want sex," Stiles hisses, writhing back against him to meet his thrust. "I want this."

Derek growls, slamming into him with even more force. If Stiles wants sex, then Derek will most certainly give it to him. He buries his face in Stiles's throat, teeth catching at his skin. He can almost taste the pleased sounds vibrating in Stiles's throat as they grind together. The pounding of his heart in the pulse throbbing in his neck. He drags his beard over the smooth skin, down his neck, down his shoulder till he lifts his head again.

It's not enough. Derek shifts to take his weight on one arm, reaches down and takes Stiles's hand, jerking it over his lap. He directs him to curl it around his own cock, making him give it a few strokes, giving him the permission to satisfy himself before roughly dropping back to both arms for leverage.

Stiles hesitates only a moment, then starts stroking himself in time with Derek's thrusts. His moans go throaty and breathless as he writhes beneath Derek, using his legs around Derek's waist to pull him even tighter on the thrusts. Derek slides an arm under the small of Stiles's back and hauls him up higher into the air so that he can angle him for deeper, slower penetrations.

Derek kisses Stiles, takes his mouth and plunders it, smothers the desperate moans and breathless panting. Then he moves his mouth to Stiles's ear to tug at the gold rings there, down his neck to bite at his throbbing pulse. His thrusts are still bruisingly forceful, days of pent-up desires and a hard day's frustrations going into each one. His breath is ragged against Stiles's throat, his beard rough against the delicate skin. Eventually, though, Derek realizes Stiles's moans have grown closer to sobs, that he's shaking in his arms, fist uncoordinated where it moves over his cock. When Derek lifts his head to look at his face, he finds Stiles's eyes a little glassy, a little lost.

"Stiles?" he asks, slowing his pace, lifting a hand to touch his jaw.

"I need…," Stiles murmurs. Stiles's hand comes up, fumbling but instinctually seeking skin above the armor. When he finds it, fingers touching Derek's sweat-warm neck, his eyes focus again, focus on Derek. He gasps a deeper breath, grins again at Derek as Stiles reaches for him, splays his hand over the ugly scars on Derek's cheek without hesitation.

"Yes, yes, don't stop. More," Stiles demands, moving against Derek with focus again. His hand on his cock moves quickly, and the fingers on Derek's face run over his skin with a sort of reverence he doesn't understand. Stiles strains his face up and kisses Derek, and Derek holds him tight, returning the gesture with fervor. It doesn't take long for them both to be riding hard up against the pace they'd been chasing before, and when Derek slams home again, Stiles snaps like a pennant in the wind, going stiff under him and crying out, splattering himself messily over his belly.

With just a few more thrusts the hands on his skin and the heat clamping down around him are enough to trip Derek over the cliff after Stiles, leaving him gasping and holding them up with a shaking arm. Slowly he releases his hold on Stiles's back, unhooking his legs from where they're tangled in armor and weaponry and lowering him to the ground. Then Derek sits back, landing a little hard when he sits up too quickly for his heart to keep up with.

Stiles snickers, clapping a hand over his mouth to stifle the insubordinate sound. But Derek snorts, joining his amusement, and then Stiles laughs outright. They both do.

While their breaths begin to steady, he gazes about, first looking down at Stiles's body to assess the damage. There are scratches and bruises quite visible already and he frowns. But Stiles just smiles back at him, laying loose and comfortable in the furs.

The tent is in fine form, stocked with a bowl of fruit on the table and a fresh pitcher of oil for bathing. Stiles has provided for as many of his needs as possible, and Derek can't bother to mourn the loss of his solitary space. After several days on the march, bathing sounds wonderful. Even better at the thought of Stiles's deft hands doing all the cleaning away of residue left from efforts of his travel.

Derek gets to his feet, moving a bit more cautiously this time, though he is still faintly lightheaded. Pursuant to his anticipated washing, he starts in on his sword belt, loosening the leather and tossing it aside next to the bed with a clatter. When he starts in on his armor Stiles hops to his feet easily enough, albeit a little stiffly. But there's no hesitation in him as he moves to help, making quick work of the buckles and straps. It's quiet in the camp around them, not silent but subdued. Days of long travel have left most of the camp ready to bunk down early and even forego fires and other details in favor of sleep. It's nice to have the calm, and their privacy again. Though he doesn't doubt that anyone walking by just a few minutes ago would have known full well what happened within, there is a barrier of the thick canvas and leather walls to shield them from prying eyes. It's more than enough for a soldier and a slave, both used to much less sanctity.

Stiles folds his clothes away and sets the armor aside to clean. Derek lifts the pitcher of oil and takes the basin, setting it in the center of the tent. Stiles returns quickly to take the pitcher from him and start pouring it over him, long golden rivulets of clean oil running down his chest and abdomen. It itches faintly mixed with his sweat after the exertion of fucking Stiles so vigorously, but that discomfort is soon forgotten as the oil eases the dryness of his skin altogether.

Stiles's motions are efficient instead of teasing or lingering, since neither of them is anywhere near ready for another round of fucking. But once he's clean, Stiles moves behind him, his hands running in long, deep strokes against the tense muscles in Derek's back. His fingers start working in a pattern of circular motions that Derek recognizes from his youth when he'd traveled to the northern great cities and been treated to the ministrations of a talented slave.

"You're a horseman and you know massage?" Derek asks, amused at the newest skill he can add to the small list of things he knows about Stiles.

Stiles laughs, fingers running another long slow path before he answers. "To be fair, I learned massage on horses, not men."

"On horses?" Derek says blandly, eyebrows arching at the absurdity.

Stiles's eyebrows lift in return, hands pausing against his skin. "You mean to tell me Camaro doesn't get regular proper massages?" There's a scandalized edge to his voice as he presses his knuckles into Derek's skin again.

Derek shakes his head with a snort. "Of course not. Not our tradition around here." He pauses thoughtfully though, shrugging as he adds "Though I don't pretend to know everything my trainer does when we’re not at war. The old codger has plenty of tricks up his sleeve."

He makes a soft sound of pleasure as Stiles digs in to a knot in his back, feels it loosening the tension he's been carrying around since that morning.

"She works hard. It seems like a good idea now that I consider it."

Stiles's fingers slow and he runs his fingers over the swell of Derek's well-muscled shoulders and then down his arms. "I could give it a try," Stiles offers, smoothing his fingers over Derek's skin purposelessly as he does. "For Camaro. If you want."

Derek tilts his head, rolling his significantly-looser shoulders. "You may, if you can convince her to warm to you enough to let you that close."

Stiles curls his fingers in a circle and laughs. "Oh she's not so bad."

Derek arches a skeptical eyebrow at him and turns as he says, "Perhaps you can show me some basics, in case she kills you."

Stiles laughs again, bright and warm and it has a smile slipping onto Derek's face too. Derek shakes his feet out of the oil and treads over to his furs once more, feeling tired after the long day and vigorous fucking. He sprawls himself out, already feeling more relaxed than most days despite the strain of travel and soldiering.

He pats the furs beside him, shifting a little to make room for Stiles in the bed again. The young man takes a moment to move around the tent, dousing the few candles still lit, his body shimmering in places with transferred oils. When he's finished, he follows Derek to the furs and kneels at his hip.

He leans over Derek instead of laying down, splaying his narrow fingers wide over Derek's ribs, continuing his massage. The extra leverage gives him the ability to work the knots of Derek's muscles till they're smooth and long again. But there's something else that's different about Stiles's touch now too. He lingers in places, giving special attention to the scarred portions of his body. He studies Derek's body carefully in the fading light, working methodically to explore the extent of the scars and their interference with his musculature beneath.

No one save the physicians he'd seen over the years had ever touched him this way, laid hands on his old wounds like they aren't something to be avoided. It has a twist of emotion swelling in his chest, the wariness of a spooked horse as Stiles gazes at him fully, unabashedly at his worst scars.

"Enough," he says gruffly.

Stiles lifts his hands away from Derek's body, looking a little nervous at the curt order. But Derek just sighs, relaxing into the general simmering quiet and the soft furs. "You don't shy away from them," Derek finds himself saying, a note of suspicion creeping into his voice. "The scars. Most people do."

Stiles looks surprised at the statement, and Derek frowns, embarrassed at displaying that insecurity.

But understanding creeps over Stiles's features and he relaxes again, shrugs. "I worked in a whorehouse for a few years after my parents died. It was the only work I could get, too small and too impudent to be much good as a soldier or herder." He lays back amid the furs with a warm sigh. "And I enjoyed it in some ways. Certainly more fun than chasing sheep," he says with a grin.

And less free, less simple. There are layers there in his eyes that Derek recognizes, old pains, old moments of fortitude cobbled together into a patchwork quilt of life.

Stiles trails his fingers over the deepest scar on Derek's leg as he continues. "People came to us with all sorts of unique qualities; needs no one else would satisfy, scars, deformities. But underneath they're always just people. You stop noticing it after a while."

Derek thinks of how true that is on the battlefield as well, though in a slightly more morbid fashion. Then his attention is drawn back to a detail and its implication. "You were a free man?"

"Mm," Stiles agrees.

"And how did you end up here?" Derek finds himself asking.

Stiles casts a wry look his way and taps a significant finger to the corner of his mouth. "How else? Said something I shouldn't have and got sold down the river." But there's a shuttered edge to his expression, like he isn't interested in explaining the rest. His attention flicks back to Derek's body anyway, brows furrowing in curiosity.

"Do you have any aches, or stiffness?" he asks, running massaging palms over the curve of his shoulder that's layered with scars and divots from missing flesh.

"Some," Derek answers grudgingly.

Stiles tilts his head, thinking a moment as he muses, "I wonder if pajarrow root grows here. It's something my family used to use on our scarred horses, the ones that came back with injuries and were left to live out their days on the hills. It would make a good salve to soften some of the scars, help with the stiffness."

The implication has Derek stiffening. "No salve will erase them, not even make them any less hideous."

Stiles's eyebrows go up. "You think I'd want to change them? No. Never," he says, fingers tracing along the claw-marks that shred Derek's cheek and part of his ear. "They tell stories. Tales of pain and adventure and bravery. They're beautiful."

Derek stares at him a long moment, searching his face for any sign of deception or pandering. But there's none. And though he'd been afraid he might find it, some part of him had already been sure that Stiles meant what he'd said. With a deep, raw sigh, he lays his head back down and after a moment he slips his arm under Stiles's head, pulling him close as he drags the furs over their bodies and closes his eyes, ready to let relaxation turn into sleep.

It's the epitome of comfort, but after just a moment, Stiles makes a soft sound and pushes away from him. When Derek blinks his eyes open again, Stiles is slipping out of the warmth of the fur and getting to his feet. He walks away, heading across the tent and digging around for a bag that he draws out from behind one of Derek's chests. Derek sits up in the furs, scowling at him and the interruption.

"Speaking of stories, I almost forgot. The dagger," Stiles says, tugging the rough-hewn canvas scrap free of the blade he'd used to kill the assassin come for Derek's head. "I wasn't trying to hide it. I swear on Pajatal's mane, I just… if someone saw me with it, I…"

He kneels quickly, holding the dagger in front of himself in nervous supplication.

Derek takes it from his hands, turning the blade over in his palms. It's not just any dagger. It's one his mother had given him when he'd taken charge of his barony, his small holdings and thusly his first platoon, a mark of her pride in his successes. A master smith had hewn it from strong metals. It's not a thing for show, there are no jewels embedded in it, and anyone who didn't know better might think it a plain blade.

His mother will be happy to learn that it had saved his life. He reaches out his hand, holds it palm up for Stiles's. Stiles glances at him nervously and then slowly extends his hand. It shakes a little as he sets his hand in Derek's, his breath coming sharp. He squeezes his eyes closed like he's steeling himself for an impending punishment.

Derek presses the hilt of the dagger into his palm. Stiles's eyes flash open as Derek curls his fingers around the simply-wrought handle of it, confusion furrowing his brow and pulling his lips into a moue.

"Keep it. A thanks for saving our lives. May it serve you as well as it has served me."

Stiles lowers it, cradling it in his hands.

"I can't," he murmurs.

"You can and you will," Derek orders dismissively, laying back in the furs with a sigh. "And you'll be smart about it."

"Alright," Stiles murmurs. He wraps the cloth over the dagger again, then glances at Derek before laying it up beneath the edge of the furs by the tent wall. Not dissimilar to the way it had been before when he'd used it for their protection.

Derek narrows his eyes on the choice, but doesn't comment, just waits as Stiles slides back under the furs beside him, curls him close. He's already so used to Stiles's weight against his side that it's easy to relax, to close his eyes and rest.

Sleep claims him shortly thereafter.

Chapter Text

Peter enters Derek's tent with his usual excessive flourish and lack of permission. This time he stops short just inside the flap and gazes conspicuously down at Stiles. Derek watches as Peter's head goes back in affected surprise.

As if he hadn't very well already known that Stiles would be there.

Stiles is sitting off to one side rubbing polish into a piece of Derek's armor while Derek is sitting at his table where he's been poring over his maps. Stiles's thighs are bare beneath his tunic as they often are inside the tent and when he notices Peter's scrutiny he shifts the armor in his hands and simultaneously draws his legs closed from the relaxed way they'd been when it was just Derek in the tent.

Derek just watches, silent as Peter turns that artfully-composed 'surprised' expression on him, looking well pleased with himself and almost proud of his nephew. Derek doesn't believe any of it for even a moment.

"Nephew, I trust you are well? Have your boy fetch us some more wine and cheeses if you please," Peter says as he moves around the table across from Derek, swirling his cloak over the back of it and angling his scabbard back as he sits.

Stiles looks over at Derek and at his nod, sets the armor aside and hurries out of the tent. When Derek looks back at his uncle, Peter is still looking at Stiles's thighs as he disappears out the flap. The ogling is for show, just to taunt Derek over the fact that he's actually kept one of his Uncle's presents for his bed. Still, it annoys.

Peter sighs as he relaxes back in his seat. "This marching is so tiresome. I can't believe I let you talk me into moving south."

Derek barely contains his eyeroll. It had not taken much persuasion and he'd have been fine going east as well.

"Then perhaps you should have a slave ready you a massage and turn in while we have the time."

Peter makes a face at the suggestion, fingers drumming idly on the table-top. "A massage? No, I never could get used to that incessant rubbing."

Derek doesn't bother pushing the point further. It's clear that Peter is going to sit here as long as he damn well pleases.

"Or was that a naughty euphemism little Nephew?" Peter asks as though the idea has just occurred to him. He tsks his tongue mockingly.

The younger version of himself had been so earnest, so naïve to Peter's subtle and even not-so-subtle sarcasms. That young man would have assured his uncle that no, he had meant a literal massage. Now, he remains impassive.

"So sweet how you blush to even think words like 'fuck' and 'suck'. Though a little bird tells me you're getting plenty of both done of late," he teases like he can get Derek to blush or deny it still.

Derek hasn't risen to Peter's so-obvious bait in years now. It almost annoys him that Peter's bothering with such out of date tactics. Which, of course, could very well be exactly Peter's expectation. And perhaps letting his Uncle think he can rile him on petty things wouldn't be a bad plan, lest he start in on more problematic methods of harassing Derek.

He sighs heavily and lets an edge of petulance come over his features as he looks away. But he's not much of an actor so he doesn't push it further because he's certain that if Peter were to catch him at it, he would not like the consequences.

"Losing Greenberg is a shame though," Peter muses.

Derek doesn't follow the connection, but then, Peter's mind works in ways he can't fathom. Doesn't want to fathom, really.

"Is there an actual reason you've joined me for supper, Uncle?" Derek asks.

Peter pouts at him. "So ready to get rid of me? Well, I suppose I would be too if I had a pretty mouth like that waiting for me," Peter says as Stiles ducks back into the tent.

Stiles remains stoic, to Derek's relieved surprise. He lets Stiles get away with eyerolls and back-talk because… well if he's honest, he likes it on Stiles. But Peter would not enjoy it, not out here in front of Derek where it would be a challenge to his superiority of status and power.

"Of course I'm happy to dine with you, Peter." Derek says, drawing his Uncle's gaze back. "I was simply wondering whether there was another purpose to set my mind to."

Peter makes a face and a relenting gesture, sighing. "If we must. Word back from the west is that Argent's forces are even more formidable than we previously estimated and are already interfering with supply."

He draws out a new scrap of parchment and unrolls it on the table between them. With a flourish he secures it with one of the small knives Derek has sitting out for that purpose, stabbing a corner into the travel-worn table. It's a hastily-drawn map with some symbols marking trade routes that have been cut off.

Derek grimaces. The mountains are small but tight in places which make it next to impossible for those villages to route around their normal paths without going a long way out of their way. The border towns are always less loyal, and they'll find less desire to go through the struggle.

"Then we'll send our tradespeople south. Maybe send some gatherers back north."

Peter shakes his head, glancing down at the empty wooden cup by his wrist and tipping it with a finger. He frowns at its emptiness. "It's best to sever the armies now while we have the chance."

Derek stiffens. "What?"

Peter smirks at him. "Send each lieutenant in a different trajectory, let them deal with their supply routes more directly and prevent Argent from landing on the bulk of us."

Derek doesn't always follow his Uncle's logic, but this seems distinctly foolish. He thinks it over for a minute, trying to understand the reasoning. He has barely a quarter the experience his Uncle does, but it's not insignificant.

"But… if they're advancing straight through then we want the bulk here to stop them. At most we might fan out across the valley here, and even then, only a few squads. Staying here will give us the chance to stock up and fortify. Sending us on the march will only eat through supplies faster," he pauses, frowning at the ceiling as he does the mental calculations. "Too fast. Unless you send back home for more of the Hale forces and supplies."

Peter snaps his fingers and gestures to the wine skin sitting with the other food items Stiles has gathered. Stiles moves to obey, though not particularly quickly Derek notices. Had he not been spending so much time with him recently, he doubts he would have noticed, but as it stands, Derek can only think that Stiles is rebelling against Lord Peter's directives in his own small way. That, or he's frightened of the Lord General. Derek doubts that, given how bold Stiles has been so far in their acquaintance, though such wariness would not be unwise. Indeed, he hopes Stiles will keep his belligerence contained.

"No, they're busy guarding against the north. Besides, we don't need raw numbers to defend our lands. Argent forces are always handled better with flanking," Peter contends. "Ah, don't be stingy, boy," he adds sharply as he grips Stiles's wrist to keep him from pulling the wine-skin away. His grip is hard and the wine gushes out of the spout clumsily, splashing over the edges of the cup in places, red droplets catching the edges of the map and staining it.

Derek frowns, but forces himself to ignore it, studying the map instead and thinking about the possibilities from this new perspective. He can see his Uncle's point, but only if they go hard. Pillage the villages for supplies to keep the soldiers strong enough to battle. The losses might be heavier if they keep to one major encampment, but they wouldn't be destroying the very lands they were trying to protect.

There's a hard light in Peter's eyes when he glances up, and Derek realizes that this isn't a debate, not really. Whatever he sees in Derek's face, perhaps that very understanding, has him smirking. Derek reassesses his words as Peter lifts his brimming cup and drains it quickly, then plops it down in front of Stiles again, releasing his wrist finally and gesturing for a refill.

"If we move again you're going to run out of wine," Derek points out, keeping his tone light enough that he's still signaling his disapproval but not with defiance. Peter's mouth quirks up in genuine amusement when Derek adds, "And we both know how cranky you get without your wine."

Stiles snorts at his words too, however, and abruptly Peter's face goes from sardonic to displeased. Derek flicks a warning eyebrow at Stiles, who blinks and goes still for a moment, then continues the motion he'd started, ignorant of Peter's eyes sharpening on the him as he pours the wine into the waiting cup for a second time.

Peter's hand extends out to touch Stiles's thigh, sliding quickly up under his tunic to grope his backside. Stiles jolts, almost fumbling the wineskin, much to Peter's amusement. Anger curls hot in Derek's belly, but he doesn't interfere, hoping Peter will simply lose interest and save him a confrontation. But because Peter never does what Derek hopes he will, he persists, kneading his rear slowly.

Knowing his uncle, and the fact that Peter had made the purchase knowing full-well that Derek was unlikely to partake of him, the behavior does not surprise him. Though camp gossip likely placed them in intimate coupling, Peter had walked in on Stiles polishing Derek's armor, not his cock, so perhaps he thinks Stiles's other qualities are as yet unclaimed. His behavior, while distasteful, is not even particularly offensive in most circles.

But they're not in most circles now. They're in Derek's tent. Stiles goes stiff as Peter's hand lingers even past when Stiles has finished pouring the wine, preventing him from backing away as he might normally. Instead of releasing him, Peter shifts, probing more blatantly between Stiles's legs. Though the slave doesn't dare move, his eyes dart over to Derek in panicked question.

Derek can swallow back his anger, but there comes a point when he can no longer avoid his uncle's games entirely.

"Please, play with your own toys, uncle," Derek says, doing his best to sound bored as he leans forward, reaching up and gripping Stiles's wrist, giving him a hard yank and tumbling him into his lap. Peter pouts mockingly at him. Derek just moves his mug over in front of Stiles with a faint scrape of wood over the wood. Stiles pours him some wine, with just the faintest tremor in his hand, though Derek can feel how tense he is. But there is relative safety in the hand Derek rubs slowly over his groin, blatantly possessive of the soft bump.

"This one's mine, as I'm sure you recall, since you purchased him on my behalf."

"If you insist," Peter says easily, but Peter's narrowed eyes remain on Stiles. He tilts his head, a slow smile edging onto his lips. "I must admit, I'm amazed to find out that I've finally found one you like. I'd heard you'd kept the little slut, but I didn't believe it. Not until I saw it with my own eyes."

The invective digs into Derek's belly, pricking the simmering anger there, but it seems to roll off Stiles's back like so much water. Perhaps such words are ones he'd grown accustomed to in his former profession. He's certainly proven himself tougher than first glance might suggest. It's a quality Derek must remember.

"Well, now you've seen it. I've kept him." Point made, Derek shrugs dismissively, then nudges Stiles off his lap and directs him back towards the basket of food. "You know how particular I can be."

"True. Even as a child you were a fussy eater with poor taste. Didn't Talia have to hire in a wet nurse because you wouldn't take to her delectable tits?"

Derek lifts an eyebrow, refusing to be provoked by the crude comment about his mother. "I wouldn't recall."

Peter rolls his eyes. "Well, you should have told me your tastes ran in the direction of scrawny whores. Would have saved me some effort. You do have a charming habit of collecting strays, though, so perhaps I should have guessed."

"Only the useful ones," he points out, annoyed at the characterization.

"To think I once expected you liked them virginal and voluptuous," Peter muses, raking his eyes over Stiles when he returns with a round of cheese and some bread.

"Still, I bought you this one as more of a gag gift. I thought at most you'd use him up the first night and be done with it, as you have with all the others. What is so special about this one, I wonder?"

Derek doesn't bother to correct him or address that front. He shrugs dismissively and says, "Perhaps I simply tired of your surprises and wanted some consistency. Now that we're at war it's hardly the time for unpredictable bed-companions. The field is unpredictable enough already."

"I suppose your continued fondness makes sense after recent events," Peter agrees, tilting his head. "Saving your life like that."

Peter catches Stiles's wrist as he sets the bread down on his plate. "Did you do it expecting a reward, pet? Or are you already one of his loyal fools?" Peter asks Stiles.

Before Derek can even think to intervene, Stiles's head snaps up, his eyes flashing.

"Fool I may be but I still did a better job of it than your sentries," Stiles says tartly.

Peter backhands him for his impudence, gauntlet splitting his lip against his teeth and knocking him on his ass. Before Stiles can do so much as reel, Peter reaches down and holds Stiles's jaw steady, jerking his face up so he can see it. His smile is cold as he presses his thumb over the cut, smearing the blood against the leather and Stiles's face.

"Slave, the only thing you should be using that mouth of yours for is sucking cock," Peter says. Then he shoves so that Stiles topples backwards.

Stiles remains where he is, frozen, face shuttered too late. There's a long moment where everything is paused, save the small line of blood slowly pulsing and dribbling down Stiles's chin.

Peter eventually turns his eyes on Derek. "My apologies," he says, sounding not in the least apologetic. "I didn't realize he was so green to service. I wouldn't have given him to you if I had." He tilts his head on a smile that isn't friendly in the least. "I can take him back, break him in for you."

"And spare me that pleasure? No, I'm enjoying it just fine, thank you," Derek scoffs, stifling the surge of fury the thought inspires and forcing himself to display only bored annoyance. He's never appreciated the view that some people hold that slaves must not just be trained but broken in order to serve. But he is in the minority, especially with his uncle here.

This time when Derek lifts his eyebrows, he snaps his fingers and points to his furs. This time, Stiles ducks his head deferentially and goes without hesitation.

Peter's expression sours slightly, like a toy has been taken from him. He shifts in his chair and sneers at a bit of bread on his plate, plucking it up as he says, "Do try and keep your pets in order around me Nephew."

"Yes My Lord," Derek says deferentially, and rather honestly. "I think tonight will prove a valuable lesson."

Peter eyes Stiles's subservient form. "If he were my slave he wouldn't be able to sit tomorrow."

Derek bites back the urge to say 'but he's not your slave' in favor of nodding thoughtfully. "A good suggestion," he says instead. Any rebellion of his own now would only make things worse.

Peter tips back the rest of his wine and sighs. "Well, I'd best go and find a replacement for Greenberg's mouth elsewhere, since you're unwilling to share. It's true he'll hardly be missed otherwise, but his tongue was excellent."

Derek really could have done without that image. In fact, he could have done without this entire meeting.

"Look over this, I'll be making my final decisions in the morning so come with suggestions if you have them," Peter says dismissively, gesturing to the map as he rises. "I do value your contributions."

Which is to say Peter has made up his mind and Derek's just going to have to obey. Derek scowls and Peter's smirk widens as they both contemplate that truth, then the Lord General is snagging the wineskin and striding out of the tent with his lascivious purpose written over his features.

For a long while Derek sits where he is, glowering at the table, at the red droplets staining the sketched lands in horrible parody of the blood that will surely soon paint the plains they represent. There is ambient noise outside the tent's walls as the encampment continues as it always does, but within the octagonal space the silence is heavy. Eventually Stiles moves in his peripheral vision, scooting the few feet from the furs to the table to lean his head against its leg, kneeling at Derek's boot.

"Sorry," he says. "I didn't mean to cause trouble for you."

"Peter's ire is not something you want to tempt," he says, looking over the cut marring Stiles's lips. It's small, and Stiles has cleaned it up already now that it's clotting, but he's furious that it's there. He clenches his jaw as he takes a measured breath, trying to package back up all his frustrations and anger.

Stiles sighs. "I know."

Derek reaches out to stroke his fingers through Stiles's hair. It soothes the roughest edges of him the way Stiles leans into the touch, the way he can anticipate even more such responses being his whenever he wants them.

"But it doesn't make him right."

And then there's that, the unpredictability factor. The knowledge that he cannot come to expect anything but the unique from his golden companion. One day he's contorting himself to suit Derek's needs, the next he's speaking out of turn, defying him.

Derek turns a hard glare on him, fingers tightening in his hair. Stiles is not wrong, but that is entirely beside the point. Derek knows Peter's plans are stupid moves, knows it's going to get people killed, but he can't do a damn thing about it right now. Just because he knows the truth of something doesn't mean he can speak to it. "Damnit Stiles," he growls, frustrated. "Haven't you learned your lesson tonight?"

Stiles snorts. "Keep my mouth shut and behave for Lord Peter? Submit to him like some dog? I don't know if you've noticed but that's not exactly in my skillset. Maybe you should teach me, after all, you seem to have it down pretty well."

Anger flares hot in Derek's belly, though he's not sure whether it's at Stiles for saying it, or over the fact that he's still not wrong.

"I should take a strap to you for that, you know," Derek says curtly, forcing his fingers back from Stiles's hair lest he pull it too sharply. Instead he fulfills the dark urge by yanking the small knife out of the table and tossing it aside with a clatter, letting the map curl closed. It's satisfying, in a way, but it's a small thing; no new potency in the face of his usurped power.

Stiles barely bats an eyelash at him for it. He ignores the outburst and instead looks up at Derek for a long moment, eyes studying his face in silence until Derek's eyes finally drift his way again. Then slowly, he lifts his chin in challenge.

"So do it," he says, voice rough and low and not a little dirty. "Take a strap to me."

Derek stares at him, caught off guard at the lack of sarcasm or defiance in his voice.

Stiles slides closer till he's slotted between his knees, looking intent and wild. "Tie me down and teach me a lesson, my Lord."

Stiles's hands start questing blatantly up Derek's thighs and he reflexively reaches down to snap up Stiles's wrists, holding them tight in the air between them, jerking him off balance. Stiles makes a small sound of discomfort as his body falls against Derek's leg and he is forced along by Derek's strength.

"Behave," he snarls, giving Stiles's wrists a sharp shake. It sends a strange sensation through him when Stiles goes limp against his hands, and suddenly he realizes that he already feels better for it, for doing something to deal with his frustration instead of stewing in it over his inability to challenge Peter. It must show on his face because Stiles smirks at him for it.

"Thought so," Stiles murmurs, sending a curl of fire through Derek's chest.

He's not sure whether it's anger or embarrassment or arousal that Stiles is taunting him towards this but the burn in his chest is matched by the fiery light in Stiles's eyes. He wants to get a strap out and hear it crack against skin, wants to take his power back from Stiles's insouciance. But he wants more than that. He wants to protect his people from the trials of the war. He wants to have the power to make the right decisions as a leader of armies. His anger towards his uncle is seething under his skin. Any action he takes now will be colored by all of that. Stiles is no fool. Surely he knows the wolf he is baiting will snap if pressed too far.

And yet Stiles's wrists press into the grip of Derek's calloused hands as he twists closer. Stiles presses his cheek to the inside edge of Derek's thigh, heedless of arms strained in Derek's tightening grip.

"Set me to rights," Stiles breathes, nuzzling the leather of Derek's trousers. "Please."

Derek knows he should go, or send Stiles away. He should find some other way to release his frustrations, limited though his options here may be. What Stiles is suggesting… he'd never do it, never take his anger out on someone else, and yet? Stiles wants him to do it. He is literally asking for it, with both body and voice. And Derek wants, oh how he wants. No matter his shame. He'll waste no time on indecision.

"So be it," he growls, and Stiles's eyelids flutter closed over parted lips. Derek stands, dragging Stiles up with him. "Strip," he orders roughly as he shoves Stiles back a pace.

His heart is already pounding when he turns away, making him hesitate a moment. This isn't something he does. He doesn't keep slaves in his tent, and even if he did he doubted he'd keep a strap for that sole purpose. He marches over to his trunk. He may not have a strap at the ready, but he does have a few plain leather belts and replacement pieces amid the other garments. He runs the leather through his hands, reevaluating their potential. His eyes fall on the thin folds of the blindfold Stiles had come to him with, soft and supple enough to bend to the face and be tied. Underneath it are the other straps that had accompanied it.

The memory of that night, of seeing him bound and struggling, but desperately eager…

He wants that again. Badly. Nor can he quite bring himself to feel ashamed for that because as unbelievable as it seems, Stiles had enjoyed that. What's more, Stiles seems to be guiding him back there of his own volition.

When he glances over his shoulder, Stiles is still standing there fully, disobediently, clothed. His eyes are bright, goading… and yet not in disrespect. In anticipation. Encouragement. Solicitous defiance, building the pressure to keep them from losing momentum.

He lets loose the already faltering grip he has on the leash of his desires and turns, leathers in hand and glaring at Stiles, at that insouciant smirk as he strides over. He yanks Stiles's tunic up, dragging it forcibly over his head and throwing it to the side.

"Don't test me too far," he growls as he turns him, pushing him up against the centerpost of the tent. Then he drags his arms up, over his head. Shaking out one of the leather straps with a faint snap, he begins to wrap Stiles's wrists together, binding him tight.

Though there are faint sounds from the camp around them, the tent is a cocoon of quiet inside. He can hear the slip of the leather over skin clearly as well as the sound of both of them breathing a little fast. He pushes Stiles firmly against the post before looping the second leather strip through his bound hands and up to one of the rings fixed on the post for just this purpose.

Next comes the strip of supple leather that he'd come to Derek wearing. He smooths the leather over Stiles's brow, pulls the blindfold taut. When he steps back to inspect his handiwork, lust hits him low in the belly. The teasing, mischievous edge to Stiles's gaze is gone, hidden, but his lips are parted in anticipation, breaths shallow and excited. And this time he isn't even drugged.

Derek takes his time in stripping off his own camp armor, letting the objects clatter to the table, watching as each sound sends a flicker of tension through the muscles in Stiles's back. This isn't just discipline that Stiles is asking of him. It's sex, in the end, despite the pain that will come with it. He leaves himself bare in anticipation of that result. His cock is well pleased to finally be set free.

He digs around in the trunk for another strap, the important one. He decides on a belt, flat and unadorned. Wide enough to avoid truly harming him, but supple enough that when Derek tests it against his palm, it gives a good crack.

"Fuck," Stiles mutters breathlessly at the sound, squirming a little against his bonds. But he's hard, tenting the fabric of his loincloth. Excited even in the face of impending pain. Because of it, even.

It seems contradictory, but since Derek feels it churning in his chest, he can't do anything but embrace the strangeness of it. Derek approaches behind him, reaches out to hover his fingers over Stiles's skin until he can feel the warmth in the air between them. When he presses his fingers down, Stiles flinches at the unpredictable touch.

Derek backs away again, savoring the way Stiles's body shifts and tightens at the absence of touch and the potential that can't be foreseen. He wonders idly how far he could test Stiles's patience, but decides that it would probably outlast his own at this point. Breathless, he breaks the tension, extending the folded leather strap so that the end of the loop just barely drags along the small of Stiles's back. Stiles shudders, head lolling back, pulling taut the arms bound up high before him.

Derek lifts the leather away again. Then, giving no warning, he brings the belt down across Stiles's golden skin with a resounding crack.

Stiles grunts, something between surprise and pain. His body flexes as it automatically leans away from the assault across his shoulders, but he relaxes almost immediately, ready for the next blow. And abruptly, though he bears no scars on his back, Derek understands that Stiles is no stranger to the strap in this context. He himself, on the other hand, only has experience with simple corporal punishment, and almost entirely from the sidelines.

He is suddenly wary of hurting Stiles, of losing himself in releasing his frustrations and going too far in his inexperience in this particular domain. The reality of the strap in his hand threatens to shatter the ephemeral tenor Stiles has been helping him set up. It has him wanting to tear down the strap binding Stiles, to clothe him and release him from this dangerous play.

He almost moves his hand to do just that, but it's a coward's way out. A disrespectful rejection of Stiles's offerings. Derek stops to slide his hand over the faint red mark stretching across Stiles's shoulders. A mark that he put there. But not a permanent one. Not harmful. A release.

"Ten lashes," he decides. Ten seems manageable, no matter how hard he hits him.

Stiles nods his understanding with a breathless but confident, "Yes, My Lord."

It settles him further. He lifts his arm then and brings home another strike, a little lower below his shoulder-blades. Then another, slowly working his way down Stiles's back till he gets to a total of five. He pauses then, listens to Stiles's rough breaths. But they are relatively steady, and Stiles does not waver.

Derek steps closer to touch him again, stroking the lines of the marks on his skin. Though punishment in the ranks is doled out to the back, when he drags his fingers down to the small of Stiles's back, he realizes he wants to go lower. He loosens the loincloth, letting it fall to the ground to expose that smooth curve of Stiles's backside. It's pale whereas his back is reddening. In definite need of attention.

Stiles seems to agree, arching into it on a hum as Derek drags the strap lower. The next time he brings the strap down across the smooth swell of his buttocks it's met with a moan that is distinctly pleased. Each of the next three strikes to his backside are given with determined force and inspire an equally filthy moan.

Derek drags the flat of his palm down the heated curve of Stiles's spine, then down to cup his rear, letting his fingers dig into the soft flesh. His own cock is hard, which fact he lets Stiles know by pressing tight against his back, letting his dick bump against Stiles's gently-abused rear. Stiles makes a pleased sound, straining back against his bonds a little to press himself tighter to Derek's lap.

"Haven't you been counting? One more," Derek murmurs against his neck as he slips his arm around to drag his fingertips over the taut lines of Stiles's belly. His other hand, the one holding the strap, drags forward, letting the loop of leather trail against the side and top of Stiles's thigh.

"Now to decide where I put it," he breathes, licking the shell of Stiles's ear and teasing the rings that pierce it.

Stiles trembles against him when the leather brushes his erection, a whimper escaping his lips as his body twitches.

Derek finds that he actually has the urge to strike him there, and it surprises him. He doesn't trust himself not to hurt Stiles if he does, too hot is the anger and frustration with everything else in his life. But he does let himself linger on the thought a moment, running the leather slowly down the length of him, then back up again before drifting higher over his belly.

Stiles is breathing hard, body tensed against an impact he's uncertain of. The moment stretches, builds, the wild anticipation of the unknown howling in the silence around them.

He brings the strap down hard on the top of his thigh. Stiles cries out in surprise, in pain, in relief, all rolled into one. He leans back into Derek, breathing hard, but his head tips onto Derek's shoulder, looking up at his face though he cannot see. Searching.

Derek is painfully aware of his erection sliding against Stiles's thigh as they breathe. He runs a hand up Stiles's throat, cranes his neck down at the awkward angle and presses a wet kiss to Stiles's waiting mouth. Stiles kisses back as hard as the angle and his breathlessness allows.

Derek undoes the strip binding him to the post, though he leaves his wrists bound together. After a brief moment he guides Stiles over to his furs, making him kneel. He runs a hand down the reddened marks on Stiles's back, drawing a shuddering moan from him. Then he walks around to the piled furs, kneeling in front of him. He sits back on his haunches, gazing at the beauty laid out for him. He studies Stiles's face, looking for the signs that Stiles is still enjoying this. Though the boy is breathing hard still, his lips quirk into a semblance of a grin when Derek's fingers brush against them. When Derek runs his hand over his cheekbone, Stiles leans into the touch. Even yet, ready.

Eager.

Derek begins by running his fingers down Stiles's front, starting at his collarbones, then dragging down the center line of his breastbone before lifting his hand to touch the leather bindings. He continues it lower, chasing the fine trail of hair to drag a fingertip along the length of his erection.

Stiles shudders, making a soft sound of pleasure as his hips twitch, pushing the exposed head of his cock ever so slightly against Derek's finger.

Derek withdraws his hand, shifting to sit and take the strain off his knees. "You seem to be enjoying this a little too much," he says with disapproval. And though it's legitimate, though he's still annoyed with Stiles and annoyed in general, he finds he's more pleased that Stiles is enjoying this. It's a contradiction that has him leaning up to add quietly, "Bring yourself off. I want you soft and spent when I fuck you."

It seems nothing is going to be simple when it comes to Stiles. He's not used to these conflicting desires, or the potential to somehow satisfy them all at the same time.

Stiles's cheeks flush hot beneath the blindfold and he hiccups in a breath before shifting his weight a little.

"Yes My Lord," Stiles whispers. Awkwardly he lowers his hands, flexing them and squeezes his cock into the gap between his bound palms. The pressure doesn't look comfortable, if the way Stiles's abdomen flinches is any indication. But he bites down on his lip and shifts a little till his cock pushes in, then out again from the narrow gap.

Derek watches him intently. Occasionally he reaches out to touch Stiles since he's not touching himself yet. He fondles the little gold rings to hear him stutter. He runs his thumb along Stiles's lips in anticipation. Each touch is a surprise, one that makes Stiles shudder; he can't see them coming because of the blindfolded. His hands are awkward and his strokes uneven. He makes little sounds of frustration but he perseveres, bare cockhead straining and reddening as he strokes harder and faster, teeth gritting.

Derek decides to help him after all, curling his fingers up under the head of his cock and flicking his nails against the sensitive join. Stiles gasps when he comes, splattering his hot seed all over Derek's belly and forearm.

"Should I clean up, my Lord?" he asks breathlessly.

"Yes." Derek stays where he is, watching Stiles fumble for balance and to find where his come has landed. But eventually he squirms down onto his belly and slots himself between Derek's legs, bound fingers questing slightly till they find Derek's thigh for orientation. Then he lowers his head, panting breath hot on Derek's skin as his tongue starts a clumsy lave over him.

It takes a long time, Stiles blindfolded as he is, but neither of them complains. Derek is painfully hard by the time he pronounces Stiles's mission complete, long after the last droplet has been recovered. But Derek doesn't mind drawing it out, giving Stiles time to start catching up again. Despite the fact that he wants Stiles spent and sensitive before he fucks him, he'd prefer that he enjoys it at the same time.

Stiles sits up, breathing hard. Derek twists to one side and cups the back of Stiles's head and drags him down to the furs, pressing him face-first into them. Stiles moans, pushing his bound hands up over his head as Derek swings up to his knees over his lower legs. He grips Stiles by his hips and hauls him up onto his knees, leaving the rest of him face down in the fur. He steadies him, gets him right where he wants him, spreading his buttocks and leaving his hole on blatant display.

"Don't move," he orders, pushing to his feet and stepping back. He gazes down at him for a long moment, at all that golden skin, reddening in places where he has made his mark upon it.

His.

His cock twitches, reminding him that he'd gotten up for a reason. He strides over to his trunk, to the flask of oil he knows is sitting near it. He takes it up, drawing free the plug as he returns to his bed. As he kneels again he gathers some oil, rubbing it over his cock, then onto Stiles, who flinches and moans at the unexpected touch.

It isn't comfortable, for either of them, the way he positions himself and presses forward into his tight heat without any other preparation. It's slow going as he forces Stiles's body to accept him. The pressure is nearly overwhelming, for both of them. Stiles pants, body quivering. But this isn't about comfort, for either of them. Not tonight.

So he forges on, inch by slow inch, never relenting the pressure until he is fully subsumed inside him. A hand down Stiles's spine gets a low moan. He tightens his knees against Stiles's, locking him into the position he wants. He curls his fingers around his hips and grinds their bodies together, hard, till there's no more give between them.

When he draws back it's slick and slow and drags at the skin around Stiles's hole. When he thrusts, it's with every ounce of his frustration, hard and rough and careless. He starts up a bruising pace then, fingers digging into Stiles's hips, careless of the forming bruises there already. Stiles whimpers under him, body unable to start climbing towards arousal again just yet but not so freshly sensitive that he can't enjoy it.

He leans forward to cover him, pushing his hands high above his head and gripping them for leverage. When his chest brushes against Stiles's welts the boy hisses, shuddering beneath him. But Derek doesn't slow. He just lowers his mouth to the back of Stiles's neck and bites down, dragging another raw sound out of him. Stiles sounds like he's trying to stifle his moans but the pain, the awkward position are getting the better of him and he sounds wrecked and wanton as Derek drives deeper and harder than he's ever dared before.

When Stiles's throat is tight with broken sobs and his body tense with desperate resistance, the tent is filled with the sound of their skin meeting in sharp conflict, only then does he feel the rush, the pounding of blood in his ears, the roars of battles long past, the power and very life of him surging out of his narrow mortal coil.

It pushes through him and out of him and into his bedmate in waves, in juddering blows that rip his breath from him and cause his heart to stumble until he's limp against the golden boy beneath him, the young man who has held him up at his own suffering the whole evening.

When he comes back to himself enough to move he lets them fall to one side. Stiles is breathing hard and still shaking from the strain of it. Derek releases Stiles's hands, tossing the leather far away. Then he cautiously rolls him over, making space for him in the furs to lay comfortably. Derek cups Stiles's cheek for the briefest moment before he loosens the blindfold too, though he's afraid of what he'll see in Stiles's eyes, that he's gone too far again and lost track of himself. But when Stiles blinks and looks over at him, he smiles faintly. Though his eyes are heavy and his smile tired, he looks thoroughly contented and leans up to press a quick kiss to Derek's lips.

It's an intimacy further than they've shared before now, and yet it feels surprisingly comfortable. Derek cradles gentle arms around him, drawing him close under the warmth of the furs.

"Feel better?" Stiles murmurs against his ear, still shaking a little, cradled against his body.

Derek does feel better. Better than he has in days, and he's not certain about what that means. He shouldn't feel good about this, about having done what is fundamentally akin to beating and ravishing a slave. He's not sure he could explain how it's different, if pressed. But nuances aside, it has been willingly given, encouraged even, and it has done much to release his frustrations. Salved anger he can't direct where it belongs.

What it is is a profound gift.

He presses his lips to Stiles's temple and though he doesn't speak the words aloud, he gives his thanks.

Chapter Text

Stiles still looks exhausted when the morning light comes. He doesn't stir when Derek disentangles their limbs and slips from the furs. The mark on his lip has purpled a bit around the cut, but it should heal quickly. Derek wonders about the other marks, the ones he may have left himself these past few days, though he doesn't pull back the furs to inspect them. He'll be sure to keep Stiles's duties light today, and to check that he's not been harmed more than is acceptable to either of them.

Derek, on the other hand, feels relaxed. Refreshed. He is surprised by it, but he has no doubt that Stiles's method of catharsis is the cause of his current calm. He finds himself wondering that Stiles had ever been sold into slavery on an open market. His talents were not at all pedestrian. Surely his brothel had appreciated them?

There is clearly a story there that Stiles hadn't told him, and yet he's given much of himself over to Derek willingly. He can't bring himself to be annoyed at this holdback. Stiles will tell him if he wants to. He just presses the furs close around his sleeping bedmate and takes care of his morning ablutions in silence.

He's awake early, so he spends a few minutes tending Camaro, brushing her coat to a shimmer and checking on her healing scars. Peter had said he'd make his decision in the night and inform them of it this morning, so he waits until a more reasonable amount of dawn light is spilling over the valley and then finds a slave to send to fetch Boyd and Isaac before making his way to Peter's camp.

When he ducks in Peter's open tent-flap, his uncle turns, still eating his breakfast. He looks a bit smug.

"You look troubled, nephew."

"No more than usual," Derek replies, frowning. He can already tell that this battle is lost, but if there's ever a time to earn a concession from Peter, it's when the man is feeling satisfied. He doesn't attempt flattery, because he knows Peter could see through his clumsy attempts, but he can manage humility as he says, "Have you given any more thought to sending back for more troops?"

Peter's face tightens as he glances at a scrap of parchment on his table. "No thought needed. My sister has seen fit to pull your sister from her duties to lead some forces our way."

Derek is very pleased with this news, but he makes sure to maintain his impassivity.

Peter sighs, tipping his head side to side as he cracks his neck. But he shrugs it off with a grimace and returns his attention to his breakfast.

"In the meantime, we need to prevent any immediate backlash from taking our forces in full. I don't doubt our recent clash has inspired some fervor in those remaining Argent troops. If that assassin of theirs makes it back with good information, we remain vulnerable. Thus I've decided that we're going to fracture the army," he says, carving off another slice of cheese with his knife.

Derek nods, completely unsurprised. "Very well," he says, surprisingly calm in the face of an order he thinks is reckless but isn't something he can fight.

Peter looks almost disappointed at his lack of response, and starts to push the point when they are interrupted by the arrival of some of their lieutenants. Mahealani and a mulish-looking Whittemore arrive first, followed a few minutes later by Boyd, then McCall with Isaac in tow.

Peter announces his decision once more, glancing at Derek and frowning again at his easy acquiescence. He wonders if Peter gets pleasure out of seeing Derek struggle to force himself to align his words and demeanor with Peter's will. It seems like the perverse sort of game he'd enjoy. He wills a glower onto his face as he gazes down at the maps pinned to Peter's table, though he is cautious not to overplay it.

Peter drags little carved wooden characters to places on the map, pointing to various lieutenants in turn. "Boyd, your command is here," he says, tapping at the southern woods that flank the main pass.

Boyd takes the information in stride, nodding his understanding deferentially.

"Lahey, you'll ride north here," Peter adds, putting another horse character on the board.

Isaac glances at Derek, but he nods quickly enough when he glances back at Peter.

Derek sighs as he frowns at the map, watching his uncle hand out the remaining troop spreads. But even when all the lieutenants are accounted for, Peter remains unsatisfied.

Peter also appears bent on unsettling Derek, smiling broadly as he lifts another small wooden piece. "Derek, you'll remain here, taking charge of Greenberg's platoon."

Derek's head whips up as he snaps, "What?"

"I'm down a lieutenant and with all your casualties you're left with more officers than is necessary. There's hardly a full cavalry complement left for you to command. Split them off with your other platoons."

Peter's expression is one of steel under a mockingly benevolent veneer. Derek grimaces, but puts his fist over his heart as he bows in acknowledgement of the order.

"Boyd, Lahey, you'll be marching first, taking your platoons along routes here," he points on the map, "and here, respectively. My lieutenants will stay here for the time being, keep us from tripping over ourselves as we move out. Then I'll have you moving here, here, and here," he says, eyeing each of his lieutenants and directing them in turn.

"What's our timeframe?" Isaac asks, arms crossed as he thumbs his chin, eyeing the map.

"I want you on the move by tomorrow. I suggest we all get started with preparations," Peter says. Though his phrasing is polite, no one mistakes it for anything less than an order.

Isaac glances at Derek in surprise, and Derek can do little else but confirm with a nod. The soldiers each salute Peter briefly, then begin to file out of the tent. Derek lets them go ahead of him, waiting for the unavoidable closing commentary Peter will wish to issue.

"I'll have one of my slaves direct you to your new platoon sometime later this morning after you've had time to get your own underway."

"Yes My Lord," he says stiffly, letting his annoyance bleed through enough that the corner of Peter's mouth curves upwards. He waits a beat, then turns to make his own way out of the tent after his soldiers. Again, Peter is determined to have the last word. Before Derek can duck out of the tent, Peter speaks again.

"Oh, I meant to ask. That slave of yours," Peter begins.

Derek barks an incredulous laugh and scratches at his beard to mask his real expression as he turns back to his Uncle. "Yes, his behavior last night did not go unpunished. He's finding any sort of movement is rather difficult today."

"Is he now?" Peter's smile turns vicious and almost proud. It turns Derek's stomach but he hopes it's enough to slake Peter's interest.

"He's a little sore," Derek explains, letting a faint edge of amusement slide into his understatement.

Peter chuckles and shakes his head slightly, making a gesture of dismissal and turning away to gaze at his maps again, apparently satisfied. Derek doesn't linger and takes the opportunity to nod to his Uncle and continue his way out of the tent to pursue the rest of the day's duties.

But their conversation had hardly been private, he finds as he steps out and finds his lieutenants waiting. Their faces are tight with possible masked reproach for what they'd overheard and with concern about their impending plans. Mahealani and Whittemore are long gone, but McCall has lingered at Isaac's side and his face curves into disapproval more openly before he nods to the others and heads away.

He glowers after the lieutenant, but it's hardly anything worse than most people already think of him anyway. Besides, the fact is he had beaten Stiles and fucked him to the point of exhaustion. He doesn't doubt that most would find it difficult to understand that it had been done at Stiles's behest.

His lieutenants' faces are studiously blank when he turns back to them and he gestures briefly at them to follow before turning and beginning the march back to their side of the camp.

"My Lord, are we really…" Isaac begins, voice pitched low enough that only the three of them might hear it.

"As my Uncle orders," Derek says grimly. There's no room for disagreement now and he conveys that to his lieutenants with a hard look. His parents have put him under his Uncle's command for the time being and so he, and those who serve under him, shall serve their will. "So let's not waste any time. Isaac, go divide up the remainder of my cavalry squads to fold into your and Boyd's forces. Boyd, begin preparations."

Though Isaac splits off from them immediately to go and begin his duties, Boyd follows at Derek's side, face tense and unreadable as he works up to something else. Derek simply marches on, waiting for whatever it is. He thinks he probably knows, but he'll let Boyd bring it up. They're almost to his tent by the time Boyd finds the words he wants.

"My Lord," he finally says softly, reaching up to set a pleading hand to his arm, drawing them to a halt.

"I wonder… have you given thought to…"

"Erica," he says.

Boyd's eyes flick up to meet his, then back down to the ground as he nods. "I know I presume much by even asking-"

Derek sighs. Erica has been with him a long time now, but it would be selfish as well as stupid to try and keep her forever.

"Fetch her. Send her to my tent. Then go and tell your men to begin preparations. Once you've gotten things underway,
return to my tent. I will inform you of my decision there."

Boyd glances up at his face again for a moment, then puts a fist to his chest and bows, then strides away into the growing bustle of the camp. There's a building urgency in the air as word of the move spreads from servant to soldier and back again.

Stiles is awake and dressed, sitting at the table when Derek ducks into the tent, so he pins the flap back, leaving his tent open to those who might come calling. But he gazes at his bedmate for a long, assessing moment, watching as he works on conditioning a piece of Derek's armor carefully with a pot of black-tinted oil and a small cloth.

"You are well?" he asks, still feeling surprisingly hesitant as he moves closer.

Stiles turns those amber eyes on him and quirks his mouth up in that saucy grin. "Well enough."

It's a deflection, but when he studies the young man, he finds no outward sign of ailment save the mild bruising peeking out above the neckline of his tunic and the cut still marring his lip. Derek frowns at him a moment, then says, "Rest if you want to today."

Stiles glances at him again, surprised. The smile he gets this time is much softer, much more open. "Thank you My Lord. I won't neglect my duties but… I may rest a bit."

"See that you do," Derek says firmly. He must need it if he'd been willing to admit that much.

Erica arrives, ducking into the open tent flap and lifting her fingers in greeting to them both.

"You’ve heard about the split?" Derek asks, returning her wave with a nod.

Though she wears her usual smile, she looks pensive. "Yes. It's… everyone then?"

Derek glowers at the table, glancing over at Stiles and catching his eye so as to inform them both when he says, "I'm staying back with Peter and taking over one of his main infantry platoons."

Stiles's eyebrows go up but he's not particularly surprised in light of last night's discussions. Erica, on the other hand, scowls, planting her hands on her hips. "That's absurd."

He lifts a warning eyebrow at her and she clips her mouth back into a neutral line, dropping her hands again quickly to a more submissive posture. Then a look of distress slips over her features for the moment before she masks it again. Her voice comes out a little flat when she says, "I'll divide the slaves and assign proxies to Boyd and Isaac then."

Derek sighs, finding his gaze settling on Stiles, who looks back at him with calm, gently warm interest, fingers slowing on the leather the longer Derek looks at him. Derek turns to look at Erica then, at her carefully flat face and eyes that gaze through the table at nothing.

"For Isaac's complement, yes, but it is my preference that you take the bulk of the slaves along with Boyd's command yourself."

Her eyes widen and relief floods her features before her expression turns almost immediately contrite, genuinely-so as she gazes at Derek.

"Does that seem workable to you?" Derek asks.

She hesitates over her words a moment, competing motivations clear in her face. But the flicker of hope seems to win out and she nods. "It does. You always do what you deem best, My Lord," she says honestly, though a small smile returns to her face at this preferred decision he's made. "Shall I go make preparations?"

He shakes his head. "There is another issue we must settle first."

Relief turns into confusion on her face. He ignores it and heads over to his trunk, digging down to one of the leather pouches containing his ownership papers for his most senior slaves. The ones whose term of indenture is a lifetime. He leafs through them till he finds Erica's papers, then draws them out along with a blank sheet of vellum. Turning back to the table he carries them over, making a gesture at Stiles that has the young man sliding his project away and leaving room for Derek to set the papers on the table between them.

He glances at Erica, finding a small measure of amusement in keeping his face blank in contrast to the querulous set to her features as she leans closer. He opens the small box containing his writing quill and ink, leaving her waiting as he sets them up. Even Stiles has given up pretense and is simply watching him. Once he folds open her papers and begins writing, however, it only takes a few moments for her to catch on.

"My Lord," she says, hands flying up to cover her mouth like she dare not say anything else in this pivotal moment.

He writes carefully but quickly and finishes the proclamation of her status as a free woman with little fanfare, simply adding his personal seal as a son of house Hale and as himself, the owner of her life.

"We'll let the ink dry, but it's done. You're a free woman now. You may leave if you'd like, instead of going with Boyd."

"I… no. No, I don't want to leave. Where would I go?" she scoffs.

He lifts an eyebrow in agreement.

"No, I'd like to remain in your service, and with Sir Boyd," she says, cheeks flushing slightly as she adds, "wherever he should go."

"As you wish," Derek says with a small nod. He blots the wet ink on the papers, then folds them carefully and marks them again with his seal on the outside. He glances at her, then adds, "I could also join the two of you in marriage, if you'd prefer."

She stares at him, mouth hanging open. "But he's an aristocrat," she manages after a moment, voice faint.

Derek cocks an eyebrow at her. "And you're a freewoman. You're not a slave anymore. That's allowed."

She's still gaping at him when Boyd appears in the tent, sending a questioning glance her way and then looking to Derek.

"What do you think, Vernon, think you're worthy of a wife like Erica?" Derek asks blandly.

Boyd's lips purse in an 'o' that resembles Erica's to an amusing degree, then the soldier looks to Erica, then to the papers in her hands which she shoves his direction in a flurry.

Derek ignores their silent conversations, smirking when Stiles gets up and brings him a fresh sheet of vellum with a smile that says he too thinks it's as much of a foregone conclusion as Derek. He winces as he sits back down and Derek arches an eyebrow at him.

Stiles just turns his nose up at the expression and goes back to his polishing with a loftiness that almost has a smile breaking Derek's face. Instead he returns to the task at hand and begins the letter of marriage his title gives him the power to draft. It's only the barest bones of the ceremony, done this way without laying any wreaths at shrines or hosting feasts with loved-ones, but such things can be recouped when war no longer looms. It is inadequate, but it is the best he can offer them now.

"Well?"

Boyd steps forward then and finds his tongue, saying, "Never worthy, ever hopeful."

Derek grunts his approval, continuing to write out the simple contract of joining between two free persons of sound mind and sufficient age. He's written such before, and though he hasn't any of the flair of a court officiant, it will more than serve its purpose. Giving it one last looking-over, he draws himself up when he's finished the letter. He turns to face Erica and Boyd, fixing the pair of them with his most aristocratic countenance.

"Vernon Milton Boyd, Lord of Urthgridge and Vaneail, knight and commander for the Hale kingdom, are you free to offer yourself in marriage?" he asks.

"I am," Boyd says firmly, dark eyes gleaming with emotion.

Derek turns to Erica and repeats the question. "Erica Valencia Reyes, are you free to offer yourself in marriage?"

"I am," Erica says, though she still sounds like she hardly believes it herself.

"Do you both swear to honor a bond of marriage to each other, to be sundered by none other than death itself?"

"I so swear," Erica says, taking Boyd's hand in her own.

Boyd gazes at her and repeats the words with fervor.

Derek nods, then extends the quill to Boyd. "Sign your name to your oath."

They each sign in turn, then Derek signs his own name below it and once more makes a wax seal and presses his signet ring into it. Finally he turns and extends the quill to Stiles, who looks at him with wide eyes.

"As witness," Derek says.

Stiles nods solemnly and takes the quill cautiously. His motions are uncertain as he tips the quill into the inkwell for more ink, but slowly and surely he signs something that resembles his name, though his letters have a northern bent to them and look unpracticed, the ink sitting heavy in places.

Erica's hands squeeze his shoulders as she makes a joyful sound, then launches herself at Boyd, whose intent expression splits into one of open happiness as he pulls her close.

A sheepish Stiles dabs at the errant ink mark Erica's jostling had made him make. Derek snorts, then clears his throat and says, "Congratulations. Now get back to work. There's much to be done."

There's a flurry of "Yes My Lord"s and so forth as Erica and Boyd disappear from the tent.

Stiles is looking at him with a bemused expression when he looks over at him and Derek narrows his eyes at him.

"It's efficient," he says.

"Mm," Stiles says, snickering as he turns back to his work.

Before he can make a retort, a slave is submitting herself to entry to the tent, on Lord Peter's request. She looks terrified when she comes in, though Stiles sends a smile her way that has her relaxing slightly.

"My lord, if you are ready I am to take you to Sir Greenberg's encampment."

Derek nods his head sharply and gestures for her to exit the tent ahead of him. Stiles chuckles again as Derek turns to go, and Derek fixes him with a quelling look, in response to which Stiles puts a facetiously serious expression on his face and turns his attention back to his work in hand.

"Efficient," Stiles murmurs to himself as Derek ducks out of the tent. But the tent doesn't muffle his loud addition of, "And I'm a Khotol priestess."

Peter's slave lets out a tiny chirp of laughter before freezing her face as she realizes she's no longer alone outside the tent. She pales markedly at the sight of Derek, and she curls in on herself, resuming her most subservient pose as she turns to lead the way. Probably desperately hoping he hadn't noticed her.

Derek's thunderous expression as he follows is well appropriate for the march over to take command of new troops.

When he gets there, it's an absolute mess. Soldiers are lounging around half-dressed, with weapons present at random. He doubts if even half of them could lay hands on their blades in no more than a few seconds. It's no wonder Greenberg hadn't had a chance.

His glare intensifies as he takes them in, and at the sight of him a few of them straighten up and start moving to retrieve their proper equipment.

When the girl brings him to an empty space between two tents and stops, he frowns at her in momentary confusion, then grimaces, turning in a slow circle. This is, in fact, the center of the platoon. However, Greenberg's tent has been stowed.

"You're excused," he says to the servant, annoyance bubbling up at the flash of relief he sees on her face at his words before she darts away.

He strides forward, taking stock. The little patch of land where the lieutenant had once lived is not quite bare. Most of his things have probably been stolen or perhaps sent back to his family, though he doubts the latter, given Peter's habits.

At least his war-chest has been kept under guard.

If the two men sleeping against the wooden box can be called that.

"Sergeant!" Derek bellows.

Some of the soldiers start to perk up at that, wariness spreading in quick murmurs and shifting postures.

He shouts again, and finally, by the time he's about ready to start going tent to tent, a wild-eyed man wearing little more than his loincloth comes running, sword in hand.

When he sees Derek he stutters to a halt, then salutes with his sword.

"Sergeant…?" Derek begins, hoping against hope that this man is merely a messenger.

"Finstock, My Lord."

"Sergeant Finstock, you will have the platoon in formation and ready for inspection within the hour."

"But My Lord-"

"Within the hour," Derek growls out. No excuse will be relevant here. He needs to see every weakness. Whatever they could manage in an hour was going to tell him a great deal. "Dismissed," he adds and turns away, marching directly over to the soldiers guarding the small war chest. They have, since his appearance, righted themselves to something that resembles their duty and step aside deferentially as he approaches.

The chest is a mess of disorganized papers and odds and ends from Acathee knows where. He grips the edges of it, taking a slow breath. It's going to be a long day.

 

The sun is nearly setting by the time Erica returns and ducks into the open tent flap again. "My Lord, if you have a moment?"

He gestures at the other chair, folding closed the bundle of chaotic notes Greenberg had left behind about his platoon.

Erica takes the offered seat with a faint air of weariness. Preparing to break camp again so soon and restructure the distributions of labor certainly isn't easy.

"The slaves have been split between Isaac and Boyd, and they'll all be ready to tear down and march come morning."

He nods. "Good. Your efficiency is appreciated as always."

She smiles and leans forward onto her elbow, hesitating a moment before she says, "But there's one slave left unassigned. Stiles."

"Ah," he says, leaning back slightly.

The fingers of her free hand press against the edge of the table as she gazes over at him and says, "I'd feel better if you kept him with you, had someone looking after you when I'm gone. But I'm not going to push if you are finding him less than helpful." She crooks the corner of her mouth as she adds, "The time for my mischief has passed."

He cocks a skeptical eyebrow at her but then directs his gaze to the tent wall while he considers the question. "Would you have a place for him, a use?" Derek asks.

She frowns but admits, "Stiles is good with the horses. From the day after he arrived he's been making himself useful around them. I'm told he helped significantly with their minor ills when we were on the march - still does when he's not busy with you."

Derek hadn't known that, but after seeing him with Camaro, he's not surprised.

Stiles ducks into the tent as though called. He's carrying food in a basket. Stiles smiles at him. Nods to Erica.

Derek watches him as he sets out the food from the basket on the table, snagging an apple for himself before moving away to set it aside before he stows the basket. Not for himself, Derek realizes. For Camaro.

"Stiles will stay with me," Derek says, drawing Stiles's amber eyes his way. A tentative smile crosses his face though his eyes are curious. Derek gives him a reassuring nod, and Stiles returns it. When Derek turns his gaze back on Erica, she's smirking at him, looking far too pleased with herself. He scowls, but it only makes her grin.

"As you say My Lord," she says as she rises. "Then I've nothing else to discuss."

Her smile turns a little sad and the scowl fades from his face to something more solemn. It's surprisingly painful to realize that this will be the first time she'll march without him. That perhaps they'll never march together again.

"May Kahlah grant us favor that we meet again," she adds softly, setting her hand on his shoulder and squeezing before she continues away. She pauses to undo the ties holding the tent open, leaving them with more privacy, then ducks out of the tent.

He sighs heavily, taking his knife to the round of cheese. He carves off a slice but leaves it where it falls, frowning.

He can see in his peripheral vision that Stiles is standing in the middle of the tent, gazing curiously at him. When Derek looks over at him he drops his eyes quickly, flushing.

"Come here," Derek orders, fingers playing idly over the finely-worked handle of the table knife.

Stiles comes to stand in front of him.

Derek reaches up and grips his waist, pulling him down into his lap. Surprise makes him stiff, but after a moment he relaxes into Derek's arms. After a moment Stiles glances at him, bracing his feet so he can grind his backside into Derek's lap in unmistakable query. Derek stills him with a hand on his hip. Appealing as it is, he's not going there yet.

"Have you eaten?" he asks instead.

"No."

He takes the piece of cheese and lifts it to Stiles's lips. Stiles opens his mouth and takes the bite from his fingers, lips touching his skin softly. His eyes are impossibly golden in the candlelight as he chews slowly, never taking his eyes from Derek.

When he swallows and waits patiently, Derek silently cuts another piece of the cheese, along with a bit of bread to bring to Stiles's mouth.

"Would you rather I have sent you with the others?" he asks abruptly, stilling the hand that's been massaging a slow circle into Stiles's hip. He wishes he hadn't spoken the moment the words leave his mouth.

Stiles looks at him in surprise. "Without you?"

He nods.

Stiles shakes his head, saying softly, "No, My Lord. No."

Ah. He presses his nose to Stiles's neck, savoring the warmth and the scent of him. He's not used this. To having the comforts of companionship, especially on a campaign. He's even less familiar with someone wanting to stay by his side. Soldiers, yes. They trusted his leadership. But a companion? No. Most can barely stand to be around him, too afraid, too repulsed by his scars. He can't know if Stiles really would have chosen to stay, since Derek had been the one to decide. He can't know whether Stiles would choose to stay if he were free, not just choosing between limited options.

But he is here. And he's not afraid of him, even after last night.

He hands Stiles the wineskin and pulls his goblet closer, the sound of the cup moving loud in the quiet tent. Stiles takes his cue and carefully pours, the scent of the dark red wine tart and fruity in the air as the cup fills. He sets the skin aside and then returns his gaze to Derek's face.

Derek lifts the cup, taking a long sip. Then he lifts the goblet to Stiles's level instead of setting it back down. Stiles's breath catches and he flicks his eyes over at Derek's for a brief moment before he parts his lips and Derek tilts the cup slowly against them. The wine slides into his mouth and Stiles swallows reflexively when his mouth is full. Derek pulls the cup away but mistimes it and doesn't lower the angle enough as he draws the goblet away to make a clean break. Though Stiles tries to lick it back, some of it dribbles down over his chin and out of the corner of his mouth.

As Derek sets the goblet aside, Stiles flushes and reaches up, but Derek catches his fingers before they can wipe the spill away. Slowly he pushes Stiles's hand down again, away from the mess on his chin. Instead he lifts his own hand up to cup the back of Stiles's head and pulls him closer. He parts his lips to catch the crimson droplet that's hanging on Stiles's chin, licks the trail up to his mouth. Carefully he traces the corner of his lower lip till all the wine is gone. Stiles's eyelids are heavy when he draws back, pupils dilated as his eyes linger on Derek's mouth.

When he lifts the goblet to Stiles's lips a second time, Stiles doesn't try as hard not to let the wine overflow when he swallows, eyes on Derek as little rivulets of wine tip down his chin and neck. Derek leans in again, tastes the sweet nectar on his skin. He chases the lines lower down his throat before they can reach his tunic. He pauses to suck on the tender skin a moment, just enough to leave a mark. Then he skims back up to Stiles's face, licks his way into his mouth, chasing the wine and the warmth. Stiles opens for him and he lingers there, exchanging slow, exploring presses of tongue and lips. He stays long after the wine is gone, till Stiles's hands find purchase on his vest and he leans down into the kiss with a soft sound.

He slides his hand up under Stiles's tunic, smoothing his rough palm over the soft skin of his inner thigh. He finds the mostly-soft bump of his groin and massages it gently. Stiles's hips press forward into his palm.

"Up," Derek orders, giving Stiles a little boost. The loosened loincloth falls to the floor as he stands, and Derek pushes the bottom of his tunic up, baring his smooth, round ass. He spreads his palms over it, giving him a squeeze. Then he settles his hands on Stiles's hips and guides him away from the table, rising after him. He pulls the tunic higher, and Stiles lifts his arms so that it comes free easily.

He runs his hands over Stiles's skin, gentle, savoring. Then he steps back, starts in on his own garments. Stiles turns when he hears the clink of the sword-belt. He takes the weapons from Derek, carries them to their place beside the furs while Derek drags off his boots, tossing them aside carelessly. When Stiles returns he smiles hesitantly up at Derek, then sets about undoing the toggles on Derek's padded vest. It gets shrugged out of and left to lay where it falls. Stiles's eyes linger on Derek's face as Derek waits, lets him take his time. The tunic goes after it at Stiles's behest, his long, angular fingers skimming over Derek's bare chest reverently. Stiles digs his fingers in a little at the thickest part of the hair on Derek's chest, then smooths his fingers down Derek's sides. Flicking his eyes up to meet Derek's, he lowers his head to press his mouth over Derek's nipple.

Derek lets him suckle on it, strokes his fingers over Stiles's short hair as he savors it. Stiles pulls the bud taut between his lips, letting it come free with a pop before he switches to the other side of Derek's chest, teasing that nipple erect too. Stiles nips at it and sucks, but Derek grows impatient with the teasing and gently pulls Stiles's head away before he can take to the other one again.

"Go fetch the oil," Derek says, turning to snuff the candles on the table before setting his own hands to work on his trousers as he returns to stand at the edge of the furs.

Stiles does as ordered, pouch in hand and eyes heavy-lidded when he returns. Derek takes it from him, then gestures to the furs. "Kneel down. Make yourself comfortable."

Stiles kneels as Derek tugs his loincloth free, leaving himself as bare as Stiles. Stiles slides forward into the soft fur, going down on his hands and knees and shifting about a little until he has a good thick patch of fur beneath him. Then he arches his back a little, presenting himself to Derek. The look he casts over his shoulder up at Derek is one of smoldering desire, and the combination has Derek's mouth going dry. He kneels behind him, running a hand over Stiles's backside, then down along the thickening cock hanging between his legs. Stiles pushes back against him a little as he cradles the weight of his balls, teasing the soft skin behind them.

He pours some oil out onto his cock, then onto his fingers, rubbing them together to warm it. The smooth golden shade of the flax seed oil is something he thinks he'll associate with Stiles's golden-toned skin forever more. He lifts them to the hot pucker of Stiles's opening, smearing it liberally over his skin. He massages it gently, working it over the edges of his rim. Then he does the same over his cock till the oil is warm and well-spread.

He steadies Stiles, lines himself up, teasing the head of his cock up against Stiles's hole, waiting for Stiles to tense reflexively, then relax again before he starts to finally move forward. Though he's relaxed and the passage is easy, Stiles hisses in discomfort as Derek presses into him. Abruptly Derek recalls just how rough he'd been on him the night before and he smooths gentling hands over Stiles's back, revising his plans slightly.

He goes slowly now, drawing Stiles's hips back into his lap gently, kneeling back on his heels. He curls an arm around Stiles's waist, supporting him as he rolls his hips up into him. The angle makes for shallow, rocking pressure instead of rough thrusting friction. Stiles sighs in soft pleasure. His hands come up to curl behind his head, stroking through Derek's hair, splaying over the back of his neck.

Derek smooths his palms up over Stiles's chest, bumping the rings in his nipples. He presses his lips to the soft skin on the back of Stiles's neck, drawing his mouth down to where his neck meets the curve of his shoulder. He lingers there, curling his arms tight against Stiles's torso as he fucks him. He sucks a fresh mark into the skin, earning himself a moan as he sends a hand sliding lower to tease at the hardness swaying between his thighs.

He fucks him like this for a while, savoring the feel of his soft skin, the way he melts against Derek's body. But it's also not enough, not for either of them. Eventually he slows his rhythm, lifts Stiles up to his knees, slipping back from him. Then he nudges his hip, indicating that he should turn, saying, "Lie back for me."

Stiles does, smiling and relaxed, stretching out into the furs, spreading his legs wide and inviting. Derek leans down over him, capturing a lifted nipple with his mouth, sucking hard enough that Stiles squirms, uttering a broken moan. He teases the ring with his tongue, running possessive hands over Stiles's body. Though it's dark, his eyes have adjusted enough for him to be able to see the way Stiles responds to his touch. He is still awed that this golden creature belongs in his bed, enjoys his crude touch. By the time he lifts his head, Stiles's cock has gone from mostly hard to straining up against his belly. He shifts Stiles's hips to where he wants them and pushes in again, deeper this time, filling him up.

Then he begins to move, long, firm strokes that start slow and gradually begin to come more quickly Stiles's moans are low sighs of pleasure, and when Derek leans down to his elbows, Stiles closes the distance between their mouths. Derek pushes his way into the heat of Stiles's mouth, thrusting with both tongue and cock. Stiles lays open for him, giving him everything and more, hands curling tight to Derek's shoulders, then roaming down his ribs and over the flexing muscles in his back.

He's starting to lose his hold on gentle, the way Stiles is rocking his hips against him, feet digging into the backs of Derek's thighs, mouth hot and intent on Derek's. Even that doesn't prove to be enough because Stiles's questing hands find their grip on Derek's backside, pulling him harder, deeper on the next thrust.

When Stiles breaks the kiss, head dropping back with a thud on a low moan of "Yesss," he loses his hold on tender entirely. Derek plants his hands on Stiles's hips for leverage and slams into him, pushing roughly towards the edge they're both intent on him reaching. Stiles clamps down around him on each progressively harder thrust, fingernails digging into Derek's skin as he murmurs half-words against his neck. It's all darkness and closeness and breathlessness. Clinging as though if he can open himself enough, if Derek can push deeply enough, he can climb into Stiles's warmth entirely.

He can't do that, but it feels close when he spills himself inside of Stiles with a deep rush of relief spreading through his body instead an explosion of fire like the night before. It's just as good in its own way.

After a moment of catching his breath, he pushes up on one arm, sliding his knees up and shifting his weight back onto his haunches without withdrawing from Stiles's body just yet, not wanting to break the sense of connectedness and contentment he's feeling. Stiles is smiling up at him, looking pleased and kind and a little breathless too. Like he wants to be here, like he wants Derek.

And at least in one way, he does. Derek looks down along his body, then reaches for Stiles's straining cock, tracing his fingers over the glistening tip, then curling his hand around it tight. There's something different about having the same bedpartner night after night. Something that makes him actually want to satisfy Stiles himself. Before he can give it more than a few strokes of his fist, Stiles puts a hand over his, stilling his moment.

"You don't have to do that for me, my lord," Stiles says, sounding embarrassed.

Derek just lifts an eyebrow at him and resumes his stroking motion. Stiles makes a frustrated whine, fingers catching at his wrist. Derek merely snags the offending hand, pinning it down into the furs beside Stiles's hip, never stopping the steady stroke he's applying.

"I can take care of that myself and let you rest," Stiles tries again, though Derek can see his abdomen flex when he twists his wrist, pressing his thumb over the slit.

"Are you trying to tell me I'm not doing a good job of it?" Derek asks, amused at the way horror flashes over Stiles's features at the question.

"No, I - Of course not My Lord. I -"

"Perhaps you'd prefer I try something else," Derek continues, ignoring his babbling and drawing back from him, cock falling soft and wet to his thigh. He hesitates for only a moment, looking down at the beautiful straining cock in his hand.

It's not something men of his stature do, supposedly. And yet Stiles seems to enjoy doing it for him, a great deal in fact. He knows he certainly appreciates being on the receiving end of things. Novice though he may be at this, he finds himself interested to learn. He lowers his mouth to the hot flesh, licking a long stripe up the length of it.

Stiles makes a pleased and somewhat distressed whimper, eyes wide in disbelief. The response pleases and amuses him. So Derek does it again, swiping a thumb after it and smearing in the saliva so that the delicate skin glistens. Then he curls his fingers around Stiles's cock and maneuvers the tip so that he can curl his lips around the exposed head.

"Mavet's balls," Stiles swears incredulously, thighs twitching sharply as Derek takes him into his mouth. He doesn't take much of Stiles into his mouth, just sucking at the tip, pressing his lips tight around the faintly-scarred ridge. But even that seems to be sufficient to drag free more cursing at unfamiliar deities. He's never tasted another man before. The beaded liquid at his tip is tart and bitter, new, but in some ways the flavor and scent of him are already familiar. They are Stiles, only more potent. He presses his tongue to the slit before lifting his head abruptly, sucking in a deep breath, not having worked out how to manage his breathing yet.

He lifts an eyebrow at Stiles, daring him to comment, but Stiles is just watching him with something akin to awe. Perhaps in his subordinate position Stiles has never had a mouth on him, just as Derek has never put his mouth to anyone. The thought lends him confidence. It is fumbling and imperfect, but he's nothing if not persistent. He loosens his jaw more, sliding Stiles's cock further into his mouth, letting his tongue guide him deeper before lifting his head again for a breath. He tries to go even further this time. Stiles moans when Derek swallows reflexively. His hips twitch up, shoving his length further into Derek's throat than he'd expected. He jerks his head back, coughing as Stiles babbles an apology. Derek shuts him up by planting one palm on his hip, holding him down as he goes back for more. Soon he works out how to breathe through his nose and keep moving his mouth. It's easy so long as he doesn't go too deep. He's pleased when he achieves a steady pattern, drawing more moans.

He can tell Stiles is close. It has him picking up the pace, even though the strokes are more shallow. Stiles's back arches in pleasure, and Derek is pleased that he alone is the cause. His chest is fluttering with each breath, nipples hard and head twisting in the furs. One of Stiles's hands reaches up to tug at one of the golden rings. Then Stiles's other hand fumbles down his thigh, straining lower to reach behind his cock. Derek lifts his head in question, but understands after a moment. He pushes his fingers into Stiles's hole, still loose and slick with Derek's release, emulating the earlier thrusts of his cock. Stiles just pants now, body twitching around the intrusion as Derek mouths at the tip of his cock. When Derek drops his mouth around him again he keens, and when Derek sucks hard, his eyes go wide as he looks down at Derek and his lips try to form words.

Then his cock pulses and Derek's mouth is being filled with bitter, salty fluid. He's not surprised by it, but he doesn't quite manage to swallow it all on the first go. He scowls down at the disobedient dribbles that slide down Stiles's cock when he lifts his head, but sweeping them up with his tongue is a simple matter. Then Stiles is clean and spent and he has succeeded in his private little mission.

When he looks up Stiles is staring at him with wide eyes, and as Derek lifts an eyebrow at him he swallows roughly. Tired now, and with a slightly sore throat, Derek rises from the bed, going to find the waterskin. He drinks his fill, then returns to the furs, handing the skin to Stiles, who takes it and drinks greedily from its spout. Derek sets it aside then and slides into bed, drawing the furs over them both as he lays down beside Stiles.

Neither of them say a word, they just twine together and ride on towards sleep.

Chapter Text

When Derek wakes he finds that for the first time in a long time, his immediate reaction is not to get up and start the day. For once his furs are thoroughly appealing, warm and soft. His arms are full of sleeping lover, weighing him down somewhat, but cradled comfortably nonetheless. He has no external reason to get up, either. His presence this early at his new platoon is only going to be distracting if he arrives before they've had a chance to begin to prepare for his review. And as far as his own platoons go, butting in there would only interfere with his lieutenants' leadership. Though the rest of the camp is bustling with sound of people preparing and moving, he is to remain here.

And so why not remain exactly where he is?

He looks down at the soft brown of Stiles's hair, at the eyelashes laid out softly on his cheeks. His breath is even, slow. He can see the edge of the forming bruise on his neck where it meets his shoulder. His mark.

Stiles makes a faint sound in his sleep, licks his lips a few times reflexively before nuzzling his face against Derek's chest again. So Derek lets his eyes drift closed again and sleeps with Stiles a while longer.

 

There's a loud thump and a horse's whinny outside the tent that has Derek jolting awake, Stiles stiffening against his body. But there's just the sound of some mostly good-natured arguing and someone calming the spooked horse and that's reassuring enough that they both relax again.

Stiles makes a faint sound of protest. So does his stomach.

"Hungry?" Derek asks.

"Yes, my lord," Stiles murmurs sleepily, nuzzling closer and promptly closing his eyes again.

"Derek," he finds himself saying.

"Hm?" Stiles asks, blinking sleep slowly away to look up at his face.

He hesitates for a moment, inspecting the impulse, but he finds that the idea pleases him. He turns his gaze down on Stiles and lifts his eyebrows. "My name. It's Derek. In here, in bed, address me by my name."

Stiles stares at him a moment, far more awake now. "Derek," he says, testing it carefully on his tongue.

Derek sighs a slow breath and nods. "Good." His fingers run soft over Stiles's short hair, and then he's nudging Stiles back a little so that he's not draped so heavily on him. He gets up then and pads across the dirt and fetches up the fruit bowl, tossing a round of cheese and the leftover bread onto it.

Stiles scrambles to his feet, nervous and quick to take over the duties of serving him a meal. But Derek just shakes his head. "There's nothing to do this morning. I'd rather stay in bed."

Stiles's eyes flick to his face, trying to read his intentions. He bites his lip and then glances down at the small pouch of oil they use for fucking, checking that it's still near their furs. Derek doesn't bother addressing his assumption just yet, since he's not sure what he'd like to do himself just now. But he does settle himself back down in the furs without another glance at Stiles's body, instead laying sprawled out with the bowl on his belly, plucking a grape from a stem and popping it in his mouth.

After a slow breath Stiles slides down beside him again. His sudden warmth is welcome as he presses close after just a moment's hesitation. Derek plucks another grape free and brings it to Stiles's lips. Stiles takes it and relaxes beside him, an easy smile on his face.

For a while they eat in silence to the sounds of the camp being broken down around them.

"Up north, what do you eat for breakfast?" Derek asks, more than ready to distract himself from the fact that his army is moving on without him.

Stiles grins. "Oh, a lot of the same. More grains, oatmeal is common. Soft sheep or goat cheese on bread is one of my favorites that I don't see much down here.

Derek looks at him skeptically. "I had such once when I was up north. You actually enjoy that?"

Stiles makes a low moan of wistful pleasure. "Love it. Throw in the right herbs and a quail egg and it's heaven."

Derek shakes his head. "At home I favor sausage with my eggs. Goose eggs more often than quail. Biscuits and gravy. And fruit of course," he says with a shrug for his nation's biggest agricultural treasure. The royal orchards are extensive and well-tended.

"Oh, the apples are so wonderful down here," Stiles says. "The ones that grow up north are small and red and mealy."

"They're not bad. But I prefer pears or plums," Derek replies.

"I've never had those," Stiles says with a laugh. "I've never been that far east. I've never been this far south before either."

"Did you want to? Before you were…"

"Sold?" Stiles says with a snort. But his face settles into something more wistful. "Yes, I did sometimes dream of traveling. Perhaps taking horses from the north to sell in new places, explore the world."

"And there's no one to miss you?" Derek asks.

Stiles looks at him for a long moment, face unreadable, then his amber eyes shift away.

"No. No one left to miss me." His voice is subdued, but after a moment he lifts his gaze back to Derek. "What about you? What's your family like?"

Derek snorts. "They're an energetic bunch. We're all rather different in some ways. My eldest sister Laura is heir to the throne and wears it well. My brothers are each heavily involved in the governance of our state. Breccan oversees much of the trade relations, and Liam more domestic services. My younger sisters are young yet, though Cora has always been one for sport, and Lily is beginning to take an interest in the arts."

"And you're a warrior," Stiles murmurs.

"I have done well as such," he agrees, frowning down at the empty grape stem sitting on his chest. Stiles notices the path his eyes take. He slips from Derek's lazy embrace and heads over to the table, golden skin glowing where the thin beams of morning light slip through the gaps in the stitches that hold the tent panels together.

Perhaps he wouldn't seem so exotic if there were more northerners who came down to Hale territory, but Derek can only continue to be enthralled by the way Stiles looks, the sound of his accented voice. Derek watches even as he does the mundane task of gathering a few more of the ripening fruits.

"Is that what you prefer? I mean, if you could do anything, would you still want to fight?" Stiles asks.

Derek cocks an eyebrow, huffing out a little sigh as he considers the unexpected question. "I am what my family needs me to be. I don't know what else I might be. My whole life has been about my responsibilities. Protecting my home."

Stiles hums thoughtfully as he returns to bed. He kneels and spills the armful of food over onto Derek's bare chest with a little smirk, then burrows back under the furs and Derek's arm, pressing them skin-to-skin from neck to knee.

"You? If you weren't doing any of this?" Derek asks, gesturing vaguely at their surroundings.

"Oh, that's easy. I'd go back to working horses. I was raised a trainer, like my parents." Stiles hesitates, eyes distant as he thinks about it. He picks up a piece of fruit, smiles at it. "But I never could have stayed there. I'd have to have been a travelling trader. I miss the north but I'm glad I've seen more than the great plains. Now I've seen mountains and waterfalls."

There's a wistfulness to his face for just a moment, but then he bites into the apple, shrugging. "But I think you have the right of it; it's hard to really imagine being someone else."

Silence falls between them as they lay there together, and before long Derek is forced to admit that he can no longer hear the sounds of his own troops leaving him behind. They're gone. And he does need to get up eventually. As frustrating as it is to watch his platoons march away, he has a new platoon to take charge of. At the very least, his new soldiers need to see his face. It doesn't put him in a very good mood to think about them, however. Not when it means he has to let go of the warm body pressed against him.

What little he knows of them so far is dismal. He's tempted to run them through their drills in full, to learn their every strength and weakness as he would outside a campaign. But that's an excess expenditure of effort, and he hardly has time to re-train them if they're inadequate, which is something he's almost certain is going to be true. Greenberg was never particularly competent in anything, as far as he was aware. But he should know his squad leaders at the very least, be able to recognize some of his men when it came time to march with them, and know what commands they might have a hope of following well enough to serve a purpose.

But he dawdles as he gets dressed, lets Stiles have a hand in choosing which light armor to put him in and lets the gold-skinned slave amuse himself by fiddling with the buckles and getting everything just exactly right. And then Derek decides that Camaro needs tending before he heads over to the camp. After all, he's not going to stop riding her just because he's leading foot soldiers. He'll need to see how they react to her presence anyway.

"Come," he orders to Stiles, ducking out of the tent and stepping away towards Camaro's post. It's jarring, seeing so much emptiness beyond his tent. Seeing no sign of his own men and women. Now all that's left are the guard posts to the west of his tent.

Camaro nickers at the sight of them, shifting her weight eagerly as they begin to approach.

"Hey girl," Stiles says, before twisting on his heel and disappearing back into the tent.

Derek glances after him with a scowl for his disobedience, but then continues on with a resigned grimace, setting a battle-roughened hand to her poll as she bumps her head towards him. As usual, she leans her not-inconsiderable weight into the pressure of his hand as he scratches her hide, and she whuffles at him.

He knows when Stiles returns by the shift of her ears, but that's all the reaction he gets now, with Derek busy scratching her favorite spot above her eyes. Stiles enters the scene with calm and confident caution, letting her see him and the small apple sitting in his palm.

Derek leaves Camaro to the treat and sets about grooming away the evening's dust from her coat. By the time Derek's arranging her tack, Stiles is, like a true northerner, talking nonsense to the horse as she crunches through the other half of the fruit.

"You're spoiling my warhorse," Derek says curtly when Camaro stamps at him for bringing the bridle around before she's finished chewing over the last bits of apple in her mouth - or so she thinks. She's probably swallowed it all a while ago and is just chewing on the residual flavors.

Stiles screws up his mouth like he wants to protest but doesn't have a defense prepared. Derek doesn't smirk, though he's tempted to. He finishes buckling Camaro's bridle instead and tosses her halter back over the post. It's a deep habit, swinging into the saddle and holding steady as Camaro tosses her mane and dances around a bit, settling in to his weight again.

"My Lord…" Stiles pauses to glance over his shoulder and verify that they're alone, then leans in at Camaro's neck, setting a hand on Derek's knee with a twist of smile as he revises softly, "Derek. Any tasks for me today?"

He hadn't planned anything, other than checking on his new troops, but without Erica, there are many things that he'll have to be thinking about that he normally wouldn't have to. He certainly can't trust the members of the company to give him unalloyed information. They'll be loyal within themselves first, even if they've sworn fealty to the crown and to him. He frowns down at Stiles as he considers.

"Do you read?"

Stiles shrugs. "Well enough I suppose, though sometimes you southerners and your fancy scripts can be more unintelligible than a Khotol priestess' blessing."

Derek cocks an unimpressed eyebrow at him for his irreverence, which hardly has the cowing effect it would on any other slave, but gathers Camaro's reins into one hand and reaches a hand down to Stiles nevertheless.

"Come then, I have some work for you to do at my new platoon."

Stiles hesitates only a moment before taking Derek's hand and swinging up in front of him on Camaro's back. She shifts and sidesteps a little as he settles his unfamiliar weight on her back, but she has warmed to Stiles sufficiently enough that she adjusts with a minimum of fussing. Stiles gaining her approval is valuable feat indeed, since she could easily reach back and take a chunk out of Stiles's ankle if she were so inclined and Derek were to relax his hold on her reins for even a moment.

They ride around the perimeter of the camp. Though Derek's tent is not isolated on the edge of the greater encampment, it is not near Greenberg's old platoon, which is set up on the far side of the army. The other platoons are making some preparations, but not much is happening at the moment. For the most part they're enjoying the nice weather and the reprieve from marching that will only last another few days at most.

Astride Camaro's back, Stiles is warm against his lap; an unfamiliar but not unwelcome feeling. Stiles's presence is also uncharacteristic enough that many a head turns their way as they pass. He cares not.

By the time they get to Greenberg's platoon, he's relieved to see some of the improvements he's ordered are underway. He doesn't expect a miracle, but he needs to know that certain fundamentals are in place in order to lead with anything resembling success on such short notice. He won't have time to build up the discipline and training he needs, but if he can be sure that the supplies and communications are in order, it will be a big step towards avoiding a massacre. Though even that's still a long ways off.

"They're in bad shape," he mutters.

Stiles makes some vague sound of agreement, looking around at the mess of troops. Derek guides Camaro to the center of the camp, pleased to note the flurry of activity that his appearance inspires. His reputation is harsh, and not without reason. He is not known to be unfair, perhaps, but even fairness is foreboding those so far below standard. Loyalty, respect… those things are built, so for now he'll rule with a firm hand and hope that it will work well enough to be survivable.

When he arrives at the center of camp, he stops Camaro, and with a nudge, hands Stiles down to the ground. The boy scratches Camaro's neck as he waits for instructions, quite possibly earning himself more valid respect in any observers' eyes with that brave action than by whatever authority Derek might verbally bestow upon him.

And there are plenty of observers' eyes on them, painfully obvious despite some rather pitiful attempts to appear busy at work and not eavesdropping on their new commander's comings and goings.

"I need you to take inventory of the slaves and servants, the resources. Some of the information is here," Derek says, pitching his voice to carry to the eavesdroppers, reaching into his vest and handing Stiles a few of the papers he'd taken the day before. "Other information is in the chest, there. But I fear most of it is inaccurate and will need to be verified personally. You have my authority to require information about the platoon from any soldier, servant, or slave," he adds, plucking his signet ring off and handing it to Stiles as well.

"Yes, My Lord," Stiles says, tucking the items close to his chest, eyes wide.

"When you've finished, return to our tent with all the records of your findings. Be prepared to make a report to me."

Stiles smirks at him, lowering his lashes on those final words and making an entendre out of a simple order. But then he ducks his head and repeats his affirmation.

Derek bites back his own smirk and instead gestures curtly for Stiles to run along, unwilling to share his affection with the various eyes on them. Stiles backs away with a deferential nod and then strides towards the chest. Derek guides Camaro away, back to the edge of the platoon's camp where he'd seen a squad running through drills. If the sorry excuse for an exercise could be called a drill.

They are about to be in for a rude awakening.

 

He doesn't return to his side of the camp till many hours later, when the sun has passed into twilight and the time for evening meals and rest is soon to be upon them. He feels surely as worn as the soldiers he had spent the hours running through drills, in no small part because he lacked anyone with sufficient skill to use as his demonstrator. It had been up to him to direct every action, to make clear his every demand. Not a lieutenant or squad leader among them maintained enough wit or authority to meet his standards.

And yet it seems his duties are not done for the night.

Lydia is waiting for him in his tent. She doesn't bother to look up as he enters. She's sitting on a seat with her leg crossed, fingers resting against her chin as she inspects her quarry. Stiles is sitting on the low stool, transfixed, like a hare cornered by a wolf.

As Derek approaches, he glances up, then scrambles to his feet. He flashes a nervous smile at Derek, and Derek almost finds himself wishing he could return it. As it is, his face remains stoic as he steps up to him. He does brush a hand over his shoulder, brushing his thumb against the skin along his collarbone before gesturing towards the tent-flap. Then he puts the boy from his thoughts, moving to take the seat opposite Lydia.

She, however, watches Stiles as he slips out, and then continues to stare after him for a long moment before she turns her gaze to Derek.

"I'd heard… If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn't have believed it," she says, eyebrow arching in an expression torn between amusement, ennui, and mockery.

He simply stares at her until she rolls her eyes and slides a black-gloved hand down the length of her coppery braid, pushing it back over her shoulder.

"Fine. Deny me my gossip. More importantly I have news. There's to be a convoy coming from the Argents' main camp. Someone important is going to be on the move, and though they'll be guarded, it is a retreating convoy, so they won't be expecting interference from us."

"Who is it?" he asks, surprised. It's unusual for military personnel to travel via coach, even the Argents.

"I wasn't able to get close enough to find out. They have their servants on hard duties right now, preparing for battle and the march at the same time. It wasn't hard to infiltrate as another serving wench, but it was hard to move around unordered."

She laughs, tilting her head. "Kate Argent takes issue with slaves who are too pretty, so they keep them as far from her as possible. She likes to take up with her men sometimes, as is common enough, but she doesn't like their eyes wandering."

Lydia says it like it's important, and Derek concentrates on thinking like his Sister might, with her head for the nuances of politics and subterfuge. He's heard it said that Kate Argent is beautiful in her own right. That she could have most anyone she wanted. Such jealousy is a feature of her nature, then, and useful information for the greater political stage, despite the seeming irrelevance of it.

"Best I can tell it was someone unexpected in the Argent camp, someone they didn't think was going to be coming to the front. Perhaps one of the royal daughters. From what I hear they're an unruly lot, though I suppose making all cousins compete for ascension to the throne is bound to have that result."

The Argent blend of meritocracy with aristocracy was somewhat of an oddity in the known lands, but it wasn't one Derek could find much fault with. He frowns as he thinks over what he knows of the extended list of royal successors. "Is this someone of worth then?"

Lydia makes a moue of doubt. "Well, that remains to be seen. Most definitely they're someone the Argents value. Someone you might want to… borrow," she says with a smirk. But the smirk fades after a moment. "You could use a few more stones in your purse on this one."

She knows as well as he does that in a head-on fight they're never going to win this war on the strength of brute force alone. They have to rely on their creative strategy, on pulling political cards as well as diplomatic ones.

"You think that's doable?" he asks. He trusts her assessments nigh implicitly at this point after years of her faithful and effective assistance.

"For you? Certainly. Especially since they're not expecting a flanking approach. A highwayman's hijacking in their own back territory… it would never cross their minds," she scoffs, shaking her head. "The fools."

Derek sighs, amused. Peter was right about that at least. The Argents weren't ever good at guarding their flank. They were a head-on sort of military, too sure of their raw force and greater numbers and moral superiority.

"What else?" he asks as he hands her a piece of bread and cheese.

There's a bit more detail about who is at the front, little snippets of information she's been able to glean. The volatile tempers of Kate and Gerard, the hard line discipline of Victoria. Chris, on the rare occasion that he appears in the forward camps, is less predictable, less obvious. He's also more merciful and fair, which isn't news, but is good to have confirmed even at wartime.

Apparently they're still holding to the story about annexing western trade routes and 'liberating' the people on the borders. He informs her of the assassination attempts and she tells him she doesn't think it was an effort from the main offensive, likely the work of one of the Argent leaders alone. Such things tend to skirt the edges of the code, so the war leaders would be unlikely to be behind it, at least not directly. And besides, she would have heard about it otherwise.

When he finishes explaining how the troops have been severed and how he's working closely with Peter's soldiers instead of his own, she gazes at him, face tense and pensive. She doesn't express her concern aloud, but he reads it clear as day on her face. She rests her mouth against her palm as she thinks over his report, then shakes her head.

"All I can offer you is what I've already spoken of."

"It's plenty. Lydia, thank you. It's exactly the sort of opportunity that could mean everything in the long run. I'll take all of this into advisement and notify Peter. Will you be-"

"Elsewhere, yes." Her eyes are bright as she gazes at him a moment, then flicks her braid back over her shoulder as she stands, the coppery threads glimmering in the candlelight.

They do not own her. The reminder is clear in the dismissiveness of her words. As an aristocrat of a small, allied northeastern nation, whose family was frequently at his parents' court, she is both a friend and someone who has much to gain from their successes on the world stage. She also has far more personal power and status than any other such operative. She comes and goes as she pleases, and for whatever reason, it pleases her to spy.

Though after the history between her and his uncle, the politics of courtiers and dynasties she'd faced back home, he doesn't doubt she enjoys the relative freedom.

"Perhaps," he says quickly before she goes, choosing his next words carefully, "you would take it upon yourself to travel homewards a ways. My sister should be only a few days' travel and I know she's not seen you in a long time."

"I might as well. She at least appreciates good gossip," she teases with a sharp smile. Her words are light, but he sees the understanding in her eyes. He's asking for her to bring word to his sister, because he doesn't want to rely on Peter to do it fairly.

It feels bitterly treacherous, but he knows that if anyone would understand his doubts, Lydia would be the one.

"Then I wish you safe travels," he says as she straightens her tunic and lifts her hood again to hide her beautiful hair.

She inclines her head over a smile, then slips out of the tent in silence. He knows that if he ducked out after her, she'd already be gone from sight.

He scowls over the information, staring at his maps of the region. She's left him a few marks, denoting the Argent army's location and the probable routes of departure for the individual in question.

It's just the sort of mission he'd have gladly taken up with Isaac or Boyd as his partners. But with Peter in charge of things, without men he trusts at his side… it worries him.

And it's his choice whether to share the information with Peter. Lydia would never speak with the man, especially now that she's probably well on her way east. No one should have been able to overhear them. He could just keep the information to himself. Perhaps send a message to Boyd and Isaac and let them try it. But then, it could be a political powderkeg if anything went sour. And it wouldn't do well to risk the fate of his nation by pushing something like this to the side. It's exactly the sort of thing that is his duty to handle personally.

He's drawn from his thoughts when Stiles clears his throat and taps on the tent flap, saying, "My Lord?"

"Come," Derek replies, giving up on the question for now.

"Did you want my report now, My Lord?" Stiles asks as he sits beside him at the table, pointing to a sheaf of papers.

Derek grimaces.
"Is there anything urgent?" he asks in response.

Stiles shrugs. "It's a bit of a mess, but it's a mostly-functional mess. Nothing terribly pressing for tonight."

"Then we'll save that for tomorrow," he says with a heavy sigh.

Stiles smiles at him. "Camaro let me brush her by myself. Won't be long now before she'll be getting regular massages."

"And what about my massages?" Derek asks, feigning a scowl.

It makes Stiles laugh. Any other slave wouldn't catch his humor, would fumble to apologize somehow. Stiles just smirks and splays his fingers - though Derek's not sure that Stiles would do any differently even if Derek weren't scowling in jest.

"Oh, they're right here waiting. In fact," Stiles says, teasing edge fading from his face as he stands. "I found something I think you'll really like."

Derek follows after him, stripping out of his gloves and tossing them aside onto one of his trunks. Stiles pulls out a small clay jar of oily salve, lifting it to his face to sniff and smiling, making a pleased hum.

"Brings back memories from the plains."

Derek lifts his curiass over his head and sets it aside before leaning close and taking a sniff. It's an earthy, spicy scent that reminds Derek of the way Stiles had smelled when he'd first arrived. He likes it now, just as he had liked it then. It's a potent and distinct enough scent that it has his cock stirring at the associated memory.

"What is it?" he asks, touching a finger to the mixture and rubbing the dot of salve between his fingers.

"Pajarrow root and pajet seed, mostly. I found some of it when we cut through the forest, on the edges of the plains. Took a couple days to grind down and cook and emulsify everything right, but I guess there are some things you don't really forget."

"Pajarrow root," Derek says, voice flat as he turns over the implication in his mind.

"Mhmm, should help make your scars hurt less, make some of your movements easier."

So Stiles had sought it out for Derek's sake, not his own. Even then.

"If you like," Stiles adds softly, drawing him out of his thoughts.

Derek glances at him, at the disappointment edging into his features and nods sharply.

"Yes. Good," he says as he strips out of his under-tunic and tosses it aside.

Stiles is grinning when he comes and joins Derek, reaching for the ties on his trousers and skimming his fingers teasingly inside the leather before kneeling to help Derek off with his boots.

He's never felt so genuinely wanted before. He runs his fingers through Stiles's hair as he lifts each of his feet in turn to free his legs from the trousers as Stiles draws them down. It's different, the way Stiles glances up at him, leans his temple into the cradle of Derek's palm. Seeking his touch even though Stiles is still clothed and sex isn't on the immediate agenda.

Stiles runs warm hands up Derek's thighs as he stands, then casts a considering eye over his body, squinting as he surveys the marks left by old wounds. It should make him feel vulnerable, exposed to stand bare before him like this, but his scrutiny isn't calculating or cold.

"So, what do you think, shoulder first?" Stiles asks, touching fingertips to Derek's biceps, tilting his head as he examines the divots left in his skin by unevenly-healed flesh beneath the scarred surface.

But Derek shakes his head. His thigh is tight from riding around the compound, inspecting his new troops, and he knows that it is likely he will soon be back in the saddle for another hard-riding mission, assuming Peter takes Lydia's suggestion.

His thigh always seems pale and lifeless when he looks at it, the scar tissue hiding the warmer tones the rest of his body bears. It makes him feel half-dead to look at it, so it's something he often avoids. But here, when he indicates curtly, Stiles takes to it with all the warmth he needs, settling them both comfortably amid the furs.

Stiles starts at his knee, making him relax the joint and lay out the leg for him to look at. But his gaze doesn't linger. He just checks the leg over briefly and then dips his hands into the oil, rubbing his palms together till his hands and the oils are warm when he sets them to Derek's skin.

Stiles talks to him, relaying observations about the new platoon and about the camp in general. It's all relatively unimportant, just things for Stiles to occupy his mouth with while his hands are so focused on their task. Derek listens, but he too is more focused on the deep, expert passes of Stiles's hands along the bands of muscles tightened up to compensate for the injuries in his thigh. The oil mixture warms his skin and begins to numb it, both sensations growing deeper with each pass of Stiles's strong and wiry hands.

He finds his groin stirring slightly at the proximity, more by default than anything else. But it's only a reminder that he's feeling good like this. Once again he finds himself completely relaxed in a way he scarcely recognizes, his muscles eased and his pains smoothed away by the gentle, steady pressure of Stiles's touch. Though they are at war, it is the furthest thing from his mind now for he feels protected here. Safe.

And though he knows somewhere in the back of his mind that it is merely an illusion, he doesn't care. True, Stiles has already proven himself capable of defending their lives, but it is still a mere fantasy, a false cocoon in the desolate landscape of the upcoming battles.

It doesn't matter. Not tonight. Tomorrow will be a day of battle-strategy and grim determinations. But tonight…

He falls asleep to the steady rhythm of Stiles's hands.

Chapter Text

In the morning he feels thoroughly relaxed, for about a minute before the memories of his disgraceful battalion and Lydia's visit resurface. He extricates himself from Stiles's sprawled form with caution and leaves the slave snoring softly in the furs while he dresses quickly.

Having slept on it, the choice is clear. The intelligence must be given to his uncle, and swiftly, before it is too late.

The camp is starting to awaken, guards changing shifts and trading places around the fires for breakfast, slaves going about their duties with sleepy expressions. Peter will be up, always an early riser, so he heads directly for his Uncle's tent. With a rap of the wooden bead on its plank beside the tent's flap, he announces his presence.

"I need to speak with you, Uncle."

There's only a brief pause before Peter replies with a terse, "Come."

At Peter's summons, he ducks into the open tent flap. He pauses momentarily at the sight before him, an uncomfortable situation but not one all that surprising. Two of Peter's slaves are fucking him in his furs. The woman is on her hands and knees with her mouth around Peter's cock as another slave pushes into her from behind.

"Nephew, care to join in?" Peter offers, amused at his discomfort. "There are a couple orifices not in use that you're welcome to borrow. Though perhaps you've already greeted the day with that golden boy of yours."

Derek merely grunts noncommittally and turns his attention to the maps on Peter's war-table, ignoring the slick sounds of the coupling behind him.

"I have been visited with some time-sensitive intelligence you'll want to-"

"Lydia?" Peter demands, sitting upright with a jerk that has the slave in his lap choking.

"Already gone, as is her way," Derek says with a frown as he traces a finger along a possible route.

"Get out," Peter orders, and Derek knows it's not for him. He continues weighing options for routes as his Uncle finds his trousers and the naked slaves scramble for their discarded tunics on the way out of the tent.

When they're gone, he begins explaining quietly. "Precious passenger being sent back west, we think it might be a member of the Argent family."

Peter comes over, still fastening the ties on his trouser flap, remaining shirtless in his haste to hear Derek's information.

"Who?" he demands.

Derek traces as finger over a road on the exquisitely detailed map that runs most of the way through Argent land. Such maps are precious things that only people like his uncle can carry. His own maps do not reach so far. "Unknown. Likely a visiting relative instead of any of the commanders. One of the daughters perhaps. Gerard and Kate remain on the front, as do Chris and Victoria."

"Even better," Peter says, eyes moving quickly as he considers. "Chris or Victoria would surely sacrifice themselves without hesitation if captured. But an ingénue daughter?"

Derek tips his head in agreement. "Seems like excellent political capital to me."

"Agreed," Peter murmurs, rubbing a thumb absently at his beard as he considers positions on the map. "Since your lieutenants are already in the field, one of mine can go."

And this is where they diverge, as expected. This time, Derek's had the benefit of a night's rest in which to mull over the options. Derek pretends to give it a moment's thought, then cautiously says, "I think it best if I lead a mission this important myself."

"Surely one of my lieutenants will suffice," Peter says with a snort.

"Normally, yes, but with something this delicate? Secrecy is an issue with this task. We can't risk anyone knowing that doesn't absolutely have to. " Derek replies, arching his brow.

Peter frowns over that, shrugs.

"Perhaps. One of my scouts is due back soon. He'll have updated information about the passages. I'll let you know later in the morning."

 

When he returns to his tent, Stiles is dozing amid the furs. Though Derek's arrival stirs a little more wakefulness in him, he does little more than roll over in the furs, exposing more of his body to Derek's sight. With the spicy scent of last night's oils permeating the air in the tent, it's hard not to be drawn to touch the bared expanses of golden skin where Stiles sleeps. But the recent reminder of how his uncle uses his slaves is enough to have Derek frowning and looking away instead of moving to avail himself of the pleasures his property might bring. It's become almost disturbingly easy to take what he wishes from Stiles without even a second thought.

He seats himself at the small table instead, pulling over the piled papers Stiles had brought him the night previous. His temporary platoon is, as Stiles had said, a functional mess. Though he pours over the notes with dedication, there are few changes that can be made in the short term without being destabilizing. Organization, oversight will help but… really, he's just biding his time while Peter makes his decision. He doesn't have to wait long. The sound of a distance rider arriving is one he's become familiar enough with to recognize as the scout passes through the camp.

It's McCall - or Scott, as he reminds Derek immediately - who shows up at his tent not much later; the youngest and newest of Peter's lieutenants. He's not someone Derek's had dealings with before, though, as it turns out he is the one Peter has selected to accompany Derek for the mission. Peter's sending him along with Daehler, Peter's scout who is refitting for the return journey while they prepare plans. Scott brings the news himself, blushing and politely averting his eyes from Stiles still abed when Derek bids him enter. It's unexpected respect given a slave, but it certainly doesn't count against him where Derek's concerned.

He leaves Stiles to his slumber as he lays out his maps and sits down with Peter's young lieutenant. It annoys him that his Uncle thinks he needs the help. Of course, McCall and Daehler may be along to serve more as Peter's eyes than as actual help. But worrying about it is a waste of time. Either way, their presence is non-negotiable.

To his surprise, however, there's an openness to McCall's face and attitude, a sort of earnest determination that seems like it might be honest. It's something Derek appreciates, as an outsider, but also a characteristic that will not likely serve McCall well under Peter's employ. As they plan, grudgingly, Derek begins to admit that McCall deserves respect for his abilities as a soldier as well. The suggestions he makes to Derek's route choices and other plans are effective and simple to accomplish.

Before long there's little left to discuss and only final preparations to be made. McCall leaves to go gather his things while Derek sets about packing for himself.

Though packing is the sort of duty Derek could delegate now, Stiles is still asleep, sprawled sideways with his mouth hanging open. He lets him sleep and does the packing work himself, amused when Stiles snorts out of snoring and mumbles some nonsense sentences in his sleep before burrowing deeper into the furs.

There's no real need to wake him, once the work is done, but Derek finds himself kneeling at the edge of the bed furs anyway and setting a hand to Stiles's shoulder. The boy barely stirs, merely twisting towards him and bumping his cheek into Derek's bracer. But that's enough to have him blinking his eyes open.

"I have to go," he tells a sleep-addled Stiles.

"Uh?" Stiles murmurs, squinting at him.

"I'm away now on a mission. It will surely take more than a few days, so take care of things in my absence."

"Mm," Stiles agrees, nodding sleepily before laying his head back down.

Derek snorts and stands away, straightening his swordbelt as he heads for the tent flap. Gathering his saddlebags, he casts one last bemused glance at his sleeping bedmate and then ducks out of the tent to face the pre-dawn air.

 

Derek sets a fast pace when they move out, ready to arrive before the window of opportunity closes, as well as see what his new comrades in arms are capable of. Daehler rides like someone used to long hours in the saddle, looking like he is all but fused with the long-boned inelegant distance-bred horse he rides. He takes point without being ordered, forging on ahead, apparently comfortable in his lonely position as scout. Such initiative would be appreciated if Daehler were someone Derek knew and trusted. Without that relationship, the action is less welcome. Still, successful scouts are often a special breed of person, rarely the sort that fit well in other roles. Scott, at least, rides at Derek's flank, falling in line like a good soldier and keeping quiet watch as they ride out from the camp.

Scott is a fair rider, as it turns out. More than fair, if he's honest. The young lieutenant's horse is nothing special, unusually mundane, even, for someone of his rank. Military positions are thoroughly entangled with social positions. He's heir to some of the lands far to the north-east of Hale territory, if Derek recalls correctly. Someone of his standing usually has a much more expensive mount. But he coaxes something good out of her, an honest effort that surpasses what most riders might get. And he treats her with respect and care when they take their breaks, serving her needs before his own. In the evening when they make camp, he talks to her quietly, in friendly tones that remind him of Stiles.

Then again, he himself has been known to speak to his horse with some of the few words he utters. Like her rider, Camaro doesn't exactly make friends in camp, but she knows they're on a mission and she behaves herself for the most part, not going out of her way to lash out at the others. Still, Derek catches her watching over her shoulder and stamping impatiently from time to time while he's on watch, and he wonders if she's waiting for her new friend Stiles to make an appearance at some point.

It isn't the first mission he's gone out on since Stiles arrived, but it's the first time he's aware of his absence. He's grown almost disturbingly accustomed to the warmth of that body against his in the furs, the way Stiles anticipates his needs at times, soothes his minor aches and pains and seeks his pleasures. Tending his every need himself is almost unfamiliar now, as is the silence between tasks. He finds himself checking for Stiles's presence, only to be perpetually disappointed as he remembers that he is alone again. Even the scent of Stiles where it barely lingers on the bedroll is no comfort, stale and wrong to Derek's nose.

The night is cold now, noticeably so, and the quiet night lacking the soft breath of another beside him. Sleep comes dutifully, as it does for any soldier accustomed to the hard bed of the march and drum, but it bears little satisfaction.

If his mood is soured by the next day, it makes no real difference in his outward demeanor, given that few were aware he ever wore anything less intimidating than his usual glower. They ride in silence, mostly for the sake of efficiency, though Scott makes the occasional comment as they travel. It's true he gets little more than grunts in response from Derek, but McCall doesn't seem to mind. Indeed, it would be odd for him to expect anything different from the dour warlord.

There is also little need for discussion. Their plan is simple. Flank the main Argent forces, keeping to the cover of the forested foothills of the mountains that mark the divides between the northern and southern territories, then cut across the path of the Argent convoy and play the part of highwaymen. Kidnappers and rogues. It's the sort of thing the Argents would take some offense to, on principle, calling the tactic dishonorable and underhanded. The Argent Code of War is well-known, as it is always sent in full to anyone upon whom they march - a part of the code. They place a great deal of stock in the words, using the document to judge the honor of their enemies.

But then, it's easy to speak of honor when you have the superior physical force and a self-righteous edict for war. The Hales know there to be no honor on the battlefield, no compulsion to play by artificial rules made by one's enemies. They know survival, they know to guard their flanks, to take advantage of weaknesses. Force is only valuable when used with appropriate tactics, and through clever tactics, the Hales have long held out against the raw powers of their enemies to the west.

So when Daehler reports that he has come upon the convoy, guarded by nothing more than one outrider and a pair of soldiers riding second to the carriage and it's driver and team, he is hardly surprised. It had not been a question in his mind whether there would be a surmountable guard, traveling in a predictable formation. He'd expected a lone guard, perhaps up to three, but any more would have been a surprise, and the Argents were rarely surprising in such matters.

It's a simple matter to ride ahead and set up an ambush. Derek leads the charge by breaking across their path, which is enough to distract the guards and send them scrambling with an easy but formidable swing of his sword. It's even less effort to watch McCall rides from their flank and puts a spear through their wheel, sending the carriage juddering to a halt. The axle breaks as the driver tries to turn them and Daehler appears on the other flank and disables the driver.

Camaro really does the rest of it, throwing her weight into a charge against the nearest guard, knocking the inferior steed from its feet and giving Derek's blade a clean route through the guard's defenses and into his belly. Between Daehler and McCall, the other soldier is dealt with before Derek has finished shaking the blood from his blade.

It's over in moments, just as predicted.

The only real question in all of it is who precisely the occupant of the carriage is. He doesn't sheathe his blade as he dismounts and strides closer to the broken door. Some of the scars on his thigh are a vivid reminder to never underestimate the contents of even a noble's wagon. He signals McCall closer to come and stand guard at his side before he reaches for the edge of the door to yank it all the way open and expose the contents it shields.

The carriage, this time, contains a tall, thin young woman, pressed back in the tilting corner of the interior. Her dark eyes are wide with fear, and her dark hair mussed from the accident. Her clothing is of a quality that clearly puts her among the wealthy or aristocracy, though it's more practical than decorative. Beyond that… Derek studies her face a moment. She's vaguely familiar to him but her name escapes him. She's young enough that she's likely among those in the fray of succession.

Her eyes flick to the side, assessing any potential escapes past him. But with Scott on his side, there's little room for movement. She purses her lips in frustration, shoulders falling as her eyes come back to Derek.

"Come," he says, sheathing his sword in a smooth motion and then lifting a hand in invitation. "There's no point in fighting. You are defeated."

But her eyes narrow, flashing with a brightness of spirit he does not expect.

"My guards are defeated," she corrects, flinging up her arm sharply.

Derek lunges aside, but not quickly enough that the bolt misses him entirely. It sticks in his armor, though he isn't sure whether the armor has stopped it or if the nerveless scar-tissue in his shoulder has taken the brunt of the damage. Regardless, he doesn't let the moment pass. Instead he surges forward, capturing her wrist as she scrambles away from him. But there's nowhere for her to go and he outweighs her nigh two-to-one. Within moments he has her out of the carriage and pinned to his side as he wrenches the small crossbow from her arm and secures her tiny wrists in his large hand.

"Check her," he orders curtly.

McCall hesitates, looking at him, then the woman. She tests his strength, but doesn't struggle needlessly, instead, drawing herself up to her not inconsiderable height and donning a more regal bearing. She looks down the length of her nose at Scott, sensing his hesitation.

"You'll find nothing of value here. Detaining me is dangerous for a cutpurse. Do you know who I am? I am Allison Argent, of the second house of Argent, and future leader. You'll want to let me go."

Derek sighs. "I think not," he says, voice flat as he turns his eyes to her person with clinical detachment. "Search her carefully, lest she have some additional weapon with which to wound us."

"You're not brigands," she says, voice flat as she studies McCall's garb when he nears her. Her eyes drift over to Daehler, who's standing at the edge of the clearing, staring back at her. Her eyes jerk back to Scott as he touches her arm, starting carefully before lifting his hands to push her cloak back from her shoulders.

"You're soldiers. Hale soldiers," she decides, breaths coming faster now, though she keeps a stern mask over her fear. Derek feels her shaking in his grip as Scott remains silent, if apologetic in countenance as he searches over her person in methodical strokes.

She is wise-enough then, to be afraid.

She stays silent enough throughout Scott's careful inspection of her clothing, but when he begins to pat down her body, she tenses. While Derek knows that, for the moment, she'll come to no harm in their hands, she has no such assurance.

"I came to the front to protest the war, you know," she announces as Scott's hands slide towards her inner thighs. "I risked ridicule and even my place in succession to argue against this wasteful military action. But you know what?" she snaps, kicking out suddenly at the soldier touching her, "I take back all the good things I ever said about you people!"

Scott steps back, casting a worried look Derek's way when Allison hangs her head and starts sobbing. In an apparent fit of emotion, she buckles, sagging against his hands. It's not a bad tactic, but unfortunately for her she's so slight of form that even the sudden shift of her weight doesn't throw off his grip where a larger person's might and he holds fast.

"Don't let her distract you," Derek orders. "Finish checking her thighs."

Abruptly the sobbing ceases, and Allison lifts her head, glaring over her shoulder at him. He stares back, impassive as Scott recovers a small blade tucked into a garter between her legs. Derek holds out a hand for the blade, which McCall promptly places in his palm.

"Hold her," he says, while he lifts the blade to the faint moonlight. It's no simple tool, inscribed with her sigil, her name. A token that will surely identify her to members of her family should it be sent as a message. He takes it to Camaro, tucking it carefully into one of his saddlebags. Then he retrieves the last items they need to be on their way.

"May Velek curse your house," Allison spits, fighting against Scott's grip when she sees the length of rope in Derek's hands as he returns. Real tears, tears of fear and frustration spill over her cheeks this time as her emotions get the better of her.

Scott sets his mouth in a grim line as he holds tight to her, though his eyes speak of some distress on behalf of the young woman in his grasp. Derek ignores his concern and sets about binding her hands behind her back. She does not make it an easy task.

"It will be easier for you if you don't struggle," Derek says flatly.

He doesn't promise her that they'll do her no harm because he's not the only one who will be making decisions. If it were up to him he'd ensure her safety, but with Peter… well. He has his doubts. Besides, there are no guarantees in war.

"If I wanted easy, I never would have come out here in the first place," she bites back, dark eyes flashing.

He cocks an eyebrow at her, mildly impressed at her spirit. Strategically-speaking, however, spirit is only as good as its timing. In this instance, it just makes him secure the bindings even further in anticipation of an equally spirited attempt at escape down the road, and that extra effort means she won't be getting out of these bindings, not without help.

By the time he's finished tying her, she's more or less managed to get her emotions back under control. She stops struggling, draws herself up to her regal bearing once more as Derek guides her over to the horse she'll be riding back.

"Why are you doing this?" she demands, voice low and starting to lose any sign of hope.

"It's nothing personal, princess," Derek says as he draws a hood over her head. She swears bitterly at him again, but maintains her composure. So much so that when Scott drapes her cloak over her shoulders again, she offers him thanks.

They bind her tightly to one of the saddles left empty by her dead guard, leaving her blind but secure and upright. It's not so much a concession for her comfort as for the fact that treating her like a sack of potatoes simply begs for a mishap of injury or illness, neither of which he wants to deal with. And, for the moment, she's still a princess, still a potential future player on the world stage. Treating her well will only benefit them.

Daehler rides closer, now that they've a prisoner to watch too, though he still stays to the outside of their small party. His eyes are frequently on the princess, whenever Derek looks his way. Grudgingly, Derek admits that, while he could have handled this mission on his own, the extra eyes are welcome with so spirited a quarry.

When they break for the evening, she takes the pragmatic route, eating her share of the food without protest. Though she seems cooperative for the moment, Derek doesn't trust it. She eyes their every move like a hawk, studying them. and when Derek announces that he's taking the first watch, she tenses. He watches her glance in Scott's direction for a moment, a tiny signal to her thoughts that has him pursing his lips and resolving towards caution in that regard. Derek understands her evaluation of Scott as the most sympathetic among them, the potential that she might use that sympathy to her advantage later. The question is whether Scott's sympathy is truly a weakness, and that's something Derek has yet to discover as well.

While Daehler watches Allison and McCall stores away their foodstuffs, Derek takes a silent position close to Camaro to siphon some of her warmth while being outside the immediate range of the fire's light. Though being away from the fire is colder, it allows him a better vantage to watch the approaches to their position, as well as the camp itself. He watches McCall get the lady settled and well-wrapped in a pile of furs, though he is pleased to note that the lieutenant takes care to check her again for any potential weapons before slipping into his own bedroll for the evening.

As is to be expected, the party settles to silence quickly. Any subterfuge on Lady Allison's part will come later, after she suspects their attention weakened by the cold and fade of the evening.

Camaro watches him expectantly till he gives in and scratches her head. After she shifts her weight a third time, however, he pauses, running a broad hand down a broader breast. She whuffles softly as he finds a knot in the dense muscle, left behind from their brief encounter with the enemy.

"I'm not Stiles," he warns her as she leans into the pressure of his hand. But she nips at his shoulder when he moves to pull away and he heaves a tight sigh through his nose.

"Well don't blame me if it doesn't work," he grumbles under his breath as he puts his hands back on her neck. He pushes firmly against the muscle, and Camaro shifts, pulling away from direct pressure and stamping the ground in annoyance. After a moment's consideration he moves his hands further away from the knot and starts kneading the banded muscles nearby, emulating some of the motions he recalls Stiles having used on his human physiology before.

At first, Camaro remains tense, but it isn't long before she starts to relax, head lowering and neck extending as he works his way along her arch and breast. By the time his hands are getting tired, her eyes are half-closed and her head is low and posture signaling just how ready she is for a nap. She barely makes a sound when he stops, just heaves a deep, contented sigh.

The woods are quiet, and when the moon is high he wakes Daehler and trades places with him to lay by the warmth of the fire. He'll sleep, but it'll be a light sleep, and he leaves his sword drawn and ready beneath the edge of his bedroll.

When he wakes in the pre-dawn light, it's to the sound of soft but urgent voices and the steady scrape of Camaro pawing at the dirt. He lays still but turns his eyes to find McCall deep in discussion with Lady Allison rather than guarding the camp.

He bites his tongue against the immediate reprimand and listens instead to their hushed conversation.

"This isn't going to help you at all," Lady Allison says insistently, leaning close to Scott and somehow looking up through her lashes despite her height. From the outside it looks distinctly tactical, though probably convincing from Scott's perspective.

And Scott is earnest as ever. "I'm sure you're worth something to your family. That's enough right there."

"You don't get it, do you?" Lady Allison says with a sad, bitter laugh. "This will only work in their favor. They'd rather let you have me to fuel their revenge than compromise to get me back. They think me a fool for preferring peace."

"Your own family?" Scott says, incredulous. "Surely not."

Allison shakes her head, letting her hair hang over her cheek. "The code is more important."

Scott sighs, shaking his head. "Khotol's climb. I don't understand that."

"No. Nor do many of our people. That's why keeping me prisoner is a bad idea. I'm of more use to everyone out there."

Scott's quiet for a long moment, then he pushes to his feet and stands away from her. "Then let's hope our leaders negotiate for your safe return," he says, firmly but not unkindly, pulling the furs tighter around her thin body before moving away again to put the fire down and start preparations for the morning.

Derek turns to glance at Daehler, but finds the bedroll empty. He searches the perimeter of the camp and finds the scout, standing in the shadow of a large tree, watching Lady Allison. If Scott had Daehler up with him, then he'd not been as negligent as Derek first thought.

"My Lord," Scott says firmly enough to wake him if he were still asleep, stepping into his field of vision. "The sun is rising."

Camaro nickers, as if in agreement. Derek nods, throwing back his bedroll. There will be time for such concerns later. Lady Allison has proven capable enough in the saddle, even so bound. If they ride quickly enough they may make it back before the sun falls again.

And then there will be entirely different problems to deal with. Working with Peter on this issue is going to be an exceptionally difficult task. He'll need to plan ahead as best he can for this.

Camp gets broken down without any excess comment and they forge onward into the forest at a brisk pace. There are a number of reasons why moving quickly is ideal. The greater campaign defending their lands from the Argents is an ever-pressing matter. Less likely is the chance that there might be defenders of Lady Allison on their trail, but it's still a possibility.

And yet there's another reason Derek feels a sense of relief as they finally clear the forest and make their way across the rolling meadows to the smoke stacks of the Hale camp. A new one.

Stiles is the first person from their camp that he sees. At first Derek can only make out the vague shape of him, but when Camaro scents the air and then whinnies at the slave in unmistakable greeting, it solidifies his impression that Stiles is the one standing in the field, alone. Though he has a basket in his arms that's half-full of some herb or another, suggesting a task of harvest, it seems like he's been waiting for them, given the way he's been watching their approach expectantly.

Derek may not call out a greeting like Camaro, but he feels a similar pull in his chest at the sight of Stiles again. The sun has begun to set, and the light's golden beams cast a warm glow over Stiles's skin. Derek allows Camaro more rein and she picks up a trot, heading straight for Stiles. Derek rides close and the gesture to reach down for the boy is nearly done without thought. It's natural-enough an activity for Stiles, after all, swinging up to the back of a horse.

Stiles settles against his lap easily, despite the awkward angle and presence of his basket, holding a smooth balance in counterpoint to Camaro's swaying back. It feels good, so good to pull him close, to feel the warmth of his body seeping through the places where his armor doesn’t block it. Stiles seems to find it pleasant too, if the way he slips his free hand over to curl around Derek's thigh is any indication. But there's a tension in his face when he glances at Derek, and he remains silent as they continue to ride back into the camp.

There's a weight of something unspoken between them. Derek doesn't know what he might say if they were alone, if he'd say anything. But he draws deeply on the breaths that pass by Stiles's skin, bringing him the scents he's begun to miss these past few days.

He gives Camaro her head, and she marches them home, towards his tent. The short ride together is finished all too soon, and though staying with Stiles might be the most appealing avenue, he has duties he must yet see to before he can pursue his pleasures.

"Get her down," Derek orders McCall as they draw rein near his tent. It will draw less attention than riding right up to Peter's tent, and allowing her to stand on her own two feet with her face unmasked will help set the stage for Peter to view her as a person of worth instead of merely a strategic object.

He hands Stiles down and then dismounts in an easy motion beside him. It's convenient, being able to simply drape one of the reins over Stiles's shoulder and leave Camaro in someone else's care for once, to know that she will be cared for and yet her tender will remain intact.

He turns to go handle finding accommodations for Lady Allison, but Stiles's hand catches at Derek's gauntlet, stopping him. Derek turns, frowning sharply at the slave, reacting as a military commander, a prince such as he is expected to. It's done automatically, but also out of necessity. Any intimacies they've shared within the tent have little bearing on the world in which they live, and their respective roles. To pretend otherwise would only put Stiles at risk, and he's seen Stiles's face bruised by his Uncle's hand one too many times already.

Stiles's face goes still as he recognizes his incursion is too far. He drops Derek's wrist immediately and his eyes grow shuttered as he swallows back whatever was on his tongue.

"Rub her down, My Lord?" Stiles says quietly instead, dropping his eyes.

Stiles's behavior was inappropriate, and the implied reprimand correct, but at the same time… Dispensing such rebuke and receiving such sudden deference feels wrong. It feels disappointing. Part of him wants to see that defiance he's grown accustomed to, or to reach out and touch Stiles, to draw him back up. To hear his name, not his title, spoken in those beautifully-accented tones.

But he cannot.

"Yes," Derek says instead. "Her work is done for the day."

Stiles's eyes flick back up to his for just a brief, unreadable moment, and then the boy is leading Camaro away and Derek's attention is needed on Lady Allison as Scott brings her forward.

He removes the hood from Lady Allison's head, though he draws up the hood of her cloak to hide her from prying eyes.

She looks frightened, but she lifts her chin arrogantly when she sees him looking, and stands up straighter.

Good. He turns and guides her along with him up the smaller channels between the tents until he comes to one of the smaller medical tents. It will take a little doing to clear out un-needed supplies, but he'd rather have her kept in a place with a cot instead of the sort of place prisoners in war might normally be bound, out without shelter or privacy, where the guards can see them all. If Erica had still been here, he would have had her make up a tent for just that purpose, but she isn't and he doesn't trust any of Greenberg's ilk to do things his way. At least the medics have an eye for healing instead of aggression.

Scott is quick to usher the medics and servants into action at a nod from Derek. Daehler hangs back, but he rejoins Derek readily-enough when he turns.

"Bring Lord Hale," he orders.

Lady Allison sucks in a breath, but says nothing, and her face grows stiff. She draws her regality around her like a shield. Derek reaches for her hands and though she flinches briefly, she holds them out when she realizes he'd been reaching for her bindings.

It won't do to have her presented to Peter bound.

Keeping her here and bringing Peter to her is advantageous for a number of reasons. Peter's ego might rather bring her into his own tent, but Derek would rather keep her eyes away from his maps and papers. Plus the further he can keep her from Peter's bed, the better.

It doesn't take long for Peter to arrive, with Daehler trailing in his wake. His face is alight with intense curiosity as he ducks into the tent, and the smile that spreads across his mouth at the sight of Allison is unsettling. All motion within the tent stops save Lord Peter's as he steps inside and surveys her person.

"Oh, what an excellent surprise. Lady Allison, I believe?" he says, striding close and gazing down at her.

"Lord Peter, I presume," she says in a voice full of cold hauteur.

"Well," Peter says, turning to look at Derek. "This changes things."

Derek arches an eyebrow.

Peter smirks and turns his gaze back to Allison, eyelids drooping in a deceptive laziness as his attention turns dangerous. He leans closer to her, voice low and soft as he says, "I do hope you'll behave. I'd hate to have to send your head back to your family as punishment before I've had a chance to decide just what will be best to do with you."

Allison's chin trembles almost imperceptibly, but she turns her eyes to stare resolutely at a point over Peter's shoulder and says, "I have every intention of behaving with honor. I can only hope by my presence here I may help foster a spirit of peace between our people."

Peter laughs faintly under his breath, but he inclines his head nonetheless.

"Do make yourself comfortable. Your guards will see to your every need for the time being," he says, gesturing at McCall and Daehler. Then he turns his eyes on Derek and uses his chin to direct him to follow and turns to lead the way out of the tent.

Allison glances after the warlord, chin set but eyes betraying her fear. The smudges of exhaustion beneath her dark eyes make her look older than her years, but she still looks hardly more than a girl, standing alone in the home of her enemy.

He inclines his head sharply, then turns and follows his uncle out.

 

The meeting is thankfully short, but leaves Derek in a sour mood as he marches back across the breadth of the camp towards his billet. He hates that Peter is still able to get right under Derek's skin with a few suggestive comments about their new prisoner, as if this were a game instead of war. He had only caught himself after a minor outburst, reminding his Uncle that she was a Lady whose care had significant impact for the state of affairs. Peter had smiled at him as he might a small child and asked him if he expected the protections of rank meant anything in war. He'd added to the rhetorical question the mockingly fervent hope that Derek never have his illusions shattered by being taken prisoner himself.

It had taken nearly all of his personal reserves to bite his tongue, to dip his head in subordinate concession, but he'd managed it. At least the need for secrecy has kept Peter from bringing his favorites in on it all. As it stands now, only McCall, Daehler, and a few carefully-chosen slaves will be allowed to know of her presence.

Derek does not envy them their duties. He, at least, gets to return to the solace of his own bed, to put down the burdens of his mission and rest.

However, when Derek returns, finally, to where his own tent sits on a clearing of war-trampled ground, it's clear that the evening's real challenge lies ahead. Stiles is there, just outside the tent, cleaning Camaro's tack with jerky little motions. His face is drawn into a flat, hard mask and though he doesn't look up, Derek knows Stiles has heard his approach by the way his shoulders stiffen.

A small part of him rails against the fact that his privacy is no longer his own, that he has to contend with his bedmate's needs as well as his own. Most of him, however, feels nothing but relief at the sight of his golden companion.

After a moment, Camaro's breastplate and tack brushes get set aside with stiff precision. Stiles stands and fixes Derek with an unreadable look, amber eyes full of impending words, before he turns and leads the way into the tent.

Derek follows silently, though he barely makes it a full step inside the tent before Stiles rounds on him, gets his hands on him and drags him over to the armor chest and into the candlelight.

"Have you any wounds that need tending?" Stiles asks, voice low and grim as he makes quick work of the buckles and straps holding Derek's armor together.

"No," Derek replies, but even though Stiles glances up to see the truth of it in his eyes, it does little to soothe Stiles's intent survey of his person. His fingers are running diligently and swiftly along the planes of his armor, checking for damage as he sets each piece aside. There's nothing for him to find. Everything had gone smoothly.

Very nearly, anyway. Stiles finds the gouge in his shoulder plate and hisses a sharp breath between his teeth before hurrying to undo the straps keeping it in place. Derek had not forgotten to check the wound, but it had been nothing more than a shallow puncture.

"That was nothing," he adds as Stiles slips fingers under the neckline of his tunic to check.

Stiles frowns at him, but since the puncture is little more than a healing scab now, it really isn't anything of concern. Eventually Stiles eases somewhat and resumes his inspection of Derek's armor. Still, his anger, his worry hasn't yet been assuaged. After each piece of his armor is removed intact, his clothing follows; Stiles is not done with him. The process gets repeated with Derek's body, Stiles examining him thoroughly with his fingers and eyes, looking for signs of strain or injury.

Derek submits, though there's nothing for him to find. It's about more than a slave checking his master's equipment and injuries. He can sense that much at least. Stiles lingers on the fresh scar along Derek's ribs, the wound Stiles himself had dressed just recently. But even that recent injury had survived the simple mission without mishap.

There is nothing for him to find. Stiles's mouth wrinkles as his hands still on Derek's sides, his eyes staring at Derek's chest like he might see through him.

"All is well," Derek says finally, taking Stiles's chin in his hand and drawing the boy's eyes to his. "And you?" he murmurs, brushing a thumb over the fading bruise on Stiles's mouth left by Peter's blow.

Stiles swallows and looks away as he says softly, "Better now."

There are no new marks on his face, but a sudden flare of worry fills Derek as he realizes that he's left Stiles unguarded for these intervening days too. Without his presence, without the buffer of the rest of his troops, there's a chance that…

"Show me," Derek orders, voice rough, reaching for the hem of Stiles's tunic.

But Stiles lifts up his tunic and casts it aside without hesitation, and that's enough to relieve much of Derek's worry. That Stiles has nothing to hesitate over. The only marks on him are the faint remains of bruises Derek had put there himself.

When his eyes lift up again and meet Derek's, there's a layer of heat there this time, a desire that is surely reflected in his own gaze. Derek starts in on Stiles's trousers and Stiles reaches up to touch him, to scrape his fingers through the hair on Derek's arms as he watches Derek undress him. It's a welcome sensation; the warmth of his touch, of his skin under Derek's palms. By the time he has Stiles's loincloth off, their touches have gone from exploring to surging, chasing sensation. Stiles pulls at his arm, draws him towards the furs and Derek allows himself to be directed once more. Stiles settles him down amid the soft furs, runs his fingers over Derek's jaw before pulling away to go in search of their oil.

There's an urgency to the way that Stiles positions himself over Derek's lap, limbs and long fingers clinging and pressing tightly to Derek's skin like he's trying to keep in contact with every part of Derek at once. Stiles draws in a tight breath as he sinks down, masking his discomfort brought by lack of preparation and the fact that it's been days since they've been together, but he doesn't slow. Stiles presses himself down, taking Derek deep as he can. Then, almost immediately he rides up again in Derek's lap, curling an arm around his shoulders for balance as he slides up to the tip of him before grinding firmly back down again.

As urgently as Stiles takes to him, there's a distinct element of artistry in his performance. Stiles isn't just riding him. He's not just bobbing his way through a quick fuck like rutting dogs. His body rolls and grinds, weight balanced on just his toes and the hand around Derek's neck. Every breath and sigh is a part of the sway and press of his body.

The contrasts in their colors enthralls Derek, the way his dark arm hair lays against tanned skin that takes the shadows so differently from Stiles's golden tones. The scent of him is even better, so rich and vital instead of the faded shadow left on Derek's bedroll.

Sweat beads along Stiles's chin and Derek chases a droplet down Stiles's neck with his tongue. The taste of Stiles, of his spice and sweat and arousal is enough to have a growl building in the back of his throat as he nips his teeth into the golden skin below Stiles's collarbone.

Stiles makes a low sound and picks up his pace. The hand on the back of Derek's neck slides up into his hair, fingers curling into his scalp and tugging his head back. Stiles bends his head to meet Derek's up-turned face, to drag his lips over Derek's and then bite at his jaw.

The hand he has resting loosely on Stiles's hip tightens, interrupting the boy's motion and pulling him down hard on Derek's cock, drawing a low moan from both of them. But even the way Derek holds him tight doesn't stop Stiles's intent grinding. Derek turns his head to take Stiles's mouth again, thrusting his tongue into the wet heat between his lips. He gets a leg under him, enough leverage that when Stiles lifts away again, this time Derek thrusts up to meet him on the way down.

Stiles's fingers tighten spasmodically in his hair, and Derek growls against his mouth, kissing him harder as they both begin to thrust in counterpoint.

As Derek approaches his peak, Stiles seems to sense it, fingers tightening in Derek's hair and against his skin. He takes Derek's mouth again, pulls his lower lip between his teeth and bites hard enough to hurt. The shock of it, the surge in sensation is enough to break the dam and he thrusts up into Stiles one more time as he erupts, breath stolen away completely. Stiles clings to him throughout, enveloping him in breathless need.

When he lifts his head, finally, Stiles is still panting heavily, a triumphant smirk on his lips as he slips out of Derek's lap and collapses back into the furs. Derek sits there, breathing deeply himself, savoring the easing of his tensions as he turns his head to gaze down at Stiles. Stiles's cock is thick against his belly, though he makes no move to attend to it, arm thrown over his eyes as he catches his breath. Glistening with a faint sheen of sweat, his skin is beautiful, laid out beside Derek.

Derek has been well and truly conquered tonight. Still, that doesn't mean he hasn't any surprises of his own to offer. He rolls over onto his knees, then angles forward so that he can lower his head down over Stiles's groin, exposed and untended as it is. It's a quick motion in order to catch Stiles by surprise, but the yelp the slave makes when Derek's mouth closes over his straining flesh is worth the effort.

Stiles's surprise turns quickly to a moan as Derek hums a laugh around him, curling his fingers along the shaft of him to guide him where he wants. He moves as slowly as Stiles had taken things quickly, letting himself enjoy the moment along with his bedmate. And he does enjoy it, much to his surprise. The way Stiles's fingers tremble against his scalp, the way Derek can feel his heart racing. There's a sort of closeness, a sort of interconnectedness he feels as he uses his lips and tongue to draw up every flex and shiver of sensation from Stiles. Pleasing with his mouth, instead of being the one receiving such pleasures… it's not an activity he'd ever thought to attempt or enjoy before Stiles. Then again, just some weeks ago he'd have never thought himself willing to take a slave to his furs, much less miss his presence while away and look forward to returning to him after a mission.

So he takes on the unexpected pleasures with alacrity and hopes that Stiles understands what his efforts mean, since he has no words that would allow him to explain the sensations.

When Stiles's fingers tighten on Derek's arm and he babbles an incoherent mix of pleas and praises, Derek opens his throat as best he can, swallowing him down, determined to do better this time than he had the last.

He mouths at Stiles's cock until he's satisfied that he's pulled every last tremor from him, then he lifts his head away and crawls up over Stiles's body, wanting to look at his face again before laying down to let exhaustion take him. Stiles's eyes are a little glazed, and the sweat is still beaded on his golden brow. Derek smooths a knuckle along his hairline, and he blinks a little and smiles faintly. Derek turns to sprawl beside him, contented that he has accomplished his every mission for the day.

The sound of their deep, rapid breaths is the only noise in the tent, though the faint sounds of the camp grow slowly more present as the intensity of their joining fades back again. It's a familiar sound, and one that he appreciates ever more after the recent nights in the wild forests.

When Stiles shivers beside him but doesn't move to remedy it, he frowns. The night is cooling quickly, and though the air in the tent has been warmed by their bodies, the cooling sweat on Stiles's skin must be leaving him uncomfortable.

He's confused, until suddenly he isn't. Reality comes back to him in a rush. It's not Stiles's furs they lay upon. He's not chosen Derek as his lover. Stiles is no noble, not even a freeman who has the status to make even small choices for himself. Derek owns him.

The choice to take care of even Stiles's most basic needs belongs to Derek.

Exhausted as he is, Derek sits up enough to reach for the bunched-up furs that are sitting down past his ankle. He drags one of them up to spread across the both of them as he shifts closer to Stiles, bringing their bodies together to share warmth.

"Thank you," Stiles says, voice sounding wet.

Derek turns his head and frowns at him against the pang of guilt he feels at such a reaction to his paltry efforts.

Stiles flushes, looking away to hide his too-bright eyes. He clears his throat and says, "The way you take care of me… nobody's ever treated me this way before."

Derek doesn't know what to say to that, but when Stiles turns those eyes up on him, he instinctually presses a kiss to his lips. When Stiles smiles and curls tighter to his chest, it seems that it was sufficient conveyance of his response after all.

Chapter Text

When Derek wakes, it's to the sensation of Stiles rubbing slowly against him. It's early morning, still early for him to rise. But he's grown hot under the piled furs, and with Stiles moving on him there's arousal thrumming through his skin and leaving fire in its wake even without his conscious participation. The furs are pulled high over them and Derek shoves them aside, breathing a delicious draught of cool air and feeling some of the oppressiveness of the warmth lift from his skin in general.

Not all of it, though. A significant portion of his body is still well-heated by a certain bedmate of his. Derek twists his head down to look at Stiles's face, and grunts in amusement to see that Stiles is almost entirely still asleep.

His lips part and move slowly in a reflexive little motion, licking his own mouth as he burrows his face deeper into Derek's neck and grinds his hips up more firmly as his arms squeeze. Derek lifts a hand to sweep along Stiles's back and nudges him over, pulling Stiles more fully on top of him. Stiles's legs slide apart over him, hips settling warmly on top of Derek's steadily-growing erection.

Derek extends his free hand to pat around in the furs where Stiles had dropped the oil last night and he comes up with the little pouch after just a few moments of searching. It's almost empty now, and Derek pops the cap with his thumb before turning it over above Stiles's ass, watching the golden liquid drizzle down onto his skin.

Stiles makes a vague sound of protest or reaction of some sort, though he just rocks his hips against Derek again, face pressed against Derek's jaw.

Derek just tosses the pouch aside and then follows the oil with his fingers, slowly working it down in between Stiles's cheeks, touching the soft, slightly puffy pucker of his hole. Stiles shifts again as Derek runs his finger in a slow, steady circle around the tender skin, but he doesn't wake, even being touched so intimately.

Between them, Derek can feel both of their cocks pressed together in warm arousal. Slowly, he slides a digit down deeper, nudging the oil into Stiles, spreading him gently. Stiles's body clenches reflexively around him, but he's also still relaxed in sleep, and Derek fits another finger in beside his first with little resistance.

Stiles makes a sound then, hips rocking slowly but steadily to grind his dick against Derek's belly and push those fingers deeper into him. The oil dribbles down the back of his balls and onto the heated flesh of Derek's erection trapped between them. It's slick and warm and Derek grows impatient with the teasing. He pushes his fingers deeper as he shifts them a little, dragging Stiles up a little bit higher; just enough to free his cock.

It feels good to nudge himself, all slick and hot between Stiles's cheeks, bumping the head of his cock into the knuckles pressed inside Stiles. But this position's not going to work, not with the way Stiles's hips are currently angled. Derek lets his fingers slip from inside Stiles with a sigh and then he wraps a hand around the back of Stiles's neck to support his head and rolls them both over.

Stiles makes another incomprehensible sound and smacks his lips again, arms sliding limp back to the ground, though his fingers curl uselessly at Derek's skin. His legs fall open without prodding, and Derek can't help but sit back and admire the sight of him, all sprawled out and hard and relaxed and entirely his.

His cock throbs in reminder, pressed between firm cheeks, and though Derek wants nothing more than to line himself up and push into Stiles's body, the thought of actually doing it while Stiles is yet unconscious fills him with twin feelings of dirty arousal and shame. It would be his right. No one could ever argue with him for using Stiles's body thus. And yet his own disavowal of such sexual ownership still pulls at him.

"Stiles," he murmurs quietly, running a hand along Stiles's thigh, then up, quite unable to resist stroking the straining member at the apex of it. He tightens his fingers into a fist, spreading the oil around on Stiles's cock, making it slick and sticky. "Stiles, wake up."

"Mm?" Stiles hums, head twisting a little Derek's direction as he arches his back slightly under the touch. "Der'k?"

"Wake up, Stiles," he says again, rolling his wrist to pull even more firmly at Stiles's cock.

Stiles's eyes slit open this time on a tight inhale, his fingers curling and splaying in the furs beneath them.

"Kahlah's cunt," Stiles breathes on a groan, spreading his legs further.

It's enough of an invitation that Derek lines himself up and presses firmly inwards.

"Oh, yes," Stiles moans, hands hitching down behind his own knees, pulling his legs a little higher, opening himself more easily to Derek.

It doesn't take long for Derek to bottom out, with Stiles inviting him in so warmly. After that he simply leans down to rest his weight onto hands placed either side of Stiles's shoulders and starts fucking him. His strokes are short and without flair or flourish. Just simple, physical stimulation.

But Stiles seems to find them more than acceptable, making low, needy little sounds in the back of his throat as he closes his eyes again and relaxes into it. He opens for Derek, completely spread beneath him, just taking it.

Derek doesn't bother with words. He simply pries one of Stiles's hands off his thigh and presses it down between them. Stiles catches his meaning and takes himself in hand, hooking his loose leg around Derek's hip as he starts stroking his erection in time to Derek's thrusts.

"Shall I come for you?" Stiles murmurs, voice still soft and tongue loose with sleep. "Would you like that, Derek? Seeing me come on your perfect cock?"

Derek grunts his approval and thrusts harder, pleased as Stiles's hand moves faster, Stiles tightening down around him on a moan.

"So full. Feels so good," Stiles mumbles, body flexing and stretching beneath him. "I'm gonna do that. Mm, I'm gonna come on you. I'm gonna-"

Stiles goes tight, legs pulling Derek deep into him, back arching as he comes. His cock pulses, jerking under his fingers, spilling his seed all over his pretty belly. Derek savors the sensation of Stiles clamping down around him for a few moments, breathing tightly through his nose. Then he drives forward once, twice, and then a third time to send himself over that edge too. It feels strangely right, knowing that part of him remains inside Stiles even as he pulls back, ready to begin the day.

Stiles just lays there, body limp, lips smacking slightly as he sighs contentedly. He's a mess, come and oil smeared over him from sternum to bollocks, but he doesn't seem to care in the slightest.

Derek snorts and sets about quickly cleaning himself up and dressing for camp. He's indulged himself long-enough in bed. Now he has duties to attend to. Important ones.

He leaves Stiles to his slumbers and ducks out of the tent, only to find his uncle standing outside, waiting with a smirk on his face.

Derek feels a welling of disgust at the thought of his uncle playing voyeur, but considering it wouldn't have taken much for Peter to decide to enter his tent unbidden and attempt to join in…

Well. He simply puts his face into a grim mask and turns, folding back his tent flap as he steps back inside.

"Stiles," he says in a firm voice. "Up. Food. Quickly."

Stiles is still laying sprawled and naked in bed, but at Derek's sharp words he springs to his feet, fumbling over towards last night's discarded clothing for his tunic. Peter undoubtedly gets an eyeful, if the smirk on his face as he takes a seat at one of Derek's chairs is anything to go by, but Stiles gets the tunic over his head quickly and sets out of the tent with the food basket in hand.

"Sorry to drop by so early," Peter says, in a voice that holds exactly zero apology. "But I thought it best to discuss certain matters in person. And away from prying ears."

Derek nods stiffly, taking the seat across from his Uncle. "I was just about to come to you and see about our guest."

"Yes, you've done well, nephew. The Argent chit is an excellent prize. She's of significant strategic importance."

Derek doesn't let the mild praise sway him. He looks down at his maps on the table instead.

"Have we any updates about the Argent forces?"

Peter glances at the maps, thumb rubbing along below his lower lip, teasing at the light beard he wears. "We are waiting to hear from some of our scouts at the moment, and little has changed otherwise these few days past while you were gone. Your forces should be in position now," he adds, pointing at the locations they'd been sent towards. "That puts us in an excellent position to use the girl."

Derek studies the map, and while he approves of the flanking position of Isaac and Boyd in general, he thinks they're too far apart from any of the other forces and each other to be useful. Any force the Argents bring out will be likely to beat them by sheer strength of numbers.

"What did you have in mind?"

Peter hums to himself as he thinks, eyes tracing along the lines of their homeland. His gloved fingertips run slowly back and forth over the vellum.

"Drawn and quartered makes quite a statement," Peter says eventually, tapping at a point further west of their current position, close to the last suspected location of the bulk of the Argent forces. "A small delegation here should be able to take care of it. Then, once angered," he drags his fingers along the map back towards the east, where they're currently located. "They'll be crushed. Broken on the jagged teeth of our armies."

Shock has Derek silent. Derek thinks it horribly prescient as his Uncle's fingers keep going a little towards their capitol in their exaggeration, passing right through the location of their main army before lifting away from the paper. They have nowhere near the military strength to take a head-on charge from the greater Argent army. They didn't when the war began, and now their forces are even weaker, more fragmented, and the Argent forces greater than the initial reports his Uncle had sent back to the Queen and King.

There have been many times that he's disagreed with Peter's tactics in the past, disliking his recklessness, his propensity for flashy surprises instead of steady preparations. But it's always been a moderate disagreement before now. A difference of style, of risk-aversion.

This time, Peter's simply wrong.

Foolishly wrong.

Derek shakes his head reflexively, but there's a sort of light in his uncle's eyes. A bloody excitement that appears in the bared canines of his smile.

"You don't like drawn and quartered? Well, we can pick something else. Bifurcation, perhaps? String her up by her wrists and let all her guts fall out? No? You're right. I should let you pick, since you're the one who found her. Regardless, it will be a magnificent revenge."

"Revenge?" Derek says, confused. "What does revenge matter?"

Peter fixes him with a disgusted look. He leans across the table to hold Derek's gaze as he says, "For the murder of my family. With this Allison girl, Acathee has finally blessed us with the means to restore the balance. Their deaths have gone too long unanswered."

Derek opens his mouth to respond, when Stiles ducks back into the tent, distracting the thread of conversation. He's glad of it, though he'd rather keep Stiles out of Peter's way. Stiles's fussing over the bread and cheese he lays out over the plates he sets down for them is enough of a disruption that Derek has time to think.

Peter's immediate family, Derek's Aunt and his cousins had been killed a few years past, that much was true. But that had been at the hands of the secessionists to the south. Cousins of his mother, who'd been trying to defy his mother's rule, form their own country. And though border skirmishes with the Argents have been occurring for far longer than a few years, to his knowledge they'd had no involvement with his Aunt's and cousins' deaths.

But there's an intensity in his uncle's eyes, a certainty there that has Derek wracking his memory for any whisper of an alternate story. "I don't understand," he admits finally. "You're saying Argent forces had a hand in your family's murder?" Derek says, trying not to frown too obviously over the sudden change in what he's been told.

Peter studies him a moment, then his face draws down into concern. "Ah. Of course. I forget how young you were at the time this all began. You're thinking of the official propaganda. But our cousins didn't just one day decide to hire assassins and start a civil war. It was at the behest of Argent. You've seen their assassins first hand. The Argent court may adhere to its code on the surface, but in secret it has been seeding instability in the region for years, all to pave the way for… well, for all of this," Peter says, gesturing vaguely about them at the camp in general.

Derek stares at the map between them, trying to make the pieces fit, to filter what little truth might be mixed in with the dross. His Uncle misleads him routinely, twists the facts to suit his needs, he knows that much. But this? Derek is often in the dark where his Uncle's plans are concerned, but this seems without purpose.

This seems almost like madness.

"So I'm sure you understand that I must find a way to… communicate to the Argents just how well I -," Peter smiles sadly at him, eyes sharp with his focus. "How well we remember the treachery that cost us loved ones."

"I see," Derek murmurs, still frowning down at the map so he doesn't have to look at his Uncle.

"Think it over, we've a few days yet to plan," Peter says, the mood abruptly lightening. His Uncle rubs a gloved hand over his beard as he contemplates the kneeling slave, a dirty smirk spreading on his lips. He shifts, turning and snapping his fingers at Stiles.

"Fruit."

Stiles scrambles to his feet again and brings the bowl over. Derek had forgotten he was there. He'd been so distracted by Peter's tangled machinations he hadn't thought to send Stiles away again. To make the same mistake twice… it feels as though he's dancing on strings his Uncle wields with ease.

Derek watches, grim as his uncle's hand comes up to rest on Stiles's thigh, sliding up under the edge of his tunic and curling around his hip while he slowly peruses the offerings in the bowl.

"And you, boy, how did you fare in your master's absence?" Peter asks.

Stiles's lips part in surprise, brows furrowing. He glances at Peter for a fraction of a second, then snaps his eyes down at the table and says quietly, "I focused on my duties, My Lord."

Peter hums as though amused by the response. His fingers flex on Stiles's body as he sorts idly through the apples and plums. "Such an entertaining accent, don't you think? Perhaps I'll obtain a Northerner for myself," Peter muses as he picks up one apple, turns it over, then sets it back down for some imagined blemish, acting for all the world as though he hadn't just moments before been talking about the fates of nations.

"Tell me, did you show my Nephew a thorough appreciation for his return?"

It's exactly the sort of game Peter loves to play; teasing the edge of the line, baiting Derek into making a mistake. Right now Derek doesn't trust himself to be able to play the game without making things worse. He's too upset by the morning's conversations. If he reacts, if he pushes back too hard, it will only spur Peter on in more damaging ways. But if he doesn't stop him at all, Peter will most certainly take liberties that Derek will regret allowing. There's a line, a hairsbreadth path for him to find that will compromise the least, but…

"I do my best," Stiles whispers, swallowing.

Soon Peter gives up the pretense of choosing food and tilts his head, eyes heavy-lidded as he watches Stiles's tunic bunch over the hand sliding up his side. Dressed in haste, Stiles is surely bare beneath the tunic, and though Peter's hand is only on his hip, the fabric will soon be pulled too high to cover Stiles's groin. Stiles's fingers are tight on the bowl, knuckles going pale as he stares straight ahead.

Stiles's expression has Derek opening his mouth to interfere before Peter can expose Stiles, but they're all interrupted by the sharp rap of the wood knocker. Peter drops his hand and Stiles turns away as Derek turns to see Daehler duck into the open tent flap. He sketches a deferential bow and then approaches.

"My lord, I was told you were here. Shall I make my report or wait for you at your tent?"

"You, good," Peter says and waves him over imperiously. "You bring news of our little princess?"

"She's sleeping still. Some of my scouts just arrived back. I bring the latest troop positions," he says, laying out the sheaf of papers on the table between them.

Peter spreads out the sheets as Daehler pulls over another stool to sit on. Derek glances over at Stiles, but the slave has ducked back away into the shadows of the tent, avoiding the guests and busying himself with some chore.

"Five of the eight due back today returned. Two missing are here, and here." He points to one far southwest, then a second nearer towards one of the little villages that is surely not going to be missed by the war's path. "The third is checking trade routes north, and I'm not surprised she's running slower than we hoped. I won't be worried until she's not back three days from now."

"And of the two south?"

Daehler sighs. "We've got word from other scouts nearby that there is a smaller advance force massing in that region. Those scouts are likely lost or being forced to take a more circuitous route back."

"Knowing Argent tactics, they're probably there securing resources, not setting up for flanking support," Derek says, drawing a line with his finger back through the sparser forest west to where the main Argent forces are reported to be.

Peter hums faintly, then reaches into the small box on Derek's table to select a supply marker. He places it on the map, but hesitates, finger stroking the little wooden carving as he thinks about it. "Infantry?"

"No signs of cavalry," Daehler agrees. "The remains of the cavalry force that tracked us here," he says, indicating the x marking their most recent battle, "has all been redistributed, mostly into scouts."

"They're not horsemen, the Argents," Peter says with an air of humor, amused as he sets out more markers on the map.

Daehler blinks at him, then smiles vacantly as he studies the map, adjusting a marker here and there.

But his uncle's amusement feels terribly out of place. With the pieces all laid out like this, it's obvious that the Argents have the superior forces and positioning.

"Any word from back East?" Derek asks, frowning at the pieces marking Boyd's and Isaac's forces. They're too far, too isolated.

"Lady Hale was delayed a few days, we're not sure why, and she didn't share her route information, but her forces are somewhere here to the northeast. It was a three day ride for my scout."

Derek grimaces. It's much further than he'd hoped. If the Argents march today, if they've already heard of Lady Allison's abduction and are thus spurred into action, that could be the end. If Laura's forces aren't able to bring up the rear on their main armies, the Argent forces might march straight through them, conquering them in smaller pieces with relative ease.

"Then we're going to need to be clever," Peter muses, toying with one of the pieces of the Argent army. "Matt, you've done well overseeing the scouts. Have you uncovered any further weaknesses we can exploit?"

"That supply outpost may be relevant only if the battle grows long." Matt leans forward against the table's edge, lips pursed in thought. He touches one of the markers, staring intently at it, then turns his eyes in Stiles's direction.

Stiles goes still under the scrutiny, frowning back at the lieutenant staring at him instead of lowering his eyes as he ought. Derek frowns at him in warning, but it goes unheeded.

A cold smirk spreads over Matt's face as he taps the marker against the table. "Their immediate infrastructure may be friable. Their slave camps tend to be kept further to the rear than ours. It leaves them vulnerable to flanking maneuvers. The body of the force won't last without the support."

"We don't have the forces to do that and guard this point," Derek counters, voice flat. He can't help but think of Erica and all the others who serve under his command as support. Though he doesn't hold to the Argent code, there are some practices he'd only consider as a last resort. That sort of transgression against the Argent code would give their people a more valid basis for their righteous march too, which wouldn't contribute well to long-term peace.

"No, we don't. Which is why we poison the wells here and here," Daehler suggests with a sharp-edged glance over the map. "Leave no clean water for miles and then it'll be too late."

"But that'll kill-" Stiles blurts halfway and then interrupts himself with a wince.

Derek ignores the outburst in the hopes that Stiles will simply shut his mouth and all attention will return to more important matters but Peter turns around in his chair more fully to fix Stiles with a hard, speculative gaze.

"Innocents? Bystanders? The poor little farm animals? Yes," Peter says, narrowing his eyes. "But we're at war. Bad things happen, even to slaves. Or haven't you noticed?"

Instead of offering an impudent reply that might renew the faded bruise on his mouth, Stiles ducks his head with surprising obedience. It unfortunately doesn't seem to salve Peter's pique. Peter pushes to his feet, drifting over to where Stiles is kneeling.

"Even to… favored pets who've been shown the proper amount of strap to remind them of their place. Honestly, Derek, you leave for two days and he's back at it?" Peter clucks his tongue in mocking reproach, shaking his head as he drags heavy eyes over Stiles's body.

"He's learning," Derek says flatly.

Peter casts a disbelieving glance over Derek's way. "Come now, he's barely been touched. Have you really such a soft spot for him? You really mustn't get attached to them. One never knows what might happen."

The way his voice softens is sickeningly dangerous. There's that same hint of madness, of wild rage flickering in the back of his eyes. Peter curls proprietary fingers into the tawny hair in his reach, gripping tightly enough to surely be uncomfortable. But this time Stiles remains still and subservient. Doesn't risk fighting back in any way.

Nor does Derek, altogether too aware of how easy it would be for his Uncle to decide to take matters into his own hands. Derek forces himself not to react, not to turn a glare on his uncle and reveal the swell of anger he feels at the insinuations and intrusions.

Because he turns away he catches the heavy gaze Daehler is casting over Stiles. When those eyes shift back Derek's direction they're unreadable. Regardless, though he may have no sway over his Uncle, Derek has no qualms about turning a thunderous expression on a lieutenant's impudence, no matter how slight. Daehler respectfully drops his eyes again to the maps spread out before them.

"Daehler, you were on last watch. You've had no chance to rest yet, have you?" Derek asks, dragging the conversation back to more practical concerns. "And I've work to do with Greenberg's platoon. Uncle, perhaps we can discuss this further later today, after we've all had time to give matters thought?"

"Hm? Oh, of course," Peter says, relinquishing his hold on Stiles and returning to the maps as though Stiles has ceased to exist for him again. He gathers the annotated maps and rolls them up. Sliding them into his satchel, he claps a gloved hand on Derek's shoulder and says, "Think on what we spoke of. We'll talk tomorrow."

As Peter makes his way out of the tent, Matt casts a significant glance over at Derek. He looks concerned and grim and he hesitates, glances back over at the map.

He reaches out and with a finger, knocks over the markers they've stood up to represent their own forces. Making them fall. It's a silent voice of defeat, of doubt.

Derek holds the gaze that's turned his way for a long moment, then nods fractionally. He understands. He's not the only one who doubts. But now is not the time or the place to discuss any form of dissent. Instead, Derek turns and strides out of the tent.

Finally, he can do what he'd intended to do when he first had set out this morning.

His few days' absence has not done Greenberg's platoon any favors. As he strides through the imperfect rows of tents, soldiers scramble up at the sight of him. They disappear into tents to alert their peers, or scramble to get their boots back on from where they've been toasting their toes at the fires, or stuff the last bites of their meals into their mouths. No one appears to be where they actually belong.

At least the sight of him is still worth something.

His face is surely thunderous, his figure imposing. Anger is heavy in his chest, buzzing at his throat. He's angry with them, angry with the war, angry with his Uncle. Only one of those things he can control, and control it he shall.

When he arrives at the center clearing of the platoon's domain, he draws to a halt. There are few soldiers left unawares, at least among those who are visible. He waits in silence for a few minutes, but none of them approach the clearing or even pretend to take up working on the exercises they've been assigned.

Carefully, Derek draws his sword from the scabbard strung to his belt. The sight sends a few more soldiers scurrying off, others drawing closer to the edge of the clearing, more uncertain.

"Finstock!" Derek bellows, and soldiers flinch.

The Sergeant is, fortunately for him, already stumbling out of his tent when Derek shouts. The man is, unsurprisingly, still fumbling to get his sword in place and his uniform overtunic straightened as he gestures at some of his subordinates that follow him and send them running.

Finally, calls of 'formation' and 'fall in' start to carry through the camp as the Sergeant hurries over in some strange cross between a run and a walk, his wide eyes focusing on Derek only intermittently.

What he wouldn't give to have Erica here, or Boyd.

When the frazzled man comes to a halt in front of Derek, he salutes, then stands and awaits Derek's voice. His eyes flicker between the scarred portion of Derek's face and the relative safety of his chest, then occasionally Derek's eyes as the silence stretches tensely.

Soldiers are starting to spill from the ranks of tents, and there are a few squad leaders that seem to at least have the organization of their own handful of people in hand. Lines begin to form in the muddy space as Derek watches, with more-or-less acceptably-clad soldiers.

In this state, they'll be worse than useless on the battlefield. If Peter thinks these people up to the task of defending against the rigid discipline and righteous anger of the Argent troops, then he is sorely mistaken.

Derek turns his eyes back to Finstock, and the man swallows awkwardly. Slowly, Derek lifts the point of his sword, up and over until the tip is aimed right at his inherited sergeant's heart.

"Is there a reason you've disregarded my orders and allowed my platoon to remain in shambles?"

"My Lord," Finstock begins, then pauses and gulps back a breath. "No. No worthy excuse. When I grew uncertain of your return, I allowed us to return to old habits. I should have trusted that you would return."

"Well," Derek says grimly as he lowers the sword. "At least you speak with honesty."

"A-absolutely, My Lord," he stutters, nodding fast and starting to smile awkwardly. "I may be an idiot, but I'm an honest one."

Derek stares at the man till the smile fades from his mouth, replaced shortly thereafter by a look of almost comical seriousness.

"My Lord, I'll begin the-"

"No. Today we run basic sword drills. Once you've accounted for our soldiers, send them for their swords."

"But My Lord, we don't have any practice…" Finstock swallows back the rest of the sentence as he finally looks back up again and takes in Derek's face. His eyes return to Derek's chest and he says, "Yes, My Lord. As Your Lordship orders.

"Go quickly. I'll be observing."

Finstock sketches a sloppy salute and scrambles away to take the lead of the platoon. There are more than a hundred people there, though their lines are so imperfect Derek can't actually count their numbers easily. They'd normally be people he knows by face if not by name, people he's observed in training. Now, though, they're still mostly strangers.

Perhaps working the drills alongside them will salve some of that worry. Perhaps not. But at least this way he'll know they're training the right way. At the very least, perhaps a few more of them might survive the inevitable clashes with their enemies.

If any of them survive.

 

When he ducks into his tent many long, sweaty hours later, he's surprised to find Stiles playing a game of Kambatkan with Scott. Their smiles fade at his presence as he stands just inside the tent, regarding the colored stones spread out on the earth between them. Laughter dies on Stiles's lips. Silence falls, heavy.

There's nothing wrong with what they're doing, no guilt chasing those smiles away. But Derek, the dark, large, scarred warrior that he is, tends to have that effect on people. Though perhaps the unexpected surge of jealousy that's washing through him might be a contributing factor to the strength of his glower.

"Scott," he says flatly as Stiles swiftly sweeps the stones back into their little leather bag.

The young man rises quickly and sketches a neat salute of a fist to his chest. "My lord. Lord Peter asked me to share all my reports on our guest with you." He also lifts his eyebrows significantly, hinting very unsubtly at the fact that he had more to discuss beyond that.

Normally he'd never trust anything coming from one of Peter's lieutenants. But Scott… he's a different sort. Though they've shared one mission together, Derek still doesn't know or trust him. Even still, he's starting to sense that the man has a deeply-held personal honor code.

"Speak," he orders with a sigh, finishing unbuckling his sword belt. He hands the folded bundle to Stiles before moving to take a seat at his table and scoop up a bundle of grapes.

Scott hesitates, glancing over at Stiles apologetically but significantly before raising his eyebrows at Derek in question.

Derek sets his jaw and lifts his eyebrows in return. "I did speak clearly, did I not?"

As if he would be careless like that if he had a servant he couldn't trust around him. Annoyance likely makes him look even more dour, but at the moment that suits him, as it often does.

Scott ducks his head and clears his throat.

"The Lady Allison is doing well. She's clever and determined, though, so she has to be watched carefully and searched for makeshift weapons regularly."

Derek nods in curt approval. It would seem Scott has taken some of his lessons to heart and not been entirely distracted by those dark, glittering eyes.

"We met with the other lieutenants, Jackson and Danny. Lord Peter revealed Allison's presence to them, which…" Scott frowns, but doesn't verbalize the concern that's showing on his face lest he sound unmistakably insubordinate. "We've been discussing plans for how to best… unhinge our enemies. Lord Peter was talking about a grand scale ambush. That our possession of Lady Allison will be used as prodding the beehive and leaving them vulnerable to a frontal assault."

Derek regards him silently. It's nothing he's unaware of, but not having been at a meeting many would think he ought to have been at could mean Scott thinks he doesn't know.

"So why come to me with this?"

"I'm worried," Scott admits quietly. "I think he intends… he's not speaking of bargaining for her safe return."

Derek lifts an eyebrow, looking at the open concern and determination on the younger man's face. If he's lying, he's doing a convincing job of it. But lies are a major part of being in Peter's employ. He's long-since learned never to trust anything Peter says at face value, so it's not unreasonable to extend that policy to his subordinates.

"And if he isn't?" Derek asks, carefully neutral.

Scott squints at him, studying his face, but his brows pinch together when he seems to find nothing of use. Doubt flickers across his features, and he looks about to back off when he glances Stiles's direction. When Derek glances over at Stiles, all Stiles is doing is cleaning his sword-belt, not watching them, but it seems to make up Scott's mind.

"It's the worst choice I can imagine short of turning tail and running. I have tried to understand Lord Peter's plans but… no matter how I look at it, I only see disaster. She's…," he pauses, sighing, though his expression is light. "She's brilliant. Special. She needs to go back and have a chance to take a ruling position. She'll do good things. But if Lord Peter will hear of no parlay or prisoner exchange…"

"He's going to make an example of her," Derek confirms quietly.

The expression that spreads over Scott's face is decidedly unhappy.

"Then not only will we lose a potential ally to peace in the region, it will martyr her. You know how the Argents are with vengeance. It will do nothing but bring absolute chaos down upon us. It will plunge the entire region into a war we will not win."

Derek grimaces. The woman means nothing to him personally, but Scott's not wrong about her importance to the region in general. Scott is looking at him with earnest eyes and a tense frown. He looks worried, as well he might. Not only is the potential outcome of this war in jeopardy, but the fact that he's questioning his own general is dangerous in itself.

"You're not foolish to be… concerned. The war puts us all in challenging positions." He pauses, looking Scott dead in the eye. "The Lord General has always found a way before. I'm sure he will find a solution now," he says, keeping his voice flat. But he shakes his head, countering his words.

Scott nods sharply at him, but sits back and smiles tightly as he says firmly, "You're certainly right. Lord Peter surely has a plan to get us through this all."

"We'll think on these issues later. You've been on duty a long time. Some rest will do you good," Derek says, rising.

Scott rises with him, meeting his gaze with a clear understanding. No, he's not the only one who's seen it, that Peter's plan is not one that will be successful. He puts his fist over his heart in salute, then glances Stiles's direction with a soft smile and nod before ducking out of the tent and heading on his way.

Derek sits back down, enervated. He sighs, leaning his forehead against his upturned fist, squeezing his eyes shut. It's not a conclusion he can avoid. But he doesn't want to think it, doesn't want to admit that his Uncle might… what? Have lost his damned mind? Be serving goals not in line with the home he's sworn to protect? Something is happening that Derek doesn't understand, and while he has chosen to trust his Uncle many times before, it's clear that now he must make choices himself. He has a responsibility as a prince, as a soldier, and even just as a man whose home is being threatened not to just go along without raising a challenge.

A soft touch lands on his thigh and he lets his eyes slit open enough to look over at Stiles kneeling beside him, face drawn in grim concern. For once he doesn't say anything, not a word, but his face speaks for him. Derek reaches out to curl a hand around the back of Stiles's neck as he rests his cheek against Derek's knee, offering comfort or solidarity. For a while, they just sit there in silence as he thinks.

Chapter Text

In the morning, Derek returns to his soldiers to oversee the second day of basic battle drills. He's past worrying about infrastructure or overall discipline or anything but how well they might survive their next fight. If they survive that, and he's still their leader, then he'll worry about all the other things that are important for a platoon.

Stiles's fingers had worked away much of the stiffness and soreness in his muscles, but he's not unaware of the pain the others must be feeling by the end of a second day's morning training. He feels the weight of it himself as he makes his way across the camp at midday, and while his soldiers have the luxury of knocking off for a few hours, he does not.

Daehler and Scott's fears and warnings have been tumbling around in the back of his mind all night and day, as have the recent conversations he's had with his Uncle. The pieces don't fit, no matter how he tries to make it. And he cannot stand by a let his Uncle lead their nation astray. If Peter has some plan he's not been sharing, Derek needs to understand it or else…

Well. He's not sure at all about what the "else" might entail, but that doesn't mean it's any less necessary.

His Uncle bids him enter when he calls out his arrival, and when he ducks into the tent, he is unsurprised to find his uncle poring over his maps instead of engaging in any recreational activities. Though Peter is fond of his excesses, it's true, he is just as fond of strategy and has always put his duties first when important events grow close.

Lately, though, there seems to be a strange urgency to his thinking stares, a manic light in his eyes as he studies his maps. Sweat darkens the hair at his brow as he touches the different tokens. He murmurs under his breath, barely glancing up at Derek's arrival.

"Now that we know we have the time, I'm going to deploy our platoons," Peter says, finger nudging the wooden markers over the maps, spreading their forces slowly further and further apart.

It's not a good sign for this meeting if that's the opening move.

"I thought you'd decided to keep our strength close, since the Argents are strong in number," Derek says, frowning.

"No, no," Peter says dismissively, flipping a hand absently his direction as he continues to study the drawings, fingers drumming erratically against the table. "Yes. I think I'll send you North a bit. Danny and Jackson can move further south, and I'll keep McCall and Daehler close here. No. Yes. Yes. It should cast a wide-enough net for when the Argents come charging through."

Acathee's blood.

"Then you still intend to make an example of the Lady?"

"It is a necessity," Peter says firmly, fist thumping against the wood and sending the markers bouncing. "Everything hinges on her now."

Derek stares at the map, at the tiny depiction of his family's home, the capitol city. There are still soldiers in the northeast, still people in the south, but they're so far, so limited in their capacity. They're guards, the first line of defense on a mostly-quiet border. They're not meant to be the last.

"And what does the Queen think of all this?" Derek asks, for once allowing doubt to color his tone.

"Queen." His uncle goes still, fingers curling tight into a fist as he gives his head an absent shake. "The Queen? Your mother trusts my judgment," Peter says sharply, turning incredulous eyes on his nephew.

As though mentioning the Queen's leadership was somehow uncivilized or out of place.

"But surely she has an opinion on how her war is progressing. These decisions are too great to be made by any of us alone. My mother has always valued discourse instead of impulsivity."
"I'm not operating on my whims," Peter says, arching an eyebrow at him, drawing himself up proudly. "What, my dear boy, do you think this is, but a discussion?"

Derek merely regards him with raised brows, refusing to be taunted into a misstep.

After a moment, Peter seems to reassess his tactics. He tilts his head, leaning in with a strange smile.

"Come now, I value your input a great deal," Peter says, face softening into gentle and paternal admonishment.

He knows his Uncle well enough to avoid being swayed by that deflection. Instead, Derek remains on topic and says, "I've heard little from back home, have you? Perhaps they have more political information, or alternative plans that could put Lady Allison to better use than feeding the crows."

Peter eyes him a long, quiet moment.

"You know communication is exceedingly limited. And further, writing out our plans would be a risk too far. No, there's no time to waste on the convoluted dance that would be required to get a real message to your mother. Besides," he says with a dismissive wave. "You know all our messengers sent to the Argents with diplomatic envoys have been killed or captured, and nothing but that damnable Code sent in return. There is no progress to be had there. Only a fool would persist."

"But-"

"I understand your concerns, and I too wish we could call upon your mother," Peter says, leaning forward and clapping a hand on Derek's arm. "But it is up to us now, and I know what must be done. You must trust me." His face is full of almost saccharine solicitousness, the warmth oozing and viscous instead of comforting.

"Then explain it to me, because I do not share your vision," Derek says sharply. He is past the point of being able to hold his tongue and wait for Peter's secrets to be unveiled. He cannot trust hope when so much is at stake.

"It's simple. I don't know how to make it any clearer," Peter says, eyeing him like he's the one making little sense. "The Argents are weakest when provoked into a headlong rush. We have the means to do it, and so we shall."

"I see no way in which your plans for antagonizing the Argents will lead us to victory. These deployments will never meet with anything but chaos," he says, waving a hand at the markers on the map. "Greenberg's people will be cut down like so many weeds and then there will be nothing to stop them. The others will be too far behind."

"How can you have such little faith in our soldiers?" Peter demands in return, pounding a fist against the table. "Do you really think so poorly of your own people? We are fighting for our home, and you would have us, what, turn tail and flee? Surrender our lands to appease them?"

"No," Derek says simply. But he says nothing else, because it's growing clear that no matter what he says, it will never touch the deeper web of his Uncle's intentions.

Peter eyes him suspiciously, mouth pressing into a thin line as his lip starts to curl and his eyes narrow. Contempt is not far behind, and soon will follow outright distrust, so Derek wrangles his messy thoughts quickly. Now is not the moment, whatever else may come, so he sighs, lifting his hands a little as though defeated as he gazes at the board.

"Fine. I've said my piece. You've decided. If this is your plan," he confirms, pointing at the deployments. "Then I must return to training my platoon. Keep me appraised."

"Of course, Nephew," Peter says, looking mostly mollified and faintly smug as Derek offers a precise salute and turns away.

He does have work to do training the platoon, but he doesn't return directly to his troops. Instead, he passes by the infirmary on the excuse of checking on a soldier wounded during that morning's training. The man is groggy, but the medic says he'll be fine soon, that the humors will balance with some rest and a few doses of some herbal draught or another. Derek listens silently, and when the man is finished talking, he leaves without a word.

It's enough. Any longer would be strange, given his reputation. His simple attention to the individual soldier is information that will spread, and that's exactly his purpose. In addition to contributing to overall morale, it should provide sufficient explanation for his being in this area to cover his next destination.

Silence falls when he ducks into the tent as Lady Allison and Scott alike turn their eyes on him. She is seated on her cot, with McCall kneeling on the ground beside her, hand resting over hers on her knee. The Lady's eyes are sharp, though tiredness has written itself into her features in the shadows below her eyes and the tightness of her expression.

He doesn't bother with false pleasantries, though their mutual social standing should demand it. He simply gazes at her. The catalyst. The mistake which may mean the end of everything he holds dear.

"My Lord?" Scott says finally, breaking the silence.

Derek shifts his gaze over, takes in the searching looks of the younger soldier. A seemingly honorable man. A man he might come to trust given time he doesn't have. Unfortunate, unwanted choice forced upon him, but that is the very nature of war and conflict. Decisions must be made without surety. And no man can win the war alone.

"The Lord General has made his mind firm. He will not be swayed," he says quietly, moving further into the tent towards the others. He crouches down beside them.

"Batto's box," Scott swears. "Only a fool goes now."

Derek nods in agreement. They are past the point of relying on chance or hoping. Arrogance has taken the fore and Batto's trap in the process of being sprung.

Scott's face is grim as he glances towards Allison again. "I fear the time for doubts alone is past."

"You're not the only one," Derek murmurs softly. The mutinous words are heavy on his tongue, but necessary. "Have you spoken with any of the others?"

Scott hesitates, but gazing at the lady brings him to grim conclusion and he whispers, "I think Daehler understands her position as well. He's been… hinting to me, though I dared not pursue it."

Lady Allison grimaces at that, but she holds her peace when Scott glances at her.

"He's come to me as well," Derek agrees.

Scott nods once, firmly, then adds, "The others, they are too like-minded with his Lordship. They will not share our sympathies. I don't understand how they couldn't but then." He glances over at Allison with a worshipful look to his features. "They've never met her."

Though Derek certainly bears the Lady no ill will, it is no sympathy that motivates him here. It is something far greater. Scott's emotional words have him frowning, hesitant, but when he glances back up at the Lady herself he sees understanding and a steely determination that is akin to his own.

"Then it is up to the four of us. Speak carefully of this to Daehler and set your minds to making plans. I must not linger here," Derek says. "My presence will be noticed if I'm not with my platoon."

"My Lord," Scott says in acknowledgement.

They're competent soldiers, and the time of it is urgent. It won't take long for things to be set in motion.

 

It's become a surprisingly common occurrence lately that he find someone waiting for him inside his tent when he returns - and not just because Stiles now resides there with him. Tonight's unexpected guest is a thankfully less menacing figure than his uncle, though Daehler is surely a formidable personage on his own. Stiles certainly seems to find him so, given the look of relief that passes over his features when he sees Derek.

And isn't that a strange thing in itself? That someone should be relieved to see him rather than frightened.

"Daehler," he says, voice flat as he pries off one of his gauntlets and tosses it into Stiles's waiting hands. He'd been looking forward to some quiet rest after going so hard at it with his troops today, but clearly sleep is far from impending.

"My Lord," Daehler says, eyes intent on his. "I've spoken with McCall. He is remaining on watch so that I could speak with you. We think it best the Lady not be left without one of us guarding her."

"Agreed," Derek says as he passes off his second glove.

"Certain things are soon to be set in motion," he says, pausing to look over at Stiles. He turns his eyes back to Derek, licking his lips in hesitation, holding back further words.

"He is trusted. Speak freely, but do it quickly and quietly."

Matt purses his lips in acceptance of the order, shifting closer on his borrowed chair. "Her life is once more in our hands, My Lord. Without our intervention, she'll be put to death soon. I'm afraid we don't have much time. Lord Peter has already ordered the deployment of two platoons in preparation. He's begun selecting soldiers to take for the execution, myself included."

Derek nods his understanding, sighing a tight breath as he unbuckles his sword belt. Then they have close knowledge of Peter's activity. It's more than he can often be confident of himself. A scout is a valuable person to have on one's side in many situations. He wishes Lydia were here.

"A problem that must be acted upon, that is undeniable."

"There must be some way to prevent this," Matt says flatly. "This woman must not be… wasted so."

He shakes his head, settling himself into his chair to think. Stiles brings him the waterskin without being asked, and Derek takes it with a grateful nod.

Technically, killing Peter would solve the immediate problem. But as much as his Uncle infuriates him, he can't think he deserves such drastic action. And even if he did, there's a significantly greater chance that his allies, such as they are, would fail him. The surrounding army is Peter's, not his. Allison would be no safer in their hands once they'd run Derek through for treason.

And she wouldn't be the only one. He can't help glancing at Stiles reflexively, who's watching him with a grim expression.

"I cannot convince my Uncle to spare her. She must be returned home," he says softly. "And we must get across the border and turn her over safely without getting captured ourselves. I have no doubt my Uncle would delight in hearing that I am a prisoner. With his wit it would serve nearly the same purpose as executing her."

"Undoubtedly. But it will be no small matter to take her. To get her the distance undetected. How do we do this?" Matt asks, folding his thumbs against his mouth as he thinks.

Derek stares at the map pockmarked with locations of Peter's scouts and forward teams and updated suggestions of enemy forces. If he knew Laura were close. If Lydia were still here, perhaps. Perhaps he could… but they are not here. No one is here that he trusts.

"My soldiers are nearer there," he says, staring at the furled map on his table. "There are those among them whom I trust as no other. They could get her home."

Matt's eyes grow dark with the intensity this idea sparks. He pores over the maps, tracing their routes with his fingers. "There's no time to get a message to them, if they even trusted it."

And they likely would not. Not without him being present. And perhaps this is the very reason they've been sent away, so that Peter's plans will go unchallenged. He shakes his head, frustrated. It's madness, to operate as though he is sure that the Lord General is the traitor, but he has no other option.

"We'll have to do it ourselves," Matt concludes grimly. "There's no time to get outsiders to rescue her. We have to break her out."

"Without getting noticed?" Derek says, skeptical.

Matt grimaces, but shrugs. "We'll be careful. We know the patrols."

But Derek shakes his head.

"Even if we get away, what then? What of our sudden absence? How do we explain that in a way that doesn't end up with riders on our tails and bounties for treason on our heads? On the heads of those close to us?"

Matt looks at him with something not unlike confusion, like he doesn't understand why such things would be a problem. But his brows furrow as he nods slowly. "I suppose that is a concern."

But he's right, Derek realizes grimly; it's not one that can be a necessity. The needs of the many outweigh their own.

Still, it is as a last resort that he would openly defy his Uncle here. Not only would it make things more difficult in getting Allison home, it would possibly even give his Uncle some new edge to wrangle to his own benefit.

Derek sits back, putting his mouth against his palm as he thinks. He still doesn't trust Daehler, or McCall completely. No matter how well either has sought to integrate himself into Derek's inner circle. His eyes wander Stiles's way after a moment. Stiles is still kneeling near the center of the tent, and his brows are furrowed in thought right along with them. He notices Derek's regard after a second, eyes flicking up to meet his. But he shakes his head, face apologetic.

Suddenly it all seems ridiculous. He's never yet truly bested his Uncle and his games, not even on the simplest of matters, and here he is conspiring with some of Peter's lieutenants. He needs time to think. Alone.

"Then we've little yet," Derek says firmly. "And you've lingered here too long. Go. Think. We'll speak again tomorrow."

With that dismissal he gets to his feet and moves to the back of the tent. He pauses a moment to give Daehler a chance to leave, then moves to search his trunk. As he has at troubling times in the past, he intends to dig out his letters from his family. He feels the absence of his sister and his mother more pointedly now than ever. They've a much better head for these far-reaching things.

When he turns from his trunk, letters in hand, the tent is empty again save Stiles who is staring at the tent-flap with a frown. But as Derek moves to approach the piled furs, his activity draws Stiles's attention again.

"What's that?" Stiles asks, rubbing quick palms over his arms as though chilled, eyes on the stacks of folded parchment and paper in Derek's hands. He stands and approaches with brows raised in curiosity, though his fingers reach for the clasps on Derek's light armor, setting about freeing him from the forgotten confines.

His first instinct is to deflect the question, to keep them private. But Stiles is different. He's grown trusted - certainly more trustworthy than anyone else remaining here at the main camp. In some ways, the two of them are alone here.

"Letters," he says, gazing down at the small bundle. "From those wiser than I about such matters." It seems so small in his hands. Too small to hang much hope upon. But he has little else at his disposal now. Perhaps they'll provide him comfort as well as possible solutions. Some small tidbit that had seemed insignificant at first reading may prove essential now when he's trying to consider the whole world stage.

Stiles sighs as he leans in to work the last buckle, the warmth of his breath brushing through the hair at Derek's temple.

"You're going to do it. Save this Lady," Stiles says quietly as he lifts away the breast-pieces of Derek's armor.

"Yes," Derek replies, frowning. "It must be done."

"Scott was right then," Stiles murmurs as he takes the armor over to the trunks. But instead of putting it away, he frowns and carries it over towards the center pole of the tent. "You'll need to pack," Stiles says as he nods slowly, setting the armor down and returning for the other piece.

"I think you're right to trust Scott," Stiles says. He hesitates over the padded under-tunic a moment, smoothing slow fingers along the material. "But I…" Stiles trails off, frowning to himself and turning to resume stowing Derek's gear instead of speaking.

"What?" Derek asks, drawing his eyebrows up as he squints at him.

"Daehler," Stiles murmurs, eyes narrowing on the tent-flap like the lieutenant is somehow outside the wall. "Do you really need him? Do you trust him?"

Derek pries off one of his boots as he considers his answer. He kicks them across the tent to where the rest of his gear is being piled and says, "To a point. No less than Scott."

Stiles grimaces. "I don't. There's something in his eyes, it's just not right. Not like Scott."

A bitter sensation itches at the back of his throat then, an unfamiliar one.

"Is that so?" Derek says quietly, staring at the worn papers in his hands, bending under the pressure of his fingers.

"He's…" Stiles hesitates over the sentence and picks up one of the saddle-bags, carrying it over to the trunks where he begins setting out things to be packed. "He lurks in the shadows. Scott doesn't like him either. He says Matt never talks to people. He never smiles, just stares. There's a darkness in him. An ugliness."

"He's a soldier. We hunt, we kill," Derek says harshly, jerking the string tying the letters in a bundle and loosing the knot. "This is a war camp, in case you've forgotten. Not all of us smile and play Kambatkan."

"No," Stiles says quietly. "I've not forgotten."

When Derek looks up, Stiles is studying him with those golden eyes, looking at him like he can see straight into him. Derek can feel the scars on his face pull tight when his frown deepens, feel the low, ever-present ache in his thigh. Instead of continuing the bitter line of thought, he unfolds the letter on the top of the stack. The Queen's last personal message to him as he took on this role. It seems so far away now.

Familiar words jump out at him. The words of approval of his leadership service, of taking a mother's pride as well as a monarch's in Derek's dedication to his troops and the nation. Praise for his efforts at keeping a cool head and making difficult decisions that cost the least to the greater good. Warnings against slipping into dehumanizing their opponents, into closing his mind to their culture. All of it is general and remains wise regardless of the details of the situation, but it does at least help to solidify the certainty in his chest that the time for difficult action is close upon him.

"Let me come then," Stiles says, taking a surprising turn. "It won't matter then if you don't believe me, I'll watch your back."

"No," Derek says reflexively, fingers frozen in the midst of folding open the next letter from Laura. Given the nature of current events the potential for Stiles to come into harm's way is and always has been something of a certainty, and yet… The thought of Stiles out there, in with the death and the destruction of the rest of Derek's life. Out there where he is nothing but scarred leather and twisted metal and blood…

"Why not?" Stiles asks, chin going up defiantly, arms crossing across his chest. "I could help. I help you."

Derek sighs heavily, frustrated. He should have known better than to think he could concentrate on reading with Stiles here. Besides, the candles are already low and he aches enough for ten men after the long day. He folds the letter closed and ties the string back around it in a simple knot.

"You'd be a liability out there," he says, pushing to his feet and carrying the letters back to where they belong. He gestures with the bundle pointedly. "If I'm distracted, trying to protect both of us will get us killed."

"I can protect myself," Stiles insists, foolishly, following him across the tent. "And I'm a good rider, you know I am. Let me help."

"No."

"Derek."

"Acathee's blood, this is war. I am a soldier. What help could a slave offer me?" Derek snaps, rounding on him. "I've made my decision. Accept it."

The words have more than their desired effect. Instead of merely rebuffed, Stiles goes completely still, eyes staring hard at Derek for a long moment before they're lowered fractionally to a subservient level. Stiles steps back, posture going into that of a practiced slave.

"Yes My Lord," he says, voice oddly flat.

The sound of the honorific instead of his name is jarring. Stiles kneels stiffly in the dirt beside their bed.

Their bed.

"Stiles," he says.

"Yes My Lord?" he repeats, body stiff and eyes unseeing and fixed on the horizon. Anyone else might see neutrality in Stiles's face. Derek sees the stubbornness. The anger.

It's infuriating. Derek glares at him and goes back to his trunk. He grabs a saddle-sack and begins packing it with rough motions. Tired though he may be, he has things he must accomplish. It's not as though he needs Stiles to pack his bags for him. He's not going to let Stiles derail him in his pique over Derek's decision to keep Stiles out of the way of enemy soldiers. If Stiles is to stay safe, he needs him to stay here.

He'd been foolish, selfish to keep Stiles with him instead of sending him along with Erica to work in the relative safety of his own soldiers. Now it's too late to do anything different. Even freeing him would be dangerous. Papers alone would be less than nothing to send him out with, and whatever wealth Derek has is certainly not kept here. No, he is safest here, amid the other slaves and servants.

It doesn't take long till he has his bedroll and Camaro's tack laid out near the tent flap along with his saddle-bags. He blows out the candles save the one closest to the bed where Stiles is kneeling, casting them into darkness and an amber light that clings to every edge and curve of Stiles's person.

Derek continues to ignore him and strips out of his remaining clothing instead before moving over to the furs to lie down, more than ready to put the argument behind him in order to sleep and rest up for the coming mission.

But Stiles doesn't join him. He stays right where he is, not moving. Derek tries to ignore him, to keep to his silence rather than cater to Stiles's stubbornness, but before long he realizes that isn't going to happen while Stiles is still angry. And there's nothing to be gained by holding onto his own pride.

"Stiles, come to bed," Derek concedes tiredly.

Stiles responds, but he clearly isn't done making his point. He strips out of his tunic and unfastens his loincloth with stiff motions, then crawls onto the furs beside him.

"How may I serve My Lord?" he asks, face and voice empty.

"Stiles," Derek chides.

Stiles ignores the warning and places himself at Derek's hip. His voice has a hollow seductive edge as he asks, "Shall I retrieve the oil or would you rather I suck your cock?"

Derek grimaces and scrubs a palm over his face, taking a slow, grounding breath. "Stop this."

"Stop what, My Lord? How shall I obey before you depart and I can serve you no more?" Stiles replies, feigning innocence. "Or did you desire my absence immediately?"

"Do you think I want you anywhere but by my side?"

Stiles's lips purse into a thin line as words tangle up and trip among each other. Derek can see them behind his face; angry ones and passive-aggressive ones, words of hurt and words of defiance. Words he's smart enough not to say.

Derek finds himself missing the times when Stiles wouldn't have let himself hold those things back. But they're past that point. It also means the words are up to him now, and he can't blame anyone but himself for that. He sits back up in the bed and gathers his thoughts. They're not easy to turn into speech.

"I have no desire to part from you," he says, because that much he is certain of.

Stiles's jaw tightens but he doesn't respond.

But keeping Stiles away from the warfront isn't his only concern. "It is not simple," he says, studying Stiles's rigid profile. "I have been cut-off from my resources. Though I'd write the papers now if I thought I could free you from this… even that would sever any chance we have of remaining free men."

That at least gets a flicker of a response, Stiles's eyelashes trembling though he halts his gaze from actually slipping over to meet Derek's.

"I don't understand, My Lord," Stiles finally says, voice low and stiff.

And perhaps he hasn't thought this through himself. He presses a thumb into the meat of his thigh where the muscle aches faintly. "Even if I had a horse for you or even set you free on your own, your concurrent absence would surely alert my uncle to the true nature of our actions. Whatever this plan becomes, part of this will rely on you, on your ability to stay here inconspicuously and keep Peter's suspicions at bay if he comes looking for you."

"That's a lot to expect of some slave," Stiles says, voice low and cutting as he stares at the tent wall, fingers curling into fists on his thighs.

Derek heaves a tight breath through his nose. "Perhaps it is. We both know you're more than that."

Stiles takes a slow breath, then shifts his eyes over to Derek, slowly and intentionally abandoning his subservient lowering of the eyes.

"Do we, My Lord?" he asks, the title emphasized crisply.

Ah. The sudden uncharacteristic and defiant subservience makes sense now. He hadn't just been angry at Derek's decision but also with his reminder of their roles, here where he asks Stiles to call him by name and gives him favors he'd give no one else. Derek had been so caught up in worrying about Stiles's safety…

"Stiles," Derek says as he reaches up and curls a hand around Stiles's cheek, holding his gaze as his thumb strokes along Stiles's cheekbone. "Of that I have no doubts."

Stiles glares at the furs, though he doesn't pull away. He leans in to Derek's touch just a little, and Derek leans closer, catching his eyes again. Those beautiful, golden, wounded eyes.

He'd maligned Stiles, in his anger. He'd made him less than he is. Than he's become. It feels like he should say something more, like he should apologize. But Lord Derek Hale, cavalry soldier, is never to take back words. Never to apologize to those below him in standing. He shouldn't allow Stiles such leeway. Stiles is a slave. It would be better for both of them if those roles were not forgotten.

At least, that's what his tutors have taught him.

And yet Derek has never felt so at peace than when he had lain in bed eating fruits with Stiles. He had never known how cold his bedroll was until Stiles was there to warm it. He would probably be dead now, if it weren't for Stiles. And he certainly has never before felt the deep desire to kiss someone like he does Stiles.

"I'm not used to this," he admits softly. "I am in uncharted territory when it comes to you."

Stiles gazes at him for a long moment, and by slow increments his defiance starts to fade. Stiles's hand comes up to cover his and then slide up his arm to glide down Derek's side and settle on his hip as he moves closer. Derek wraps an arm around him, dragging him bodily up against him and laying them both back into the furs.

He kisses Stiles then, slow and firm, seeking his depth and warmth. Stiles eventually melts against him, kissing back with a simplicity that is relieving. No artifice, no attention to form in the arts of sex. Just him, just kissing him back with just as much need. He lingers on these kisses, something he has almost never done before, not really. But now it feels right. It feels like the words he cannot figure out how to say, the worries he has no way to explain.

When Stiles moves against him, it's easy to lose himself in the sensations, to let his body respond to the warmth of his touch. He's tempted to let it all fade away under Stiles's familiar touch, to let all his emotions collide into something practiced, but when he rolls them over in the bed, presses Stiles down beneath him in the furs and feels Stiles spread his legs for him, it gives him pause.

It's his right, it is even expected of him to take of Stiles the way he has been. It doesn't feel like enough anymore. When he lifts his head, Stiles blinks up at him in the darkness, his face slowly starting to wrinkle in confusion the longer he waits.

Derek sits back on his heels, runs his hands slowly down Stiles's sides, settles them on his thighs. Stiles pushes up onto his elbows, frowning down at Derek, but he doesn't speak. He waits for Derek's actions.

He looks so bare, so vulnerable spread out beneath him. Derek knows that Stiles is not a weak man, he must be anything but to have lived the life he's lived and make it where he is. But his precarious position has never been so clear as it is now, and it's Derek who's put him there.

Derek frowns, looking down at the thickened shaft laying against Stiles's belly. He reaches out to touch him there, but pauses, knuckles brushing only gently against him.

"What," he says, then pauses to clear his throat. "What would you like of me?"

Stiles licks his lips reflexively. "What do you mean m- Derek?"

Derek looks up at him, then back down at his body. "I've not… I've taken what I want of you before, and I've tried to… but I've not asked…"

Comprehension dawns over Stiles's face, then is quickly shuttered. "I want whatever pleases you," he says, smiling softly.

There's a thread of truth to it, certainly, in the warmth of his features and the tone of his voice. But it's not what Derek had hoped for. Of course, Stiles has little reason to risk candor right now. The unsaid 'My Lord' is nigh audible on his words.

Derek nods slowly to himself, touching Stiles's thigh in soothing little strokes. Stiles is aroused, that much is obvious. And there have been times among their past joinings that he's been certain Stiles had enjoyed having Derek inside him, but… there's only one memory that stands out among the others.

"Then it pleases me to please you tonight," he says.

He slides back further in the furs, settling himself down between Stiles's legs and lowering his face to press into Stiles's smooth skin. He drags his nose along the crease of his hip, then wets his lips against the side of Stiles's cock.

"Oh," Stiles says softly. But he doesn't protest in the slightest and there's a darkening to his gaze as he watches Derek move.

To his not-so-great surprise, Derek enjoys getting to put his tongue to Stiles again, to taste him, tart and warm. It's still a strange act, something that feels vaguely inappropriate as he licks saliva slowly over his length. But it is a pleasure to watch Stiles's golden body slowly begin to twist.

When he's slickened him up, he opens his mouth wider to spread it over Stiles's cock, stretching his tongue to swallow him down. This time he anticipates the reflexive tightening of his throat. As Stiles's breathing quickens, Derek works to convince his body to relax his throat while tightening his lips over Stiles's heated skin.

Slowly Stiles stops being entirely passive in it. His hand lifts to brush against the side of Derek's face, then slip up into his hair. It's nice, being touched like that, and Derek hums in appreciation. When Stiles's breath sucks in, Derek repeats the sound, remembering how a similar sensation had felt the last time Stiles had done it to him. He presses deeper, swallows more as best he can manage.

It's a heady thing, listening to him moan… the sounds he makes are soft, heady little things, muffled against the furs.
While Derek strikes up a steady rhythm of sucking and the fingers in his hair flex and scrape at his scalp intermittently but don't interfere with his efforts. Stiles is too busy groaning and trying to keep his hips still.

Derek finds that he appreciates it since he'd surely lose his rhythm were Stiles to thrust, though he hopes someday to not need such gentle handling, because having Stiles writhing like this, completely lost to his passion… it's beautiful. A soft, heavy realization settles into his chest as he lifts his head. He wants to do this again, not just a time or two, but again and again until he's good at it. And perhaps… perhaps even other things. Until he can do for Stiles at least a fraction of what Stiles does for him. He wants Stiles to want to be with him, even after this war and his period of servitude are at an end.

He renews his efforts and he can feel Stiles's control start to fracture and he uses his hands to rub more firmly at the parts of Stiles's length he can't fit into his mouth. He presses his lips more tightly to the scarred line around the head of Stiles's cock, teases at the seam with his tongue as Stiles moans. Adding a little humming seems to do the trick, because Stiles's hips stiffen up and he tips his head back, body shaking as his fingers knot in Derek's hair.

The bitter, hot fluid of his orgasm spills into Derek's mouth, and though it's not the most pleasant taste, it's uniquely him. Several pulses come before Stiles is spent and Derek swallows back his excess, quite satisfied. When Derek lifts his head, Stiles pulls Derek up with insistent little tugs on his hair, for once demanding and seemingly selfish as he guides Derek's mouth to his. This time the kiss is slow and languid. He takes his time with it, tasting himself on Derek's tongue.

Derek's cock is hard where it brushes against Stiles's softer, spit-slick groin, but he does not press himself against him. Instead he shifts to the side, curling his arm around under Stiles's neck, leaving their faces close but his lower-body free to touch with his hand alone.

He pauses only to spit into his palm, then he sets about stroking his own cock, fast and rough. No need for teasing, he's already so hard, so pleased with his pleasing Stiles. And this time Stiles doesn't scramble to help, to take over his ministrations. He simply lies back and watches, his hands almost idle against Derek's body.

It doesn't take long to get there. He has the man in his arms for inspiration, his beautiful piercings and heavy gaze a feast for his senses. Being watched, being able to take care of Stiles and handle himself, it makes the sparking pleasure under his fingers come easily. Soon he spills himself over his fingers with a soft grunt, the excess just barely painting Stiles's belly. A discarded cloth makes quick work of cleanup and then he's dragging the furs over them and relaxing into Stiles's arms, pulling him close again.

And it feels different, somehow. It feels right.

Stiles stares at him for a long moment in the darkness, face unreadable. Then, slowly, he kisses him, lazy and messy, fingers curling into the hair on Derek's chest. He kisses him like it pleases him to do so, like he finally believes him.

"Good night, Derek," he whispers when he settles his head back, smiling faintly.

"Rest well, Stiles," he replies, holding him close.

 

 

Derek is startled awake at the sound of his name being called - and not for the first time.

"My Lord Derek, wake up," comes Matt's insistent voice from the entrance of his tent.

At least he's been wise enough not to startle either of them awake from up close. Stiles's hand slips back from the edge of the furs where Derek knows he keeps the dagger and he pushes away from him awkwardly, disentangling them as Derek sits up.

"What?" he demands, voice rough with sleep and the night's exertions.

"He's taken her. McCall's taken Lady Allison."

"What?" Derek snaps, throwing back the furs and searching about for a tunic in the dark.

Matt moves closer and says in a lower voice, "He's gone. He didn't listen when I told him what you'd said. It's…" He glances around significantly and doesn't say anything more that might be revealing. "I don't know when. Sometime last night. A guard found them gone and woke Lord Peter. He sent for me and I came to be the first to wake you. You and I are the only ones who- we have to go after her. If Lord Peter sends someone else…"

Then everything they have feared will come to pass.

"Yes, I understand. Go. Get ready," Derek says, yanking his tunic over his head. "Get me my leathers," he orders Stiles as Matt disappears out the tent opening.

Stiles hurries about the tent, gathering items so recently set-aside. Derek's boots are passed to him that he might put them on himself while Stiles readies his armor. Stiles's fingers are deft but his hands shake in between buckles. His face is drawn and his eyes glassy with the sudden awakening and the gravity of the situation.

Derek can only squeeze his shoulder as his sword-belt is cinched around his waist for him. Can only cup the side of Stiles's head for the merest moment before he must depart from their tent, ready to face whatever challenges this turn of events has wrought.
The camp as a whole is simmering, hot embers of activity lighting up throughout in isolated clusters, quiet half-alarms and pensive conversations spreading slow but inexorably out from the center of camp. Eyes follow his passage from the shadows, whispers trailing after him like the night wind that ripples through his hair.

He stops at the entrance of med tent where Allison is supposed to be under guard. The blood is convincing, splashed about the tent in lines and pools that speak to a struggle. The lone cot is overturned, the furs spilt out over the ground, the plate of food scattered alongside. There's a downed guard, laying sprawled on the ground beside the cot.

Peter is standing in the center of the tent, staring down at the man. His eyes are hard, alight with anger.

"What's happened? Where's McCall?" Derek demands, allowing his irritation to show through.

"Gone," Peter says in a strangely light voice. It's almost airy as he digs the toe of his boot in against the unconscious guard's ribs and says, "Absconded."

The man on the ground starts to stir, sucking in a sharp breath and rolling awkwardly onto his back. His hands flutter towards his belly as he groans, legs flexing like he's in pain. He murmurs something, but the sounds slur together, the words making no sense.

"Drugged," comes the scornful murmur from the Lord General.

Peter grunts, lip curled into a snarl as he lifts one boot and presses it down beneath the man's chin. The man gurgles as the pressure on his neck increases, eyes flying open in distress as his hands bat ineffectually at the foot crushing his throat. He chokes, heels kicking and scraping at the dirt, eyes rolling wildly.

The tent flap rustles as Matt ducks in after Derek, though he goes quietly still at the tableau which greets him. He takes it in quickly, eyes calm and detached. After a moment, he carefully glances Derek's way, but remains silent.

Derek sets his jaw, watching as the guard's hand stretches out toward him, a plea for sympathy. Dare he interfere and risk turning Peter's ire his way? The safety of the nation, of his people is too important, even at the cost of one innocent life. Yet it could be too much to silently capitulate, to arouse Peter's suspicions by inaction. Perhaps Peter is too far gone to be predictable in any way.

The tent is silent but for the slow creak of leather and the wheezing intermittent gasps of the incoherent guard.

"Uncle," he says finally, allowing his disapproval to show.

Peter's gaze snaps his way, then back to the man whose life he's crushing. He blinks as though surprised, and slowly shifts his weight back, lifting his foot back to the ground. The guard struggles to roll away, to get to his side and then knees. Peter's face pulls in contempt and he shoves the guard away with his boot, sending the man sprawling onto his belly as he coughs for breath.

"I want her back," Peter says. "And I want McCall dead."

It's as good an opening as he's going to get.

"We'll go," Derek says sharply, nodding at Matt.

Peter turns cold eyes on him, blue and sharp and penetrating.

"Will you?" he says softly.

Derek huffs an impatient breath through his nose. "Daehler's your best tracker and you know I'll get it done. I've no loyalty to Scott. There's no one else that you can be sure of right now, and we're wasting time talking about this."

Peter's eyes narrow as he studies Derek's face, but Derek is impassive, his face a perfect mask of determination. No matter what else happens, he has to get Lady Allison back home safely, for the sake of his nation, his family - those not lying to him like Peter. This is no selfish, nerve-wracking treason. This is a necessary sacrifice. He will show no hint of subterfuge or fear.

"Go then. Go!" Peter says, gesturing sharply at them and turning away to glare at the empty bed.

Derek nods and turns, striding away through the aisles of the incongruously quiet camp. Aside from a few choice characters and the night watch the alarm has been kept quiet, smothered, and the fires are staying low. The light of the moon is all that shows him his path back to his tent. It is enough. Matt slips away into the shadows, leaving Derek alone for the tense walk back.

And he is alone. The rest of his family is so far, his soldiers and friends too. But Stiles is waiting there for him at the end of the line, Camaro's reins in hand as the mare stamps impatiently at the ground, ears flicking around in anticipation or response to their tension. Her saddle-bags are clearly packed, though not overburdened, and Stiles has his cloak in hand.

Derek takes it from him, drawing it about his shoulders as he mentally checks over his gear. It's enough. It'll have to do. Stiles will have done enough. He'll have to trust that because he's the only one he can trust.

Stiles.

He curls a hand around Stiles's shoulder, pulling him close as he takes the reins from him. He presses his forehead against Stiles's, breathing in the scent of him, stealing one last moment with him.

"Stay out of sight. Stay safe."

"I will," Stiles says quietly and firmly.

"This isn't what I wanted."

"I know," Stiles assures him, lifting his head and looking him in the eye. "I understand. I'll do my part."

Derek sighs, then lets him go and loops the reins over Camaro's neck. He grips the saddle and steadies his sword with his free hand as he mounts and Camaro shifts under him, head high as she shuffles impatiently.

But Stiles doesn't step back. He steps in, reaching up to grab the hand that Derek extends down to him.

"Pajatal's run be with you," he says, invoking the northern deity as he grips Derek's hand, squeezing tight as he looks up at him. The faint light makes his face look sharp, haunted, shadows masking most of his features. But his eyes reflect the moon's light as they gaze up at him, capture him for one final moment of intimacy.

Then he's letting go and turning away and Camaro's pulling at the bit and it's time. With a kick of his heels, Camaro leaps into action, galloping down the long stretch past Greenberg's old platoon. The Sergeant is just stumbling from his tent as she rips past, and he spins, stumbles as he shouts in confusion.

Pajatal's run indeed.

Chapter Text

They ride hard through the remainder of the night and into the dawn. At first it is all a focused rush, giving their horses their heads, letting them run as much as they please in trying to catch up. The horses are naturally unaware of the problems at stake, though they might sense some tension from their riders. Still, for a while, it is nothing but a wonderful morning run to them.

But they do not have the good fortune to come upon their quarry in those early hours, nor further into the day when they are forced to slow their pace in order to manage the more difficult terrain of the denser forests. The slowed pace does make it easier to spot signs of their passing, and Daehler is a skilled tracker. He rides ahead in places, searching for signs of recent passage, then falls back to point them out to Derek.

"There, I think that is a false trail," Matt interrupts the silence to point out once. "Deliberately misleading."

Derek squints at the signs, sees the heaviness in the hoofmarks that indicates they've been tread backwards for those who know what to look for. And in a patch of mud so obvious.

"I think you're right," he says, turning to look at the other possible routes. "But how can we be confident that it is our quarry and not some other rider who wishes to remain hidden?"

Daehler doesn't answer, because the question is mostly rhetorical.

Derek frowns at the bruised foliage that's on a more westerly direction, then nudges Camaro along after it. "Did McCall say nothing to you of his plans? Give any hints of his intent?"

Daehler follows him, brows drawn down as he considers. His long-necked horse ignores Camaro's ill-tempered snap of teeth when he draws too close, head low and eyes hollowed the way some trainers prefer them. Hard-broken, then. Obedient to a fault. The look Daehler turns his way feels equally as soulless.

"He only spoke of her. His obsession with her is perhaps greater than I understood. I merely thought it to be his typical foolishness, charming people with that veneer of sweetness. Now, however, I wonder if perhaps…"

Derek arches a grim eyebrow at him.

"Perhaps he has taken her for himself," Daehler finishes, casting a dark look at the forest ahead of them.

It doesn't ring true, but it is a possibility he must consider. Just because Stiles had been charmed by a game of Kambatkan didn't mean that Scott is any less capable of subterfuge. After all, he is one of Peter's men.

"Look, there," Daehler says, pointing out a fresh bit of horse manure below some brush. Then he's spurring his horse onwards down the little fen trail that wriggles through the trees and they're hard on the trail of their quarry once more.

Camaro is not overly fond of the dense foliage, and she does not provide him an easy seat when she shoulders her way through the brush or decides to leap over downed trees rather than go around them. It is after one such unexpected leap that Derek clutches at the saddle to steady himself and his fingers close on a small cloth bag tied to his pommel. It is not of his own doing and he frowns down at it. The pressure of his fingers has released a waft of scent and he brings his fingers up to his nose to draw of it more deeply. It smells of pajarrow, and other things that he knows no name for but is intimately familiar with their scent.

Stiles. A horseman's blessing, perhaps.

He hopes so. Camaro might be a skilled warhorse, but forest terrain is unforgiving to even the most adept. They ride as hard as they can, but it's still frustratingly slow, trying to find the deer trails that go the north-westerly direction they need.

Scott's a good soldier, and Lady Allison is formidable enough that if they're wise, they might not even stop to rest, keeping themselves ahead of their pursuers, not knowing that Derek and Matt at least are there to help them.

The signs of their trails dwindle to almost nothing, perhaps as their quarry had slowed enough to take more care not to leave signs of their passing. Soon there's little sign of them at all, and yet they haven't any time to backtrack more carefully. Knowing their general direction, assuming Scott is still operating under the goal of returning Allison to safety, will be their primary guide now. But it is worrisome. The further they get, the more likely they're going off course, too. As the sun slips past the peak of mid-day, Derek draws rein to slow them to an easy walk as he takes out his water skin for a sip.

Matt's been riding at a fair distance, not crowding him but not losing sight, and he draws nearer now, eyebrows drawing up in question.

"I think it's time we split up," Derek says, gesturing with the blades of his hands in two directions, one northerly and one to the west. "Twice the chance at the help that one of us might offer is of more use than the smaller chance that both of us will find them together."

Matt eyes him a moment, then nods silently and nudges his horse's head to the side, peeling off from their shared trajectory and heading out to the west. He says nothing, merely fades away into the foliage without hesitation.

Derek appreciates the efficiency. The lack of excess planning and discussion. The details are less important than getting to their goal right now.

He takes one last sip of water, then nudges Camaro with his heels and continues on.

 

It's a few hours later that he finds them, catching the barest glimpse of Scott's chestnut and the more visible, less war-worthy pale grey of the horse stolen for Lady Allison.

He spurs Camaro on, sending her charging through the brush more noisily, readily revealing his presence. Soon the noise carries forward enough that he sees them change course. But instead of running, they draw rein, spinning to face him as he approaches. The Lady unslings a crossbow from her saddle, lifting it to aim at the path they've just traversed.

"We are on the Queen's business. Take heed this warning, we will protect ourselves from any threat," Scott shouts at him through the shadowed trees, brandishing his sword menacingly.

"McCall," Derek calls, riding forward into the light. "I come in aid."

"My Lord?" Scott says, astonished. The sword is lowered, then slowly the crossbow too.

"I am alone," Derek informs him. "Daehler is searching west of here. He'll likely converge with us as we approach my soldiers in a day or so. There may be others in the woods, but they're likely far behind."

"Oh Khotol's climb, that is good news," Scott says, heaving a relieved sigh as he sheathes his sword. He casts a brilliant grin over at Lady Allison, who hesitates a moment before sliding her crossbow back over her shoulder.

Camaro stamps at the ground, sidling a little towards the other horses, flicking her ears back in a show of dominance and tension from being held back by a tight rein. Lady Allison's stolen horse shifts nervously, the whites of its eyes showing as it tosses its head a bit. Lady Allison frowns and tries to correct the mount, but while she is comfortable in the saddle, she's no northerner. Derek forces himself to relax, knowing his own tension is being communicated through his body. He turns her head enough to move past them, continuing westward.

"Let us make haste then, before we lose the remaining light."

Scott turns his horse and nudges her onward once more. "We are glad indeed to have you at our side. We may yet succeed."

Derek doesn't comment. Batto's whims are upon them now. They can only hope that their boldness will be rewarded rather than prove to be folly.

"I wasn't expecting you," Scott admits. "I thought we might have had to do this alone."

"What in Khotol's book possessed you?" Derek says sharply, letting out some of his pent-up frustration. "We weren't ready. We could have formed a plan."

"I - there wasn't time," Scott says, frowning at him in frustration. "When Matt said we had nothing prepared and there wasn't time… I had to try. I thought, maybe Isaac would… I had to try."

He has something of a point. Though Derek had had confidence that they could have come up with some possible plans, the truth from Scott's perspective had been that a man he barely knew and barely trusted hadn't yet provided a plan. There was no denying that the situation had been urgent. But he is all too painfully aware of the risks beyond the scope of what Scott may have considered.

"You can never go back now," Derek says, because he has no idea if Scott's thought this through at all.

"I know that," Scott says, setting his jaw.

"Lord Peter was not fooled by your misdirections, such as they were. He spoke of you by name. If you've family, they're going to be-"

"I know that," Scott interrupts, turning his face away. "I know. But my mother is the only one I have left. And she'd… if she knew that I had to make this choice, if I had to choose between protecting Lady Allison and the whole of our nations… or her."

Derek frowns and nods. He doesn't offer to help her, to try and look her up or offer some sort of protection. He's not even sure if he's going to survive this war long enough to get back to Stiles, let alone get to someone back East. He won't make a promise he can't keep.

But time is inexorable and there's no point dwelling on what's past. He presses his fingers into the sachet on his pommel, bringing the scent on his fingertips up to his nose for a brief moment, then he turns his mind to the future.

"I cannot fault your tenacity. All else aside, she must be returned safely. Boyd's troops are the closest, so it's as well that I'm with you. He'd have likely detained you both."

Scott laughs faintly. "I'm sure of it. That's why I was going to try and avoid him and go straight for Isaac or the border."

Derek arches an eyebrow but doesn't comment on the question of Isaac's sympathies. He's not entirely sure himself of what the outcome might have been; Isaac's always been a soft touch for a pretty face.

"Boyd's forces will provide us the cover we need most right now. The extra soldiers we can pick up will hopefully ensure we get the rest of the way to the border."

Scott nods in agreement, and when Derek offers him no other discourse, he slips back to ride beside the Lady Allison. Her stolen mount is of much lesser quality and training, already showing signs of exhaustion. Though Camaro could forge ahead much faster, he dare not leave them without his protection even to try and find Boyd's troops for an escort. Instead he settles for picking through the brush and finding the best paths that will make the weaker horses' passage easier.

If it weren't for the weight of their mission, it would be almost a pleasant trip to be taking. The fen and hier trails they're following are narrow in most places and the low-hanging tree branches annoying to navigate, but the sun's fading light casts an amber glow over the greenery and the soft sounds of the birds and small animals in the woods make for a pleasant background.

The sound of running water grows louder as they ride, till the trees break in a small meadow to reveal a widened strip of creek where two draws meet up. It's the first active water he's seen in a long while. That, combined with the sweaty sheen to Allison's horse's coat has him slowing and turning to face the others.

"We should camp near here," Derek says. They can make do with bland dried food, but a good source of water will prove invaluable.

Scott nudges his mount across the creek, fording the water easily and splashing ashore on the other side. Derek watches as Lady Allison fords after him more cautiously, hands tight on the reins as her uninspiring mount dances uncomfortably in the water. Scott waits till she makes it to the other side of the water, then disappears into the trees a ways. He doesn't have to be told the little meadow they're in now is good for crossing the waters, but less ideal for camping. It's too visible a location to anyone near the water.

Derek follows after to join the lady with significantly less difficulty. Camaro is not only better-trained, but also of taller stature. She remains only mid-leg deep in the water, whereas the smaller horse's belly is now dripping. Derek makes a mental note to check on the stolen horse's equipment in the morning lest the poor beast develop a saddle-sore.

When he looks up, he finds the Lady regarding him silently, her face generally empty of any particular expression, though determination remains a consistent underpinning. Weariness is also making itself known around her eyes.

He has not had a moment to speak to her alone till now, two children of their respective thrones. As earnest as Scott is, he is merely a soldier. He has no real context for understanding who Lady Allison is, who she will become and the complexities of their political relationships.

Allison and himself will surely meet again as players on the political stage, assuming they survive the war and peace is restored between their nations. She may even yet become the heir to the throne. It is his duty to forge a connection, to present to her the truths of his mother's leadership, their culture and goals. And yet his mind produces no suggestions for building a relationship on conversations, no political or social convention comes easily to him like it does his sisters. Instead he can only think of practical concerns.

It's a start, at least, he decides.

"Do you think they know of your absence yet?" he asks. "Your family?"

She considers the question a moment, then her face cracks with a grimace. "In a sense. There is an archery tournament I was supposed to attend perhaps a day ago instead of making a nuisance of myself at the border. That is where I was going when you took me."

Derek arches an eyebrow at her, encouraging further explanation. What little he knows of Argent society would suggest that such a deviation would be considered quite the issue.

"My absence will certainly be remarked upon, but it may not become cause for concern for a few days yet. I don't always show up where I'm supposed to," she says, faintly chagrinned. "Many of my family will likely assume it's another of my little rebellions."

He makes a small sound of understanding. "Let us hope the alarm is not sounded for a while, then. We've no need to give your people a genuine reason for starting this war."

Alison looks at him sharply, considering him for a long moment before she speaks. "And you do not consider our actions so far to be just?"

Derek laughs mirthlessly. "There is no honorable explanation for invading the sovereign territory of your neighbor. Whatever your code says. And to rebuff all attempts at diplomacy by killing or capturing all of our messengers? The Queen wants nothing but peace. I have heard such from her lips many times, so there can be no doubt."

Allison's chin just goes up in response, every bit the young leader. "Peace is a strong word for a neighbor who attacks our convoys and seizes cargo from trade routes that have existed for centuries. Who taxes their citizens to the point of starvation and sells into slavery any who are suspected to have family across our border. And it is you who have captured or killed all our messengers and rebuffed all attempts at diplomacy, not us. We have sent countless envoys."

Derek stares at her. Her face is closed and obstinate, but he sees the flickerings of doubt in her eyes. Hesitation.

"Mavet's feast, we'd never. Why would we attack tradespeople? Cause starvation? Unlawful slavery? Those things cannot be true…" But he pauses, feeling a heaviness settle in his chest as he considers more alternatives than simple true or false. "At least, I am certain that all of those things you have described are not at my mother's orders. Of that there can be no doubt. But I have not been so far west in a long time, I could not give a personal account. Have you?"

"I've been told these things by my family," she admits, dark brows curling down to furrow over dark eyes. "I also have not seen for myself."

"Either one or both of us are gravely misinformed…"

He trails off, shaking his head. Because he's been such a fool. There is little mystery here. Who other than his mad uncle himself? Peter's been the one to control the information he has received. But how much more is it than that? If the Argents have indeed been so provoked or deceived, his people so abused, it is more important than ever that they get Lady Allison home safely. But after that, it is perhaps time that Derek send messengers of his own back East to his mother and sister.

She sighs, closing her eyes a moment as she tips her head back. "I fear there are more forces at work here than we expected. Velek's fucking sword but this is a mess."

He grunts in dismal agreement.

A sharp whistle calls back through the clearing, signaling Scott's found a suitable spot for them to camp, so he turns to follow the sound. It's a good choice of location; shielded from the wind and any eyes by a thick ring of foliage. Close to the water and on a patch of mostly-level and mostly-dry ground.

Derek nods his approval and Scott swings down from his saddle, leaving his horse standing where she stopped as he tends to Lady Allison, handing her down from her horse. Since Derek has the distinction of being the only person capable of tending to Camaro, the two of them leave the horses in Derek's care and set about setting up the camp itself. They work together to gather wood for the fire, speaking quietly as they work unnecessarily close to each other.

Matt's suspicions have him watching the two closely. There certainly is an element of worshipfulness in the way Scott gazes at her. They're exceedingly comfortable in each other's presence, and Derek would be worried if it weren't for the apparent qualities of their characters. An infatuation could derail even the largest political plans, but between the both of them they seem to have enough dedication to their respective commitments to set aside even potent connections.

Still, it's something he'll have to keep an eye on as they approach the Argent borders. McCall has already proven reckless once.

There's little to be done for such a temporary camp, and soon their bedrolls are laid down and the fire is starting up with crackles for the damp wood, filling the small clearing with the scent of sweet smoke. It settles down quickly-enough though, and Derek stops debating whether he ought to demand that it be put out entirely lest it give away their position too readily.

As it turns out, it's a moot point. The damage has already been done.

Derek is just sitting down beside the fire when the sound of hoofbeats has him surging to his feet again, reaching for the sword at his belt and sliding it free.

"I only hear one," Scott calls to him as he stands, similarly ready and eyes searching the twilight beyond their camp.

Derek swivels to glance around the other side, in case a quieter assailant seeks to flank them. He gets a fistful of Camaro's mane in hand, ready to mount bareback if necessary. It's not ideal, but he'd much rather be on Camaro's back than on foot against a rider.

But the approaching horse slows from its noisy pace. The brush rustles more gently underfoot, then the foliage parts to reveal a single shadowy figure approaching. Though by their equipment the horse and rider are clearly not civilians, they've no weapon raised. Derek relaxes fractionally, lowering his sword to a more defensive angle as he strains to see who it is.

"My lord," a vaguely-familiar voice calls quietly, shadowed head bobbing deferentially before turning Scott's way. "McCall."

"Matt, what are you doing here? I thought you were west of us," Scott says, voice turning welcoming and somewhat confused. He sheathes his sword smoothly, stepping back closer to the fire.

Daehler rides closer to the clearing, the shadows falling away as the fire lights his approach. He dismounts smoothly and quietly, though his horse is breathing a little hard.

"Some scouts caught up to me as I traveled west. Lord Peter sent more after us than we thought," he says, glancing Derek's direction. "It's why I broke path to come find you my lord."

"Are there others following?" Derek says, frowning at the shadowy forest through which the scout had appeared.

"Yes and no. There are more searching, but I convinced the others to spread out, to continue alone. Said it'd be faster. They should be heading more southwest than this, though we should remain on guard. I did my best to mask all of our tracks as I rode through, but I can't be certain."

Scott approaches him and claps a hand on his shoulder.

"We're just settling in at camp. Rest a moment, I'll tend your horse."

Daehler looks at him speculatively for a moment, then smiles faintly as he turns and unhitches his saddle-bags from the back of his saddle. "I'm not so tired. I was slowed by the others, gave me some respite. But I did snag a wild fen. I'll get dinner started while you do that."

Derek sheathes his sword finally, letting go of Camaro again. He still doesn't trust the woods around them to be safe, now that at least one person has caught them up. It's true, Daehler's a fast rider, and others will be hard-pressed to find them coming so far north, but it still worries him.

Lady Allison seems discomfited by the scout's arrival as well. She busies herself away from the fire where Matt is silently skinning and gutting the small animal, though she does not seem bothered by the task itself. Still, she lingers on the edges of the camp, looking out and listening to the forest, harvesting familiar herbs and flowers and the like.

Derek remains on guard as the others tend to the camp needs. None of them speak to him, which feels noticeable now, and not just because he's grown used to Stiles's regular conversations. Isaac and even Boyd would speak to him when on mission like this, even if he contributed little more than grunts and snorts in return. Among his own troops he is always distinct, but he is also part of them, part of their structure. Here he is an outsider again. It will be good to see some of them again, even if the circumstances are unfortunate.

Daehler's catch adds some much-appreciated fresh meat to their evening meal. Matt makes a stew, which is the obvious choice given their current supplies and the nearby stream. What resources they had been able to snatch up upon their escape means food is limited to stale bread and dried beans and rice and fruits.

Eventually Daehler calls them all back to the fire, offering the luxury of a hot meal. Derek keeps an eye out while Lady Allison and Scott get their food, only taking his turn when Matt says that he'll take watch, having sampled the food while cooking enough to sate his hunger.

He sits down on the edge of his bedroll near the fire and scoops himself out a portion of the stew from the small pot. Between sips Allison is telling Scott a story from the lore of her people, a tale of Velek and Acathee that is rather different from the version Derek remembers growing up. It unsurprisingly seems to be emphasizing the honor of Velek's family above the individual moral choices of Acathee. A noteworthy point of difference between their two peoples, if he grasps the Lady's intentions in telling the tale.

Though Derek has always favored tales of Acathee from an eastern bent, the story is easily more interesting than the meal. The soup is over-spiced and faintly bitter. Nothing like what Stiles brings him. That thought turns his stomach as foolish worry crops up again in his chest. It's pointless, worrying about any of it, but he seems to be unable to ignore the thoughts. He prods at the soup with his bread, but it's unappealing now. He'll keep the bread for later, but he dumps the rest of his bowl into the fire and gets up to go rinse the bowl in the creek.

It's a welcome respite from the strangeness of his companions, going to crouch at the water's edge and listen to the sound of the burbling creek smooth out the noise in his mind. It's not as though he's new to this, to the fireside hauntings of war and all its trappings. Thoughts of impending problems, memories of past challenges and failures. He's spent many a night out under these stars, taking his turn at the watch and having nothing but his own thoughts for company. Perhaps worrying about Stiles is simply a challenge he must deal with now. Like any soldier who's left someone important behind, part of him will worry.

It is a novel sensation, to say the least.

It's also apparently more tiring than his other worries, too. He soon finds himself having gotten distracted by the clouds moving through the sky, eclipsing the stars and moon in slow passes. Blinking, he shakes his head and turns back towards the camp. Perhaps he should not have stayed up in bed with Stiles before leaving, though he can't really convince himself to regret it. But sleepiness has him glad that he can order someone else to take first watch tonight.

"I'm turning in," he announces as he arrives back at the camp. There are occasionally benefits of rank that even he will accept from time to time.

Lady Allison looks over at him with a faint smile and then looks down again and he's amused to follow her gaze and find Scott is already asleep on his bedroll.

"I'll take first watch," Daehler says quietly, drawing both of their gazes. Lady Allison offers him a stiff smile and turns away to draw her cloak more tightly around her shoulders. Daehler frowns, but then turns his eyes back Derek's direction as he assures, "I am feeling rested still."

Derek nods at him and he slips away again to melt into the shadows beyond the clearing; the better to keep watch from. Derek is appreciative of the pragmatism and although he doesn't like the unexpected change in plans, he can't pretend having a third soldier doesn't make things significantly easier.

Weariness pulls at him as he strips off his sword as he approaches his bedroll and settles it in its usual place before freeing himself of his more uncomfortable equipment. He leaves on the padded leather tunic and boots and leggings, since he's not in the protected confines of the army encampment, but knowing he has some protection under his companions means he can take a risk and sleep in more comfort.

Comfort is not something he expects in the field, but any scrap of it seems particularly compelling tonight. Sleep is weighing heavily on him, making his scars ache and the softness of the bedroll seem even more pleasant as he lays his head down finally. It seems like it is mere moments before-

 

-Camaro. It's…

Something. She's doing something. He can't…

Camaro. Whinnying. Stomping. She's upset. He can hear that, she's upset. He can't see, he tries…

"Come on you damn beast."

Something's wrong. He blinks his eyes. He thinks he blinks them? Nothing seems to change. His mouth feels stuffed with moss, his nose and lips tingling-numb. Can he breathe? He thinks… Yes. He can breathe. The air is crisp and cool. His hand. He can move it. Almost. If he rolls, he can…

There. Hard.

Cold. Metal.

He blinks. It works this time. He can see the dead fire, the faint glow of embers. It should be flames but it's just a dull glow. There's a shadow, motion beyond it. No, not a shadow. Camaro.

She whinnies. Yells. She dances, her lines whipping untethered as she evades her assailant.

"No," he says. He thinks he says. "Stop!"

There's another sound. An upset sound. Not a horse. He pushes himself up onto his side. Onto his knees. His sword braces him, gets his body up again so he can see.

Daehler. He drops something. An apple that rolls towards the fire as Camaro stomps at it.

"Stop!" Derek shouts again, waving his sword wildly in the air as he stumbles forward.

Daehler swears, turning and running away towards his own horse who's standing on the edge of the camp. He's got… Allison. Lady Allison is slung over her horse's back, limp and bound and half-covered by a blanket.

Daehler's mounting, he's running.

Derek's legs aren't working properly. His heart is beating too slowly to keep up. He's stumbling, limping after them, shouting something he's not even sure is words. Too quickly he's gone, out of sight and the sound of his escape lost in the whispering winds in the night. Derek spins, turning back to the camp. Scott's still on the ground, asleep - or worse? Derek's hesitation has him stumbling, falling to his knees beside the other soldier. He fumbles to touch him, to see if there's blood spilt.

No blood. Breathing. Not dead.

But Derek's not much better. The world spins when he tries to stand again, and gravity wins out against his shattered balance. He tumbles again, sprawling out beside the dead fire. His eyes aren't working right. He can't blink. He can't-

Chapter Text

His face is warm. It's the first thing he feels as he starts to regain consciousness. Hot and vaguely damp and smelling of horse.

That his stomach hurts is the next, and when he rolls reflexively over on his bedroll, nausea sweeps through him. His hand lands on something metal, warm, and he slowly blinks his eyes open.

Everything's blue, in the way the world is tinted when one spends too long looking up at the sky through closed pink eyelids. The dirt is periwinkle, the woods beyond dull navy. When he lifts his gaze again he sees Camaro hovering nearby, coat shining in shades of cobalt. She whuffles hot horse-breath at him, pawing impatiently at the dirt beside his bedroll.

A pained groan drifts over the clearing to him and when he turns his head his imperfect sight reveals his fellow sufferer to be Scott, currently curled over on one side.

Sitting up is an unsteady task, and he falls to his elbows for a few moments when his stomach rebels and his balance abandons him. He closes his eyes again to try and gather his focus, to take a few steady breaths before sitting the rest of the way up.

The unmistakable sound of retching greets him as he gets to his knees. His body takes its cue without his consent, sending him twisting over to empty his aching belly of whatever poisons linger there. It feels horrible, as such things always do, but the painful pressure begins to ease almost immediately. He spits to clear his mouth, blinking away reflexive tears as the blood rushes through his head.

The grass begins to look green again, and his legs feel steadier when he attempts to use them a second time. He spots the waterskin nearby and lifts it to drink to clear his mouth, but the gesture is interrupted by Scott's grunt.

"No, my," he pants. "Don't drink it. No telling…"

Of course.

Derek glares at the waterskin, disgusted with his own stupidity. Though Derek had probably scared him off early, Daehler's had access to any number of things while they were incapacitated. He pours the skin out and makes his way to the creek, setting his jaw against the ache in his head as he concentrates on the simple task of rinsing and refilling the pouch.

The cold, fresh water is a balm to his dry lips and his overheated face. He'd love to strip out of his sweaty gear and dip the whole of himself in the waters, but he has more important things to attend to.

First and foremost, the wellbeing of his remaining compatriot.

Scott is grateful when Derek brings him the water, babbling thanks between sips of the water. As Derek watches Scott swallow, he swipes a hand over his face, brushing aside clinging droplets of water that leave his eyes feeling clearer. Scott's head lolls to the side as he groans. He still seems less lucid than Derek feels. His memory of the previous evening is vague, but he has a sense Scott'd had more to eat than Derek.

Scott plucks at his sleeve feebly, blinking rapidly as he tries to clear his eyes and halfway sits up to try and look around the clearing.

"A-" Scott murmurs. "Alli?"

"Gone," Derek says. "Matt took her."

Scott groans as his head falls back to the bedroll.

Camaro nickers at him again and he looks her direction. She's got one of the halter lines tangled dangerously around her foreleg. Scott's alright for the moment, clutching the waterskin as he steadies himself, so Derek gets to his feet again and moves over to her to get the strap free of her feet.

Camaro stamps at the ground in frustration or relief or some combination thereof, but she looks over to the other side of the clearing, nickering faintly. Derek follows her gaze over.

Scott's horse is a few meters away, sprawled on her side, laid out in a difficult position. Her breathing is slow and shallow, and she is motionless. Derek moves cautiously closer, making soft sounds to announce his approach. Her head twitches his way, and her eyes are wide, the whites glaring bright in the sunlight. She makes a faint, low sound of distress, sides heaving as she breathes faster or tries to shift. Her legs draw up as though she wants to get up, but she's too ill.

He doesn't have the tools to help her, nor really more than the barest bones of the necessary knowledge. She won't be able to vomit by herself, and though he thinks she'll likely survive the poisoning if she's made it this far, he can't stay and wait it out with her. The best he can do for her is remove the halter.

Stiles would know what to do, but then, Stiles isn't here. Even if he were, he might very well now be ill or injured or even dead at Matt's traitorous hands.

As Lady Allison is now.

"Y'have to," Scott tries as Derek returns to the camp to check on him. Scott pauses to shake his head and clear his throat. He blinks away more of the drug-induced haze and says, "Leave me. Go after them. Stop him."

Derek picks up his discarded sword, but the weight of it is more heavily felt now. His limbs feel weaker than the last time he'd had a bad fever.

Alone, in this state, he'd be no match for Matt. Even together they'll likely prove less than insurmountable. The way he's groaning, Scott may be little better than a distraction even in death, but that distraction may be necessary to the completion of the mission.

"I need you. You have to get up," Derek says. There's no question that he needs Scott's help. Though he's feeling steadier by the minute, he does not doubt the effects will last well into the next day. There's no time to wait. He sets about strapping his sword-belt back around his waist. His fingers are frustratingly clumsy on the buckle, but years of practice make even the unsteadiest fingers capable of the task.

"Scott, get up."

"I ca… I don't…" Scott cringes and twists away, vomiting again, though this time it's mostly the water that comes up. He kneels there, coughing against the discomfort.

Derek fetches a second waterskin to the creek and brings him the fresh water, but he doesn't hand it down to him. Instead when Scott reaches for it, he holds it aloft, over Scott's supine form. His whine is pitiful, though understandable. But they're soldiers, and the time for mercy is past.

"Get. Up," Derek orders, holding the clean water out. "She needs us both."

Scott takes a deep breath, sets his jaw and nods slowly. He pushes back onto his knees, sitting up, and though he takes another steadying breath first, he is soon able to pick up one of his feet to prepare to stand on. Derek extends a hand and Scott grips his forearm, using it to help leverage himself up to his feet.

He groans and closes his eyes at the shift of balance, but after a few deep breaths he shakes it off and meets Derek's gaze. He nods, gripping Derek's arm in solidarity. Derek hands him the waterskin.

While Scott drinks, Derek retrieves the lieutenant's sword belt, strapping it around his waist for him since his coordination seems even worse than Derek's yet. Derek carries the waterskin over to Camaro, strapping it to the loop on the pommel. The little sachet is still dangling there too, and Derek takes a moment to rest his forehead against Camaro's shoulder, breathing in the steadying scents of horse and Stiles and leather. His head is still throbbing, but it will fade.

The familiar scents are a relief, as is the reminder that Stiles is safe from this harm, as safe as Derek could manage before he'd left. It's not ideal, but it's the best of a bad situation. And yet something drags at the back of his mind, something that doesn't feel right with that conclusion and makes his stomach twist. That or it's just the damned poison.

He feels Camaro's neck flex as she moves her head, and he turns to see Scott slowly shuffling his way over, small pack in hand. There's not room for much, so he hopes it's essentials.

Derek helps him secure the bag on the saddle, then mounts carefully. Camaro shifts her weight, and turns her head to watch them, but she seems to understand the tension. Scott approaches Camaro cautiously, and when Derek holds his hand out to help him step up to Camaro's back he sets his foot over Derek's boot and groans as they haul him up together. It's an ungainly affair, and Scott clutches the back of the saddle awkwardly as he settles onto the pad. There's no room for more, so the bedrolls and other gear remains where it has been set around the camp.

Fortunately, Camaro's strong enough and broad enough to carry the both of them without much trouble. She does reach her head back to snap in the vicinity of Derek's boot, just the once to express her annoyance, but when he nudges her belly, she falls into form easily-enough.

Scott groans as they move out, and his head falls against the back of Derek's shoulder, fingers clutching at Derek's belt for stability.

"Stay awake. Watch for trail signs," Derek orders as he directs Camaro in the direction he thinks they ran.

"Khotol's blindfold," Scott mutters under his breath. "I should have trusted my gut. I knew something was off with him."

"Stiles said the same," Derek murmurs. "We are both fools for failing to listen."

 

-o0o-

 

Stiles heaves a sigh as he curls up in the piled furs. He turns the dagger over in his hands, studies the subtle markings, the Hale crest worked into the base of the hilt where it wouldn't get in the way. He curls his fingers around the hilt and jabs it at the air with an onomatopoeic puff of air through his lips, then a grunt of dissatisfaction. No, he's no soldier. Derek had been right about that.

He tucks the dagger back under the edge of the furs like always and then turns over, burrowing down and taking comfort in the fading scent of Derek that lingers among them. It's midday, but there's little for him to do. He can only pack up and polish Derek's things so many times, and since he's kept everything as best he could already, there's not much to be done. Still, he wracks his brain for ideas. He feels useless sitting about Derek's tent, waiting on his uncertain return.

He's not the sort to just sit and wait for his life to happen, and at first upon Derek's absence, he'd spent time quietly moving about the encampment. It would keep him apprised of events at camp, he'd thought, and out of Lord Peter's way by being just another servant. He could perhaps even eavesdrop on important information, something that would make him useful to Derek upon his return.

Blending in with the other servants isn't quite as easy as Stiles had hoped it might be. Around Greenberg's old platoon, they're all too aware of his status as Derek's favorite and the temporary power he wields for it. No one questions him, but they watch him a little too assiduously for him to be inconspicuous. Elsewhere, for all that the soldiers in Peter's domain don't pay him any mind, the other slaves are wary of the unexpected person. If he'd time, he'd be taking opportunities befriending them, making himself familiar at their leisure. But he hasn't the luxury of time and neither are they even half as friendly and approachable as Derek's people had been. He misses Erica.

So he'd given up on playing the spy.

Now he remains torn about whether to stay hidden in Derek's tent and thereby avoid putting his presence on display walking about the encampment, or to spend as much time as possible outside of the private space in order to try and avoid any repetition of the last time Lord Peter had known Derek had been absent.

His skin crawls at the memory of the Lord General's unwanted touches and he throws back the furs, too agitated to remain still. There's little doubt in his mind that if Lord Peter were to return to the tent in Derek's absence, he would not be contented with the same groping and lewd commentary he had settled on last time, bemoaning his Nephew's possessiveness of his toys but accepting there were limits to what he could get away with. Stiles is almost certain that even then, had not Lord Peter been needed elsewhere soon after his appearance in Derek's tent, he would not have escaped more than the discomfort ha had been subjected to of being fondled. Uninterrupted, Lord Peter might have chosen one of the handful of ways to eke out some satisfaction of his desires that would leave no trace behind for Derek to discover, debaucheries that would leave nothing but Stiles's useless testimony as evidence of their occurrence. In fact he'd begun to list them when Lord Whittemore had called upon the Lord General for some task and unwittingly rescued Stiles.

So he has reason to expect that Peter might appear in Derek's tent. Distasteful though it might be, however, part of him is conscious of the fact that such an encounter might be most effective in distracting the Lord General from any suspicions of Derek's treachery. And yet the thought turns his stomach, to a disturbing degree. A degree which surprises him. The Lord General would only be the latest in a long line of people who'd been granted access to his body through power or pay. It seems little different than any of the other difficult things he's done to survive.

Or it should seem so. Perhaps it would, if not for Derek.

It's almost strange to want someone the way he does Derek. Years of subsuming his own needs to satisfy customers and to survive had made him feel something of a blankness about the intimacies of the bed. He'd never lost the enjoyment of it, of finding ways to make it pleasurable with the more likable among his customers. He's always loved sex. But with Derek…

He'd been prepared for more of the same, expected to suffer for being owned for the next few years under the terms of his indenture. But then Derek had had him but hadn't wanted him and somehow he'd been fighting to be kept, actively seeking the warrior's desires and satisfactions. At first it had been a challenge, just a test of his talents. Then it had become an amusement of mutual pleasure, a situation to which he'd grown attached. Except somewhere along the way he'd become more than just attached.

Now as he digs through Derek's trunk for something to do, something akin to nostalgia or affection fills him as he looks on straps of leather that had once been used to bind and blindfold him. And he'd feel like an absolute idiot, a desperate fool for it, if it weren't for the way Derek had held him the night before he'd left, the way he'd taken it upon himself to satisfy Stiles's desires instead of his own. The way his lips had moved in slow caress of his own, without the sexual thrust of tongue but with a sort of aching tenderness.

The way he'd clutched Stiles's hand before he'd ridden away into the night.

It is foolish, he reminds himself as he spies the bundle of letters beneath the clothes and leather straps. Letters from queens and other aristocrats, people so far above his station he can barely comprehend it. Lord Derek might be a thousandfold more merciful a master than he is a warrior, but he is still a prince and Stiles is still nothing but a slave and a whore.

Whatever affections they might feel, Princes don’t waste their lives sharing them with slaves. Even a favored whore is only something to amuse themselves with for a time. They marry other nobles. A stabbing of jealousy surges through him as he fingers the bundle of letters, wonders whether one among them is perhaps…

Temptation and curiosity have him loosening the string tying them together. There are only a few letters, things deemed worthy of keeping close at hand. People that mean something to Derek. Stiles thumbs through the stack, most of which bear the sigils of the Hale house in some variation or another. Only a couple are not so labeled. He recognizes the name Lydia on one, though the other name Paige on a faded letter recalls nothing to him.

He sees the elegant, formal crest on a letter from Talia Hale, the queen. A similar design on one from Laura Hale, the heir. Those names he recognizes without ever having had to hear of them from Derek. Even in the North he'd known that much. There are one or two other Hale names that seem familiar. Cora, Breccan are people he thinks he remembers are some of the siblings Derek had mentioned on that lazy morning they'd spent in bed together.

When Derek had first told Stiles to call him by his name instead of his title. He smiles to himself.

Kahlah's tits, he is such a fool.

He puts the bundle back together and doesn't look further for any signs of Derek's other attachments. The reality of it is that if there are any, it won't change anything for him, and the more immediate reality is of his isolation in camp is of much more concern. If he's lucky, if he's clever, they'll both survive all of this and he'll have Derek again for whatever the prince will allow him. It's already more than he'd ever deserved.

The decorative, unmistakable fineness of the Queen's crest catches his eye again, and a spark of an idea lights in the back of his mind as he runs his fingers over it. He gnaws on his lip a moment, then glances warily at the tent flap, the thin scrap of leather that separates him from innumerable dangers. He'd be a fool if he just sat here and waited for Peter's patience to expire.

The letters do not go back in the trunk.

 

-o0o-

 

Derek rides as quickly as he can, and though having two to a mount slows them, he's counting on Lady Allison's unwillingness or incapacitation to slow Daehler even more. She'd had at least as much stew as Derek, likely more. She'll make a difficult passenger at the very least.

The tracks they're leaving are easily visible to the trained eye, even ones so hindered as theirs. Daehler has clearly chosen speed over subtlety, not stopping to mask their progress at any point and between the two of them they follow the path of hoofprints and broken branches and manure. For a time, it seems they are making good progress as Camaro charges through the forest, but as night begins to fall, Derek starts to worry. While their quarry could potentially continue pushing on through the night, if they lose visibility, they'll be unable to keep tracking them. They'll get further and further from reach.

He spurs Camaro on even more, though it's a risk. The terrain is uneven, and with double the riders, there's just that much greater a chance that she will stumble and injure herself. But it's a risk he has to take now before it's too late.

He remains so focused on trying to see the trail ahead of them that he doesn't even process the sound until Scott grabs his arm, pulling his hand enough that Camaro slows.

"Listen," Scott hisses.

He draws rein and does so, listening to the quiet forest over the sound of Camaro's heaving breaths.

Too quiet.

The animals are eerily silent in response to some disturbance, and as he waits, a second shrieking sound echoes through the trees. Moments later another softer cry follows it.

He can't quite be certain it's human and not merely a hapless victim of the ragged teeth of nature, but the decision whether to follow their ears is soon taken out of his hands. The sound of brush rustling ahead takes over priority and drowns out any further screaming they might have heard.

Derek fumbles to unsheathe his sword, hands stupidly, frustratingly slow and heavy. He gets it in hand mere moments before the greenery in front of them parts.

A horse comes charging at them through the foliage, wild-eyed and with its grey coat spattered with blood. Dirt is kicked up as the grey scrambles to pull up in its headlong charge, whinnying in terrified startlement at their sudden appearance in its path. It bucks and Camaro dances, hopping on her forelegs, darting a little sideways into the bushes. Derek turns her, circles her away from the other horse as the grey kicks up its hind legs in little jolts and then dashes away at a new vector entirely from them.

"That was her horse!" Scott says, fingers clutching hard at Derek's arm.

Derek doesn't wait to see where it goes, instead urging Camaro on in the direction the horse had come from. He lets her have her head as he readies his sword.

Scott takes his cue and inches back to give himself some space. The young soldier awkwardly slides up his own sword with one hand, then transfers it behind his back to his dominant grip. Though his arm is obviously still weak, the blade bouncing against Derek's thigh, it's going to have to be enough.

They'll cut Matt down one way or another between them.

Camaro bursts into the clearing with an angry whinny, tossing her head as she reflexively skirts the bloody disaster in front of them. Derek gets little more than a glance at the situation as Scott pushes off her back, landing hard in the dirt below, but managing an almost fluid roll to get himself to his feet. He brandishes his blade at the clearing, but instead of shouting out a challenge, his mouth hangs open over a strangled sound.

Derek is more focused on getting Camaro under control than taking in the gory details, but his peripheral vision tells him that the gutted human body on the ground amid the beginnings of a camp is not the Lady Allison. As the adrenaline rush starts to ease, Derek dismounts to let Camaro dance off her energies. Scott is already pushing past him to march onwards.

"Allison!" he shouts into the shadows beyond. "Allison!"

They must have stopped for some reason. There are saddle-bags on the ground and a bedroll, but no sign of Daehler's horse. Derek frowns at Daehler's body, noting the disarray of his clothes that leaves his lower body half bare under the mess of blood and guts from where he's been disemboweled. Would it be too much to hope she'd merely caught him unawares while he stopped to relieve his bladder? But hatred is wasted on a dead man, and the spilled entrails combined with the empty eyes is proof that vengeance has already been wrought.

"Allison!" Scott shouts again, fading from sight as he fumbles his way away through the foliage.

"Scott?" comes the faint reply.

Scott gulps in a relieved breath, then calls her name again, forging quickly on into the woods in the direction of her voice. Derek takes a moment to glance over Daehler's body and his belongings for anything of immediate value, but nothing is important for the moment so he turns and follows after Scott.

Camaro paws at the ground, glancing between him and the felled body, still on high alert, but she automatically follows after him without any fuss as he follows Scott.

The younger soldier hacks at the thick brush that separates them from the next bit of clearing, more determination than finesse letting him force his way through brambles in the direction they'd heard her call from. Scott stumbles as the last bit of the briars gives way and he spills out into the shadowed hollow below one of the larger trees that has forced its way into a monopoly of the surrounding area, leaving fewer bushes and the like for a small radius and tall roots amid which valleys one might find some semblance of shelter, as Lady Allison has.

Scott trots in her direction with heavy, jubilant strides, but the lady flinches at their approach.

"Stop. Just… stay," Allison hisses, the sword in her hand drifting weakly in Scott's direction.

As Derek nears, the tip wavers in his direction too. In response, he lowers his own blade and slides it away in its sheath. Scott's confused glance turns sheepish as he follows suit a moment later. But when Scott moves again, likely with the desire to comfort her, she tenses, jerking away from him.

"Stop," she gasps again, pressing back against the tree's hollow behind her.

Scott stops immediately, frowning as he looks at her in confusion, then starts looking around himself as though for signs of some impediment he has not yet spotted. He doesn't seem to understand the distrust in her wide eyes and the way her shoulders are heaving with too-rapid breaths.

"Scott," Derek says quietly but firmly, fixing the young lieutenant with a stern look when he turns. "Go back and look for anything useful while there's still some light."

Scott frowns at him, but he obeys, moving away into the quickly-darkening woods.

Desperate though she has been, the Lady hasn't made much progress in her fleeing. With good reason, he notes as he draws close upon her location. She's holding Matt's blood-drenched sword in one hand though the weapon is too heavy for her in this state given the way the tip has been dragging in the dirt. Her other arm is held stiffly and awkwardly at her side, wrapped clumsily with some sort of fabric that's already turning crimson. Her dress is torn and blood-stained, her cloak askew, and she's barefoot. But her eyes are hard and though they're a bit wild, it's a look much like one he's seen many times before on young soldiers. His death had been no accident. Whatever actions Daehler had taken that had threatened her had clearly forced her to lash out in violent self-defense, a protective fury that still clings to her now.

For all that he's killed so many now he couldn't count, he recognizes the horror of having taken a life. Of having been in the dire straits that required such a drastic result.

"He's dead. You survived," Derek says, keeping it simple. "It's over. You're safe now."

The words are like a knife, cutting through the tension that holds her. Her face crumples, lower lip starting to tremble as she leans on the sword for balance. She tries to remain upright, but slowly her knees give out and she slides down to the ground. She cradles her injured arm to her belly as she curls over it, gasping out little half-sobs as the rush of it all slides away from her.

Derek moves back to Camaro's side, flipping open one of the saddle bags to find anything medical that might still be there. He finds a few strips of bandage and cloth that will do at least in the interim, and carries them back to where Allison is kneeling. He waits, silently watching her for a few minutes, letting her catch her breath. When she seems steadier, he squats down so that he's not looming over her anymore.

"This might help," he says instead of attempting to do it for her. He's seen young soldiers flinch away from helping hands in the aftermath of battle enough times, seen how much slower those with injuries appear to recover when they are forced to submit to the attentions of others instead of allowed to help themselves.

Slowly, she draws herself up, swiping the tears from her face with her good hand. She looks at the bundle in his hands, then nods slowly, lifting her hand towards him. He hands it to her, but keeps his distance in general. He may have only a little in the way of personal experience in what she's feeling, but he's been in the darker places of the world long enough to know something of the aftermath of what he suspects may have transpired.

"Good," she says, clearing her throat, voice coming out more firmly. "Thank you."

She makes quick work of the task, discarding the old bandage with a smooth replacement of clean cloth, like it's something she's done before. Finding two straightish sticks and wrapping the bandages over them to secure the forearm is a slower task, but again, Derek doesn't try to rush her.

Scott returns as she's tying the first splint brace, Allison's horse in tow, loaded with saddle-bags recovered from Daehler's gear. This time she doesn't flinch as he approaches, though she casts a wary glance over at his appearance.

"Look who I found," Scott says almost cheerily, spreading an arm in offering.

Allison's smile is genuine but wan as she looks over the mount. There are still hints of blood on the horse's coat, but Scott's wiped away the worst of it, and the animal is already most of the way back to being the docile creature it is.

"Thank you," she says, voice quiet but earnest.

"Of course," Scott says with a modest shrug as he pats the horse's shoulder absently. He still looks worried as he glances over at the lady, but she has drawn in on herself now, pulled up some internal fortitude.

"Are you…" Scott begins hesitantly.

"Fine," she says quietly but firmly and looks down at her arm and resumes bandaging. "This won't take long. Then we can be on our way." She pulls the second strip of cloth tighter with a grunt of stifled pain. The suffering barely shows on her face, overridden by the determined look of a survivor that Derek knows well. She glances up at them then, asking, "If you're able?"

"We're a bit worse for the wear," Scott says, grimacing. "But nothing that will stop us now. We'll get you home. We've got to be close now."

"I thought you were all dead," she says. A guilty look flickers over her face as she looks up at them and says, "I was almost relieved. I'm sorry."

"I wouldn't blame you. It's our fault you're even here," Scott says, looking down at his hands, setting his jaw as his face resolves into a sort of grim self-reproach.

"That's not…" She pulls a face and jerks the bandage tighter and then sighs, angling her chin. "I meant because of what Matt told me. He bragged. Said you never knew he was under orders. Your uncle," she adds, glancing up at Derek.

"Explain," Derek says, face feeling stiff as he steadies himself against the way the bottom drops out of his stomach. That nagging feeling of dread that's been lingering in the back of his mind worms its way to the fore, leaving him feeling sick.

"I don't know much, but he said Peter knows that you've betrayed him. That it was his plan all along to get you to turn traitor. How gullible you were, Scott, that he manipulated you into breaking me out. That your family will be…" she falters, voice grim as she tucks the edges of the bandage in. She looks up at him and Scott with damp eyes. "I'm sorry. I'd hoped…"

"It's not your fault," Scott insists, squatting down to gaze at her at eye-level. She reaches out a hand to take his and squeezes it.

"We all did the best we could," Scott says.

He glances back at Derek for support, but Derek's staring at Camaro. At the sachet of herbs tied to the pommel of her saddle. The horrible feeling in the pit of his stomach has a sudden clarity now. His Uncle had already had the potential to doubt him in his absence or upon his return, empty-handed and with the Lady gone. But this? That Matt's actions had been under orders?

Stiles is alone, then, and desperately unsafe.

"I have to go back," Derek says, striding over to his horse. Camaro tosses her head, sensing the tension.

"What? Are you - no. You can't go back, Derek," Scott says aghast, scrambling to his feet. "What are you talking about? Peter will surely kill you or take you prisoner."

"You didn't just put yourself in danger when you started this," Derek snaps, even though he knows Scott had never really been the architect of the plans. "You put Stiles in this because you put me in this without time to prepare. He is alone."

"Acathee's kittens," Scott breathes, clamping a hand over his mouth as he turns away, shoulders tense.

Derek just goes back to checking over Camaro's tack, making sure nothing has gone awry that would hinder her on a ride back. Everything seems just fine, and she's craning her neck to watch him, haunches coiled and tense as she shifts her weight in anticipation.

He grabs the reins, but before he can mount, Scott's there, slapping a stilling hand over his wrist.

"You can't." His grip is hard, holding fast when Derek tries to shrug him off. "We need you to come as far as your army at the least. They won't trust me."

"I have to," Derek says, fixing him with a dark look. "Scott, he's…"

He doesn't know what else to say, how to describe what Stiles is to him in something as flat and small as words.

"I know," Scott says, face melting away from determination into sympathy. "I know. But you can't. We haven't finished this mission. You can't abandon it now. Peter's still winning. He's still going to destroy everyone we love, our whole nation if we don't get her home safe."

"Derek," Allison says. "Whatever Peter knows, whoever Stiles is to you… I'm sorry, but your people, my people, they all need you more."

Derek takes a slow, deep breath as he stares at the tangled mess of Camaro's mane. His chest aches, it burns with the bitterness of the truth in their words. But truth there is. They're right.

He closes his eyes and lets go of the reins. Turns back to Lady Allison, shaking off the hand Scott has on his arm this time with a shove. Scott lets him do it, his face drawn in something too much like pity.

"Then let's go," he snaps, voice hard.

Allison's pushed to her feet in the meantime, and though she has pain written all over her body, her determination is visible as well. She meets his eyes with the gravity he's seen many times on his mother, on his sister, a weight he too feels on his shoulders. A knowledge of duty greater than oneself. She stands tall as she drapes her cloak back over her body, breaking Derek's gaze to look to her horse.

"Yes," she says. "We've no time to waste."

 

-o0o-
Skip to end

Stiles keeps his head down as he walks the remaining distance back to Derek's tent. His arms are full of a basket of food, but this time he's taken care to gather travel-ready items. Dried fruit. Jerky meats. The supply chief among Greenberg's people was one of the few competent people in the platoon, necessarily so or else they'd all have starved long ago, but it also meant she'd been difficult to sway. He'd had to muster every bit of his persuasive skills to get her to part with it all, but he'd finally convinced her when he'd remarked upon how impressed Derek had been with her work.

In retrospect he ought to have realized that flattering her professional vanity was the clearest route. She'd had no real reward or censure for her performance under Greenberg's stewardship, so her own pride must keep her doing her duty.

Regardless, he's made out well. It's the last bit of preparation he'd needed, and when night falls, he'll be ready. He ducks into the tent and carries the basket over to the middle post.

"There you are."

Stiles freezes at the voice behind him. Carefully he turns to face the Lord General. He is sitting at Derek's table, a cup of wine in his hand, his legs crossed and one foot swinging idly. Mavet's balls, he'd walked right past and not even seen him in the corner.

"I've been meaning to catch you for a while now," Lord Peter says, sounding bored as he sips from the cup. "You've been busy. Out and about."

He might be able to make it back to the tent flap before the Lord General, but even then, he'd have nowhere to go that would get him away fast enough to really escape if he is determined. Stiles set aside the basket carefully beside Derek's trunks, doing his best to make it unimportant. He pulls on his best, most subservient mask and turns, folding his hands in front of him.

"Yes, My Lord," Stiles says, not meeting his eyes. "I've been tending to My Lord Derek's platoon's needs as best I can."

He can't see it, but he feels the weight of Peter's gaze upon him. It's a vile thing, invasive and heavy as it has been every time Stiles has had the misfortune of bearing it.

If he'd been afraid before, now he feels almost sick with it. Though last time he'd been able to partly rebuff the Lord General's attentions by bringing up Derek, things have changed. He knows how volatile things are and how little safety he has here in the heart of the Hale army.

The Lord General knows it too; his expression is bemused and eyes heavy-lidded as he makes a soft, amused sound.

"Is that so?"

"Yes." And it's not even a lie but it feels like he's trying and failing to sell one as he says, "His Lordship has asked that I keep track of their progress."

Peter makes no reply. Instead he downs the rest of his wine and rises to his feet.

"Would you like a report?" Stiles tries.

"Please, don't bother on my account," Peter purrs, and body emanating power and sexual desire as he drifts across the tent. He stands over the furs a moment, gazing down at them before turning that possessive gaze on Stiles. And this time there's no Derek to stop him.

"I was just finishing a chore. But if you don't want a report, I've got some duties now to take care of at the platoon," Stiles says, cautiously moving towards the tent flap. "If you'll excu-"

In a flash of motion like the striking of a coiled snake, Peter grabs him by the nape of his neck and hurls him down into the furs. He hits the ground hard, skidding on the slippery bedding for some purchase.

"I think not," is the cool response.

"Is something wrong, my Lord?" Stiles tries, keeping his gaze lowered. "Have you heard news about His Lordship?"

"News? I don't think it's going to be news to you," Peter says with a smirk, gazing down at him as he reaches for the clasp of his cloak, tugging it free and tossing it to sprawl over one of Derek's chairs in a casually territorial move. He leans down over Stiles, tilting his head as he says with mock solemnity, "Your master has betrayed us."

Stiles shakes his head reflexively as he twists to his side, shoving back the rush of fear he feels at the pronouncement. "It's been only a few days, My Lord. Surely he will return soon with Lady-"

"Oh, do not mistake me. Even as he left I had no doubt that it was a betrayal," Peter says, laughing. He waves a hand dismissively, sneering as he adds, "Please, don't bother trying to lie for my nephew. It would bore me."

Stiles clamps his mouth shut, swallowing. If Peter knows, if-

"Unfortunately for you, you've been left behind, pet. All alone here, without your master to protect you. Left to bear his punishment in his stead. Whether you knew of his betrayal or not…" Peter shrugs in disinterest, then lifts his boot, sending a hard kick into Stiles's ribs.

Stiles grunts in surprise and in pain, and though his body curls away from the kick he has nowhere to go. He's trapped against the tent wall, cornered in amid the furs. Something hard digs into his side under the piled furs, but he has no chance to decipher its meaning because the Lord General kicks him again, then hooks him with his heel, dragging him back over.

"It matters not. He's left you to me," Peter says with a mocking laugh as Stiles gasps for breath. Peter straddles him as he tries to crawl away and drops down over him, pinning him down with superior strength and weight. His trousers are dragged down his legs, the thin fabric ripping under the rough handling.

"I own you now," Peter murmurs as he bends over Stiles's body, stretching his tongue out to swipe a possessive smear of saliva over his neck. Deft hands reach between them for Stiles's loincloth and tear it away.

And the words are not a lie. Derek's treachery and the Lord General's rank and relation makes use of his body his right. Stiles swallows against a rush of bile in his throat. He hates being owned in this moment somehow more than he ever had suspected possible. He'd thought it would just be more of the same, a faster way to work off his debt. But even when he'd been indebted to the brothel owners, even then he'd never felt like this.

"And I'm not nearly so gentle a master. I think for your second lesson I'm going to take you out into the middle of the camp where I'm going to fuck you for all to see, so they all know what you are," Peter says, stripping off his gloves and starting in on his trousers.

Stiles hardens himself to it. He's survived humiliations before. It's not like being a whore is news to him.

But Peter chuckles, reaching out to cup Stiles's cheek, forcing him to twist his head to look at him. He caresses his thumb slowly under Stiles's eye, then drags it down to press against Stiles's lips, spreading them. "Oh, that won't be enough for you, will it?" He makes a bemused sound as he lets go of Stiles's face before Stiles can work out any alternative response. Lord Peter reaches for the little oil pouch beside them. "No. Once I'm done, I'm going to let anyone who wants a turn have whatever they wish of you. After all, a wise leader shares his spoils from time to time."

"No," Stiles blurts, a sudden rush of panic hitting him.

Because that is a death sentence. Not for the sheer number of cocks that would be sent his way, though that would be difficult enough to endure, but for the mob mentality that would surely accompany it. Eventually it wouldn't just be cocks that would get shoved inside him and at some point something would cut him up inside, or someone would press too hard on his neck, or forget to notice when he passed out from having a cock too far down his throat and let him choke to death.

"Please no," he says, because pride is too expensive. "Please, My Lord. I'll be-"

A hard slap cuts him off, followed moments later by another, harder blow to his face. Stiles lets his face fall down to the furs, swallowing back blood from the fresh cut on his lip. He might be clever-tongued enough to get himself out of many situations, but this is not one of them.

"But first," Peter says, pressing Stiles's hip down and spreading his legs awkwardly, baring his hole to the air as his tunic pools up around his armpits. "First I'm going to take what I should have had a long time ago."

Without preamble Peter shoves his oily fingers inside Stiles, dragging a whimper from him despite himself. He grits his teeth together against a cry as Peter's nails dig in uncomfortably against the sensitive skin inside him, thrusting roughly deeper and pulling down on his hole, left tight in Derek's absence.

Peter's cock replaces his fingers a moment later with just as little gentleness, surely splitting Stiles in places as the thrust hilts him in one go. Stiles bites back a cry of pain but his next breath is unmistakably ragged.

Stiles buries his face in the furs and just wills himself back to his days as a whore where he serviced anyone without much choice of his own. He'd had rough men, angry men before. He could handle one more client. Survival is his only focus now and if survival means surrendering to this, he'll do it.

It burns where he's being penetrated, but Peter's used enough oil to ease the going into a smooth thrust and drag. It's clearly a concession to the Lord General's own comfort, not Stiles's, but Stiles is glad of it anyway.

He tries so hard to relax, to let his body be used while he takes his mind elsewhere. But in this tent, in these furs, being fucked by someone not Derek feels so horribly wrong he can't find his calm. His fingers clutch at the furs and he gasps through the thrusts like a virgin, unable to catch his breath.

Even retreating into his mind isn't an option. Lord Peter's hands quest over Stiles's body, his breath hot against Stiles's neck as he cuts into his thoughts with more barbed words.

"Come now, boy, you're supposed to be a professional, a delicacy."

The thrusts falter as he remains silent. A hand scratches lines down his chest. Tugs too hard on the rings through his nipples but he doesn't cry out.

"Acathee's bleeding cunt, this is your element; aren't you enjoying this?" Peter taunts, tugging at Stiles's soft cock. He shakes it, teases at it until Stiles's body responds, despite the horror he feels. The adrenaline does its job, regardless of his desires.

"There we go," Peter says with a laugh. "Come on, let's see what my Nephew's been keeping from me. What is it that makes you so special?"

Stiles dares not speak, because it's gone so poorly for him before, but this time it seems to be the wrong choice. A frustrated growl greets his silence.

"Must I choke the life out of you to get some entertainment?" Peter mutters, scratching his fingers across Stiles's throat. "I think I'll enjoy watching you fade away."

"No, My Lord," Stiles gasps out as the fingers spread out and begin to tighten. "Please."

It's becoming clear his only shot at survival is to not just submit but to actively distract Peter from killing him this time around. To survive this assault and find some window of escape before further threats are carried out.

Humiliation is hard to summon for a whore, most days, and fear cuts through it that much more easily. Stiles closes his eyes and moans. He lets his back arch, clenches down around the invading member, hoping to urge Peter into a lusty distraction, but Peter makes a disgusted sound at his efforts. The hand on his throat tightens again.

"Just moaning like any two-bit whore," he says. "Is that really what has my nephew so enthralled? Pathetic."

Before Stiles can come up with something else to try, Peter takes the matter into his own hands. He hooks a leg over Stiles's hip and twists his body, holding him steady as he reaches a hand down to Stiles's half-hard cock and slaps it with a sharp blow. This time Stiles can't hold back the sharp cry of pain as he flinches away from the assault.

"That's more like it," Peter says, voice saccharine sweet. "Don't hold back, pet. After all, no one who can hear you cares."

Obediently, Stiles whimpers, a sound borne of frustration and pain. It isn't surprising now that Stiles can feel Peter growing harder again inside him. Like certain clients he's had before, it is apparent that his pain is what excites and distracts Peter, not pleasure.

He should have known. Should have spotted it sooner but now the focused pain sharpens him. Makes him aware of all the sensations he's been trying to ignore and dissociate from till now. He feels the hard lump under the furs by his elbow again. Only now his brain processes what it is.

And the thought of using it.

"No, please, not again," he begs when Peter's hand moves below him. It's asking for trouble, but trouble is what he wants now. To an extent. It hurts like hell when Peter strikes him, but flinching away in pain is something he works in his favor this time because it allows him to move.

Peter's motions grow more energetic the more he whimpers, the more he squirms and tries to pull away from the rough hand on his cock or the harsh thrusts into his body. His unsuccessful resistance arouses Peter further, keeping him too distracted to notice that each time Stiles squirms away, he's inching closer to his goal under the pretense of avoiding Peter's touch.

Peter strikes him again, rocketing sharp pain through his body, radiating in spikes out from his groin. Stiles sobs with it, with the pain and the anger and the fear, letting it out, letting it serve both Peter's pleasure and Stiles's need of a distraction.

His tears are met with delighted laughter, his pleas met with triumphant derision, his pain met with grunts of pleasure, his breath stifled with increasingly rougher hands. And soon, Peter's thrusts grow short and hard and his eyes droop as his nails scratch lines of pain down Stiles's back and then he throws his head back and bellows as Stiles gathers himself.

It's now, it's the moment, he can almost -

Chapter Text

Lady Allison laughs with relief at the sight of the soldiers as they crest the hill. Scott cheers, thumping a fist to his shoulder. Derek merely kicks Camaro into a trot, despite all their weariness. So much time…

Their approach is quickly noticed, because Boyd keeps his soldiers vigilant and ready, but he and his great black horse would be too familiar a sight to mistake. Cries of "Lord Derek," and "The Prince" are carried quickly through the camp as they ride past the sentries and guards unhindered.

The encampment is only barely set-in. Most of the tents are in low-hold, more for collective shelter against the elements than any daily-use. They're ready for a quick mobilization, if it should become necessary. A wise choice by Boyd.

Some experienced guessing and luck lead them to where Boyd is coming out from one of the few fully-stood tents, his mouth splitting into a rare smile for a moment as he lays eyes on them, though he is stoic again by the time they draw near.

Scott doesn't need to be told to dismount. He grips Derek's belt and levers himself down off Camaro's back without hesitation, moving to Allison's side to help her dismount more carefully. She'd have managed fine without him, despite her injured arm, but she lets him steady her descent and smiles at him. I leaves a bitter, jealous taste in his mouth, but Derek pushes his feelings aside and dismounts.

Quick hands loosen the cinch at Camaro's belly and dump the saddle in the dirt off to one side. Camaro's bridle follows soon after. He turns to one of the servants who is lingering nearby, a familiar young woman he thinks had been bought for him a few years ago. She clearly knows him, but still she gazes at him with wide, fearful eyes.

"Fetch her a bucket of water and a bucket of grain. Just lay them down here and keep your distance," he adds, in case the woman somehow doesn't know Camaro's reputation. He points at the tack and says, "Have someone clean that, immediately. I'll be leaving shortly."

She ducks into a quick curtsey and then hurries away, clutching at a fellow servant and dragging them along. Derek feels secure in the knowledge that his orders will be followed. It's good to be back with them, even if it's only for so long. He leads the way back into the tent Boyd had come from as he can see through the pinned-back flap to the war-table Boyd has set up, with Erica leaning over the maps.

"Derek," Erica says, lighting up as he approaches. She straightens from the table and her eyebrows shoot up as she takes in his appearance. "Acathee's shield, you look dreadful. What-"

But she falters when Scott and Allison come in behind him, looking hardly better. She pulls out one of the stools from the table and then marches over and takes Derek's elbow, leading him to it and pressing him down on the seat. "Sit," she urges the others, then busies herself fetching over a mug of mead and some fruits from a basket nearby, doing the same for the others.

Boyd eyes them all in silence, casting assessing eyes over Scott and Allison as Derek rinses away the dryness in his throat with some mead. His head aches with the strain of the past few days, with the overheated tightness of his sun-touched head and arms. There's so much to tell, but it's all there at once. He can't seem to get the words to settle down enough to find somewhere to begin. Not when all he wants to do is march straight back to Camaro and ride East.

"Scott," Boyd says with a curt nod to the other officer before turning his head to Allison. "And you are?"

She glances at Derek, eyebrows lofted in question. He nods, and she draws herself up from the tired slump that had begun to creep over her, head held high and proud as she turns to gaze at Boyd.

"Allison Argent, first daughter of House Corde, Successeur en Bataille to the throne," she informs him, taking over the burden of speech from Derek. "And in need of your protection and assistance. I seek to end this unnecessary war."

Boyd's reaction is contained in the merest lifting of one eyebrow, and then he sets a fist to his chest in salute as he bows slightly and says, "Vernon Milton Boyd, Lord of Urthgridge and Vaneail, Servant to the Hale throne and at your service." He pauses a moment, looking over at Erica, his face softening. "This is my wife, Erica."

Erica casts an assessing look over Lady Allison's bloodied, disheveled person, her head tilting. "You need clothes," she decides. "And a wash and rest."

"Thank you, but what I need is to get back home before Peter uses my kidnapping to trick my family into invading your country," Allison says, not unkindly.

Erica purses her lips, but nods, folding her arms under her breasts. "Then you'd better eat for strength and explain it all to Boyd while I get you something clean to wear."

Allison concedes with a tip of her chin and takes a bite of dried fruit before she turns back to face the man standing at the opposite side of the table, heavily-muscled arms crossed over his chest in the same unconscious gesture as his wife. He watches his wife disappear out of the tent, then turns a grim expression back on the party.

"Tell me of Lord Peter, then."

"The Lord General is no longer serving the Queen," Derek says, glaring at the map. He reaches for the bag of tokens that sits to one side and spills out markers onto the map, carefully selecting pieces to place in all the positions he can remember. He marks those forces loyal to Peter with a new, dangerous color of the unallied.

"You've had word from her? Or Laura?" Boyd asks when Derek sets the marks out in representation of the forces Laura is marching out, at least the approximate location thereof.

He shakes his head. "He has limited our communications, but I now have absolutely no doubt that the Queen would condemn her brother's actions. He has weakened our positions greatly, and set treacherous plans in action. He outnumbers us desperately, but you must harden yourself to him. You must get word to Isaac. You serve not the Lord General but the Crown to the best of your abilities, Boyd."

"Always," is the curt reply. Dark eyes flick Scott's way and narrow. "Should he be here?"

Scott flinches and protests sharply, "I serve the crown!"

His face is set in frustration as he looks about at the rest of them for support. Allison looks on him with sympathy but Boyd is unimpressed by the outburst. Scott repeats the words under his breath and slouches against the table. Derek holds his council. Scott has been with them thus far, but he's still one of Peter's, still someone with his own motivations regarding Lady Allison.

Not to mention that his gullibility is what has thrust them all too quickly into the path of danger.

"I won't be remaining here," Derek says, draining the rest of the mead and pushing to his feet again.

"Derek," Scott says, face rumpled in reproach. "We've talked about this."

"And there's little else to be said," Derek replies sharply, then turns his gaze to Boyd. The soldier looks at him with the steady, trust-filled confidence he has grown to expect and must now rely upon. He looks to Allison and sees the same, granite depth of determination and honor. "You have everything you need now. We must all act on our own recognizance from now on. But I give you this one mission in absolute. Lady Allison must be taken safely home."

"But-" Scott says.

But Derek ignores him and Allison puts a silencing hand on Scott's arm and turns back to Boyd, saying, "It won't be as simple as riding back West with a white flag. We suspect multiple forces have come into play to create this war, perhaps on both sides…"

She'll keep forging onward as Derek fights his way back East. Erica's just returning to the tent as he steps out of it and she catches his arm, turning and following with him as he heads towards Camaro again. Her dark eyes are searching as she looks at him, brows furrowed in question.

"I should have sent him with you," he says, voice flat. "He's all alone."

Her mouth goes slack in understanding, and she lets go of his arm. Then she turns and dashes away again.

A handful of servants are working away at his tack. The worst of it has been dealt with, and they bob their heads deferentially at him as he approaches.

"Just a bit longer my lord," one of them says quickly.

"Now," he counters, taking the blankets from one of them. He runs a fast hand over Camaro's belly, but she ignores him, whatever aches and pains she feels of little significance. Not enough to bother her into stopping drinking her water. No sores. He throws the blanket up over her back, then takes the saddle that's held up to him, loading it onto her with motions built more on habit than thought.

His thoughts are elsewhere.

Her bridle is next and then Erica's appearing at his side again, bag in hand to stuff into one of his saddle-bags and an extra waterskin to loop over his pommel as he tightens Camaro's cinch one more time. Camaro snaps her teeth at Erica who darts back as Derek slings himself into the saddle and then he's turning her head East, reining her in a tight circle as servants scatter out of the way.

"Acathee watch over you," Derek calls to Erica as Camaro rears up slightly in protest at his tight rein, striking her hooves into the dirt as she is held back from running.

"Her shield protect you," Erica returns sharply, her eyes bright with moisture as she clenches her hands into impotent fists. "You find him."

"You take care of her," he replies, pointing at the tent as he lets slip the reins.

He doesn't hear her response. Camaro bellows her warning as she charges forward, lowering her head and powering forward with leaping double-strides.

Derek hunkers low and turns her southeast away from the dense forest they've fought their way through. No matter who he meets on the return journey, they'll be hard-pressed to put up any real interference to his charge.

He rides hard. He tells Camaro who they're riding for, tells her with his voice and with his body and perhaps she doesn't understand the literal meaning, but she most certainly understands the desperation. She runs when there are meadows, picks up her feet high through the woods. She never argues, never complains.

His fingers clutch at the sachet of herbs so hard the pouch tears, spilling the scented leaves over Camaro's sweaty shoulders, whipping through the wind.

Camaro flies.

Night has fallen for a second time by the time they break out into the plains leading to the armies. The faint twinkle of stars being intermittently obscured by smoke, the moonlight is all that's there to reveal them to the soldiers, and clad in black they make nothing more than a formidable silhouette.

When they come upon the outskirts of the camp a warning cry goes up among some of the sentries, but he ignores them, letting Camaro charge straight for his tent. He hears his name being carried in startled murmurs in his wake, the call to arms faltering in confusion. With her familiar midnight coat and his dark looks no one dares to challenge them, not alone and not without orders.

Or perhaps there are no orders against him. After all, Peter cannot know the truth of the matter, whatever he might suspect. Besides, labeling a prince a traitor is not lightly done.

When he bursts into his tent, he's afraid. He's too late. A pair of candles are all that are left to light the space, and even they are neglected, close to death. There's no sign of Stiles but there is a sign of a struggle. Some of his belongings are strewn where they don't belong, and one of the chairs is upturned. But that's not what has him freezing before he can duck back out of the tent.

There's a splash of blood, still bright and wet on his furs.

He drops to his knees at the foot of the bed and searches through the folds. But it's only splashes of blood. There's no great pool of it underneath the surface layers, and there's no large trail leading away. Not vital blood. Maybe he's not too late to matter.

Camaro whinnies loudly outside the tent, startling him from his thoughts. He lunges to his feet, diving back out of the tent to see Camaro stomping at an approaching group of soldiers. She grunts and kicks up dust, whipping her tail in annoyance as she lofts her head, staring down at them past the whites of her eyes.

They hesitate, wisely, and Derek ignores them in favor of marching off towards Peter's tent. Camaro follows obediently as ever at his sharp whistle. None of the soldiers dare to stand in his way, though they follow nervously in his wake. Had he drawn his sword he has no doubt they would have fought him from approaching his Uncle's tent, but as it is he merely looks like his usual self, storming off to talk with the warlord.

Even the guard outside his Uncle's tent hesitates, and it's long-enough that Derek brushes past him and strides in.

"So, the traitor returns," Peter says, looking unsurprised at Derek's entrance.

Derek had known it had been a long-shot to hope that Daehler had been lying. That he hadn't exposed them. He'd known in the back of his mind that it was a fool's errand to return here, but he'd ignored it. And it's too late for any of that now.

"I serve the crown. It's you who is the traitor," Derek spits as he casts searching eyes around the tent. There's no sign of Stiles, except perhaps in the fact that Peter is bleeding.

"You know, I genuinely underestimated that little pet of yours," Peter says with an unamused sigh, a cold compress to his temple where he bears a purpling mark. The lower part of Peter's tunic is dark with blood on that same side. His trousers have been abandoned in favor of the bandage a startled medic is resuming applying on his thigh in a too-intimate location, the sight of which turns Derek's stomach with fear and disgust.

"Where is he?" Derek demands, not bothering with any other pretense.

"Come to rescue your beloved whore only to find he has already abandoned you? All that sacrifice for nothing? Oh such is the stuff of tragedies," Peter sing-songs, his voice supercilious. His voice is thin and his eyes are bright with pain as the Medic ties the bandage more tightly again.

Derek ignores the words in favor of the underlying meaning. Peter doesn't have him. Stiles is safe from Peter's hands, for the moment at least.

Abandoning the melodramatic air Peter rolls his eyes and then says blandly, "I will have to share the tale with my favorite bard. Surely he can weave a tale of appropriate woe for your fate. They can play it at your funeral."

Derek stares at his Uncle, takes in the lethal hardness in his eyes. It's a look he's seen before. Relief at Stiles's relative safety is followed hard by fear for his own sake. He has kicked the viper's nest and it is now about to bite him. Hard.

He bolts out of the tent but it's too late. While the common soldiers may not have known whether or not to stand up to him, Jackson and Danny are there now, waiting for him with swords drawn, penning him in. There's no hope of besting the both of them and any number of their followers. He may be an accomplished swordsman, but two of Peter's most loyal and well-trained lieutenants are beyond formidable now. Even one would be unlikely, sun-touched as he is and still weak from the poison, having not rested for days.

And if he is dead, he is no use to anyone.

He assesses his options for a moment, gazing past them at Camaro as she stomps and paws at the ground, spinning and snapping at any of the soldiers foolish enough to approach her. They can't touch her, but neither can he. She's too far, there are too many men between them.

He makes his decision quickly, letting out a sharp whistle pattern that has Camaro rearing and bolting away from the scene, each stride eating up more and more ground until she's galloping, a huge wall of unstoppable black shoving past every boundary till she's free. He loses sight of her quickly amid the shadowed tents and soldiers, but he knows how well he's trained her. She'll soon be disappearing into the woods, foraging for herself and staying safe.

Then he surrenders himself, unbuckling his sword belt and tossing it to the ground.

"Have the traitor bound and left at my disposal," Peter bellows from within the tent.

 

-o0o-

 

It's all such a blur, a formless mass of pain and fear and grey-green nothingness around him. It remains as such for a long time, an interminable time in which he finds no bearings, no thoughts. He's riding wild and blind, just running away, stealing back possession of his life to try and save it. Together, his stolen horse and he run and run and run.

And then all of the sudden, it's over. Stiles is with himself again, no longer an unwilling passenger to a body in flight.

It takes a few moments to identify what has caused the shift as his mind finally begins working again. He's deep in the forest. It's well into the new day but he's not sure how long he's been riding now that he's started to come back to himself, to take stock of the situation. He's exhausted, more clinging to the horse than riding now. Without his fear driving them she has slowed to a more moderate pace, marching steadily but aimlessly through the woods. The change in awareness seems to have come about because he's put enough distance between himself and the camp. Because he's become lost enough and alone enough in the silence that his heart has decided it's alright to stop pounding so desperately.

He remembers bits of his escape; bright blood spraying the tent wall, the snick of Peter's sword being drawn, the confused soldiers of Greenberg's platoon staring at him, the shouts of confusion as he'd vaulted the tie-post and grabbed the first saddled animal he'd seen. Knocking down that idiot sergeant as he'd charged forward.

Suddenly he finds himself needing to get down, to find the ground under him so he slips down with shaking legs, dismounting for a moment. The world feels strange and unsteady beneath him even as he kneels down in the dirt, fingers clutching at the plants for some sort of leverage. It feels like everything is still moving, though he knows that's partly a side-effect of riding so headlong. Experience says it'll take but a few moments for it to begin to settle. It has to.

He's not wrong; though his mind is still fuzzy, the forest soon settles into something more comforting. His body, on the other hand, is not so accommodating. Pain hits him as he stumbles to his feet and he leans against his mare for some semblance of comfort. She's warm, and she mostly ignores him in favor of grazing at some of the brush nearby. The pain has been there this whole time, he thinks belatedly, it's only now that his mind is perceiving it. He aches, all over from the tension and the hard riding. His lower body stings with the aftermath of his assault and the chafing of the saddle against his barely-clad body.

His brain doesn't seem to really be working, leaving him standing there holding the reins of a strange horse, unable to think. Unable to plan. He feels more numb than anything. When he glances at the sky, he notices that the light has started to dim. It could mean rain, or perhaps that night is falling already. Already? Again?

He's been riding north, he thinks, given the way the light is stronger on his left than his right. Perhaps he's been heading back through some of the forest they'd forged through before on their way south. It's more familiar now, he decides, filling in plausible reasons for his choice. More manageable when taken at a pace of his own making. And he recognizes the berries that are safe to eat now. That must explain it.

Thirst is itching at his throat, reminding him that it's been far too long since he's found water. But it's not just that. The itching spreads, till it's a lump in his throat, clawing at him and choking him as his most painful thoughts finally start to rush into place, slamming into him with dizzying force.

He can't get to Derek.

Even if Derek were to return to the army, Stiles has failed to protect him from his uncle's wrath, to convince the Lord General of Derek's loyalty. Derek is labeled a traitor and Stiles a runaway slave now, without papers, without funds or the protections of his master. How could he find him? Where would Derek go? Would he even survive his mission? Would he return to the army thinking himself successful, only to be imprisoned or killed? And even if Stiles were to try and find him, to try and brave the warfront, what use would he be? With his pathetically-wielded dagger he'd barely been able to escape with his life. On the battlefield he'd be nothing but a burden. Derek had been right, Stiles has nothing to offer him out here except his absence.

He's lost him. He's lost everything.

Like cracks spreading in clay, he breaks down then, a piece at a time but nothing left whole. All the fear, all the desperate running, the aches and abuses come crashing into him and though he tries to contain it, swallows it back, tears well up in his eyes and then begin to tumble down his face. Soon he gives up on holding it together, letting the horse graze as he cries against her shoulder.

He sobs curses into her sweat and tear-damp fur. He shakes with it, fingers fisting in the coarse hair on his mare's neck and the rough-hewn saddle-blanket, his knees feeling apt to buckle again. But her strength and placid nature is more than enough to hold him up, even as he rests most of his weight against her.

In retrospect, when she shifts her body away and lifts her head, it should have been a clearer signal to him.

"Well. I didn't expect to find you here," a feminine voice says, amused and none too soft.

He jerks back, defensive and reaching for his dagger looped through the knife-sheath on the saddle even as his motion startles his horse further and has her stepping aside. Exhaustion and defeat suddenly mean nothing in the face of fear. A foot in the stirrup and slinging his weight up to the horse's back is as familiar as breathing. He twists, catching only a flash of black and copper as he brandishes the blade and shifts his horse away, directing her head towards an avenue for escape. All it'll take is a kick of his heels now and he can run. But when he glances back, the woman merely regards him quietly. Her familiarity makes him hesitate.

It's the redhead from before, the one who'd stared him down in Derek's tent. It takes him a moment, but her name comes to him eventually. Lydia. Derek had spoken with her at length.

Lydia just arches an eyebrow, looking supremely uninterested in his reactions. "So, what's the news? Something has happened."

He stares at her, mouth hanging open. "What-"

"And please," she interjects, lifting one slim black-gloved hand. "Spare me any dissembling. I'm not stupid. Derek was fond of you. Why would you be out here all alone? Unless," she says quietly, eyes sharpening in a way that he's wise enough to know is dangerous. "It's him you've run from. Have you hurt him?"

That tears a bark of broken laughter from Stiles's throat as his horse shifts under him, sensing his tension.

"Never," he says, voice rough. Which isn't something he'd ever thought he'd say about someone who owns him, but then, there are a lot of things he'd never anticipated about these last few months.

Her expression softens, a little, and she gazes casually around the woods past him.

"You're alone. Unpursued as far as I can tell, and I've been following you a brief while out of curiosity. Never know when spies or assassins might be lurking about - which I've heard you have some first-hand experience with. Good work protecting Derek's life, by the way. Don't think it's gone unappreciated."

"I hadn't," Stiles replies softly, glancing down at the blade in his hand. A blade that had saved him in turn. "And what do you want of me now?"

"Want? Nothing. When I recognized you, I thought I'd make my presence known. See if Derek needed his property returned to him, or perhaps aid you in some way. I hadn't really decided yet, but you… look like you could use help," she says idly, her eyes trailing down his face to his throat where he surely sports some finger-shaped bruises.

Stiles opens his mouth, then closes it, shaking his head. He lifts a hand to swipe at the tears dangling from his jaw where they're cooling uncomfortably, but he realizes he's still clutching the knife in his hand. He stows it back in the saddle-sheath with a shaking grip, then brushes his face clean.

The wind is growing cold on his skin, cutting right through his tunic as it rustles through the trees around them.

"I take it not all is well back at the Hale encampment?" she asks, sounding faintly impatient.

"Why would you say that?" he replies, intending for sarcasm and sounding more reedy than anything else.

"Well," Lydia says, voice facetiously warm, "You're crying, alone in the forest, a slave away from home. Oh, and then there's the blood."

"Wh-" he looks down at himself, almost surprised to see that yes, in fact, his tunic is smeared with blood. As are his limbs. Not a great deal, not an obscene amount, but enough to be noticed.

"Whose blood is that?" she asks, tilting her head as she gazes down at the cloth draped on his lower body where the worst of the marks are.

"Some of it's mine," he replies carefully. "None of it's Derek's." But he doesn't continue. He doesn't know what she'll say if he tells her he stabbed a peer of the realm or whatever the hell title Peter holds beyond the military. He doesn't even know what Derek would say.

"And the rest? There's no need to mince words. I've a sturdy disposition and you can trust me," she says calm and almost intent enough to be earnest.

"Trust you?" Stiles laughs bitterly, voice wet and rough as he replies, "Kahlah's clit, why would I do that?"

She tosses her braid back over her shoulder, chin set as sharp eyes meet his. "Because Derek trusts me a great deal."

Stiles grips the tangled hair at the base of his mare's neck, twining his fingers among the strands. "You're his friend?" he asks, hating the weakness in his voice.

"Derek is the closest friend I have," she says, voice quiet but firm.

He can tell there's more to that statement, nuances he doesn't understand, but it's said with a simple honesty that rings true to him. And besides, he has little else to lose.

"He's gone on an important mission. He left several days ago after the Lady Allison was kidnapped from our camp." He hesitates over the rest, but Peter's claims of knowledge of Derek's guilt make it an empty secret to keep at best.

Lydia says nothing, studying him with an expression that is sharp and otherwise unreadable.

"He means to see her safely home. Peter was going to kill her to enrage the Argent forces. He's been making dangerously bad tactical choices. I think Derek fears him mad."

Now that the adrenaline is fading from his body for the second time, his limbs are starting to feel heavy and stiff and his attention starts to waver. His eyes drift down to the horse she's riding, skimming over its composition out of habit. Enaaban, perhaps, fine-boned and lightweight, built for agility and endurance rather than power or toughness. Its coat is dark, almost black, though its dappled with fainter greys in places. The tack, like her clothing, is dark to match. There's not a bit of shine or excess detail anywhere. The horse's mane and tail are kept trim-

And Lydia's speaking, he realizes.

"Uh?" he says, eyes snapping back up to her face.

"What's your name?" she repeats, though her face is less harsh than before.

"Oh," he says, laughing mirthlessly as he presses the heel of one hand to his eyes. "Stiles. My name's Stiles."

She sighs, looking him over, then glancing up at the trees or the fading light. The wind picks up again, rustling the leaves around them in a rattling susurrus.

"Come, let's set up camp together. It's late and you're growing chilled. I've enough to share for now."

He can't pretend the warmth of a fire or bed doesn't sound desperately good right now.

"Thank you," he manages to say before slipping down from the mare's back with a pained grunt. The horse flicks her ears at him, turning her head a little to watch, but she remains mostly uninterested in his pain. He doesn't blame her. He's little more than a stranger to her, and given her general docility and the scarring on her hide, she's well used to the trials of humans and their foolish endeavors.

Lydia is already bringing him a slim, black leather waterskin as he hobbles over to her, clutching at the torn clothing that threatens to expose his lower body as the wind whips at his hem. He takes it gratefully, drinking greedily of it. The leather is smooth and clearly expensive, like much of her equipment.

She studies him a moment, the intensity of her gaze faintly unnerving as it had been the last time they'd met, but it doesn't make him feel very uncomfortable. In a way it helps him feel grounded in the moment, in her presence. He hands her back the waterskin, and she seems satisfied with whatever she has gleaned about him in the interim because she turns away.

She shakes her head at him with a sigh and carries the waterskin back to her saddle. There, she fishes out something from her saddlebags. The buckles are leather-wrapped and silent, a spy's tool perhaps. If she pulled up her hood and stood still, he might even lose sight of her altogether in the darkness, her horse too. The leather is all sueded, not polished, and though it's clearly of expensive quality, every line is unembellished in either leather or metal. It's a far cry from the decorative styles of up north, but it's got its own sort of ruthless beauty, its-

Lydia's standing in front of him again, he realizes abruptly. He must be tired if he's letting himself get distracted from the moment with pretty tack again.

"Here. These will be snug, but I think you'll manage," Lydia says, handing him the bundle of cloth. She doesn't wait for his response, turning and setting out to the trees to start gathering wood.

He holds up her gift, finding she's given him a pair of grey leggings and a black tunic. She's not paying attention, but still he bobs his head in thanks and then steps away to garner a fraction of privacy behind his own mare. It's not that he cares about showing his skin, since few whores bother worrying about such things for long, but he isn't quite prepared to expose his injuries. Especially since he hasn't decided how far he wants to trust Lydia, exactly. For the moment, he'd rather get a look at things in private.

Overall, the blood isn't as bad as he'd first feared. He's sore, yes, and will be sore for several days, no doubt, but he'll heal soon. The scratches on his thighs and back seem not to be particularly swollen, no sign of any obvious infection. The fact that Peter is fastidious in his hygiene is… well, he might not go as far as to be thankful for it, but he's glad it hadn't been worse.

The borrowed clothing is plenty snug enough to be uncomfortable at first on his mangled bits, but the soft pressure is almost soothing after a few minutes. Once he's settled, he turns to his equine friend, checking her over carefully for any problems. These things, at least, are simple. Anything beyond that…

By the time he's done all that and returned, Lydia has a small fire going. She seems to understand how weary he is, because she doesn't prod him for more information - though he can tell she has questions. Instead she hands him a pouch filled with seeds and nuts and dried fruits and silently pushes a blanket his way.

 

-o0o-

 

His thigh aches with the tension, old scar tissue complaining about the less-than-ideal position they've left him in. He's had enough space to move from kneeling to sitting a little to the side, or to swinging his feet around in front of him. None of them are comfortable, no matter what he tries. Sitting on his ass may relieve the tension in his knees, but it adds to the strain on his arms, tied overhead. Kneeling lets him breathe more easily, but it doesn't take long for his thigh to cramp and his leg to lose circulation.

On top of all of that he's tired, thirsty, and feels painfully overheated where his skin has been sun-touched these last few days of misadventure.

At least the physical pain distracts him from his thoughts, which are nigh-incessantly reminding him of each example of his failure. To his realm. To his family. To Stiles.

It's a surprise when daylight spears through the tent opening as the flap parts, bringing a breath of fresh air - or at least as fresh as the air around an army can be. Still, it's disorienting to realize how time has been passing without him. The tent is small and the seams tight-enough that the light outside has been dampened to an uninformative dull glow.

He blinks through the brightness of the day to focus on his visitor, but he is unsurprised that he recognizes the silhouette before he can actually see him.

"You know, I've known for a long time that we'd end up here. Perhaps not literally, here," he says, gesturing at the ground between them. "But relatively speaking. Tell me, did Daehler find you in time?"

Even on a normal day he'd hesitate to parry with words with his uncle, but today… His mind is hollow, blurry around the edges with the strain of so little sleep and so much adrenaline. For a moment, Derek holds his tongue, simply trying to make the pieces fit together in his head. But he doesn't have long. He knows his Uncle well enough to know that.

Peter crouches down in front of him, and this time, there's no light of madness in his eyes. No strange bloodlust. No unkempt beard and dirty clothing. It's just as frightening to see him completely collected after months of what had seemed to be a slow descent into wild dementia. There's just the bruising on his temple marring his countenance. He is otherwise clear and immaculate.

"So predictable," Peter muses, tilting his head. "At least that slave of yours was a little diversion. And I don't just mean by how his hole felt around my cock."

Derek clenches his jaw tight, refusing to let his uncle rile him up. But the need to know more about Stiles's outcome has him searching for a response.

"How do you mean then?" he says, keeping his tone flat.

Peter rolls his eyes. "He, at least, surprised me. Survival instinct in that one. Unexpected-enough that I almost hope I never see him again so he avoids a grisly death at my hand," he muses, sounding vaguely truthful as he tilts his head. But the moment passes and he turns his pale eyes back to Derek. "You, of course, played into my plan as though you'd known it all along."

Derek shakes his head, pushing back the twin feelings of relief at Stiles's absence and a fresh wave of worry about Stiles's fate. He has more pressing issues to handle, the foremost of which being trying to understand his Uncle's plan while not getting himself killed in the process.

"There's no way you could have expected this," he says slowly.

Peter smirks at him. "The problem with you, nephew, is that you only ever have one plan. Oh, forgive me, you went as far as to have a single backup plan, down in the Southwind Orchard. Once."

Derek stares at him, allowing his confusion to show in part because it's real, and in part because it panders to Peter's ego.

"Must I lay it out? I suppose it can't hurt now, since it's all come to pass." Peter laughs, tipping his head to the side and lifting a lazy finger to begin his list. "You do nothing, I kill the girl, the Argents attack. Alternatively, a legitimate rescue happens of the girl, I send you after and have an accident befall you all, the Argents attack. You 'rescue' the girl, I send someone after you. Regardless of what happens to you, Daehler enjoys the girl to death, and the Argents attack. There's more, of course, but you get the broad strokes now."

"But why? Peter, why do you want this? Allison could have been a catalyst for diplomacy. But your way? When they come, it'll be the end for our family, for all of us."

"Us," Peter says with a bitter laugh. "That's rich. You're woefully underinformed if-"

But he closes his mouth, tipping his head back and slipping his eyes over to Derek, the corners of his eyes crinkling. "Well. You're hopeless. We already know that. But as for the rest of it… well. That's all yet to come. And as dead as you'll eventually become, I'm not counting anything before its hatched."

Derek sighs, tipping his head back against the post he's bound to.

"Well in that case, spare me the further pain of your presence," he grumbles.

"Oh? And here I was about to tell you of your beloved."

Derek refuses to react, leaving his eyes closed.

"I'm tired and thirsty, Peter. Your games mean little over the voice of my discomforts."

Peter is silent a moment, then he heaves a sigh and moves away.

"You're right. I have a war to win."

As light spears through the tent once again, Derek wonders whether "win" is at all the right word.

Chapter Text

Stiles sleeps fitfully, but he is not surprised by this. The fire and the blanket make up for a great deal compared to the open winds of the night and the swaying back of riding half-asleep, but it's nothing like being cradled against Derek's chest amid warm furs.

The nightmares don't help much either.

He claws his way awake more than once, but seeing Lydia's sleeping form instead of Peter looming over him, not to mention keeping the dagger tucked close into his tunic, is comfort enough that each time he jolts awake he often falls asleep within minutes of waking. His body is long past ready for the rest.

Eventually nature calls during one of his waking moments near the dawn, his bladder demanding some relief. Though he is loath to relinquish his place by the fire, he gets to his feet, groaning faintly as his stiff muscles pull at his joints and press at bruises.

The forest is quiet, but not too quiet. Only the nocturnal creatures are out now, chittering faintly at each other over the soft rustling of the wind through the trees. It's soothing and peaceful, and in the very faint morning light, Stiles finds a spot behind a tree just past their clearing to fold his leggings down and lift his tunic.

It takes a moment for him to settle the nerves that keep his belly tight, but the gentle murmur of nature around him is soothing enough that soon he's finding some welcome release. The winds here aren't the same as those on the plains, but they still speak. Relief settles over him.

At least until a voice behind him hisses, "Stiles?"

He spins, piss spraying out in an arc as he fumbles for the dagger tangled in the folds of his borrowed tunic.

"It's okay, it's okay, it's me," the voice says as its owner approaches, and as the shadow fades, Stiles can see his hands are up. His voice is familiar, and so when he steps enough closer that the canopy isn't shadowing him so completely, Stiles recognizes him.

"Scott?" he says, incredulous. His voice is high and tight with the adrenaline that's sent his heart rabbiting about in his chest.

Scott seems oblivious to his panic as he heaves a relieved sigh, slinging the bag he's carrying down from his shoulder. "Oh by Khotol, I am so glad to see you. Derek was so worried about you, but I just knew you'd be okay. And now I can tell him about our progress."

"Tell him… you know where he is?" Stiles says dumbly, fingers still curled around his stupid dagger. Hope starts to blossom in his belly, then just as quickly dies a painful death at the doubt on Scott's face.

"Yeah, isn't he…" Scott squints in confusion over at the faint glow of the campfire beyond the clearing.

"No," Stiles says, sighing as he remembers himself enough to tug the leggings back up under his tunic to cover his crotch. "I haven't seen him since you left. Certain… things happened. Peter knew. I ran."

"Oh," Scott says faintly, his dark eyes widening. "Oh. Mavet's kittens, this is all gone so wrong."

Stiles stares at him a moment, then abruptly turns away and puts a hand to his face as he stifles inappropriate laughter at the gentle profanity applied to the chaos that is their lives. He swallows, a gurgling sound welling up in his throat instead.

"Sorry," Scott murmurs.

"Unfortunately you speak nothing but truth," he says, shaking his head. He sighs, and then gestures over his shoulder. "Come on, the fire's warm at least."

"Yeah, thanks," Scott says, following after him. "It's been a long few days. What I wouldn't give for a nap and maybe a game of Kambatkan to take my mind off all this for a while."

Stiles's laugh is one of mirthless agreement.

As he approaches their camp he makes sure to slap his palm a little against one of the low-hanging branches nearby, dew cool and snapping sharp on his fingertips making enough sound to announce their approach. He expects to find Lydia awaiting them, but when they step out of the foliage and closer to the fire, the clearing is empty save their two horses.

"Lydia?" Stiles calls softly, looking quickly around the campsite for any sign as to her whereabouts. "Huh. She was-"

Scott lets out a choked squawk behind him and Stiles spins on his heel, brandishing his knife anew.

It's Lydia, pressed tight to Scott's back, dagger point pressing into the soft flesh under Scott's chin. Scott squirms but she pushes the knife tighter and he stills quickly. Stiles can see why when he realizes that it's already breaking the skin, sending a tiny strip of crimson dribbling down the edge of the blade.

"Ah ah," Lydia says softly. "Don't move, not even a little. I've spilled plenty of blood before. Yours would make no difference to me."

"Stop," Stiles says, eyes flicking between Scott's genuine fear and Lydia's cold calculation. "He's not-"

"He's one of Peter's," Lydia hisses, eyes hard as they focus on him.

"Yes," Stiles agrees readily enough, unwilling to try and lie to her, even if he thought it'd be effective. Which he doesn't. "But he's not like them."

There's tension alight in her entire body, and her eyes are sharp with determination that masks things like fear and anger. He doesn't know her well enough to read her, or to know her history with Peter or anything, really. But he hardly knows Scott either.

Scott's lips are pressed tight into a frown and his face is open enough that Stiles can see him thinking about his hands, and how best to get free from Lydia. Stiles tries to make eye-contact with him and warn him off, but Scott's not looking at him and so he has to convince Lydia.

"He's a risk," she says. "Does he have any value?"

"I… He's been nice to me," Stiles says, because it's the first thing that comes to mind. The next is, "He helped Derek, at least for helping Allison, Lady Allison. They were rescuing her from Peter."

A story he has yet to hear. One he needs to hear.

Lydia's eyebrow arches. "Then why isn't he with them now?"

"I don't know, I don't. I haven't asked him yet, he-" Frustrated, he gnaws on his lip trying to think of something that will convince her to take this chance. To piece together what he can from what little he's observed from the background.

"Listen. You're no fool. You know I have reason to hate Peter, and his ilk," he says, voice low and tense, and he holds her eye till he sees acknowledgement there. "And Scott… I wouldn't be talking to him if I thought… look. Unless he's the best liar I've ever seen, he's just defied Peter. Given up everything. They'll kill him if he goes back."

Lydia stares at him, unmoved for a long moment. Then, slowly, she frowns.

"I'm not asking you to trust him, but please, don't kill him yet. He knows about Derek, about what's happened since he left. At least let me ask him that."

She sighs, easing the blade from Scott's neck. He stays wisely frozen, eyes closed as she backs away from him.

"You can move now," she says, voice filled with grudging respect.

His hand reaches quickly to his neck to test the small nick, but he frowns over at Stiles with more concern than anger.

"What happened after we left?" he asks. "You really haven't seen Lord Derek? He went back, he went looking for you."

"No. I left two nights ago." Stiles turns away and goes to stand by the fire, shaking his head. The adrenaline fades and the news leaves him colder than ever.

"He and I separated four nights past, but we were at least two days out. You must have just missed him," Scott says sadly.

Stiles curls in on himself, closing his eyes. "Then Peter has him?"

Scott sighs, coming to stand beside him at the fire. "I don't know. He could still be riding. We were both rather worse for
wear. We were…" He hesitates a moment, glancing at Lydia before he continues speaking. "It was not an easy journey. Derek wasn't thinking straight. He wouldn't listen to me or to anyone. He rode back as soon as we'd made it to his soldiers and passed Lady Allison into that relative safety. Like his duty had been discharged by that," Scott adds, sounding disgruntled.

Stiles closes his eyes. Had Derek been…

"Oh? Then why have you returned?" Lydia asks, arms crossed.

Scott blanches, then lowers his eyes, nodding as he belatedly understands the hypocrisy of his ill favor.

"She's a princess," he says, like that explains everything. At her blank look he shrugs and says, "I'm just a soldier. Erica and Boyd had her well-protected and were working on ways to get her home, or so I assume since that was Derek's order before he went after Stiles. I… they weren't too inclined to trust me without Derek there. I decided to head back east, maybe find my horse if she was still alive. Then go for my mother. Try and get her somewhere safe before they hang me for treason."

At Lydia's unimpressed look, Scott shrugs defensively.

"I'd have taken messages back east but Lord Derek left me no support beyond my word. If he'd been thinking clearly he'd surely have marked a letter with his crest or done something but he was unalterable. I tried to tell him. I knew you'd be fine," Scott says, frowning over at Stiles.

Stiles turns away, reaching for the waterskin by his blanket, but his fingers clutch uselessly around its neck and he doesn't drink. Derek had been too late for that, but now Stiles hates himself for the desperate times he'd wished for Derek's return to the camp. If he goes back now, it's a death sentence. And it's all Stiles's fault.

"Fine isn't exactly accurate," Lydia says, voice flat.

Scott makes a vague sound of confusion, but whatever words he considers speaking end up dying in his throat, perhaps at a look from Lydia Stiles doesn't see. He's too busy staring at the dwindling embers of the fire and trying to get his fingers to uncap the water.

"What else?" Lydia asks Scott.

"Nothing," Scott replies. "Sorry. That's all I know."

With a sigh, Lydia turns and moves past Stiles, retrieving her small bedroll and her saddle bags. It starts him into motion. He takes a swallow of the water, then pushes to his feet. He gathers his borrowed things, folding them up quickly.

"Lydia, thank you for your kindness," he says as he extends the blanket and skin towards her.

Her auburn brows furrow in response and she pushes his hands back gently. "Keep it. I can spare it."

He nods his thanks and then makes his way over to where his stolen mare is chewing her teeth idly, tail flicking slowly to discourage any errant bugs. He loops the blanket and waterskin over the saddle, then bends to tighten the cinch once more at her girth.

"Pajatal watch over you both," Stiles says as he gathers the reins and mounts smoothly. Despite everything, it feels good to have a horse under him again.

"Stiles? Wait, where are you going?" Scott asks, ambling over to him.

Lydia barks a laugh at that as she kicks some dirt onto the fire. "If you don't know the answer to that, Scott, you're even more of a fool than I gave you credit for."

Scott frowns at her, but turns back to Stiles, holding up a beseeching hand. "Stiles, if you would remain a little longer? Perhaps we three can work together - combine our strengths and still be of some service to the queen."

"Queen," Stiles mutters, laughing mirthlessly. How he longs for the golden plains of home. But it reminds him. He tugs free the little bag tied to the saddle, the bundled letters. His stupid, doomed plan. He turns to Scott, gestures with the bundle to signal his intent and bring up Scott's hands. He tosses them to him.

"You wanted a sign of Derek's influence? Take these. Perhaps his mother will see you if you have her letters."

"Letters? This is great," Scott says, face lighting up as he turns the papers over in his hands, smoothing the ribbons aside to reveal the royal crest. "This might work! We have to find our way back to the capital city. Between the two of us, we should be able to at least get some of the Hales to listen to us. Lydia, you too. Do you know anyone that could help?"

Lydia squints at him, turns an arched brow in Stiles's direction, looking vaguely amused as she tightens the cinch.

"Batto favor you," Stiles says, glancing at the sky for the sun and then turning his mare southerly.

"Wait," Scott says, trotting after him on foot. "Stiles- wait! I need your help."

"I'll help you," Stiles says, looking down at him without stopping. "After Derek's safe."

Lydia laughs mirthlessly then, slinging herself up onto her dainty mare's back.

Scott makes a sound of frustration, putting a hand on Stiles's foot in the stirrup. Stiles slows up, frowning at him. "Scott, I'm sorry but I'm going."

"It's already… it's probably already too late. And we're the only ones who know, who can tell the Queen. You know Derek wouldn't want us to risk the whole nation for him. We have to-"

"Let Derek ride into a trap?" Stiles snaps. "Sacrifice him for the mistake of trying to protect a slave?"

Scott looks pained, and Lydia shakes her head, drawing even with Stiles in the clearing.

"No. But if they already have him, we're not going to march into the camp and attempt some idiotic rescue, not the three of us alone," Lydia says primly.

Stiles turns a glare on her but she ignores him, inspecting the edge of the dagger she slips from her belt and then starts buffing with the hem of her tunic as she continues speaking.

"I appreciate the sentiment, as Derek is someone I care about a great deal, but as capable as I'm sure Scott here is, Stiles, you're no soldier and my talents do not run to brute force."

"Which is why I'm not asking you to come with me," Stiles says, throwing up his hands. "Go save your country. Mavet's balls, but I don't give a shit about nations and wars and any of this. I care about Derek. I'm going back. It's not that complicated."

"No, it's not. And dying won't save him," Lydia interjects sharply. "Something else might, if we try hard enough, so stop being melodramatic and think."

Scott glances between them, looking worried, and when Stiles crosses his arms, Scott looks at him beseechingly. Stiles frowns at him for a long moment, but remains unmoved.

"I have to try. Until you come up with a better idea, I'm riding back to look for him, at least to the edge of the forest."

Lydia's eyes narrow on him, but after a moment she turns her gaze speculatively to the south-west. An unfathomable look passes over her features, and then she nudges her mount onwards in the direction he's chosen. Falling in with his path.

Stiles looks at Scott in query, holding the reins on his mare when she moves to follow Lydia's more dominant mount.

"Alright, I'll come, I'll come with for now," Scott says grudgingly, and when Stiles extends an arm down to him, Scott swings up to mount behind him on the saddle pad.

 

-o0o-

 

Consciousness returning is an uncomfortable sensation, to say the least. He's aware of the ache in his skull first, the way it feels too tight and heavy. The pains in the rest of his body aren't far behind. With a groan he can't quite stifle, he lifts his head and blinks his eyes open. His beard scratches against the dirt as he shifts, his suntouched skin stinging at the friction.

At least he'd been allowed to lie down. His thigh is sore, but not as bad as it had been when he'd been bound to the post. His wrists are chafed from rubbing against his bindings in his sleep, but his feet at least are free of the tight bonds. Bare, and hobbled lest he run off, but it's still something of a relief.

His uncle hasn't come back since his initial bout of gloating - and why should he? Derek has nothing Peter doesn't already know, save the precise fate of the Lady Allison. Even that he only has partial information on anymore. He has no real knowledge of what has happened since he left her at Boyd's camp.

The tent flap has been closed less carefully this time and he can see a sliver of light peeking in from outside. The light is faint enough and the temperature cool enough that it's probably dawn rather than dusk. He can also see the edge of a soldier's boot where the guard is standing just past the entrance to the tent.

There's also someone else there inside the tent, he realizes, sitting on a low stool in the shadows. She's a young woman, with a soldier's short-shorn hair and labor-roughened edges. She wears the plain overtunic with the standard livery, the Hale crest worn-in and slightly faded. She sits with a whittling knife in hand as she works a chip of wood in her palm. She's presumably there to guard him as well, though she's paying him no attention.

The young soldier looks familiar, vaguely, and Derek stares at her, trying to place her. One of Greenberg's soldiers, perhaps? There are only a few of them he recognizes, but even fewer among any of the other platoons he'd know. Though he doesn't know her precise purpose, she could have roused him if she wanted something from him. Faking sleep does not appear to be useful at this juncture and though the respite had been welcome before, lying on the cold ground is now uncomfortable.

When he shifts, the sound draws her attention with a snap and she sets her things aside. She rises as he awkwardly levers himself into a sitting position, his thigh protesting at the angle of the strain, but hardly any more than usual. She bends to pick something else up, then approaches him cautiously while he watches her with equal wariness.

"Some water, my Lord?" she asks quietly, kneeling beside him with the waterskin.

"Who are you?" he asks, voice coming out barely more than a rasp.

"Nobody important," she says with a shrug, dark eyes guarded. "Nobody you need know."

The answer is disquieting, but the insistence of his thirst grows loud enough to overcome any further questions, so he nods curtly at the soldier and accepts the spout of the skin to drink from its contents. He cannot know that it isn't drugged, but it's a necessary risk now after three days of no food or water at all.

It tastes clean. Perhaps she's merely sympathetic to his situation, or one of Scott's tiny handful of soldiers. Perhaps she's an infiltrator like Lydia. It matters not for the moment.

Water matters. Assessing his injuries. His head is still aching, but he's certainly feeling clearer than he had previously. Clear enough that he can think about his situation in practical terms.

There's no doubt in his mind that his Uncle may yet execute him. He perhaps holds some value as a hostage, an item of trade. And he's always been something of a favorite of his Uncle's, to the extent that Peter actually has favorites. There's a chance that he'll keep Derek around till the war is done, whatever the outcome, in case he thinks something can be salvaged.

But it is a small chance, since Derek knows he will be unable to yield to one who has betrayed his mother the queen, who has hurt Stiles. No, Derek will never bend.

And Peter is not known for his benevolence.

For now, the best he can hope for is that his Uncle will simply lose interest. That Derek's presence will be forgotten as more important events occur. And that he might live to see the appearance of an opportunity to escape. The lack of food he'll survive with only discomfort. And if there are those sympathetic enough to give him water…

He gazes at the woman again, frowning. Why does he know her? The impression is growing firmer in his mind, he's seen her before.

But before he can ask again, the tent flap is dragged open, spearing light into the chamber.

Derek squints up at the silhouette - not his Uncle, he can see that much in the man's bearing.

"The Lord General has tasked me with your interrogation," Jackson says as he steps in out of the light, limping only slightly now. His wound must be healing slowly, though, for it to still be so pronounced. Jackson stands over him, face dark with annoyance, eyes reptilian and flat. "Would that it were your execution. You make me sick, traitor," he says, mouth wrinkling in disgust before he spits full in Derek's face.

Derek remains silent, turns his gaze away towards the shadows. The woman has faded further into the darkness, unmoving, making herself small and unobtrusive. She's no friend of Jackson's then, whoever else she is. He doesn't let his eyes linger on her.

"Where's the princess?" Jackson demands, skipping right to it.

Derek wouldn't answer, he'd keep silent on it all and not give even useless information to his Uncle, save for the anomaly of their hidden guest. Whoever she is, whoever she answers to, it's a channel out of this isolated prison that isn't Peter or his lieutenants.

"She's safe," he says, voice cracking rough with the dryness in his throat. The water had been all too brief a balm. "Peter will not be able to use her life in his game now."

"Game? You mean the protection of our citizens against the aggressions of the West? The sovereignty of our nation?" Jackson retorts, grabbing Derek's hair and wrenching his head back up, forcing his submission.

Derek gazes at him a moment, trying to assess the veracity of his words. But the lordling seems to believe his words. His anger is genuine. Derek bites back words of scorn. After all, he'd not seen it until Peter had wanted him to.

"He protects none but himself. It's Peter who started this war," Derek replies for the benefit of Jackson and their observer both. "He no longer serves the queen. He is the traitor."

The response does not surprise him. A gauntleted hand swings down and cracks across his cheekbone, sharp and painful. Another blow follows it, then another. Adrenaline surges through him, but there is no use for it. His bonds are tight. Instead of the fierce mask of battle he instinctively wants to draw up, Derek stills his face to blankness. He pursues calm instead of strength, because a shield is always brittle eventually. He lays slack against his bonds, panting for breath.

"Where is she?" Jackson repeats, dragging him back up again.

Derek closes his eyes.

 

-o0o-

 

"I wonder if I'll ever see her again," Scott muses aloud, not for the first time.

Stiles sends his gaze skyward, guiding his mare around a stump and Scott's grip tightens on his waist. They're moving at a brisk pace but the forest here is dense and treacherous. It's faster than the route he'd come, but even still, the care needed makes him impatient. Lydia is ahead of them, all dark in the shadows, copper flickering in the little slashes of sunlight.

"Probably not," Scott says with a sigh. He seems to sense the need to distract Stiles enough that he doesn't push the overburdened mare beyond her limits and leave them without a mount at all. Stiles forces himself to relax.

"Why wouldn't you? Assuming she gets home safely, and the war is resolved, and you are exonerated, I mean," he asks as he lets the mare choose her own path along the steep edge of the hillside.

Scott scoffs, breath a sharp puff against the back of his neck.

"She's a princess. First daughter of House Corde, Successeur en Bataille to the throne," he rattles off like it's supposed to mean something to Stiles.

"And you're a Lord Lieutenant," Stiles counters, confused by the apparent divide.

Scott huffs a breath through his nose, snorting like a horse. "Supposedly."

Stiles pokes a finger at the thigh behind his own.

"No, really," Scott says. "I'm… oh, you wouldn't know this because you're not from here. The history is complicated. A normal Lord would have a barony, a position in society..."

Stiles hums an encouraging sound, but then his attention is drawn by the sight of Lydia stopped just past the next tree, head tilted slightly.

"…so I have the title, but not the lands or the wealth because of my father and Lord Peter and it's… it's just a mess. My mother is-"

"Shh!" Stiles says, drawing rein sharply.

Scott does as asked immediately, hand going automatically to the hilt of his sword. He remains silent, though his brow rumples in silent query when Stiles turns his head slowly from side to side, listening for the sound again. But he isn't imagining things. Even his placid little mare perks up and listens.

Lydia's head has snapped around and upon seeing that they've caught on too she's making a military hand-signal at Scott of some sort. Stiles doesn't care. The distressed nicker echoes again and Stiles immediately turns further into the woods, nudging his mount along quickly after the sound. It's a sound he knows all too well.

He follows the rustling restless sounds of a horse moving into the brush. The horse whinnies louder, sounding frustrated and achingly familiar. His heart is pounding and he slips from his mount, leaving Scott behind as he stumbles through the brush and pushes back the branches that separate them.

"Here girl," he says softly, and Camaro's ears perk up as she twists her head, looking at him with the whites of her eyes showing. She's on the verge of panic…

But her shoulders ease at the sound of his murmured reassurances. She recognizes him, and her nickers turn beseeching as he approaches, heart in his throat. He gets to her side, laying soothing hands along her neck even as she stamps at him, muscles bunching as she struggles against her bindings.

Her reins are stuck on a fallen tree's gnarled branch. It's not bad; she'd probably be able to pull free with a little luck, but Stiles draws the lines free himself quickly on reflex. If she pulled too hard she could badly strain her neck with the steep angle, or get a foreleg trapped and twisted in the tangled roots. He backs her carefully into a more comfortable space, does what any horseman would do.

"Stiles?" Scott calls to him in a hushed voice.

"Hold on," he snaps back, not wanting the soldier to come barging in and set the warhorse off again before he can find Derek. If he's hurt, or he's fallen-

But that initial freedom is insufficient for the warhorse. She doesn't tolerate Stiles's distraction in searching about the clearing. She turns her head and nips at his shoulder, teeth bumping hard enough to bruise but without any malice. He slaps her neck with an equal degree of responding frustration and she jolts, tossing her head and then giving herself a shake, sending bits of leaves and bark showering down over him. Then she hunches her back and sucks in a breath, holding it for a moment then heaving it out in a deep sigh.

"Okay, okay I hear you girl," he murmurs.

It's as clear a signal to him as if she'd spoken. He pats her shoulder and steps in again, though his heart stumbles at the sight of the little sachet of herbs he'd tied to the pommel as it dangles, torn partway open and leaking its contents. There's blood smeared over the leather, dried and flaked off in places. He forces himself to look away and tugs free the leather strap tied closed and holding her cinch tight to her belly. He runs it through the loop without letting it go free, just loosening the layers of leather so the band isn't so tight across her chest. She heaves a deep, relieved breath as he loosens the band and gives her freedom to breathe without it constricting her.

By the time that's done, though, it's obvious the clearing is empty save the distressed horse. His throat catches as he looks around her, sudden sense of silence welling heavy in his chest. There are no signs of Derek to be found amid the trampled foliage. What's more, he'd never have left her like this. Her tack is in disarray, her mane tangled with debris and bits of plant life and her reins had been snagged on a dead tree's branch. Even if he'd been wounded Derek would have taken some care of her, at least something before abandoning her here.

The others are surely waiting with bated breath past the clearing but he just stands there. His mind is numb with it, turning over the implication. Derek's not with her. She's gone from him, gone from the camp, and the only way that could be true is…

This time when she turns her head back his direction, it's to rest her head on his shoulder, almost staggering him with the unexpected weight. He braces himself for her then, wraps an arm under her chin to hold her close. Anyone who thinks horses like these don't know… idiots the lot of them. He presses his face against the sweaty curve of her cheek, dragging the fingers of his free hand through the mess of her mane. Red flakes off on his fingers.

He's too late.

"Fuck," he whispers.

He stands there, uncaring about the rest of the world or the remainder of his raggedy party. The pain is too big, too like a boulder that's rolled down to pin him to the earth, leaving him not even space to draw breath. His chest burns with the weight of it, with the overwhelming span of the sensation of knowledge.

He can't pretend anymore that there's anything he can do. Peter's patience will not last long, not after what Stiles has done. Derek is probably already dead.

"Stiles?" Scott says softly. He's wise enough not to approach any closer, and though Camaro shifts her weight, she just butts her head even more firmly against Stiles's shoulder. "Stiles."

His face feels like it should do something but it's bare, burned barren to numbness instead when he finally lifts away from her shoulder. The grim sympathy on Scott's face turns his stomach and he turns back to Camaro, picking free bits of junk from her mane. She leans into his touch, and he lets himself forget about everything else. He ignores further hails.

After a while, he hears soft conversation behind him but he ignores it too, instead focusing himself on the task of checking carefully over Camaro's hide for any new injuries, any signs of trouble. Slowly the sensation of nausea begins to lessen to something less acute. Her sweat is cooling by the time he finishes his survey and her breathing even, though she perks her head up sharply when Lydia rides closer, putting herself in Stiles's vision again.

"Is she alright?" she asks him, voice markedly calm.

Stiles nods silently, trying to swallow back the rest. After a moment, though, the words force their way out of his chest, cutting like broken glass. "He not… there's blood. And she wouldn't have left him unless…"

Lydia is quiet a moment, gazing at Camaro with shadowed eyes. She blinks and turns to look at the horizon.

"We're going east then," she says, her face cool and unreadable.

He glares at her, but he can hardly argue there's any reason for them to continue west with him. Even if Derek were still alive, she's right. They'd be useless against Peter's forces.

She leans forward in her saddle, catching his eye again and prods briskly, "Come now, there's no time to dawdle."

"There's no time at all," he snaps.

She tilts her chin down in concession, but though he sees her private pain flicker below the surface, her sympathy is contained. She has her goals, her missions still.

"For Derek, perhaps not," she admits quietly. "But for his mother? His sisters and my friends? For people like Erica." She sighs faintly. "And for yourself, Stiles. You have time still. He'd want you safe. You know that."

His fingers pause on Camaro's saddle, on the fine leather he's polished while sitting at Derek's side after a long day. He thinks of the faint look of amused fondness Derek would cast his way when seeing him feed Camaro an apple, a look he probably hadn't even realized was on his face. The unexpected gifts of pleasure in their bed. The way Derek had held him for those too-brief moments before he'd gone. The blood spilt trying to rescue him, just a slave.

Perhaps.

"Come help us," Scott says. "Don't stay here and get yourself killed. Don't make me lose another friend."

Stiles shakes his head, but there's no counter-argument in him. There's nothing at all, really, so he turns back to Camaro, tightens her cinch a little again and climbs up to her tall back. She shifts a little impatiently, and he's sure she'll need a good long rest after… after whatever's next. But she's a warrior, just like Derek. She'll tolerate the discomforts of a saddle a little longer.

Lydia rides over to the horse Stiles had stolen, the mare still nosing about at the nearby foliage, unconcerned by the human antics. She reaches into the loop on the saddle, retrieving the dagger Stiles had abandoned in his hurry to find Camaro. A wave of conflicting emotions hits him at the sight. Fear that she'll take it. Pain at the reminder of what it represents.

She rides back and carries it over to him, sidling up surprisingly close to Camaro. They must know each other, he realizes, looking at the way the smaller Enaaban lowers her head when Camaro eyes her but doesn't lash out.

Lydia extends him the hilt of the dagger and he takes it, feeling numb as he retreats further into himself to avoid the pain. Then she turns her mare and clicks her tongue, beginning their new journey forward. Camaro follows obediently when Stiles leaves the reins loose. They push out past the heavy green foliage at the edge of the forest to ride out into the thin grasses of the narrow meadowed valley that forms the path between the Hale Capitol and the western front where Peter's armies gather and the threat of invasion looms.

The loss of the protective forest overhead leaves him feeling naked, exposed. There's little wind this time of day either, the sun not yet setting and sending the cooling air rushing through the hills. He doesn't pay attention to anything Lydia or Scott say about their plans. Instead he just sits there, running his fingers over the subtle workings of the blade.

There's blood in the grooves. Peter's blood. A cold, viscous sense of satisfaction wells up in his chest as he picks at it, scratches at the metal as the others lead the way, little specks of blood falling to the earth. Before the end of this, one way or another, he'll make sure more of it is spilled. He promises Derek that as he uses the knife to cut the strings tying the sachet to Camaro's saddle, letting the torn bag fall dead and limp to the ground below.

There's no wind here.

Lydia turns them East, picks up a traveling pace at a slow canter, getting them moving. He closes his eyes and clings to the saddle and the air brushes through his hair and caresses his face. He lets Camaro make the wind.

Chapter Text

For Stiles, everything has stalled, whittled down to that numb point when he'd realized Derek was gone. He can't seem to remember anything, any thoughts or feelings between then and now. But it seems that as always, despite everything, time passes anyway. The sun grows heavy in the sky, brilliant rays at their backs as they ride East. Stiles lets Camaro do what she wants, focusing on combing through her mane, getting the strands untangled one at a time. She follows along abreast of Lydia's mount, not willing to fall behind, but not guided in a leading position since she doesn't know where they're going any more than Stiles does.

It's all the same, until suddenly it isn't.

"Look!" Scott says, pointing at the horizon.

Lydia follows his hand and so does Stiles reflexively, looking out ahead of them where a dark smudge is growing into a more tangible shape on the horizon.

He watches, feeling nothing in particular as the smudge changes from a shapeless blob into the form of mounted soldiers. Camaro's ears perk up at the sounds of the approaching bodies. She picks up her heels, stepping with more energy even though she doesn't increase her speed much.

While Lydia and Scott argue with each other in hushed tones about retreating or riding onward, Camaro pulls at the bit, impatient. Stiles lets Camaro have her head, letting his already loose grip on her reins fall to nothing. Who is he to deny her anything?

"Stiles," Scott calls after him, dismayed as Camaro picks up a loose canter.

He hears hoofbeats behind him but he doesn't bother looking. The soldiers ahead are clearly Hale army, the family colors and coat of arms emblazoned on their livery. One of them rides in the lead with a detailed helm that obscures their face. Someone important, though he knows not who. He barely knows anything of these foreigners' power structures. He'd never thought he might have reason to interact with any of them. The lead figure lifts a hand against the setting sun and shields their face, then kicks their heels and spurs their mount on to charge towards him ahead of the others, the powerful beast outpacing even their best efforts.

The rider draws their sword as they close, but Stiles feels nothing about it as the blade glimmers in the light, his salvation or end drawing near. Shouts call behind him, desperate and reckless. The rider is masked with a wolf's snarling visage, black hair streaming out behind in long whipping trails.

Camaro slows, nickering in greeting and stamping at the grasses below as she expresses her energy without impinging upon the approacher. The Hale rider's horse snorts and nickers in return, stopping short when the warrior draws rein. The sword angles sharply up, tip of the blade aimed at Stiles's throat.

"Who the fuck are you," a woman's voice demands from the fanged mouth of the mask.

Stiles doesn't answer. He gazes dumbly at the blade pointed at him, recognizes the subtle working etched into the metal. It's a kin to Derek's blade, a weapon he's checked so many times.

"Laura," Lydia calls, her horse skidding to a halt beside them. "I beg of you, some patien-"

"That's Camaro," Laura snaps, the blade pressing closer into Stiles's space. "Where's my brother?"

She repeats the words and the blade bumps under his chin, cold and hard and yet somehow still surreal. Just as quickly the sword drags back as Camaro shifts at her own behest. There's suddenly shouting from Scott and then the soldiers riding up after Laura. Lydia is cursing and wheeling her mount back to push in between Scott's suddenly-drawn sword and the point where it's aimed; where the Heir to the Throne has her sword to Stiles's throat.

"Fool," Lydia hisses, striking Scott's blade down with her own, using her mount to shoulder-check Scott's borrowed mare aside as the soldiers draw upon them and shout at them to stand down. "You complete and utter imbecile!"

"I'm just-"

But then soldiers are swarming him, pushing him back away from their princess.

"Where is he?" Laura demands again, ignoring everyone but Stiles in front of her, her pale eyes bright and hard through the eye-holes of her mask.

They're so much like Derek's eyes.

"Gone," he hears himself whisper.

Fear mixed with fury sparks in her eyes, flaring them wide.

"He's dead?" she demands.

"We don't know that," Lydia cuts in wheeling back around with her chafing mount to push herself into the middle of the tableau. "Khotol's blindfold, Laura, put the damned sword away."

"Who is he? Why is he on Camaro? Why shouldn't I kill him this instant for stealing the prince's warhorse?" She demands, turning her gaze and questions on Lydia since Stiles is proving useless.

"Stiles. He's… Derek's," Lydia says, gesturing curtly in his direction.

"Derek's what?" Laura asks, though she lowers her sword somewhat.

"He's Derek's," Lydia says again, arching an eyebrow. "What do you think I mean, Laura, who could ride Camaro but someone close to him?"

"If you'd have asked me before today I'd have said no one at all could ride her, regardless of their closeness," Laura retorts, but her eyes are more assessing than angry this time when she looks at him. She folds up the faceplate of her helm after a moment, revealing what must be the signature features of the Hale family. Pale blue-green eyes, strong fine-boned nose, thick dark brows and frowning mouth.

"Where's Derek?" she asks more quietly this time, though the thread of command is still strong.

Stiles shakes his head and when the words stick in his throat with a faint click, Lydia answers for him.

"We believe Peter has taken him prisoner."

When Stiles makes a bitter sound, she tilts her head in concession and adds, "At the least. It may be worse."

"At Peter's hands? Surely his own..." Laura falters, looking at Lydia askance.

Lydia returns her attention with a measured look, something that speaks to past conversations and layers Stiles isn't privy to. Then Lydia turns her head and gazes past her at the more distant outline of the company of soldiers Laura's leading west.

"I'd expected... You're later than I'd hoped."

Laura gazes at her with a complicated expression, and the look Lydia sends back is just as unreadable to Stiles who barely knows these women, let alone their history.

Lydia shakes her head faintly and glances at the approaching cavalry again.

"How many have you brought? Peter has three platoons at his disposal at least. Derek's forces remain diverted north."

Laura shakes her head, sheathing her sword with the smooth rattle and click of long practice.

"Not enough to overpower Peter's forces and still defend against the Argents, if that's what you're thinking."

Lydia purses her lips.

"We won't need to fight the Argents," Scott calls from behind the wall of soldiers blocking him from the Heir.

One of the soldiers glances over her shoulder at Laura in question, who looks to Lydia and Stiles. Lydia inclines her head at a cautious angle and the soldier subsequently receives a nod. They relax their stance and allow Scott to move slowly towards the huddle.

"There's been sabotage on both sides," he says. "We know Peter's been withholding information and actively worsening our military position. There's something similar going on across the border. The crown doesn't want war any more than we do, but misinformation has led them here."

Laura looks skeptical. "Be that as it may, they're Argents. We can't expect them to just back down after actions have begun. Not without some concession. A large one."

"Lady Allison Argent is in play here," Scott says quietly. "As Lydia says, Peter and Derek have fallen out. What you don't know is what happened to cause it. Peter had Allison kidnapped, but not for negotiations. He made plans to have her brutally and visibly executed, to send a message west."

Laura blanches. "That would… there'd be no appeasing them."

"Exactly our thoughts," Scott says, glancing at Stiles for support. Stiles nods for him and Scott continues with more confidence. "That's why Derek and I freed her and escorted her to safety. Boyd is taking her back home. She'll set things right."

"Then Batto has smiled upon us yet. She's an honorable sort, from what I've seen," Laura agrees tentatively.

"Nevertheless, we can't afford to waste any time," Lydia says, turning her horse.

"No," Laura agrees. "We must rescue my brother."

Stiles stares at her. Does she really believe that… but yes, she's signaling her soldiers with a gesture and the remainder of the forces shift and gather.

"Wait. Your highness, wait. It may be too late for that," Scott says, apologetic but determined. "We can't just charge in blind. And if Derek's-"

But Laura casts a hard look his direction. "You may do whatever you wish," she says dismissively. Her voice is strong as she pitches it to carry. "We ride on. My Uncle will be made to answer to the Crown."

Stiles nudges Camaro with his heels and she turns immediately, tossing her head and picking up her feet with the need to move. Laura glances at him and nods, and together they kick off into a run.

 

-o0o-

 

Peter has not visited him again, however, indicating clearly the lack of importance Derek's life holds for him any longer, now that he's made his moves. The longer it goes on, the more likely Derek thinks he will simply be beaten to death. An unfortunate accident, but one that will make little difference in the end.

Whittemore's boots and fists have left their marks, layered over one another. The torture hasn't been all that serious, despite the damage. This has been punishment, nothing more. A stumble along the line between Jackson's wish to do away with him entirely and Peter still potentially needing him for something.

Of late he has been granted only the sparest moments of unconsciousness or the luxury of sleep to give him some reprieve of his pains. Instead he's been fading in and out of lucidity, never quite going under the miasma of pain he's in. Every breath pains cracked ribs, every beat of his heart sets his head throbbing anew.

The lack of food and only those sparse sips of water from the dark-haired soldier are beginning to add up. It's hard to focus his thoughts, to set his mind to the task of escaping this place. Instead his mind continues to wander back towards Stiles, to wondering what has befallen him now. In darker moments his mind replays for him over and over the horrible taunts of his Uncle, spilling into nightmares of unbidden images he can't escape.

As awful as the half-conscious pain is, the dreams are worse.

It's the same dream, over and over. He falls to his knees in his tent, the white furs piled high in front of him, streaked crimson with so much blood. He pulls at them with shaking hands, yanking them free layer by layer, each of the copious pelts revealing more and more blood till there's nothing but red. His hands are soaked with it, dripping as he sobs for breath he can't catch and then the last fur comes away in a tattered mess revealing a broken, naked form he knows too intimately to mistake, despite how mangled he is.

And then he opens his eyes, impossible and golden, dead and filled with accusation and Derek snaps awake.

It's a small blessing that the physical pain is quick to ground him in reality, to remind him that things had not, in fact, happened that way.

A soft sound jerks Derek's attention back to the present.

He's awake and almost alert when the tent flap opens, though this time it's the middle of the night. No light spills through the gap, and the sounds of the camp are quiet around them. He can't make out faces, but two forms slip silently into the tent, pinning it back down after them.

They come closer, and Derek remains where he is, since he has little choice, and even less energy to spare on futile movement. He wonders whether this is it, whether one among the traitors has decided to exact their final punishment from him in the cover of darkness.

But the person who kneels in front of him is not one of Peter's, not quite.

"Sergeant," he whispers.

"My Lord," the man says, sounding shocked. "Oh Kahlah, I had no… are you… no of course not. How long - No, of course, you told me already," Finstock babbles.

The other figure draws closer and Derek recognizes the dark-haired soldier, the one who'd brought him water.

"Peter's a traitor," Derek says, his words slurring faintly. "He's betrayed the Queen."

Finstock falls silent a moment. Then he says in a bitter voice, "He's betrayed many."

The truth of his words is undeniable, though he knows the sergeant is thinking of a different young man than he. He may not be able to sway his loyalty entirely, but he hopes that this will provide a nudge. That this will foster the sergeant's distrust of the Lord General enough that should there be an opportunity…

"Why are you here?" Derek asks, too tired to play at anything more subtle.

"Can you walk?" the woman asks, kneeling down with a water skin that she holds to his lips.

He drinks the cool liquid, the burning thirst aching in his throat even as it's partially quenched. Then he says, "To what end? I've not the strength to escape, and I wouldn't be able to hide for long in the camp. I'll not put others at risk."

Finstock grunts in agreement, though the man wrings his hands, casting glances at the tent flap.

"You can't take much more of this," she replies, but she doesn't argue the point, just helps him with another sip of water.

"Stiles. What do you know?" Derek asks.

Finstock shakes his head. "Little. He stole a horse and bolted. As far as we know, no one's seen or heard anything else. Lord Peter sent no-one after him."

Derek closes his eyes, lets his head rest back on the ground a moment as profound relief slides through him. It's nowhere close to ideal, but it's enough. Stiles is resourceful. He'll find a way to survive. It's enough.

"There's nothing you can do for me, not yet," Derek says eventually, drawing his strength together, trying to focus. "You mustn't linger here. But if you can, get word out about Peter's treason. Send scouts every direction you can. He's hiding the truth about the Argent forces. If you're to stand a chance… The Heir is to the east, if someone can get to her…"

Finstock nods and opens his mouth to respond, when the woman hisses for silence, head twisting sharply towards the tent flap. There's the sound of boots approaching, and she jerks into motion, reaching past Derek and stabbing something into the ground against the center-post of the tent. His bonds jerk, but don't fall away - and he's unable to flee, so freeing him would be useless. Worse than useless, if someone noticed. The loosening is appreciated, though, giving a little better circulation to his hands. Perhaps something he could break if he fought hard enough?

But there's no time to explain. She pushes Finstock to the far side of the tent, hand over his mouth when he opens it again. The footfalls stop outside the opening to the tent and then there's lights spilling in, amber and harshly bright. The light of a torch as its bearer brings it into the small space.

Derek struggles to sit up, to draw the entrant's attention his way, and in the moment it takes, the woman and the sergeant are disappearing out the open flap, the sound of their exit masked by Derek saying unnecessarily, "Who goes there?"

The words are rough in his throat. He doesn't actually care. He's tired now, just damned tired of all of this.

The person is silent a moment, face masked by the brightness of the flame between them, then they crouch down in front of him, setting the torch aside.

"I find myself… saddened, by this outcome," his Uncle says, an odd tenor to his voice. "I have grown fond of your presence at my side these last campaigns."

Derek flicks a glance at his features, what he can see of them. Drunk, perhaps? It matters not. He lowers his head to the dirt and closes his eyes.

He'll not play the puppet.

 

-o0o-

 

The heir is not a cautious woman, Stiles learns quickly. She leaves the majority of her forces behind and moving at a steadier pace. As for herself, she and a handful of her best ride hard in the direction of the Lord General's encampment. Very hard, banners lashed tight to saddles to be readied when needed, but carried furled for the sake of speed. The heir might well be greeted with arrows, without her banners to proclaim her personage.

Her horse is as big as Camaro, longer in the leg for distance instead of direct combat, but muscled still. At a guess, Stiles would think they even share lineage. The two of them and their riders regularly outpace the others, and all four of them feel the frustration every time they are forced to ease the pace. Scott on his very modest stolen mare falls well behind, despite his best efforts. Lydia's light-footed Enaaban is plenty fast enough to keep pace, but still she remains elusive, only appearing sometimes when Stiles turns to look for her.

Stiles stays at Laura's left flank, clinging to the spark of belief she seems to have in finding Derek alive. He's too tired to believe it himself, too wrung out from the past weeks' trials. But he can follow her.

She rides silent and grim, and a guilt he knows all too well lingers in the back of her eyes every time they must slow for water or rest for the horses. But when the camp is in sight, there's no stopping them. Laura lowers her face shield and charges, and though Stiles is as unarmored as she is protected, he stays at her side. The others fall behind through no fault of their own. Camaro and the Heir's black stallion race with single-minded determination.

Laura takes Stiles's advice and enters the camp from the side where Greenberg's old platoon was. Regardless of whatever loyalties they might have towards Derek himself, he guesses that their general ineptitude will make them slow to respond to the invading riders. They are slow as predicted, though he sees more of them are armed and outfitted properly as they pass. Still they only halfheartedly carry the cry along. Perhaps they recognize the Heir, or the horses, or any number of things.

The warning cries spread through the camp anyway, but not quickly enough to matter.

Stiles points out the way to the Lord General's tent, saving them mere moments, but worthy ones. They charge up to it before more than a handful of soldiers can arrive, and even they hesitate at the sight of the Heir as she dismounts.

"Peter!" she bellows.

Stiles slides down after her, dagger clutched in his hand. He wants nothing less than to be faced with the Lord General again, but straying from Laura's protection is suicide now. They won't have kept Derek in the luxury of his own tents, and the rest of the encampment is too big for him to search through.

"It's the heir," someone says, and the murmurs raise sharply in fervor.

The calls of soldiers grow more confused as more people throng towards the action, leadership pushing their way to the fore, snapping insults and orders. Camaro and Laura's stallion shift to guard them, forming a black wall of deadly horseflesh behind them, snapping hooves and teeth at any who draw near.

The Lord General pushes back the folds of the tent's entrance, empty hands moving slow, an expression of mild surprise gracing his features.

"My Niece," he says, stepping from the tent fully. The flap doesn't fall closed behind him but instead parts again to let past Whittemore, whose blade is already drawn. A snap of his fingers has other soldiers pushing through the crowd to fall in around him while Peter says, "What news do you bring us?"

"You are not so clever as you believe, Uncle. The Crown has learned of your treachery," Laura intones, voice high and true, radiating authority and power that somehow dwarfs that of even the Lord General's potent presence. Her words draw hisses of dismay from the onlookers, garbled whispers relaying them in hushed repetition away from this epicenter.

"You have betrayed us all."

Stiles feels sick looking at him, but he knows the Lord General is caught off guard. A bitter satisfaction fills him as he sees Peter grow shifty and small when his eyes dart around, assessing the situation. A cornered rat. But they have not won yet, and outwardly, Peter grows more confident.

"Surely there has been some misunderstanding here," Peter says, lifting beseeching hands.

"If you have harmed my brother, you will pay for it in blood, Uncle," Laura replies, unmoved.

The words spark further tension in the loyal guard surrounding them. Stiles sees Jackson's hand tighten on his hilt and then the soldiers beside the Lord Lieutenant draws their blades. People willing to sabotage an entire country wouldn't hesitate to take out the Heir if they thought they could get away with it.

Stiles's fingers ache from how hard he's gripping the hilt of his dagger. He glances back at the shadow of the approaching armies. They're too far to stop it if they attacked now.

But Laura is not unwitting of their position. "And should you turn further treason against the Crown," Laura says coolly. "Should I not be here when they arrive, my army has orders to wipe every last traitor from this earth."

"Laura," Peter says, giving the appearance of dropping pretense as he drops his hands. His face looks almost honest, though Stiles doesn't believe it for a second. "Laura, he's not here. He left after our disagreement. I've no idea what tales that slave has been telling you, but he left. That's all."

Laura pauses, just a moment, her gaze slipping sideways to land on Stiles. And he's a stranger to her, and a slave - a point no one had bothered to mention before now. But he has nothing left but his conviction, and her gaze slips just a little further to land on Camaro and then her dark brows are slanting sharply inward.

The rumble of horses' hooves grows louder as the forerunners charge through the outskirts of the camp. They're not long off now, and the heir turns back to her Uncle.

She draws her second sword, the metal ringing crisp and clear as it passes her sheath. It cuts loud through the murmuring of the crowd, dragging the whispers down with it.

"You fool," Peter mutters, anger edging into his expression.

But she doesn't argue with him, doesn't lend him that weight.

"Soldiers. My people," she calls, turning slowly, eyes touching the watching gazes. "You who have sweat and suffered for our country. For each other. For your homes and your families. Whom do you serve?"

"I serve the crown," a young soldier with short dark hair and flashing eyes calls out immediately.

"We serve the crown," Finstock seconds the cry a moment later, and then rapidly the words spread, repeated with greater confidence, chanted loud by those loyal and those wise enough to see the turning of the tides.

It doesn't affect the likes of Whittemore, but others grow hesitant. Some even lower their blades, and as one moves, more move till there's a cascade of sheathed steel.

"Take me to my brother," she orders, turning to face those who had picked up the cry quickest. The dark-haired woman nods sharply and gestures to them. Laura turns and follows, strides long and confident even as protests and disruption erupt among the onlookers. Arguments, Jackson shouting at someone to stop them, others shouting about treason.

He's really alive then? For a stunned moment, Stiles is unable to move as the crowd surges around him. Then just as suddenly he's moving, pushing past someone who steps into the gap between them, surging after the Heir and the woman leading them along.

His heart is pounding, his breath ragged and tense in his throat as he catches up to the women.

The young soldier casts a complex look back at the heir as they near a tent that's just like any other, her hand slipping out and brushing along Laura's wrist for a brief moment of reassurance. Then she's snapping the tent flap open, ripping at it so that it hangs loose from its ties, letting light into the shadows.

Stiles forgets about everything else, lurching forward at the sight of the warrior-prince lying in a broken heap at the center-post. He stumbles to his knees, bruising them under scuffed edges, crawling desperately forward.

"Derek, Derek," he says, voice coming out in a croak as he lifts Derek's head into his hands, cradling him into his lap.

One eye is swollen shut but the other cracks open, blinking slow. The Heir is making quick work of the bonds while the soldier guards their backs against the crush of the mob of soldiers behind them, reports of the sights being ferried along lines of people, a shocked refrain coming again and again.

"How is he?" Laura demands, eyes on Stiles as she tosses the bindings aside.

Derek's hand, now freed, drags up to Stiles's face, gripping hard on his jaw, holding him where he can look into his face. When Laura repeats the question, Stiles breaks his gaze and starts to look him over, pulls his tunic aside to get a glimpse of the bruising, but Derek answers for him. "I'll live," he says, voice rough. "Laura, it's Peter, he-"

"I know," Laura says, nodding sharply as she pushes to her feet again. There's an odd note in her voice when she adds, "Your Stiles here told me."

Her sword is in her hand again as the dark-haired soldier appears close by again and presses a water-skin into Stiles's hands. The heir moves away and she rises away too, but the way Derek gazes a little desperately at the water-skin distracts him. He tries to open the skin one-handed, then pries it open with his teeth before splashing some down to Derek's lips.

"You take care of him," Laura says to Stiles, voice brooking no argument. "I have a traitor to deal with."

Stiles glances up at her, and Derek tenses in his arms, tries to push himself up but Laura's not waiting. She's slipping her face-plate down and marching out into the throngs of people, the dark-haired soldier close in her wake. There's shouting and everything's moving faster than he can keep track of, so much of him is focused on Derek's face, on his life.

Derek pushes at him, forces him back enough that he can crawl to his knees, drag himself upright a little. Stiles stops trying to keep him there, pops to his feet and gets an arm under him, helps him stand the rest of the way up with an arm looped around Stiles's neck.

Together they stumble out of the opening of the tent, and though there are people still gathered, the bulk of the excitement and the mob has trailed after the Heir. There's shouting in the distance, more of Laura's troops riding into the encampment every second, dark livery sliding through the seams and mixing with the Lord General's people like dark oil in water.

"Come on," Stiles says, keeping his arm tight around Derek's upper back and trying to avoid his bruise-mottled ribs. "Let's get you back to your tent."

"Not there," Derek snaps, fingers digging into Stiles's shoulder as he attempts to straighten himself, to not be led by Stiles.

"You need to rest, My Lord," Stiles says just as sharply.

But Derek's face is dark and immutable and he turns them in the direction of the noise of the gathered soldiers. "I need to be there. In case…"

Stiles gives in, tightening his hold on Derek's belt and supporting him as they walk slowly towards the shouts and clangs of metal on metal. The tunic under his fingers is stiff with sweat and blood and dirt and the smell of him is on par and Stiles has to blink against the tears that threaten to well up in his eyes at the almost painful relief of having him alive and in his arms.

Soldiers throng en masse around the clearing, the tension palpable. Most eyes are on the fight, though smaller arguments are erupting and being quelled in scuffles all around them. He sees soldiers he recognizes from Finstock's platoon squaring up against Whittemore's soldiers, threats and insults spit back and forth as they together, tumultuously, maintain the stable ring that encircles the Heir and the Lord General.

Still, as he approaches with Derek, people notice. They jostle and shove each other out of the way, forming a slow and steady path towards the center ring. They part for Derek like they always do, like they had the moment Stiles had first laid eyes on him and known he was someone special. Even now people's faces flicker with fear at the sight of the Prince, his fearsome face darkened with bruising and fury and Stiles doesn't blame them.

Derek's fingers tighten reflexively on his shoulder as the last of the mob parts, revealing the Heir swinging her sword in a graceful, efficient spin that knocks aside Peter's blade and gives her the opening to bring her dagger down in a vicious jab.

The Lord General is slippery, though, dancing closer to stunt the range of the strike, sending the blade skipping off his armor while his fist strikes at her ribs, sending her stumbling back.

Her long legs make the stumble into a skip and a glide, regaining her footing and shifting towards her Uncle's flank. She feints a jab with her sword which Peter dodges but the real jab hits its mark, cutting into the flesh of Peter's arm. Cries from the onlookers drown out any sound he might have made, and he grimaces but dips back with surprising composure, keeping the strike from making it further.

Laura swings a kick low at his ankles but he twists, moving with a ruthless grace of his own, slithering and powerful as he uses his momentum to swing his heavier sword around in a snap. It's fast, faster than expected and Laura jolts back but not far enough. The tip of the blade cuts through her jerkin, slashing in at her belly.

The fevered pitch of the crowd grows as bright red on skin flashes through the gap in the black leather, splashing off the tip of the Lord General's blade, and for a horrified moment, he thinks it's all about to be horribly done. Her step falters a fraction, sword drooping as if in shock at the bloodied mark. People are shouting and fights are erupting around them and the Lord General carries his momentum through into another, powerful strike that could take an arm, a neck as fine as hers, looks aimed to take-

He's not sure what happens, exactly. There's dust kicked into the air, a flash of the dagger, then Peter's howling and the heavy sounds of leather and bodies colliding as the Heir twists and surges in with a strength and assuredness that defies her supposed injury. She jerks tall where Peter slithers, his shout cut abruptly, painfully short as she cracks the wolf-shaped mask into his face, stunning him with a brutal head-butt that shatters bone.

There's another flash of the dagger, jabbed twice in and up and then the Lord General is sagging, sliding down from her warrior's embrace, a look of surprise on his battered face. He crumples at her feet, body straining to stay up even as it gives beneath him, heedless of his will.

She hesitates not. In the space of a blink she's stepping back a pace and repositioning her feet in a fluid motion that lets her ready her sword and bring it around her quarry, a taut shift of hips and a spin of toes that builds her momentum as she roars with a blood-curdling cry, sword flashing up through the air to the screams of the crowd and arcs down in a perfect curve to the bowed neck of the Lord General.

The sword is sharp. It's not quite a clean cut, but it's enough. The body jolts in death, lurching forward and sagging at once, cleaving under the sword. Frayed muscle and skin are all that hold the pieces together now, the spurting blood dwindling too soon to a sluggish ooze as the heart that powers it goes silent. Pale eyes are sightless, empty, set in a twisted face too enervated to hold its rage any longer.

Silence falls, huge and horrible over the camp. It is done.

The Heir stands over her Uncle's body. When she lifts her face to them, Stiles feels Derek flinch. Crimson drips down the metal fangs over her mouth, pools in the crevices beneath the eye-holes, giving her the appearance of crying tears of blood.

She gazes at them, mask hiding whatever she might be feeling, giving her an appearance of cold power, brutal serenity as she stands there, dark clothing spotted with wet patches, dark hair shifting where the wind catches its edges. Derek responds almost immediately, though she makes no signal. He drags himself forward, Stiles along for the ride as he moves by necessity and by the fact that he is entirely unwilling to let go.

The Prince moves as best he can, though it is not well. Still, he makes his way forward in the hushed silence of so many held breaths, and stops at the edge of the spreading pool of blood, at her feet. The hand squeezing at Stiles's shoulder is all the warning he gets, and though it's not a natural motion to him, to a plains-rider, his body responds to Derek's as easy as breathing. They kneel, stiff and shaking, but they kneel.

"To the crown," he says, voice rough but with just enough weight to carry it over the silence. Stiles can see his mouth work, like there are more words he wants to say, or is supposed to say, but his good eye is glazed with pain. Fingers press into Stiles's shoulder, and his gaze slips Stiles's way, cloudy but trying to speak nonetheless and suddenly he knows.

He knows what Derek needs. That this is what it takes to have this place at Derek's side.

"To the crown," Stiles calls out. "To the Heir and to the Prince, I swear service."

It doesn't matter that his service has already been bought, that those who know won't think it means anything beyond the height of the moment, but it does. It's something freely given, and perhaps he'll regret it. Perhaps he'll never find again that peace with Derek, that sanctuary of precious trust they'd come to share despite everything. Perhaps he'll serve a lifetime's labor for a country he's no son of, and die never having seen the plains again.

But here, now, he chooses this.

Derek's looking at him with something unfathomable, something wild and filled with pain and life and Stiles fumbles a hand up to touch his jaw, just the briefest moment.

The cries of the crowd grow, shouts of his words repeated, echoed and argued and fights start to break out but Laura's own soldiers make the difference easily. Whittemore is wrestled off and some soldiers are forced along with him, the loyal ones who push back. The chant of "To the Crown" is repeated with growing strength and harmony, filling the camp, drowning out the protests.

Stiles doesn't care. He just cradles Derek's battered face in his hand, holds him as fiercely as he dares, all too conscious of his injuries. And Derek gazes back at him with the same intensity, the same desperate pain.

"Come," Laura says, voice rough with emotion behind her mask as she flicks he blade, sends remaining blood to the ground before sheathing it at her hip. "Time for you to rest now, brother."

She reaches down and takes his upper arm, bracing herself to haul against his greater mass. Between the three of them, they get him to his feet. Her lieutenants are making swift work of taking charge of the chaos, bellowing out orders to existing leadership, sending soldiers scrambling to find their squads, servants scattering back to their workplaces.

The dark-haired soldier darts into the clearing and none of the Heir's people bat an eye, though they still push others back. Laura's head lifts as the young woman approaches, her face a mask only marred by the slight crumpling around her lips as her eyes drop to the gap in the Heir's armor where the sword had nearly found its mark.

Laura flips up the face of her helmet and reaches out a hand, squeezes it hard to the woman's shoulder. Though they do nothing more than look at each other, faces blank, Stiles recognizes easily for himself what transpires.

"My brother," Laura says after a moment, and the woman nods sharply, breaking the tableau to turn and take up Laura's support on his other side as the Heir steps back, eyes already skimming over to the crowds.

Her people.

But before she can step in to take charge, before they can move away towards Derek's tent, a new murmur and cry takes up from the far side of the camp. Stiles tries to keep them moving, but Derek is stubborn as ever, turning to face this new event.

It's a rider, they soon see, a scout messenger from the clothing and the long-legged horse. The rider falters at the commotion, eyes searching over the corpse of the Lord General and the Heir's regal bearing before coming to an apparent conclusion and sliding down from the mount.

He drops to a knee easily, though his breath is fast and he is winded as the horse that shuffles behind him, drenched with sweat.

"Your Highness," he says, voice thin with strain. "The Argents are marching. A day, two at most."

Derek drags them closer and Laura looks at him, shoulders going tense.

"The rest of my forces are a day out," she says.

"Mine are two, though perhaps closer if they thought it… cavalry might make it," Derek replies. "I don't know well where they'll have gone, I gave them open orders."

"Your companion, he said he'd come from Boyd," Laura asks Stiles, eyes sharp.

"Scott might…" Stiles begins, glancing about the encampment. Belatedly, he realizes that he hasn't seen him, or Lydia at all. Not the entire day. He frowns, and shakes his head. "I don't think they told him much."

"Send riders, now. As many as we have. They won't make a difference if it comes to a fight," Laura says, her eyes cutting over to the dark-haired soldier and the woman nods sharply, letting go of Derek's arm and darting away into the chaos.

Derek grunts in agreement or something similar, and Laura glances at him, face stern but eyes searching, relief hidden in behind the regal bearing.

"Rest now. There's little you can do till tomorrow."

And he can feel Derek want to protest, but Stiles doesn't give him the chance, guiding him away, and the Heir doesn't either, turning and marching away after her lover.

It takes a while to get back to Derek's tent as adrenaline fades and tension builds in Derek's frame as they approach, pain clear on his face. Stiles feels frustratingly close to tears at it all, the rawness of blood he'd so desperately wanted spilled now soaking into the ground, a hollow fear about the approaching armies layered deep under the aching he feels at being at Derek's side.

The tent's flap is hanging open, and it's almost a blow to see inside it, to see the way nothing has changed in the days since his escape. The same disarray, the same blood-smeared furs and broken furniture. But more than that, it's the sensation of the familiar, of theirs, no matter the damage.

Stiles swallows against a sound of relief and he guides Derek to the chair that's not broken. Derek makes a sound of pain despite his clenched teeth, but he nods sharply at Stiles, waves him back and takes some steadying breaths. There's a water skin on the table and he takes it, drinking.

Stiles glances around, looking for the food he knows he'd brought there before. It's not there, or it's not obvious, and his eyes land on the bloodied furs instead. He grimaces, reminds himself that much more of that blood has already been spilt, that it can't hurt him now. He gathers the top few, the ones with stains, and carts them out the tent flap. Then he ties the straps back together, closes the world away from them and steals back at least a tentative version of their paradise.

As tired as he's sure they both are, cleaning off the dirt and sweat and blood is more appealing, he thinks. He draws the basin and pitcher to him, casting a glance at Derek's face in question. Derek studies him a moment, then nods, so Stiles settles them at his feet. He begins with the belt that's holding his tunic on. Works it free, then carefully inches the matted garment up from under him till it bunches at his shoulders. He moves painfully, but steadily to lift his arms at Stiles's guidance and the tunic is then discarded. The bruises are ugly and purpling, but there's no horrible settling on any that Stiles can see, no sharp swelling that would indicate a deeper danger. Relief has him nodding slowly to himself and he sets about helping Derek out of the trousers next. His feet are still bare, dirty below the end of where his trousers had sat.

But he's there, alive and whole and a bit battered, but nothing… nothing that will take him from him before tomorrow's war can, at least.

Stiles slips Lydia's gifted tunic up over his head, the leggings following soon after and he scoops up their collective dirty clothing and tosses it aside into the far corner of the tent. He hears Derek's sharp intake of breath and glances up. Derek's eye is cutting sharp over his skin, over the bruises and the scrapes.

"I'm fine," Stiles says, even though it's not entirely true. But he's fine enough. More than fine, now.

Kneeling at Derek's feet, he moves as though to guide them into the basin, but then he laughs, shaking his head and setting it aside. It's going to make a mess, Derek sitting like this, but neither of them really care. He stands, bringing the pitcher of oil up and leans close as Derek leans into him, hands coming up to grip Stiles's hips to steady them both. Carefully, slowly he pours the clean oil over Derek's head, his body. He only pauses a moment before he tips the pitcher of his own head too, knowing just how he needs to get Derek clean, he needs to be clean for both of them too before they can rest.

They don't speak, unlike the first time he'd done this, he doesn't say a word. Instead he speaks with his body, leaning into Derek's shoulder, using his hands to catch runoff and drag it back up higher, over and over massaging as gently as he can till the dirt and sweat and blood begins to loosen.

They neither of them have patience or energy for anything beyond the basics, so he doesn't linger long before starting up scraping the oil away and even then, he only goes after the worst of it, the dirty bits, before he tosses things aside and reaches for Derek's hands.

Derek frowns, but he lets Stiles help him the rest of the way to the bedding, a deep sigh heaving from him as he settles down into the soft furs. And Stiles doesn't hesitate before crawling down beside him, pressing close to his warmth and bruised strength and…

Derek pulls him close, pulls him half onto his chest so that they fit together as one. He does this even though it surely aches to have Stiles's weight against him, but Stiles can't possibly gather himself enough protest. The familiarity of it feels like coming home for the first time in… in years. In his whole life, it seems like. And that Derek does it, even painful though it must be… Derek's arms tighten around him and Stiles doesn't even try to stop the grateful tears that well up in his eyes as he presses his face into Derek's neck.

Derek's lips are warm against his temple, and he finally closes his eyes.

Chapter Text

For the first time in days, waking up brings Derek to someplace warm and safe. His furs are soft and the dark is soothing rather than oppressive this time. The soft murmur of voices doesn't spark fear in him this time, because they are familiar and welcome.

"… don't think he'll go, even if I order him."

"Of course not," Stiles agrees with a snort. "He may not have any broken bones or deep wounds, but I'm still concerned about his internals. The surface bruising's too pervasive for me to tell yet if there's any pooling going on. That's why I'd rather he rest-"

"As would I. Unfortunately-"

"What's going on?" Derek asks, pitching his voice in tones more normal than the hushed whispers his sister and Stiles are exchanging.

They fall silent as he pushes himself upright in the furs. The motion hurts, stiff muscles protesting while bruises sing in sharp counterpoint wherever they're disturbed. But he's clean and warm and his thirst is mild, so it's not bad at all in comparison to the recent past. They shift closer in the darkness, now that he's clearly awakened. Stiles's face is twisted in a discontented scowl, his arms crossed over a rumpled tunic that he must have pulled on at Laura's appearance in their tent.

"Brother. We need to ride out and meet the Argents," Laura says, sitting down beside him in a quiet clatter of weapons and armor. "If we wait for them to march full upon our forces, I fear we'll lose any chance of preventing this from becoming war."

"Agreed," Derek says, but his eyes track over to where Stiles is still standing with his arms wrapped tightly across his torso. "Stiles, what's wrong?"

Stiles's eyes snap up to his, then over to Laura before lowering to the dirt between them. "Nothing, My Lord," he says quietly, voice suddenly deferential again.

"Stiles," he chides sharply, stung at the sound of his title again.

Stiles's eyes flick up to his, defiant and golden and defensive before they drop stubbornly back to the dirt. His jaw is set at a petulant angle. Laura arches an eyebrow at Derek, ever the older sister who can pack far too much vague disapproval and needling curiosity and expectation into one glance.

"Stiles," he presses, and Stiles grimaces at him. But Derek holds out his hand, and Stiles eyes it, face softening. Cautiously, he kneels down at Derek's side, taking his hand in a firm grip. He opens his mouth a moment, but his eyes shift towards Laura again and he falls silent. But he looks Derek in the eye, at least.

"He's concerned about your injuries. As am I," Laura explains for him, not commenting the exchanged looks - for the time being. He knows well enough that later, when there's time, she'll be prying words out of him. "But short of trying to send you home… I need you with me. I need someone I trust, someone who knows everything and can… I'm sorry, I know you're hurting, but I need you."

"Of course I'll be with you," Derek says, grunting in annoyance.

Stiles winces fractionally, and Derek purses his lips when he realize his tone might have come across as a rebuke. And a dismissal of his concerns without regard for their validity. He shifts, taking a measured deep breath to test the push against his ribs, to feel the ache with an assessing mind. The pain is sharp, deep, and myriad. He squeezes Stiles's hand on reflex in response to the pain as his breath huffs out again.

"I'll be fine," he says, but it's to Stiles he addresses the words. "You came back. You saw to my wounds."

Stiles lifts his eyes after a moment, sits up a little straighter out of the subordinate posture he'd assumed. He studies Derek's face a moment, then his shoulders ease a little and his hand tightens in Derek's.

"I'll manage with you at my side," Derek says.

He wants to say more, wants to explain what it had done to him to see Stiles come through the canvas walls of his temporary prison. How it has changed everything that he'd come back, had brought Laura back. That he'd stayed of his own free will even when his freedom had been in his grasp. Derek wishes he had the words, but he never has, and likely never will. But he hopes that Stiles sees some of it in his eyes.

Stiles glances at Laura a moment, then looks to Derek, looks to him without the deference of a slave but as a person.

"I'll go see to Camaro," he decides, looking back to Laura. "You'll be wanting to go soon."

Then he gets to his feet, without waiting for their approval or permission, and Derek takes a steadying breath as something in his chest tightens to see him walk away, knowing that he'll return.

Laura makes a considering sound and arches an eyebrow at Derek, a teasing edge to her smirk as she wanders across the tent. She doesn't say anything as she finds a tunic amid the pile of cloth spilled out from his toppled chest, tosses it across the space to land on his bare torso.

"Well?" he says gruffly, not interested in waiting her out. He pulls the tunic over his head and welcomes its warmth.

"Camaro trusts him," she says with a snort and folds out the maps she's brought and kneels to lay them out between them. "I suppose that really says it all, doesn't it?"

Perhaps it does. They're so far beyond the scope of words of contract on a bit of parchment. There isn't the time to make it manifest, but he knows, and Stiles knows. Except there isn't time, Batto's dancing with Acathee on the horizon and that still matters, means there's something that needs to be said.

"If I don't come through this," he begins.

"Derek." Her voice is sharp with warning. And not because she's a fool, she's not willfully pretending there's not a high likelihood of his death that should things take any downward turn when they parlay with the Argents. They both know too well that he's in no fit state to do much more than make a sacrifice stand and protect her retreat. It's that it's too real, too true a burden on the shoulders of The Heir. Her eyes are shadowed when she looks at him, the powerful mask of a leader drawn to reveal the sister he knows so well.

And he doesn't envy her this. He'd spare her the reminder if he could, but it needs to be said. "Laura, if it comes to that. Stiles, I need to know you'll-"

She reaches out to him, grabs his shoulder and shakes him, her eyes hard and certain as she holds his gaze. "You know I will. I see him. What he is to you, Derek. I swear to you, anything that's in my power to give."

He nods once, sharp and grateful. It will have to be enough. He leans over the map, ignoring the ache in his chest and palming the parchment flat, recognizing the clever marks of Lydia's shorthand.

"Tell me what you know."

 

-o0o-

 

Camaro stamps at him when he approaches, but it's well-deserved. He'd neglected her comfort in seeing to Derek and with no-one else able to tend her, she'd spent most of the night still saddled till he'd slipped from Derek's sleeping arms in the dark to free her of the constraining leather. But she's little worse for the wear, and she snuffles the air heavily as he approaches, striding forward to shove her nose against his body and draw in the scent of Derek on him. The apple he offers is taken with a magnanimous air and she settles enough after that to follow when he loops a lead over her neck.

There are others watching him as he draws her along with him to where they'd left her supplies. Laura's soldiers mingle with old hands, hunching over low fires, watching him with speculative eyes as whispers spread among them. He doesn't see any he recognizes from Greenberg's platoon, and there's no sign of Scott or Lydia, so he ignores them, focusing instead on getting Camaro seen to.

There's a tension in the air with his arrayed watchers, but he doesn't feel afraid. Peter's dead, he'd seen it himself, and his most loyal are in shackles. With Camaro at his side he's untouchable, even without Derek's implicit protection. It's enough that the familiar task of tending Camaro is soothing, even though he knows he's preparing for what may become war.

It seems like years have passed since he first arrived in the South, shackled in the back of a wagon with other less-fortunate souls, quietly praying for enough luck that the flesh-trader is honest enough that he won't end up with more years on his contract than he can bear.

Now he's something… more than a slave or a whore. To a prince, no less. A man who's terrifying and even brutal but never cruel. A man he's chosen over his own chance at freedom. So while there's an awful tension in the air, a heavy weight of the impending events, he finds himself at ease as he cares for a horse who might kill a stranger for touching her.

He's glad of it, because it tempers the icy rush that hits him when he catches sight of Laura and Derek marching down the main line of the encampment, side by side in full armor.

Laura has her mask up, her bare face calm and austere as she nods at the salutes and bows of the nearest soldiers as they pass. Stiles offers his own salute as they near, but she doesn't nod to him. Instead she walks straight to him rather than passing by as he'd expected.

Up closer he notices she's got something tucked under her arm, and when she gets within reach of him she slings it out, extending it towards him.

It's armor. Just a studded leather tunic, something without fitted panels or plates like what they wear, things that have to be designed specifically for their wearer. But it's armor nonetheless. He takes it, frowning up in question as the worn-smooth material flexes under his fingers.

"You'll need that if you're to come with us," Laura says. "The best we can do on short notice."

He stares at her, fingers clutching sharply in surprise. He'd been preparing to argue or even force the issue of his not being left behind this time. He hadn't expected to simply be invited. Camaro, now layered in studded leather from poll to fetlock, snuffles from over his shoulder, then stamps her hoof in disinterest and wanders over to Derek instead. Derek leans into her, turns his face just a little into her cheek as his hand comes up to stroke her neck. His face remains blank but Stiles can see pain and weariness written in his posture as he lets her take some of his weight.

"Well? Hurry up," Laura says, gesturing at him. She turns to Derek and asks, "Is she ready? Good, we'll need to go shortly."

Stiles forces himself to close his mouth and find the opening of the jerkin instead, lifting it over his tunic and slipping his arms into the dense sleeves. It's heavy, but not badly so, and The Heir quickly helps him settle it at his waist and ties the belts for him, getting his dagger - her brother's dagger situated where he can reach it at his hip.

She stares at him and he stares at her, at her dark brows and clear eyes and sharp features, her regard open and so like her brother's, nothing like her uncle's save in coloring. And she expects him not to look away. He feels it as clearly as if she'd spoken an order aloud. It's different, somehow, now than it had been earlier that morning in Derek's tent. She looks into him, not at him or down to him or through him like she should. And she demands the same of him in return, not to look up or away but to see her.

His mouth is dry when she completes her assessment of him and strides away without a backward glance, leaving him with Camaro and Derek and a few dozen silent onlookers. He is seen and seen again, and it leaves him feeling singular and in the open. A person entirely in his own right among them.

Even though she hadn't said it, he knows that in the eyes of The Heir, and thus all she reigns over, he is not just a slave anymore.

He shakes it off, tugging at the unfamiliar weight of his jerkin. Derek is already at Camaro's side, reins gathered at her withers, and Stiles steps over quickly to get to his side lest he try and haul himself up unassisted and injured. Derek sees him slide up and brace his hands, but casts an unimpressed eyebrow over at him for his trouble. Stiles just lifts his chin, daring him to refuse.

They stare at each other for a long moment, then finally Derek sighs, tired. He tips his head in concession, and sets his boot in Stiles's hands, braced on his hip and thigh and lifts himself. And it's not without effort, but Stiles levers him up and gets his foot in the stirrup with the ease of a lifetime's experience.

Derek's face is creased with the pain of his jostled injuries, but once he's settled, he looks down at Stiles and snorts at what is surely a smug expression being cast up at him. And Stiles can't help but gaze at him, not when he can do so openly in the light, when the scars and bruises are so much the lesser of what he sees, incapable of shadowing the man. The prince.

Derek.

He pats Camaro's shoulder and turns when the sounds around them shift and The Heir returns with a third massive black horse in tow. The stallion is strung tight, eyes going a touch wild at every motion around them, but still obedient under the line Laura tows. The animal is clearly kin to the others in breed if not in direct lineage, and the quality of the tack suggests he is none less than the Lord General's mount.

He's almost unsurprised when she tosses the reins to him, giving him control of the animal and gesturing curtly for him to mount up. There's no time to waste calming the creature, it'd take too long to get any real connection forged, so he keeps his motions cautious and quiet as he approaches. The stallion hunches his neck, flicks his tail in agitation as Stiles swings lightly to the saddle, but remains in place. Beaten down, then, but not broken. He is not particularly surprised, but now is not the time to heal old wounds. He has enough of his own by the same hand that'll need tending later.

Perhaps, if all goes well, they can work together on them.

He follows after Derek and Laura as they ride west, and as the camp parts from his view he sees the shadow on the horizon that must be the Argent forces. It spans far wider than he'd expected, even from what he'd overheard about their numbers.

There are two riders bearing standards at the edge of the camp, the Hale crest and colors bright against the bland backdrop of the half-trampled meadow beyond. A couple of Laura's lieutenants hover nearby, but it's clear they've already been given their orders. The Lord General's body is laid out on a pallet between two nervous-looking servants and Stiles nudges his horse to the side, coming around Camaro's flank so he doesn't have to see.

Derek's watching him, he notices out of the corner of his eye, and he turns enough to meet his gaze while he ignores what Laura does that sends shocked whispers scattering through the throngs of curious onlookers that have followed their progress along to the edge of the camp.

Derek looks to his sister when she remounts and continues onward. This time, she's got a rope looped around the pommel of her saddle that stretches back behind her. Stiles doesn't look down, but he doesn't need to in order to know that she's dragging Peter's body behind her.

For his own sake, and for the sake of the horse he's riding, he keeps to the side and rides abreast of the party so neither of them have to see. Stiles almost laughs at his own flighty sense of fear that builds the further they get from the façade of safety that is the Hale camp. Derek doesn't so much as flinch as he gazes down at the body, but then he's not a novice at the horrors of war. Stiles clutches at the dagger at his hip and remembers with sudden clarity the calm with which Derek had slit the would-be assassin's throat while Stiles had stood naked and shivering and useless.

Before he can do more than swallow back the memory, his eyes are drawn irrevocably forward to where the shape of three riders is resolving ahead of the shadow of the Argent army. They bear no standards, but the pale flag of parlay is held high by one of them and Stiles tries to calm the nervous patter of his heart with the assurance of peace it supposedly guarantees.

There's a woman riding at the front of two common soldiers, her blonde hair shimmering in the sunlight, exposed and laid in soft curls about her shoulders like a mantle. She looks nothing like the travel-worn soldiers behind her, too clean by half.

She looks far too relaxed to Stiles's eye, too confident for someone in enemy territory with only a pair of guards at her flank. There's a smug twist to her lips as she glances idly over her shoulder at her own people and then back towards their forward mounts' liveried banners.

The colors halt at Laura's whistle, and the Argent party ceases their approach as well, spreading in a fan behind the woman. The emissary lifts a gloved hand to sweep her hair back in an idle gesture, but the motion is arrested as the three of them pass the banners. Stiles sees the smug look harden to ice on the woman's face as she takes them in, eyes sliding over each of the present faces.

Laura, unsurprisingly, wastes no time on pleasantries. She lifts a hand to signal Stiles and Derek to halt as she continues a few paces forward, turning her mount to drag her uncle's corpse out into the open. She lets go the rope and circles around again to draw rein beside her brother.

The woman looks down in confusion at the body, then recognition passes over her features - quickly banked, but surprise has made her transparent.

"She was expecting Peter," Stiles finds himself saying aloud.

Derek's eyes cut over to him sharply, and Stiles swallows against the intensity in his pale gaze, but the insight is too clear for him to push aside.

"The way she rode up. The lack of real armor," he says quickly and quietly to Derek, trying to articulate his half-formed thoughts. It's too important not to and he hasn't any proof but there's a certainty in his chest, the same certainty that had told him to fear Peter and mistrust Daehler. "She was expecting an ally. A fellow conspirator. Laura, she-"

Whether she hears him, or comes to her own conclusion in response to seeing the Lord General's remains, the woman is suddenly in motion. Her sword comes out of its sheath in a flash of pale silver that arcs through the air beside her - and ends in the throat of her own soldier at her side.

The man's eyes are wide as he flails hands towards the mortal wound, body sliding to the side even as she drags the blade back and jabs it down at the mount beneath him.

Stiles's horse rears as the Argent horse screams and soldiers on both sides start shouting. He doesn't see what happens next, too busy trying to manage the headstrong and unfamiliar horse, but there's more screaming. Standards get dropped as their guards ready themselves, and Stiles wheels back around in time to see not more combat, but Hale soldiers slipping from their saddles and running across the gap to where the enemy soldiers are sprawled in the dirt.

The woman is riding headlong for the shadow of her own army, but her two guards and one of their horses are bloodied lumps in her wake. At her own hand.

"What?" Stiles says, looking to Derek in horror and seeing a grim uncertainty reflected back.

"Anything?" Laura demands, looking frustrated from where she remains astride, flicking assessing eyes across the distance to where the swelling, shifting shapes mark the rest of the Argent forces.

"No, Your Highness," one of her guards calls up, frowning in sympathy at the now-corpse of the exsanguinated soldier. The dirt beneath them is turning thick and dark with the spilt blood.

There's no time for more. The dark shapes ahead of them are resolving into a formidable passel of soldiers, riding hard with weapons drawn for the disrupted parlay.

"Fall back," Laura orders, resigned. Relief is obvious in the soldiers' faces as they hurry back past the invisible line between East and West. They pick up their standards, but keep them low, ready to be tossed aside should violence return.

Laura nudges her mount over to stand behind Peter's body again, her sword remaining carefully sheathed at her side and her mask raised. "Perhaps you should go, now, Derek," she says, voice oddly calm.

"Laura," Derek says, voice warning.

Laura remains where she is, pulled ahead of them. Stiles glances between the siblings. Derek's face is pinched with a startlingly open degree of worry. Laura sits tall and vulnerable and alone, waiting quietly as the thundering hooves approach them.

"Laura," Derek says again, and Camaro stamps impatiently, sensing his tension and shifting a scant step forward.

"If we cannot head them off, then there is little to be done. If they cannot be appeased, perhaps without me they will be merciful. If their code is to be believed…" She casts a cool glance back at the still-disorganized mass of their own troops. There's a flicker of an expression that pulls her features tight, but is smoothed away under a regal composure. Then her eyes turn back to her brother. "Take Stiles, ride home to our mother."

Derek has been glaring at her, but his eyes dart over to Stiles at the words, a look of pain slashing through his bruised features at the conflicting impulses. And Stiles… he's afraid. Part of him wants desperately to turn his spirited mount away and run and run with Derek by his side. Part of him rails at the conflicts of nations not his own. But he's sworn his oath, sworn to serve the crown because it's Derek's truth, his unshakable anchor and it's Stiles's now by extension. He shakes his head.

Derek closes his eyes and takes a sharp breath. "Laura," he says, but it's soft, and firm, and apparently nothing more needs to be said because Laura's head droops forward for the merest moment before she nods sharply and lifts it again.

And then there's no time for anything else. She lifts both her hands in a show of peace as the riders near, and Stiles's heart is stumbling over itself in its haste in his chest as he does his best to keep his limbs calm and prevent his mount from being further stimulated. The foremost rider is not a common soldier. He looks to be an Argent, from the crest worked into elegant but functional armor and shield. His face is set in something grim, but there's a caution there. Another similarly-outfitted person is behind him, and her face is furrowed in sharper lines of fury, her sword low and readied at her side.

"I would trade words with you," Laura calls, the urgency twanging in her tone. Her horse dances with the tension and she keeps her tightly reined but coiled, her other hand readied at her sword but low and waiting at her side.

For a moment it seems as though they will ride right through and fall upon them, but as they approach the point of no return, the edge of the buffer between their envoys, the man lifts his hand, calling out a sharp order to halt. The approaching soldiers reluctantly but obediently come to a stop behind them.

The woman at his side glares at him, but at the same time she seems more upset with the situation in general rather than determined to be cutting them down. Her face is lined with battle experience and her bright red hair shorn short like a soldier's under the slightly decorative helm of someone clearly of noble standing.

"Chris, Victoria," Laura calls out, a strain of relieved recognition coloring her voice as she gestures at the fallen soldiers. "Their deaths were not my doing. I entreat you, let us parlay and prevent both our nations' further suffering. I know you believe your military actions just and your code satisfied, but we have both of us been betrayed."

"What is this?" the man asks, posture wary and mouth tight with a speculative frown. But his eyes are open and searching over the macabre tableau without foreclosed anger.

"This was not our doing I swear on my life. I fear I know little more than you. When your sister saw my uncle has been executed a traitor, she attacked her own and fled."

The man stares at her with dismay.

She forges on, speaking with quiet urgency. "I know it sounds absurd, but I swear to you, that is what has just transpired. Whatever has been happening, I wish words, not battle. The queen has no want of war. We only seek to defend ourselves."

The man's face turns stony, eyes going sharp. "Be that as it may-"

"I can no longer be certain about much that has come to pass to bring us here. The late Lord General has been conspiring with someone among your own to bring us to war. Furthermore, I suspect now that your sister has been his fellow in this. I haven't proof, but perhaps you have your own suspicions."

The man's face darkens, but even Stiles can see the flicker of doubt in his eyes. Stiles can't imagine being so calm in the other's saddle, were it him to confront an enemy thus. He wonders at their familiarity, at the layers of politics and intrigue that must surely exist beyond the happenings of recent history, feeling frustrated at his own ignorance of factors at play.

There's movement beyond them, more Argent forces amassing on their position, like fire spreading from the blonde woman's insidious spark. He prays to Hazzal for rain.

"I think you know me to be no warmonger nor a tyrant. I know the same of you," Laura says, holding his gaze steady. She exudes such confidence and yet somehow manages to remain humble enough not to bluster or beg. "Whatever wrongs have been done, whatever traps have been laid, let us disable further harms with honest discourse. Let us aspire to wisdom over provocation like heirs and guardians of their realms must."

The words connect, the man sighing out a heavy breath and sheathing his sword.

"This campaign has never sat easy with me."

Laura nods her agreement.

The man, Chris, the Argent Heir gazes at his own forces a moment, frowning at the disordered swell building behind them. "Then let us stage a discourse. Let us each step back and settle our camps and return here in two hours' time and begin negotiations."

"Agreed-" Laura begins, but she's cut off by an indignant sound.

"No," the red-haired woman says sharply, her own blade very pointedly not sheathed as she rides forward. "By Velek, will you not even have the honor to speak of her?"

Chris turns to look at her, a flicker of confusion passing over his features. "Victoria?"

"Where is my daughter?" Victoria demands, surging past her husband, voice steady but vibrating with intensity. "Where is Allison?"

There's a soft ripple of surprise that spreads through the Argent soldiers as this declaration is made. Apparently the Lady's absence has been kept quiet. Laura looks to Stiles, then glances back at the Hale forces behind them. But Scott is nowhere to be found, still.

Stiles swallows against the sudden sick certainty that this is a deciding moment. A conversation that will change the fate of thousands. Of nations. He's always been just a plains-runner. A horseman and sometimes a whore. And though he's come far, he's never been a courtier, not a player on this world stage. Yet somehow here he is at the epicenter of it all.

"What?" comes the deadly-calm reply from Chris.

"They took her," Victoria says, not looking away from her opponents. "They took Allison."

Stiles feels fear wash through him in a head-lightening rush at the look of cold fury that spreads over Chris's face. The chance for peace seems suddenly much further away as he draws himself upright. "What is this?"

Derek's voice is clear and low as he says, "She was well last I saw her, several days ago now. I delivered her from Peter's treachery into the care of people I trust. She should be on her way home."

Chris looks relieved, but Victoria's expression pales further. "You cannot produce her?" she demands, clearly not taking Derek at his word.

"No," he says, not mincing words. "The only way I could protect her was to get her away from here. On Acathee's honor, I swear to you she was well and in the care of honorable people."

"You lie," Victoria hisses, brandishing her sword over the bodies of Argent soldiers next to Peter's. The angry murmurs are swelling among the soldiers behind them, and while Chris is calmer than her, he seems lost in thoughts of his daughter, eyes slipping out of focus as he reaches for his wife's shoulder and processes this news. The horse beneath Stiles shifts uneasily at the tension growing around them, twisting his head to eye the arrayed soldiers.

"We'll help you find her. We've messengers-"

"Messengers? You mean delays. Excuses. More Hale lies," Victoria replies with a bitter laugh that's echoed by growing jeers from the steadily-growing mass of soldiers behind them. "You're nothing but parasites on the realm. We've seen the suffering of your people for months now."

"If there's-" Laura tries, but Victoria stamps right past her.

"You've taken my daughter in cheap subterfuge. We're well within our rights here to put you down like the dogs you are."

Stiles feels his hands shaking against the horse's withers but he hasn't the strength to stop it. He can feel it, the tipping point approaching, and he hasn't the power to do anything. Laura and Derek look at each other and Stiles doesn't understand what transpires in the looks he sees on their faces but he knows it's terrible. It's terrible and he hears himself whisper, "No," even though he doesn't understand.

"We'll make an exchange," Laura calls out, shouting to be heard over the myriad voices.

It's enough to snap Chris back to the present and he lifts his hand for silence. Derek's already swinging down from Camaro's back, reaching for the buckles on his sword belt. Camaro stamps at him, all too aware of the recklessness of her rider stepping into this fray, but he grips her reins ruthlessly, pushes her aside as he moves to Stiles's knee and hands him up the sword belt.

"No," Stiles says again, but Derek just looks up at him long enough to meet his eyes with a horrible calm.

Then he turns and marches into the narrow space between the armies, the tiny strip of bloodied, beaten-down meadow that's all that stands between them. He lifts his hands in surrender.

"On my honor, on my life," Derek says into the sudden silence. "Lady Allison will return home safe."

He stands his ground as Victoria leaps down from her horse and strides forward, sword flashing out. The tip of it hovers over his throat, but he doesn't flinch. Camaro lurches forward and Stiles half falls, half leaps out of his own saddle to catch her by the reins, to keep her from charging into the tableau and getting Derek killed. She snaps at him, teeth catching him hard enough on the shoulder that he feels it through the leather jerkin, but he hangs on.

"She's my daughter, first of House Corde, Successeur en Bataille," Victoria says, ignoring the wary way her own husband calls her name as he too slips from his horse, swearing under his breath. "What honor could you possibly have to offer?"

The words are incendiary, spreading again through tense, tired, bloodthirsty soldiers. Stiles sees Laura's face pale as the sword presses closer and soldiers start to swell past the lines around them. She trembles, hand on the hilt of her sword but not drawing it, somehow remaining calm even in the face of what must be her worst nightmare made manifest. Chris tries to wave the soldiers back but they've lost their formation and he's shadowed by Victoria's horse and his own.

"Why shouldn't I spill your blood right here?" she demands, flicking the blade forward and doing just that, cutting a thin line over Derek's throat, enough to send crimson sliding down his neck.

Camaro whinnies in rage, surging against Stiles's grip. Her mass is more than enough to haul him forward, no matter the discomfort of the bit in her mouth. He hangs on and it throws him right into the strip of mud that buffers their two sides. For a horrifying moment he's sure that it's done nothing but give him a surreal vantage to the end of everything, even as Chris grabs at his wife's arm and Derek turns to look at him in his last moments with the narrow space beyond them trapped between the encampments nothing but empty meadow till it reaches the shadowed trees at the foothills of the mountains beyond.

Empty, save the shadow of three riders and the coppery glimmer of sunlight on unmistakable hair.

"Allison," Stiles shouts, hauling hard enough on Camaro's reins to turn her head and bank her charge in case there's still a chance at this working before Victoria slashes Derek's throat and war descends upon them anyway. With a confidence he doesn't feel, he demands, "Spare him or Allison dies."

"So you do have her?" Chris snaps, his remaining calm shattering as contempt and rage fill his face.

Victoria's eyes go wide as she hisses, "Honorless, vile-"

"Look!" Stiles yells, pointing up the disappearing column towards the hills. The shifting soldiers obscure the glimpse he'd seen, but he knows with absolute certainty he'd seen Lydia. And if Lydia rode in from the North, there could be no other-

Chris looks but Victoria just laughs cynically at the demand and tenses her sword-arm as Chris lets go in his surprise and Stiles reacts without thought. He lets Camaro loose the same moment as Derek throws himself backwards and Stiles throws himself forwards, slapping wildly at the blade in front of them.

He feels it only distantly, the way the metal rends his flesh and fresh blood spills into the space between them. Victoria makes an inarticulate sound of rage but he gets between her and Derek, wrestling messily with her as he pleads, "She's here. She's coming here and if you don't stop this madness now it'll be too late-"

"Allison!" Chris is shouting, voice loud and deep and full of desperate hope. When he shouts her name again, it's with an unmistakable sense of certainty and a parent's soul-deep relief.

It's enough that Victoria flinches, she stops trying to stab him and twists her head over her shoulder towards her husband's voice.

"Fall back," Chris demands desperately of his soldiers. "Fall back, stand down and let them pass!"

Stiles is shoved away roughly and he stumbles half to his feet, half landing on Derek. As he twists to try and right himself, he's knocked back by the shouting soldiers surging forward and falls into the path of a mass of black horseflesh that charges between them in a blur he can't even fathom before his head is smacking into the hard ground.

Chapter Text

Stiles comes back to consciousness in a rush, flailing upright and shoving at the things laid over his body, the vestiges of the bloody nightmare still pawing at him, head pounding with it. There's not much light around him and his head spins as he tries to get his bearings, but within moments he recognizes the familiar shapes around him, Derek's things, and Derek himself to one side.

The Prince is half sitting up, lying still and watching him with a hand raised to reach for him if he should need it, pale eyes little chips of faintly reflected light from the tiny gaps in the tent's seams.

Slowly Stiles realizes that the harsh breathing he's hearing is his own, and he swallows back some of the residual panic when a new sort of desperate fear fills him as he reaches for Derek, puts his hands on the bared flesh in front of him, whole though marred by much the same bruises that had been there the last time he'd seen him unclothed. He runs his fingers over them nonetheless, filled with a strange sense of disbelief.

"You're alive," he says, voice sounding far too rough and his accent coming out embarrassingly strong.

Derek snorts, cocking an eyebrow at him.

"Says the man who threw himself on an Argent sword."

"I did?" Stiles pauses in tracing Derek's healing wounds to blink up at him, then down to look at his own body. His belly is unmarred, but now that he looks, his arms are bandaged in places, and he feels an odd pressure on one of his legs. And his head is still pounding, not just from the dream but in a dull, aching sort of way that radiates from his temple. He… he tries to remember what had happened before now that had made him so certain Derek would not be well, but it's a blur of angry faces and blood and black horses.

"I don't remember."

Derek's eyes narrow, then he huffs a discontented breath and lies back in the furs again, pulling Stiles close to him without hesitation even as he scowls.

"Fool," he mutters, tucking his face into Stiles's hair and locking his arms tight around him. "Batto smiled on you anyway."

"What happened?" Stiles asks against his shoulder, clinging back with equal force and feeling breathless with the fact that they both have strength enough left for it.

Derek sighs, sliding a warm hand the breadth of his back, callouses rough over his skin in a way that has him humming in appreciation and considering whether he might take the touching in another direction altogether.

"We almost fell to war at the Parlay. I surrendered as a placeholder for Allison but Victoria Argent had a blade to my throat, unappeased," Derek says, voice terse with the weight of it. "They'd have fallen on us but you alone saw the Lady Allison coming. You stopped them, the entire Argent army."

"And then?" Stiles asks, incredulous, head spinning as he tries to place the fractured memories together in his aching skull.

Derek frowns at him, grunting in annoyance. "And then your damned horse knocked you down and nearly killed you."

Stiles can't help it, he laughs. It's something wild and hysterical but he laughs and laughs and climbs bodily into Derek's lap, straddling him and cradling his face with his hands, rubbing his thumbs through the ragged texture of his beard. He kisses him, because he can, because they're alive and…

Derek tightens his arms around him, groaning softly against his mouth in what is surely partially pain, but his hands skim down under the furs to cup Stiles's backside and rock their hips together in what is surely pleasure. He can feel him hardening quickly against the underside of his thigh and he deepens the kiss, following the glide of his tongue with a roll of his hips that gratifies both of them.

It's not enough, though, and he shifts, gets ready to slip a hand down between them to adjust their options, when Derek growls low in his throat and rolls them, pressing Stiles down into the piled mess of furs and rubbing the length of his body against him. Before Stiles can do more than dizzily clutch at him and try to regain some equilibrium from his aching head, Derek is sliding down, hauling Stiles's legs apart and settling his broad shoulders between them.

Derek's mouth is on him before he even processes the change, and his whole body jolts at the warm slick contact on his growing erection.

"Priestesses pampered pussy," he blurts, laughing again in overwhelmed, delighted pleasure. That Derek would do this not once for him, not twice, but again and again and perhaps forever. It fills him with a bubbling sense of something he can't even contain. "Derek," he breathes, tangling his fingers in his lord's hair, because he can.

Derek hums low and swallows more of him, unpracticed and stiff and so very perfect. His arms bracket Stiles, hold him steady and brace him up as he chases Stiles's pleasure with the stroke of his tongue. His beard is rough against Stiles's thigh in a way that sends little prickles of sensation twitching through him.

Derek's scalp is warm with sweat under his fingers, the strands damp and smooth as he runs his hands along with the motion of his head. He still wouldn't dare urge him deeper or faster, but he feels part of this in a way he never had imagined before Derek.

It's easy to give in that way, to let the pleasure come, though the residual dizziness helps with that too. Derek's tongue is yet unskilled but earnest. He chases the sound of Stiles's hums and moans as though Stiles's body is a battlefield to be dominated.

Stiles makes an awkward move towards him, limbs still too loose and aching to be coordinated. Derek simply ignores his efforts, shifting up onto his knees and laying his body half along Stiles's, settling between his legs and pulling him close. He takes himself in hand, strokes short and sure. His eyes are sharp and searching and unarmored as he simply gazes down at Stiles, lips parted over shortening breaths as his hand moves.

For once, Stiles lets himself just lie there, just be. He doesn't pose himself or press closer or try and join in and service him. He lets the role of slave and whore fall away entirely in this moment and just looks back at him. He touches his own softening cock, gently savoring the echo of pleasure, the feeling of shared sensuality as Derek's body tenses over him.

It's beautiful, watching him, the way his mouth tightens, his body bowing in, eyes flickering heavy and nearly closed. His breath is sharp, warm and wet against Stiles's neck as he curls against him and starts to come. It lands heavy and slick on Stiles's hand, his belly and his spent cock. It feels like a blessing, like Kahlah's benediction over everything between them. Or perhaps that's just his knock to the head giving everything a foolish glow. He can't help but smile, can't help the gentle laugh that burbles up in his throat as he wraps his arm around Derek's neck and pulls them into each other. He kisses the scarred lines of Derek's cheek and ear and temple and holds him close.

 

-o0o-

 

Later, but not by much, Derek shakes off the soft trappings of their bed and forces himself to rise. The worst of it has perhaps now come and gone, but Acathee knows there's still much to be done. He leaves Stiles where he lays, snuggled deep into the furs, snoring softly again with his mouth hanging open, hair a rumpled mess. The fact that he stands there a moment, gazing down at him is reason enough to laugh at himself and the world at large as he digs around in the messy remains of his belongings for clean clothes and appropriate armors.

Next he'll be laying wreaths at Mavet's hall.

The clack of knuckles against the board by his tent is verification that he mustn't indulge himself further for the time being.

"Boyd," he greets as the flap parts. He drags his light leather jerkin over his head as he stands, finishing the light ensemble.

"My Lord," Boyd responds, face softened with the relief he clearly feels at the way things have developed. "It is good to see you well. Or well enough," he concedes with a nod and critical eye for Derek's visible bruises. But they've both seen each other with far worse.

"And you," Derek says, accepting his affection with a handclasp and nodding in return. He casts a glance down at Stiles, who sleeps on despite the soft disruption, then gestures towards the outside.

Boyd cocks an eyebrow at him and Stiles beyond, but turns and leads the way out of the tent. "The Heir has asked I fetch you, if you were not indisposed."

Derek snorts and ducks out of the tent after him. The sun is high overhead, the clouds thin things that have mostly burned away. There's little breeze, and the scents of the army are heavy around them, earthy and human and not entirely pleasant, but far better than the stench of char and blood and fear that might have been.

"And what news of the conflict?" he asks, frowning at himself for it. He's been far too indulgent, though Laura hadn't seemed to think so yesterday when he'd abandoned them at her behest, carrying Stiles to the veneer of safety his tent had yielded.

Boyd's broad lips twitch into a smile and he says, "There's a declaration of stay-of-arms. The Lady Allison has made a statement of peaceful intent, seconded by her father The Successeur, which her king can override, but only in grave dishonor. The Heir's to negotiate on the morrow."

He nods sharply, relieved beyond measure. That the Lady Allison had been returned to them in time… well, he'll be making plenty of offerings at Acathee's temple when he returns home. Boyd updates him briefly on his people, who are all well save the inevitable injury or illness here and there. He's been coordinating the watch with Laura's own lieutenants, filling in for those among Whittemore's ilk who can't yet be trusted. It isn't perfect, and he's more soldiers on guard than can be sustained for long, but then there's every reason to hope that hostilities are at an end. And Derek agrees; guarding against the threat of last-minute infiltrations to destabilize the peace negotiations is the most important task now.

The bulk of Laura's forces are still a ways out - if she hasn't already sent riders to send them back East where they belong. Still, he's not surprised to find that she's adopted their Uncle's tent with a pragmatic eye. If his skin crawls when he ducks into the tent, it's not because she hasn't had it gutted of any personal effects as best she can. It may not be pleasant but she needs the trappings of rank if the Argents ever come this way.

She's sitting on a stool at the table, vellum in her hands as she sketches out the end of a letter in her swooping, rapid scrawl. She glances over at him, eyes sharpening as they take his measure for a brief once-over, but she seems satisfied enough with that and leaves him to wait a moment as she resumes the final paragraph of her writ.

"How is he?" she asks, the dark curtain of her hair blocking his sight of her features.

"Fine. Resting," he replies, frowning down at the map on her table with its markers in updated locations for their scattered forces. More scouts must have returned while he slept. It's truly terrifying to consider how weak their position had become at Peter's machinations.

"What can I do to help? Have we had a messenger from Isaac yet?" he asks, tapping the marker furthest to the northwest.

"They'll have gotten the order to return home, but we've not had their rider back. Later today, I'd expect," she says with a shrug as she melts the wax onto the folded parchment. "He's the wary sort, I'm sure he'll come himself, but he'll follow his orders and not come down hard, yes?"

"Yes," Derek says, watching as she presses her signet into the wax, then scrawls the word 'mother' on the front of the letter.

She nods, blowing on the ink a moment, then sets it to cool atop another already labeled 'the crown'. Neither will likely escape some form of spying, so they'll have kept out details best shared in person, but their mother will appreciate the personal note in addition to the formal reports.

"You'll take these to her for me," she says, confident and calm and a hair dismissive.

Or perhaps simply with the tone of an elder sister. He grunts and says, "And have her wait?"

She arches an eyebrow, nudging her sword as she shifts to lean against the table and gaze steadily up at him. There are lines of stress on her brow and her eyes are tight with weariness, but she smirks at him anyway and says, "Were you planning on taking a scenic detour home?"

He glowers, feeling oddly at ease with his annoyance, with being free to express it without the machinations of his uncle and the eggshells of war. Laura he trusts not to retaliate further than a prank or two at most even for his rudest.

"Derek, I'm sending you home," she says firmly. "Your presence here has been… I likely will never find the words to express how grateful I am for what you've done here, how you've protected your home. You deserve to rest now."

He makes to interrupt, but she lifts an irritating staying hand.

"And, grateful as I am, I need you not to be around for the negotiations."

He purses his lips, but lifts his eyebrows in query to request an explanation rather than argue blindly.

She sighs, looking down at the map, at its worn edges and markings drawn and erased and redrawn over the course of this campaign. "You may have won something of Lady Allison's trust back, but the fact remains that you were her original captor. The Argents will not forget that lightly. It's best if you're not around to remind them."

He frowns, then drags the second stool over with his boot, sitting down beside her and leaning his elbow against the table to brace his ribs more easily. She's not wrong.

"You should take Peter's body home," she adds, not quite looking at him. Her stare lands somewhere distant, somewhere he can't see. The cost of a decision with no easy answers. As justified as she'd been, as generous as she'd been giving him the chance to die as he had…

He sets his hand on her shoulder, squeezes it and nods. "I'll take him back to Mother."

It's only fair that he take what he can of her burden now, and if he can spare his sister the pain of bringing their mother's brother to her, then he will.

She nods, then blinks away the distant stare and turns her attention back to the papers in front of her.

"Found anything in Peter's things?" he asks.

She shakes her head. "Nothing damning. He was too clever to leave evidence lying around." She grunts in disapproval and drags her fingers through her hair. "At this rate we may never find out the scope of his true intentions."

"Of that I am certain," Derek agrees, grimacing as he thinks on his own obtuseness these past months, or Whittemore's fervent and yet twisted patriotism. "Even among his allies we'll find few who knew anything but half-truths and misdirections."

She sighs heavily, nudging the papers further back into the satchel they've been gathered into. "This one's for Khotol and the bards to work out."

He huffs a faint laugh and says, "In everything we do, Your Highness."

She smiles a little for it, through the weariness of her mantle, then nods and stacks the last of her letters together. She hands them to him and nods her dismissal.

"Thank you, brother and take care that you and Stiles get home safely."

He pauses at the mention of Stiles and her implicit blessing. Feeling abruptly like a younger brother, wanting his sister's advice, he tries to pull his thoughts together into something worth voicing. But she's already turned her attention back to the piles of work before her. She has far more important things to attend to at the moment.

"You as well," he says quietly, taking one last look at her, face bent over her work, family brows furrowed as she waves an absent hand at her brother in parting.

He steps out of the tent feeling pensive, but before he can even begin to unpack his thoughts, the unexpected but welcome sight of Erica snatches up his attention. She's waiting at the main campfire, talking with some of her appropriated minions, though at the sight of him she cuts herself off and waves them onward to other tasks.

The bulk of Boyd's forces are still on the approach, but he is unsurprised to find that she had come at the fore with him. With her husband, as he is now. Her face is so familiar, so much a sign that things will be well handled, it pains him to remember that it is not to his home in the capitol that she will return to now that the war is over.

"My Lord," she calls to him, bright and happy and her unruly mane bounces with her as she hurries over to him, a broad smile on her face. There are, to his dismay, tears in her dark eyes as she stands before him and says again, more softly, "My Lord."

And when he smiles at her in return, it stretches his bruised face and pulls at the scars, but it feels right, good.

She nods, planting a hand on the swell of her hip as she turns and brushes at her eyes with the other, feigning a lack of tears with a brisk, "Well then, I hear you're to set out as soon as you can. You'll want your things later, I expect?"

He nods, but it's unnecessary and she's already adding, "I'll pick a guard or three for the watch and the mortal detail. A few servants for the logistics. Keep it light but let you rest. Stiles is seeing to your…" she gestures at the bruising visible on his face, but her smile turns feline and her eyes sparkle as she tilts her head and says, "your other needs, I presume."

He attempts a stern expression and arches a brow, but as always, she ignores it and smirks back at him with an arched brow of her own.

"Just need to make sure you're being taken proper care of," she continues, quirking her mouth at him as she pauses for effect. "How's his… performance?"

"Erica," he grumbles, staring her down.

"My Lord."

He glares. She, of course, shows no sign of being cowed by him in any form. He just hardens his jaw until she rolls her eyes.

"Joking aside," she says, smile smoothing out. "He's what I wanted to talk to you about. I hear he may have saved not only your life but our entire nation…" she says, lips pursing as she gazes up at him. "What are your plans for him?"

"You have an opinion on the matter?" he says instead of answering a question he isn't sure he can.

She takes a deep breath, shoulders shifting towards something quite determined as she digs into the pouch on her belt. "Well, it sounds perhaps as though he deserves some compensation. A soldier might be granted coin or even holdings, but a slave… I'm not sure what these services rendered to the crown means for the remainder of his contract. You probably hadn't the time to look before," she says, folding a paper out for him. "It's not a terribly long term, actually."

He hadn't, of course, seen the papers before. There'd hardly been time or need. It is as she had said. Stiles's terms of service had only been drawn up to last a few years to pay off some debts. He stares at the sheet. Clearly in Erica's eyes, Stiles has done more than enough to have earned back the entirety of his service. Though he cannot argue with her on that point, part of him rebels violently at the idea of severing that tie between them.

As he skims over the terms of indenture, he reminds himself that he was always going to have to do this. It is as with anyone his uncle had purchased for him. He's never kept them to the original terms as body slaves, offering choices of where to best suit their skills and preferences. It was what he'd intended Erica do with Stiles at the start, though he cannot regret that she'd decided otherwise, for so many reasons.

Still, it's not as easy as it should be, not like the others. Yes, he'd known he'd have to do this but… it had been eventually. Some time in the after. After all their immediate troubles. After the war.

The fact that both the war and much of his current responsibilities are soon to be things of the past is not something he'd truly expected to have to face. Now the question becomes whether he can do it now. Whether he can give him up so soon. He's not certain that the meager years listed in the contract wouldn't have been too soon even without the special circumstances that ought to erase the debt entirely.

Erica hums and turns her head, sending a riot of golden curls spilling over her shoulder and the motion draws his eyes up to follow her gaze. It's Stiles, making his way up the main path, dressed in a tunic that's too large for him, rubbing sleep from his eyes. Stiles's face brightens when he spots them and moves towards them at a more purposeful pace.

"You'll be wanting to get home first, though, I'm sure," Erica says as Derek folds the parchment away into his vest. Her gaze is a bit too shrewd when he looks back at her and her voice too patently brisk.

He grunts in response and lets the difficult question slip away with the parchment as he turns his attention to the more immediate demands on his person as Stiles steps up beside him. It's one of his tunics Stiles is wearing. He wonders whether the choice is deliberate or happenstance out of the chaos recent events have wrought on his belongings, but that too is a dangerous direction of thought at the moment.

"The Heir has spoken. We're to be on our way to the crown with the Lord General's remains," he reiterates for Stiles's benefit.

"Well then," Erica says more softly. "I'll go see to that. Give me an hour?"

"At your pace," he replies, shaking his head. "We've yet to break our fast, and a few other considerations to give thought before we go."

She eyes him, but then relaxes a bit and nods.

"Good to see you again, Stiles," Erica says, though she reaches out and takes his chin in hand, tilting his head to get a look at the scrape on his crown. She frowns at it and takes up his wrist and inspects his bandaged arms next, and makes a disagreeable sound at the sight, but lets him go with a nod and says. "I hear you've done very well." After a pause, she smirks at Derek and adds, "in all your duties."

Derek sighs.

Stiles grins at her and then casts a sidelong look Derek's direction as he tells her, "Well, it was a lot of hard work but I did my best."

She barks a laugh, then arches an eyebrow at Derek, smirking all the while as she turns and sidles away towards her workers.

He glares. It has little effect on either of them.

 

-o0o-

 

Stiles's aching head is mild enough that after a good meal and a brief nap while Derek makes final preparations, they set out without further delay. Between his injuries and the spirited mount he's managing, it's not the most comfortable ride he's ever had. Though he puts on his best impression of fortitude he's plenty relieved when Derek finally calls for them to make camp late into the evening.

Though he can tell it discomfits Derek to do it, he lets the soldiers and servants handle all of the work of setting up camp and guarding their rest, allowing the two of them to make a quick meal of dried meat and cheese and then head straight to bed. The first night they are both so weary from the accumulated aches and pains, the worries and unexpected shifts beneath them these past days that they strip half out of their clothes and crawl together silent in the bedroll - of which Erica has, again, only packed the one. That fact seems to frustrate Derek, though Stiles finds his half-coherent grumbling amusing as they struggle again with the narrow confines of the wrap and tumble quickly under the wings of Irzet.

The sleep does him good. In the morning he feels refreshed and Stiles spends much of the next day actively working with his new mount. The beast gets worked up easily, keeping him alert lest he find himself unseated. As it is, he knows he'll be a bit sore with his thighs and arms working more than usual to keep him in the saddle. He'd expected as much of the horse, the lack of familiar people and likely the nearby scent of growing decay from his former master setting him on edge, so Stiles lets him run ahead a bit from the others, gives him some freedom. Perhaps it's just the fact that Stiles is letting him run at times, is listening to him that is making him want to test the limits, to see just when Stiles will stop him or if he'll miss a cue. As far as anyone knew, of those he'd been able to ask before they left, the lord general hadn't even given him a name, so Stiles just calls him boy and hopes Pajatal rides with him while he has stewardship of the creature, or at least long enough to undo some of the damage done by Peter's hand.

The running does them both good, and having this bit of his old life to concentrate on certainly distracts from memories of the tumultuous days of recent past. There are plenty of things he's happy to let crumble in the wind and fade away.

Still, he keeps a watchful eye on Derek. When he'd looked him over that morning as they'd dressed he'd seemed well enough, but he still has his worries. The bruises are developing through their cycle, some beginning to fade, others like the biggest on his ribs only just showing their darker shades. As the day stretches on, however, he shows no sign of worse injuries, not turning sallow or feverish. If he's quiet, Stiles supposes that's hardly far from normal, though he does seem particularly lost to his thoughts.

Of course, Stiles isn't the only one with memories he'd rather not relive.

More than anything Derek seems tired when he finally comes in to join him by the fire that evening, so Stiles rambles on a bit about the horse. Derek doesn't say much, but he watches Stiles talk, eyes steady and unwavering in their regard. It's different, having the space to talk, no more weight of the oncoming war. When they go to bed, Derek just curls him close to his chest even though he grunts when Stiles's elbow clips the bruised ribs. He breathes in against Stiles's hair and weariness settles heavily about him.

On the third day they finally come to something resembling civilization. They pass through a little hamlet, then another, then a large farm. The servants in their party barter for a bit of fresh food and other supplies at each stop, spreading out the burden on the locals at Derek's behest.

They settle in for the night at an old stable that's seen better days, but promises to be good protection from the evening winds. Better still there's an evening meal cooked in the farmers' kitchen. Though once again stretched into a stew to feed the unexpected additions to the table, the meat is seasoned brightly with herbs and spices they've been long without in the field and the fruit is plentiful and fresh. For Stiles, much of it would be an exotic treat even if it hadn't been a long time since he'd eaten much other than army gruel and dried foods. The trees are heavy with apples and pears and other fruits he's never seen before and most every house they had passed by during the day had kept more than one tree of their own. They share generously and it makes for a rich meal that soothes more aches than just that of hunger.

The locals seem intimidated by Derek and other than some obligatory obeisance, they leave him be, choosing to sneak glances and whisper among themselves. Stiles gets a similar treatment, though he can't tell whether it is because of his close proximity to a prince or his northern looks which set him apart. The others in their party are certainly met with eager curiosity and they are equally pleased to be sharing their news and stories from the front.

Derek eats in methodical silence. Though the farmers leave him be, he is not content to linger. He eats swiftly and frowns at Stiles's bowl when he is finished but Stiles is not, though he says nothing.

When Derek rises, the room falls to an immediate hush, every person in the group either averting their gazes or looking on surreptitiously with wide eyes. After the months with the army, where soldiers were clearly intimidated but rarely frightened by him, it seems strange to see such nerves. He wonders whether Derek is used to such things, then considers how very different things are likely to become the closer they get to the crown city. When Derek briefly and formally thanks the matron of the home, then disappears without a glance back, Stiles is struck with a sudden, desperate feeling of fading. Of being at ends.

The room lightens a bit without Derek's presence and a few more curious glances start heading his way as he works through the rest of his stew. He could stay here, he realizes. Derek's made no demands of him. Not for days. In fact, not since they'd set in motion the events to end the war. There's a distance, and it seems as though that distance is only growing.

He hurries to finish his meal and duck out. It's easily done. Even without Derek beside him, it seems his seat next to the prince or his slightly exotic looks have left him sufficiently disengaged that all attention remains on the soldiers and their tales as he drops off his bowl and bows out from the farmhouse kitchen.

The transition from the hearty warmth of hearth and home is jarring, but something of a relief as the jovial voices fade behind him. The night air is cool, the approach of cooler months not yet truly there, but the specter of them is in the whispered distant winds over the fields beyond the barn. It's not peaceful. It has a bite. But it is freeing.

He finds Derek in the shadow of the house looking out over the garden, leaning against the fence post perhaps more heavily than he might normally. The journey has surely been wearying on his injuries, though he has spoken little of them. Still, his posture is regal at its core and Stiles hesitates for a moment, feeling that same ghost of intimidation.

Lord Hale hasn't asked anything of him, had left him without a glance. Perhaps it means he wants him to remain elsewhere. Stiles considers retreating and leaving him to his thoughts, but before he can move away, Derek turns his head and catches sight of him.

He holds his gaze a moment, something running low and heavy in it, something that sucks the breath from Stiles's chest.

"Walk with me," Derek says, voice quiet but carrying over the empty night easily enough. His lips flatten and he drops his gaze before he says, "If you wish, that is."

Stiles is uncertain as to the tone, but there's no other choice he'd rather make, so he makes his way along the packed dirt of the garden path and then falls into step beside him as the prince sets out on a trajectory that takes them away from the buildings of the homestead.

For a while the invitation itself is the extent of what Derek utters, their soft footfalls the only counterpoint to the whispering wind. Stiles can sense the tension in Derek's shoulders, see the way his frown pulls at the scarring on his cheek. Stiles lets him have the silence for as long as he can, but silence has never been his strongest talent and since the longer they walk, the more tense Derek gets, eventually he takes his lover by the hand and draws them both to a halt in the shadow of an ancient gnarled tree.

Derek still doesn't speak, but he does reach into his tunic and draw out a folded sheet of vellum. He hands it to Stiles, nods at him with an encouraging gesture when Stiles looks at him in question.

There's enough moonlight for him to just barely see dark ink on a pale page. Carefully he folds out the sheet, rights it once he figures out which direction the letters are going, but once he gets a look at it properly, he nearly drops it from jerking hands. He's seen the writ before, with Erica, so it's easier to read the scrawl than it might have been otherwise. It's just as well, given the way tears threaten to occlude his sight the instant he understands. The letter promises him ownership of the horse he's been riding and a tidy sum besides, but the indelible freedom of his life is most precious of all. He cradles it to his chest over his pounding heart, folds it closed and tucks it away inside his shirt where it will be safe and he can feel it against his skin.

There's such an awful tenderness in the way Derek looks down at him, eyes hardly visible in the night, face in craggy shadows. Stiles can't help but press his hands to Derek's face, framing him as he tries to find the words to express himself. They don't come, so he gives up and kisses him instead.

Derek returns the embrace for a moment, but when Stiles deepens the kiss and sends a searching touch under Derek's cloak, he pulls away, taking Stiles's wrists in his hands and gently but firmly putting him from him.

"You needn't…" he says, voice low and gruff. He doesn't finish his sentence, just shakes his head.

"I know," Stiles says, smirking at him, reminded abruptly of that first morning together when Derek had been insistent that he'd not bed his own body slave. When he'd finally relented, he'd been so intent on the evidence of Stiles's own enjoyment of it. So unlike so many people who'd had power over Stiles in the past.

Derek regards him in the darkness, his face settling into grim lines as Stiles leans into the grip on his wrists. He's glad he knows better than to see anger in those hard lines and dark looks.

Derek grunts, a frustrated sound as he folds, takes Stiles's mouth with a harsh kiss. It's teeth and hard fingers and the heavy scent of travel worn leather. It's different, the both of them wearing light armor for travel rather than the bare intimacy of linen and fur inside the confines of their tent. Then again, a great many things may be different now. They're going back to a different world than the muddied plains to the west where they first met. A world of civilization and a culture he's only just getting to know. Stiles is no longer a slave but a free man, one with the gratitude of the crown.

It's enough to make him feel almost giddy with anticipation for what is to come. He smiles against Derek's mouth, and he can feel the confusion in him when he lifts his head, breaking the kiss to try and get a look at Stiles's face.

But Stiles just laughs quietly and shakes his head, takes him by the wrist and draws him around to the far side of the old tree where its ragged roots form a ridge, half-upturned from some long-past storm. Derek catches his intent quickly and turns them both, presses Stiles back against the wood, hands steadying his hips.

Stiles pulls him close, threads his fingers through Derek's hair as he kisses him again. There's a desperate edge to Derek's touch and it makes Stiles wonder if Derek hasn't shared his sense of hope about all this. Makes him wonder what Derek thought giving him his freedom would mean - what he might intend for it to mean. But then the man sets methodical hands to the laces holding his breeches closed and Stiles doesn't think about much of anything at all.

The night air is not stagnant and sneaks in cold against heated skin as their clothing is dragged askew and openings made. It's bright contrast, sensation that builds on itself as they seek each other out. Stiles hums with it when Derek's cool, rough palm closes over him, strokes him from base to tip and then back again. It's enough to have his knees trembling as his focus narrows past mundane things like staying standing.

He wants more than his hand, though he presses into it readily enough. It takes a moment, but it soon sinks in that he has a choice, he truly has the freedom to ask for what he wants rather than the duty to submit to whatever pleases his Lord. It's been a long time since he's had that freedom, and it's been far too long since he had Derek inside him. He refuses to let this chance pass him by.

It's too cold, too out in the open to take off more clothing, to be laid out under his lover like Stiles really wants, but he'll make do. He pulls free from Derek's grip and turns around, shimmies his clothes down just enough for what he needs and presses his backside against Derek's lap as he leans forward over the ridge of one of the nearby protuberances of root.

"Please," he whispers when Derek hesitates, like the word will break the silence that's wrapped around them in the curling wind.

The hand that's come to curl over his hip tightens, grinds him back against the patches of warm skin that have been freed from cool leathers. Derek breathes out a soft sound, then shifts his clothing again, getting more of their skin in close contact. The tip of him is damp where it nudges against the back of Stiles's thigh, but it's not enough to smooth the way. Stiles doesn't care. He doesn't care if it hurts, he wants it anyway and he's about to say as much when he is preempted by Derek's fingers tracing the crease of his backside with slick fingers.

"Oh," he says, almost laughing with pleasure as those fingers are swiftly followed with the thicker weight of Derek's shaft gliding between them, coating them both in a quick approximation of thoroughness.

He twists his head back over his shoulder to catch sight of Derek glaring in frustration at trying to manage the little oil pouch back into his displaced belt one-handed and laughs when Derek just gives up and drops it in the dirt. He watches as his lover, backed by nothing but the moon and the canopy of stars, steadies his hips and guides himself into the press of his body.

It hurts, of course it hurts. He's well tight after so long without, but he doesn't care. He wants to feel it, wants to feel his body opening up to it. The wind chases its little curling fingers in the gaps in his clothing, wraps around the curve of his ear and steals the moan from his lips as Derek pushes deep into him, mates them to the hilt.

He reaches down to find the hand that Derek has on his hip, grips him tight as he holds there, buried inside him. A perfect moment. He closes his eyes and feels the wind on his skin and the heat of his lover and whispers thanks to Pajatal and the winds for guiding them both back to each other. When Derek finally pulls back to thrust anew, a little bit of his heart aches with the loss.

It is soon assuaged by the waves of raw sensation the fucking brings. He feels immersed to his ends, swimming in the feeling of everything around him. The wild air, the rough roots under his fingers, the pleasure-pain inside him, the steadiness of Derek's touch. It takes them no time at all to find their rhythm in each other, this familiar dance. Stiles sways with him in counterpoint, braces against the impact so that they might come together that much harder. He doesn't swallow back the sounds of his pleasure, he doesn't need to. They're far enough away from the others, from anyone who might hear that he can be free with it.

Derek seems to appreciate it too, hands tightening where they hold him and putting the leverage to good use. He aches from the force of it and clings all the harder to the hand Derek has on his hip as the rest of his body relaxes into to penetration. When Derek's other hand braces against his shoulder and forces his back to arch, Stiles's cock slips free from his twisted clothing as they move, starts swaying with each thrust and bouncing against his thigh until he can ignore it no longer. He lets go of Derek's hand to take himself up as he fucks himself back against him.

The warmth of his hand is a shock after the cool air and he groans, shifting his stance and flexing into it. The shift drives Derek at a steeper angle inside him and his knees go suddenly weak with the combined forces of pleasure. He leans hard against the upturned tree and Derek shifts with him, pulls him closer and drives into him even harder as he trembles. His breath comes in hot little gusts against the back of his neck, tingling where sweat is beginning to bead at his hairline.

Perhaps if this were another time he'd linger over his pleasures, he'd slow down and savor the sensations and the moment. As it is, the freedom to do as he chooses is a rush and Stiles strokes himself fast and rough, lets every stroke drive him higher from inside and out, head hanging loose against his shoulder as he loses himself into it.

Derek does not relent either. He bends close behind Stiles, sets his teeth against his neck as he fucks him, biting hard enough to sting. It's all he needs to send him over. He flinches stiff under him, breath catching on a grunt as he spills himself into his fingers and the dirt below.

Derek holds him up when his legs threaten to give, bracing Stiles's body against the tree and taking his own pleasure with the same intensity. He burrows his face in against the side of Stiles's head, lips moving aimlessly over his skin as he gasps out his pleasures. Stiles fumbles a pleasure-drunk hand up to tangle in his hair, to pull him close. His voice trembles on a word that doesn't form as he thrusts deep one more time and finds his peak. Stiles can feel him spill inside him, heavy pulses wet and hot at his core. It feels exactly as good as he'd known it would.

Derek's breathing is heavy against his neck, intimate and warm, his beard rough against the skin. Stiles shifts enough to brush his lips against Derek's cheekbone, then eases away from him to put himself as much to rights as he can manage before the night sets in too harshly. He'll feel this tomorrow when he's riding his horse, but he's glad of it.

His horse. His horse.

He can hear Derek doing similarly behind him, and he turns and bites his lip to keep from laughing with delight over all of it. He cups a hand along Derek's jaw, grins at the solemn expression he sees there. Derek's hand joins his, calloused skin curled around the back of his wrist and Stiles pecks a kiss to Derek's lips again before he, probably sounding quite foolishly breathless, says, "I should go see to the horses."

Derek frowns at him, as well he might since the horses are fine, they both know it, but Stiles doesn't care if it's foolish.

"If you wish," Derek replies, still frowning as he drops his hand again, letting go of him.

"And you should go rest. Go. I won't be long," he says as he nudges Derek's arm and then trots out onto the garden path again, turning in the direction of the borrowed paddocks on the far side of the barn to where his horse is.

His horse.

 

-o0o-

 

They ride out early. Sleep had not come easily to Derek as he'd watched Stiles sleeping against his side, and it had abandoned him before the first rays of the morning sun. Given that they would do well not to delay getting his sister's letters and his uncle's body home, he gives in to his impatience and rouses his people to set out at first light. If they make a good pace, they might make it all the way to the capitol before nightfall.

The others are sleepy and quiet as they navigate the widening road leading east. The villages they pass are more populous, though their inhabitants are all busy with morning chores, working their fields and pausing to shield their eyes against the early sun as their party passes. At one point, Derek isn't certain that Stiles isn't actually asleep in his saddle. His eyes are closed, and his body sways with the motion of the horse in a fluid manner that makes him seem like he's simply an extension of the animal. But when the stallion decides to spook at an imagined bit of wildlife or perhaps a sidelong glance from Camaro, Stiles tightens his hold on the reins readily-enough, shifting his body and keeping the beast in check with ease, all grace and golden-skinned strength as he guides him into expending his nervous energy in a controlled manner. He laughs to himself and makes clicking noises with his tongue as he works his mount. He looks happy.

If they were alone, Derek thinks he'd cut Camaro loose to race him until they were all sweaty and exhausted and then find some pretty green clearing to lay him down in and show him just how much he enjoys the sight of him like that.

And if he weren't afraid that last night had been Stiles granting him a finale.

Sometime mid-morn, they come to a meeting of the great international roads. The intersection is marked with elegant stone cairns and a large carved sign, the Hale crest borne proudly and arrows directing the traveler at the big fork. Ten more miles and they should begin to see the hamlets on the outskirts of Beacon Hills. Twenty and they'll be at the end of their journey. Derek draws them to a halt there, the small group of them gazing about at the simple but somehow poignant sign of home.

Home, to all but one of them. One branch points north, the name of a city inscribed below, a city where Stiles might feel this pull of home that's currently tight in Derek's chest. Freedom and home await him there, distant though they may be at the moment.

He won't try to stop Stiles, he realizes, if the newly-free man turns his mount north and rides away without even a word. He'll let him go if that's what he wants. Acathee's blood, he'd follow him, if he didn't have a pressing duty to return home.

The knowledge sits heavy in his chest as he stares at the sign for the northern city, though he can't bring himself to regret that imagined decision. He had visited it once as a child. He wonders idly whether it's changed. Perhaps one day he'll visit, if…

The confused shifting about of the soldiers that accompany them draws his attention back to the moment. Derek realizes belatedly he's given them no indication of why they'd stopped. Stiles is gazing at him curiously when he finally looks over. His hands are relaxed but steady on the reins where he holds the warhorse beneath him with ease even as the beast steps about impatiently.

Derek takes a deep breath and nudges Camaro east, gives her a bit of her head and lets them break into a trot, then a canter. He won't stop him but he won't encourage him to go either. Though it shames him to think on his slow deliberations these past few days, giving him his freedom had been difficult enough. He can do no more.

When he eventually glances back over his shoulder, he finds Stiles following right behind, eyes on him, intent as ever. If he's thought anything of the choice - if he's even realized he's made one, none of it shows on his face. Stiles's look begins to turn curious, and Derek schools his features as he turns his gaze eastward again, lest the relief show on his.

Chapter Text

It takes the best part of the day till they get to the city and Derek couldn't want for a finer sight than the setting sun casting its amber rays over the sturdy Hale architecture. They favor simple stonework, unlike their counterparts to the west, and use little of the gilding seen in the north, but he finds it beautiful in its modesty. Theirs has always been a nation of efficiencies over extravagances.

Even still, the city is not without some adornment, being the largest and grandest of their people's gatherings. Art abounds in the spaces between strong stonework, mosaics pieced together out of glass and clay or paintings that follow their creator's whims. The gardens are full and well-tended and make the city more fresh and vibrant than it might otherwise be with so much stone and so many people.

Derek takes a deep breath, lets it settle in him. He catches the faint scent of the royal orchards even this far to the front of the city, delicate fruit tones settling over the more human city smells. It's familiar to him, comforting as they turn down the main road leading up the slight hill to where their keep sits and catches the most of the remaining sun. Centermost, down the long lines of well-loved orchards, a beacon for which the city was named.

When he glances over at Stiles, he finds him wide-eyed with wonder and Derek feels something akin to relief amidst his pride. Stiles too is beautiful in the evening light, the golden adornments in his ears catching it here and there. It makes Derek want to give him more of the trinkets, though he knows not where he'll find such things here in the south. Or if such gifts would be welcome, now that Stiles is a free man.

As Stiles looks on the city, plenty look back. People are thronging towards the main thoroughfare, gathering in windows and doors and along side streets as word spreads fast ahead of them. That they return with good tidings - albeit not entirely victorious yet - is gleaned easily enough from the others in their retinue. The soldiers and servants with them smile and wave and call out to familiar faces, answer questions while Derek remains his usual quiet self. The shrouded body of his uncle, however, gets many more whispers and worried looks. Laura had discussed it with him before they'd set out. They hadn't sent anything but the barest word of the state of conflict with the Argents ahead with the scout rider, not wanting this news delivered so roughly to their mother. But even bringing the news in person won't make it a private affair.

He nudges Camaro up a pace as he watches people run ahead to spread the news of their appearance. He won't want to delay this long. Better it be done swiftly.

Guards at the keep are already arrayed along the orchard-lined pavilion that leads up to the main hall, shaping up into a formal attendance as they near. Still, it's only a precaution and a formality. That he had been recognized at the outermost guardpost has certainly already been passed up to them. The captain of the guard breaks rank to fall in beside Derek, as is protocol, but the woman doesn't press for information. Whether because of her familiarity with Derek's character or because of the sense of tension that hangs over the party, he cares not. He is simply relieved not to be accosted and forced to attempt (and likely fail) to find the right words, which will inevitably have ramifications as gossip spreads no matter what he does.

When they draw to a halt in the courtyard the tension remains, though grooms and servants slip past the soldiers to take hold of the horses. They know enough not to approach Camaro, however, and Derek knows she'll be fine in the courtyard till he's met with his mother at least. He swings down from the saddle, gesturing curtly for Stiles to do the same as he pries off his gloves. The servants begin breaking down their belongings, but he only digs Laura's letters out of his saddlebag and tucks them into his belt. The rest of it can wait till later.

The courtyard is crowded as servants lead away horses and guards lose any semblance of formation as curiosity draws them close to hear word from the soldiers and servants returned from the war. For all that he has lived here most of his life, Derek feels ill at ease after so long afield. Stiles too looks hesitant as he steps close to Derek's side, ducking his head from onlookers while Derek loosens the cinch on Camaro's saddle. He can see Stiles's fingers twitching fitfully as he tugs at a hank of Camaro's mane, his eyes darting with curiosity and apprehension both, lip caught between his teeth.

As Camaro hunches her back and heaves out a great weary sigh as her saddle eases, he opens his mouth to say something, anything to reassure him or welcome him to his home, but before he can muster any words, he is preempted.

"Derek," a familiar voice calls to him and suddenly the crowding guards and servants scramble to part. Queen Talia strides out of the archway to the servants' entrance to the great hall, eschewing the grand doors she's ostensibly expected to use. But then, she's never been much for convention. Her face is more pale than he remembers, her freckles standing out brightly, though perhaps it's merely a trick of the evening light.

"Let me look at you," she says as she comes to him, takes his shoulders in her hands and peers searchingly into his face. He sees the pain and worry cross her features as she catalogs the visible bruises and healing lacerations.

"Of course you frown at me," she says with a soft laugh, shaking her head. "Oh, my son."

He won't be able to fix his face or its propensity for frowning any time soon, but he embraces her. He does so more firmly than his sore ribs appreciate, but it's been a long time coming. Too long. He breathes in the scent of her hair but doesn't let himself linger lest he crumble in his mother's arms. Such a display would send the wrong message to onlookers, when really they return as close to triumphant as he could hope for.

She smiles up at him with only a hint of understanding regret as he steps back, hints of tears in her eyes as she sets a hand to his cheek briefly. But her face goes solemn, and he feels the tension in the hand on his arm as she looks past him to the shrouded body the servants are lowering from the rig.

"Peter," he says, wishing she'd stayed inside if only so that he might have told her in private. He opens his mouth to say something, to try and offer comfort or support she deserves, but words have never been his forte.

She closes her eyes briefly, allowing herself a breath or two to fortify her composure, but then makes her way over to the body, hands folded gracefully at her waist. The servants who have been tending to the mortal detail hover around her, unsure. After a moment, she reaches for the shroud and pulls it from Peter's face, revealing the pale and broken features of her brother, mottled where bruises have settled permanently into his skin.

She gazes upon his slack countenance a long moment, the silence in the courtyard profound. Then she turns away, her face perfectly composed, eyes distant under slightly lowered lashes.

"Have a pyre prepared," she tells one of the servants quietly. Her smile is wan as she returns to Derek and takes his hands. "How?" she asks him, gazing serenely over his shoulder at nothing, a reprieve of eye contact he is grateful for.

"He betrayed us. Incited the Argents against us and subverted our forces. He… hurt people."

He can't help his reflexive glance Stiles's direction where he's standing at Camaro's shoulder, still combing the tangles from her mane with his fingers. She'll not miss it, either, but the thought of explaining further - especially out here - turns his stomach. He shakes his head, staring down at her hand in his, at the skin less worn and rough than his but still not delicate.

"Laura was forced to fight him to prevent war. I'm not certain of all the details. I was being held prisoner at the time. She'll have explained in the letters I've brought," he offers, letting go her hand and reaching for the missives tucked into his belt.

She takes them, but stays him with a touch to his wrist as she turns to gesture towards the keep. "The council will want to hear what you have to say. Best you not have to do it twice, I'm sure your journey has been trying."

When Derek turns to look at Stiles, he sees him frowning after his horse as it's led away towards the stables without him. Stiles glances at the queen in just a flicker of wide eyes, then sets his hands on Camaro's reins when she nickers impatiently and glances back at Derek in question.

Derek doesn't begrudge him preferring the stables over meeting with the courtiers. He'd prefer it himself, were he not duty bound to attend them. He nods and Stiles looks relieved to see it, taking Camaro to follow the others and fading almost immediately into the bustle of bodies. Derek turns and offers his mother his arm, finding her watching him with an expression he doesn't recognize.

She takes his arm, gazing down at the letters held in her hand, curling them to the breast of her fall brocade overgown.

"And Laura?" she asks softly as they make their way through the now-open grand doors and into the long hall towards the council chambers, servants scurrying ahead of them to bolster the candles and lamps now that a quiet evening is no longer an option.

For all that he'll have to repeat the details for the council, these few moments as they walk are private enough for honest sentiment.

"Well, last I saw her," he says. "Doing so well. So much better than I…" He trails off, huffing a faint laugh at himself. "It was very close, more than once. Had Stiles not brought her when he did…"

"Stiles. Your companion?" she asks him, strong brows inching upwards, face going stern. "You mean to tell me that I owe the lives of my children and the peace of my nation to that young man you rode in with?"

He glances at her, swallowing against the sudden rush of nerves and protectiveness that swirls in his chest. A nod is all he can trust himself to offer.

"And you didn't introduce him to me?" she scolds, turning an incredulous look on him that, he is belatedly relieved to realize, is at least half-teasing in nature. She scoffs, shaking her head as she murmurs, "Oh, son, what am I going to do with you?"

He sighs.

"I didn't… It's just…" He scrubs a hand over his beard, frustrated with himself. "He's…" Foreign. A former slave. A hero. A plainsman. His lover, like none before. Derek doesn't know where to start, let alone how to explain…

She casts an arch but amused glance at him that tells him the conversation is far from over, then sighs and lets go of his arm because they've arrived at the council hall and their presence has not gone unnoticed through the archway.

"Good news, my friends," she says, turning her attention to them. "My son returns with word of peace negotiations."

The room erupts into excited exclamations and questions and Derek steels himself for the press of their attention. He can't help but wish he too had escaped to the stables.

 

-o0o-

 

A knock rouses him from his sleep and for a moment he remains confused at the strange sensations that filter into his consciousness. The empty, soft bed with its cloth dressings instead of furs, the solid quiet of stone walls around him. As he pushes himself upright his back aches from the softness of the bed after so many months sleeping on the ground, but it's not so bad, nothing a little exercise won't cure. The sun peeks through the heavy drapes and colored glass, bright enough to tell him he's slept far past the dawn.

He curls his fingers in the fabric and scowls over how cool and empty it is. His bed had been cold when he'd gone to it, and despite his weariness, it had taken him a long time to fall asleep. But Stiles is not Derek's anymore. He's made his choice to free him and now he must stand by it. Stiles is a guest of the crown, a hero even. To have him carelessly housed in Derek's quarters might only serve to diminish that status. It is as it should be, the way it is.

Even if it's not easy to accustom himself to.

When Derek had taken his leave of the council, he'd gone directly to the stables, despite the call of his bed. He'd found Camaro well-tended, but alone and supremely uninterested in anything that might distract her from her grain. A wide-eyed stablehand had told him that the northerner left with one of the house servants. When he'd gone inside, the servants in the keep had told him that Stiles had been taken to guest rooms and that he was resting. He'd stood there in the dim hall like a fool as the realization slowly sunk in that Stiles would no longer share his bed. Should no longer share his bed.

And to think he'd once complained at Erica's meddling.

The knock sounds again and he calls a bid for patience as he shakes himself from his thoughts and drags himself from the cool sheets and fetches himself a clean tunic from his wardrobe, one of soft material with embroidery too delicate for the field. He'd rather wear his more familiar hardier clothing, but better not to have to dress twice. Duty will demand more appearances from him, even if he has little else to contribute but his report.

The prior evening's meeting with the council had been thankfully brief after his terse explanation of the fundamentals of what has transpired. As the talk had turned to which diplomats would be sent to immediately support Laura's negotiations, the Queen had bid Derek go and rest, and he had not argued, knowing it was only the beginning and that he should take the rest he could get. Governance is a continuous and repetitive process. He doesn't doubt his day will be filled with courtiers and public appearances, much as he'd rather avoid them.

His supposition is confirmed when he opens the door and finds his mother's squire Alan awaiting him patiently.

"My lord, it is good to see you well," he says with a calm but genuine smile. "Her Majesty has scheduled a formal address this afternoon, but she would like to speak with you this morning. At your leisure, perhaps over brunch?"

It's a summons, regardless, and he nods curtly. "Tell her I'll be there soon after I finish dressing."

Alan bows in response and takes himself away and Derek closes the door after him and turns towards his grooming. He combs and oils his beard into a semblance of order, best he can do without giving it a proper trim. His hair gets a similar treatment, and while his childhood tutors would surely tut in dismay, he deems his appearance sufficient once he dons clean trousers and a faded pair of boots. When he looks himself over in the reflecting glass, however, he hardly recognizes himself. The bruises, the harsh scarred lines of his face feel oddly stark and out of place against the elegant tunic.

The room is the one he grew up in once he'd left the nursery, and yet it feels strange to him. He can't pinpoint why. It smells as it always does, hints of the orchard below coming up in air that's been freshened relatively recently. Everything is as he'd left it. There's not even a layer of dust over his things to have marked the passage of time, though there certainly would be had there not been servants tasked to such things. It's almost disappointing not to have some sign of everything that has transpired these past months. Nothing seems to have changed but him. Himself, and everything he brought back with him from the west.

He doesn't linger in the strangely un-strange room. Though aware of his being expected, he doesn't go straight to his mother's wing of the keep either. Instead he goes in search of the missing pieces. His feet take him swiftly to the guest quarters nearby where he finds a maid who knows where to direct him towards.

He finds the rooms Stiles has been given, but they are empty. There's nothing in the room to indicate Stiles had even been there, and he glares at the empty bed both for having had Stiles in it last night and for not having him now. But there's no sign of where he is or where he might have gone. For all that he wishes to go find him, there's no telling how far Stiles may have wandered and his mother is waiting. Casual as the summons had been, he has his duties to perform.

And if Stiles has not merely wandered but gone

Well. It doesn't bear thinking on.

He strides down familiar halls, ignoring the hushed whispers and wide eyes that follow in his wake as he makes his way to the opposite wing of the keep where his mother's apartments are.

knocks at his mother's outer door to announce his presence. Not waiting for a servant, he opens it himself and steps into the small sitting room that buffers her study and bedchambers from the keep's halls. The walls are filled in with elegant frescoes around plant-laden alcoves and light catches the pale stone with soft colors from the finely-wrought windows overhead. The chairs are upholstered in rich velvets against dark and elegantly-carved wood. It's still a far more modest apartment than many rulers, which is exactly as she prefers it.

Stiles, twisting in his chair to look at the door, is the first person he sees, and the unexpected sight has him coming to a halt mid-step before he draws himself up and forces his attention away to nod his greeting to the room. He moves to continue forward towards taking a seat before his mother can direct him to, frowning at himself for being surprised that Stiles might have been summoned here as well. His mother was never one to wait on others to do something. Given what he himself had told her the evening prior, and that that there's a fair chance Laura might have mentioned Stiles's role in the events of the parlay, it would probably be surprising if Stiles weren't here.

Still, Stiles looks relieved to see Derek, which has an answering sensation settling in Derek's chest as he takes the empty seat beside him. A handful of other chairs are empty, and he doesn't doubt that others have been there ahead of him and will come after, as the queen's attention is something she's generous with. But only Alan is there at the moment and it feels much more like home with just the four of them there. Talia takes a moment to pour more tea into an empty cup for him and then begins retouching the remaining others' cups.

Stiles has a cup in front of him but it looks untouched, and though the low table in the center of the group is laden with food, there is nothing in Stiles's hands. Derek sighs and loads food into a bowl at random till it's near overflowing and then pushes it into Stiles's lap.

"Eat," he says, voice coming gruff when he tries to make it soft as he loads up his own dish. "Anytime. Always."

It earns him a barely stifled scowl as Stiles snaps up a slice of pear and shoves it defiantly into his mouth, then his eyes widen with shock as he actually tastes it. Derek purses his lips against the urge to laugh as he watches the delight radiate out over Stiles's features. When he looks up, however, his mother is watching him with an unreadable expression.

She opens her mouth to say something, but there's a brisk knock on the door behind them and when he looks back, he sees the arrival of his second cousin Kellen with Boyd's mother on his arm, the dowager Lady Vaneil. The room grows warm and bright with the standard patter of salutations between courtiers, but when the flurry of greetings dies down, the dowager looks at him inquisitively, and once again all eyes in the room are on him as she says, "My Lord, I hear things in the West are promising."

"Indeed. Peace negotiations have begun and casualties have been limited. Your son is well, Lady Vaneil," he says, setting back down the food he'd begun to gather for himself.

"As Stiles said last night," she replies, smiling at them both, intricate grey curls bobbing as she nods down at him. She makes her slow way to him and reaches out a hand for him, which he takes with a gentle squeeze. "It is good to hear again that he is well."

"Yes, and he has done us all a great service in preventing the war," Derek adds, pleased that at least this aspect of his duties is easily done. "He has conducted himself with much bravery and honor."

The lady pauses, arching one greying brow at him for a long moment. She lifts her chin and replies, "I should think so, since I'm told he's now married."

His cousin is smirking at him in a sort of gleeful manner and while his mother is more reserved, he sees the glint of amusement in her eyes too. He clears his throat and glances at Stiles, who is staring wide-eyed at him with half a slice of pear shoved in his mouth. Stiles swallows audibly and his face rumples sheepishly as he ducks his head.

"Yes," Derek says finally, awkwardly, at a loss for anything else to offer.

"I look forward to meeting this… Erica?"

"Erica is a good woman," Derek says, ready to dig in and attempt to defend her, should it be necessary.

But the Lady just smiles at him and says, "I have no doubt," as she pats his shoulder. Then she and Kellen pass by on their way to take some of the other chairs in the room. They strike up conversation with the queen and though Derek should probably join in, instead he takes the opportunity of their lack of attention to turn towards Stiles.

Stiles looks back at him, chewing slowing to a halt under the attention. His eyes are soft and the warm tone beautiful in the morning light peeking through the windows. He looks like he's been treated well since they'd separated, thoroughly clean of the road's dust and eyes bright with rest. Even the little lacerations and bruises have faded to near invisibility.

He feels as though there are things he wants to say, things he wants to know or be assured of, but he can't seem to pull them into anything coherent. He frowns as he thinks it over, and Stiles's brow wrinkles in response, lifting in question as he leans in slightly and whispers, "Derek?"

Derek huffs an annoyed breath and before he can compose any semblance of coherency, the door bumps open again. When Derek turns, Cora's there with one of her squires and a council-member, deep in conversation about something as they approach the queen. The impact on trade negotiations in the East that the recent developments may have, he supposes from the bits he hears.

She looks older. She looks exactly the same.

"Cora."

It snaps her head around and she pauses mid-word at the sight of him rising from his chair. Shoves her papers into her squire's hands and strides over and punches him in the arm. With a wordless sound she throws her arms around his neck in a painfully tight hug, which he moves to return but she's already shoving away from him. She blinks rapidly, then sniffs as though indignant at the feeling of tears welling in her eyes. Before he can so much as form a word, she smacks his arm again and turns up her nose, tossing a thick curtain of hair back over her shoulder. Taking back her papers, she strides away towards their mother without a word, though not before stealing the tea Derek had been poured. Stiles watches her with wide eyes as she passes by him without a glance. Derek steps forward, but as ever, Cora is a whirlwind.

"Athis is getting impatient," Cora announces, interrupting the others' conversation even as she bobs a pro-forma curtsey for their mother.

Derek sighs heavily, because what else does one do with little sisters. The Queen casts him a look that's half quelling, half apologetic as their brunch is fully commandeered.

"Then we'd best finalize our response," Talia says, pride apparent in the smile she grants her daughter as she rises from her chair. She turns a benevolent look on Stiles as she adds, "Thank you for joining us. Alan, would you please get Stiles what he needs for this afternoon?"

Alan bows neatly and before Derek can offer to take his place, there's another knock at the door and the young Lady Greenberg is making a noisy but humbly flustered appearance. The queen smiles benevolently as she recognizes the young lady, and turns inquisitive eyes on Derek.

Young lady Greenberg's eyes alight upon him then too, wide and afraid but determinedly hopeful and so damned young. It strikes him that likely no one has told her - or anyone - of her brother's fate. Peter certainly would not have bothered, even had his attentions not already been elsewhere. The duty has fallen squarely in his lap now. Has already been his, though it had faded in significance all too easily. He can't even remember exactly, never having had a talent or a real care for courtiers and their connections, but he thinks she's the last surviving member of her family. A fact which she is not yet privy to. He'll have to send word to Erica, see what she can recover among the chaos from Greenberg's platoon.

Stiles is looking at him over his shoulder as Alan ushers him out of the chamber, a small frown on his bowed lips which Derek returns with a nod and lets him go. Much as he'd like to accompany him, the young lady needs his attention more than he needs to satisfy his desire to follow Stiles around. He owes her that much.

"Lady Greenberg," he says softly. He searches his memory but he doesn't recall her given name. It shames him, but he reaches out and takes her hands with as much care as he can muster now. It's all he has left to give.

 

-o0o-

 

Stiles tugs at the edge of his tunic - and it is his, apparently. The Queen's personal squire had seen to it that they'd altered some clothing specifically for him, for his appearance in the throne room. The hem is embroidered in a style clearly inspired by the designs of his homeland to the north, though with far less intricacy than he's used to, and with soft amber thread rather than the heavy gold-clad thread one might expect to see in the royal houses there.

It's still far finer than anything he's ever expected to wear in his life.

He laughs softly under his breath, because he can't do anything but find this whole thing wildly surreal, standing in the antechamber to the throne room, where he will be formally presented to the queen and court.

When the door to the chamber creaks open, he flinches his fingers away from the embroidery and tries to stand up straight. To his relief, it's Derek who steps into the arch, tall and dark against the pale stone and light plaster walls around them. His expression is dour but it only makes Stiles feel comfort in its familiar nature as it rakes over his person, inscrutable as ever.

It feels like he hasn't seen him in days, not just hours.

"Come," Derek says shortly, then leads him out of the room and up the half-hall of arches with their hanging vines and fragrant white flowers. He hesitates at the opening to the hall, but Derek frowns at him and grips his shoulder, drawing him with him to walk at his side as the herald announces their arrival. The great hall is quite full, and those present dressed in finery that matches or surpasses his, but the atmosphere is far warmer than he had feared. The queen rises as they step into the center aisle, her throne modest and only just raised from the main level of the room.

Stiles's heart beats rapidly and he feels small in the high arches of the great hall and with so many eyes on him. Walking at Derek's side rather than behind him has his heart in his throat, makes him suddenly frantic with concentration over not tripping over his own feet. He stops when Derek does, bows, though he knows it's that of the rough and simple plainsman, nothing like the formal and intricate salutes of his homeland's elite. The smile on the queen's face is kind when he straightens but he can't help but lower his eyes. He feels like the worst kind of imposter.

"Stiles Stilinski," Queen Talia says, the foreign name gliding off her tongue with the grace of a noble long used to the vast vagaries of the world. She steps down the small step from her throne and walks directly to him, filling his vision with just her presence. She touches a slim, strong finger to his chin, gently but inexorably lifting his face towards her.

"We owe you our gratitude," she says, clearly speaking for all to hear. "For your efforts on behalf of peace, carry with you this token of our favor. Know that you will always be granted safe passage in our lands, and welcome at our hearths and homes."

She's lifting his hand and pressing something into his palm, he realizes. He flinches, almost fumbling it, then gets it in hand and looks at it. A medallion, a signet with a crest similar to the one he's seen in Derek's things. It's too much. Far too much for a foreign ex-slave, but he dares not argue with a queen.

Except his mouth seems to have other plans.

"But this - Derek already gave me my freedom and the horse and…" he says anyway before he can clamp his lips shut. He stares at her in consternation as the faintest surprise flickers in her eyes. He swallows, realizing only belatedly that perhaps Derek had not informed his mother of the details of their history. That even if he had, perhaps bringing it up in open court…

And oh. He just called the prince by his name, in open court. A privilege granted only in the confines of their shared bed. A bed they no longer even share, now that they've returned to Derek's home.

She arches a brow at him in a way that is so very reminiscent of Derek that Stiles can't help but glance over at him. Derek is standing with his hands folded at his back, bearing militaristic and powerful, gaze piercing as he looks over and frowns in response, eyes darting towards his mother as his chin drops slightly. A silent conversation between them via familial eyebrows that lasts only a second.

The Queen purses her lips against some expression as she turns her head back towards Stiles, though the corners of her eyes crinkle.

"Of course. And now this is from me," she replies with quiet amusement.

Stiles stares at the finely-wrought thing, lips parted over a silence he can't begin to fathom how to resolve.

To his stunned relief, the Queen doesn't leave him to flounder; she just squeezes his hand and lets him go, moving away to stand in front of her son. Stiles can't help but look back at the weight in his hand, tracing the lines of the wolf's head and tree beneath the crown.

It's overwhelming. His mind gets lost in imagining how much trouble this thing might help him out of, how much freer his freedom now is with this… promise, this implicit support in his hand. And yet, this gift… given in parting? Another sign that he is expected to move on? It's only when a murmur of delight and surprise ripples through the gathered courtiers does awareness of the moment return and remind him that he is, in fact, standing before the Queen.

He glances over to find a look of open surprise on Derek's face. Surprise and… relief?

"And now, we celebrate," she announces, smile spreading wide over her features as she lifts her hands. "Bring music. Prepare for the feast! Today is a good day."

The look on the queen's face is one of radiant pride as she regards her son, and then Derek is sweeping into a deep and graceful bow before her as the onlookers break out into excited cheers. What existing formality there is in the warm hall evaporates and courtiers swell forward to greet and congratulate them. Both of them.

The press of bodies quickly drags them apart and he loses sight of Derek in the crowd as people cluster around him, introducing themselves and asking questions that come too quickly for him to formulate any answers to. He clutches the signet tight, till he can feel the ridges digging into his palm as he tries to keep up.

When Alan appears at his side and apologetically but firmly says he's needed, guides him back towards the hallway from which he'd entered, Stiles goes readily. It doesn't stop him from looking back over his shoulder, though, trying to catch a glimpse of Derek. Something he feels like he's been trying to do since they'd arrived in Beacon Hills, really. But the prince is well and truly swallowed by the crowd, by his own people.

As well he should be.

"I think Derek was pleased," the squire muses as they slip into a quieter hall, moving easily away from the center of it all and back into slightly more familiar territory for Stiles.

"Oh?" Stiles says, because he's not actually sure what had happened while he'd been staring at the signet in his palm.

Alan opens the next door for them, then folds his hands behind his back as he falls into a relaxed step beside Stiles again. "He's never been fond of the court. Even as a child, he hated the politics. Taking up the holdings at the southern border will make it easier to avoid much of it."

Stiles tugs at the hem of his tunic again, glancing inquisitively at the squire in hopes that he'll explain further. When the man doesn't elaborate, Stiles gnaws on his lip, then says, "What is he to do there?"

"The south?" Alan lifts one thin brow, then his broad lips are spreading in a smile as he says, "No, I suppose you wouldn't know, would you? Several years ago there was a rebellion, an attempt at secession by some cousins to the crown. That was Lord Derek's first campaign. His Uncle took stewardship of the lands they re-conquered."

"His Uncle?" Stiles asks. "As in…"

Alan tips his head. "Rebuilding has been slow thus far with Lord Peter in charge, but now… well. It will take time, but Lord Derek has never been afraid of hard work. Her Majesty has every confidence he will succeed there, restoring their prosperity and defending our border if it should be needed."

Stiles doesn't doubt it. He almost asks what it's like there, further south, but Alan changes his pace, slowing. When they stop at the door Stiles recognizes as his guest quarters, he turns in surprise and confusion.

"Oh," the squire says with a chuckle and a gentle smile. "There's actually no need of you elsewhere. I just thought you looked a little overwhelmed in the hall. I know it is not what you're accustomed to. We didn't want you to feel pressured to stay and attend to the court. The feast will go late into the evening and you've only had the one day to rest."

Stiles glances at him, frowning as he considers his meaning in full. Though said with a smile, he feels a sinking sensation in his chest at the words. In a way, freedom is a burden now. It had been so much simpler when there had been no question where he belonged. Where he was wanted.

"You can go back if you like," Alan adds with a tilt of his head, dark eyes studying him shrewdly.

Stiles sighs and shakes his head, feeling suddenly quite weary and every inch as foreign and unnecessary as potentially implied. "I think I've embarrassed everyone sufficiently for one day."

Alan inclines his head and says, "Then I'll leave you to rest. Someone will wake you for the feast."

 

-o0o-

 

"Derek."

He swings his head around, realizing abruptly it's not the first time his name has been called.

"Yes, mother?" he asks, dipping his head in automatic deference as he notices with relief that no one else seems to be listening closely-enough to their conversation to have noticed his rudeness, nor is she at all perturbed by his distraction.

She smiles at him, soft and inquisitive.

"The food is not to your liking?" she asks, tilting her head, thick hair spilling in a dark curtain under the intricate braids that have been done up to support her delicate crown. Otherwise she's dressed in the same gown as earlier, though most of the court has changed at least once today, himself included. He can't begrudge them the desire to celebrate with their finest, after all that has transpired, but it's nice to see his mother is as she always was.

He grunts, frowning down at the veal and brandied pears he's barely touched. The hall is warm and filled with good favor and the chatter of courtiers. The scents are rich and vibrant, celebratory and also familiar here where they've the supplies for good food. This was his home for many years, such gatherings his custom, and yet he feels out of place. Finds himself wishing for wrinkled apples or hard cheese that he could carve with his knife, with Stiles on his knee to feed pieces to. It makes him shake his head at himself. He's been too long from such comforts if he's thinking of gritty stew by a dwindling fire and hard-crusted bread instead.

As though that's really what has him concerned.

"It's fine," he says, attempting a smile for her.

She's quiet a moment, then turns her head to peruse the room briefly herself.

"Your companion does not join you?"

He frowns at the bite of meat on his fork, then sighs. "He's free to do as he pleases," he says carefully but firmly.

She gazes at him a long moment, her dark eyes long and unfathomable as the corner of her mouth curls and her brows draw together ever so slightly. The smile is bittersweet, and he doesn't understand. But then she's smiling more fully and laying both her hands on his forearm, leaning in so that her face is all he really sees. "My son, you may take your leave of us tonight. You've done your duty. Go now and do as you please."

He frowns at her in confusion, ignoring the strange burble of hope in his chest at the words. She stands, urging him to his feet as well, and it is a sign of just how unusually formal the evening is, how high tensions have been leading up to this event that the rest of the table's occupants hurriedly get to their own feet as the Queen rises. As usual, she nods graciously to the room then waves a hand in dismissal, and many return to their more familiar state of relaxation. Others still take the opportunity to drift from their selected seats and mingle with others, making it an easy crowd for him to make his escape through.

"Go and find him. Go, before someone tries to talk to you," his mother adds with a low chuckle, nudging him on his way before she turns and intercepts the approaching minister of agriculture, waving Cora over.

Grateful, he ducks behind her, taking the service passage away from the great hall for a quicker and less crowded path back up towards the guest quarters. Tension slides from his shoulders as he gets further from the eyes and noise of the hall; the press of intrigue and politics - however mild it remains in their homeland - is too much for him, especially after recent events.

But a different kind of tension has sat low in his belly all day, wound tight and heavy and slowly spreading now that he's acknowledging it. He takes the steps to Stiles's rooms at a jog, despite the way his ribs ache for it, feeling the need to lay eyes on Stiles grow more urgent by the step.

The room is dim when he pushes the door open, a lone candle in its guard on the hearth. Stiles isn't there, though he hadn't really expected him to be. This empty, temporary space is not where Stiles belongs.

Determined not to be waylaid or preempted this time, he searches through the guest wing, but there is no sign of him there. Nor is he in Derek's quarters. Not the library or the courtyard or the kitchen gardens or any of the other places he himself used to escape to in his youth. It frustrates him, worries him until he realizes how foolish he's being and finally he escapes out of the keep entirely to march down the stairs past the anterior orchard and composting heaps and into the stables.

Though the place is deeply quiet, the stable-hands up at the servant's house for supper or amusing themselves elsewhere, he is unsurprised to find Stiles there. Derek hears him first, though he eventually spots him, tucked up on the cross-beam of one of the stalls, an apple in his hand as he talks at the two midnight horses that watch him. He's in shadow, though he's not hiding. One long leg is hanging down, swinging idly, clad in a trim and clean pair of leggings over more finely-wrought boots than Derek suspects he's had in a long time. Perhaps ever.

Camaro notices Derek before Stiles does, and she nickers at him, snorting and pawing at the straw beneath her hooves, but clearly contented with her abundant foodstuffs and warmth and company.

Stiles looks over, seeming just as unsurprised when he notices Derek. Unsurprised, and with no little heat as his eyes skim over Derek's evening finery for a moment before they close off again.

"You left me," Derek says flatly, and grimaces at himself for the way it comes out, or that he's said it at all. He'd meant to phrase something teasing, something expressing envy at Stiles getting to enjoy the company of the horses instead of the press of courtiers. He should really not be surprised anymore that much is lost in translation.

Stiles stares at him, eyes luminous in the faint light. He sticks the knife into the wood and sets the apple where Camaro can reach, then swings himself down from the high seat, landing in a puff of dust that smells of horses and grain and silty earth.

"Don't belong up there," he says with a shrug, though the cant of his chin is somewhere between defiance and embarrassment.

Derek huffs a dissatisfied grunt, trying not to feel the sting of rejection. "Nor I. But I'd…"

Words fail him, as usual, and he ends up simply scowling at Stiles, willing him to understand. Willing him to let him back in cross the strange distance that has built up since he's come home. Stiles just stares at him, worrying his lip between his teeth as he tries to understand.

And suddenly Derek feels all too keenly just how easily Stiles could slip away from him now without warning. How little it would take for him to take up his horse and go, his every duty discharged, every freedom granted. Even tonight he could just go. Could already have gone; without even saying goodbye he could have decided to go home. And he wants him to have that freedom, he does, but-

"Are you leaving me?" he finds himself saying before he can even process the feeling, his voice coming out abrupt and wounded-sounding.

Stiles's face does something complicated but then he's striding forward, closing the distance between them and when Derek lifts his arms, Stiles slots right into them, presses his face into Derek's neck. His exotic scent washes over Derek with a sense of familiarity as profound as his mother's embrace had been.

But then Stiles is pulling away from him, a nervous energy making his steps light as he goes back over to the opening of Camaro's stall, reaching out to rub rough fingers over her crown.

"I've been thinking," Stiles says. "You'll be leaving soon, to go south and take up your holdings."

Derek's heart stumbles, unused to such weakness at another's whims. Perhaps he'd not been planning to leave tonight, but perhaps this is the end, when Stiles will tell him that he's decided. That he's ready to go on without him. He steps in, needing to be closer but not wanting to crowd him. He lifts his hand like he's approaching a spooked horse and then drops it when he realizes what he's doing.

"I'm not…" Stiles clears his throat, then begins again, standing taller and voice holding more confidence as he deliberately lifts his eyes to Derek. "I've more talents than whoring. I've shown you that."

He can't help but think back to the last time Stiles had pointed that out to him. How differently things might have gone if he'd listened to him then, how much of Stiles's suffering he could have prevented.

"Of course you have," Derek replies sharply, because it's true. He's proven it all too well.

Stiles flashes something of a smile at him, though it's sharp and nervous around the edges still. "So I've been thinking. When you go south, you'll have… there's probably trainers there already, at the stables, but. Camaro, she's a handful. And you'll be busy with your responsibilities, less out in the field than before, I mean. They won't be able to give her the attention she needs beyond letting her into a field and tending her stall. But I…"

Camaro nudges him, her huffed breath audible as she snuffles at his tunic, searching for more treats.

"Yes," Derek says, hope stumbling over the roots of bittersweet longing in his chest.

"I could," he says, looking over at Derek. "I could be her caretaker. Others too, if there was a place for me. If someone wanted to retire or move or… well, anyway, I could come. I could be useful. And perhaps, sometimes…" Stiles falters, his head tilting over those perfect bowed lips as they curve apart, his tongue flickering out to wet them. "Sometimes you might still come to my bed, or I yours, if you wanted me."

Derek stares at him in the darkness, at the nervous flutter of his fingers against the wooden frame of the stall in front of him.

"Sometimes?" he asks, voice coming out rough and low and frustratingly too obvious in its disappointment and longing. And then another thought hits him, another reason Stiles might offer 'sometimes' like a bargaining point and he turns sharply. "You needn't… I thought I'd made it clear that I don't expect… Kahlah's Clit, I don't want you as a whore."

"Do you not want me at all then?" Stiles asks, voice small and too fragile.

Derek growls in frustration, reaching out and taking Stiles's arm despite himself. He yanks him close, turning him and pinning him back against the wooden face of the stall, tilting his chin up with a hand on his jaw. He kisses him, slow and deep and attempting to will him to understand since his words are once again his failing. He pours everything he's feeling into the press of their lips, the intimate connection they've had so little time to revel in. Stiles is tense for only a moment before he melts against him, an arm wrapping around his neck and pulling them flush together. The resulting sensation, bodies keeping each other warm against the cool night air, is familiar and good.

"I don't want you to be my whore or my trainer," Derek says in slow, stumbling and imperfect words when he finds his breath again. "I don't want a slave, or a courtier or any of that."

Stiles stares up at him, those golden eyes pale and luminous where they catch the moonlight that's pouring through the open hay doors above them.

"But… you do want me?" he hazards.

Derek nods sharply, relieved that he seems to finally be communicating, but still all too aware that he hasn't had Stiles's answer. And of course he hasn't, because he hasn't properly asked. Hasn't offered him a damned thing. Batto curse him for a fool; he'll let him go if he has to, but he wants him to stay - perhaps it's past time he said as much.

"Come with me," he says, then huffs a breath at himself for making it sound like an order, even after everything. "If it pleases you," he murmurs with conviction as he brushes his lips against Stiles's temple. "If it pleases you, it would please me."

Stiles's fingers curl tight in his sash, a soft sound escaping him as he presses his face back against Derek's, leaning in to their closeness.

"Stay. Come make your home with me in the south and do- do anything. Will you?"

There's a broken laugh against his jaw, but Stiles's grip on him tightens.

"Derek," he says, voice wet and cracking, but with brightness under his tears. With joy. He pulls back to look up at Derek, his fingers cradling the side of Derek's face, warm and gentle against the scars. "Yes."

He feels so profoundly relieved that his chest aches and he covers Stiles's hand with his own. "Good," he says. "Good."

"You hear that girl? I'm coming with you," Stiles exclaims as he pats blindly for her cheek. Camaro stamps and whinnies, breath huffing hot and wet through Stiles's hair as he laughs and shushes her. She ignores him, of course, and her trumpeting call gets echoed by the other horses in the stables. She nudges the back of his shoulder and Stiles lets her, goes with the motion and wraps his arms around Derek's neck.

"Derek," he says again as his laughter fades. He kisses him in the moonlight, strong and imperfect and full of everything.

Derek finally feels like he's home.

Chapter Text

The sun is bright, so bright over the warm summer's day, glittering off the edges of the pond and the shimmering stalks of the long-grasses beyond the paddocks. Camaro's coat shines too, heavy with sweat as she makes the leap over the fence with ease, great hooves digging furrows into the dry dirt inside the lines as she banks her speed quickly and slows from her headlong rush to something of a prancing trot.

Stiles lets her have her head, more or less, though he guides her in slightly wide little tangents on their path towards him, letting her cool down a little.

"My Lord," Stiles calls over at him, grinning widely, mischief bright in his eyes.

Derek glares at him for it, for taunting him with his damned title. But he can hardly maintain it long in the face of such a sight. He wonders, as he often does at times like these, whether he will ever not feel this rush of relief at his return. At the fact that Stiles has not simply been caught up in Pajatal's winds and gone home North.

But he never has. Even these many months, more than a year they've lived in the South and he has always returned, even though he has always been free to run.

Stiles's skin is much bronzed by the summer sun, his dark hair faded toward gold at the tips from too many afternoon rides. The weather here is more temperate than up north, the summers more mild than on the biggest plains Stiles grew up on, but it's still been hot and bright for a few months, and his lover has been taking to it quite thoroughly.

He's beautiful; bare-chested and glistening with sweat, amber eyes flashing with pleasure at the sight of Derek as he rides closer, then swings himself down from Camaro's back. The gold of his jewelry stands out even more now against his skin with the way he's grown tan, still exotic and yet so familiar to him now. He doesn't often wear any of his accumulating rings on his fingers when he rides, but now that they're no longer at war he often wears a delicate dangling little chain in his bellybutton and a stud in his nose to accompany the varied rings through his nipples and ears.

Stiles has something in his hands, Derek realizes as he approaches, all long legs and rolling strides and easy strength. It's a plant of some kind, some herb, soft and golden leaves sprouting from its stalk, curved into a little wreath all wrapped in on itself. He lifts it to his nose and smells it, eyes fluttering closed a moment as he savors the scent before he smiles broadly and reaches out to hand it to Derek.

Derek takes his hands, curls his fingers around the dusty digits holding the wreath and lifts their hands together towards his own face so he can take his turn drawing in the scent.

It hits him with a rush of lust, the familiar scent he has so rarely experienced of late. He presses his face against Stiles's hands, against the herbs that drag him forcibly back to their first meeting, when Stiles had been brought to him, unexpected and new and strange but too beautiful and too desperate to ignore.

"Zithrell leaf. I found some, growing by the edge of the old well by the vellnuts orchard," Stiles says, preempting his question. "I didn't know it grew this far south. Maybe I can plant some more. Infuse some more oil someday."

"Smells like you," Derek agrees, still holding his hands, warmed at the idea. At the thought of Stiles smelling like that again. Even better is the implication that he's thinking as far into the future as growing herbs, of remaining for them to come to fruition. That soothes him, along with the way Stiles has taken to his duties as head trainer now that the sour-faced aging woman who'd been there before him has retired and left the position open for him. He nuzzles like a horse against his fragrant hands.

Stiles laughs at him, but it's a gentle thing and he opens his eyes to find him looking on with great fondness. And then he can't help but wrap his arms around Stiles and haul him up till Stiles hops with him, slinging his legs around Derek's hips and dropping the wreath of herbs onto Derek's hair as he pulls him close and burrows his face in against his neck. Stiles pulls back enough to find his mouth, to kiss him easy and confident and so familiar, so wonderfully mundane that it aches.

"I was thinking," Stiles begins, smiling down at him as he toys with the leaves of the herb. "I might lay a token at the altars."

"Hm?" Derek asks, squinting up at him, haloed by the sun above him.

Stiles swallows, eyes flicking down to meet his, looking suddenly more solemn. Hopeful but also tentative. "It's done differently down here, from what I understand, but up North…"

Derek frowns, trying to think through what he knows of Northern customs, of what things Stiles might leave a token for.

Stiles's fingers tuck through a lock of Derek's hair, curling it back from his temple as he says, "And then I might make one for you… if that would please you. If you might want to keep it."

"Of course I would," Derek says, frowning. "I'll keep anything you want to give me."

Stiles's face goes soft and he kisses Derek again briefly, though it's with a muffled laugh. "You don't know what I'm talking about, do you?" he asks, though it sounds rhetorical.

Derek just narrows his eyes and shifts, letting him back down to the ground when Stiles pulls away again.

"Camaro's waiting," he says rather than explaining, then casts a wink back at Derek and darts away over to where Camaro has wandered into the reeds near the pond to get herself a drink.

Derek watches as Stiles leads her away towards the stables, glancing over his shoulder back at Derek with a secretive little smile until Camaro nudges him for his inattention and has him laughing and turning back to her. Derek watches him till he's out of sight, then eventually sighs and heads back into the keep.

He forgets about the wreath on his head until he arrives in his study and his squire bites her lips to keep from laughing.

 

-o0o-

 

He almost forgets about the odd conversation. Weeks go by without another mention, and Stiles is unfathomable-enough on any given day that Derek doesn't think anything of the pensive expressions he catches on his face from time to time. Nor does he concern himself over Stiles's occasional private conversations that dissipate as he approaches. It isn't until late one evening, on a day not particularly different than any other, that it comes due.

It's been a longer day than some, milder than others. Still, by the time the sun is setting, all his duties have been dispatched for the day. He's not seen much of Stiles since lunch but they both have their pursuits, and he can only be happy that Stiles is so engaged as to be busy here, so far from home. Derek too is pleased with his own activities. The lands are making steady progress for the better, the garrison building discipline and strength under his guidance. On this evening in particular he's even gotten some extra sword training in of his own and is returning to his quarters hoping that Stiles might take pity on him and give him a massage before bed.

To his disappointment, their bedchamber is empty.

Or nearly so. A note sits on the bed, on vellum fresh and crisp, with Stiles's careful handwriting spelling out his name. A little sprig of the zithrell leaf sits pinned to the sheet. A spike of that old apprehension takes him, makes his knees weak as he sits hard on the edge of the bed and snatches up the letter.

The words inside are not a farewell, and he closes his eyes a moment to breathe, the scent of the herb crushed in his fingers lending a soothing spice to the air. When he feels steadier, he reads what is actually inscribed there for him. It is, in fact, an invitation. A request to join Stiles out in their fields, in the furthest paddock, the one with the best view over the orchards and the copse of trees that shadows their little valley village beyond the keep.

He's tired, his muscles protesting when he ignores the bed before him in favor of Stiles's wishes, but it's not something he even bothers to think over. He simply takes himself back out of his chambers, sword and all, ready to go in search of his lover.

One of the newest serving girls still looks on him with nervous wide eyes when he passes in the hallway, but rather than making him feel the weight of the scars that mar his face, or the bulk of the imposing figure he is in his training armor and sword, it makes obvious to him just how rare such looks have become in his own home.

That too has been the result of Stiles's presence here, he is sure. It's true others had at times warmed to him, Erica and some of her ilk had looked on him with respect and some of them awe, only rarely fear. But this? This home, where he is familiar and welcome… Stiles has softened Derek's edges and been his conduit when words fail him. He's bridged the gaps created by Derek's failings and helped him find a sense of belonging like nothing he's ever felt before.

He does his best to ensure that Stiles feels as rewarded as he, though he suspects his attempts are far clumsier. Stiles sometimes laughs at him for the golden jewelry Derek has made for him, but he wears it anyway. In fact, he's not certain that Stiles hasn't laughed at his every attempt to show his affections, once he gives the matter thought. But he doesn't mind being laughed at if the end result means Stiles seems happy.

He makes short work of the distance between them, trotting down the winding path from the Keep to the stables, then beyond to the packed dirt and struggling grasses of the nearest paddocks. The sun has set some time ago, long enough that the moon is cresting over the hills in the distance, the stars prickling through the indigo canopy above.

It doesn't take him long to spot where Stiles has gone, either, though the sight does give him pause. The familiar silhouette of his war tent draws his eye easily as he rounds the bend of the hill, laid up on the little hollow at the base of it, sheltered from view and the wind. Camaro is wandering some small distance away, chewing idly on a pile of hay and standing guard. She tosses her head at him, scenting the air to verify what her eyes and ears have already told her. A greeting is nickered at him, then she returns her attention to her snack, supremely uninterested in the dealings of humans.

A strange feeling prickles through him at the sight of it, and he crosses the last of the distance with something not unlike trepidation. He can see the faint glimmer of candlelight through the gap in the tent's seams, and it is achingly familiar. As he strides up to it, tucks his hand into the opening to draw back the flap, it feels like coming to a different kind of home than the one they've been building here this last year.

The sight that greets him when he steps inside, however, sweeps away all thoughts.

Stiles is laying sprawled and naked amid the furs. His skin is golden with the candle-light glimmering against the sheen of oil that has been slathered generously over his bared body. Only his nipples and ears are decorated with those simple gold loops as they'd been that first night, though he wears some of the rings Derek's given him since.

He's spectacularly beautiful in the candlelight, skin flushed, nipples peaked, cock glistening with oil and hard under the gentle teasing of his hand. The many glowing candles that have been arranged around the perimeter of the tent cast glittering edges and shadows, making his skin shimmer with an ethereal, golden hue. The gaze he bestows on Derek is full of lust, of love and desire and is everything he's never imagined would be his.

Derek doesn't hesitate.

Stripping out of his weapons and his armor is done with quick, efficient and practiced motions. Stiles's eyes crinkle at the corners, watching intently as the items clatter one after another to the ground, his breath punctuated by occasional soft moans and sighs as he runs slick fingers over himself in slow passes.

Stripped bare, Derek closes the distance in two long strides, kneels beside him already well on his way to arousal. Though it is otherwise so evocative of their first meeting, this time Stiles's eyes are not covered, nor his hands bound. His body is clear of the aphrodisiac, though his arousal is plain. His lips are curved up in confidence and mischief and delight as he twists his head to look up at Derek. Tonight he comes to Derek of his own volition, completely free.

"Please," he says, his voice low and full of want.

Derek's hand on his skin is met with a pleased hum, even if its placement on his hip is relatively benign. Stiles stretches up, lays his hands away from his erection and sprawls out for Derek's perusal, loose-limbed and ready, though he almost buzzes with anticipation. Derek lets his hand wander, lets it trail over his skin, trace the planes of his chest, nudge the shining golden rings in his nipples just to hear him make that beautiful sound he always does when he plays with them. He touches the foreign-style scarring around the head of his cock the way he had that first night, re-exploring with deliberate wonder this strange creature that has found his way into his life.

The spice in his scent is rich, fresh with the northern spices and oils Derek had sent for after that sunny afternoon weeks ago upon seeing the way the discovery of the wayward plant had lit up Stiles's face. It is as much a gift to himself as it had been to Stiles, the way it tangles low and hot in his belly when he leans close and draws his breath in against his lover's scented skin. Stiles hums happily, leans into the touch as Derek drags his lips along the curve of his throat.

He's not surprised when he glides his fingers lower, down behind Stiles's cock, and finds him slick and loose there too. Ready for him, and if the way he sighs and arches into the touch says anything, aching for it. Derek feels much the same, the weight of his own arousal sitting thick and warm against Stiles's thigh as he leans over him. It would be a waste of all Stiles's efforts in preparation to delay, so he simply lifts himself over to settle between his legs, arranges Stiles's sprawl with a nudge to his various limbs and the furs beneath, then lines himself up and slides in.

He's tight, and it's faster than it is gentle, but he knows well now that it's exactly what Stiles wants of him. Stiles doesn't hold back his moan, soft and wallowing in the sensation beneath him as he stretches into it, arching his back and sliding his legs down the sides of Derek's. He knots his fingers in the furs above his head, opens himself for Derek as he rolls against him.

Derek can't help but stroke a hand up his ribs and over his nipple to watch him shudder. He cradles his jaw, slides his thumb over his parted lips and watches the sweep of his lashes over those perfect amber eyes reflecting the ambient firelight with such synchronicity. Stiles kisses his work-roughened palm, then bites at the meat of it as he rolls his hips, a mischievous twinkle gracing his eyes as he flicks his gaze back up at him. He bites hard, and Derek growls at him for it, plucking his hand away and using it to grip Stiles's wrists instead.

"Yes," Stiles sighs, arching into him so that his wrists pull at Derek's grip.

Derek shifts his weight and gets his other hand over Stiles's head, drags his arms to where he can pin them down beside his head and still have leverage to thrust. Stiles's legs tighten on his thighs encouragingly, but even still the position has him spread out and precarious. When Derek drives into him, his whole body moves with the force of it, too laid out to stay controlled.

It seems to please him, though, so Derek does it again, strikes up a pace that has Stiles's cock smacking audibly against his belly and his thighs sprawling wide. The heat of their shared exertions makes for sweaty work. Stiles's feet slip against Derek's legs where they try to grip and Derek's hands are surely tight enough to bruise just to keep from sliding off Stiles's wrists. Though they could take their time with this, as they often do now, he can tell that tonight is not about that. It's more about their shared history, the unquenchable passion that brought them together in the first place, and he is more than happy to oblige his lover thusly.

As he tips his head back, Derek takes the invitation and sets his teeth to his throat, nipping hard, then shifting to the muscle alongside to bear down on with more concentrated effort. Stiles makes a low, animal sound into the bite, and an already energetic joining turns almost desperate. Though he would not want them to return to a time when the dangers of war surrounded them with their fledgling trust, the thrill of those memories juxtaposed with their reality is a heady thing.

Stiles's body starts to grow stiff beneath him, the tension building and lingering, pulling him tight between their points of contact. He pants with it, chest fluttering as his eyes slip down to Derek's, looking wild and yet focused, filled with so much need and hope. In that moment, Derek wants so badly to see him come apart, knowing that it means he is trusted to catch him.

When he lets go of Stiles's wrist, the newly-freed hand moves without hesitation, splaying against his scarred cheek, cradling him close. Their lips brush wet and unfocused as they share breath and space, straining together. The sounds Stiles makes when Derek roughs his palm against the slick hot skin bowed up between them are open-throated and desperate and Derek does not relent as Stiles abandons himself to it.

Derek strokes him through it, with both hand and body, then takes his mouth in a loose press before chasing after his own fall. Working himself in his lover's body, burrowing his face against the sweat-damp skin that smells of spice and sex, it doesn't take him long to find his release. Stiles murmurs soft words he doesn't understand through the blood rushing in his ears or the rough breaths he takes, but he doesn't think he's expected to.

When the rush of it fades, he eases himself to the side, fully intending to keep them entangled and joined - albeit more comfortably, but Stiles pulls out of his arms, despite Derek's reluctance to let him go. The tent is warm enough that he won't be chilled, though, so Derek just props his head up and watches Stiles, well aware that he has yet to fully fathom the nature of this evening.

Stiles gazes back at him a moment, looking thoroughly mussed and beautiful, then shifts himself over to where some of his things have been laid aside. He picks up a small leather pouch, then returns to Derek's side, kneels at his hip, their thighs touching. He holds the thing in his palms, settled in his lap as he stares at it, lip caught between his teeth, till Derek sits up and touches a gentle hand to his chin.

"What is it?" he asks, the question coming out as something of a demand despite himself. But Stiles knows him well-enough by now to take it in stride.

Stiles lifts his eyes finally, looks right into Derek's as he takes a steadying breath. He looks vulnerable, stripped bare both literally and figuratively as he searches for something in Derek's eyes.

"Tell me I'm not wrong to… tell me I'm not presuming to ask…"

"Never," Derek says firmly, studying Stiles's face to try and understand what has brought this on. This tension, this whole evening. His belly twists with a sudden clench of dismay at the idea that this was all some sort of goodbye, but even that old fear doesn't keep him from honestly saying, "Ask anything of me. If it is in my power to give it to you, you'll have it."

And Stiles cradles his jaw, blinking against the moisture welling up in his eyes. Then he's reaching into the pouch, carefully slipping free a little round token of wood. He holds it out to Derek, cradles it in his palm so he can see it. It's been carved on, burned, with charcoal worked into it in places to stain the grooves that highlight the shapes and polished to a shine. It's a style he's seen before in northern craft, and as with many northern arts its subject is equine.

It's exquisitely beautiful. Two horses in angular lines full of life. Stiles's hand trembles and Derek cups his palm against the back of it, steadying him as he waits for the explanation.

"Do you remember the day I found the Zithrell leaf? When I asked you… I said I might… and you said…"

Derek arches an eyebrow and Stiles tips his head back, making a sound of frustration at the disjointed, rushed words. Then he clears his throat and runs his thumb over the carved horse before he settles himself and looks back over at Derek. There's a loving softness to his features, laid over a steely determination that is so familiar, so right that Derek feels the last of his apprehension fade away.

"Tell me," he urges, gently as he can make himself sound. "I'm listening."

"I laid a token at each of the altars. It's what we do, in the north. We go to all of them with tokens, to ask their blessing and reflect," Stiles says, licking his lips. "I'm told… here, they lay wreaths, for Mavet and Kahlah. So I did that too."

And suddenly Derek understands - at least, he suspects he does. A sense of wonder fills him as he gazes down at the foreign talisman in their joined hands. A binding he had never expected but long desired. His grip on Stiles's hand tightens reflexively as he swallows against the sudden dryness in his throat.

"And this?" he asks.

"A question asked. A promise offered. A symbol to be worn so that everyone who sees it will know that you're mine," Stiles says, voice shaking on the final word, like he can't believe he's actually saying it. But he takes a breath and looks up again, holds Derek's gaze as he says, "Mine, and I yours, above all others."

Derek gazes back at him, studies the unwavering emotion encapsulated in amber looking back at him. He takes the token from Stiles's palm, slides his fingers into the leather loop attached to it at the top to spread the strands and lift it up. Stiles's eyes widen and he makes a tiny sound as Derek slips the loop over his head, drops the unmistakably northern symbol down over his throat to settle high on his breast.

After all. He's never been one to hesitate.

Though it's a noticeable sensation at the moment, he knows as he pats it flat that it will soon be as familiar as his own skin. If there's more to be done, more ceremony to follow or promises to be made, then so be it. But this, a question asked and answered, a promise given, is all that really matters. He gazes at it a moment, then nods once and drops his hand to regard Stiles once more.

Stiles, who is staring at him with an incredulous, hopeful, hungry expression as he reaches out and brushes the tips of his fingers over the token. He presses the flat of his palm over it, presses it into Derek's skin and Derek settles his own hand over Stiles's, holding them together tight.

"Mine," Stiles whispers. "Yours."

"Yes," Derek says.

And thus owned, they are the richest of men.