Chapter 1: In Which a Prince and a Stable Boy Meet
The capital city of Beacon Hills is larger even than York, the greystone walls towering above the ragtag caravan appearing even higher than they truly are by being set into the hills from which this country takes its name. Derek stares as they approach, almost stumbling over his own feet in his distraction. He jogs forward to keep up with the knights on horseback, loath to seem laggardly, or worse, disobedient. They could always change their minds about letting him live, or send him back to the ruins of York.
Yet, he can’t help but gawk as they enter the city gates. A peasant and an orphan, he’d reasonably expected to never see beyond the back-alleys and slums of the city in which he was born, and he never dreamed to find himself starting anew in a completely different county. Despite the awful circumstances that have brought him here, there’s a thrill of excitement to it.
His head pivots almost of its own accord, trying to take in everything as he and the other refugees are led towards the castle that will now be their home. He sees Boyd and Erica doing the same, Boyd keeping a careful hand at Erica’s elbow in case her falling sickness chances to take her. They pass a market with bright fabrics and baubles, cramped inns that waft out tantalizing scents of unfamiliar cooking, and rows upon rows of houses as they travel up impossibly long and cobbled streets that wind ever upwards towards the white stones of the castle that crowns the tallest hill. The townspeople gape and whisper at the band of them. Treskelians,is the one word Derek can pick out of the murmur, spat as harshly as a curse.
Erica and Boyd are quickly placed in the kitchens and smithy, respectively. Derek tries to smile at each of them as they’re led off, ashamed of how frightened he is to be left alone. There’s no need for nerves; in all likelihood, the mark on his back means nothing to those in Beacon Hills, and he’s kept it hidden well enough. If King John’s guards meant to behead him, after the battle would have been the time.
Then again, familiar as he is with the dangers of the streets of York, the dangers of Beacon Hills are as yet mysterious.
“This one’s good with horses,” the group’s leader says. “Give him to Master Finstock.” One of the younger soldiers breaks off from the rest, tipping his head at Derek to follow.
Unlike the tightly built stone houses of the city, the stables look more like something Derek is familiar with; they’re made of rough-hewn wooden beams, expertly jointed into a handful of structures that must hold enough horses for the entire army. The grounds surrounding them are wide and lush with well maintained, close-cropped grass. He tries to imagine this place as his home. Mostly, he fails.
There’s a boy exiting the doors as they approach. Where Derek is tan from hours outside, the boy is pale except for a few beauty marks on one cheek. He’s dressed in fine riding clothes, and flanked by a guard wearing the sign of the royal house. A noble, then. He’s younger than Derek, but, considering his higher station, a bow would be appropriate. Despite that, Derek can’t help looking curiously at the boy, who’s looking back at Derek with just as much interest. For a moment, their eyes meet - the boy’s are a deep amber in the sunlit courtyard, ringed by long, tawny lashes.
A gloved hand smacks the back of Derek’s head and he instinctively flinches away, hunching his shoulders. He loses track of the other boy as they pass one another, and as he turns to get another look, the knight grabs his shoulder and marches him forward into the stable.
“Keep your eyes to yourself,” the knight instructs. “And next time, show the proper respect to Crown Prince Stiles.”
Three years later
“Aren’t you done, boy?”
“No,” Derek grits. Nobody could be done shoeing a horse in the short time it’s been since the prince pointed out an invisibly small stone in his favorite mare’s hoof. The rest of the hunt has already left, but the prince has still found a way to create unexpected work for Derek. He could have simply chosen another horse to ride that day, but of course only Estelle would do. He’d insisted that Derek take care of it, right away, boy.
“You’re awfully slow.”
Derek takes a deep, calming breath. “I. Suppose. So,” he says carefully.
He is luckier than most to be counted among the royal household of Beacon Hills, he reminds himself. He could as easily have been left in the ruins of York to beg, or been killed in the sacking of the city. It’s a better life than he deserves; he should be grateful.
“I won’t be able to catch up to my father’s hunt at all,” the prince whines, and Derek clenches his jaw, almost hitting his thumb with a distracted stroke. He’d be much better able to appreciate his good fortune without the crown prince hanging around the stables before and after each ride, being his incredibly annoying self. The prince might be beautiful, as fits his station, but most days Derek regrets ever meeting him.
Hammering the shoe into place is hot work, especially in the muggy stable, and Derek can feel the sweat beading at his temples as he works. He shoves the sleeves of his shirt back to his elbows for what little good that does. The prince is blessedly - and unusually - quiet now, while Derek finishes the task. It’s a strange feeling, to be watched but not peppered with questions and random observations. Derek almost opens his mouth to ask why the prince doesn’t have anything to say to him all of a sudden, but stops himself. That would be insane. He’s enjoying the silence.
“There,” he says, hoping the disdain in his voice is noticeable, but not enough to get him punished for insolence.
“Thank you,” the prince says softly. Derek squints at the unfamiliar tone; the prince looks a bit red in the face, too, for some reason. He opens his mouth to say it’s only his job, but the prince cuts him off. “You should always be the one to prepare Estelle for when I might want to ride, boy. You do a good enough job.”
Boy, again. At seventeen, Derek is a good three years older than the prince, but he’s still always ‘boy.’ It’s infuriating. Everything about the prince is infuriating, from his stupid upturned nose to the way he laughs with his whole body whenever something strikes him as amusing. Derek ought to tell him just that.
“If you wish,” Derek says instead.
At this point, the prince would usually mount Estelle and take her out towards the lightly forested area by the river where he’s allowed to ride without a full retinue. Perhaps he’d cast one inscrutable glance back. Derek would go up to the hayloft to re-arrange the bales. It’s hard, physical work that makes it difficult to think too much, and the loft happens to have a perfect view of the path to the forest. But the prince’s personal guard, Sir Harris, went out with the rest of the hunt who are, as the prince pointed out, too far ahead now to easily catch. The prince isn’t allowed to ride alone, even to the kept wood.
“I suppose I should stable her again,” Derek says, patting Estelle sadly.
“You could come ride with me,” the prince insists, instead.
Derek huffs out an angry breath through his nose, covering his surprise. “I can’t just leave the horses.” As if it isn’t enough that he’s basically Sti- the prince’s personal squire at this point, now he’s expected to babysit him during rides, as well as before and after? The prince is fourteen now; he hardly needs a nanny.
“The stable master is here. He can take care of anything that comes up.”
“I’m a servant,” Derek points out. “I’m not allowed to ride the horses.”
The prince’s face creases in confusion. “Not allowed? Do you not know how to, then?”
Derek hesitates - he doesn’t, having never had the opportunity to learn, but he isn’t about to admit it to the prince and give him one more thing to tease him over. “Not allowed for fun,” he corrects. “Certainly not with you.”
“I thought those two were already mutually exclusive,” the prince murmurs wryly. “I need someone to ride with, boy, so come ride with me. That’s an order.”
Derek rolls his eyes, and looks to the stable-master for support. Finstock just shrugs: give the royal what he wants. He’s never much help.
“Fine, if you wish it,” Derek says. “But only this once.”
The prince is quiet again as they ride, and the sway of the horses is soothing. Stiles had looked at him strangely when he had some difficulty getting up into Horatio’s saddle, but the actual riding has gone better. Derek’s surprised that he’d even worried; how hard could it be to simply sit on top of an animal?
The wind hasn’t turned yet, so the bright sun still means warm weather. In this unfamiliar break from work, Derek can almost forget that he’s only a servant who must bow and scrape after even the other servants on account of their king’s mercy in not executing him and all the other refugees after the pillaging of York.
The forest where they’re headed is only a kept wood for hunting small game and courtly picnics, but Derek rarely sees even that much nature; he only has a half day off from the work at the stables every week, and if he leaves the castle at all, it’s usually to go to town and try to buy something he needs. He watches the song birds fluttering from branch to branch with interest. Unlike the birds that scrounge for food in the city, these animals seem to fly just for the joy of it. This must be what it is to be a noble, he thinks. Long quiet stretches of time to do whatever you please and to let your mind wander.
“Not such a punishment, after all?” the prince asks leadingly.
“Compared to mucking the stables,” Derek admits grudgingly. “There must be a million things to do in the castle, though; why do you come riding so much?”
“I, well, that is,” the prince sputters, his cheeks coloring. “Do I?” Derek raises his eyebrows. The prince seems to be in the stables ten days of a fortnight. “I mean to say - it isn’t the riding that I... That is, I just like to get time to myself.”
“Don’t you have that in the castle?” Derek asks, then regrets his insolent disagreement. Why can’t he just be humble, the way a servant should be? He’s simply never learned to hold his tongue, especially around the prince.
The prince doesn’t rebuke him, though, only scoffs. “Hardly. In the castle it’s always, ‘do this, stand straight, don’t speak so loudly!’ I get rather a lot of orders for someone who is supposed to be in charge.” Estelle prances as he puts too much tension on her reins. “Everything I do seems to have five meanings I didn’t intend. Even if I ask for something as simple as a ballad, everyone is waiting to hear which I ask for, and the court lutist is so scared of making an error that I feel as on edge as he is until it’s over. It’s a bit difficult to enjoy myself at all, like that.”
“Yes, I see now - you’re set upon by people who want nothing but to please you,” Derek says, trying to keep from smiling, “A truly awful fate.”
“Very much so,” the prince says solemnly. “That’s why I like you. You never try to please me at all.”
Derek does smile then, despite himself, and tries to turn away in time to hide it.
“Here,” the prince says, reigning Estelle in. They dismount in a small clearing, deep enough the woods that they’re out of sight from the stables. The river that splits the land runs close by, shallower here than other places but wide and quick-running with a pleasant burbling sound. Dragonflies flit by in the dappled light. The place is still and private in a way that the bustling stables and courtyard rarely are. Derek takes care of tying the horses to a nearby tree, where they can keep themselves amused grazing. The prince collapses onto the grass without even laying a blanket, perfectly at ease. Somehow his impropriety doesn’t bother Derek the way it ought to.
“It’s a nice spot,” Derek admits.
The prince cranes his neck to smile up at him, which isn’t right at all - Derek has practically no choice but to sit down next to him so they’re on a level. “I know. Sir Harris never wants to stop here, though, when he even lets us ride out without a party.”
“How did you come to know know this place, then, my prince?” Derek asks.
“I used to come out here with my mother,” the prince explains. “And for goodness’ sake, Stiles.”
Derek looks down, sorry to have brought up the deceased queen, but St- the prince doesn’t seem bothered. He reaches into a small pack he’d brought for the hunt and produces a scone that he passes to Derek before rooting around to find a second for himself.
Erica sometimes gives Derek burned foods from the kitchen, and he’s sneaked a few raw ingredients before - but he’s never eaten something baked for a noble. “I can’t take this,” he protests. Does the prince think he needs to buy Derek’s cooperation, or something of the sort?
But when Stiles looks up, his expression isn’t crafty, only confused. “Why not?”
“It’s…” Derek starts, but can’t quite put into words what’s wrong with the food. “I’m not supposed to have it.”
Stiles makes a face at him. “Well, I order you to eat it. So there.”
Derek can’t exactly argue with that, so he takes a bite. It’s crumbly, yet rich with butter - and very, very tasty. The prince eats his with relish, sucking the crumbs off his fingers. Derek finishes more slowly, savoring the quiet moment as much as the taste.
“Next time, we shall have a full lunch, I think,” Stiles announces.
“If Sir Harris and the king allow any next time, you should bring Prince Scott or Lady Lydia,” Derek chides. “I’m not your companion.”
“Yes, I remember,” Stiles sighs. “Only this once.”
“...And he's always moving,” Derek insists, elbows on the wooden block of a table where Erica is peeling apples with quick flicks of her paring knife. “It’s as if he can't even stay put for one moment. It's completely improper; you'd think he was a peasant the way he flops about.”
Erica looks up from her work to raise an eyebrow at him. “You certainly feel strongly about the prince.”
“Yes!” Derek exclaims. “He's an annoyance! And for months now he has me accompanying him on his rides more days than not...” Derek’s about to extrapolate on exactly how awful it all is, but seeing the head cook billowing towards them, he opts instead to swallow the insults and try to look harmless.
“Triskelian dogs,” the cook hisses as she passes them, despite Derek’s contrite look. “They should have executed all of you.”
Derek loves the homey bustle of the kitchen, not to mention the smell of delicious food, but there’s a reason he mostly stays in the sparsely populated stables. Most of the townsfolk will never see him as more than a refugee from their national enemy. A charity case, at best, and a potential traitor, at worst. Erica sends an angry glare at the cook’s broad back, but what can a scullery maid say? Derek doesn’t doubt that she would defend him if she could; the sickness she was born with has given her more empathy than most, and she hasn’t forgotten their friendship. Unlike him, though, she has a skill for keeping her temper in check when needed.
“I should be on my way,” Derek says regretfully.
“Oh, don’t go just because of her; I haven’t even given you the biscuits!” Erica puts down her knife and reaches to pick a basket from the number hanging over the table. Although she’s only responsible for paring and cleaning, in her spare time she’s allowed to bake with the extras and scraps that accumulate in a kitchen the size of the castle’s.
“No, it isn’t that,” Derek protests. He has no love for Treskelia, for all his telling dark hair and full brows. He’d known nothing but homelessness, hunger and fear on the streets of York, despite the small comforts of Deaton’s orphanage. Given the choice, he’d rather wash his hands of his nationality and be spared people’s reflexive hatred. “It’s only that the prince will be coming around in a quarter hour, so I should go get the horses saddled.” While his friend is preoccupied packing the biscuits, he reaches out and grabs one of the apples meant for the nobles’ pie, biting into it before she can grab it back.
Erica sniffs haughtily when she notices, as if she’s above grappling for fruit. Derek grins - he sees it more as an admission of defeat.
“It’s your morning off, though. He ordered you to have her ready?” she asks.
“Not precisely,” Derek admits. “But, I know he always wants to go riding before he lunches on Saturday.”
“If he hasn’t even asked you to be at the stables on your day off, never mind given an order, I’d think you could avoid his path for a few hours and get out of the work.”
Derek squirms. “He'd think I didn't want to ride with him.”
“But you do?”
“No! But he's the prince. I have to.”
“And you’re such a paragon of obedience,” Erica says, eyeing the half-eaten apple.
“He's the prince,” Derek repeats petulantly.
Erica sighs. “Of course that’s the only reason. Anyways, would you bring a few of these to the smithy when you go?”
“For Boyd?” Derek asks with a quirk of his eyebrow.
She’s suddenly unable to meet his gaze, carefully peeling her apples in much clumsier chunks than before. “They’re for everyone working the forge. But you might offer one to him, if he’s there.”
They both know he will be. “Why don’t you go yourself? He’d be happy to see you.”
“Oh, no. Boyd is...he’s busy. I’m just a distraction to him.” She looks even more lovely when she blushes, but there’s nothing to be said that will convince her of that. Derek just takes the basket, blows her a kiss for the apple, and takes his leave.
Boyd will be pleased with the gift, but of course he’ll deny Erica means anything by it. He’ll try to act calm as he asks stuttering questions about what she said specifically and if it was about him, pretending he’s only curious in a general way about a mutual friend. Sometimes, it seems like they’ll never get out of their own way and court properly. Derek laughs to himself as he makes his way to the smithy. People can be so blind about their affections.
The year passes easily, and summer finds Derek currying King John’s favorite mount again. He’s almost nineteen now, and still doing the work he was responsible for five years ago; the same work he will do for the rest of his life, he thinks sourly.
“The prince wants you to saddle Estelle and Horatio,” the stable master informs him. “He’ll be out of lessons at noontime.”
Derek sighs, putting aside the brush he had been using on the king’s mount and wiping a soapy wrist across his forehead before realizing it would only make the situation worse. “Again? We’ve been riding practically every day this fortnight.” And almost as frequently for the month beforehand; it’s a wonder he has time to get anything else done at all.
“It’s his sixteenth birthday in another month,” Finstock explains with a snort. “He’ll finally need to accept his responsibilities after he comes of age, and he won’t have so much time for riding.”
“Oh,” Derek says. “Of course.” He does know, but the thought of Stiles’ impending transition to adulthood slips from his mind with surprising frequency. It somehow feels like things will go on like this forever. It’s hard to remember that Stiles, unlike Derek, has a different future waiting for him.
Still, having time for himself again will be nice, he thinks as he prepares the horses. Sti- the prince can be incredibly distracting. He’s always around, dragging him off on lazy rides when he should be working, heckling him and asking him stupid questions and making jokes that Derek has to laugh at. Anyways, the prince could hardly expect that a mere servant would have any sort of present for him. It doesn’t matter that Derek has nothing to give.
Stiles arrives with a casual ‘hello’ and a burst of animated complaints about his tutor. He is growing up, Derek has to admit. His face has lost a certain roundness, though his moles still dot all the familiar places.
“No, I think he was truly educated in a barn, with only cows for the other students. It’s the only way he could mistake himself for a scholar,” Stiles insists as Derek knits his fingers into a hold and gives him a boost into the saddle, but Derek only gives him a vague nod. He secretly tends to find Stiles’ rants amusing, but, at the moment, he’s still turning over the idea of presents and coming of age in his mind. It seems strange to think all this routine will be over, is all.
He goes to mount Horatio, but he’s stopped by a firm hand on his shoulder. “There’s a step right by the stalls, if the prince needs one to mount his horse,” the stable master says, pointing to the wooden stool. “He won’t be a child for long. You shouldn’t be too familiar.“
“Of course,” Derek answers, shrugging off the hand. He’s not trying to get familiar with the prince at all. Only, Stiles makes that so difficult.
“Here we are,” the prince announces at their regular clearing, the spot by the river separating the king’s land from the forest outside the city. It’s part of the routine now that they stop not only for a snack, but to spar, or read history texts. Stiles insists that the two subjects are his weakest and he needs all the help he can get. It’s unclear if reading together is helpful for him at all, since it mostly boils down to Derek enjoying Stiles’ voice as he reads the stories and gives his own colorful commentary on the political missteps of his forebearers. The the sword fighting, on the other hand, might actually be a help to the prince. Derek started out entirely clumsy with a blade, but at this point they’re evenly matched.
“Hup,” the prince calls, tossing Derek’s practice sword to him.
Derek catches it easily. “It’s your birthday in a month,” he says, and regrets it instantly. It sounds like whining. He tries to make a joke of it instead: “So, is the prince looking forward to the festivities, then?”
“Stiles,” the prince corrects. “I’ve told you, at least out here make it Stiles.”
Derek can feel himself flush slightly at the tips of his ears. “Stiles,” he repeats quietly, unable to stop himself from smiling.
“I’m not, by the way,” Stiles says, feigning right and slashing left. It’s his favorite opening move, and Derek blocks it easily.
“Oh? Why?” he asks, lunging forward.
“Too many people,” Stiles says, turning the blow harmlessly aside and sweeping up for a downward stroke at Derek’s side.
Derek catches the blade with his own and forces them both down again. “But that could be for the best. Aren’t you looking for a pretty lord or lady to flirt with, yet?”
“No,” Stiles says harshly, sliding his blade away from Derek’s for a quick slash up.
It almost strikes home, Derek barely jumping out of the way in time. In fact, it’s not quite in time for his shirt; the practice sword snags on the fabric and rips a long, ragged tear. “Oh, damn,” he says faintly. It’s the only one he owns.
“I’m so sorry,” the prince says, dropping his weapon to come look at the damage. “I wasn’t focusing; that was my mistake. Here, I have a needle and thread in the bag somewhere. Need to mend my own clothes often enough, you know.”
He turns to shuffle through Estelle’s saddle bag, and Derek shrugs out of the shirt to take a better look, careful out of habit to keep his uncovered back turned from the prince.
“I f-found...them,” Stiles stutters as he turns around. Derek looks up and notices that he’s blushing again. Is he still embarrassed about his mistake in sparring?
“It’s of no import,” he says. “It’s only a shirt.”
Stiles pulls the cloth out of Derek’s hands. “Still my fault.”
“I can do it,” Derek protests, grabbing for it back.
Stiles jerks the shirt away, out of his reach. “No. I have better hands for sewing.”
It’s no use arguing with Stiles when he’s got his mind made up, so Derek lets him. No one else is here to see the impropriety of it, anyways. They sit cross legged by each other in the grass, silent except for the chirping of birds and burble of the river nearby. Stiles mends the tear, and the horses graze obliviously next to them, flicking flies with their tails every now and again. Derek watches Stiles’ fingers out of the corner of his eye as he works. They’re long, dexterous. It sometimes seems like the prince’s hands are growing up faster than the rest of him.
“I don’t want to be sixteen and never see you,” Stiles says suddenly.
“Well, I can’t stop time,” Derek answers, peevish. He focuses on ripping at the grass in front of his knees, tearing the blades to small pieces and tossing them irritably to the ground again.
Stiles goes back to stitching for a moment, but then he breaks the silence as if he can’t help the words rushing out.
“Did you know my father is holding a tourney in five months, for Solstice?”
Derek looks up at the prince, startled at the sudden change in topic. “No. What?”
“It’s to be a way of recruiting for the army. They’re sending those who do well enough to the patrols, with full knighthood for the best. As an incentive. They’re mostly announcing it in the town, but… I only thought you might be interested to know,” Stiles says, his attention carefully on the small stitches he’s putting into Derek’s shirt.
Knighthood. Joining the army was hardly something Derek would have thought to consider, but it has a certain appeal. True, he has no taste for war, not after York. All the same, earning honor in battle is one way that those with no name, like him, occasionally find fortune. And while Stiles won’t have time for their little rides once he’s of age, if Derek were a part of the royal household surely they would find time to see each other once and again.
It’s a glimmer of a different future, but barely that. Dangerous to even consider. “I’m only a stable boy. And a Treskelian,” Derek says, half to remind himself. “Besides, what hope would I have to show well? I don’t even have experience fighting, except for these little…” he jolts to a stop, looking over at Stiles with sudden understanding. “You planned this!”
Stiles shrugs, carefully casual, but the sewing is forgotten and he doesn’t bother to deny the charge. “You could at least try it. I’ll have Scott come and help you prepare, if you want. He’s better at swordplay than me.”
Derek feels off balance; being knighted would change everything about his life, but the suggestion must be nothing more than a lark for Stiles. The prince is devious when it comes to getting his way, and Derek knows how he enjoys pushing the boundaries of what’s traditionally considered appropriate for a royal. This wild idea is only about their friendship - or whatever he should call this thing between them - secondarily to the true goal: Stiles getting his way. Still...
“I suppose I could try,” Derek says reluctantly. “But only because I’m getting sick of the smell of horses.”
Stiles drops the shirt and throws himself into Derek’s lap with a wild laugh, grabbing him into a bear hug. He’s grown in the last few years to be Derek’s height, and he’s put on muscle too; Derek can’t help but notice with their bodies pressed so close like this. He can even smell the soap and perfume in Stiles’ hair and clothes, as Stiles must be able to smell horses and hay and sweat on him. He tenses at the thought, forcefully recalled to how inappropriate it is for him to be holding the prince, even out here where there’s no one to see.
Stiles sits back, flushed, brushes a bit hair out of his eyes. It instantly falls back down. “You’re a natural fighter, anyways. It takes me twice as much practice to keep on pace with you. With Scott’s help or no, you’ll certainly win the knighthood.” He flips the lock of hair again.
“If you say so.” Derek reaches out and carefully tucks the piece of hair back, lingering to be sure it stays this time. He realizes a moment later that the touch is overly familiar, as much or more than the hug, and twitches his fingers away. Surely there must be a rebuke. But Stiles tips his cheek into Derek’s palm, looking fondly at him with those dark honey eyes. Derek feels as if his hand’s been frozen in place, the softness of Stiles’ skin overwhelming any other thought. The prince smiles contentedly at him, and Derek tries to smile back.
He can’t be doing a good job of it, though, because the touch of his callused fingers on Stiles face has jolted everything into a different order in his mind; every time he worried what Stiles would think of this or that, every time he could barely sleep for thinking about the prince, the way he’s just promised to risk his future out on the rough borders of the country for the mere chance of more time with Stiles...he’s tried so hard to pretend it’s annoyance, but it isn’t. It isn’t annoyance at all.
The prince may only be joking around, but Derek has waded into dangerous waters. He’s up to his chest in deep, strong currents, and heaven help him, but he has no desire to even attempt regaining the shore.
Boyd at work is an impressive sight, his dark skin shining with sweat as he hammers the red hot iron into a blade. He has the muscles to work heavy broadswords and shields, which is often what the smithy demands. You’d never guess that his true passion was delicate trinkets, brooches and rings that would fetch a fair price in town if he’d ever agree to sell them.
“You seem nervous,” Boyd says out of the blue, speaking loudly to be heard over the hiss of steam as he douses his work to temper the steel.
“What? I’m not,” Derek protests. It’s a lie. He’s at the forge specifically because he can’t be at the stables without thinking of Stiles, of how little time they have…still, he must be truly obvious if someone in the middle of working a forge can notice.
“Uh huh,” Boyd says, but he doesn’t press. It’s one of the reasons Derek likes him so well.
Derek picks up one of the smaller pieces that Boyd works on in his spare time; an intricate ring with a twisting design of bronze. “You know there’s a tourney to be held this Solstice?”
“Yes,” Boyd scoffs. “For idiots who’ll sign their life away to the army for a shot at knighthood. Which, by the way, is just a fancier name for signing your life away to the army.”
“Right,” Derek says. “I put my name in, today.”
“Uh huh,” Boyd says with significantly more judgement, risking a glance at Derek between blows on the flat piece of steel he’s working into a sword.
“I dont want to work in the stables for the rest of my life,” Derek insists hotly. “And I can’t very well find a tradesman who’ll have me as an apprentice like you, can I? Considering my birth.” Boyd’s dark skin proclaims him as one of the respected southern race, rather than a Treskelian. His parents were traders who brought spices and fine goods from the farther lands before their misfortune stranded Boyd and his sister in York. What gave him grief in Treskelia is in Beacon Hills an advantage, freeing him from the suspicion of continued loyalty to King Peter.
“The stables might start to look quite well compared to a field of battle,” Boyd says. “And don’t doubt that’s the meaning behind this. The royals may have come to a truce for the moment, but war will brew again. There can be no lasting peace while Peter is king and holds Beacon Hills responsible for the murder of Queen Talia and the rest of the royal family. Though I have a funny notion that you’re thinking more of getting to play ‘noble’ in the castle with the prince than whatever comes afterwards.”
Boyd’s so quiet you sometimes forget he’s as much of a snoop as Erica. “I don’t care about the prince,” Derek lies again. “Knights are respected. I could make a name for myself. Maybe even be granted land, if it does come to war and I do well enough in battle. I’d have more coin, besides, and time to go out to the city. It’ll be nice to spend more time with Erica in the castle,” Derek slips in, slyly. “Did you like the scones she had me bring for you?” They had been cherry, nothing but crumbs on the floor at this point.
“She didn’t make them for me,” Boyd protests, Derek’s entrance to the tourney forgotten for the moment. “But, if she asks - they were wonderful. Her baking is always wonderful.”
Derek smiles to himself. “I’ll be sure to tell her.”
It’s the day of the Crown Prince’s birthday feast, and no matter how many bales of hay Derek sorts and how many stalls he cleans out, he can’t quiet his mind. They’d planned to ride the day before, but Stiles had gotten pulled into more preparations for the feast instead. The time before that, Derek hadn’t realized it would be their last. They’d only bickered as usual throughout Stiles’ reading, not even coming to a good stopping point in the history. It hadn’t been special enough for a goodbye.
It’s not that he could say anything of his affections, of course, but he’d thought… he’d thought they had at least a bit more time. But now the feast is on and the prince is of age, Derek will see him maybe thrice a year for hunts in the summer. Perhaps a few more times than that if the prince travels with his father to visit other cities - except then he won’t even be in the capital for weeks. Derek heaves another bunch of hay into Estelle’s stall.
“You’ll miss him, too,” he murmurs, pausing his his work to lay a hand on her soft nose. She snuffles quietly at his palm, looking for a treat. The sound’s not loud enough to cover the creak of the stable door opening, however. Derek frowns. No one else is working in the stables this afternoon, not during the celebration.
“Derek, you have to hide me,” a familiar voice says, and Derek almost trips out of the stall to the central lane. It’s the prince, shutting the stable door behind himself and leaning against it as if that can stop the progression of the day.
“I have to do no such thing,” Derek says hotly, to cover the sudden excited speeding of his heart. “You can’t be here, you're missing your birthday celebrations!”
Stiles smiles impishly at him. “Only a bit of them.” He cuts a very distracting figure in his formal wear, and it seems he knows it from the way he walks with a bit of swagger. Derek tries not to stare. Out in the courtyard, Derek can hear Sir Harris calling for his charge. The prince glances back at the door, and then at Derek. “Just help me, will you? I only want an hour to myself,” he pleads.
Derek's helpless to deny him, but he makes a show of rolling his eyes and grousing. He reopens Estelle’s stall with a quick motion and leads her to the back door, where he sends her out to the field with a slap on her rump. “Up, up,” he grumbles, pointing Stiles to the hayloft.
“You're a wicked mastermind,” Stiles says admiringly as he climbs. “All this time and I never knew.”
In the loft, the bales muffle the sound of them scrambling through the hatch. Golden motes of hay dust float in the sunbeams shining through the wooden boards of the roof. It smells of dried grass, the sweet scent layered over the warm musk of the horses. Nobody really goes up here except Derek, and it feels private, despite being the castle’s property.
“Prince Stiles!” Harris calls again, closer.
Derek leans over to look down the hatch, but Stiles tackles him into a pile of straw, hissing, “You'll be seen!”
Derek’s about to throw him off, but then they both go dead still at the sound of the stable door opening, the soft fall of boots on dirt. Derek tries not to breathe too loud, or to shift against the prince more than he has to. Every tiny movement of their bodies against each other feels impossibly exaggerated. Stiles is pressed so close to Derek’s back that each of his shallow breaths puffs against his neck. Harris’ footsteps move below them, searching, and Stiles claps a hand over Derek’s mouth as if he were going to make a noise. Derek frowns into the prince’s palm, and resolutely doesn’t think about the soft feeling of skin on his lips.
“Damn brat,” Harris curses, finally noticing Estelle gone. He leaves with a jingle of buckles and another creak of the stable door.
But they stay lying tightly pressed to each other, back to front. Stiles drops his hand from Derek’s mouth, but the silence stretches out all the same, so absolute Derek can hear the hitch in Stiles’ breath as clearly as he feels the thick line of his arousal pressing against him.
“I’m sorry,” Stiles whispers huskily, pulling his hips back and half sitting up. “I didn’t mean…I just wanted to see you. Before everything.”
Derek twists onto his back to look at the prince. Stiles’ eyes are wide and blown dark in the hazy light of the loft, and he’s worrying at his lip with none of his previous flirtation, his lips flushed with the nervous biting.
Derek swallows, his mouth dry, and says, “I wanted to see you, too.”
Stiles blinks slowly, and Derek’s heart is beating so fast he can feel it in his throat.
“I wanted to kiss you,” Stiles whispers.
Derek lets out a tiny gasp. That, and his expression, must be enough.
Stiles hand drops to Derek’s hip, tentative to the point of shyness. He leans down slowly, eyes open, giving Derek every chance to pull away. He doesn’t.
When Stiles presses their mouths together, Derek has to bite back a moan, crumbling even under the soft, dry pressure of their chaste kiss, such a small thing. Or, not so small. If Harris comes back, if anyone sees...it's dangerous for someone like him to look a noble in the eye, much less sully them with intimacy such as he and the prince are sharing now.
Only he can’t really believe that the risk matters, not at this moment in time with Stiles’ fingers tensing on his hip and his soft mouth brushing the spot his palm covered moments ago. So long as he has this memory, Derek thinks fuzzily, he’ll be happy - even it it means losing his place at the stables, losing everything. This moment is all he needs or wants.
Stiles’ mouth opens against Derek’s, the kiss suddenly slick and edged with new urgency. Derek’s hardly an expert, hasn’t done this before at all. He lets Stiles set the pace, the prince’s body arching into his as their tongues meet, teasing and testing. It’s a wet, sloppy attempt with probably too much scraping of teeth, but Derek can’t imagine anything more perfect. It seems to go on forever, a moment of infinity fizzing over with happiness.
The inexperienced push-pull breaks off to little more than a panting exchange of hot breath, and then the prince angles his head to kiss Derek more deeply. Derek presses forward into the kiss, tipping their weight off center as Stiles clutches Derek’s hip to give himself more leverage. They roll over one another, Derek half on top of Stiles now, but it doesn’t keep the prince from taking charge again, tangling his fingers in Derek’s hair and pulling him down to continue their kiss. He sounds almost as if he’s hurt, gasping out little breathy moans that Derek tries to quiet with his inexperienced tongue - but, if anything, his ministrations do the opposite. The thought that this could be the only time intensifies each sensation of it: the drag of the prince’s lips, his tongue pushing against Derek’s own.
They finally part for breath, and Derek takes in Stiles’ flushed, wide-eyed expression. He supposes he must look equally taken apart. More so, probably - he has no idea what this means to the prince. It’s only a tantrum, perhaps, or a quick release of tension. Annoyance at his new responsibilities spurring him into something he wouldn’t otherwise do. For Derek, it’s everything. He starts to wipe his mouth, looking away. How could he have forgotten himself so thoroughly? The prince can’t possibly mean anything by such a dalliance with a mere stable boy.
Stiles is still breathing heavily, but there’s a different hitch to it. He sits up, sliding from under Derek so they’re not even touching. “What is it?”
“Nothing,” Derek lies. He doesn’t want to stop. Even if Stiles isn’t in love with him, even if it’s dangerous for both of them, the dizzying prospect of at least physical affection is already more than he should hope for. He could curse himself for ruining the intimacy of the moment.
Stiles frowns at the flimsy deflection.
“I don’t mean to be… I wasn’t trying to be disagreeable,” Derek explains, winces at the stilted tone. He can’t reveal the uncalled for intensity of his feelings, Stiles would be appalled. “I was only thinking that you’re the prince,” he says, deflecting with a reference to the risk they’re taking with this impropriety. Yes, after the queen’s death Stiles has had more leeway in his behavior than is perhaps proper - but kissing a servant is beyond what even the over-tolerant king would allow to go unpunished, surely.
“Oh,” Stiles says, his mouth almost comically round. “I’m the prince?”
Derek flushes. If Stiles isn’t concerned to sully his honor as an unwed royal, why should Derek be? Stiles has more to lose, between them. Besides, there’s the small matter that Derek doesn’t actually care about the risk. The hayloft is secure enough. “It was foolish, I didn’t mean you need to stop,” he says, hoping to smooth the moment over.
“No, of course. Yes, I…I suppose I forgot for a moment that I can do whatever I want.” Stiles rises unsteadily to his feet.
Derek stands too, confused. They were supposed to go back to kissing. Stiles had suggested an hour’s break and it can’t have been more than minutes. “What are you doing?”
“I’m leaving,” the prince says.
Derek can barely comprehend - he’d wanted to kiss Derek just moments ago. He’d said so. And now Stiles wants to go back to the castle and the celebrations he claimed to loathe, right after slipping his guard? It must be true, though, as he’s scrambled down from the loft and is now striding quite purposefully for the door. “But you…” Derek starts, landing on the first floor and stumbling after Stiles to catch at his sleeve.
“You have to do what I say, don’t you?” Stiles snaps, pulling his arm out of reach. The tone stops Derek in his tracks, but it’s the tears brimming in Stiles’ eyes that punch the breath from his lungs and still his tongue. “You’ve never forgotten that, and I can’t believe that I did. Well, now I order you to stay here, boy.”
And then he’s gone, leaving Derek reeling.
Chapter 2: In Which a Tournament is Held
Hello hello from your author, and a big thanks to everyone reading! I’m already so flattered by your comments and excitement, not to mention your willingness to read a WIP. Fingers crossed you like where it ends up going! Everything I'd consider key to the story has already been tagged, but I will be updating with a few minor characters and relationships as we go along... so keep an eye out and let me know what you think!
“Boyd, doesn’t this ribbon look fair with Erica’s coloring?” Derek innocently holds the blue silk to Erica’s golden curls as she ignores him in favor of some muslin she’s been eyeing for a new dress. Boyd shoots him a glare, and Derek smiles back. It’s lucky chance that one of the few afternoons they all have off together falls on market day, and they’re enjoying themselves in the town. The square is humming with people, each shop busy and full of colorful wares. It’s a lovely, sunny day and Derek can almost convince himself that his heart’s as carefree and happy as the other villagers despite the heaviness that’s rested in his chest ever since the prince’s feast day.
Erica and Boyd have only grown more tentative around one another as they approach adulthood, but their nervousness finally seems to be blossoming into a realization that the other is just as concerned to make a good impression. Derek is trying to stay out of their way, but sometimes he finds himself too tempted to prod them into an admission. “Perhaps she would prefer a trinket, maybe something of brass?” he suggests mischievously.
“Erica has more serious things on her mind than mere trinkets,” Boyd reprimands, and then says more gently to Erica: “You should tell us what’s worrying you.”
She flashes him a fitful smile. “Oh, it’s nothing. Only that there are so few months until the tourney,” she explains. “This could be our last afternoon together at the market.”
“Don’t be silly,” Derek says. “After the tournament I’ll be a knight, and we’ll see one another more often than we do now. And I’ll have the coin to buy you whatever ribbons or trinkets you want.”
Erica sighs and rolls her eyes at his bravado. Boyd steps closer to her and offers soft reassurance that Derek is likely right, and that no matter the outcome they’ll surely find a way to be together still. He follows with an incredibly circumspect suggestion that if there’s anything she truly would like from the market, in the meantime, he’s happy to buy it. If it would please her for him to do so, of course.
“Oh, goodness - no. Thank you. But no, I don’t need that,” Erica demures as soon as she understands his meaning, blushing yet again.
Derek is amused by their stilted flirtation, and thankful for their attention to leave him. Despite his easy words, the approaching competition frightens him, too. He’s seen no sign of Prince Scott or his promised training. Without it, what chance does he have of winning against any other man that enters? It seems impossible. Derek half believes Stiles had only been spinning tales out in the field, not making promises. The prince was toying with an amusing idea, and now Derek’s left to pay the price.
Or more likely, Derek thinks with sinking heart, the prince had been in earnest then and since changed his mind.
It’s nearly two fortnights past the day in the hay loft, and since then they’ve barely laid eyes on each other. The prince is busy with his new responsibilities, yes, but it isn’t only that. He’d avoided Derek quite obviously the last time they’d spotted each other in the courtyard and he’d skipped his father’s last hunt. Clearly Derek had misstepped in the hayloft, though he’s still not sure how. He sighs heavily, letting the ribbon fall back into the pile of wares now that Boyd and Erica are off in their own world. If this was the result, he should never have dared to kiss a prince.
Yet it had seemed so inevitable at the time. Stiles wanting him had been a miraculous blessing on the day he’d expected none. No, if he’s entirely honest with himself, it’s impossible to regret those stolen moments. What he regrets is how he managed to ruin everything to the point where the prince won’t even look at him in the rare moments they’re within view of one another.
Derek winces at the memory of how awkward he’d been when he said you’re the prince. He’d pretended to fear punishment only to hide his ridiculous feelings; no punishment could be worse than this distance between them, leaving him to wonder what went wrong.
Perhaps it had seemed that he was rebuking Stiles’ desire, rather than cautioning him? It’s true that Stiles’ chastity as the heir to the throne is supposed to be unimpeachable. An unwed prince giving away kisses, especially to someone so far beneath his station, would certainly be taken as evidence of loose character by most. Not by Derek, not really, but Stiles would have been rightly upset if he felt he was being shamed by someone beneath him, someone he’d taken for a friend.
Or, Derek realizes, perhaps he has it all backwards. The prince had been aroused before he’d kissed Derek, and he’d spoken of doing whatever he chose before he left... It’s not unheard of for a noble to take pleasure outside of marriage, as long as it’s discreet. Derek always thought the punishment to be more severe for a royal, though, especially if said pleasure came before a marriage. Though...there could be an unspoken loophole for an heir to the throne. What if Stiles had been seeking completion, not some childish kisses? Then Derek had been fearful and hesitant, when he should have offered more than his mouth without requiring the prince to order it. If a lover what the prince intends to have, of course he will find someone. And now that someone won’t be Derek.
“Derek,” Erica says, rousing him from his thoughts with the tone of someone who’s spoken more than once.
“Hm? My appologies,” Derek says, turning too late to put on a convincing smile.
She frowns at him. “You are worried about the tournament. If you truly regret it, there must still be some way to back out.”
“No, I can’t,” Derek says with a quick shake of his head. “I need to at least make an attempt.”
Erica bites at her lip. “But why? It’s not really the prince, is it? I know we’ve teased you, but that would be…”
Derek knows what it would be: utterly foolish, thinking he could mean anything to the prince in return. He could hope to be only a brief amusement, a dangerous secret. It’s for the best that he won’t be able to put himself in that position, as it’s clear from his behavior he’s powerless to resist.
“No, of course it’s not St- the prince,” he blusters. “It’s only that I feel my life is worth more than the stables, and this is finally a way to prove it.”
“We know what your worth is,” Erica agrees, her eyes going soft as she reaches out to lay a hand on his arm.
Boyd looks as if he’s about to add to her statement, but a clamor goes up in a stall across the way. The three of them turn to the commotion, though even Boyd has to stand on his toes to see anything over the tangled crowd. At the center of the knot of people is a shopkeeper, shouting that one of his ceramic bowls was stolen while he haggled with the fishwife, who is yelling back that it’s not her fault he’s greedy and inattentive. Two guards are coming up the street already, drawn by the raised voices, swords drawn.
Derek grimaces. Thought he understands the shopkeeper’s anger at his wares being taken without payment, the man is hardly poor. Whoever’s taken the risk of stealing, on the other hand, is likely impoverished. He hates to see a man apprehended and punished for giving into desperation. He remembers his time in York too clearly for that; even with the roof of Deaton’s orphanage over his head, it had been so tempting to simply take what he needed for the possibility of a full stomach or a warm blanket at night. And even if he doesn’t remember, he supposes he hadn’t always managed to resist said temptation before he was found by the orphan master. The mark on his back seems to itch, and he rolls his shoulders irritably.
“You there! Treskelians!” one of the guards yells, pointing at Derek, Boyd and Erica.
A spike of adrenaline sets Derek’s blood pumping fast. Somehow the guards always know who the outsiders are. He steps in front of his friends on instinct from back when the three of them and Boyd’s sister had shared one small bunk. During those days, he had watched for the rougher beggars who would happily take what little they had as easy pickings, and done his best to defend his small found family. As the oldest, he’d felt it was his responsibility. Even though Boyd is the larger of them now, it’s still in Derek’s blood to take the brunt of others’ anger.
“What are people like you doing in this market?” the taller guard demands. “Not buying, from the looks of it. Explain yourselves, then! Where were you three while this man was robbed?”
“Here, across the street,” Derek answers back, hearing the dangerous snappishness in his voice but not quite able to rein it back. “We may not be wealthy, but we can afford at least a few ribbons. With no bags or cloaks, where exactly do you suppose we’re hiding a large bowl?”
“Tch,” the guard sniffs. “You think you’re so smart then? That you can sneer at a guard of the King’s law because the bowl isn’t in your hands? You could have accomplices to take the stolen wares from you and run to some back alley store to pawn them. Now tell me, what were you three really doing in the market just now?”
Derek bristles, but Boyd pushes past him, shooting a warning look. “Sir, my companion meant nothing by his tone. We truly have been in this shop looking at the ribbons and trinkets, and fully intended to spend fair coin on the wares here. Did anyone see us in the potter’s shop?” The crowd murmurs, but luckily no one disagrees. “We don’t have the bowl, as you can see. Please, the criminal is not one of us.” Boyd finishes quietly. Derek grits his teeth.
“Who are you apprenticed to, then,” the guard says testily, not responding directly to anything Boyd has said but at least not pushing forward with an arrest.
“I’m apprenticed to master Xavier at the castle smithy,” Boyd says calmly. The guards ease back ever so slightly. Master Xavier is a respected enough tradesman that they should hesitate before imprisoning his apprentice, it seems.
“Turn out your pockets,” the other guard says gruffly.
Erica and Boyd obey quickly, showing that they barely have pockets to empty. Derek follows suit after a moment. Of course, with all the attention on their humiliation, whoever took the bowl to begin with must be long gone - and along with that person, any proof he and his friends weren’t the original culprits.
“Very well,” the first guard says, finally. “We’ll not make an arrest without any evidence.”
“Next time we’ll find how you and your gang of Treskelians arranged this, though,” the other adds darkly. “Beacon Hills doesn’t need thieving spies like you wandering free.”
They turn back to the shopkeeper to ask more questions, and Boyd puts a hand on Derek’s back to propel him up the street after Erica, their shopping forgotten.
“Thank you,” Derek says stiffly as they wind their way back to the castle. “I made that harder for us, didn’t I?”
“You meant well,” Erica murmurs to her feet.
Derek growls with bitter frustration. “I knew I should be humble, but my temper gets the better of me each time. I wish I could remember where exactly I picked up this damned pride.”
Boyd claps a hand on his shoulder. “Derek, it’s not a flaw. You’re right to think you shouldn’t waste your life as a stable boy, and biting your tongue each time you’re accused or insulted will certainly never win you anything better. I know I’ve said harsh things about your tournament, but if this is how you can show your worth to the people of this damned country, I support it entirely.”
Derek has to smile at that, despite his mood. “Thank you, Boyd. You’ll be there cheering for me, then? When the time comes?”
“Both of us will,” Erica assures him.
Later that night, Derek is still making up for the time spent dawdling with Erica and Boyd. Exhaustion is no excuse to neglect the animals, and this late the other servants have returned to their homes in town. There’s nobody else to do his chores. He goes to refill Horatio’s water trough, and almost spills it all over the floor when a dark figure looms around the back door. For a moment, it seems that Derek’s thoughts have summoned the very person he hoped for.
“Sorry, sorry!” the figure apologizes, stepping into better light to reveal a tan face with a slightly uneven jaw, and floppy dark brown hair. Not Stiles, then - his brother by marriage, Prince Scott. “I saw the torches still lit and thought I might finally catch you. We only have a few months to train, you know. We’ll have to make a schedule to meet if we’re to get anywhere with this.”
“You’re - I wasn’t sure you’d truly come to help me.” Suddenly he feels foolish for his earlier doubt; how did he expect Prince Scott to contact him, by sending a royal missive? Derek steals a quick look around the stable and horse yard. As he well knows, it’s empty. “Isn’t it dangerous?”
Scott shrugs self-deprecatingly. “They don't keep an eye on me the way they do Stiles.”
Stiles, who really did mean to help Derek despite their awkward encounter. “All the same,” Derek says. “You could be reprimanded for coming out at this time of night, you-”
“None of that,” Scott interrupts briskly. “Come now, you must know how persuasive Stiles can be. He likes you very much, of course I can take a small risk to help you.” Scott, unlike his brother, looks the portrait of honesty when he grins at Derek. So, Derek thinks with relief, Stiles has forgiven him for his misstep on his birthday. At least they can still be friends - assuming Derek can win a place in the royal household, that is.
Scott drops a long bundle off his shoulders and unwraps it to reveal two swords. He steps back with a gesture indicating that Derek should have his choice. Derek picks one up and hefts it to find the weapon slightly heavier than the practice blades Stiles used in his training, but better balanced too.
“Enguarde,” the prince says, raising his sword.
Derek puts up his blade as well, and almost before he’s settled Scott whips forward with a precise opening sally. Scott is much better than Stiles, and Derek doesn’t have the advantage of knowing him as a fighter. The end result is that after a few clashes of blades Derek has the edge of Scott’s sword at his throat. Derek lets the tip of his weapon hit the ground. He’s expecting to show well against full grown men in a few months’ time, and he's been beat by a 16 year old. This is ridiculous.
Scott can tell he’s dismayed. “No, don’t be disappointed. That was a good effort. It was,” he insists at Derek’s raised eyebrows. “I've been trained for this my whole life, the same way Stiles has been trained to rule. You, on the other hand, have one year of sparring with an easily distracted teacher,” he says with a knowing smile. Derek flushes.
“That gives us an idea where to start. Now, enguarde,” Scott says again. This time he walks around Derek, examining the pose, tapping his joints into correct position.
Derek’s muscles tremble after just a minute of holding still, sword extended.
“Are you sure you've had no other training?” Scott muses.
“When,” Derek grits, trying to steady the wavering blade. “Between mucking stalls? Or in the streets of York?”
“Ah, of course - I wasn’t thinking,” Scott says. He actually seems embarrassed at Derek’s displeasure, rather than jibing back like Stiles would have. Derek's forgotten his place. This is hardly the riverside clearing with Stiles now, he’s within the castle walls and speaking freely to a royal who he has never even met before this.
“I didn't mean to cause offense,” he says quickly, bowing.
“Oh, don't bow at me! You hardly need to apologize just for that,” Scott exclaims. “It was a silly question, you had every right to poke fun. I can see why Stiles likes you.”
Derek lets himself relax slightly, and returns Scott’s sunny smile with a tentative one of his own. He hadn’t thought to consider that Stiles might speak of their friendship with his more appropriate companions, and he’s surprised at how pleased he is that Scott has heard at least something about him from his brother.
“I really was surprised, is all,” the prince says with a small frown. “I don't understand how you can have better form than Stiles when he's the one that trained you.”
Derek shrugs his shoulders. “He’s able to describe well enough what he's supposed to do, even if he can’t bring himself to do it.” He realizes, too late, what the words sound like without context. “Or, no! I mean to say-”
But Scott laughs over him. “No, no, that's a fair assessment of my brother; more interested in what he can get away with than in doing what’s expected of him.”
Derek looks away, suddenly reminded of Stiles’ wild laughter, his disregard of propriety. “Please let him know that I appreciate his help. I’ll try to do well for him.”
Scott smiles again. “You know, I’m glad that he wasn’t exaggerating about you being a natural - I’m starting to want you in the army for my own benefit. I’ll surely let him know that you’re grateful. Now, again.”
It’s finally the day of the Solstice, and Derek’s nervous to the point he hasn’t been able to eat the cinnamon buns Erica snuck out of the kitchen for him. His stomach churns unhappily. He knew when he added his name to the list that it was a long shot, a spoiled royal’s fancy. Back then it hadn’t mattered that he might lose terribly, for what was little humiliation for a stable boy? He’d barely considered the real possibility he’d be conscripted for nothing. A shot at escaping a life filled only with menial physical labor - and being closer to Stiles - had been enough hope to blur all else.
Now, though...the last months without seeing Stiles have been something like torture. Failure means long parols on a border even farther away, and that is no longer an option; he needs to see the prince again. Training with Prince Scott has gone well, but he has no idea if it’s enough, and the doubt is driving him mad. He paces around the room, flexing his fingers. He’s the last person still in the inn’s store room that they’re using as a preparatory area, even though there’s nothing left to prepare.
“You needn’t be nervous - my brother says the tourney’s yours to lose.”
Derek whirls around at the familiar voice. “St- My prince! what are you doing here?”
The prince shrugs, a self satisfied smile playing around his mouth that Derek wants to taste before he pushes down the traitorous urge. “Can’t I say hello before your big day?”
“You’re supposed to be with the king.”
“There’s a huge crowd out there,” Stiles says with an impish smirk. “It’s easy enough to lose one prince for a few minutes.”
“Sir Harris will be delighted to explain to your father,” Derek deadpans - or tries to. The happy feeling in his chest keeps sneaking out as a smile on his face.
Stiles laughs at the joke anyways. He’s dressed in full finery for the event, from his rich doublet to the gold circlet that rests on his brow. They’ve drifted unconsciously towards each other as they were speaking, and now they’re standing a fraction closer than appropriate. It’s not the passionate embrace from the hayloft - but it’s not the childish ease from before then, either.
“I’ll only be a moment,” the prince murmurs. “You’ll need to go out soon to the competitors’ stand. I just wanted to, well, apologize for my birthday. It won’t happen again. Do you forgive me? ”
Derek ‘s heart aches to hear confirmation that their kiss was a mistake to the prince after all, but the prince is looking at him so earnestly contrite that all he can say is, “Of course.”
“Oh, and…here,” Stiles says a bit shyly, thrusting out his hand to Derek.
He’s holding a creamy silk ribbon, a bit more than a hands-breadth long and ragged on one end. “A token?” Derek asks, dumbfounded.
Stiles nods. He rocks back on his heels, as if he’s still nervous for some reason. “I thought you could hold on to it, and do well. For our friendship.”
“Oh,” Derek says dumbly as the prince takes the ribbon back and loops it around Derek’s belt. He tries to think about horseshit while Stiles’ dexterous fingers work a knot right next to his crotch. As if it’s not intoxicating enough just being in the same room as him.
When Stiles looks up from the token, their faces are so close that Derek can vividly picture leaning in the one inch to kiss the prince, sweet and slow. Stiles would taste slightly of cinnamon buns, and he’d brings both his hands up to Derek’s face to pull him close. Their mouths would slide open easily, tongues moving more surely than their first time…
Outside, a bell clangs and Derek looks up, startled. The prince steps away.
“Go on, they’re about to start.” he says, with an encouraging smile and a playful tug on his token. “I’ll be watching.”
Derek, as always, obeys.
Outside, he joins the other waiting competitors in space roped off for them. Boyd and Erica are watching for him as promised, a few rows back in the crowd standing around the arena to watch. The blacksmith gives him a solemn nod, while Erica jumps up and down beside him to get Derek’s attention, waving wildly. Derek smiles, and gives her a small wave back.
The atmosphere of the tourney is undeniably festive. The royals have their decorated stand across the arena, wooden benches built to elevate the nobility for a better view than the rabble. King John is seated in center of the top row, dressed in in full regalia. To his left sits the Queen Consort Melissa with Prince Scott beside her. Derek would like to nod at him in thanks, but he’s beaming at a girl a few rows down, a pretty brunette sitting next to Chris Argent. She dimples adorably back at him. Allison, Derek thinks her name is. The Argents are one of the mercenary clans hired to lend strength to Beacon Hill’s army, honored as if they were nobility though they have no land or title.
Stiles slides into the seat to his father’s right, earning a quick glare for his tardiness. He shrugs apologetically, nudging his circlet to sit evenly, then smiles when his eyes meet Derek’s. He fits in perfectly to the tableau of wealth and privilege; you’d never guess that he’d been consorting with a servant minutes ago. One of the other competitors, two inches taller and a hundred stone heavier than Derek, sways drunkenly into his side, bringing him back to reality. What is Derek thinking, here among the other dirty peasants, imagining he could be a match for the crown prince?
Then again, he thinks as he fingers the ribbon tied to his belt, it seems that Stiles still sees him as a friend, and that certainly serves as enough inspiration for what he’s about to do.
Derek does his best to size up the competition before his turn in the fifth fight. It’s hard to get a good look over the shoulders and heads of the other men, but what he can see looks brutal. Unlike practice with Scott, these men are fighting to win.
Derek is itching with nerves by the time he’s up for his first match. His opponent is taller than him by a hand, and looks like he’s seen a bar fight or six and won. Derek swallows. He especially doesn’t want to lose in the first round, not in front of so many people. Not in front of Stiles. That bone deep pride that always gets him in trouble is stirring. Choking up on the hilt of his sword, he tries to center himself as the tourney master rings the bell to begin.
They start by circling one another warily. The man’s reach is longer, so Derek needs to make it a close fight. If he tries to dance away, he’ll only be handing over the advantage. He remembers Scott’s training; engage on your own terms and the battle’s half won.
The other man closes in and they exchange one blow, two. Derek catches both of his opponent’s attacks, though he needs to use his full strength to stop the momentum of the other man’s blade. He realizes something interesting on the second swing, though. It’s not always accurate, the truism about larger men being slower, but this one is. He’s unused to the weight of the blade, Derek understands suddenly, watching the way he holds it low, almost dragging on the ground. Brawling may be this man’s specialty, but swordfights are not. Derek feigns left, and the man swings his weight into a defense even as Derek slides easily away and brings his own sword up to the man’s throat on the other side before he can correct. The tourney master throws the signal for victory.
Derek blinks in surprise as applause explodes from the peasant’s viewing area. It seems to be mostly coming from Erica and Boyd, each of them whooping with excitement. Derek looks up to see Stiles almost bouncing in his seat with glee, too, and realizes he’s smiling like a fool. He turns his eyes to find Erica instead, and salutes her the way he wishes he could Stiles.
The rest of the round finishes in a blur, Derek riding high on his unexpected success. He knows he should focus; the first round is mainly going to weed out the men like he fought, the town strongmen with no real skill at swords. There are men here who will have the formal training that the other peasants lack, men who are city guards and tradesmen down on their luck. The practice swords are dulled, but men are still walking - or being carried - from the arena with broken bones and white faces due to ill-timed blows. Derek flicks his eyes to Stiles after a particularly bad match, and sees his mouth pinched with the same worry he feels.
The next round Derek is paired against another commoner, slimmer and faster than the first but still no real challenge. The fight goes on longer than it needs to, with Derek being over-careful about his opponent’s wild swings. He can’t help but think what would happen if one caught his forearm. Derek almost feels guilty when the other man leaves the ring, considering his unfair advantage with Scott’s training. Like him, the peasants who signed up for this mad contest are just trying to win a better life. Unlike him, they’ve had no helping hand. Yet each of them must have a family, where he has none, and they’re true citizens rather than refugees. He touches the token at his belt. They can’t need to win like he does.
The fight after that is actually a challenge. The other man is shorter than him, but of a muscled, sturdy build. Worse, he’s well born and he knows his way around his blade. Derek has to use all his skill to avoid a loss; he spends the fight reacting from muscle memory and instinct. There’s no time to think or strategize, and he almost forgets where he is until he finds himself with his blade at the other man’s throat. Coming back to himself, he hears cheering on top of the usual applause. Not just Erica and Boyd’s cries, either. People he doesn’t know are cheering for him, most of the standing section in fact. He realizes with a start that he’s the only peasant to win his fight this round, and will be the only one advancing; the ten who remain after the next round will be the ones awarded knighthood.
The man he faces off with in the final fight is slim, but not in a way that indicates any weakness. His wiry muscles are still clear under the finely woven shirt he wears, and the way he flips his sword easily in one hand peaks to years of training. Derek scrubs his palms on his breeches.
“Triskelian,” the other man hisses at him under his breath as they pass each other to their starting positions. Derek startles, and suddenly places the man’s face. He’s one of the guards from down in the city, the taller of the pair who had almost had him arrested over that damned bowl.
The bell rings while Derek’s still remembering, and it’s a near thing that he successfully parries the guard’s first three quick blows. His defense is clumsy, but it culminates in a pause that allows Derek to ground himself in the rhythm of the fight.
Though the first blows were only light, testing strikes, the guard seems personally offended that Derek didn’t fail instantly. He ducks in for another exchange of five, ten blows. Unable to secure a winning pose, he moves to disengage again, but Derek steps forward. He swings hard, putting the guard on the defensive for the first time. Neither of them are able to win a true advantage after that exchange, or the next.
As the fight wears on, Derek doesn’t let himself get nervous. The length works in his favor; he’s younger, seasoned from labor in the stables. The guard may have better technique, but Derek knows from the way he’s breaking off their confrontations more quickly that Derek is the one with better endurance.
Derek moves forward with confidence after the next set of blows, pressing his advantage while the other man is still out of breath. The guard steps back and ducks low, dragging the edge of his sword against the packed dirt of the arena. Derek’s confused for a split second before the sword swings up, bringing with it a rain of grit and dust that hits him full in the face. He flinches away, blinking rapidly, and only avoids a loss right there by the sheer luck that he’d raised his blade on instinct and met the guard’s sharp blow.
His grip was ill suited for the angle, though, and the force knocks the weapon out of his hand. The crowd gasps, and Derek feels his stomach drop to somewhere near his feet. It’s not in the rules that he’s lost - the guard still needs to get to one of the approved poses for a victory - but without a sword Derek has no chance of winning. No chance of becoming a knight. He’ll be sent to the front as a common soldier, miles from Stiles, all his work for nothing.
Derek ducks from the next sweep of the guard’s sword, narrowly avoiding a defeat. It was a desperate move though, and he ends up sitting on his ass in the dirt at the wrong side of the arena from his weapon. Titters and jeers start to come from the wealthier people in the crowd; they enjoy seeing a peasant finally getting his comeuppance, Derek realizes with a sickening twist of his gut. He’s nothing but a Treskelian rat to them, and they’re delighted to watch him be put in his place.
The other man advances, smugly; he has no need to rush. Derek can’t win without a blade, and there’s only so much running he can do. It feels as helpless being on the streets of York again, hungry and cold. The guard in front of him is just one more bully coming to grind a boot in his back and push his face in the mud.
Derek was never one to give up easily, though.
As soon as the man’s close enough, he kicks out with his heel, aiming for a kneecap; the blow connects, the man stumbles, and Derek scrambles to his feet. He punches the guard solidly in the nose just as he regains his footing, and dives to pick up his sword. Panting and thrumming with nerves, Derek spins to bring the weapon to bear before his opponent recovers.
“Cheat!” the other man yells, holding bloodied nose with one hand and pointing an accusing finger at Derek with the other.
Derek heaves in big gulps of air as the adrenaline leaves him and he remembers where he is. A knight doesn’t kick at kneecaps or break someone’s nose. He’s no honorable contender for the title of knighthood; Despite Scott’s training and Stiles’ attentions he’s just a street orphan, isn’t he? Brawling and snarling out of base desires. All it took to force him into showing his true colors was one heady moment of panic.
But the King doesn’t give the signal to disqualify him. If anything, he looks amused. “Cheat? Last I checked, war isn’t won by people following all the rules,” he says, squinting down at the arena jovially. “And if we want to talk cheating, I think everyone saw you throw dirt in the kid’s face to get him to drop his sword in the first place. Not exactly sporting, hm? At least he didn’t give up the fight to whine about it.”
Derek stares unblinkingly up at the king, his breathing uneven. He can’t be understanding correctly, if the king isn’t disqualifying him, does that mean...
“Derek is the winner?” the tourney master says, half announcement and half question. The king nods. The guard flings his blade at the ground in disbelief and anger, and stalks out of the arena muttering to himself.
So the tourney is over; even after all the months of hope, Derek can’t quite believe he’s actually among the winners. He stands numbly in place as the other victors come forward into the ring be awarded a title; seven of them are city guards, and the other two are down-on-their-luck tradesmen.
King John descends to the arena with his ceremonial sword. He gives a consolation speech that sounds stirring and honorable from what little Derek can focus on, and begins to induct the competitors who did not earn the knighthood into the army. They kneel as one to accept the commendation. Later, they will be assigned to regiments and sent to defend the borders from raiders and any testing sally of King Peter’s forces; for now, they stay to watch the ceremonies.
The knightings begin next. The tourney master reads each name in turn and the man steps forward to kneel in front of the king and be awarded his new title to huge cheers. King Stilinski seems to know most of them, clasps their hands afterwards with a few soft personal words.
Derek is last. If he was nervous before, it’s nothing to what he feels now. Everything he wants is so close to hand, but might still be denied him at the last minute. Technically he’s won the honor of a knighting, but the way he did it shows clearly that everything happens at the will of the King. There’s no law forcing him to abide by the terms set out originally. If he won’t take Derek, that will be the end of all his and the prince’s aspirations. He’ll see Stiles for a few moments when the prince comes to the stables to prepare for a hunt or travels, and that will be all.
“And this is, ah, Derek,” the tourney master says. “No family name. He lists himself as a stable boy at your majesty’s castle.”
The kind squints at him, considering.“I thought you looked a bit familiar. How old are you, Derek?” he asks.
“Nineteen, my liege.”
“Young. Why didn’t you list your family name?“
“I don’t have one,” Derek says, clenching his jaw to keep it from clacking together with nerves. “I was… I lived in York.”
A gasp goes up around the crowd; despite his looks, apparently not everyone had realized what he was. The king grows solemn, and Derek tries not to notice Stiles squirming up in the stands. “You’re a Treskelian.”
“Yes,” Derek answers clearly, forcing himself to stand up a bit straighter.
King Stilinski leans forward. “I know we gave clemency to the refugees, and I stand by the decision that they be allowed to live and work in my city. You’d be the first to volunteer for the army, though.” He shakes his head slightly. “How can I trust you to be loyal on the front lines, against your own people?”
“I owe you my life,” Derek says honestly. “King Peter abandoned York when it became clear the city would fall, he did nothing to evacuate the civilians. The casualties would never have been so high except for his cowardice. Most kings in your place would have had all of us put to death, especially a boy like me. King Peter would have. Why would I have loyalty to a monster like him just because of where I happened to be born? I have no land, no family or name… Treskelia means nothing to me. If you’ll have accept it, I would give my life for Beacon Hills.” He finishes with a slight bow.
“You have a way with words, as well a some talent with the sword,” King Stilinski says, a hint of respect in his tone not quite outweighing his original hesitation. Derek looks up at him, trying as hard as he can to exude trustworthiness. He doesn’t let himself look past the king’s shoulder, where he knows Stiles is watching.
The king sighs. “I gave my word that the winners would be knighted, and I prefer to keep my word.” Derek’s knees almost give out in relief. “You’ll come to the palace to train with the rest of the men, but on probation. I can’t offer you a title as a knight of Beacon Hills. Not until we can be sure of your allegiance.“
Derek nods his acceptance of the terms. He’d have agreed to far worse than that, for Stiles. He allows himself a look towards the prince at last, and sees his bright amber eyes twinkling with the million possibilities opening up in front of them.
“Well, with that settled,” King Stilinski says, stepping back from Derek and raising his tone to announcement volume again. “The feast!”
Chapter 3: In Which a Ball Comes to an Unexpected Conclusion
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
The Solstice feast passes in a blur of music, new faces, and too-rich food. Derek had a half-formed thought of drawing Stiles aside for a quick word of thanks, and to ask him when they might next meet, but beyond the formal congratulations he received along with the newly knighted men at the start of the meal, there is no opportunity to exchange so much as a word with the crown prince. All too soon, Derek is bustled off to the barracks to sleep before beginning his life as a knight-in-training.
The following months are similarly busy. Derek assumed that with the both of them living in the castle, there would be time to talk, to rekindle their friendship from the riverside. But instead, it’s little better than the stables. Derek sees the prince, of course, when they chance to meet in the hallways or castle grounds. But he is attended at every moment by courtiers, nobles, guards, or some combination of those. His studies keep him occupied for large portions of the day as well, and Derek himself has training.
The only reliable time they see one another is meals, and the rigid strictures of their roles keep them well apart. Stiles must sit at the high table with his father, and Derek wherever he can find an open corner at one of the long benches. Derek knows he spends most of the time mooning at Stiles rather than paying attention to his food; occasionally Stiles even looks back. Those short hours and the glimpses they sneak of each other are embarrassingly close to being the best parts of Derek’s days.
Yet despite their limited contact, Derek feels he’s still growing closer to the prince. He’d thought the prince was exaggerating about never having a moment to himself, but now Derek believes he’d been understating if anything. Even now, there’s a servant at his elbow hopefully offering him more wine to go with his meal. Just as Stiles has successfully waved her away, the lutist is at his other side, suggesting music by the look of it. When the man is finally convinced to leave, Stiles drops his bland, generous smile into an annoyed little pout. Derek looks down at his plate to disguise his own smile at the familiar expression. When he looks again, the prince is in conversation with Lady Lydia, and Scott’s claimed his seat to the prince’s left, happily eating mince pie.
The two of them are the only ones who seem to be able to simply talk with Stiles, where everyone else strives to impress him or adjust his behavior. As the Crown Prince, Stiles may be the most powerful person in the room besides the king, but there’s a certain loneliness in his eyes as he watches Lydia move off to chat more freely with Allison by the nobles’ table. Derek feels a pang of sympathy, which would have seemed impossible merely a year ago out riding by the river.
So Stiles sits in his place of honor at the high table, the only youth besides his brother, guarded and watched and cosseted. Derek is three tables away, with enough space for two men on either side of him. He’s still not fully acclimated to wearing his new, finer clothes, and it’s been even more difficult to acclimate to living in the barracks with so many other men. He has his own cot, though, and a trunk for what few possessions he’s accumulated with the extra coin he’s awarded for his new role.
Not everything has been difficult, though. It’s been easy as breathing to acclimate to regular meals from the castle kitchens, and to training with the squires rather than tending the horses. It rankles a little that despite his hard won position, the youths are closer to his level of skill than the knights who are his age. It’s only to be expected, though: he knows they’ve been trained since birth in a way he never was. He keeps his mind on the future, on what he has the opportunity to accomplish if he’s able to win the king’s trust and his rightful title.
Looking forward to another time is the same tactic he uses to distract himself from the teasing that’s accompanied his unusual position. Two of the full knights are approaching his corner now - the twins. They’d been mercenaries before swearing fealty to King John, and enjoy policing the borders of propriety the more for being near the edges themselves. Derek tries not to meet their eyes, for all the good it does.
“Derek,” Ethan crows, too cheerful, drawing out the ‘r’ of his name. “How are you sitting alone?”
“It’s possible to eat without company,” Derek answers, trying to seem equally pleased to see them but probably failing miserably. He hates the twins.
Ethan turns around the table, purposefully graceless, and knocks his elbow into Derek’s mug of ale. The liquid spills down his front, mostly soaking into his pants.
“Oh,” Ethan says, “Apologies, apologies. An honest mistake.”
“Of course,” Derek grits.
Aiden smirks. “You know brother, I think we should move elsewhere to eat. There’s a disgusting smell about this particular bench.”
“Just so,” Ethan agrees. “Like a wet dog, isn’t it?”
The two of them move on with their plates, pass behind Derek with a faux-friendly slap on his back. Derek sops up what he can of the ale with his napkin - it isn’t worth it to cause an argument, though considering the prospect of washing his breeches by torchlight after the meal is a depressing thought. It will mean less sleep and likely damp pants in the morning, and he knows the other knights will be overly amused by his troubles. The others may not be as obvious in their disdain as Sir Ethan and Sir Aiden, but so long as he’s on the king’s probation Derek is not truly their equal, and they’re smugly aware of that. After all, they’re high born of Beacon Hills. How could he be their peer, doubly marked by his lack of name and his nationality as he is? Nobody wants to be the one breaking ranks to throw their lot in with the Treskelian dog.
Derek doesn’t care; they can hate him as much as they want.
It’s true enough that he doesn’t enjoy how the men he bunks with tease and prod him with petty cruelties such as this. And yes, he’s a bit more frequently hassled for his nationality than when he was only an easily dismissed servant. But it doesn’t bother him as much as they think to be excluded. It only reminds him that he’s not done, yet, that there’s more to strive for. It’s easier to keep his head down knowing that he’ll soon enough have his turn to show them that they shouldn’t laugh.
He’s so focused on the future, and on keeping himself from biting anyone’s head off, that he misses the next figures to approach his table until they’re just beside him.
“It’s Derek, isn’t it?”
He startles to be addressed and looks up to find Lady Lydia and Allison with Scott’s squire Isaac, who he knows slightly from their training. He half stands, shocked especially that the ladies have stopped to greet him. As part of the prince’s inner circle, they have even less reason than the knights to be kind or respectful. Allison motions for him to sit again, though.
“We haven’t been formally introduced - I’m Allison Argent - my father is one of the king’s mercenary generals. Scott mentioned that your training with the squires has gone nicely,” she says, giving him a dimpled smile. “Lady Lydia and I wanted to give our thanks for your helping prepare the young men to defend our borders.”
“Of course,” Derek says. “I… if you ever wanted to join us I would welcome your skill. Prince Scott has spoken very highly of your abilities, as well.”
Allison smiles shy at that, sparing a glance at the high table where Scott sits. Lydia gives her a sly look before turning to Derek with a bright smile of her own, though it reads to Derek as more calculated than her friend’s.
“If there’s anything in the castle you’re unsure of, please let me know of it,” she says. “I’ve grown up here as much as my own house, so very little remains a secret to me.”
Derek nods, murmuring a formulaic thank you. A lady making such an offer to a knight isn’t directly inappropriate, but it’s unusual for a noble of her wealth to be showing favor to a man still on probation. He can almost feel the twins’ glares, especially Aiden’s. He has made no secret of his affections for Lydia - or perhaps for her land.
Lydia hums approvingly, a hint of mischief still edging her smile. “We must be going, but Isaac was planning to stay and eat. I’m sure we’ll see one another again. Don’t forget my offer.”
She and Allison move back to the noble’s tables, ignoring the curious looks of their peers. Derek sits down, trying to process what this development could possibly mean.
Isaac, true to Lydia’s word, sits down next to him with a nervous smile. The boy is one of those borne into his role, and has much to live up to: Derek’s heard from Erica that his father, Sir Lahey, was a formidable knight before he was killed in one of the border patrols. Perhaps that’s why, despite having Prince Scott’s favor as a squire, the boy’s always seems on guard. Suddenly, the reason for this unexpected attention snaps into focus: Prince Scott. Allison and Lydia’s social intervention must be his work, which leads to the conclusion that Isaac himself has no particular desire to be here. His father was killed by Treskelians, after all.
“Hello,” Derek says woodenly.
“Hello,” Isaac says back, equally stiff. After a moment of silence, he offers, “This is a good meal. I like the pie.”
“Erica’s I’d think,” Derek says gruffly. “She’s a friend of mine. In the kitchens.”
Isaac nods “Yes, I’ve met her before. She seemed kind. Give her my thanks?”
“I will,” Derek says. The promise comes out smoother than his previous words, and earns him a genuine smile. Erica’s new confidence would make her a good friend to this shy boy, Derek thinks, and he resolves to make a point of the introduction. As harmlessly as Isaac may have meant the request, it couldn’t hurt to live up to his word. “I saw you best Sir Matt this morning,” he offers, and with that they move easily to the mutually interesting topic of their respective trainings.
The meal seems to pass more quickly after that, and Derek finds it seems less like a chore and more like genuine friendliness when they exchange stories of Scott’s helping their form. When Isaac finishes his pie and leaves, it’s with a promise to see Derek again.
As he leaves the hall himself, Derek shoots a last longing look at Stiles, and for once catches the prince’s eye. Derek gives him a smile and a small nod. He wonders if Stiles had any hand in Scott’s plan for Derek’s sudden popularity. He’s never thought of himself as a man who needed many friends, but he’s starting to see how in the castle he should be thankful for the extra support.
Erica is in a good mood as they head towards the smithy to meet Boyd, and it seems to be reflected in her rosy complexion and shining hair. Boyd doesn’t have the evening free this time, but now that Derek’s not a stable hand he has the time to go down to the village and visit. Even though Boyd is a full tradesman now and Erica is taking on the the more physical duties of the kitchen as the head cook ages, the three of them find time to spend together at least once a fortnight. While Boyd has always been marked to be a blacksmith in his own right, Erica’s new role is a surprise, dependent on her sickness being more controlled than it has been. She attributes the improvement to the drafts of mild enchantment specially prepared by the Queen for her use. Before marrying the king, Queen Melissa had been a healer, and it seems she still has some of that skill. The ability to rely on her body rather than being betrayed by it hasn’t changed Erica so much as it has revealed an inner vivaciousness that had been hidden under fear and shame. It’s wonderful to see.
Derek secretly suspects that Stiles must be involved in the queen’s new attentiveness, as a conversation with Scott at training had revealed that it was in fact the crown prince he had to thank for his newfound friendship with Isaac, Lydia and Allison. It could make him fall more in love with the prince to know he cares even for Derek’s friends, if it were possible to be more in love than he already is.
“Is my dress straight?” Erica asks as the smithy comes into view. It’s a question of nerves more than anything; Her dark purple bodice is so tight it couldn’t be out of place, laced so it puts her breasts practically at her chin.
“It’s perfect.” Though his taste runs more towards slim, noble men with sparkling amber eyes, Derek can see her appeal clearly - uncomfortably so, considering he’s always thought of her as a sort of younger sister. He has a brief moment of sympathy for Boyd. He can’t imagine what he’d do with himself if Stiles dressed so provocatively.
But he must stop thinking about the prince in that way. Their one kiss was nothing more than a youthful fancy, one last attempt to push back at the rules of adult life that have now fully settled over all of them. Unlike between equals such as Erica and Boyd, there shouldn’t even be friendship between a prince and a mere soldier.
Once the king’s probation is over and he has a title to his name, it will be appropriate for him to at least converse with him openly rather than admiring from afar. There are precedents that a knight could even swear loyalty to a royal, and have some favor in return for acts of valor. Not to the point kissing of course, propriety would certainly forbid that...but it would be possible to have a chaste, chivalric love. Many ballads sing of such pairings, don’t they? Even Lady Lydia’s grandmother had such an arrangement, with Sir Madeline.
A darker part of his mind can’t help but remind him that there are other stories, too, illicit tales of forbidden love between unsuitable pairs. Stiles used to read such things to him from his histories. They’re all tragedies, of course. Derek can’t think of one that ends well, despite the number of examples. Yet regardless of the risk, he hasn’t figured out how he could possibly stop wanting Stiles. Derek presses his fingers to the token he still keeps on him where the knights in his barracks can’t get to it, and remembers it’s not just a dream. Once, at least, Stiles wanted more from him as well.
Unfortunately, even a title seems out of reach for the moment. He’s not getting an opportunity to prove himself loyal while he’s locked up in the castle, and he’s not to be titled until he’s proven. Derek scuffs his steps irritably. Here he is, imagining such intimacy and favor when it seems that mealtime glances over the great hall are all he and Stiles will ever have.
The smithy is even busier than usual, full of the thick clanging of metal on metal and the hiss of iron being tempered. The finished pieces stacked for delivery are all weapons - piles of swords, arrows, axes curved too cruelly for woodsmen.
Erica frowns as a boy dashes out with another bundle of short swords to add to the cart headed for the castle. “Has there been official word of war, then?”
“No. Only the preparedness for it,” Derek says. The silence between them is suddenly tense. Boyd will be loathing this work, even worse if it requires overtime preventing him from working on his own projects. Of all of them, he lost the most in York’s fall, and has never had a taste for violence.
“It must make him think of Violet,” Erica says sadly, crossing her arms. Derek looks away, feeling the familiar pang of guilt. He’d been the one closest to the orphanage while Boyd and Erica had been at the market. He should have been able to save her.
Boyd comes out to the main street stripping from his heavy leather apron. He does look as if Violet’s fate is on his mind, his brow creased with emotion as much as exhaustion. The expression changes when he spots Derek, or more accurately when he spots Erica. It goes blank in such an unnaturally complete way that Derek can clearly tell that his friend is only holding onto his characteristic restraint by his fingernails.
“Derek,” Boyd greets him with a nod, and then, “Erica,” he says breathily, as she bites into the red apple she’s been carrying specifically for this moment.
After running her tongue over her lips to catch the juice, she gives him a satisfied smirk. Derek rolls his eyes; even Boyd must see the intent behind such a show. Still, her tone is warm and concerned rather than flirtatious when she asks. “Are you feeling well today, with all this work?”
His carefully blank expression melts into a tired frown. He glances at the tensely corded muscles in his arm where Erica’s gaze has fallen as if their rigidity surprises him. He forces his fist open and says, “Well enough. Derek, do you see a particular blade to your fancy?”
Derek starts a bit, ashamed to be caught looking in the circumstances. “No, no…I simply can’t help but wonder about the fighting to come,” he says apologetically. “I don’t know what to think. Truly, I don’t like it. But all the same…”
“War is your profession,” Boyd says equitably, “and it’s no crime to hope you’ll do well.” He gives a slight smile of understanding.
“If we’re speaking of crimes, I still think it’s an awful shame that your broaches aren’t the work they ask from you,” Erica pouts.
Boyd turns his head shyly, his first genuine smile of the day lifting the corner of his mouth. “I’ll make one for you when I have the chance.”
Erica nods, swaying in towards Boyd as if they’re alone. Soon enough they’ll court openly, and likely be married not so long after that. Derek’s pleased to see them working towards an admission after their years of tentative flirtation, yet at the same time he feels strangely left behind. They’re already on the next step of life, with their responsibilities to their jobs growing and now with their future as husband and wife beginning to settle. They’re moving so quickly, while he fights upstream without seeming to achieve anything. He wants to be doing something that’s important, as well, but he can’t imagine when he’ll have the chance.
Derek shifts uncomfortably in his dress armor. As a knight in training, he’s required to attend events such as this ball as part of the honorary guard. It’s almost all for appearance’s sake in a situation like this, when the visiting nobles are friendly and the negotiations, such as they are, concern trading agreements only as a pretense for laying ground for a marriage agreement. The blade at his side is his own, but everything else is for show. He and the others standing at attention around the doorways are little more than decoration for the nobles dancing and eating in the center of the great hall.
Prince Jackson is undeniably attractive. Derek wishes he was a troll, rather than this patrician statue with sculpted cheekbones and hooded, commanding eyes. He also wishes that Porche was even a little bit less wealthy. As it is, Prince Jackson and his parents could probably buy the very castle they stand in, if it was to be sold, and most of the farmland surrounding it as well. Allying with them would be undeniably good sense for the smaller Beacon Hills, especially with the threat of war hanging over them.
On the brighter side, Stiles doesn’t seem to like the stuck up heir even a little bit. Derek notes with some satisfaction how Stiles keeps turning away in the middle of the other prince’s sentences, and how he abruptly accepts a male courtier’s offer to dance, leaving Jackson alone and fuming. It’s left to Lady Lydia, then, to entertain him. She’s happy with the task it seems, batting her lashes and brushing his arm while laughing gaily. The bored expression on his face eases as well; It seems a much better match, the two of them as comfortable in their element of courtly manners as birds of prey are in the air. Stiles would be better suited with someone…someone a bit more grounded.
But then Derek feels whatever pleasure he’d taken in Stiles rebuffing the smug prince go sour in his stomach. It doesn’t matter what suits Stiles, does it? Not in the face of the war. Porche’s wealth could be the difference between victory and defeat, and the king must think of his people even before his son. Better that Stiles love whoever’s chosen for him, even if imagining that makes a small, secret part of Derek’s heart feel like it’s being crushed.
“Getting a little above herself, Lady Lydia,” one of the other knights murmurs, breaking rank to make a small gesture to where she’s coaxing Prince Jackson into a dance. It’s Sir Matthew. “She should look to someone her own level, like the prince’s friend, Sir Daniel. I suppose a climber will climb, though. As a pig will roll in shit.”
“You disregard the value of a good match of minds, and count affection for nothing,” Derek murmurs back, keeping himself perfectly at attention. “Prince Scott’s favor goes to Allison, does it not? And Lady Lydia is well landed.” Derek knows he shouldn’t behave this way to someone technically his better, as Sir Matt is, but Lady Lydia has shown only kindness to him. Perhaps she aims high, but as the only heir to her lands, should she not secure the best marriage possible?
Matt scoffs. “The second in line of Beacon Hills is no Crown Prince of Porche. And even so, Allison should better look to someone of lower stature if she expects anything more than a bastard to show for it. I’d give her time in my bed if that’s all she seeks.” Matt leers. Derek squeezes his jaw tight and ignores him, as the other option would be to break his nose.
However, ignoring Matt leaves him free to watch Stiles dancing with the man from Prince Jackson’s retinue, a blond almost as attractive as his prince and apparently of a better disposition. Their dance lacks grace, but he’s making Stiles laugh. Derek’s only known a few to do so, and it jars to see a practical stranger accomplish the task. Accomplish it while holding Stiles’ hand and waist, no less. Stiles seems happy, despite stepping off the beat and occasionally tripping over his own feet. Dancing like this, he and the stranger share a physical closeness Derek’s not experienced with the prince since they were youths.
Derek can’t help but stare, and perhaps seethe with a bit of jealousy. Lady Lydia, if she were here, would notice his distress and take his mind off of this with sort of light gossip she often shares at meal time. But of course she has her own matters to attend to. She belongs at the ball. The only reason he’s here is to be furniture, a display of military might. If Stiles hasn’t spared him a look yet, well, why would he?
The song ends, and Prince Stiles and his companion move from the floor to the banquet table. They’re only talking, now, but even though Derek can’t hear a word of the conversation he can’t look away. Stiles pops a grape in his mouth and despite the distance between them it feels as if Derek can see every detail of the prince’s pink mouth pursing around the fruit. Stiles turns to gesture at something, perhaps the roast boar that his father had killed and had prepared, and there’s a distracting glint at the other man’s hand, which is resting on the decorative cane at his belt. The accessory flashes strangely bright in the torchlight. Only - it’s the edge of a blade, Derek realizes, sliding from the cane and then just as quickly concealed again when Stiles turns back to face his companion.
Derek freezes, disbelieving. The man couldn’t possibly have a weapon, it’s forbidden. Only he and the Beacon Hills knights are allowed to be armed. Everyone knows that, surely someone would have seized a hidden blade like the one he thought he saw. It feels like the world moves in slow motion as the man says something, points across the room. Stiles turns fully away from him to look, and Derek’s sprinting towards them even as the man slides a thin rapier from his cane and whips it towards the prince.
Derek bowls into them a moment before it connects, stumbles as he’s skipping to a halt. He lands heavily on one knee and draws his blade clumsily from the kneeling position, trying to ready himself for a fight. There’s no need, in the end - the entire room has noticed the commotion and even as the man turns to flee two of the other knights are on him, holding him roughly by either arm.
“Derek’s wounded,” Prince Stiles shouts, striding to his side. Derek looks down - the assassin’s blade must have caught his arm as he leaped in front of Stiles, easily breaching the flimsy dress armor. The wound’s bleeding, sure enough, but not badly. He barely feels it. Stiles is grabbing at him to get a better look, though, and his protest that it’s nothing goes unsaid.
King John is there, and Queen Melissa as well. Kneeling, she moves Stiles aside to look at Derek’s arm. “It’s not deep,” she says softly, half to the prince and half to Derek. “You’ll suffer nothing but a scar.”
“But a near thing,” the King says. “Putting yourself in the path of a blade like that, it could just as easily have been your throat.”
Stiles fingers go tight on Derek’s shoulder and the words fall easily from his mouth: “I’d happily die for- for my country,” Derek admits, adjusting the last words just in time. I’d happily die for Stiles’ sake, his heart sings.
“That should not be a necessity at a ball,” The king snaps, his face thunderous as he turns to Prince Jackson. “How dare you bring a traitor into our midst?”
“This man is not one of ours,” Jackson protests, his tone angry in return.
His bodyguard Daniel steps forward, one hand out as a gesture of peace. “My prince speaks the truth. We knew this man as Sir Garrett, one of your retinue. He wears none of our colors.” A rustle of quiet voices runs through the watching crowd, acknowledging the truth of his words.
The king turns to the assassin, who despite he cowardice in trying to flee now holds his chin high and defiant. “A smart trick, to breach the castle on the one night when strangers would be welcomed. Not a simple murderer, then, are you? No, someone with knowledge of our diplomacy sent you here. Who?” The last word comes out as a roar.
“I’ll never say,” Garrett replies with a twitchy smile.
“It is not a matter of if you will tell me who threatened my son but when,” King John says quietly, and even Derek shudders at the steely undercurrent.
“I…” the man says, breaking eye contact for a moment. “I won’t.”
“Your master is paying you enough to die?” The king asks as he steps in close and threatening, towering over the trapped man, and Garrett sucks in a nervous breath. He opens his mouth again, as if to speak. Yet this time no words escape, just a strange, wet popping.
“Look!” someone in the crowd gasps. Other startled voices join in as a thin blue line on the man’s neck flickers brighter, leaps into lurid flame that seems to tighten and choke on the veined, pale skin there.
Sir Daniel darts forward, trying to stop whatever’s happening, but then jerks his hands away from the noose as if burned by real fire. Garrett’s eyes roll back in his head. His body goes limp in the guards’ grasp, and they too leap back, away from the corpse.
You hear stories of course, especially from the war. Still, actually witnessing a spell is rare to the point of myth. It’s unheard of to see such a gruesome example in the castle itself. The crowd’s nervous murmuring builds. An assassination attempt in the very center of the great hall, the perpetrator concealed by a powerful killing spell. Without the man naming his benefactor, there’s no way to obtain proof enough to say who was responsible. Yet there are rumors are of magic being more common in Treskelia - and of King Peter having some ability in that direction. For all that it’s impossible to prove, the circumstances are damning.
“Prince Jackson,” The king says, drawing himself up to full authority despite the situation. “You’ll understand if we end our celebration early, under the circumstances.”
“Indeed,” Prince Jackson agrees. “Our negotiations are mostly complete, we can advance our travel schedule to leave in the morning. It seems that you have…much to deal with.” He flicks his eyes to the body laid out on the floor.
King Johns’ face is tight as he gives his formal approval for Porche to cut short their visit. It must have been hard enough to entreat a country like theirs into marriage discussions with the much more rural Beacon Hills, and parlaying those early negotiations into an actual union will be even more difficult if they have the impression that an alliance would entangle them in a war not rightly theirs to fight.
Sir Harris finally steps forward from the crowd to check on his charge’s wellbeing. Derek draws away, belatedly realizing he must return to the knights at the border of the room. At the first step, Stiles fingers slip from his shoulder; he’d been resting his hand there the whole time. Their eyes meet as Derek looks back, buzzing with the memory of pressure and warmth. Stiles expression is concerned, his eyes bright, and Derek had almost forgotten the depth of their color to have not seen him this close in so long. Derek forces his gaze away first. They can’t keep staring and they can’t talk, not with the furor of attention moving away from the body, able to fall on their impropriety at any moment.
“Derek,” the king says before he’s more than a step away. “Please, kneel.”
Derek obeys without understanding, and is shocked to feel the weight of the blade gently tap his left shoulder, then right.
“Rise, Sir Derek,” the king intones. “You’ve proved yourself well, tonight. Thank you for saving my son.”
Derek stands, feeling both the same and like something indescribable has shifted.
“Now, come with me,” The king says, pointing an authoritative forefinger at him before he can melt back into the group of other Knights. “You too, Stiles.”
Derek should be excited to see the King’s council room. After all, it’s the place where all major decisions about the battles to come will be made. Instead, he’s almost nauseous with nerves. He was looking at Stiles in a completely inappropriate way. Stiles was touching him, long after it was necessary. The king had noticed, of course he had, and realized what desires Derek’s harbored. He knows that Derek’s had impure thoughts about his son even before now, back when they used to have those long hours alone by the river. Of course they hadn’t taken advantage, but if the king thinks that Derek’s spoiled Stiles’ virtue...
“Sir Derek, I owe you my thanks,” the king says seriously. “I’ve held you in distrust, and yet you’ve repaid me with absolute loyalty. For too long we’ve thought ourselves safe, and without your attentiveness that assassin may well have succeeded.”
Derek’s shoulders sag with relief. “I did only my duty. For my country.” He remains at attention still, afraid of what might show on his face if he allows himself to look back to where Prince Stiles stands with Sir Jordan and Sir Harris.
King John only looks tired, pouring a draft of liquor from the decanter on his table. “You’ve been ready for some time to officially be titled, I think. Now that you’re a knight, I want you to join the others on patrols as soon as possible. As you see they may be more needed, now.”
“Of course.” Derek says stunned - not only is he not to be punished for his moment with Stiles, he’s being given a chance at winning glory on the field of battle. To go to the borders means an opportunity to demonstrate the sort of valor that results in landless knights being awarded favor from the royal house, or even property. Being sent to fight is a boon, it’s what he’s hoped for after all. So why is it that he suddenly feels nauseous again?
“I’d feel much safer with Sir Derek in the castle, actually,” Stiles pipes up.
“Do you not feel safe with your guard now?” The king is frowning at his son over Derek’s shoulder. “This was an extraordinary situation, and it’s been safely resolved.”
“Of course, King Peter certainly wouldn’t try something like this again,” Stiles says, innocent in a way that doesn’t fit him. Derek can’t work out the game the prince is playing, and finally looks back at him in confusion. “And of course Sir Harris tries to keep up. But he’s older and, you know, his heart is on the harried borders of our country. Why, he’s always speaking quite longingly of the good he could do on patrol.” Stiles smiles beatifically at his guard.
Harris looks like he’d like to work a spell himself to choke Stiles off, but he can’t well call the crown prince a liar. He forces a smile.
“I didn’t know,” King John says. “But I suppose that makes sense. Sir Harris, is this true?”
“Any man not a coward would desire to protect his country,” Harris grits. He looks pointedly at Derek, but the king either misses the suggestion or choses to ignore it.
“Well! If that’s the case I can certainly arrange for you to be transferred to a more active defense. Sir Derek showed today that he has the sense for acting as a personal guard, and he can take over with Stiles. I’ll talk with the head of the guard it this evening about your summons to the border. Thank you very much for your service.”
“It has been entirely a pleasure,” the older knight says with murder in his eyes for the prince and nothing kinder when he turns his gaze to Derek again. He should be nervous to make such an enemy, but Derek can’t find it in his heart to be anything but elated. He’s to be Stiles’ personal guard, now. Yes, he wants to make a difference on the border patrols, of course he’s hoped for the chance to win glory... but later will be fine, too. For now it’s more than enough that he’ll have a reason to spend time with Stiles.
“Sir Derek, you’re dismissed as well. Sir Harris will show you to your new chambers,” the king says.
Derek brushes by the prince quickly as he heads to the door, not quite daring to speak with him. He’s unsure at this point he would be able to contain himself. However, he doesn’t pass so quickly that he can miss the pleased smile the graces the prince’s lips.
Outside the council room, Sir Harris is pale and narrow-eyed; there’s no king to impress now, and no reason to hide his ire. Derek never thought of the man as a coward, but the idea presents itself now to see how loath he is to join the troops on the borders. How could he be so angry at having the chance to protect Beacon Hills?
“My chambers…?” he prompts. He’s never been to the nobles’ wing of the castle.
“Find them yourself, Treskelian,” Harris snarls.
He stalks off, which is fine by Derek. However, going back into the council room uninvited wouldn’t be appropriate, and it would only make the bad blood between himself and Harris worse to let the king know of the man’s disobedience. Derek’s just decided to go find Isaac or Lydia to ask, when he can’t help but overhear the raised voices of the King and Prince.
“-ly ruined any chance to continue negotiation of alliance.”
“You can’t blame me,” Stiles snips back, “I was almost killed, and Sir Derek...”
“Before that! You were rude to Prince Jackson when I asked you to be as cordial as possible. He could be your husband, Stiles, and a strong support in any war effort. I expect better of you.”
Derek winces; Stiles must feel the sting in the words too, because for once he doesn’t talk back.
The king speaks again, calmer this time. “Porche would still be a good ally. When their diplomats return…”
“No!” Stiles butts in, desperate.
The frustration is clear in King John’s voice, even through the door. “Why?” Derek can’t help but lean in, biting his lip.
“He’s not… he isn’t a good match for me,” Stiles insists, not so loud now but firm all the same. “He’s proud, supercilious, unkind...I’m not asking for love, father, but I don’t even like him! We’re a small country, I know, but it isn’t as if we’re warring with anyone. I’m only just of age.”
Derek bites his lip to keep from smiling, and runs his hand over the cool, rough stone by the door to ground himself. Perhaps Stiles won’t be married so soon after all. Though it should hardly matter to Derek, he can’t deny he’s pleased with the thought.
“I see,” the king is saying. “You always seemed more drawn to men, and I’d hoped....” He breaks off with a defeated sigh. “Very well. You’re still young enough, and I don’t want you to be unhappy, despite what you accuse me of. We’ll look into other options.”
Derek sneaks away, slightly ashamed to have listened in, and yet too grateful for what he heard to care overmuch.
Derek’s chambers are little more than a store room, a tiny stone cube half taken up with a cot and without any lock on the door. It’s down the hall from Stiles’ rooms and it’s perfect. He has a space of his own for the first time in his life, and he’s reveling in the opportunity to pack his things safely away, taking special care to tuck his token underneath the cot’s thin mattress where it won’t be easily found.
He almost has a fit of nerves when there’s a sudden knock on his door. He didn’t expect anyone until morning, and he’s only too aware of the secret token he’s just hidden, even though nobody would know its significance except him. With a calming breath, he opens the door.
it’s St- the prince, nervously twisting his hands in front of him. “I never thanked you for saving my life,” he says when Derek only gapes to see him there in the hall.
“You don’t need to,” Derek protests, but he steps back automatically. It can’t be appropriate for them to be alone together inside his chambers, but there’s nobody roaming the castle at this hour to see it.
Stiles follows him in, shuts the door behind him. There still isn’t much room between them, the tight space limiting how far Derek can back up.
“I just thought… Isn’t there anything you want?” the prince asks, a bit breathlessly.
“You father already knighted me, that’s more than enough for doing my job.”
“But that was from him,” Stiles protest. “It’s proper for me to give you a personal reward for saving my life. I guess a kiss, traditionally. But it doesn’t have to be traditional,” he rushes to add. “A new sword? Or if there’s a meal you’d like I can go to the kitchens and...”
“Tradition’s fine,” Derek interrupts, mostly to make him stop talking.
“Oh,” Stiles says, leaning back into the door. “Alright.”
Alright, easy as that. Derek swallows, his mouth feeling strangely warm, his tongue clumsy and thick. Should he offer his hand for the kiss? His cheek? He licks his lips and waits, but Stiles doesn’t seize the moment or take the lead. It seems that he intends to do nothing but stand there and look at Derek with dark, inscrutable eyes. It would be too forward as to kiss the prince on the lips. He shouldn’t.
Derek learns closer to the prince, not sure where to look: at Stiles perfect bowed mouth or his eyes? He settles for flicking his gaze between the features, drawing closer without meaning to until he’s too close, has to either take the kiss his prince offered or pull back and ask for some different reward. Stiles is not giving him any indication to keep going, but neither is he pulling away - so Derek closes his eyes and lets their lips meet.
The press of lips is chaste enough, just a hint of Stiles’ bottom lip caught between Derek’s - but then Derek realizes he’s drawn his whole body up against the prince, cupped a hand behind his head to keep him close. Stiles’ fingers have drifted up to either side of Derek’s jaw, drawing him in closer as their mouths open to one another. After the clumsiness of their first attempt this careful exploration seems so much more natural, elegant almost.
They need to stop for breath too soon, breaking apart only an inch. Their faces are still close enough that Derek can feet Stiles breath puffing over his tender lips. Only Derek’s excuse, flimsy as it was, is exhausted. He pulls back, knowing how red his face must be. Stiles has to know, now, how impure Derek’s affection for him has become.
“Well, thank you,” Derek says because the silence has gone awkward, and then cringes internally because he’s only making it worse. He can’t seem to stop, either: “That’s a very...I feel quite thanked.”
“Yes? Good, I’m... You’re welcome.” Stiles says, as he seems to shrink back into the door. “I mean, thank you. For my life. And… I should go, then,” he finishes, voice lilting up to make it a question.
“Yes,” Derek agrees. Stiles bobs his head in a nervous nod, slips forward just enough to open the door and side step around it. He’s gone.
Derek turns around and knocks his forehead into the wall a few times; yes? The prince came to his chambers to specifically offer him a kiss and Derek thanked him like an idiot. Then, when he asked if he should go Derek said yes? He can’t quite trace what Stiles was hoping for, but he can’t let this be another misunderstanding between them. If the prince still wants anything from Derek, there’s no point pretending he’s not more than willing to give it to him.
Derek marches over to the prince’s room, just a few yards away. It’s only this near so that he can do his job as a guard, which makes him uncomfortably aware of how that’s not quite- not at all - what this is. Derek knocks before he can reconsider, and Stiles answers instantly; it seems as if he’d been already pacing nearby. Only he’s already changed into his nightclothes, a long white shirt rather than his doublet and breeches. Derek freezes, all his half-hatched plans tumbling out of his head. He should go. He can’t go. Surely the prince will tell him to go.
Stiles doesn’t tell him to go. Rather, the prince has gestures awkwardly for him to come in, goes to stand in the center of his room. Derek swallows before he latches the door behind him. The prince’s chambers, predictably, are much bigger than Derek’s, and more finely appointed. There’s a large wooden table, rich chests, and a large bed covered with a frilled white quilt. Counting up the furniture almost distracts Derek from the fact that they’ve never been alone like this, not really. Not with a locked door behind them, not with no risk of being caught, with no responsibilities looming until morning.
“I just thought I’d see if you...needed anything,” Derek says, shifting his weight nervously. What was he thinking, that the prince intended to throw away his chastity on someone like Derek? Of course the prince intends to remain pure for his future bride or groom. He’s misread the prince’s awkwardness in leaving his chambers, which was certainly caused not by disappointment but by the unwarranted intensity of the kiss given only as a favor.
“I don’t think so,” Stiles says looking around. “Everything’s settled and safe.”
“Well. Good.” Derek shuffles back towards the door. “If that’s all…”
Damn it, how can it be so awkward between them? He’d thought it would always be easy to banter with Stiles, but the months of nothing but chance meetings and mooning looks over meals have left him unsure as a newborn lamb.
His hand is on the latch when Stiles blurts, “Were you watching me dance? At the ball? I thought I noticed you looking.”
“Yes, I - it was hard not to, you’re awfully clumsy,” Derek says, reflexively honest. He’s instantly mortified at the slip of his tongue. The last thing he wants is to insult the prince.
But Stiles is snorting with laughter.“Ah, finally confirmation that my old Derek is unchanged by his new title,” he says. “I’m perfectly aware that I’m a disaster. We should practice together, like we used to spar.”
Derek takes his hand off the latch. “I’m not in any position to teach, I’ve never danced at all.”
“You started out that way with swords, too,” Stiles say wryly. “And now look at you.”
“Well,” Derek says. “What should I do?”
Stiles steps in, says, “here, just…” and positions Derek arms in a circle, dropping one hand unceremoniously on his waist and one on his ribs. “No, wait,” he corrects, moving the one on his ribs to his bicep and shoving his own hand under Derek’s armpit. “I’m leading,” he clarifies.
“Of course,” Derek murmurs. At first it’s strange to be so close, especially considering Stiles’ state of undress, but when they settle into the positions that falls away and Derek’s only more aware of how badly he wants to pull the prince closer to him, to kiss him again. He has as no idea if that’s what Stiles is hoping for as well, or if he’s overly forward when his hand clutches ever so slightly against the prince’s waist.
When then they start trying to dance, though, such questions are forgotten. Stiles kicks his shin on the first step, his second crushes Stiles’ toes, and then it’s it’s like old times: Derek’s stern and huffing, Stiles too bossy and completely ungraceful.
“No! Now left foot - One two three, ONE two three -”
“How can I know what foot we’re on if the only music is in your head?”
“That’s why I’m counting for you! Now, this is the part where I spin you.”
“Oh no, practice that with your tutor. You’re going to throw me into the furniture.”
“Very funny, sir Knight,” Stiles quips. “Now step back…”
“At least in here make it Derek,” Derek interrupts slyly.
Stiles startles at the familiarity of the words, then turns his head to laugh into his own shoulder. Derek’s grinning like a fool, and it feels exactly like the times when they would tease each other as they were riding. It seems they’ve preserved their childish friendship, after all, and that’s simultaneously more than enough and not nearly enough, at all.
Whatever music Stiles is waltzing them to slows imperceptibly, until they’re barely pretending to shuffle back and forth, just standing with their arms around one another. Though they started in an open embrace, by now they’re nose to nose. Stiles says faintly, “I can’t really remember what comes next.”
“I don’t know the steps at all,” Derek breathes.
“Forget the steps. If this was real,” Stiles says quietly. “Then what.”
Derek swallows. “You mean, if I was a prince, too, and we were dancing at a ball, not for practice?”
“Exactly,” Stiles nods. “Say the negotiations had been settled, and our parents agreed that you were my intended.” His eyes are fixed on Derek’s. “What would happen now?”
“I think this is the part where you kiss me,” Derek says, and then Stiles does.
It starts quick, Stiles darting in to press their lips together before Derek even registers what’s coming; Stiles’ arms wrap around Derek’s neck, drawing them even closer than the embrace of the dance. But the kiss itself is soft, mostly closed. It has little of the hot desperation from before. There’s no need to rush or force any more because in this moment at least, there’s no hiding behind excuses. At least in this moment they want the same thing.
“I’m not really a prince,” Derek murmurs when they finally part, only what he means is I’m not anyone worth kissing.
Stiles looks into his eyes, cupping his face gently. ”I know exactly what you are. The first time I saw you, by the stables... I’ve wanted you before I knew what wanting meant.”
Derek loses his breath at the words, the unmistakable intensity of their meaning. Then they’re kissing again, clumsy, tripping back a few steps until they fall back onto the prince’s bed, sinking into the plush quilts and pillows.
The gasping kisses and scrambling embraces eventually slow to just holding each other; Derek feels drunk with it. Stiles turns his face towards where Derek’s head rest on his pillow and whispers, “On my feast day, I thought that… It seemed as if you were only doing what I asked. Did you really want to?”
How could there be a question? “I wanted to,” Derek confirms. Even though there’s no need, he finds himself whispering too, soft and intimate. He brushes his thumb over Stiles’ eyebrow, just because he can, reveling in the idea that Stiles cares if Derek wants him or not. “Is that why you stopped? I thought you were, ah, worried for your virtue.” He doesn’t mention his other theory, embarrassed enough bring up the demands of the outside world in this private sanctuary.
“I don’t care about that,” Stiles demurs, blushing. “You’re...you.”
Meaning, Derek assumes, that he’s a only a landless orphan, nameless still despite his title. A practical nonentity. The bluntness of that stings a bit, but it’s no more than the truth.
And how can he cling to the hurt of it when Stiles brings out their history book, the one they’d not quite finished before he’d come of age? The prince’s eyes crinkle with amusement to see Derek’s excited recognition. They curl up in each other’s arms, giggling like children at the dry way the history implies the most salacious details, until Stiles’ voice goes rough and honey-slow with sleep. The bed’s so soft and rich that Derek could almost lose track of his limbs - it feels like lying in a cloud. He’s only resting his eyes, it can’t hurt anything to relax just for a moment.
Yes, indeed, I can't see one possible way this could end poorly, Derek. GOOD CALL.
Loud knocking startles both of them awake, and on top of the noise there’s the disorientating tangle of unfamiliar limbs to account for. Derek’s leg is wound through Stiles’, and he’s pinned the prince’s arm under his chest. Sunlight is pouring through the window, because it’s somehow morning already.
Stiles blinks owlishly at him, dragging his face on the pillows and leaving a thin trail of drool. It’s impossible that he makes it look as endearing as it does.
“Prince Stiles,” a matronly voice calls, “why is this door locked? You need to get dressed, you’re to discuss strategy with your father in less than an hour!”
Stile comes fully awake at that. He and Derek stare at each other in wordless panic. They haven’t done anything beyond kissing, but it will hardly help to explain that if Derek’s found in this position.
Derek rolls out of the bed, Stiles quickly following and yelling “A moment, please!” Despite all the furniture, it doesn’t seem there’s much of a place to hide.
“You’re still dressed, that’s good, put your boots back on,” Stiles instructs. He brushes and tugs at Derek’s clothes, smoothing the wrinkles, and then runs a hand through his hair. “Over there, the window,” he tosses behind him as he goes to unlock the door.
Derek steps over to the small partition, brushing aside the tapestry that’s kept the cool night air out. They’re on the second floor of the castle, a decent drop down to the lawns and bushes. The window’s quite small, but Derek supposes he could fit his shoulders through, given a moment to do so…
Only at that exact second, to his horror, comes the sound of the latch releasing and the creek of the old wooden door opening. He spins to face the prince, appalled.
“Oh,” says the servant, seeing Derek. Derek looks back at her, hoping that his resting expression looks less guilty and more angry, as Erica has often assured him it does. His heart, though, betrays him by beating as fast as a hummingbird’s.
“I’m sorry to have locked you out,” Stiles is saying smoothly. “I’m just so shaken up after last night that I feel best with the latch closed at all times. I even called Sir Derek in this morning to investigate my chambers, when I thought I heard a noise outside.”
And, yes, Derek has to admit that the prince’s lie is a better solution than his leaping through the window. Still, the serving woman looks only half convinced, glancing between Derek and the prince.
“You don’t think King Peter would send another assassin so soon? Would he?” Stiles asks, biting his lip. “But what if he sent two in Prince Jackson’s party?” He’s overplaying it a bit, if you ask Derek. But then, maybe the servant is less inclined to think him a liar.
“Even so,” she says, “You’re unmarried. It’s not right for you to be alone with another, behind a locked door.”
“But he’s my guard,” Stiles says. “I hadn’t even thought of that! My father has entrusted him with my very life, surely you’re not calling his honor into question? Or my own?”
“No, of course not,” the woman says, smiling in relief. “I was only saying that it might look improper, as you’re both younger and you’re still in your night clothes.”
“You’re quite right,” Stiles allows. “The three of us clearly know it’s nothing of the sort, but of course there are appearances. No need to speak of it, then. In the future I’ll have Sir Derek come by in the evenings to check my room before I prepare for bed.”
“Yes,” the woman says, grateful to put this behind her and missing Stiles’ mischievous look. “Now, let’s find you something appropriate to wear so I can get you dressed for meeting with your father. If Sir Derek doesn’t mind leaving…?”
The prince has servants to help dress him, even? Derek wonders briefly why he couldn’t have gotten that job. He goes to the door with a small, nervous bow to the servant woman, but Stiles pipes up at the last moment.
“Don’t forget, Sir Derek - tonight!”
And so his last view is of the prince’s smile, and his words echo in Derek’s mind for the rest of the day, through training and meals, filling his head and pressing out almost every other thought. Tonight. That night and every one after, Derek thinks.
After that, they do meet almost every night - which makes it both easier to restrain their affections in public and so much more difficult. Yes, Derek only has to hide his feelings for a day at a time rather than for months on end. But at the same time, touching has become so familiar that Derek finds himself doing it unconsciously - putting a hand to Stiles lower back to guide him to Estelle one day when they go hunting with the king, and only just catching himself from running a hand through Stiles’ hair as he passes him sitting at his meal. Derek could curse himself. How can he so quickly forget how even those small moments of closeness would seem to the rest of the court? Yet how strange it is to kiss and stroke and whisper in the dark, and barely meet eyes in the light.
After the first night, he’s careful to stay on guard and to leave with enough time to catch a few hours sleep in his own chamber before sunrise. Even the prince couldn’t be sure of talking them out of a second discovery. Despite the heady risk they’re taking, though, Derek feels as if he’s floating through the days and weeks. Not just because of the kissing - as undeniably euphoric as that is - but also because of the time they spend reading Stiles’ history books or simply talking together. They share their little triumphs in studies and training, and exchange jokes and gossip. Stiles’ stories of Scott and Lydia make more sense now that Derek’s a part of the same world; he even has things to share that Stiles doesn’t know, of Lydia’s wit in managing Aiden’s approaches and of Scott’s training with Isaac.
When they speak of Isaac, Erica and Boyd often come up as well. The pair of them have grown friendly with the squire after Derek’s introduction and often spend time with one another. Stiles delights in hearing of their unfamiliar lives, and of their courtship - it doesn’t take long for him to start inventing ideas about how to prompt them together. Memorably, one suggestion is to steal the richest of Boyd’s trinkets and have Isaac deliver it to Erica with a love poem that Stiles promises to compose himself.
Isaac is close to Prince Scott, as well as Boyd and Erica, though that friendship inspires less glee and more glowering in the crown prince. Derek quickly learns that Stiles harbors a streak of jealousy over the squire’s closeness with his brother. Coming of age has meant less time for the prince to spend with Scott, since he is being trained for war where Stiles is intended for statesmanship. Though they are nearly equal in station, their responsibilities mean the brothers are more often separated than not.
Despite his occasional piques, Stiles is as pleased as Derek when they receive confirmation that Isaac is to be knighted along with the other squires of his year at an upcoming feast. They boy certainly deserves it, and the celebrations will be a bright spot in contrast to the dire news coming from the border. Many of the men and women being awarded are Derek’s acquaintances, and it’s good to see them win full knighthood - though it’s not without a pang of guilt that he thinks of them going to the defence of Beacon Hills before he does.
When he goes down to the kitchens later that day to give Erica the news about Isaac, everyone is already aflutter with preparations for the feast. His friend is clearly enjoying being at the center of the storm, commanding it - though of course she’s prone to put on an appearance of weary anger, sighing that she’s so put upon by all the responsibility. She promises to relay the news to Boyd in turn, with an eager look she tries to disguise. Derek smirks to himself; another of Stiles’ suggestions.
“Remember to congratulate Isaac for me,” she calls after he quickly takes his leave, happy to get out of the way of the rushing preparations. He nods, but she’s already turned to a younger maid to threaten her with a spoon should the meat be burned.
A few days later, at the feast, he’s able to make good on his promise. Isaac accepts Boyd and Erica’s congratulations, as relayed by Derek, with a smile. Partially due to their influence, the former squire has had the confidence to finally make friends among his peers, so Derek isn’t the only one to wish him well with his new title. He’s drawn off into conversation with another newly made knight now, so Derek doesn’t hesitate to go to Lady Lydia when she waves him over with a gay smile.
Aiden is at her elbow, leaning close. He’s trying to be entertaining, and apparently failing from her flat reactions. Derek is happy to come and save her from the conversation, not only because of how her show of acceptance had curbed the teasing of the other knights even before he was officially one of their number. She’s bright and sharp, and he enjoys her conversation in its own right.
Despite Derek’s title and the attendant social acceptance it’s brought, Aiden scowls and excuses himself rather than be seen with a Treskelian. Lydia laughs into her hand. Derek laughs as well, but he’s careful to keep a respectful distance, and he uses her title when he greets her with a bow; considering the favor she’s showing him, there could easily be talk. It isn’t as if he’s her personal guard, the excuse that magically sanctions his time spent with Stiles as beyond all suspicion. After living castle as long as he has, he’s become intimately aware of the many gradations of social propriety.
Before, when he was only a stable boy, Derek had thought he was separated from the prince by one level, servant to noble. Now he sees well how that’s hardly true. Stiles is actually a stratosphere above that; Stiles is above even Scott, who is in turn above nobles like Lydia, who is herself above mercenaries like Allison. And then Allison is more than a tradesman like Boyd, who is about the same level as an unlanded knight such as Derek. It’s…disheartening, to say the least. It’s easy enough to pretend society has no say in Stiles’ behavior when he and the prince kiss and touch in their - his chambers. But of course Derek knows in the light of day that the worlds between a lowly knight serving as a guard and the Crown Prince are as insurmountable as between a fish and a falcon.
He and Lydia exchange pleasantries as they sip the wine, Lydia happy to expand on Aiden’s inadequacies. When she comes to a pause, Derek teasingly asks, “What of Prince Jackson? I understand any talk of a marriage with Prince Stiles is quite past, but he may still visit for trading.”
Lydia smiles politely over Derek’s shoulder. “He may, I suppose! Of course, it will be King Jackson, by then. He is to marry Queen Theadora from Starling this spring.”
“Ah, I hadn’t heard,” Derek stumbles. He’s sorry to have brought it up. Lydia is the type of woman you’d imagine having anything she set her mind to, but of course she’s had only letters to convince the prince and it’s not so surprising that he’s fallen to the charms of another. Not to mention that a queen would clearly need fewer charms than a even the most generously landed noble.
Lydia shrugs. “To be honest, I feel badly for her. I’d prefer a husband requiring less cosseting.” Derek’s not sure if that’s the truth, or a way of saving face, but he nods anyways. He’s grateful enough of her tact to show some of his own. “No,” Lydia continues more seriously, looking again over his shoulder. “I’m hardly the one deserving of your sympathies.”
Derek turns to follow her gaze, and sees Allison congratulating Isaac. Is it her that Lydia is referring to, implying that prince Scott’s chosen another? But that can’t be right. Scott would never betray Allison’s affections, Stiles and Derek both agree he’s besotted.
Derek moves his gaze over to where the prince is speaking with his brother, and catches Stiles’ eye. The crown prince smiles widely, happily. There’s no sign of dismay when he turns easily back to chat with Scott, and his brother looks equally at peace. Surely Lydia is mistaken. Yet Derek finds himself unable to look away from Stiles as the prince continues his conversation. Could Lydia genuinely care nothing that Prince Jackson will marry so soon? He can hardly imagine it. Derek finds that the mere thought of Stiles being sworn to another brings up an almost physical wave of revulsion, and he pushes the idea aside. They have time yet; there’s no engagement to fear today, or tomorrow. No need to break his own heart until the world does it for him.
“Lydia says that Prince Jackson’s to be married,” Derek muses later in the week. His fingertips trail over Stiles’ naked back, making little nothing patterns that connect the dark moles that punctuate the milky expanse of skin.
“Oh, don’t sound disappointed about it,” Stiles groans. “He was an ass. Lydia can certainly do better, as can I.” He follow that with an impish peck to Derek’s cheek.
Derek pulls away. “I was just thinking.”
“Well, I can fix that,” Stiles purrs, rolling so he’s laying on top of Derek. His eyes are mischievous and twinkling in the light from the one candle they’ve dared to light. Derek hums his agreement; no matter what the prince is planning the answer will be yes. Even as he recognizes how quickly they’re sliding into greater and greater sin, it seems inevitable; the first time Stiles had been hard from their kissing it had only made sense that he relieve himself. It was no more than he’d do if he were alone, so what difference if Derek was in bed with him? And then it hadn’t seemed so much more than that for Derek to reach down and help. And if Stiles had returned the favor…well, it was only hands in the end. Besides that, as Stiles often points out, Derek’s only Derek. It barely counts, and nobody has to know.
Stiles slithers down Derek’s body, until his chin’s at a level with his hip. Oh. Derek half-squirms, half shivers with anticipation. They’ve never done this, before. Derek has to admit that what Stiles is offering is a touch more difficult to explain away as something irrelevant to the prince’s chastity. But when Stiles raises his eyebrows to confirm, Derek nods, throat dry and cock pulsing hot with arousal. In for a penny, in for a pound he supposes, as the prince pushes his loose shirt-tails out of the way. Besides, it’s not as if he’s taking Stiles’ virginity, exactly. After all, it’s only… and at that point Stiles licks him and the desperate excuse-making is besides the point.
Stiles is tentative at first, sucking lightly on the tip to get a feel for the act, but Derek’s too distracted by the idea of what’s happening to register unique sensations. He has the opposite trouble a minute later when Stiles makes a pleased noise and adjusts his mouth, wet and hot, to take in another inch of Derek’s cock; the sensation is suddenly all that he’s aware of.
Derek’s not sure what to do with his hands, ends up with one knotted in the sheets and one resting in Stiles’ hair. Like with everything, Stiles is a quick and enthusiastic student. It’s all Derek can do to avoid thrusting up into the prince’s mouth, and certainly stifling the whines that keep slipping out of him is out of the question. He makes the mistake of looking down at what Stiles is doing, and is confronted by a view of Stiles between his legs, pink lips slick with saliva and his cock disappearing into them… it’s an image he knows instantly he’ll remember for the rest of his life, be able to summon with perfect clarity no matter how many years pass. Then Stiles, as if sensing the calming change that’s come over his partner, looks up under his long lashes just as he hollows his cheeks. Derek’s breath catches in his lungs and before he even realizes it’s coming, hard. His orgasm rolls through him, clenching muscles spasming his body in towards itself with enough force he half sits up.
Stiles slips off of his still-hard length, clearly surprised. He sits up between Derek’s shins, swallowing experimentally. Derek flops back to watch through fingers splayed over his face, panting. He should have warned Stiles he was so close, and he didn’t. Now there’s come smeared on the prince’s mouth and chin, slick white streaks and droplets of it. He could so easily be disgusted, but instead Stiles thumbs some into his mouth, considering the taste. He raises his eyebrows with an exaggerated frown as if to say, not bad. Derek sits up just enough to throw an arm around his neck and pull him over onto his chest, kissing and licking the taste of himself off of Stiles’ skin.
“It was good, then?” Stiles giggles.
“I’ll show you,” Derek says into his ear, and then he does, any more serious conversation abandoned.
It’s easy to forget, with Stiles, but the world does go on outside their private rendezvous. Derek feels badly for so rarely going out to see Boyd since he was promoted to the prince’s personal guard, but he knows it’s too dangerous to tell him anything about the change in his and the prince’s relations, and he can’t imagine not blurting the entire situation to his friend at the first chance.
Yet he can’t stay away forever, which is why he’s standing now outside Boyd’s shop, slightly shame faced, hoping that his friend is in. Not that he even bothered to check, he thinks with a wry snort at his own thoughtlessness. He knocks, and a moment later the door opens. Only, it’s Erica. They stare at each other for a moment in surprise, and then both begin to laugh at the other’s shock. Boyd comes up behind her, smiling bemusedly.
“Sir Derek,” he says.
“Oh, don’t ‘sir’ at me,” Derek says. “Erica, I didn’t expect you.”
She pinks up a little at the unspoken question, and adjusts her bodice as she steps back to let Derek in. Is that a bruise on her neck? “No, I would think not. But I...that is, we...what I mean is, I’ve been spending quite a lot of my time here,” she says. “We actually have a bit of news.”
Erica flicks her eyes to Boyd, a private confirmation. “The truth is, Boyd and I have been courting, and, well, we’ve agreed to be married.” She thrusts her hand out, displaying a simple brass band around her finger.
“Erica! Boyd! Congratulations!” Derek exclaims, sweeping her into a bear hug. He can feel her laughing against his chest as he lifts her off her feet. When he sets her down it’s only to clap a hand on Boyd’s shoulder, then give up on the pretense of manliness and hug him, too. Boyd’s eyes are bright when Derek lets go, and he and Erica keep glancing at eachother with the biggest smiles he’s seen on either of them. The joyfulness the moment is filling him so completely that he’s caught off guard by a sharp pang of longing regret. He’ll never have this sort of happiness, not with the one he loves. It catches the breath in his lungs, how much he wants to.
“When’s the wedding?” Derek asks around the lump in his throat, before his grin can falter and spoil their moment.
Erica beams. “Perhaps the spring? But we want Boyd to have his own smithy before everything.” Her hand brushes absently over her stomach, and the lump in Derek’s throat gets a bit larger. “Only we worried that if we wait too long…everyone’s talking of the likelihood of war. And we want you to be there.”
“As do I,” Derek says warmly. “But you shouldn’t rush your plans on my account - or delay them. Who knows when the war will start, if it even does, or whether even be summoned, and for how long I’ll serve before I return,” he shrugs lightly. There’s a pause, Boyd and Erica both looking away. Derek hasn’t mentioned the other possibility, that he won’t return at all.
“All this over some burned royals,” Erica mutters.
“Erica,” Derek says sharply in censure. Of course the Hales were Treskelian, and the three of them have no reason to specially honor them now, but...they were a family, weren’t they? “You shouldn’t speak as if they weren’t human beings. They didn’t ask for this.”
“Precisely!” Erica sneers. “They’re gone, what would they care for Peter’s vengeance? I’m sorry that they died, but to have caused all this pain and war and death is incomprehensible. I wish they’d simply never been born, the lot of them. Or that they’d been so hated no one took pains to remember or avenge them. I don’t care if King John really did have them murdered.”
Boyd frowns, drawing her away from the door. The official position is that Beacon Hills had nothing to do with the death of the Hales, despite Peter’s accusations, and it’s near treason to suggest otherwise.
“There were children,” Derek says. “King John never would have agreed to that.” Honestly, he wouldn’t have - not to something so brutal. And death by fire is brutal, as the three of them well know. He thinks of York, all the buildings aflame, the yelling echoing from the fighting streets over. The stench, the ashes that seemed to coat his lungs in a hot, stinging bitterness. When his city burned he’d felt frantic panic to see his world fall apart and know that King Peter had abandoned them to the mercy of foreign soldiers. He’d fled through the streets, unsure where to turn next or what to do to save something of his life.
But then the memory slips, and he’s not outside in York, but somewhere inside, a finer place than the orphanage yet still thick with smoke. And the fear is different too - the sickening panic at being trapped cut with a despair that has him almost on his knees as someone pulls on his arm, dragging him towards fresher air - And then it’s York again, the real memory. He’d never been trapped, and he hadn’t had anyone with him trying to help. Derek blinks the false echo away.
“I think they escaped,” Boyd announces.
Derek comes fully out of his memories in surprise. “What?” He hadn’t taken Boyd for a Treskelion patriot, or someone who subscribed to such theories.
“Only the king and queen were buried in state. It was never proven that the children died, only Peter said so,” Boyd says defensively. “I hope that the rumors are true, and Queen Laurana really will come back and take her rightful throne. There was always something wrong about Peter, even before he became king.”
Derek shrugs uncomfortably. He doesn’t care for Treskelia at all, if he ever had. He barely remembers the names of the royal family much less any knowledge of their personalities. They seem to slip from his head the more he tries to pin them down. Princess Laura, King Peter…they’re all the same to him. Part of a past he wants to forget.
Erica scowls. “If Beacon Hills’ mercenaries didn’t kill them, then this war is even more foolish. If Princess Laurana does return and dethrone King Peter, I hope she marries Prince Stiles and stops this nonsense so Boyd will never have to make another sword.”
Derek bites his tongue before he can say anything foolish about how unlikely a pairing between feuding nations would be. Erica’s only making a joking suggestions about an alliance that they all know could never come to pass; such words are not something that should strike at the heart of a mere guard. “You know, I came to see my old friends, and I want to hear about your proposal. Not this grim theorizing,” he says wryly.
“Thank you,” Erica sniffs. “I’d be happy to get back to that, as well. It was very, very traditional. He got down on one knee and all.” Her teasing has Boyd smiling at his feet. “He gave me flowers before he got up the nerve to ask, and when he finally did his voice was wavering as if he thought I could say anything but yes,” she adds, her playful tone turned gentle and warm. She plays with the ring as she speaks, and Derek’s eyes are drawn to it. Such a visible symbol of what they mean to each other. Not a scrap of fabric, but an unbreakable circle of metal.
“It sounds lovely,” he says. It comes out wistful.
“It was,” Erica confirms. “We wanted to tell you right away, but I suppose we’ve been off in the clouds ever since…and you’re so busy these days with the prince’s guarding.”
“Yes,” Derek laughs, rubbing the back of his neck. “I apologize.”
“And is it still an annoyance to you?” Boyd asks.
“Well,” Derek says, thinking of how obvious he was when he was younger and hadn’t understood his own feelings. He’d talked of the prince non-stop, like a besotted maid. “You know, he’s actually fairly dull,” he lies. “Now that I wait on him all the time.”
“Exactly as I predicted. That’s good,” Erica says with finality, shooting a look at Boyd that Derek can’t decipher. When did they develop this private language he’s not a part of, he wonders.
But then, it isn’t as if he doesn’t keep his own secrets.
War feels like a distant, meaningless word when he’s with Stiles; all their responsibilities do. It’s too easy to slip away now that they have the king’s trust. Even during the day they can go to the stables or back out by the riverside to kiss and fumble in the semi-privacy of dawn or twilight, the hours Stiles has the time to ride between his lessons and time with his father. Derek knows that he’s calling the prince’s virtue into question with the things they do, and if anyone found out... well. His very life would be forfeit for his part in sullying a royal.
But nobody will find out, as Stiles has told him again and again. It’s not that Derek doubts him, exactly. Yet it rankles a little for the danger to be dismissed so easily. Derek is risking everything to be together like this, and he’d assumed that had at least registered for the prince. Yet Stiles seems blissfully unworried. Derek must have been correct in his assumption that there was unspoken leniency for royals to take the smaller pleasures before marriage without so great a fear of punishment.
For his own conscience, he often reminds himself that it’s only mouths and hands, which is not the same as actually taking the prince’s chastity. It’s more than they should do, certainly, but less than they could. Considering Derek’s low stature, perhaps it wouldn’t count in a noble’s mind at all.
Still, it comes as a surprise when Stiles quite easily suggests they move beyond the imaginary boundaries that Derek had assumed they would stay within.
“I got this oil,“ he says, offering Derek a glass bottle of clear liquid that he pulls from one of the personal chests that contain his belongings. It looks viscous in the candlelight when Stiles tips it. “It’s supposed to work well for...you know. When two men would like to be together.”
Derek stares. “I’m very surprised someone would sell that to you.”
“I may or may not have pocketed it the last time I was at the market,” Stiles says, flushing. “Without necessarily paying. But never mind that, would you… like to?”
The thought of Stiles splayed out beneath him, flushed down to his chest as he is when they kiss, honey eyes blown dark with lust, blooms in Derek’s mind in lurid detail. ”Like to” is an understatement. Yet…“It’s not right. To go that far would spoil your virtue,” Derek demurs, regretfully. Stiles quirks his head to the side, brows drawing in tight with confusion. “I mean, your chastity,” Derek blurts, forces himself to spell it out. “Your intended will expect you to be-”
Stiles laughs, interrupting. “Pure? Indeed, my intended will be vigorously assured that I haven’t done any of the things we already have. My virtue, sir Knight, is well and truly sullied.”
Derek stares, open mouthed, barely able to process what the words mean. The prince had seemed so easily willing, that Derek had assumed it wasn’t as risky as it appeared. But Stiles’ virtue sullied? Before marriage?
“Have you not been reading the same histories as I?” the prince asks, bemused. “Of course I couldn’t be considered chaste.”
“But you’re- they’re- In the stories, they’re killed for not being pure on their marriage night,” Derek blusters. “Is that really what could happen, if this is discovered? You’re truly in that much danger?”
Stiles has gone serious now, at Derek’s reaction. “I suppose. But so are you,” he points out.
“Of course I know that, but…” but Stiles is in danger, and Derek is putting him there.
Stiles mistakes his dismay for self interested fear, it seems, for he strokes a comforting hand down his back. “Don’t misunderstand, Derek, the risk isn’t so great as that. My father doesn’t want to see me harmed, nobody in the castle does. So long as we’re discreet, no one will go out of their way to accuse us. I don’t mean to worry you, I thought you knew already.”
“But why? How can you be risking death for this?”
Stiles blinks. “But I tell you all the time, Derek. You’re you. I’ve loved you since I was a child. How could I not?”
Derek can only stare, like an animal pierced with a hunter’s arrow. Love. A better man might out of chivalry be able to resist sullying his beloved, ruining his virtue, putting him in danger...but Derek merely nods, the intensity of his emotions stilling his tongue. Of course he values Stiles’ chastity, fears for what it would mean if the as yet faceless person who they’re making a fool of somehow finds out. But at the same time, he can’t resist. Not when Stiles says love.
Stiles graces him with a smile full of sunshine. “Do you prefer to be the one doing the...? Or should I?”
“You,” Derek says. He has no idea what he prefers, not having any experience at all, but he’s already shivery and raw emotions, he doesn’t want the responsibility of directing anything. He wants Stiles to be in charge for now.
They usually keep some clothing on, at least their loose night-shirts, in a mostly symbolic attempt to mitigate the danger of being caught. Tonight they strip naked, nested in Stiles’ fancy bedclothes. Derek’s breathless with it, with how perfect Stiles looks in the dull light of their guttering candle. His skin looks more tan and golden than Derek knows it is; his body’s not so childish as when they were alone on their rides. Now he’s filled out with toned muscles, despite how his days are mostly spent in war rooms and at study. And somehow Stiles seems equally amazed by Derek, reaching out to thumb his chest as if it’s something precious. Derek can’t help it, he reaches out too and starts to touch, looping his fingers around the prince’s heavy cock and stroking firmly.
“No, don’t,” Stiles whines. “I’ll lose my control in a moment, I want to do more.”
“Then what,” Derek says, with another light little stroke. “Tell me.”
“I think you, um, get on your hands and knees?” the prince suggests.
Derek doesn’t really know the specifics of how the act works, either, but he rolls obligingly onto his stomach and is just getting his elbows and knees under him when he’s interrupted by Stiles’ hand coming down between his shoulder blades. The tattoo - he’d almost forgotten his old shameful brand.
“Derek, this mark!” Stiles gasps. “How have I never… that’s the sigil of the Hales!”
“That,” Derek scoffs, “was for stealing. The Treskele is the sign of the law, there, as well as the royal house. It doesn’t matter now, but I suppose it’s habit to not show it easily. I didn’t intend to deceive you.”
Stiles runs his fingers over the curls of the mark, the shape Derek’s almost forgotten. He shivers a bit under the prince’s ministrations, feeling especially exposed. “I didn’t know you were an orphan before the York’s fall, not until the tournament when you said you were nameless. I thought you must hate me, for what happened to your family,” Stiles says softly.
Derek rolls to look at him. “Never. I had no particular love for York, or any for Treskelia. I was nothing there, the same as I’m nothing here.”
“You’re not nothing,” Stiles says hotly.
Derek half smiles. “I know, thanks to you I’m a knight. I meant...”
“No, I meant,” Stiles interrupts, “that you’ve always been somebody. To me.”
With a tiny hitched breath, Derek pulls Stiles down onto him, kissing any further words away. He’s always thought that Stiles considered him attractive, convenient, a friend even. He’d assumed that they shared an understanding that Derek was far below him - you’re only you. But now Stiles says he loves Derek, that he’s always been someone even before his title... He’ll never be able to pretend again that his life hasn’t been devoted entirely to the prince. Now that Stiles says love, Derek would die trying to live up to the honor, to become worthy of such a gift.
He’s not sure what to expect, when he rolls up onto his hands and knees again. He feels the motion of Stiles lining up behind him, and then the prince’s hands are trembling at Derek’s hips. There’s a hot pressure at his entrance. The sensation of being breached is strange, uncomfortable even at first. Stiles stutters forward with a gasp and Derek chokes back a yelp, pulling away at the sharp pain.
“Sorry,” Stiles exclaims. “I’ll stop, I’m sorry,”
“It’s alright,” Derek says, the pain already fading. They’re both unfamiliar and clumsy at this, but he knows Stiles would never hurt him willingly. Derek forces himself to relax into the filling stretch as Stiles holds perfectly still; when it seems comfortable again, he encourages the prince with a hand reached back to his hip, to move again. Stiles does, tentatively. He stokes Derek’s neck, his back, murmurs how good it feels to be inside him. The pain and oddity of it fades with the thought that this is Stiles joining their bodies, sinking deeper into Derek’s core. The arousal hits him as a surprise at almost exactly the moment Stiles hip bones press into his buttocks.
Stiles’ impossibly slow push is followed by a tiny, shallow thrust and then a second and a third. Derek barely realizes when the slow rocking movements lengthen into full thrusts. It’s so different from hands and mouths, a motion of their bodies together rather than one of them working on the other. He can’t keep his head around him at all, ends up half-collapsing so his chest presses into the bed. Then Stiles is bending over him to kiss the tattoo, shuddering to a finish deep inside of him.
Stiles eases himself out and collapses on his back, next to where Derek’s still half-lying. Derek’s about to curl up next to him, careless of his own erection, but Stiles pulls Derek up. He guides him to lay over his prone body, kisses him silly. Derek thinks Stiles will bring him off with his hand, but instead the prince tugs on his hips, urging him forward until he’s kneeling over Stiles’ chest. Derek takes his intent, stroking his own cock so their fingers tangle along his length. The prince helps him along as he thrusts into his own hand, cupping his balls exactly the way Derek likes. Only then he’s reaching back farther to almost shyly slip two fingertips into his still-slickened entrance, the barest stretch after their encounter.
Derek comes hard, bowing his back and catching his weight on his hand thrown out to the head board. His come splatters on Stiles’ face, and though the prince catches most of it in his mouth there are droplets on his cheek and nose too. He swallows, running tongue over his lips, and Derek’s weak with lust at how the prince seems to love the taste rather than being disgusted.
But also he wonders, traitorously, if the prince will do the same for his intended. If, despite the sweet words he offers, he could learn to be just as satisfied with another in his bed.It’s presumptuous to care; he has no claim on the prince. No matter what passes between them, words or touches, no one but his betrothed could expect to be Stiles’ only love.
Yet they’ll be wrong. Derek bends, kisses the come off Stiles’ cheek, licks the droplet clinging to the tip of his upturned nose, ends with a deep kiss that Stiles returns passionately. They’ll always have this. Derek will always have been first.
Derek spends what time Stiles is in his lessons training the younger men and women, now, and it’s strange to think even they may well leave for the border patrols before he does. Still, it’s enjoyable enough work, for all that it’s primarily a distraction from Stiles’ being away. Only this day, he comes to the usually orderly barracks to find them all a bustle.
He frowns, pushing forward into the crowd until he sees a familiar face: Aiden. Even if it’s one of the “murderous twins,” as he and Stiles have taken to calling the former mercenaries, his desire to know the news is greater. He nudges the other knight and says, “What’s all this? I have training with the squires.”
Aiden doesn’t look particularly happy to have Derek’s attention, but he answers. “Not today you don’t. The King’s here to make an announcement to us. With both the princes.”
Very few announcements would warrant attendance of all three of them, Derek thinks. Stiles is supposed to be at lessons. He shoulders his way up another few rows enough that he can see the royal family, and sees Stiles eyes searching the crowd before the king begins to speak.
“As some of you may know, we received word today that a small town on our border has been raided and burned,” he says. A few gasps go up, but not so many. Hostilities have been worsening, and this isn’t beyond what they’ve expected. King John looks even more careworn than usual, despite his fancy dress. “Our patrols were too late to encounter the attackers, but the townsfolk who escaped were clear. This was a disciplined armed force, not simple raiders. Or even anyone disguised as raiders,” he adds darkly. “They wore the colors and sigil of Treskelia. This was undeniably an act of war, and we must respond.” At the declaration, a rustle of dark muttering begins to grow in the crowd. Stiles finally spots Derek, sends him a near-panicked look that Derek returns. “We must put an end to King Peter’s incursions on our borders. The treaty we reached after York has been broken, and we are officially at war.”
The murmurs sharpen after the king stops talking, taking on the higher pitch of surprise - it’s been brewing so long that the possibility of conflict had blended into normalcy. To be confronted with the reality of it, to again be warring with the wealthier and larger Treskelia...
Scott steps forward now to speak of planning. His posture is stiff and formal, but his voice is that of a leader - firm and confident, neither rushed nor over slow. He will lead the first force to meet with the various border patrols, which will be more frequent now and strengthened in numbers. They will report to an official camp of war just a few miles from the border rather than traveling back all the way to the capital in shifts. The mercenaries will be joining the efforts, and many of the knights who are not yet deployed will soon receive summons to bolster their defenses.
Derek is nervous to hear of Scott traveling into danger, but pleased for him as well to finally have a chance to put to use the knowledge he’s been trained in for so long. Derek knows the prince will do well. He wonders if he’ll be one of the knights summoned to the war camp; he should be. Even if he’s Stiles’ guard, the role will become mostly a formality as that the prince will be spending so much time in the war room and in diplomacy negotiations with his father. The king’s guard under Sir Jordan will take care of him, now.
As if summoned by Derek’s thought, the prince shoulders through the gossipy post-announcement crowd to Derek and pulls him to the side of the barracks while the King confers with Scott and the other generals.
“Can you believe this?” Stiles grumbles. “Scott! Leaving!”
Derek shrugs Stiles’ hand off - they’re still in public, though little attention is on them for the moment. “He’s been expecting it. We all have. Do you know if I’ll be sent as well?”
“Of course not,” Stiles scoffs. “You’re my guard, I had my father specifically promise me that you would stay here. But Isaac and Allison will be.” Stiles wears his heart of his sleeve as usual, chewing his lip and crinkling his forehead. “Can you talk to Scott, and see how he’s really doing? He’ll only tell me that everything is fine.”
“Maybe that’s the truth of it,” Derek suggests. He can’t quite be mad at Stiles’ determination to keep them together, but he would be eager enough in the prince’s shoes to finally have the chance to prove himself in a meaningful arena.
“I doubt that!” Stiles snaps. “Who could be excited to go fight a war?”
But now the king has finished conferring with the generals and giving personal encouragement to the other knights, and is making to take his leave. Derek quickly murmurs that he’ll check on Scott before Stiles is drawn away with the king to continue the local preparations of war in the strategy room. The crown prince gives Derek an apologetic glance as he leaves, and Derek nods a subtle farewell.
Prince Scott remains with the army, thought his brother and adoptive father have retired. It falls to him to discuss specific tactical decisions with the generals who will join him on the front. The declaration of outright war means that he’ll be responsible such things going forward. Yet when Derek finds him, Scott is on his own. Allison is across the training field, chatting with Isaac, likely to give him congratulations that he’ll be headed away to the front with her and Scott so soon after winning his knighthood. He’ll have opportunities on the field to find his own fortune, maybe to match his father’s.
“You know,” Derek says, startling Scott out of his reverie. “Stiles is quite worried for you. Are you sure you’re alright going to the front so soon?”
Scott smiles, and it’s a genuine one. “My brother forgets that I’ve been raised for his ever since my mother married the king. As the ‘spare’ in the line of succession, war is my duty. I’m not afraid. Allison’s going, too,” he explains. “Have you seen her at target practice? With her at my side I’ll be as safe as if I was still within these walls.”
Derek examines Scott’s distant expression and the way his smile’s gone wan. “You seem less pleased that I would have thought that she’ll be with you at the front.”
“Ah,” Scott says, still forcing the pained smile as he twists his dress sword absently in his hands. “The king spoke with me about the… appearance of intimacy between us. And her father to her I assume. You know I’m not even properly in the line of succession? If something happened to Stiles, god forbid, there’s no guarantee I would be crowned. I thought that I could convince them to... but she’s only a mercenary’s girl, in the end. She isn’t a citizen, or someone who we need to ally with. Even though we treat them as nobility in return for their support in war, they’re just servants of a different sort.”
Derek thinks of the way Scott had smiled at her back during the tourney, and aches. He’d been so sure of Scott’s affections that he’d dismissed Lydia’s hint, as if it was only Scott’s decision that mattered. “I’m sorry.”
Scott shrugs, giving a half smile that looks closer to a wince. “It’s for the best,” he says like he’s repeated the phrase often enough that its meaning has worn down into smoother edges.
“You should have mentioned it to your brother,” Derek says softly.
Scott shakes his head ruefully. “He’d come up with some crazy ruse to work around it, delay the inevitable. But there are rules, I know that. A prince has to think of his country, his position. He can’t form a love match with just anyone. Oh, I don’t mean...” he hurries to add. “Stiles is different, obviously. You know how he is. But I’m a coward, I could never go against my mother and the king.”
“You’re not a coward,” Derek says. Scott doesn’t respond.
The prince is right, of course. Sti- the prince has certain responsibilities, Derek has always known that. Living in his pocket as his guard, all their sneaking around, means it’s easier to forget the clear lines separating his fate from Stiles’ than it was when he worked in the stable, but even invisible they remain more binding than steel chains.
It may feel like forever each time they kiss, but sharing Stiles’ bed, his favor - it’s all temporary. Derek sees his own future in Scott’s slumped shoulders, and it doesn’t look a bit pleasant.
Derek returns to his small room that night, before seeing the prince. As he’d been promised, there is no summons. It seems unfair, and cowardly, but later that night in the prince’s bed, bodies sweat slick against one another, trembling with pleasure, he’s hard pressed to remember why he should be ashamed to stay.
They barely see Scott or the others in the coming month of rushed preparations; It seems breathlessly soon that the first battalion leaves in a parade of triumph and fanfare. The castle feels empty and quiet without Prince Scott, Isaac or Allison. Receiving their letters and reading them with Stiles isn’t the same. With Erica and Boyd drawn off into their own little world of planning their wedding and lives together as well, there’s naught for Derek to do but grow yet closer to the prince. And by the same hand, Stiles is drawn closer to Derek as well. He’s the only one Stiles can trust to treat him as a person rather than a royal, as the prince often says.
Their time after dark is still sweet, as are the moments they steal during the day, but as the months wear on Derek has the sense of being left behind. Being with Stiles is perfect, but both of them are getting older, now. With the war on, the crown prince’s need to marry is suddenly much less theoretical. There have been advances from at least two sets of visiting diplomats on behalf of their royal families. Stiles doesn’t speak of it, though, and Derek tries to keep from dwelling on such thoughts. It will come with warning, at least, long negotiations during which anything could happen.
He can barely let himself think it, but the war he’s missing would be an opportunity to improve his station. If he goes to the front and does well… Yet there’s no sign Derek will leave for the front at all, despite their need for soldiers to confront Peter’s forces. The prince seems to have no intention of letting him, and to be honest he hasn’t asked for it. Yes, he has his dreams, but better a sure thing than a chance. For all his talk of glorious purpose to Boyd and Erica, he’d happily spend the rest of his life warming the prince’s bed. It’s Stiles, and Derek’s heart has always belonged to him. How could he go, when the prince asks him to stay?
The sky outside Stiles’ window is edging towards dawn, not quite lavender yet but a less deep black. It’s late - or does he mean early? - And Derek really should leave the princes’ room. They can’t afford to be found like this, lazy, soft and sweaty, flushed and flush against each other’s bodies. Then again... he turns his head to nose into Stiles’ shoulder, half drawing his lips together for a lazy kiss. Stiles is running his hands over the tattoo again. Derek can practically feel his eyes on the mark.
“Stop it,” he says without heat, and twitches his shoulders.
“Why? It’s not shameful. If anything they’re the ones who should be ashamed. It’s such a large thing for a minor crime.” Derek has to agree that the tattoo is a bit much to give a common criminal, though he’d never thought of that before. The careful precision in the lines, the size of it. Shouldn’t it be a small mark, somewhere harder to hide? He doesn’t even remember the pain of being tattooed, much less what he’d really done to deserve it. He sighs. Maybe it was something worse than thievery, and Deaton had lied to soften it.
“The royal sigil... “ Stiles muses. “They were my age, you know, the Hale children. Before they died. Or, supposedly died. Do you remember all their names?”
Derek feels some of the carefree looseness of the night fall away. He knows that tone. “Who knows? There were too many of them to keep track of.”
“There weren’t that many,” Stiles encourages. “Just the king and queen, Peter, three daughters and two sons. Surely you remember. Wasn’t one of them… Derek?”
“A common enough name. There may well have been a prince Stiles, too,” he snips. Derek should remember, it was the royal family of his own land. But he’s not lying, he can’t. He scrunches up one of his eyes in a pensive squint. He can at least bring to mind the name Boyd had mentioned in their last conversation. “It was Lauranna…” he pauses, trying to catch a thread. “Lauranna, Georgette, Phillip, Cora and… Deucalion, that’s the prince you’re thinking of. Not Derek.”
But Stiles is looking at him funnily. “It’s Coraline, not Cora. I remember, she was considered as my betrothed before, well. Everything. And I was sure that her brother was…”
Derek sees the fantasy Stiles is building up and it twists his gut. “Stiles, don’t be foolish. I was in York, not the capitol, and I was no noble, I was an impoverished orphan. I barely remember anything about the Hales except that they died.”
Stiles casts his eyes down at the sheets he’s twisting in his hands. “Are you sure?”
“Yes! Why would I pay attention to the royal family? I barely remember Treskelia at all, and everything I do recall was miserable poverty.”
“I’m sorry,” Stiles says. “I don’t care that you were poor, I didn’t mean…” he lapses into silence. “It honestly doesn’t matter to me who you were. But surely you remember something of your own family?”
Derek sighs, his muscles tensed up despite the lassitude of their lovemaking. “I must have been orphaned young. Just… leave it.” It’s not precisely a lie. Everything before Deaton’s orphanage is a blur, that much is true. But he knows he wasn’t that young when he joined the orphanage. Thirteen perhaps? Only a few years before the pillaging of York, anyways, after the war started. Strange, perhaps, to be missing such large parts of his life, but doesn’t think too hard on it, never has. Something about the edge of his memory hurts, badly, in an empty aching way Derek can’t bring himself to probe.
Stiles presses an apologetic kiss to his cheek, and he offers more of his neck in acceptance. He’s here now, and that’s all that matters. He turns his face from the purpling sky, snuggling further into the bed. He can enjoy being with Stiles for a while more before he goes.
News of the war comes in spurts and bursts, impossible to really parse for how it’s going. Well? Unwell? Though the tone of public opinion remains high, they’re losing men, knights who Derek knows - knew - from training. It’s difficult to truly digest while everything in the capitol is continuing so much the same. Yet Boyd is dour with it, and Erica pretends she doesn’t mind at all until she’s forced to give an opinion, and then she turns viperish and angry. Derek’s own emotions are harder to trace. Mainly he feels that he should be there, not kept safe behind the walls while his peers are at risk. He doesn’t want to leave Stiles, but it’s only right.
And behind that, there’s always the awareness that they do have one wild chance. One possibility that exists only if Derek leaves soon - and only if he comes back. They’ve read the stories together in Stiles’ history books of marriages within a country. It’s not impossible for a crown prince to marry a landed noble in peacetime. A knight could be awarded such a title and property, if he does well enough in the war. If the marriage negotiations stall, and the war ends so that the fierce need for an alliance is set aside, it’s possible.
Possible, but most likely a fevered dream. Derek knows Stiles is almost surely destined for a marriage of political convenience... but when they’re together he says he loves Derek and that means something, doesn’t it?
His summons finally comes on a simple sheet of parchment, and setting an end date for his current responsibilities as Stiles’ guard and instructing him to report to the barracks for his battalion assignment and supplies. It seems the need for more men has finally outweigh Stiles’ pleas to his father. Derek’s jittery with nerves as he and the other men who will form his battalion are given short instructions to pack and prepare to leave with the next caravan in a fortnight’s time.
Stiles is predictably miserable, even when Derek assures him it’s not only expected but welcome news. As usual, the prince’s fear expresses itself as waspishness, so after the first argument they mostly talk around Derek’s impending departure. It’s a good compromise, pretending. It’s most of what their relationship is, after all, and it means enjoying the time they do have left. Derek suddenly over-aware of the distance to come and he tries to memorize everything about Stiles in the nights the spend up to his last day in the capital.
All too soon, the time they have left runs out. The caravan departs the next morning, and this night will be their last for who knows how long. It’s been easy to pretend it would never come, but of course it has. There’s no ignoring it now.
“I hate that you’re leaving,” Stiles spits almost before the door’s shut behind Derek, who sighs. “Without Scott or you, who’ll be honest with me? I should be going with you.”
“A crown prince on a field of battle?” Derek says, half smiling. “Much too dangerous to the line of succession.”
Stiles doesn’t smile at his light, teasing tone. “And it isn’t dangerous for you?
“I’m a knight, going to war is what we do.” Derek’s perfectly aware of how many men don’t come back, but he can’t show that he’s afraid. He has to be strong in the face of Stiles’ concern.
“When will this end?” Stiles groans, fisting a hand in his hair. “I feel like it’s been hanging over us my whole life. You should join the king’s guard, like Sir Jordan. Stay here.”
“I already have orders. Besides, I can’t hide in the castle being your toy guard forever.” Stiles only pouts at that. Derek rolls his eyes. “I’ll enjoy being with Prince Scott and Allison, and finally putting all this training to use. It will be… it will be a lark. I’ll write you.”
“I don’t want your writing,” Stiles says, drawing him in. The kiss is sweet, slow. The prince keeps his fingers lightly brushing Derek’s face, but he curves in close so their fronts press together in one long, hot line.
“I’ll do well, knowing I’m fighting for you,” Derek murmurs. “Do you remember the knights in your histories who’ve been awarded land for their efforts? And lordships? I know I can’t promise anything, I know we can’t be sure. But I’ll do well, I swear it, and if you can wait for me until there’s peace…” Stiles pulls back to look at him with wide eyed hope. “I’ll come back,” Derek swears.
Stiles doesn’t protest, for once, even though Derek’s clutching his arms so tightly it must hurt. He draws Derek back onto the bed, shoving their breeches down as they go. Their sleep shirts go next, and Stiles lays back. He’s so incredibly beautiful like this, smiling softly at Derek in the half-light. He nudges Derek’s legs over him with clear intent, so he’s straddled over his hips.
Stiles slides an oiled hand over his cock while Derek uses a slickened finger to prepare himself as well. After all this time they’ve figured out how to make it comfortable for Derek in a frankly surprising number of positions, thought Stiles still declines to be the one penetrated. He’s nervous after Derek’s discomfort during their first encounter, though since then it’s become anything but unpleasant.
This position is one of the prince’s favorites: Derek on top, setting the pace while Stiles watches. Often he sits straight for the extra leverage it gets them, but tonight it feels wrong. There’ll be distance enough between them soon. Instead, he’s curved over so their chests brush together, moving slowly in the sinuous rolls of his hips that the position allows. Stiles meets his pace as they rock together, one of his arms flung around Derek’s neck. His feet are braced and his back curved so he can still push fully into Derek’s heat, filling him perfectly.
Derek ignores the damp tracks on the prince’s cheeks, murmuring sweet nothings into his ear. His nonsense words about how perfect Stiles is is are punctuated by the prince’s breathless agreements and instructions. Stiles asks for what he wants, as always, begging for Derek’s hands on him. The only time he’s quiet is when they’re kissing, the wet counterpoint of his tongue licking into Derek’s mouth contrasting with the hot friction where he’s fucking into him and driving him towards the edge of completion. Derek rides the edge of his orgasm until he feels Stiles go tense under him, that familiar surprised cry. Only then does he let himself come as well. Out of breath despite the tenderness of the act, he bumps their foreheads together, rolling playfully as they both go loose and stupid with sex. Derek dips his head to mouth at the tender skin behind the hinge of Stiles’ jaw, nipping and sucking. He realizes it’s too much only just before he would have left a bruise. He pulls off, unable to keep back a small sigh. Even here they must be careful.
“No, don’t stop,” Stiles whines pulling his head close again. Derek licks the reddened spot once more and turns to rest his cheek against Stiles’ clavicle.
“I can’t leave a mark, what would people think?”
“Then here,” Stiles instructs, dragging his finger lower on his chest, over his heart.
Derek brushes his own fingers into Stiles’, catching them and pulling them away. “Your servants would see when they dress you.”
Stiles sets his jaw, and Derek squeezes his hand where their fingers are still entwined. “Come here. Nobody dresses me,” he offers.
Stiles sucks a dark bruise over Derek’s heart, fingernails digging into his ribs so hard there’ll be little half-moons there, too. When he’s finally satisfied, he nips at the tender red skin for good measure. “Mine,” he says, lips brushing against the mark.
“Yours,” Derek echoes, running his fingers through Stiles’ hair.
“As I’m yours,” Stiles says earnestly. “Even if we don’t risk a mark, you know that.”
“Of course,” Derek says. But he thinks of the long months ahead, maybe years. He can’t promise anything, not really, and even if there’s no engagement he wouldn’t blame Stiles for looking elsewhere. Derek trails his fingers over the tender spot above his nipple as he watches Stiles’ unblemished chest move with heavy, regular breaths, dreaming peacefully.
Derek lets himself out.
Hello hello, here is a handy note from your author: Please note the minor character death tag for the next chapter! Not everyone who dies in canon is necessarily going to die in this story, but anyone who dies in canon could. I promise it’s not egregious, but if you’re concerned about a particular character, feel free to PM me on tumblr.
Chapter 5: In Which a War is Hard Fought
The front is a nightmare.
Allison is dead, impossibly and yet irrevocably. Derek hears the news directly from Scott; he must have crossed paths with the letter. The prince’s tone is wooden, his mouth a thin pale line. It was honorable, for what cold comfort that is; she warned Scott and his men of an ambush, and died for the effort. A blade through her stomach when she turned to call, he explains. Her warning at least gave the party a chance to fight back, but Aiden was also lost in the violence that followed. Though Derek never cared for the twins, he can’t take any joy in Ethan’s pinched, bloodless face. Everything is cold, coated in churned mud, rank with the smell of infection and old blood.
It seems impossible that Prince Scott has existed in this hell for half a year now. Though, Derek comes to see, in a way he hasn’t - not as he was. Scott’s childish edges have been worn off to a bone-sharp confidence by the war. He knows what it is to kill, and to send men to die. His face seems permanently creased with his cares, but he’s a good leader. Everyone admires his determination and his head for strategy; despite their smaller forces, he’s keeping the war evenly matched, ceeding no territory. It’s not only that, either; he can still pull out one of his sunny smiles when the younger soldiers need encouragement.
Who smiles for Scott, Derek can’t tell.
During the first weeks, it seems impossible to imagine this life becoming comfortable. Their camp is crowded and noisy with all the men going about their various jobs in such close quarters. Derek shares a tent with four other knights, and is shocked at how easily they seem to accept the dampness and dirt of it all. Yet, this is reality for all of them in the army. He expects it must eventually come to seem like home.
It doesn’t. Rather, he becomes used to discomfort - to muscles always sore from the hard work and harder bed, to clothes rarely dry, to stiff, cold joints and hunger and forever needing more hours of sleep than the circumstances allow. His one luxury is Estelle and Horatio’s foal, Buttercup. She’s a strong yearling that Stiles insisted he take as a special gift for his service. He does his best to keep her clean and well-fed; She’s a good asset on the field, quick footed and smart. It makes sense to keep her in good condition, the same as he would his sword. The soft nuzzles and friendly whinneys in the evening are the qualities that Derek treasures, though, over even her assistance in battle. They remind him of riding with Stiles. Buttercup is the last thing he has of the comforts of the castle, besides his token. As ragged and dirty as the thing’s become, he can’t imagine tossing it away.
Stiles had promised to write every day they were parted, but nothing comes with the first currier, or the second. Derek had intended to write back in response to each missive, no matter how short, but he’s not sure how he could write in reply to a letter that’s never come. Being first to write seems like admitting that the prince has forgotten him. Instead Derek writes to Boyd and Erica, attempting to distract himself from the yawning chasm of doubt and longing. He’s not quite able to write the truth of the front, that there’s so little joy and so much danger. Not that he fears they’d tell him he’d brought it on himself, but because he can’t bear to worry them. He describes the victories in battle, instead, as there are enough of them to write of. He leaves out the close calls, the times he’s inches away from a grave next to Allison’s.
Almost a month in, with the next caravan of supplies and men, Derek gets his first letter from Stiles - or actually, a packet of letters. He almost laughs to see the dates - the day after he left, and one for each day after for almost a fortnight. Scott confirms his suspicions now that he thinks to ask: the curriers bring only strategic communication from the king. Anything less vital to the war effort comes with the rest of the supplies; There’s no rush to get personal letters to their intended recipients. Derek tucks the letters from Stiles into his jacket, where they seem to burn like a coal, hot with all his anticipation.
At the end of that day, in the tent while the others sleep, he lights one of his rationed candles and lets himself open the first sealed letter in the guttering light and thick smell of tallow. A month is so short in the scheme of what they are to face, but already it feels longer than a lifetime. He turns the parchment with trembling hands, trying to keep it clean despite the streaks of mud that seem to get everywhere.
My Esteemed Sir Derek,
I hope this letter finds you well. Life at the castle continues much as it has, although we all regret your absence as well as that of the other knights. I know well from Prince Scott’s correspondence to me that there are rarely baked goods for our soldiers at the front, so I have taken the liberty to send some hard biscuits from the kitchens. Let me know how they fare, and if I should send more.
My history tutor, Lady Jennifer, is being so kind as to help me with my letters and encourages me to thank you again for your efforts as my guard these past years. I hope that the war will soon be won and all our knights are allowed to return to such peaceful positions. When I was speaking with my father today....
Derek lets his eyes fall closed against the rest of the prim missive, his mouth twisting with bitter disappointment. They’d agreed to not put anything overtly romantic to paper, yet somehow he’d thought that they could continue at least an intellectual congress in their letters. He should have guessed that there would be other eyes reading their over their shoulders, that there would be no way to get word through uncensored.
Derek writes a properly formal response back, though it involves burning two drafts in which he sank into familiarity. Scott lets him send them back with Isaac, whom the prince has arranged to have join the king’s guard rather than staying on the front. “I can’t lose both of them,” he explains to Derek over watered-down mugs of ale by the snapping campfire the night after Isaac goes. Derek nods, and he does understand how, after Allison, everything is different. He keeps to himself the thought that Scott could use more true friends in this miserable place - not one fewer.
Derek stores the letters he receives from the castle under the tiny cot that’s the only thing he can rightly call his. It should be too small for him, if anything. Yet somehow it manages to feel over-large at night, cold and lonely. The love bite on his chest has long faded away. More nights than not, Derek dreams of Stiles: all soft skin in his soft bed, welcoming wet mouth, his hands cradling Derek’s head and fingers tracing promises of sweet nothings on his skin. He holds on to the dreams, even though they make it hurt more to wake.
Patrolling the border, as it happens, is supremely boring. They can never be sure where King Peter’s troops - or more often, the mercenaries he’s hired - will strike, so they have their force split into smaller groups who can move across the wide, uneventful territory in hopes that they’ll intercept and stop any raids. Or at least be able to alert Scott to the enemy’s movement; The groups cycle back and forth from the main camp every fortnight or so to report. Only Scott is exempt from patrols, since he is needed at the central camp to coordinate all the reports and determine any changes in their fighting orders.
Besides the prince’s authority, the rules of society here are almost forgotten. There’s no room to stand on ceremony when skill and quick thinking could mean surviving a fight - or not. For example, the man leading Derek’s group today has no particular title, but he has ability and Scott has put him in a position that fits his talent. For all his training for combat, Derek is beginning to see how much he still has to learn of war from the men who’ve been on the patrols longer.
He doesn’t mind fighting his old country, but he minds the violence. Even if Boyd is the pacifist of the three of them, Derek well remembers the pillaging of York. It was terrifying to be at the mercy of men with weapons when they had none, to see so much senseless death. The orphan master had been with him when the walls finally fell and they realized Peter’s army intended to retreat and leave the city to be sacked. Deaton had wanted to run; they’d been closer to the edge of town and the safety of the forest. A coward would have been the last thing he’d taken Deaton for, but the man had been desperate to leave, to save his and Derek’s skin at the assured loss of the others.
Derek had physically broken away from his hold, knowing Erica, and Boyd were still at the markets and that Violet was at the orphanage, in the slum at the center of the city. He only glanced back once, yet he can remember so clearly Deaton’s desperate face as he’d called, “Derek, your tattoo…!”
“I know, keep it hidden!” Derek had interrupted. Deaton had wanted to say more, but by then Derek was around the corner, and anything his master tried to shout was swallowed up by the shrieks and yells of the fleeing crowd. He hadn’t seen Deaton again, not in the aftermath of the battle or even when the men of Beacon Hills had accounted for survivors and offered the refugees the possibility of work in their capital. The man was almost surely dead, then, either trampled, slain or burned alive in one of the fires.
The path of their patrol is clear enough that Derek has time for such reminiscing, but he comes back to himself to find that the pace has slowed. Their leader is swiveling his head, rather than urging them all forward. He raises his hand in a fist; halt. As he turns to say something, concern written on his forehead, a volley of arrows flies from the trees around them.
Derek wheels his horse towards the attack, seeing one man fall at the side of his vision. A handful of mercenaries burst from the trees. Derek urges his horse towards them and manages to cut down one man who is too slow to dodge, catching him at the joint of his neck and shoulder. The road is filled with the sound of men yelping in pain and the clash of arms. Derek runs down one more mercenary while she’s aiming to hobble another knight’s horse, then turns to assess the rest of the skirmish. Their leader is engaged with a female mercenary, hampered by an arrow that must have struck him on the first volley. The blood is seeping through the joints of his armor, and the mercenary gives a feral grin. She’s dressed in fine armor, dark of hair and skin, and she wields a long lance that Derek remembers from the other soldiers’ stories of Kali, one of Peter’s most brutal mercenaries.
Even as Derek watches, the woman’s weapon thrusts forward and sinks deep into their leader’s thigh, loosing a violent spray of bright, arterial blood. Derek is horrified to watch the older man go limp and tumble from his mount, but he knows he can’t dwell on the man’s fate - some of the Beacon Hills men are already beginning a disorganized retreat that is exactly what an ambush like this hopes to inspire: if they don’t act as one, his men will be run down like foxes at a hunt.
Derek yells at the the two men who are fleeing, directing them to circle back into the woods and find the bowmen. They glance at eachother and change course; Derek doesn’t realize that should be surprising until he’s already issued another set of orders, circling the remaining footmen in the center of the path with him and the other horsemen. They’re flanked by two mercenary groups, the one led by the woman who must be Kali. But seeing that the Beacon Hills soldiers are steeled for a true fight, she gives a quick whistle and the mercenaries scatter back into the trees. The two men Derek sent to the archers return, and give their report - three mercenaries killed, three fled.
“Do we follow?” one of the other horsemen asks Derek.
Derek blinks, realizing that all look to him. He’s eager to chase, but with the Treskelians’ head start and his larger, horsed party... “Continue on our route.” he says. “This was a planned ambush, to keep us from going farther. If they mean to divert us, all the more reason to press on. They may try to attack again, but it will take them time to regroup. We’ll stay alert. You, send word to Scott. He’ll give us our final orders.”
The knight he had singled out nods and pivots his horse to return to the main camp. After a moment’s trepidation, Derek gestures for the rest of them to ride out as well, more slowly towards their original goal. They leave the dead behind, the leader and five other men. There’s nothing else to be done, far as they are from safe territory and their horses already overburdened with supplies. Derek thinks again of the bodies on the streets in York. There had been nothing to be done then, either. The confusion, the screams, the smell of burning…he hadn’t saved anyone, not even Violet. The orphanage was already aflame by the time he got there and the heat had kept him from make it even through the threshold. Perhaps if he’d known they were still inside he would have entered anyways, but he had held out hope that they’d already fled. Only when he found Boyd and Erica did they realize that the younger children were nowhere else to be found, and by then it was too late. In the end he hadn’t been able to save anything. And the men beside him… he fears he won’t be able to save them either.
Despite his drowsiness he’s suddenly fully alert, heart pumping fast. He pushes himself upright in his cot to search out the figure to match the familiar voice. There. Even in the dim light of early dawn he can see Stiles clearly, his clean face pale against the muddy wash of the cloth walls.
“You can’t be here,” Derek says thickly.
Stiles laughs, an easy trill of bright sound. “What, don’t you want me anymore?” Derek hisses a breath through his teeth, looking towards the other men who are miraculously still asleep. “Don’t you want me?” Stiles asks again, only this time his voice is almost breaking with hurt.
“It’s dangerous,” Derek answers. A clash of metal on metal comes from outside the tent as he’s speaking, edged with the shrill whinnies of frightened horses. No. Peter’s finally launched an attack on their camp, at the worst possible time. Cursing under his breath, Derek strides to the door and flips it back to reveal the chaotic churn of attackers and victims. How could the king let Stiles come to the font, doesn’t he know how dangerous it is, how many men have died here?
“Come on,” he says, grabbing his sword in one hand and Stiles’s arm in the other, half dragging the boy outside. The camp’s burning, dark riders trampling through the confusion with reddened swords. Derek turns to see his own tent already aflame, staggers away from it to draw Stiles back from the searing heat.
“This way,” Stiles says, breaking from his grasp. He dashes away from the fighting, into the dark forest beyond the line of tents. “We’ll be safe.”
Derek tries to follow but his legs aren’t working right and Stiles outpaces him almost instantly. He does his best to follow the quick slivers of movement he can make out through the trees. “Wait,” he calls, branches whipping sharply in his face. Stiles is still darting forward, unreachable, he won’t slow down, and then he’s out of sight. Derek trips out of the woods and into a clearing. It’s familiar, he realizes - their old meeting place by the river.
“Stiles,” he calls, but there’s no sign of the prince. Derek spins wildly, trying to get his bearings.
An unexpected blur of motion rears up quickly on his right and he jerks his sword hand up to defend himself from an attack that never comes. His weapon almost wrenches from his grasp - the panicked, wild strike somehow found a target.
“You said you’d be with me,” Stiles says. Derek realizes in horror that his target was the prince all along, that he’s struck him through with his sword. Only it isn’t his weapon anymore, it’s Garrett’s thin rapier. “You said you’d come back,” Stiles accuses, his voice thick with wet bubbles of blood leaking from his mouth. Derek blinks down at the sword stupidly, more blood running down the center of it and trickling onto his fingers. He drops it as if it was hot iron.
“I did, I will,” he babbles. He holds his hand out, unsure if he should remove the blade or leave it.
“Even if you do, it won’t be as yourself,” Stiles accuses. “Murderer.”
“No, no, no,” Derek mumbles as Stiles sinks to his knees. He crumples along with the prince, catching him when he sways over. He presses his hands to the wound, for what little good that does. His hands are irreparably stained, sticky with blood, smearing it everywhere on the Prince’s light blue doublet. He’s still babbling, promising it will all be alright even as he avoids Stiles’ furious eyes.
“What have you done?” Derek twists around to see King John, his face a rictus of misery. The king holds his palm out to them as if that can encompass the enormity of Derek’s wrongs. “I took you in, saved you, and you repay me like a viper. You took my son and ruined him. What is he now? Nothing. You’ve taken him from me.”
“No,” Derek protests. He hadn’t, it wasn’t… they were in love, how can he explain that to the king? How easy and inevitable it was between them, the joy they had together. Stiles, Stiles will know the right words. Derek bends to shake him awake but when he looks down the prince’s eyes are filmed and unseeing. His body is like ice, so cold it burns.
Derek flinches back with a cry, trying to scramble away. Stiles’ limbs trip him, too heavy, thrown over Derek at odd angles, tangling with his legs and arms in a parody of their passionate embraces, dragging him down and crushing him into the sinking wet earth. He can’t get his feet under him to run, can barely get air into his lungs until he wakes with a gasp.
He flips over onto his stomach, panting. The tent’s pitch black, silent except for the soft snores of the other men. The bile in his throat subsides, slowly. Only another nightmare; Stiles isn’t here, he’s safe in the castle. He’s safe.
Derek rolls back onto his side, trying to get comfortable in the clammy sheets. He’s seen enough of the brutal fighting and been responsible for enough death that he regularly dreams of it, now. He’s not sure, though, when his nightmares of battle seeped into his pleasant dreams of Stiles. Now, when he sees the prince at all, it’s visions of him dying more often than tender kisses. It’s Derek with blood on his hands, Derek watching helpless as Stiles is killed, or worse, like tonight, Derek is the one to run him through… “Barely even metaphorical,” he jokes to himself under his breath, but it’s hollow. He can feel Stiles’ dead weight in his arms still, the chilled unresisting flesh of his corpse.
There’s a perfectly logical explanation for his over-stressed imagination spitting out such images, but that’s difficult to hold on to in the restless dark nights. If he’s honest, the dreams are starting to feel more and more like a premonition.
Derek looks out over the countryside. It’s early morning still, the mist hanging low on the deceptively gentle-looking hills. He knows well how inhospitable they really are, though he can still let himself appreciate their beauty. Late fall now, the air is chilled enough to show his breath and that of the many men behind him. His horse prances a few small steps to the side, and he turns his attention back to keeping her still. As the acting general, he can’t afford to look uneasy or distracted. He neck is warm even through his glove as he runs a gentling hand over the taut flesh. The only noise is the soft steps of the other horses behind them, the rustle of clothes. It’s quiet, peaceful even. It makes him wary.
The small town nestled in the vale below them is the Treskelian army’s next target according to the intelligence they’ve been able to piece together from their scouts and from the letters they’ve been able to retrieve from the enemy. The mercenary troops could be here any moment. The town isn’t particularly close to any other, and there’s little strategic importance to the territory. Derek has come to realize that the historic borders given so much weight in the capitol are fuzzy things in reality - how can you say who owns which side of an uninhabited field?
Rather there is the matter of the the food and supplies the sprawling farm town has stockpiled. More than a war of land, theirs is a war of resources; the Treskelian army, far from their supply caravanas, attempts to take the rich homesteads and towns near to the Beacon Hills borders, while Scott and his men try to defend them. Derek hates to think it, but when they eventually gain the advantage, they might well end by raiding the border towns of Treskelia to keep their own army fed - though he hopes they would not be so casual with civilian life as their enemies. As little as he wants to see any more death, however, to have misjudged and put so much of their force here will only mean killing elsewhere. He hopes Peter’s men will come.
As if summoned by this dark thought, the mass of Peter’s army becomes visible, approaching from the west. The soft waiting noises behind him turn eager and preparatory before he holds up his hand: They wait. Peter’s larger force marches forward without any particular speed, inexorably approaching Scott’s waiting battalion that’s ranged in front of the town’s meager walls. Scott’s men loose the first volley of arrows, and then the shouting charge begins. The two forces slam into one another, the battle beginning in earnest.
Now. Derek signals his men forward and they surge from the cover of the low forest, intercepting the unguarded flank of Peter’s army. The foot soldiers are almost instantly overwhelmed by Derek’s mounted force, and their panic and confusion spreads quickly.
Derek’s glad to have an opportunity to finally fight rather than sit back and fret and invent strategies that always seem to come to naught. All the hand to hand training from the castle has been distressingly beside the point in a war that’s more more often decided by advance intelligence that Peter’s forces always seem to have more of. Two foot soldiers fall under his blade, one more taken by his horse’s sharp hooves. Derek loses himself in the surge of battle, almost seeing red in the violence and danger.
He sees an archer notching his bow and follows the line to Scott; in a heartbeat he charges forward into the man and slashes his arm, sending the arrow wide, before he delivers the killing stroke. Scott looks over and nods in thanks before plunging back into the midst of the fight himself.
With Derek’s forces the numbers are closer to even, and they have the advantage of both higher ground and surprise. The Treskelian line breaks, seeing the battle turning against them. One thing they can happily count on is that an army half made of mercenaries is less willing to die for the cause than the people whose country they’re attacking.
Soon it’s chaos, the other army breaking up in places and fleeing, with some of Prince Scott’s and Derek’s men ignoring their orders and giving chase. Derek rallies them back to him with a shout; following the survivors should be an organized attack. If the Beacon Hills army is drawn out into the woods piecemeal and the fleeing soldiers see opportunity, the battle may still go against them.
Scott canters up to Derek’s group with his fist raised, halting their pursuit before it begins. “No need to run them down,” he says.
Derek nods, even though he wants to argue. Why let the men go, when they finally have the advantage? The survivors will only return, and they would never show Scott’s men the same mercy. He shakes himself, surprised by his own viciousness. Perhaps such bloodlust is why Scott is the one to make these calls. The mercenaries may not rejoin King Peter, after all, if they feel the risks outweigh the payment. Derek would be killing for nothing. He’s suddenly appalled at his own impulses. Shouldn’t he, if anyone, know well the value of mercy?
Scott seems to notice his distress.“I’m glad you got my letter in time. We might have been the ones running instead if your battalion hadn’t swept in from the flank and broken their line,” the prince smiles. “Also, I should probably thank you for saving my life.”
Derek shakes his head, allowing a small smile. “You’ve saved mine just as often.”
Scott winks at him, but there’s tension under his pleasant demeanor. “When this is settled, meet me in the war tent. I have a thought that I’d much value your opinion on.”
“Of course,” Derek says.
Derek stays back to help with the fallen. There’s neither time nor resources to bring them back home for proper burials, but they do what they can with the townsfolk’s help, building a rough cairn so at least no animals will ravage them. Some of the bodies they must move are those of men who seem to young even to leave home - one in particular with a slim build and moles on his cheek catches Derek’s eye, and he has to look away as the others lay him to rest.
Derek falls into line when they finish, trying to stay wary for the short trip back to camp; there have been enough ambushes that he doesn’t ever feel truly safe. He doesn’t recognise the soldier he ends up riding next to, but the man speaks to him. “It grows tiresome being the smaller force. We need reinforcements.”
“There’s only so many men and women of the right age to call,” Derek says.
The man sniffs. “True enough, and unlikely to change. The prince should wed, a strong marriage alliance would solve our troubles.”
“He’s engaged now, isn’t he? To Princess Kira.”
“I meant the Crown Prince. Kitsune is small, fitting for a royal by marriage who’ll never have more than a title. The heir could ally us with someone bigger, like Porche or the desert country.”
Derek nods with a noncommittal noise. He knows better than to try and speak of Stiles’ marriage and sound disinterested.
“It’s high time for it,” the man continues. “It shouldn’t be the way of things that the second son is wed first.”
“Perhaps they’re waiting for the right offer. There’s only one of him, after all. Or it could be that our country’s troubles make him a less attractive match, despite the fertile lands and rich trade we could offer.”
With a glance towards the next nearest soldier, Derek’s companion nudges his mount a hair closer. “It’s not only the war,” he says softly. “I hear tell that the prince’s virtue isn’t assured.”
Derek startles. “What?”
The man seems to realize all of a sudden that he’s edging on outright treason - or perhaps he’s flustered that Derek’s angered after seeming a pragmatic and willing ear. “Only something I heard that people have noted, nothing I’d believe of course… just, Sir Harris said that…”
“Sir Harris is a gossip is a gossip and a coward,” Derek interrupts hotly, hoping his flush reads as anger and only that. The younger man gives a jerky nod to match his murmured assent. The silence between them is stilted and cold, and soon he lets his mount overtake Derek’s, losing himself in the line.
Derek feels cold still. There’s no proof of what he and Stiles have done together, if that’s even what the soldier was referring to. Not that he and the prince hadn’t been particularly careful to hide their rapport, he admits to himself with a sinking horror. They hadn’t needed to be, with the king’s absolute trust. He takes stock of the evidence against them in his mind: there had been the gift of Buttercup, the hours together riding, his saving Stiles from the assassin… and probably a thousand small slips, from tender looks to too-familiar touches. It shouldn’t be shocking that some people would talk, he has to admit. Especially if Harris is encouraging it. But he always thought there needed to be proof to say aloud that the prince wasn’t chaste, and that soldier had passed on the rumor as if a few loose words were all it took to confirm a prince’s shame. Surely the king wouldn’t take such talk into account, would he? Derek shakes the thought away. Of course he wouldn’t, he trusts his son. It’s idle gossip, nothing more. A soldier’s disgruntled complaint that would be no more than empty air in the capitol.
The bustle of the camp looks chaotic to an outsider, but Derek understands the order behind it all after living and working on the border for so long, and easily weaves through the commotion to the war tent. Scott’s waiting as he promised, dutifully writing a letter - most likely to his betrothed. Derek can’t help but think again of the young soldier’s words. Is it really so unusual that the second prince should marry before the first? Scott hasn’t said anything to that effect. His marriage should be a joyful occasion, not spoiled by politics despite the reasons for the engagement. The letters are the only thing that brings a true smile to the prince’s face. Derek knows better than to ask if courting another woman makes him think of Allison.
“I hope that your letter finds Princess Kira well,” Derek says by way of introduction. Scott smiles and nods, but he keeps writing. “Will the marriage be soon? Her people’s aid would be much valued by our men.”
“Hopefully in Summer. I’m… looking forward to it. I’d like to meet my betrothed in person.” He looks fondly at the letter, then grows somber. “She’s actually given me an interesting idea. An unpleasant one, but difficult to discount after today’s success.”
“We may have a spy in our midst. I didn’t want to believe it, but before today’s battle I kept my plans of having second force secret, except from you. To see if it made a difference.” Scott looks up at Derek. They both well know that it had been the one time they seemed to surprise King Peter’s forces.
Derek releases a shocked puff of air. “Who?” He can’t imagine someone cold blooded enough to be playing both sides of this miserable conflict. For what, money?
“I don’t know yet. That’s why our suspicions can go no farther than this tent, not until we find the traitor. It’s too dangerous.”
“Yet you trust me, a Treskelian,” Derek says incredulously.
Scott nods. “I trust you.”
“Alright,” Derek says, uncomfortable to be faced with the surety behind Scott’s soft smile. “We can find this man and root him out.” And behead the traitor, he thinks, a bit of the morning’s vindictive rage flaring in his heart again.
The ringing sound of a thousand sword strikes is familiar now, the ebbs and flow of the battle only a distraction. Derek keeps his focus on the prize; Peter’s mercenary generals, Kali and Ennis.
For once they’re on the offensive, marching into one of Peter’s outposts to bring the battle to him. Scott hopes to finally move the battles off of their own land. Derek’s personal goal is to kill both of Peter’s generals, the monsters who seem to delight in death that they bring for no higher purpose than money. It’s Ennis who he sees first, a balding square of a man nearly a head taller than those around him. Derek urges Buttercup through the battle to where the mounted man is fighting two foot soldiers. His sword catches Ennis’ just in time to save one of the men, and then his world shrinks to only the two of them. There’s little room to maneuver their mounts, each of them attempting to dance their horse into a better position while keeping up a quick pace of exchanged blows - defence, attack, defense again. Their weapons slide, catching at the hilts, and then they’re grappling, too close for effective swings.
Derek grunts with effort, trying to shoulder Ennis enough away to bring his long sword to bear again. No use. The mercenary is larger than him, grinning wickedly under his helmet. With a final adrenaline-fueled shove, Derek manages to get the correct angle and slide his blade between the man’s plate armor, into his side. Ennis howls, but he doesn’t die - and he doesn’t let go of where he’s hooked his arm around Derek’s, either. As the wound begins to overcome him, he topples off of his horse, and the weight of him pulls Derek from his saddle.
Derek’s stomach drops sickeningly as Buttercup whinnies, and then he’s falling into the mess of fighting. It’s as terrifying as dying, considering the chances of an unhorsed knight surviving this sort of battle. He hits the ground hard, with Ennis beside him, and for a second he’s winded. But there’s no time for fear; he rolls up to his knees, dragging his sword, and managers to stab Ennis again. His opponent finally stills.
He hears Kali rather than sees her. She shrieks as if it had been her chest that he’d struck. Derek stumbles as he turns and barely makes it to his feet in time to take her lance through his shoulder, right at the junction of his plate armor. The wound is agony but he snarls at her even as she twists the weapon. He hopes only that she’ll come close enough to his blade that he can finish her, too.
Instead, his wild swing only shatters her lance, and then she’s forced to turn away to defend herself. Derek’s vision narrows to a pinpoint, and he half-realizes he’s on his back again before the darkness takes him.
He wakes again to a sharp pain in his shoulder and a rough vibration grinding in his throat. He realizes only when he stops that the feeling in his throat was a scream. Despite the way he wants to curl into a tight ball around the hurt, he doesn’t have the strength to move, much less sit up. The canopy above him is greyish white, and he lets his head loll to the side to see a piece of Kali’s spear tossed to the ground next to him, slick with what he assumes is his own blood. He’s in the infirmary tent. That’s good, he thinks fuzzily. He’s not dead.
He grits his teeth through the continued attentions of the nurse, but when the last of the wooden shards is removed he growls at her to go tend to those who need it. He’s had plenty of wounds, and can do the rest himself. Despite his bravado, it hurts badly. With some difficulty, he sets about tying his own bandage with his good hand, gritting his teeth against the pain. Unfortunately, the attempt at bandaging himself means a closer view of the damage; he’s seen men die of less. He can’t, though, he reminds himself. He needs to get back to Stiles. It was a promise.
Scott appears in his field of vision, frantic. “Are you alright?” he demands.
“Yes,” Derek replies. Even he knows he doesn’t sound it, his voice both rough and strangely breathy.
Scott scowls, and pulls another nurse over as she walks by. In the prince’s fear, Derek finds his own. He’s suddenly thinking of all he’d be leaving behind, and the muzzy, ill-considered courage of his first waking fades as the woman rushes away for aid.
She comes back with a bowl of viscous liquid that smells sharply of magic, and Derek screams again when she applies it. Scott holds him down by the shoulders, as the nurse quickly sops up the excess potion. She places a poultice over it, then a clean bandage is wrapped around his shoulder and chest. She leaves with a pitying look back. There’s nothing more for her to do; either he’ll survive and improve or he’ll succumb.
Shuddery and sweating, Derek knows he must look terrible. Scott is settled in besides the medical cot, chin resting on his fists. “I was able to secure your mount,” he says, as if that’s their most pressing concern. “You know she was simply waiting on the edges of the camp, placid as can be?”
A particularly powerful wave of pain washes through his body, Derek grabs at Scott in sudden desperation, dragging him close enough to whisper. “If I die, tell Stiles…”
“You won’t die,” Scott interrupts hotly.
Derek’s tongue clicks as he swallows. He wants to believe it, wants to think he’ll see the crown prince one more time but if anything the war has cured him of the idea that anything he wants is likely to happen. “If I die, tell him I love him,” he breathes.
“You’ll tell him yourself,” Scott says like it’s pulled from somewhere painful. “I know who’s betrayed us, Derek. This will all be over soon. Rest.”
When he wakes in the morning from a heavy, dreamless sleep, he’s half surprised to have survived to see sunlight. The wound is a dull ache, thanks to the magic in the nurse’s potion. Derek feels hollowed out, physically and mentally, as he looks at the now half empty medical tent. Many of the other wounded weren’t as lucky as he. After all the battles, he finally understands why he wasn’t able to save anyone in York; it had seemed a personal failure, but war isn’t about saving anything. It’s destruction, and destruction only. Every battle is one of attrition. He hates what the fighting’s made of him - a killer. And yet, he knows that if it’s the price of coming home to Stiles he’d pay it every time.
Scott comes in, and beams when he sees Derek alert. “I see you’re finally up,” he says. “Lazybones, it’s been almost a week.”
Derek smiles. It’s comforting when he can recognize in Prince Scott that optimistic boy who trained him in the stables.
“Are you able to walk?” The prince asks, helping Derek to sit up in the cot.
He winces at the pull on his shoulder, but being upright helps his head. “I think so.”
Scott nods, and leads him from the infirmary. He tries to walk slowly, but Derek still has to force himself to keep up. His legs feel trembly and new after so much disuse.
“Where are we going?”
Scott’s hand tightens on a folio tucked into his cloak. “Do you remember what I said? That I had found the spy?”
“You’re sure then?” Derek’s torn between horror at having their suspicions confirmed and joy to finally have a face to blame for the ambushes and terror.
“I went back and reviewed the pattern of ambushes, and which battles we were surprised in versus the ones that we maintained the advantage. I made note of who knew about which, and who didn’t. I thought that it would be hard to track, but our traitor was too proud to be careful. I was able to narrow it to a few knights and soldiers, and I had their tents searched during their last patrol.”
“There’s evidence,” Derek says. Half guess and half realization.
Scott sighs, heavy. “I found maps.” He shakes his head, one angry jerk at the havoc wreaked by one selfish soul.
“Sir Matthew. He’s just returned and is at dinner.”
Derek grimly follows Scott to the mess tent. Their target is in the middle of a bite when Scott snaps, “on your feet.”
“What’s the meaning of this?” Sir Matt is startled, but not surprised, Derek realizes with a sinking feeling. His eyes are flicking for an escape route already, though of course there is none.
“I hereby accuse you of treason, Sir Matthew, and collaboration with the Treskelian army.” Other men in the tent turn at Scott’s announcement, and those standing draw in and gather around.
“My Prince, I would never,” Matt protests. Sweat is beginning to bead on his brow.
“And these?” Scott slaps the evidence on the table, detailed maps that would never be needed unless to reveal their position.
“Those… those are not mine,” he says weakly. “You must hear me out…”
“Must I?” Scott asks. “Your actions have cost the lives of hundreds of soldiers, good men and women. The only thing I must do is give you the fate you deserve.”
It’s the truth, everyone in the mess tent well knows. There’s no time or process in the war camp for something as soft as a trial. A crime such as this means beheading.
Prince Scott’s role as the king’s hand in the war camp means that he is the one to dispense punishment. The crowd follows him and the guards as they drag Sir Matthew to a clearing of beaten grass at the side of the camp. It’s a bright day, and some of the soldiers seem giddy almost at the impending excitement. Derek isn’t, and hopes his stern face will settle them. Justice isn’t a carnival, and there’s no need to celebrate.
Prince Scott doesn’t look happy, but he sets his jaw and firms his grip on the pommel of his sword. It’s not the first time he’s killed. Matt is shoved down in front of him, still trying to argue in breathy, half-formed sentences. Derek wonders what it says that he has none of the prince’s hesitation or sympathy. He’s coldly pleased to have the traitor found and taken care of, nothing more.
He barely even flinches when Scott’s blade comes down and Sir Matthew is finally silenced.
Derek’s been on the borders just over a year, but it feels like a lifetime. It’s almost impossible to believe there was ever ease in his life as he knows he experienced in the castle, in Stiles’ presence. He wonders what seems different to the prince away in the capitol, and if he thinks of Derek as often as Derek does of him. Perhaps he’s pining as well, or perhaps the feasts and revelries have distracted him enough from their plight here on the borders. Perhaps there’s a person who’s distracting him. Even in the relatively short time he’s been gone, Derek’s skin has gotten rough with wind and sun, and he hasn’t bothered shaving his beard past lazy stubble for months. There’s dirt ground into his hands that seems it will never wash clean. Appearances don’t matter here, only the ability to fight on little food and less sleep, but occasionally he considers what Stiles would think of him and winces.
It doesn’t help to mourn for that world of balls and fancy clothes. Here he’s useful, at least. Scott and he are good friends and better brothers at arms. The prince has all but publically announced him as his second in command. Derek is doing something important and useful for his country, that’s what matters. And still there’s the small hope that the triumphs here might be enough to gain him some recognition in the capitol.
There will probably be years more of this: the battles going back and forth, towns taken, towns lost. A war of attrition, not glorious victories. Derek knows now how improbable his fanciful ideas of a title and peace are. Even if the prince chooses to be faithful, he is of marriageable age and an alliance would do much to secure their position. Stiles must know, too, how unlikely it is that Derek could become landed at all, surely not quickly enough for it to matter. All they can reasonably hope for is a few stolen months, perhaps a year if they’re lucky, before he’s promised to someone else. They’re already on borrowed time, and Derek is wasting it out here becoming a killer.
He puts the bitter thoughts out of his mind, tries to focus. He’s at the strategy table now with Scott, musing over their numbers and endeavoring to find the best way to cover the territory without overly thinning the force or exhausting their men.
“Liam,” Scott says. The young squire is mainly kept out of the battle, running messages back and forth to the capitol. It’s the prince’s one weakness as a leader, his fear for his loved ones. Derek’s already had to turn down a few similar assignments himself, arguing that his experience is needed in action, and that he’s willing to take the risk.
“For you, my prince,” the boy says, handing over a packet of letters. Scott instantly breaks the king’s seal to read them, while they boy looks on, eager for approval. Derek continues to look at the map.
“Oh, Sir Derek,” Scott says, frowning slightly. “It seems that you’re to come back to the castle with the next caravan.”
Derek blinks in surprise; men usually spend closer to two years at the front before they’re summoned home for a brief reprieve. He can’t think of why he’d be called so soon. “Are you returning as well?”
“No,” Scott says, and if he’s surprised himself he doesn’t show it.
Going back means seeing Stiles, but… “I can’t go now, you need me.”
Scott smiles, tired but genuine. “The army won’t collapse without you, Sir Derek. The fighting seems to be going poorly to you, because you’re always in the thick of it. Really, it isn’t such a disaster.” Derek hesitates, but nods at the prince’s evaluation. After all, he’s the one in charge of the overall planning, where Derek only does his best to follow orders.
“Now, I’m not sure why you’re called back so soon,” Scott admits. “But perhaps it’s good news?”
“Then I’ll go,” Derek agrees, as if it’s his choice. As he says the words, there’s a burgeoning excitement in his chest. While he regrets leaving Scott to handle the war efforts himself, he can’t maintain a resistance to going home for long. His heart’s already flowing to Stiles, to thoughts of seeing him so soon.
He remembers the parade when he left, that last glimpse of his prince - it had seemed like a dream already, Stiles looking golden and perfectly royal in the bright sun. Derek kept glancing back as they rode out, and each time the distance had grown farther, Stiles had seemed smaller. He remembers how he’d had the strangest premonition that it was something final, that Stiles would only ever grow farther from him. But he was wrong, that had been just a morbid passing thought, as meaningless as his nightmares - he’ll get to see his love again, soon, and make up for all their lost time.
Hello hello, another handy note from your author: Please note the 'discussion of rape/sexual assault' tag for the next chapter! There is no actual rape in the story, but there will be some accusations and discussion that may be uncomfortable to read. If you’re concerned about what exactly is going to go down, please PM me on Tumblr and I can give you any details you need to help decide if you want to skip the scene.
Chapter 6: In Which An Engagement is Announced, and Desperate Measures are Taken
Hi all, quick heads up that I will be out of town this weekend and not able to reply to comments or to post the last couple chapters until early next week. I’m so sorry about the delay - I always assume the internet is everywhere! I hope that this one is dramatic enough to tide you over until then :)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Riding into the capitol of Beacon Hills seems like stepping back in time, into his memories of coming to the city as a child. The looming castle, the houses, and even the shops are exactly the same - and yet somehow unfamiliar. The true changes, he supposes, are the ones he brings within himself. In comparison to the warfront the cobbled streets strike him as bizarrely clean and straight, packed with civilians who meander slowly, often stopping to browse a shop or chat, rather than the purposeful rushing of soldiers he’s become accustomed to.
As soon as the caravan is settled and Buttercup is happily stabled and fed, Derek goes to the castle barracks. During his leave he’ll be staying in the same bed as he did as a youth, before he was even Stiles’ guard. From their letters he knows to find Erica still in the kitchens, Boyd at the blacksmith’s, and Isaac with the royal guard, attending particularly to Queen Melissa on Scott’s orders. Derek dumps his few possessions into the provided chest, tucking away his token under the mattress from habit, before he hurries to the kitchen to surprise Erica.
The kitchen is bustling with preparations for the welcome feast, and the old head cook is nowhere to be seen. Erica is the one directing all of the other servants, the only point of stillness in the chaotic room. She takes a moment to notice him, but when she does her face breaks into a huge, beaming grin.
“Derek!” He makes his way to her, dodging a pair of young girls rushing by with arms full of vegetables, and she throws herself happily into his arms. He spins her around before setting her down, laughing. He’d had no chance to send word of his return, as a letter would only have come in the same caravan as he did.
“You’ve come back to us!” she exclaims. “I’m so glad.”
“Not half as glad as I,” Derek answers, tousling her hair.
She laughs, shoving his arm away. “Boyd should know that you’re safe, as well. News was so infrequent that we worried. Have you seen him yet?”
He smiles warmly at her. “I’ve only just arrived, and the feast is too soon for me to leave the castle. I’ll see him early on the morrow. Erica, is that a...?”
“Yes!” She extends her hand proudly. The second gold band on her finger is clearly Boyd's work, though finer and more intricate than anything he’s shown Derek before. "Boyd was finally able to buy his smithy, and we were married earlier in the summer, as we hoped. He wanted to wait until you could be here, but we weren’t sure… I would have written, but we wanted to at least tell you in person."
“Don’t apologize. It’s wonderful news! I’ve been waiting for that ring to be on your finger longer than you, I think. Congratulations.”
Erica laughs, blushing. “Yes, yes, I should thank you for urging us together. You’ll never let me forget.” Derek blinks back innocently at her, though he’s unable to stop the corners of his mouth from pulling up in a smirk. “And what of you?” she asks.
“What of me?” Derek replies, lightly.
“Did you find time for romance on the front, or is someone waiting for you here? You never wrote of anything like that, but we thought that, well, there must be someone.”
Derek shakes his head. “Who would bind themselves to a nameless knight who'll just be off to war again soon?”
Erica frowns despite his joking tone. “More than ‘no one,’ as you would know if you paid any attention. For goodness sake, there are ballads about you.” She hesitates, then pulls Derek aside to the store room to escape the bustle of the kitchen in the full swing of preparation. “I know it’s hardly my place to say, but you must know that there are rumors about you and Prince Stiles. When you were his guard you two were alone so often, and seemed so close, the court couldn’t help but notice. Some of them misconstrued it. When you left he became awfully melancholy, and the talk only grew worse.” Her eyes flit to the open door, even though the noise outside will surely cover their conversation. “I know it isn’t true, but that kind of rumor is dangerous.”
“Talk is only talk,” Derek protests weakly. He’s caught off guard at her prying into his affairs, accustomed as he is to the front where his personal life serves as a barely acknowledged distraction compared to the war efforts. Gossip in the castle, of course, is a different beast. Now the politicking is as unfamiliar to him as the paved, busy streets.
Erica grabs his arm as he turns away, not letting him retreat to the main kitchen. “All the same. You should turn your attention to another, if only to put any suspicion to rest. Besides, don’t you want a lover? You always said in York how you wanted a family.”
“Yes, but…” Derek looks over his shoulder, but his path to escape is blocked by two men bringing in the venison to be cooked and Erica’s still holding his sleeve. “I simply haven’t found anyone who I feel that way for.”
Erica scowls. “You might have better luck if you spent less time fawning over the prince. There’s nothing wrong with championing a royal, of course. But such chivalry can’t be all you want of life, can it?” She pauses to look at him in concern. “You did have some affection for the prince, when we were younger. I’m sure you’ve grown out of it, but Boyd thinks you still do.”
Derek tries to look nonchalant, though he knows he’s probably flushed with how close she is to the truth. “Erica, please,” he scoffs. She arches a brow at him. Even he can hear how unconvincing his protest is, and she knows him well enough to interpret his manner easily. “Of course I… It's not like that between us,” he insists. “The prince is just… he’s just…”
Derek feels how hot his cheeks are, and Erica’s wry look has become an open-mouthed expression of dismay. “Boyd’s right - You’re really in love,” she gasps. “Do you have any idea how dangerous it is to even suggest intentions on a prince’s virtue?”
“It’s not… We’re careful,” Derek whispers defensively, bending his head down to her so he can speak even more quietly. This is exactly why he’s never discussed his affections with his friends. They see nothing but the danger. If only he could say something to make her understand what Stiles means to him, how every stolen moment has been worth the risk.
Erica shakes her head in horrified disbelief. “Derek, how could he put you in that position?”
“It’s as dangerous for him,” Derek says. “More so.”
“Oh, and that makes it a better idea?” Erica says incredulously. “Careful or no, anything between you will never be more than a secret. You deserve a wife, or husband, one who you can be bound to. Who'll be bound to you.”
Derek shakes his head. “I don't need that,” he says quietly.
Erica’s mouth thins out. “So he’s convinced you that you need... what? Nothing except to pleasure him? To be his whore?”
“Erica!” he growls, shocked. The word stings, because he isn’t - Stiles doesn’t think of him that way. They’re in love. What’s between them is hardly binding, of course, but there’s an understanding all the same. Nothing has changed since their whispered declarations in the dark. Or… Could it have? It’s been almost a year since they’ve exchanged so much as a free word. He has rarely let himself think on what all the time apart may have wrought. Is it assured that the prince’s affections haven’t wavered?
No, they can’t have. Derek knows Stiles loves him back, he’s sure of it. Only that’s… only that's perhaps what every fool who falls into a noble’s bed believes. His stomach gives an unhappy twist.
“I just want you to be safe. And happy,” Erica says, softening at Derek’s distress.
Derek accepts the apology with a nod and a small, forced smile. “I know. I am.”
It’s not a lie, not precisely.
After his longer than planned conversation with Erica, Derek barely has time to bathe the dust of travel off of himself and dress in his finery before the welcome feast begins. King John has asked that they be present right at the start of the feast to be formally thanked for their service, wearing the new clothing delivered to them to replace their worn things from the war front. Derek feels as if he was a noble himself as he makes his way to the main hall in such finery. It’s surreally unlike what he’s become used to on patrol, and the thought that he’ll soon see Stiles only adds to the dreamlike feeling of the night.
“Is this Sir Derek, then?” a woman’s smooth voice calls out behind him “It must be. Never has a hero looked as much the part.”
Derek turns to the woman who’d greeted him so appreciatively, placing a genteel smile on his face though all he wants to do is stare at the hall where Stiles will soon appear. “Ah, hello.”
“Lady Jennifer,” she says, holding out her hand. He kisses it by rote. “I helped Stiles with his letters to you and his brother. It’s strange to finally meet, is it not? I feel as if we were already friends.”
“Yes,” Derek says tentatively. He doesn’t feel that way at all. What few times he’d thought of the tutors and advisors who read over his communication with Stiles, it was as abstract obstacles. He’d certainly not considered that they were people who would pay attention to what he wrote, or remember much of it as long as the words were proper. It’s strange to think that this woman would feel anything like friendship based on the stilted, formal messages he and Stiles had been able to exchange under her watch.
“I’m glad that you’ve been summoned to return,” she says, not noticing his dismay or choosing to ignore it. “You’ve done so much for our county. Without you, Prince Scott would never have discovered that traitor, Sir Matthew.”
Derek blinks at her, suddenly confused. That particular fact had never been in his letters, discarded like all the unpleasantness of war that might change how Stiles felt about him.
“Oh, yes, everyone knows,” Jennifer laughs. “It was made into a ballad.”
“A ballad! You must know you’ve become a bit famous - they call you the wolf of the battlefield. Sir Matt’s exposure is a rather rousing tale, and Prince Stiles often has the court musicians play it. And others that feature your exploits.”
“Ah,” Derek says. Is there a hint of something threatening in her too-wide smile, or is he imagining it after his conversation with Erica?
He isn’t sure how else he should respond, but before he’s forced to the king enters the hall and the crowd quiets. Derek steps away from Lady Jennifer in the distraction, pressing forward in hopes of getting a better view of the royal family. There, just to the king’s right, it must be...
It’s him. The fanfare and music, the nobles and their fine dress all fade out and all he can see is Stiles. The prince is older, fully filled in his frame, present and real and beautiful in ways Derek’s fantasies had started to blur over. Stiles is here, and Derek doesn’t care what he’ll be awarded for his service; After all his dreams of this moment, he just wants it to be over, for it to be night so he and Stiles can be alone at last.
He floats through the other knights’ awards - a new title or two, some small land holdings - that all seem irrelevant in the face of Stiles, his every blink, the way he meets Derek’s eyes and they exchange a yearning glance before the prince forces himself to look away with pink cheeks.
Derek’s breathless with want by the time he finally hears name called. He steps up to the dias and only half attends to the speech King John gives about his valor, how he acquitted himself in battle and rose to the rank of general on Prince Scott’s word that he was as useful as a right hand. What little of it sticks in his mind doesn’t square at all with what he knows of the fighting, not with the reality of death on the field of battle, how pernicious and meaningless it is.
“In light of his service,” King John concludes, “it seems only fair that this man - who I hardly need to remind us, also saved my son’s life from an underhanded assassination attempt not long after he came of age - is finally made a proper citizen.”
Derek startles. A citizen? He must have heard wrong. He chances a look up at the king’s face, and sees no joke, only a small, almost paternal smile. “The parcel of land past the river has been without a lord since Sir Westley died childless in battle last winter. I award it to Sir Derek.”
Derek is shocked; it’s a rich holding, near Lady Lydia’s estate. It even includes the forest across the river from his and Stiles’ old meeting place, he realizes. The king has made all the other awards tonight, but when Derek kneels it’s the prince who steps forward.
“As the first beneficiary of Sir Derek’s valor, it’s fitting that I should make the award,” Stiles says, loud enough for the gathering. But his eyes are on Derek, and the rest of the hall could as well be empty. Derek was right; Stiles’ affections are steadfast.
Their eyes stay locked as Stiles pins the royal symbol of Beacon hills on Derek’s chest. It’s a star with rounded points, symbolic of the beacon that led his ancestors to found this place. His finger brushes ever so lightly against the hollow of Derek’s throat as he moves away. Can he feel how fast his pulse is racing? Derek tries to tell him everything with a look; that he’d go to war for him, die for him, anything. Everyone in the hall is watching, but it feels as if they’re alone.
Stiles steps back, breaking their heated gaze first to look at the floor. Derek stands, recalled to himself. He bows and returns to his place with the rest of the newly returned knights. Only now he’s more than a nameless knight, he thinks with a shiver of anticipation. He’s a landed citizen, properly of a rank with Lady Lydia. On the front he’d begun to believe he had no chance with the prince, but his new citizenship is more than he could have expected. Perhaps the difficulties of the front made him more pessimistic than necessary. Stiles will know more, will have ideas brimming over for what they should do when they speak next. Now will be the feasting, and dancing, and perhaps a chance for a few quick words. And then after the celebration breaks up, after all the nobles are in bed and Stiles returns to his chambers...
“Of course, you must all have guessed that we have one more announcement for such a glorious feast.”
Derek blinks in confusion at the king’s words; all the knights have already been addressed, he was the last. What else could there be? King John’s expression is unreasonably jolly, and Derek has one freefall moment of half realization before the next words come.
“I know everyone has noticed that the comings and goings of the desert country’s nobles have been more frequent that required for our usual trade agreements. I’m happy to confirm your suspicions, and formally announce that our Prince Stiles is to be wed to Princess Malia!”
Derek locks his expression into a rigid glare to hide his shock and dismay, despite feeling like he’s been kicked in the stomach. Mechanically, he joins in the applause. Stiles never said anything about this in his letters, to him or Scott. Why not? He must not have known, Derek thinks desperately. This alliance must have been so secretive as to be a surprise even to him. But when he finally looks to the prince, his former lover is already looking back, watching for Derek’s reaction. His own expression isn’t surprised, not at all.
He did know, Derek realizes hollowly. Of course he knew.
“Now the feast!” King announces. “But don’t indulge too deeply - we’ll be celebrating again soon enough when Princess Malia arrives with her retinue.”
Derek should make pleasant conversation with the other knights and the nobles, he should enjoy the food and make merry. But how can he, when it feels as if he’s received a death sentence? Instead he lurks into the crowd as unobtrusively as possible, looking for the chance to leave. He doesn’t want to see Sti- the prince. Not right now. And though Lady Lydia and Sir Isaac would be pleased to congratulate him on his good fortune, he hasn’t the heart to celebrate being titled when the honor comes so bittersweetly timed. He sneaks out of the great hall as soon as he can, to be alone with the weight in his gut.
“Wait,” a voice calls. Derek doesn’t turn but he also doesn’t walk fast enough to outpace the quick patter of boots on stone. The prince catches his arm, pulls him into one of the window alcoves and wraps his arms around Derek’s neck. The prince smells of perfumes and woodsmoke, and Derek lets himself breathe it in for a moment, searching under that for the familiar scent of his skin. Stiles clings tightly back, then twists to press his mouth against the corner of Derek’s, straining for a better angle to deepen the kiss.
Derek is more aware than ever before that Stiles isn’t his to touch. He pulls away, though he can’t help but brush his hand over Stiles’ cheek as he does.
“It’s nice to see you.”
“Nice to…” Stiles scoffs, full of agitated energy. “Didn’t you hear? You’re only just back and I’m engaged. Being sold off. Why aren’t you upset?”
Derek is hardly happy about the development, but he can only summon a defeated shrug. “It’s not as if this is a surprise. Marrying well is required of someone of your birth.” The prince, with all his training, couldn’t have forgotten that. He hadn’t fallen for the same fever dreams as Derek.
“Scott marries Princess Kira in a season, we’ll be allied with Kitsune then. Isn’t that enough?”
I wish it could be, Derek thinks. “He’s only the consort’s son, not the heir to the throne. Your marriage was inevitable, and it is still later than it could have been.” Stiles rolls his eyes dramatically and settles on glaring at Derek’s boots. Derek ducks his head to meet the Prince’s downcast eyes. “Princess Malia’s good match, isn’t she?”
“Not for me,” Stiles snaps back.
“Oh? Any why not?” Derek raises his eyebrows expectantly.
“I was going to marry you!”
Derek is so surprised he bursts into laughter before he sees that Stiles is serious, after all. That Stiles, always so canny and pragmatic, actually let himself be convinced it was possible for a Treskelian orphan to become an acceptable match for the crown prince of Beacon Hills. But then, why not? He’s never been unable to get what wants, up to and including Derek in his bed nearly every night before he left for the front. And something about Derek made the prince think that marrying him was something to want, Stiles actually wants to spend his life with Derek - and he cuts off his laugh with a click of teeth because he can tell it’s about to turn into sobs.
Stiles is flushed a splotchy, angry red. “You’re the one who said it, first! You’re not a stable boy anymore, you’re a knight, a landed citizen even. And I spoke to my father...”
“You what?” Derek gasps. He could lose his recently acquired land over merely thinking about some of the things they’ve done, and if it comes out that he’s actually despoiled the crown prince...
Stiles rolls his eyes. “Not about that. Just what a good knight you are, what a good man. Now that you’re landed, I could convince him,” Stiles insists, not even sounding like he quite believes that himself. Derek certainly doesn’t. “You’ve been to the front and proved yourself beyond reproach, you’re a hero. I’ve heard the songs, even here…”
Derek’s never felt that Stiles needed protecting, before; if anything, the prince had protected him. But he seems so young and innocent, now, after all the harsh realities of the front. It’s Derek’s turn to shelter him. When he answers, it’s gentle: “In another world where I was a landed citizen of Beacon Hills, and a war hero and there was peace maybe it’s possible you could convince your father. But I’m a refugee from a rival country, an orphan, and we’re at war. You need to marry another royal to strengthen the country’s position. You have a duty to your countrymen to end the bloodshed, and even if you throw that aside, King John won’t. What, do you really care nothing for Beacon Hills?”
“Of course I do, but I…” Stiles is so frustrated and angry he’s almost in tears. “Why aren’t you fighting for me, anymore? If it’s so impossible, then why did you even suggest it? Why all the training, and the tourney, the war, if you’re just giving up?”
“Being near you is enough. You must see that we were never going to be…”
Footsteps sound in the hallway, and they straighten away from each other, Derek turning his face into the shadows. Sir Jordan walks by, headed towards the barracks, barely pausing to nod to Stiles. It seems he doesn’t notice anything amiss, caught up in his own cares.
Derek lets out a relieved breath. “Stiles, this is more than we ever should have had,” he says quietly. “Let’s simply be grateful for the time we spent together.”
“Had?” Stiles asks, sharply.
Derek looks away, swallowing painfully. “You’ll be sworn to another, Stiles. Married. Certainly we must respect that.”
The prince has that set to his jaw that spells danger. “I haven’t ever slept with anyone but you. I’ve always loved you and I’m not going to stop now,” he insists fiercely. “I wont give you up.”
Derek had hoped that Stiles had been celibate as Derek for the long year of their separation, despite the opportunities that must present themselves to a willing prince. He’d wanted to believe that he was Stiles’ only one, the same as Stiles was his. Hearing it confirmed is something else.
“I’m still yours,” Stiles says hotly, drags him in for a needy, brutal kiss. And even though the alcove is practically in public and it’s heady and dangerous, for a second Derek’s brought along on his fantasy. He finds himself clinging to the impossible hope that maybe they can find a way to be together like this forever.
Stiles has to return to the ceremonies that Derek has no stomach for. Later that night, though, Derek lets himself into the prince’s chambers like he used to, before the war. The second the door is locked Stiles is clinging to him, holding their bodies tightly together as they fall into a deep, biting kiss like the one in the alcove. The intensity of the connection says as much about Stiles’ thoughts as words could; it’s as if he wasn’t sure Derek would come. Perhaps he shouldn’t have, but until he says his vows at least they can say that nothing’s changed. Derek backs him into the room towards his bed - their bed - and lifts him onto it, crawling after and easing the prince onto his back so their mouths barely have to part.
Once they’re laying out on the soft mattress, Derek’s weight pressing Stiles down, the kisses finally slow. Stile sucks hard on Derek’s lower lip, soothes the prickle with his tongue. They gentle further, licking into each other’s mouths almost lazily, Derek trailing his fingers along Stiles’ jawline and the nape of his neck. Finally Stiles sighs a satisfied moan into Derek’s mouth, allows them to break apart.
“It feels different,” he says. “With your beard, I mean.”
Derek rubs his chin. “It’s easy to forget about niceties on the front. I should I have shaved.”
“No, no,” Stiles says, trailing his fingers through the scruff, eyes dark with lust. “I like it fine.”
Derek sits up on his knees and Stiles shuffles out from under him enough to sit up as well. He reaches out to tug Derek’s shirt over his head, but Derek winces and pulls his left elbow down before it goes past shoulder height.
“Doesn’t bend that way anymore,” He says with an apologetic shrug. He reaches back with the other hand to pull the shirt over his head by the collar. Stiles watches with a blank expression, his only give-away the tick of muscle in his jaw. He shrugs out of his own tunic, throws it hard at the floor.
Derek's more muscled now than he was. He hadn’t noticed happening, but he seems bulkier next to Stiles than he remembers. Of course there are new scars, too. Stiles touches them gently, as if they were fresh wounds again, long fingers ghosting along the silvery lines of them. His expression wavers, then crumples, and he buries his face in the crook of Derek’s neck.
“It’s alright. I’m alright,” Derek murmurs, stroking the back of his head. “I’m here now.” Stiles fingers claw into Derek’s shoulder blades, his breath ragged. He doesn’t cry. Neither of them want to spend the night that way.
Their breeches soon join their shirts on the floor, and there’s no more talking. They’ve always been chatty in bed, full of instructions and jokes and praise, but now everything’s been distilled to a language of touch; Derek’s thumb brushing across Stiles’ lips for I missed kissing you, Stiles’ tentative hand on his chest for I was so worried you wouldn’t come back. What else is there to say? Their plans and hopes for the future are sickly things, too fragile to survive being spoken aloud, and the heavy knowledge of the end sits too thick on each of their tongues to let them speak of other things. They don’t sleep. Stiles hands keep running over Derek’s skin the entire night, as if he’s trying to re-learn his lover’s body head to toe before he has to go at sunrise, already too short a time.
When the desert country’s retinue arrives, the princess and her guards are put up the royal wing of the castle, near Stiles’ room. Derek is still in the barracks with all the other soldiers. Between Malia’s guards and ladies in waiting, there are too many new people wandering at odd hours for Derek to risk sneaking across the ground and into Stiles’ room at night. With the bustle of the wedding preparations and entertaining the foreign royalty, luxuries such as their old, careless rides by the river are out of the question. They have no way of finding occasion for anything more intimate than a few stolen words in the hall, the occasional locking of eyes across the head table at meals.
Malia is not what Derek had expected with the word “Princess” at all. She’s a tomboy, blunt with her words and yet as beautiful as a summer’s fresh daybreak, too. Derek is in attendance when she first arrives, and get to see Stiles bow for her, kiss her hand. The crown prince says something with an inappropriate double entendre, by the sly look of it, but rather than blushing and tittering, she scowls like she’s likely to punch him in the mouth. She says something biting back that Derek can’t make out. He can hear Stiles’ answering laughter perfectly well.
Some of the older nobles and servants take offence at the princess’s brash behavior, but on the whole the country is ready to love her for Stiles’ sake. Her unexpected qualities just add an excitingly unique aspect to their worship. This princess isn’t just a pretty face, she’s a firecracker; she’ll be such a good pair with their headstrong prince.
Clearly King John does care for Stiles’ happiness, and in the following days he encourages various activities to help his son bond with his betrothed. There is the welcome feast, concerts, tours of the surrounding lands. Stiles even takes Malia and her people out on a hunt on the King’s urging. He smiles enough at Derek, who’s coming along as part of the contingent of Beacon Hills nobles, but the prince must of course ride beside his fiancee to maintain appearances, and the rest of the hunt hangs back so they can converse. She’s an accomplished falconer, and soon enough their polite conversation turns to a genuine one about the specifics of the sport. It takes all of the prince’s attention, and Derek is left to endure Sir Harris’ icy silence throughout the chase. When Malia’s bird brings back a lovely hare later that day, Stiles practically cheers for her, and she forgets for a moment to be foul tempered herself when she beams proudly back.
It looks like a love match, everyone says so - and it could be, she makes him laugh. That’s half the way into Stiles’ heart already, as Derek well knows. Honestly, that’s for the best. Derek is pleased to see them happy together, he truly is. He wants Stiles to have a bond with Princess Malia; they’ll be spending the rest of their lives together, after all. But the idea of it also makes him ill.
Derek trains with the younger soldiers in the courtyard while Malia and Stiles lunch in the castle, and he tries not to think about what books Stiles is loaning to her, what other tastes they are learning to share. It will be worse after the wedding. Stiles will consummate the marriage, he has to. And he’ll hold her hand when they go for walks, and he’ll kiss her cheek at dinners and Derek will be in the castle too, seeing that, knowing what more goes on behind closed doors, unable to do a single thing to stop the man he loves bedding another again and again and...
He’s knocked back onto his ass, caught off guard like he hasn’t been for years. Liam, who he was supposed to be training, looks almost sorry to have bested him. “I didn’t mean to…”
“It doesn’t matter what you meant, I shouldn’t have let you,” Derek snaps. He’s furious with himself for being a fool and hoping, and with Stiles for encouraging it. He’s furious with the king for not waiting one more year for the war to end, and with the world for not simply suspending all the rules of society so he and Stiles can be together.
“Sir Derek,” Stiles says, as Derek seats himself at the noble’s table with his meal.
“Prince Stiles, Lady Lydia,” Derek answers smoothly. “It’s an honor. But where is Princess Malia? You shouldn’t leave her to eat alone.” He knows his pointed tone strikes it’s mark from the way Stiles’ mouth flattens out in annoyance. A petty tactic, but pettiness is practically the only tool he has. He’s shaved his beard that Stiles had liked so well back down to stubble.
Stiles huffs, forces a smile. He can’t rise to the bait in front of the table. “Of course. I was only going to say that my father’s agreed to let me go see my brother at the front, and that you are to be part of my guard.”
“You’re going to the front?” Derek asks, his fork hovering in midair for a second before he recalls himself and sets it down. “That’s…it’s dangerous, is it not?”
Lady Lydia casts her eyes to the ceiling. “Thank you. He wanted me to come as well but I’ve absolutely refused. I’ve been trying to tell him that no sane person would go into such danger.”
“It would be more dangerous to take Prince Scott away from his post,” Stiles says, bored with the argument it seems he’s had many times already. “But it’s been too long since I’ve seen my brother and with no end in sight to this war it’s either he leaves his post or I go to it. So I go, and I’ve convinced my father that before the wedding makes more sense than after. I couldn’t leave my new bride alone just after our wedding night, could I?” he adds with a twist. Derek looks at his plate and doesn’t let himself flinch at his own barb thrown back at him.
But he can’t hide anything from Stiles, and when the prince continues it’s almost apologetic. “Anyways, it can’t be so dangerous that my old guard can’t protect me, can it?” he says, with a teasing lilt that raises Lydia’s brows at it’s near flirtation. “Sir Jordan and Sir Harris will be joining us, as well,” Stiles admits, with less good cheer.
Derek shakes his head slightly. Even now, Stiles seems to be plotting something. It must have been easy enough for Stiles to arrange that Derek would accompany him on any trip to see Prince Scott, since he must soon return to the front anyways - and due to the danger, Malia and her retinue will no doubt stay in Beacon Hills. Traveling together means they will at least have some time when they can speak freely before their window of opportunity closes when the prince says his vows.
Of course, Stiles’ plan is based on the curtailed understanding of the front he has from Derek and Scott’s heavily censored letters. It’s more dangerous on the borders of their country than Stiles knows, much more so than their tales have implied. Derek worries for the prince, even knowing he and and the other knights will be there to protect him. Yet if they could steal just have a bit more time… certainly Derek couldn’t refuse. The king is not so naive as the prince, and will make the necessary precautions.
“You will come with us,” Stiles says, enough hesitation suddenly in his voice to make it a question rather than an order.
“If you wish it,” Derek sighs, and he can’t even hold on to his fears when Stiles smiles at him. From the edge of mischief in his expression, the prince hints at a much more pleasant trip than the one Lydia was envisioning.
Traveling to the front is a bustling, noisy proposition as always, made worse by the prince’s large, inexperienced retinue. The two of them find no time to be completely alone, but they ride together and find they can talk relatively freely due to the noise of the caravan and the distance they can harmlessly put between themselves and the other riders. It's good enough, Derek reminds himself. It has to be.
Which means, of course, that it isn’t half good enough for Stiles. Whenever it seems they have enough privacy, he’ll suddenly change mid sentence from relaying some harmless castle gossip to describing in brash specifics exactly what he’d like to to to Derek if they were alone. He touches Derek’s shoulder and knee at each opportunity, pretending to point out features of the road, and each press of his fingers is absurdly arousing after such talk.
“Stop touching my leg,” Derek chides, as Stiles urges Estelle up beside him and reaches out yet again. “You may have your own tent to relieve yourself, but until we arrive at the front I’m sleeping outdoors with the other soldiers and that type of thing is rather frowned upon.” Derek shifts, even the rough jostling of riding arousing with the memory Stiles’ light touch on his thigh.
Stiles pouts. “Well, don’t you ever have privacy?”
“Pissing at the side of the road, I suppose,” Derek grouses.
Stiles stokes his thigh again, dancing his fingers close to Derek’s crotch without exactly touching. “Go now, then,” he says quietly. “Think of me.”
Derek stares, Stiles stares back, wide dark eyes and a wicked smile. He can imagine it clearly, jerking himself off fast and dry, the roughness arousing with his mind on Stiles just a bit farther away knowing exactly what he’s doing, thinking of him as he touches himself almost within eyeshot… it’s the closest thing to being together they’ve had for weeks, they can have, now. It isn’t the same as their old stolen nights, but how could it be? He can’t expect that sort of intimacy anymore, and it doesn’t help anything to hold up what they have now to those golden days.
Which of course brings him back to why this trip is different.
“I don’t think that’s wise,” he says, testing what it feels like to deny the prince. It stings, but it’s not impossible as it happens. It seems that Derek can, after all, resist.
Stiles laughs as if it’s a joke, though his eyes betray a deeper worry. “It’s never been wise, has it?” he says. “You’re not really… you aren’t saying never, are you?”
Derek shakes his head, but in his heart he isn’t sure.
Though he holds no true affection for the place, being back at the front sets Derek strangely at ease. With Stiles riding next to him, he sees two versions of everything: one the familiar camp where he lived for the last year, and one the confusing mess of soldiers, tents and horses that he sees through the prince’s wide-eyed perspective. He can’t help but smile; this may be the only place the prince has ever seemed more out of place than he. It’s a pleasant distraction to be the one with experience, pointing out the weapons and rations storage, then the mess hall, the disciplinary tent, the barracks. It feels good to show Stiles this part of his life, like they’re bridging some of the distance of the year apart.
Scott is ecstatic to see his brother, greets him with a broad laugh and back-slapping hug that return him instantly to the boy Derek had known in the castle. They spend the dinner meal with their heads bent together, exchanging news and small observations with such glee that Derek can’t resent the loss of Stiles’ attention at all. Stiles lets his brother show him around the strategy tent and makes all the appropriate expressions of awe, though it seems he can barely spare a glance for the maps and figures that make up their intelligence of the war.
Stiles’ own tent, a richly embroidered monstrosity of heavy canvas that’s larger that four of the ones the knights share, with a fire pit dug into the center. It is set up towards the center of the camp for safety, as any assassin would have more difficulty sneaking through the rest of the camp to get to him, and in the rare chance of a direct attack it would be well defended. The space is close enough to the rows of sleeping tents that make up the barracks that Stiles will be one shout away from help, yet removed enough that anyone approaching will be easily spotted.
Per the prince’s orders, Derek takes his leave of the other guards and comes by just after sundown for a final check. After a quick circuit of the perimeter, he confirms that the stakes are secure, for what good that would do with walls of fabric, and that the area is clear. He returns to the interior to inform the prince that it’s as safe as anything in this place. The words die on his lips when he sees Stiles’ expression, though, and he realizes belatedly that not even Stiles would be inexperienced enough to think that a quick check of the perimeter would do anything for his safety. The rest of the retinue is occupied setting up their own lodgings or sleeping, and they are alone.
Stiles comes to him slowly, sliding his hands up Derek’s chest and over his shoulders. Derek’s arms circle the prince’s waist instinctively. A happy sigh escapes Stiles’ mouth, and despite his nerves Derek feels his own muscles relax at the small intimacy of holding each other like this. It’s easy to forget the impending marriage when the prince is pressed against him, familiar and warm. Stiles kisses him softly, a brief press of lips, and then again. The next kiss has a hint of urgency, as the prince shifts his hips against Derek’s and sucks on his bottom lip.
“Stiles - no,” Derek says. It’s hard enough to force the words out, and they don’t seem very convincing. He has the notion that they’d carry more weight if he actually tried to release the prince from his embrace.
“Derek - yes,” Stiles says teasingly, brushing their noses together.
“It's dangerous,” Derek says, wavering. “The barracks are right outside, within earshot.”
“So we'll be quiet,” Stiles says. He places a finger playfully on Derek's lips to illustrate. “Not that anyone could hear anything with all that clamor, besides.”
That part is true enough; Derek feels his resolve waver dangerously.
“Derek, nobody will burst into the crown prince's tent unannounced. Don’t say no now. Remember how you used to kiss me in the stables? The hall, even? ”
“I…” Derek hesitates. Outside the privacy of the prince’s chambers they’d never more than kissed, and this seems like Stiles intends more than that. Unavoidably, Derek remembers that whatever excuses they held to before hardly hold up. Derek will never be tied to him in the eyes of the world. Instead, that honor belongs to Princess Malia. Taking Stiles’ virtue had seemed at least a bit defensible when he’d thought that, perhaps he could become enough for a prince... but all that is over, now. Derek ought to say no for that, and for a thousand other reasons.
“You want me,” Stiles murmurs, drawing Derek in for another lingering kiss. “I want you. I came all the way out here so we could finally be alone together, and when I get back I'm being married off.” The words raise a note of dissatisfaction in his voice. “You’ll stay here for some interminable time, and I’ll be at the castle. Who knows when our next chance to make love will be? It could be ages.”
Derek sighs, letting his small resistance melt as he curls into Stiles for another soft kiss.
Stiles is calmer when they break apart, but still edgy. “If we don’t know when we’ll be able to be alone again... I want to have done everything with you.”
He takes Derek hands, drawing them purposefully down to cup the swell of his ass. Derek groans, achingly hard as he realizes the prince’s meaning. His forehead drops to Stiles’ shoulder, and he nuzzles into his lover’s neck in an attempt to settle his head. He’d only imagined rushed exchanges of strokes, perhaps getting on his knees, but not this.
“Please,” Stiles whispers hot in his ear. “I want to know what it’s like with you.”
Derek nods; in the end, even if it damns they both, he wants to have had this, too. He won’t allow himself to take the prince after marriage, but for the moment at least they can forget the outside world.
Even with the fire at the center of the tent, it’s chilled enough that they don’t fully undress. Stiles is still in his loose undershirt, and Derek only undoes his breeches enough to free himself, unwilling to spend their precious time worrying at his boots. Stiles lays back into the quilts piled on his cot, equal measures excited and nervous. Derek pauses to run his fingers over the planes of Stiles’ face, look at his eyes in the firelight, memorizing the different colors brought out from one breath to the next.
“Stop looking at me like that. This doesn’t have to be the last time,” Stiles says unevenly. “After the war ends there will be days when she travels or if we go on a ride or hunt… We can make opportunities.”
“I know we could,” Derek admits. “But, you’ll be wed, Stiles. You’ll have sworn vows to Princess Malia.”
“Because I have to,” Stiles says, fisting Derek’s tunic. “What should that count for? In my heart, I’m yours.”
“Stiles,” Derek says, half protesting. He wants to believe Stiles’ marriage irrelevant in the face of what they feel, but despite what the prince says their hearts aren’t all that counts. To the rest of the world, in fact, their hearts count for precisely nothing. He settles for sighing, “let’s not argue,” and cuts off the possibility for it when he kisses the prince again, open and hungry.
Derek wants it to be perfect, not the discomfort of his own first time when they were so new and unfamiliar with each other’s bodies. He wants to show Stiles how sweet it can be, how good Stiles has made it for him so often in the time since then. There’s a small bottle of oil in Stiles’ effects, and Derek uses it to slick the finger that he then runs down and up Stiles’ cleft, raising the prince’s hips for a better angle. He presses the pad of his finger against Stiles’ entrance, adds more oil to massage and rub at the muscle until his finger slides in almost accidentally.
Stiles clenches at the intrusion, breath hitching.
“Breathe,” Derek instructs in a warm murmur. “Relax. I have you.”
Stiles nods, his chest easing into a steady rise and fall under Derek’s palm while with the other hand Derek loosens him further, kissing him through the addition of another finger. It’s easy enough to mirror the motions he craves when he is the one receiving. He presses deeper into Stiles’ tight heat, watching his expression for signs of discomfort or pleasure.
He waits until Stiles is fucking himself back into three of Derek’s fingers, eyes heavy-lidded and unfocused, his breath hitching with arousal rather than nerves or pain, eager for more. Derek pulls his hand away and Stiles startles at the loss, blinking curiously. Derek threads his fingers through Stiles’, presses the head of his cock to Stiles’ opening instead. Stiles hitches his legs around Derek’s hips, and then he’s easing in, to the point where the resistance is too much and Stiles winces.
“I’ve got you,” Derek murmurs again. He eases back, then presses in farther this time, draws back again for another shallow thrust, finding his rhythm. Stiles gasps each time Derek sinks deeper, his hand spasming. Derek’s trembling with the effort of containing himself, keeping his strokes long and even despite the intense, unfamiliar sensation. Stiles’ whispered encouragement makes it more difficult, a tumbling mess of yes and pleases that makes him want to lose himself in hard, fast thrusts that would have Stiles screaming his name.
Lost in the sensation, he misses the light rustle and the startled gasp that comes from neither himself nor the prince. It’s Stiles who hears it and turns his face to the door, and Derek only follows his gaze.
Sir Harris stands just inside, watching them with bright eyes and a thin, terrifyingly triumphant smile. The sight’s so unexpected it takes a moment for Derek to comprehend it’s not a nightmare. Then suddenly it feels as if he’s been doused in ice water, his skin prickling and tight. He pulls back so he’s sitting upright on the bed. Stiles is frozen stock still where he lay.
“I knew it,” Harris crows. “The prince is unchaste. Whoring himself out to a nameless Treskelian. Wolf of the battlefield, eh? No better than a dog, I’d say, rutting away like a dumb beast...”
Stiles sits up, indignant despite his fear, and Derek realizes that he’s going to try to reason with Harris, or threaten him. And in so doing, he’ll admit complicity in the act the knight accuses them of. Compromise won’t save them; Harris, above any other, won’t be turned aside from ruining them both.
Frantic, Derek claps a hand over Stiles’ mouth, pins him down. He can’t see a way out for either of them, but it can only be worse if Stiles says anything that their accuser can repeat, giving his story the ring of truth. “No,” he says feebly. “It isn’t what... you have it wrong.”
Harris chuckles. “The prince was discussing war strategy in his undershirt? And then you tripped and fell on him?” The man is toying with them, now, turning his attention back to mocking Stiles. “Do you think you can spread you legs for the likes of him, and still be worthy of a crown? The king will hear of this. And I think that the Desert Wolf would agree; You’re spoiled goods, Princeling.”
Derek’s stomach has dropped out of his body, a sickening swoop of horror. Damn it, how could they have been so stupid?The king may well wish to spare his son, but now that the crown prince is promised to Princess Malia, his hands are tied. Once the whole court knows of the prince’s loss of virtue, as Harris will doubtless ensure, there will be no alternative but to punish the prince to the full extent of the law.
Harris smiles at Derek’s horrified expression, and then he steps back from the tent to shout for Sir Jordan. Stiles struggles against Derek’s hand, pulling at his wrist. Harris’s hatred of them is bad enough, but Sir Jordan is known for his sense of honor and well trusted by the king and court. His word is as good as truth. Coaxing a lie from him against his sense of duty would be more unlikely even than Harris giving up his vengeance.
But Derek’s the stronger of them now, and he needs Stiles’ silence if his hastily forming plan is to work. “Shush, save it for the trial,” Derek says into Stiles’ ear in the moment of distraction. “Leave it for now - you can argue for me in the capital.” They were doomed the second Harris found them, and at least this way Stiles has a chance of coming away unscathed.
Derek pulls his breeches closed as Sir Jordan enters the tent, clumsily lacing himself one handed. Stiles pulls a sheet over his hips, giving up on his resistance. He’s flushed with shame, for all he’s holding his chin up as well as he can under Derek’s grip. Jordan gasps at the scene; Any chance of quieting the situation is gone, now. Derek swallows, tongue clicking in his dry mouth.
“The prince is unchaste, as you can see,” Harris says, almost pretending the fact dismays rather than delights him.
“You misunderstand, the prince’s virtue is intact,” Derek interrupts. “He only asked me to ensure the safety of his camp, but when I saw him like this I was overcome with lust. I... forced him. Was attempting to. Only you interrupted, there was no… offence to his person. It was my failing only.”
Out of the corner of his eye, he can see that Stiles looks caught between terror and fury, but he must see the impossible bind they find themselves trapped in. If it comes out that he willingly gave his virtue away, it’s a sin worth his life. This way, though, he will be held blameless and still pure for his bride. Harris had seen enough to dispute that Stiles’ honor was in fact willingly breached, but Jordan would not have. If the other knight forces this to trial, it will be three of them to his one.
Sir Harris seems to take this in, frowning but not disagreeing. It seems he will be satisfied with ruining Derek.
Sir Jordan looks sick, taking in the scene. “My prince, is this true? Sir Derek attempted to take your honor by force? Did he succeed?” It seems the guard is only just keeping himself from violence.
Derek drops his hand from Stiles’ mouth, barely breathing. “I - there was no offense to my person,” Stiles says softly, looking at the ground.
“Of course,” Sir Harris murmurs. “My apologies, Prince.”
Sir Jordan scowls and grabs Derek’s arm, wrestling him to his feet. His legs tremble weakly under him. Despite knowing perfectly well what his plan means, to see it come to fruition makes him feel like he’s about to be sick. In the moment he did what needed to be done, but now he can’t think at all, only react. Jordan’s saying something comforting to Stiles, shoving Derek away from him and into Sir Harris’ custody.
Sir Harris grabs his arms and propels him out of the tent, and Derek twists his neck to look back. He has one last glimpse of Stiles looking after him over Jordan’s shoulder, wide eyed, one hand half extended towards him.
Prince Scott listens to Sir Harris’ account, and Derek stands silently, face burning with shame.
“Is this true?” Scott asks. Derek nods, has to nod. “You confess to attempting to force the Crown Prince?”
Derek meets his eyes. He knows what it means to confess, but at least one of them can be saved, if he does this. “Unsuccessfully, yes. I do.”
“Very well,” Scott says, clipped and formal. He dismisses them with a gesture, and turns back to the war table, hunches over it like the weight of the world’s been dropped on his shoulders.
Sir Harris brings Derek to the disciplinary tent to have his weapons and armor confiscated, his hands bound and his confession recorded. They’ve allowed him his cloak, at least. Then, to his surprise, Liam rushes over with whispered instructions, too low for him to hear. When Harris marches him out it’s past the arena where Matt had been executed, to a clearing next to the stream that runs past the camp.
Stiles may not know how justice is dispensed on the front lines, but Derek does; this should be happening in public, for all to see.
But any hope of a last minute pardon is crushed when he sees Scott is waiting for them, head hanging, broadsword unsheathed with it’s tip resting in the dew-starred grass.
“Leave us,” the prince instructs
Sir Harris starts forward. “My Pri-”
“I think I can handle one unarmed man with his hands tied,” Scott snaps, his voice heavy with sarcasm. “He was my general, and it is my place to deliver his punishment.”
Harris can’t think of a reply that’s not disrespectful, and he’s forced to skulk away with only a glare. Derek drops to his knees, the movement awkward with his hands bound behind him. They sink into the cold mud and for a second he thinks of the bother of cleaning them, until he remembers it doesn’t matter. He won’t be alive to care.
He tips his head forward. “Do it.”
“Why did you confess?” Scott explodes. “I know it was mutual, I know that Stiles...” he breaks off with a grimace. “If you had denied anything improper, there would have been a trial. My brother’s a good head for strategy, you may have had a chance at mere exile.”
"Sir Jordan and Sir Harris both saw enough,” Derek retorts. “What could we say, found like that? Sir Harris hates both of us, besides. He have dragged Stiles’ name through the mud if there was a trial. All sort of humiliating accusations would be made, and you know the rumors already.” Scott looks away. It’s true enough that they’ve relied heavily on the shield of Stiles’ honor and Derek’s good name to excuse behavior that could only too easily be understood as exactly what it had been
Derek presses on.“Even if by some chance the king believed Stiles’, word you must know that the Desert Wolf could easily undo their engagement over the doubt. There would be no alliance, no peace. His father would have been furious with him. This way it’s simple, easily forgotten." And besides, he thinks. I've always known I might die for him. Perhaps it’s better, even, than to live and be separated.
Scott looks like he’s bitten into something rotten. “Well, that is a rousingly logical explanation for a profoundly stupid decision. You actually think Stiles will be happier this way?”
Derek bites his lip. “He has Princess Malia,” he says firmly. Stiles will move on, he’ll have to. It will even be easier without Derek around sulking and jealous. Of course the prince will be happier.
“God, you two really do deserve each other. Stay still,” Scott says coldly. Derek squeezes his eyes shut, instinctive terror shooting through him despite his mind’s acceptance. He tries to summon the feeling of Stiles’ kiss, and fails. He can only imagine the split-second feeling of cold steel biting into his spine.
Stiles crumples another page of writing and tosses it into the fire; his letter to his father is proving harder to write than he’d thought. He’s refusing to see anyone but Scott or Derek, and Derek clearly can’t come. Scott will only say he’s being held before they can go back to the capital for trial the next morning; he admits nothing about where.
The thought of what’s happening to Derek is concerning; Stiles wonders if he’s been mistreated, if he’s cold right now, or hungry. If he’s being beaten. Sir Jordan had been furious at the assumed breach of Stiles’ trust, taking his desperation and panic for fear of Derek rather than for him. It would have been impossible to correct him, not without implicating himself of the very crime Derek had gone to such lengths to cover.
Only perhaps that’s exactly what he should have done, told Jordan the truth. Stiles still can’t quite believe how his knight admitted to such a serious crime only to buy them time to make a case directly to his father. Between this and the going to war in the first place, it would serve Derek well to summon up a bit of self preservation. Yes the situation had seemed dire when Harris stepped in, but if only Stiles had the chance to speak… they may have been able to discredit Sir Harris with no need of a risky trial. Stiles twists his fingers together. If he hadn’t been so distracted, so fuzzy headed with arousal, he could have thought of something.
But it will be smoothed over in the end. If they can’t convince the king it was too small of an offence to be tried, Stiles will ensure the truth about their relationship comes out, no matter what crazy story Derek tells to try for his protection. Stiles knows that the punishment for a crown prince giving his virtue away outside of a marriage would be death, but his father will surely see reason. The token, Buttercup - it’s not as if Stiles hasn’t heard the rumors. It will be easy to confirm a mutual admiration.
So Derek will be spared, though the alliance with the desert country will fall through. That’s for the best. Once that happens, Stiles knows he can convince his father a love marriage is better than exiling one of their best assets in the war and leaving his only heir a confirmed bachelor. He and Derek can finally be themselves, together, like they’re meant to be.
His letter will serve to convince his father even before the trial of Derek’s innocence. It certainly makes a better tale if he claims they’ve loved from afar, chastely until now. But the magical perfection of that first kiss in the hayloft, every time since then... Stiles doesn’t want to lie as if their love is something to be ashamed about. Derek is the only thing in his life that feels right, most days. He begins the letter again: “Dear Father, no doubt you’re wondering what possessed me to put myself in such a compromising situation before my own marriage, but if you recall our previous discussion about my admiration for Sir Derek, I think you’ll understand that…”
Someone clears their throat at the door to his tent. Stiles turns to see Scott’s squire, Liam, holding a steaming plate. “Oh, hello,”
Liam hesitates, probably instructed that Stiles was seeing no one and hesitant to interrupt his thoughts. “Scott asked me to bring dinner,” he explains. “You look unwell, Prince, is anything the matter?”
“Just thinking,” Stiles answers. He’s about to send him away, but then, the squire may be more forthcoming than Scott’s chosen to be. “Liam, while you’re here, can you tell me where the prisoner is being held?”
Stiles taps his quill nervously. No doubt Scott’s ordered him not to talk. “Sir Derek, you know, the man who was... found with me. You’re holding him before we return to the capital for the trial.”
“Oh, is that what’s worrying you?” Liam says with a smile. “There’s no need to fear. We don’t have trials out here on the front, or anywhere secure for prisoners to be held…”
Stiles sighs, rubbing his temple, “Well, I certainly don’t understand how I should feel better knowing there’s no secure jail…”
“...So punishment is carried out as soon as the crime is proven,” Liam finishes.
Stiles blinks. “I’m sorry?”
“Sir Derek has already been executed.”
It feels suddenly like his head is underwater, that Liam’s words are coming from a long, long distance away. There’s too much pressure on his chest to draw breath; the ice cold gut punch of the words sending half of him spinning weightless and unstuck from his body, while the other half trudges impossibly forward one moment at a time, heavy as clay.
Liam doesn’t seem to have noticed. “This is a war front, Prince, not the capital. We don’t stand around waiting for a judge and trial when a rapist admits his crime. Your brother has avenged the offence - attempted offence. You’re safe, you can lay your worries aside.” The squire gives him a warm smile.
Stiles opens his mouth, closes it. Each second in a world where Derek is dead pressing in on his chest with unbearable pressure. “Liam,” he says, very calmly. “Can you please get Prince Scott and bring him here?”
The squire sets the plate down and, finally noticing something in Stiles’ tone, hurries from the tent. Stiles does his best not to think, or breathe, for the few moments it takes for Scott to arrive. There’s no point in thinking. This is only a terrible mistake.
When his brother arrives, his face is stoney, unfamiliar, doing nothing to allay his fears.
“Scott,” Stiles says, more coldly than he’s ever spoken to his brother. It’s the only tone he can manage; if he loses his iron grip for a moment every piece of him is going to fly off in different directions. “I just heard the strangest thing. I was absolutely assured by both you and Sir De-” his voice hitches at the thought of Derek, and he lets his mind shy away to safer ground. “Everyone assured me that we were not doing anything hasty or stupid on the basis of these accusations. There was to be a trial.” His voices wobbles at the end, and he he clenches his jaw.
“As Liam said, there is no need for a trial after a confession.” Scott’s eyes flicker to the floor, unsure for a split second. Then his chin comes up and he clasps his hands behind his back like a soldier, looking past Stiles’ head. “It was quick,” he says.
“Quick?” Stiles reels back. “You killed him. You…”
“Liam,” Scott interrupts tersely, as the boy is still hovering at the door. “Prince Stiles is feeling indisposed, could you go to the infirmary and bring us a mug of Chamomile tea?”
Stiles glares at the Squire’s back as he scurries out. Then they’re alone. “Scott,” Stiles says, even more unsteadily. “You need to tell me that Derek’s alive. Please tell me. Derek didn’t force me, you know him, you know he’d never do anything like that.”
Scott doesn’t leap in with a comforting agreement. “Stiles, he confessed to a capital crime in an area of martial law,” he says. “My hands were tied.”
Stiles realizes that his teeth are chattering. “How could you… you didn’t,” he babbles. “You couldn’t have really… Where is he?”
Scott reaches out to him and Stiles flinches back. Scott looks pained, but he doesn’t try to touch his brother again. “Stiles, he’s... just calm down. Let’s return to the castle before you get any ideas. Alright? I can… I’ll explain when we can be in private. We’ll leave as soon as it’s light.”
“Oh my God,” Stiles moans. Explain? What explanation could possibly make anything sensible, ever again? He goes to step back and his calf hits the makeshift bed, the one he and Derek had been on just a day ago. His knees give out under him, and he collapses onto his quilt. “This wasn’t supposed to happen.”
Scott shakes his head, shoulders sagging out of his erect warrior’s posture. “What were you two thinking would happen?”
“It was supposed to...we were...” it had always worked out for them, from slipping Sir Harris and the tutors to go riding, to training him for the tourney, to Derek being his guard and all the nights snuck together after that. If they hadn’t had the courage to accept some risk, they’d never have been together at all. Stiles hadn’t know this would be the one time that went wrong. How could he have?
But Derek... he’d known. He’d tried to warn Stiles, before, and Stiles had practically ordered him to do it anyways. A shudder runs through his body. “I need to explain to everyone, he wasn’t a criminal. This is all my fault. He didn’t even want to, until I convinced him.”
“Stiles,” Scott says, softening his tone, though clearly he’s still angry, “Derek confessed so your honor would be saved, as well as your life - so you could make the alliance that will end this war. He was thinking of his country, which you should have been as well. It won’t do any good to put yourself in danger by undoing what his sacrifice did. At least honor his memory by not throwing that away.” Scott drops a heavy hand on Stiles’ shoulder; the hand that killed Derek. Stiles shivers out from under it, feeling ill. He’s speaking so reasonably, as if this was all a foregone conclusion, a logical result. As if it’s acceptable that Derek’s dead.
“Get away from me.” Stiles barely recognizes his own voice, and his brother takes a step back. Stiles is gratified to see some of his own hurt reflected in Scott’s clenched jaw, his startled quick blinking.
“Out,” Stiles orders him, voice low and dangerous.
Scott hovers by the door for a moment, opens his mouth like he’s about to say something. He closes it again and his expression sets into firm lines. “He was my friend, too,” he finally offers as he leaves.
When the heavy numbness in his limbs subsides hours later, Stiles sneaks out to Derek’s tent. It’s already been cleared. His useful items given away to other soldiers, no doubt, his personal belongings gone who knows where, and his cot stripped. It’s just an empty tent, that’s all. Stiles’ breath catches as the truth of that sinks in. Someone else will be sleeping here soon, and it won’t even be Derek’s empty tent. It’s a strong effort to keep his breath going in and out, each inhale threatening to choke him.
He presses his fingers to the mattress, imagines he can still feel a hint of Derek’s warmth when he closes his eyes. There has to be something. Maybe… Trembling, he shoves his hand under the thin mattress, and his fingers do catch on something tucked there. He pulls out their old token, half frayed away, creased and dirt-stained from use. If it smells like Derek at all, it must be faint, but Stiles brings it to his mouth crumpled in his fist, pressing so hard he can feel his knuckles on his teeth. So many years and this the only thing that’s left of them, the only thing of Derek’s he’ll ever have for the rest of his life.
He burns the half-written letter to his father when he returns to his own cold, empty tent. There’s no use for it now.
Hello hello! Please note the angst **with a happy ending** tag! It is still there! We will all be okay! Please do not fill my inbox with rage while I am away!
I’ll be back with the next part on Tuesday.
Chapter 7: In Which Various Misconceptions are Corrected
And we're on again! Thank you for your patience! There was a notable lack of death threats in my inbox, which I do appreciate. Now, where were we...
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“Stay still,” Scott says coldly. Derek squeezes his eyes shut, instinctive terror shooting through him despite his mind’s acceptance. He tries to summon the feeling of Stiles’ kiss, and fails. He can only imagine the split-second feeling of cold steel biting into his spine.
But instead of his neck, it’s the bindings on his wrists that are split.
“Go,” Scott orders.
“What?” Derek clambers to his feet, his knees like water almost giving out under him. He knows what’s happening, but he’s still not quite able to understand. “You can’t let me leave here, the other soldiers will want…”
“If I say there's no need to see your head, then there's no need. I am a prince, after all. And I won't kill the man my brother loves. Cut through the river. Treskelia is to the north east, and you'll be safe from recognition there.”
Derek gets his bearings from Scott’s pointed directions. The will to live is thrumming in his veins even as he hates the idea of this new, solitary existence so far from all he knows - from Stiles. He takes a step towards the water, and pauses. “Will you tell him?”
“Yes,” Scott answers with a bitter twist of his mouth. “Though I’m not sure how I’ll keep him from coming after you. I’m a bit surprised he hasn’t already.”
“I told him there would be a trial, in the capital.”
“After a confession?” Scott laughs once, harshly. “And he believed you, of course.”
Derek nods, all of a sudden ashamed of the lie. “You shouldn’t tell him otherwise until you’re back at the castle,” he suggests, tongue thick. “It will be easier to keep him from doing anything foolish.”
Scott nods, and Derek feels a surge of respect for the leader he’s become. He’s saving Derek’s life despite the risk to his own person, and because of him Stiles will at least know he didn’t die. Even if they never see each other again, at least the crown prince won’t blame himself for Derek’s death.
“Thank you,” he murmurs, which is hardly enough, but is all they have time for. He plunges into the undergrowth, away from the army camp and the only happiness he’s ever known.
The coming weeks find Derek hunkered down in a small wood, his back propped against a tree as he waits for the latest squall of icy rain to pass. The winter is harsh, and he has neither supplies nor any experience surviving off the unfamiliar land. Beyond the wood, less than an hour’s hike away, he can just make out the silhouettes of buildings and the wispy smoke of hearth fires. He can practically smell the roasting meat. Surely he could barter his skills for a place to sleep; even a barn would do. Fevered as he is from lack of shelter and food, he badly needs such aid. But if they find out who - what - he is, they’d slit his throat. He thumbs the star pin on his cloak; It’s is the last thing he has of his old life. Surely the rest of his effects were thrown away after his supposed execution, and besides, he could never return. Derek clenches his fist around the metal so hard it bites into his palm. Then he frees the metal pin and chucks it angrily into the wood.
It disappears into the underbrush with a disproportionate rustle, more as if a large animal was startled than a small trinket thrown. Except that no mere animal would startle and then go still again.
Wary, Derek forces himself into silence. He can’t pick out another noise, not even the crunch of boots on twigs. He wishes he could take that as a good sign, but he’s not so naive as to believe he’s alone. Not that his caution does him any good, unarmed and starving as he is.
“Well, come out,” he calls. “I know you’re there.” If they mean him harm, so be it. He might as well die properly, fighting, rather than of sickness and slow hunger. It will be relatively painless, and Stiles can imagine a happy ever after for him regardless of what happens.
A moment later, a dark skinned woman steps carefully out from her hiding place, crossbow pointed levelly between his eyes. She’s armed to the teeth, and bears scars on her face and neck that speak of experience in battle. Her light armor betrays no colors, however; A mercenary, then. She looks at him with narrow eyes, evaluating. Derek looks back, not bothering to hold his head up from where it rests back on the mossy tree. Even he can’t dodge an arrow.
“Who are you, then? A defector from Beacon Hills?” Despite her tone, she doesn’t fire her weapon into his head. Yet.
Derek blinks passively. After a moment, she eases her weapon down an inch. “It’s a simple enough question, are you so afraid to answer?” Derek raises his brows and she presses her lips together. “We’re not such animals as you imagine. Our towns are well patrolled this close to the border, and a stranger lurking around makes news. I was asked to investigate, no more. If I wanted to kill you, I would have done it already. Whoever you are, I’m not going to shoot you for answering a question.”
“Ah. What are you going to shoot me for, then?” he asks.
Unexpectedly, that earns him a smile. “Nothing, if you don’t make me. Braeden,” she says by way of introduction, letting her weapon drop to her side.
“Derek,” he answers. There can’t be any harm in a simple exchange of names.
Braeden cocks her head at him with a look that Derek can’t read. Whatever she’s waiting for doesn’t happen, though, and she shakes her head. “It’s clear enough that you’re of Beacon Hills. I suppose the real question is: Do you mean us harm?”
“No,” Derek sighs, shrugging his shoulders helplessly. “All I mean is to stay alive.” He has no idea what he can do beyond put one foot in front of the other. His only steady purpose had been honoring Stiles and now... now, all of that is over.
“I dare say this isn’t the best place for you, in that case,” Braeden points out wryly. “So are you a deserter after all? Or perhaps it’s something else. You have the look of a Treskelian.”
“Perceptive.” Derek looks away, gritting his teeth. He can’t imagine her understanding why he would side with the country that is, in her mind, the enemy. “I was a refugee from York.”
Braeden makes a small, considering noise. “Are you, indeed? Home at last, then. If you’re willing I may have work for you. Here.”
Surprised, Derek takes the bundle of cloth she takes from her pack and thrusts towards him - it’s a shirt and breeches, a heavier cloak. All dry, unlike the ones he has on. He looks back up at her with a hesitant smile; his luck must be changing. She quirks an eyebrow back and makes a circle with her finger.
“I have to check one thing,” she says, almost sorry. He growls, low in his chest; his luck hasn’t changed in the slightest. She means for him to undress and the stupid tattoo that permanently marks him as a criminal will tell her all she needs to know about Derek’s trustworthiness.
He tosses his sodden cloak to the ground and strips out of the damp tunic at he turns, dropping it into the same pile. His tattoo is exposed directly in front of her. He hears her sharp intake of breath, and waits for the reaction.
“It’s really you,” Braeden says. “You’ve returned to us, after all these years.”
Derek glances over his shoulder in confusion. “But, what do you mean “returned”? I don’t know you.”
Braeden is clearly excited, and it makes him nervous to not understand why. She ignores his question. “I barely dared hope, but they said the stranger had the look of a Hale and they were not mistaken. Our prince has returned.”
“Wha-” Derek has to stop and catch his breath as he’s suddenly laughing. “No, no, I’m not a Hale. Didn’t you see my mark?”
Braeden’s smile doesn’t falter. “That’s the proof. The sigil of the Hales is born only by the royal family. Deaton helped you to forget, but it’s true.”
Derek’s thrown by the mention of his old master. “You know Deaton?”
“I was a page in the Treskelian capital, and he was your mother’s advisor,” Braeden says. “After Queen Talia was killed, Deaton fled. Peter turned me out with the others he couldn’t trust to be loyal to him, and our old master found us. He gave us a purpose; he had me and the others watch over you from a distance, until you could reclaim your rightful throne.”
“But that’s not true,” Derek says. “Nobody ever… Where were you, then? When York fell?” He thought he was done being angry about it, but the fury returns anew. Violet and all the others, who watched them? Nobody. Treskelia had seen them as disposable.
Braedon’s smile finally falters. “I tried to find you; we all did. When the city fell I went to the orphanage, but you weren’t there. Nobody knew where you’d gone in the pandemonium, and we had to save who we could. And afterwards, when you never made your way to a neighboring town... most of us gave up hope that you’d lived, though Deaton always said you’d survived.” She trails off, shaking her head sadly. “Even I thought that you’d been consigned to a life of servitude in Beacon Hills, if you’d escaped at all. I only dreamed that you would be able to free yourself from such a nightmare.”
“Nightmare? You have it wrong,” Derek says haltingly. “Beacon Hills became my home. I had a good life there, I would not have attempted to leave except that circumstances required it.”
She blinks in surprise, “You chose to stay? Under no duress?” Derek nods his head, to her obvious dismay. She seems for the first time to take in the fine clothes he wore, so far from a servant’s or foot soldier’s garb. “You fought for them, even? But, you must at least have known you were one of us.”
“Treskelia was nothing to me,” he says helplessly. “Is nothing.”
Braedon shakes her head. “You couldn’t say that, not if you remembered who you really are.”
“Exactly!” Derek agrees. “And I don’t remember. Surely I would, if I were actually… what you said. How could I forget?”
“Come with us. Deaton will explain everything.” Now that she’s decided, Braedon moves quickly and efficiently to bundle her weapons. Derek shrugs into his new shirt and hurriedly wraps the cloak Braeden had given him over his shoulders.
She tosses him another bundle, this one of food it seems. He catches it clumsily. “Us?”
“The resistance. Not everyone is pleased with Peter as king, you know. Not everyone agrees with his warmongering.” She whistles shrilly.
Another young woman steps out of the woods a few moments later. She walks with a warrior's lithe grace, marking her as another mercenary. Derek’s brows knit together as he slings Braedon’s supply bag over his shoulder. The new woman looks familiar, but that can’t be...
“Violet, it’s Derek after all,” Braedon says. “The townsfolk were right to send us.”
“Violet?” Derek echoes.
The girl steps closer, and despite the years’ changes she has the same eyes, the same long hair and pert nose. Violet, Boyd’s lost sister.
“Derek,” she says, smiling though her eyes are bright with tears. “I was sure that you had died in York.”
Derek shakes his head in disbelief. “It was I who thought you dead. How…?”
“Braeden saved all of us who hid in the orphanage,” Violet says. “But you were lost in the chaos of the markets. You and Erica and… then Boyd? If you lived, is he safe as well?” She grabs his arm, tight enough it may bruise.
“He’s in Beacon Hills,” Derek confirms. Violet lets out a happy sob, and Derek finds himself grinning, too. “He’s a successful blacksmith, and married to Erica.”
“Oh, gods,” Violet sighs, half laughing and wiping her eyes. She throws herself into his arms for a quick, tight hug before darting back. Derek drinks in the sight of her, all grown as he thought she’s never had the chance to be. She’s peppering him with questions now, about Boyd’s work and about Erica, and Derek laughs a bit as he answers her rapid requests. Braedon moves away to give them a moment.
Derek glances at the woman’s back, and takes a break in the conversation to quietly ask, “Violet, what she’s saying… you don’t believe her, do you?”
“Yes! Oh, I didn’t know who you really were back then,” she says at his incredulous expression. “But after York fell, Deaton and Braedon told me the truth.”
Derek bites his lip. She seems convinced, but he personally finds Braedon’s and Deaton’s tale less plausible. Then again, what harm in going to see this resistance? At least there will be shelter, and likely food. Breaden tips her head to a goat trail leading towards the village, and Derek follows her and Violet down the path. Hopefully when they discover he’s no long lost prince, they won’t change their mind putting a crossbow bolt into his head.
The town is small enough that Derek thinks at first it is a waypoint on their travels to a larger base of operations. The townspeople seem underfed and wary; many come to their windows or pause in the street to look at him, Violet and Braeden as they make their way through the main thoroughfare to the inn. At least the mercenaries must be known here, because nobody raises an alarm. Still, the people’s watchfulness sets Derek’s teeth on edge.
The tavern on the inn’s first floor seems a bit more well-to-do than the rest of the town, and is clearly being used as a war room, with maps and lists posted all along the back wall. At one of the back tables, Derek recognizes Deaton bent over a wide sheet of parchment. His old master looks exactly the same, despite the years. Braedon calls out, and he looks up at them, quill hovering over the map he had been amending.
His expression as he looks at their rag-tag group is one of surprise, and then wonder. “Derek?” he breathes.
“Master Deaton,” Derek responds automatically.
Deaton smiles, as he navigates around his table to grasp Derek’s hand warmly. “I had hoped to see you again, but your return after so many years seems like it must be but a pleasant dream. Braeden has explained to you, then, what I couldn’t that day in the market?”
Derek shrugs. He can’t quite believe that he’s some sort of prince who has forgotten even his name. The fact of the internal struggle in Treskelia seems plausible enough, but that he has any part in it, less so. “You’re leading the resistance?” he asks, ignoring the hopeful look Deaton is giving him. War is a comfortable enough topic for him these days, unlike his own origins.
“You’re curious how you could forget your own name,” Deaton guesses, and Derek blinks in surprise; he’d thought his memories of the man’s near-omnipotent perceptiveness were only the fancies of a child. “You haven’t, really. My magic only goes so far. We all called you by your nickname, Derek. Your given name was after a family friend - Deucalion. It came to pass that your mother and he had... a bit of a falling out.”
“Mm,” Derek says. He doesn’t want to call Deaton a fool or a liar in the middle of the man’s center of operations, but neither can he go along with such a delusion.
“I see you won’t believe me until you remember for yourself,” Deaton surmises, and happily he doesn’t look angry at Derek’s disbelief. “My spell was only as effective as it was because you let it be, and it will have weakened over the years. Try to think of your family.”
Doubtful though he is, Derek complies. He must have had a mother, before the orphanage. One who would have tucked him in at night, perhaps. He thinks on that, and brief a sense memory touches the edge of his mind: the feeling of thick hair brushing across his hand and tickling his face, a whisper of a lullaby... and as always, the memory hurts, an almost physical heaviness in his throat and stomach that sends him reeling back into the present. “I can’t,” he says.
“Then let us see if this helps,” Deaton says, knowing empathy in his eyes. He reaches out to touch Derek’s forehead with a strange word and a burst of light. Only no, the light is only in Derek’s mind, because at the touch of Deaton’s fingers he remembers: The bright sun flashing in his eyes and the scent of scuffed grass thick in the air as he and his siblings ran and shrieked on the castle lawns under the watchful gaze of their parents. And then a cascade of other memories: learning to dance with Laura; struggling to match his brother as they rode; his father’s beard rough on his face when he kissed him goodbye before a hunt; his mother on her great throne in her full royal regalia. He remembers the blood, the burning castle, a woman with bright blonde hair and a cruel smile.
“No,” he whispers. Peter had personally selected her as his tutor and then she… she had… “It wasn’t Beacon Hills, it was my fault, Kate...”
“Stop,” Deaton says firmly. “You couldn’t have known, or done anything to prevent it. Your “Kate” was Katherine Argent, and Peter was the one who paid her to burn the summer house and kill his sister and her children.”
“But why?” Derek explodes. His brother stealing peaches from the gardens, his sister Cora kicking him under the table at meals, his father’s determined expression when he read aloud. Lost, all of them. “How could he do this?” Derek had comforted himself with the thought that his incomplete memories were missing only misery, nothing to regret losing. But this, the happiness he’s suddenly recalled… how could someone included in the family as Derek now longingly remembers have acted to have them slaughtered? Their grand name and honor seems besides the point in the face of their tight-knit bonds of affection.
"Power, of course,” Deaton sighs. “Peter knew he would become king if Queen Talia died and left no heir. Kate, for her part, was promised her land and a title when Beacon Hills was conquered.But Peter gave her nothing, in the end, not even a place in his army. She could hardly enlist her family’s help in holding him to the bargain, since her actions broke even their code. In the end, Peter killed her on the field of battle.” Deaton smiles, sadly but with an edge of knowing bitterness. “I wonder, if he still believes it was worth all this war just to win a crown.”
Derek’s stunned. He lets himself sit heavily at the nearest table, and wishes he could find tears for the family he’s lost all over again. “But why didn’t I know? All these years I thought…”
He swallows, unable to express how completely this revelation upends his understanding of his place in the world. For his entire life, he’d thought that Erica and Boyd were the closest thing to family he’d ever had or have. He’s only ever known himself as an orphan, someone with no ties to the world, neither loving ones nor bonds of honor and responsibility. A nobody.
Until Stiles, that is. Under the prince’s banner he’d made a name for himself in Beacon Hills, gained even a land holding in his futile attempt to be worthy of a prince’s love. Stiles had been everything to him. But now… With his memories, he has an entirely new purpose to live for. A truer purpose, even. How could he deny his blood? The need for revenge?
“We hid your identity from you because it was dangerous.” Deaton says briskly. “As it still is. My intention was to protect you until we could build up enough support for you to retake the throne. After you came of age, you could lead us in a full assault against the false king and win back your country. I was overly optimistic, but we have gained a foothold finally, as precarious as it is.”
“You kept fighting, without an heir?” Derek says, confused. “What has kept this resistance together, if you thought me lost?”
Deaton smiles at Braeden, sharing a secret. “You’re not the only one who was saved from the fire. Princess Coraline also escaped.”
“Cora?” Derek can, with some effort, bring her to mind: a small girl with straight brunette hair devoted more to her fencing than needlework or gossip. He can almost see the firm set of her mouth. “Cora’s alive? But I never saw her in York.”
“Your sister was with mine, Lady Morell, in the southwest. Two siblings looking as you do would have been more suspicious than one. We also thought it best to keep you separate in case of disaster, or betrayal.”
Derek finds himself suddenly blinking back tears that wouldn’t come before, only these are ones of joy. He has a sister, still. Another memory flickers into his mind: the flames around him, Cora’s hand clasped sweaty and tight in his as he fled with her to safety. But then, in front of them… “Wait, and Laura! I remember, Laura was with us, she got out too!”
Deaton’s face goes somber. “She did.”
“Is she with Cora, then?”
“Derek,” Deaton says, and any hope shrivels at his tone. “No matter how often I counseled that we needed to build a powerful resistance before confronting him, Laura refused to stand by while Peter rushed headlong into war. She thought there might be some mistake, or at least something left to negotiate with...”
“But, then what?” Derek says, even though fears he knows.
“Peter was unwilling to negotiate,” Deaton confirms.
“My uncle killed Laura?” Derek asks, disbelieving. Deaton nods. Derek bows his head, pressing his face into his hands. For her to have escaped the fire and yet still die before they could meet again stings almost worse than the loss of the others.
Deaton’s eyes are soft when Derek finally has the strength to face him again. “You understand, now, why we had to hide you, even from yourself?“
Derek does understand, from an advisor’s perspective. But how could he agree with such cold-blooded logic? Given his memories, he would have known his family’s love and his purpose years ago, perhaps avenged their deaths already. But then, he would never have gone to Beacon Hills, never have met Stiles. Could he honestly wish for that? It’s dizzying, how much else might have been different if he’d not been denied his heritage.
“When can I see Cora?” he asks.
“Soon,” Deaton says, “But if you’re to lead our men, you should know our situation.” He’s already turning back to his map with a gesture indicating that Derek should come look as well. It rankles for his question to be brushed aside so dismissively, like he’s an impatient child. Yet he bites his tongue. Rebellion or no, these people are Treskelian where he is of Beacon Hills. For all that he’s a Hale by birth, he is also by choice their sworn enemy, the wolf of the battle field. He fears he will need to earn his keep by playing at being a prince more than truly acting as one.
As Deaton well knows that his own skills lay elsewhere, Derek almost instantly finds himself up to his ears in the logistics of war: organizing the men and women of fighting age into battalions, setting up a training schedule, getting rid of the repetitive and easily-ambushed schedule for their caravans, carving out smaller shipments that are able to travel more quickly. It’s good; it keeps his mind busy.
Their post by the borders serves two purposes: to maintain the supply trains that keep Cora’s forces in food and armor, and to sway towns who have lost most in Peter’s war to the cause by proving the legitimacy of Cora’s - and now his - claim to the throne. The battles with his uncle’s forces take place closer to the capital, where Cora is directly challenging Peter in an attempt to dethrone or kill him. She and Lady Morell have main bulk of the rebellion's forces to forward that goal. Conquering towns directly in attempt to destabilize the king will do them no good; they can’t destroy the country if they mean to rule it well afterwards.
Despite the lack of soldiers in Deaton’s camp, Derek discovers, the difficulty with their position is not due to a of lack of manpower, or at least not completely. It is also because those below Deaton have equally little experience with war, especially as the smaller force. Their fighting is disorganized, their strategy predictable, and their soldiers poorly armed. There was a reason Peter felt confident enough to restart the war with Beacon Hills; the rebellion is failing. Derek assumes that the only reason the resistance lingers on is because Prince Scott’s attacks are more vigorous than Peter had expected and take precedence for his mercenary forces.
Derek’s time as Scott’s second turns out to be vital training for a role he’d never knew he’d inherit. The lessons he learned there are his saving grace now that he finds himself fully in command of his own force. He feels a pang of longing for those times, though, when a decision proves especially hard to make and he knows he will be wholly responsible for the result. Deaton advises as well as he can, but Derek misses having a friend to confide in.
While the battle strategy is familiar enough, the other responsibilities of being a prince are not. Derek had always felt himself in the background, free to do what needed doing. Now, he is a figurehead. It’s beyond strange to be gawked at and bowed at by strangers on the street as he merely walks by. Deaton often asks him to give speeches, too, or at least show himself in royal regalia to support the loyal or to sway the undecided. Derek would rather be alone, most days. He thinks of Stiles often, finally understanding how he’d wanted one person who would treat him as only himself, rather than a royal.
It seems his wish will be answered when news arrives that his sister Cora is traveling to visit the border. Derek is on pins and needles. They’ve spent almost a decade apart, but now even a few days seems interminable. Besides Peter, who can hardly be counted, she is the one living person who shares his memories of his mother and father, of Laura and their other siblings. Derek’s own memories still seem shrouded in gauze and he aches for the opportunity to speak with her about their family, and to get to know her as the adult she’s become.
Princess Coraline of Treskelia arrives on horseback, looking every inch the soldier that the resistance has made of her. She’s older now, thinner in the face with strong arms and a stern expression. Derek beams at her, unable to hide his joy though it may seem uncalled for on a prince who is in the midst of fighting a war. She dismounts and gives him a cool kiss on each cheek, and the brief hug that propriety demands. She doesn’t meet his eyes as she brushes by and heads for the inn where Deaton waits.
Derek follows, unsure what makes her so standoffish. There’s a bit of a crowd gathered to watch her arrival, but surely she must be more used to that sort of attention than he?
Once inside, the doors are shut to any but Cora and Morell, plus Derek’s waiting inner circle of Deaton, Braeden, and Violet. They gather in the back corner where Deaton has prepared their recordkeeping and maps. Derek keeps trying to meet Cora’s eye, but she’s focused on the materials.
“The supplies your men deliver us are not as plentiful as they once were. Is there a reason you haven’t been able to get as many rations to our primary camp?” she says absently, and directly to Deaton. Like Derek isn’t there at all.
“It’s winter,” Deaton reminds her. “There’s only so much food to send. Your brother has been very helpful to us in delivering as much as we have been.”
“Ah, I see, now,” Cora sniffs disdainfully. “You don’t have to delegate everything to the new prince. His blood doesn’t mean he understands anything about ruling.”
It rankles Derek’s pride to hear his efforts dismissed. “We’re all here doing our best,” Derek protests, a bit too much heat in his voice thinking of the men he’s already lost trying to offer the help she needs. “I feel confident in the choices I’ve made, and if you’d like me to explain, I can....”
“Were these amazing strategies learned in Beacon Hills?” Cora interrupts, finally looking at him to glare, chin high. “I suppose you must think yourself quite wise, to suddenly come and take the reigns? I have been striving to reclaim my rightful throne, suffering with my people. And you? Fat and happy serving a foreign prince. You could have at least fought and died for something noble, here. But you chose to become a turncoat.” Narrow eyes stab at him from across the table.
Derek flinches. He had thought of her as family, but he was wrong. She’s Treskelian before she is his sister, a princess no less. Unlike him she has always known her nationality, and she’s known her role since she came of age. To him, swearing loyalty to Beacon Hills meant only creating a new life; to her, it was a betrayal.
“I don’t mean to take the reigns or dispute your authority,” Derek says. But that’s not entirely true, is it? His temper is close to the surface, an old pride rearing up again. If there’s one thing he knows how to do it’s wage war effectively, and from what he’s seen in the rebellion’s camps he’s as good as alone in that knowledge. “I only want our soldiers to not die needlessly. Peter treats you as a gnat in his ear and nothing more, because he can see you have no strategy beyond throwing your smaller force into his.”
“So you’ll fix it then!” Cora snaps. “Swooping in to be our savior after serving the fucking enemy. You were the one killing our soldiers needlessly not even a month past.”
Derek is he’s arguing back before even fully digesting her angry words. “The ‘enemy’ is why we’re alive. Peter could crush us if he wanted, if he wasn’t distracted by Beacon Hills. Should I feel badly for killing Enis under their banner? Have you had any luck destroying Kali?”
Cora’s chin rises in defiance, and while she doesn’t speak, her silence is worse than any retort. Pride may be more comprehensible in one of noble blood, but it’s little more useful. He’d meant to find that old closeness between them, to take meals together and share memories. They were supposed to be people who could be themselves together, rather than royals. The glint in her eyes says he’s trampled all over any possibility of such an agreement between them.
Morell speaks up. “We appreciate the prince’s understanding of strategy, but the fact remains that the men are loyal to Cora and her efforts in the north are the more necessary ones. We appreciate your aid, of course, Deaton. But there’s no need for Derek to be so defensive.”
“Yet Derek is the elder and rightful heir,” Deaton says smoothly. “The men here are growing to trust him quite well.” Derek looks between the two siblings in surprise. They seem as at odds as Cora and he.
“We can’t waste time trying to fight on the borders,” Cora says. “We must kill Peter and reclaim the throne as quickly as possible. I realize that strategy may seem foolhardy to some,” she admits, cutting her eyes to Derek once more, “and I as well as any of us loathe the loss of life. But we must find a way to deal diplomatically with Beacon Hills before there’s nothing to save. Waiting is not an option.”
“We can’t possibly plan a successful assault yet,” Derek says shaking his head. Cora fixes him with a positively viperish look and Derek tries again, hoping to convey some of his actual thoughts. “I understand your urgency when our borders and people are being decimated as they are, but Peter has the entire army to use against us. I would be very sorry to see you dead. Even for a good cause.”
She looks away, and Derek can only hope that some part of his caring for her registered as well as his disagreement.
“Peter travels often to confer with his troops,” Braedon suggests. “He can’t take the protections of the capital with him. If we had more scouts and spies, we could find out when and where. It could be an opportunity to strike at the heart of the beast, not at it’s claws.”
Morell nods. “Perhaps, if he leaves his witch behind.”
“Meredith,” Violet whispers to Derek. “Most of what people take for Peter’s magic is her work. They say he drove her mad in attempts to encourage her gift.”
Deaton draws his finger across the map, illustrating the few strongholds where their encampments and routes are. “Our men are already spread thin, we can’t afford to put more into scouting. Half of those we send fail to return, Braeden. As you well know.”
Derek sighs with frustration. “Now I want the damned missives,” he says under his breath. Deaton raises his eyebrows at him, encouraging. Derek hesitates, hating to bring up yet again with Cora the fact of where he had his training. “Before, in... Prince Scott’s army, we often recovered information about the king’s movements when we took one of his battalions. We had no way to travel so far behind the enemy’s line to make use of it. We’d throw the letters away.”
“If it’s so common for Peter’s correspondence to fall into Prince Scott’s hands, we could steal it from his camp,” Braeden offers. “I’m stealthy enough.”
“Braeden, no,” Derek says, concerned for her. “Beacon Hills’ camp is fortified against such incursions from Peter’s men. It would be no safer than trying to steal the intelligence directly." Derek strikes on a better idea; “What if we could get word though that we serve the same purpose, to depose King Peter? Perhaps Prince Scott would cooperate.”
“How would we possibly do that?” Cora snaps, but it’s not ‘no,’ which Derek takes as progress.
“Perhaps I could find a way to speak to him, if I caught him before or after a battle,” he says. It sounds overly reliant on luck even to his ears.
“They’ll welcome the exile back with open arms?” Cora says, smiling knowingly. “Ah, yes, from your expression I guessed right. You’d clearly never have stopped being their lapdog if you had your say. So it was exile, wasn’t it? For what crime?” Derek keeps himself from snarling at her, but it’s a near thing. Perhaps it’s not progress.
“Boyd,” Violet says. Derek looks at her, surprised to hear her speak up at a meeting. “I can get past the border, disguised as a trader. Getting into the capital that way will be easier than infiltrating a war camp. Derek, if you let me know where to find him, we know he’ll trust me. He isn’t in the army, but surely he can get word to friends of yours who are, and they can speak with Prince Scott. Even if you’re an exile, you do... still have friends in the army?”
“Yes,” Derek says and hopes it’s true. And then, there’s one thing he knows he can still rely on: “Request an audience with the crown prince; if he knows the plan is mine, he’ll agree to help us.” And, he can't help but think, perhaps then there will be a chance for them to see one another again.
Derek slams the door to his room, finally alone and able to show his temper. Yet another skirmish with Peter’s forces, yet again it’s neither victory nor defeat. Supplies saved, yes, but men lost. Even if his position doesn’t allow him human tenderness, at least he can recognize that losing experienced soldiers is bad for their strategic position and their surviving soldiers’ morale. It seems there is no hope, from his perspective. Violet left a fortnight back, and they can’t expect word for at least as long again. In the meantime, he must focus on what is in front of him, not these half formed hopes of rescue. Braeden gives him that advice often enough.
The fighting within Treskelia is different from the main war font, but no less terrible for that. If anything, the atrocities are even more stomach-turning within the borders. In the war proper, each side has their own separate camp to go to, and there’s some agreement about where the lines of battle are drawn. At least for them it’s not countryman against countrymen, fighting in their own hometowns often as not. There are so many skirmishes and ambushes, so few resources... Except people. Everyone can be a combatant, and it seems not enough of them can throw themselves down to die for Cora and Derek’s cause.
Derek looks at himself in the mirror set by his washing bowl in the small room of the inn that’s now his. He looks so different, his face fuller and bearded, more worn and creased than it has a right to be for his years. At least no responsibilities call him for the moment, so he lets his mind wander to Stiles, the fresh 21 year old captured in his mind like amber. Broad, upturned nose and skin golden tan like it was when they went riding near the river, his long fingers tangling in Derek’s hair, the rich sound of his laughter, his lips red and used and slick… he imagines the way Stiles had gripped his hand the first time he was inside him, saying, you’re not nothing. You’ve always been somebody to me.
Now he’s someone to the world, the eldest son of one of the finest royal houses, responsible for strategies and decisions impacting the survival of his line and the fate of his country… but he’s never felt more valued than in that time when Stiles told him so in the dark of the castle room.
“Aren’t you done? Deaton feels men need a rousing speech from their king to be,” his sister’s snide voice comes from the doorway. Derek winces. His old master and Morell seem to still be engaged in their silent war, with Deaton’s trump card of Derek’s being elder has made him more often the victor. Derek feels uncomfortable with his new role as heir, and he knows Cora resents him for assuming the mantle. Needless to say, it hasn’t helped their familial ties. His sister still hates him. When it come to strategy, though, the two of them are approaching a working communication, pushing eachother into better decisions via their bickering. Not good enough that they have any path to ending the violence, certainly, but Derek has to admit it’s going better at least.
“I’ll go,” he acquiesces, though putting a good face on death is one of his least favorite responsibilities. “Afterwards may we have a meal together?”
Cora rolls her eyes and leaves without another word.
Expected. Derek puts a few thoughts in order and he gives his speech, hoping it words can be enough to steele the soldiers’ spirits. They all go off to their meals seeming happier than when he first stepped out, so that’s something. Alone in the inn once more, he allows himself to slump. Braeden follows him into the tavern shortly, but he finds he doesn’t mind. At least there’s no need to lie to her about their chances.
“You should eat,” she says softly, pushing a bowl of stew towards him and cupping her own.
“Thank you.” He takes a bite and finds it more warm than pleasant tasting. It’s filling, though, and he’ll happily take it. After the third bite in silence he admits, “I was hoping to eat with Cora.”
Braedon’s face is kind, and knowing. “She’ll come around.”
For a mercenary she maintains a troubling streak of loyalty to lost causes. Derek smiles his thanks, and then realizes they’ve been gazing at one another for a longer moment than exactly proper. He can feel a connection to her that suddenly he realizes for what it is: affection. Braeden balances his cynicism, believes in him against all odds. What he’d been for Scott she now is for him.
Yet she’s not only that. Between them the look gains a certain of heat, and Braeden leans forward, raising her hand as if to stroke his cheek. She’s tentative, and suddenly he thinks of Stiles in the hayloft, asking permission. I wanted to kiss you.
He turns his face at the last moment, scuttling the possibility of any further intimacy.
Braeden’s posture closes off minutely, and she lets her hand drop. “Appologies, my king. I overstepped,” she says woodenly.
Derek shakes his head quickly. “No, you’ve don't nothing wrong. Just. There's someone else.”
“Ah.” Braeden sits back. “What's she like?”
“He,” Derek corrects automatically. “He’s - perfect.” He can’t help it, the bald way his tone betrays how he’s devoted so entirely to one man. Despite his head knowing it’s over, heart is and always will be for Stiles. Not even his newfound responsibilities can change that.
“Your love is in Beacon Hills, yes?” she confirms, with knowing eyes. Derek nods. “Well, I hope you see him again, but you should keep in mind that we remain at war with his country.” Despite the harsh truth of her words and the bitterness she could easily feel, her tone is not unkind. She gets up and leaves the inn with a friendly touch on his shoulder.
True enough that they’re at war, Derek thinks, but not for long. Between their dwindling army and the obstacles that face them, one way or another this will be over soon.
The good thing about running the war effort is that it barely gives Derek time to think. Braeden is often afield, now that Violet has been gone so many weeks and can’t support their minimal scouting. Cora has again returned to the North, without any sign that there could be a detent between them.
Winter means the men need more supplies: boots and cloaks and increasingly hard to come by rations, for a beginning. A way to deal with Meredith is even more elusive, and even more needed. The witch may not be all there in the head, but her madness seems only to strengthen her loyalty to Peter’s aims, however murderous. What Derek at first took for superior strategy is in fact often her work. She is distressingly effective at creating charms for Peter’s men to hide their location and heighten their senses.
There’s also Derek’s namesake mercenary to worry about. He is the reason Cora has had to return to their holdings farther north, nearer to the capitol. While Kali roams border, Deucalion heads the effort to crush the internal rebellion. And Derek if had thought Kali a monster… Deucalion is like a demon on the battlefield, is everywhere and nowhere at once, sewing slaughter. He has a reputation as a gentleman, despite his viciousness - and a history that proves he is anything but.
According to Deaton, Talia had banished him after he convinced one of her nobles to abandon her land and people in favor of the unbound and well-paid life of a mercenary. Derek shouldn’t have been surprised to hear that it was Kali who willingly made that trade, but he was. He understood the costs of being noble well, but abandoning your own people? What mind boggling selfishness. The bad blood with his mother over the defection clearly didn’t extend to Peter, who is more than happy to use the mercenaries’ services.
Even one of those strikes would be enough to give him pause but instead all three face them with no clear view of how to manage the threat. Cora’s only idea is to fight harder, attack the fortified capital in hopes of executing a coup. It’s foolhardy enough that Derek sometimes wonders if she only seeks martyrdom. Yet in her place, he’d be hard pressed to think of anything wiser.
It’s no use. Derek’s view of the map is practically growing blurry with his exhaustion. He doesn’t often have time to think of it, with all the logistics of their doomed little war, but in moments such as this he just wants his old life back. He doesn’t want to be the one deciding what should happen now. He wishes he could speak with Stiles, get his advice. The prince was always such a sharp mind for strategy, surely there could be some answer.
“Prince Derek,” Deaton says, letting himself into the small room they’ve converted into a private chamber. Private, of course, except in case of any business Deaton deems important. “You have a visitor.”
“Violet!” Derek exclaims, as she steps into the room behind Deaton. He only just stops himself from giving her an excited hug. “ You’re back, and safe!” He has a million questions about her trip - about Boyd and Erica - but as a prince there’s only one thing that matters. “Did you get an audience?”
“I did,” Violet confirms. “I found Boyd and he spoke with your friend Sir Isaac. Did you know he thought you dead?”
Derek had not. He’s a bit surprised that’s the case, but he supposes Stiles must be protecting Scott by keeping Derek’s escape as close a secret as possible.
Violet nods. “It’s lucky he believed our story, and though he wasn’t able to speak alone with the prince we did get our private audience.”
Derek sighs with relief, almost laughing at the thought of Stiles finding out that, after all their troubles, both of them were royals in the end.
“I wasn’t finished,” Violet says grimly. “The day of the meeting King John and Lady Jennifer were in attendance. Someone who watched Isaac’s request must have told them - I don’t think even the prince expected it.” Derek blinks in surprise and Violet shoots him a knowing look. “Apparently the king and his son are at odds lately. He does nothing without Lady Jennifer’s approval, and she advised against your plan. Prince Stiles and sir Isaac were hard pressed to keep Boyd and I out of the stocks, after that. Despite their efforts I was turned out of the country.”
“So there will be no help,” Derek grits. After all that planning and hope, they'd accomplished nothing but for Violet to be separated from Boyd again.
Violet gives him a confident little smile that he recognizes from Braeden. “I would have said that. The prince at least saw reason, even if we weren’t able to tell him that the strategy was yours. Here.”
She hands him a letter, and Derek’s heart gives a little stumble at Stiles’ familiar handwriting. His fingertips tremble against the paper the prince had held not so long ago. To imagine back when their letters had seemed such trivial things, so inadequate... and now he could cherish this page forever when the words aren’t even written to him and speak only of strategy
“You didn’t tell me what you were punished for,” Violet says. “The word on the street was only treason. Even Boyd didn’t seem to know specifics.”
“It was a false accusation,” Derek says, trying to sound cool and to stop holding the letter like something holy. He’d known there was a chance the nature of his crime would be kept hushed for fear of gossip, and he’s glad to be proven right. He knows there’s no point in revealing the nature of his affection for the prince, but he wants so badly to ask how Stiles is doing, as the man he was forced to leave rather than as a fellow ruler.
Instead he forces himself to finally read the missive. It’s a straightforward message of a few lines saying the prince agrees with their plan and has sent a similar letter to Prince Scott, then asks them to meet on the next Sunday in the clearing Violet had suggested. Derek shouldn’t be surprised by the formal tone; Stiles can’t know Derek is the king. He didn’t hear at the meeting, and Isaac won’t have had the chance to explain, either. Not if Stiles sent him off to meet Scott at the same time as Violet.
“Can we really trust this foreign prince?” Deaton says softly, but he means it less as a question than a statement.
Violet shrugs. “He goes against his father and Lady Jennifer for our cause. Seems as good a reason as any.”
Derek turns to Deaton, and for once he’s grateful to be in charge. “We can absolutely trust St- The crown prince,” he says. “Please prepare for the meeting with Prince Scott.”
On the scheduled date of their meeting, Derek finds himself wary. It isn’t that he’s afraid of being led into a trap, but he’s hard pressed not to think of all that could go wrong. For example, his men could find out he’s meeting with the enemy and turn on him - or Scott’s soldiers could do the same. Only Braeden and Deaton will come with Derek to the secluded glen where the letter indicated that they should meet Prince Scott and Sir Isaac.
Sure enough, the two of them are alone in the clearing, waiting. It settles Derek’s worry to see his old friends, and even more when the prince slides off his horse and strides over with a huge grin, wearing his heart on his sleeve as always.
Derek dismounts as well, though Braeden and Deaton stay on horseback a distance away, wary. Unlike him, the proximity of a foreign prince does little to calm them. Then Scott slaps a hand to his shoulder, laughing, and Derek forgets about everyone else.
“Sir Derek! Or I suppose I should call you Prince Deucalion now,” he says with a bemused quirk of his eyebrow. “And to think all those times you convinced me you were some sort of prodigy. I was right after all, wasn’t I? You had been trained.”
Derek has to laugh a little at Scott’s enthusiasm. It’s funny to think of his nobility as a boon, after all the trouble it’s been. Trust Scott to make everything seem like sunshine. The manly shoulder clapping suddenly seems stupid and he can’t help but grapple them into a true hug.
“It’s good to see you as well, “ Derek says, and it is. It’s good to be reminded of who he was before he was turned into a figurehead of a royal. Yet a prince is exactly what he is, now; it’s a sobering thought. He’s responsible for his people, now, and he can’t ignore the actual reason they’re seeing each other again. “I should say how grateful we are that you’ve agreed to treat with us.”
“Of course,” Scott says smoothly, returning to a more formal tone as well. “Anything to help an old friend. And, well, as the Crown Prince said in his letter to me, it’s good sense to work together against a common enemy.”
Stiles. Derek’s poise is almost fractured with attention to personal concerns, and from the expression in Scott’s eyes he sees well the effect his words have had. Derek clears his throat, returning to the task at hand. “We don’t request much. Only a record of where King Peter travels; we struggle to intercept his missives, but unlike you we are already behind his lines and have a chance to make use of the information. More soldiers would be helpful, of course.”
“We can’t give you any direct aid,” Scott says. “Stiles supports the effort, but, well, you saw the letter and Violet saw the meeting. The king is not agreeable, and we must keep this silent. Loaning you our soldiers is rather counter to that.”
“I know,” Derek says. It’s not what he had hoped, but it will have to do. “You can give us the information, though?”
“Yes,” Scott confirms with some relief. “And once the false king is dead, we have your word that the war will be settled diplomatically?”
“Of course,” Derek says. “Peter’s desire to possess all he sees lives in neither my sister nor myself. And I know well that King John had nothing to do with Queen - with my mother’s death.”
Scott smiles. “I thought as much. Then it’s settled.”
With the negotiations, such as they are, complete, Derek can’t help but ask. “How is Prince Stiles? Did he have any… any message?”
Scott winces. “Derek…”
“Is he married?” Derek interrupts in a burst. “I understand if he doesn’t have anything to say, if he’d rather we didn’t communicate anymore. But if he did, even as friends, I...”
“He doesn’t know you’re alive.”
Derek stutters to a stop. “What?”
“He heard of the execution from one of the men at the camp, and I had to respond somehow,” Scott explains, his composure cracking to reveal someone more burdened with regret than Derek remembers even of his darker days. “I thought that I could correct him once we were home and safe, but then he ordered that I stay at the front, and wouldn’t speak to me in private or give me time to explain.”
It can’t be. All this time Derek’s been thinking so longingly of him, and Stiles doesn’t even know. The prince thinks he’s gone. Beyond the pain of knowing Stiles has given up on him there’s Scott, head bowed in front of him as if he’s done something wrong. It seems brutally unfair that Stiles believes that his brother killed Derek, when it’s entirely his intervention that saved his life. Scott only followed the plan they’d agreed on to keep Stiles from doing anything foolish in the heat of the moment.
Perhaps sensing his dismay, Scott suddenly reaches out and grabs his hand. “Derek, I don’t want you to think I haven’t tried. When I realized he wouldn’t meet with me properly before he left, I did tell him. Caught him outside his tent and just blurted out that I’d let you go. He… didn’t believe me.” Scott thumbs a tiny scar at the side of his mouth. “To be fair,” he says with a small wry smile, “I think he forgot he was wearing the ring.”
Derek gapes, unable to imagine Stiles so angry with his brother. “Isn’t there a way to let him know?” he says, desperate. “A letter perhaps?.”
Scott shakes his head even before Derek finishes speaking. “Letters could be intercepted - Beacon Hills is not such a safe and trusting place as you may remember. Anyways, I think he burns them.” Scott says it like a joke, but his eyes are sad.
Derek nods. He’s not happy, but he knows that Scott isn’t wrong in his hesitation. He’s committed a crime, too, and a evidence of that in the wrong hands would be dangerous. Besides, what was he hoping for? That Stiles should pine for him, even knowing they’d never see one another again? If Stiles thinks Derek is dead, he will have had a chance to move on cleanly as Derek originally intended. It would be unreasonable for him to do differently, and it might even harm his marriage. The misunderstanding is for the best.
Derek takes a moment to try and believe this, and almost succeeds. “Has Sir Harris caused any more trouble? Does he suspect that you let me live?”
Scott’s expression closes off. “Not at all. He’s dead.”
“But he was to return to the castle. How could he be dead?”
That earns him a small, bitter smile. “Stiles sent him to a particularly bad area of the war, rather than the capital, and on the second set of patrols he came back missing most of his intestines.” Derek balks. Scott looks back levelly, confirming the implication. It was exactly how it sounds; Stiles sent Harris to die. “You’ll notice I also am not at the castle.”
“Stiles would never want harm to come to you,” Derek protests. “He wants distance, perhaps, but you can’t believe he intentionally puts you in danger.”
“At this point I don’t trust myself to know half of what he intends,” Scott says, looking at his hands. He sighs, looking back to Derek. “Even if I could tell him the truth, what you’re trying is dangerous. We’re both soldiers, so I don’t have to pretend that we don’t know that this could end poorly for you. I couldn’t put him through that again. You didn’t see how badly he took your death the first time.”
Derek eyes the indent by Scott’s mouth. “I think I have a small idea,” he says, his heart sinking to think of Stiles like this - of Stiles the way Derek’s death has made him.
Hello hello, and thank you for being a friend. We’re nearing the end, so I wanted to give a big hug to everyone who’s read, kudo’d and especially commented - I'm a bit behind but will be replying soon! It’s been a great experience thanks to you, and I really appreciate each piece of fedback :)
Chapter 8: In which One Enemy is Vanquished
Uh so, as you may have gathered, wrapping up these last ends has ended up being a bit more editing than I would have thought. I'm really sorry about the delay...which is still not exactly over! Since this chapter has ballooned so much and I'm still not done I'm going to split it into two so you have something to read while I finish up the last bit.
Violet and Isaac create a schedule to exchange the intelligence intercepted by their respective armies, and Derek, when he can, joins their secret rendezvous. He enjoys speaking freely with friends who knew him from before he was a royal. Isaac treats him the same as ever, and Violet is growing to feel more like the close friend she had been to him in his youth. So far, the information Isaac brings them hasn’t been enough to reverse the tide of the war, but it has been useful enough. Derek hopes the information he’s been able to give in exchange has helped Scott’s army, as well.
When they meet this day, Isaac is clutching a scroll of letters openly in his hand, rather than keeping them in his pack as usual. Often they take time to exchange pleasantries and to converse about general observations of Peter’s troops, but it seems that Isaac has no patience for that today. He thrusts the papers directly into Derek’s hands as soon as he reins his horse to a stop.
“When Scott found this on one of the Treskelian scouts, we knew you’d want to see,” Isaac explains.
The missive speaks of King Peter’s plans to meet with Deucalion, as Derek reads quickly. His uncle will be leaving the castle soon to travel to the east - bringing only a small guard, it seems. There is no mention of Meredith.
“Prince Scott was correct. We could perhaps make something of this,” Derek says, calculating the advantage in his head. It’s exactly the opening they looked for, but he can’t be sure that they would be able to intercept the false king on such short notice. And, as always, they are pinched for trained soldiers to confront him even if they do catch up.
“Perhaps?” Isaac asks.
“You know we lack numbers,” Derek says, scanning the letter again. “And the timing is short.” If the date is correct, he would just have time to go north and meet with Cora, but there’s a chance they could misjudge the route or that the king’s plans will change. If they make an attempt miss Peter’s caravan, they’ll be positioned badly.
“I also know you need to move quickly - and not just for Treskelia,” Isaac says over Derek’s ruminations. “Prince Scott has been on the front these years, and he doesn’t understand everything that’s happening back in the capital; I do. Prince Stiles is trying desperately to end this war, to the point of obsession. I trust that he may well have have done it already, except that he and Lady Jennifer are embroiled in a war of wills, and she undermines him at every turn. The King heeds her council to the point of unreason, yet Stiles is unable to discredit her.”
“Why not? What sort of council?” Derek asks. He remembers the way she’s spoken to him at the ball - a little too knowing, not saying anything wrong but sending his skin crawling all the same.
“I couldn’t say how such a woman keeps the ear of the king,” Isaac says wryly. “She has no special gift for strategy. When Boyd and I told her and the king of your plan to share information, she seemed to honestly fear it was a trap conceived by the mercenary leader. Surely anyone could see it was worth attempting such advantage, but she turned the king from any agreement”
“But what can she want? Such an agreement would be good for both sides. So, not a traitor?”
Isaac shrugs. “All I can see is that she is somehow at the center of this. To my eyes she seems to want only more war. “She also has a hand in Prince Stiles’ delayed engagement. I had thought the prince himself delayed at the cost of confirming the alliance, but I don’t believe he’d do such a thing - not now. Then, in the weeks before I left, I heard renewed rumours - of the type I believe you can remember. The desert country has been supporting our army until now, but he needs to consummate the alliance soon or I fear it will come to naught. Lady Jennifer was his tutor while you were at war, you know,” Isaac says. “I’m sure he’s given her enough ammunition to start such talk.”
Derek winces. Whatever trouble Stiles is in now, it’s because of him, his overt affection and letters… and his “death.” It’s difficult for him to actively hope for Stiles marriage to another, but the alternative is unfortunately worse. If the desert country’s troops abandon the cause, Beacon Hills will be fighting a losing war with or without the scraps of intelligence Derek is able to pass on.
“Our Stiles surely isn’t unable to combat a few rumors,” he says forcing cheer. “He can handle himself against a lady of Jennifer’s stature, surely.”
Isaac doesn’t smile back. “If you can’t manage to use this information to kill the false king and begin a direct negotiation with Beacon Hills, then don’t. But I can’t say when a better chance will come to us.”
“You know,” Cora says. “I don’t think you’re all bad.” It’s one of the nicest things she’s said to him, and quite possibly will be the last.
According to Isaac’s intercepted note, Peter’s retinue will be passing by this route at some point today, so Derek and Cora are waiting in the brush like brigands hoping that their information is correct - and hoping as well, that they’ll be able to defeat the king in the case that he really does come. There are tales of him being as vicious and merciless as a beast on the battlefield, for all he is a ruler before a warrior. The other concern is that they still cannot say if his witch will be with him.
Unknowns notwithstanding, it had been distressingly easy to convince his sister of this plan for a head on attack. As poor as the plan is, Cora lept at the chance to finally resolve the conflict that has taken up most of her youth. Deaton and Morrell, of course, had expressed twin disagreement at the rash action. The two families finally brought together, Derek thinks wryly. In the end, their advisors had been forced to acquiesce to his and Cora’s joint determination; Deaton has joined Derek’s hand-picked group of attackers and is maintaining a small cloaking spell to keep their number hidden in the relatively sparse forest.
The sound of horses comes from around the bend. They can’t yet see if it’s Peter or another group of travelers, but from the sound it could be a large enough armored group to be the king’s.
Derek adjusts his grip on his sword. “Remember what we said, I’ll…”
“...Take on King Peter, and I’ll support you with Braeden and Violet. I’m to keep an eye out for Meredith as well,” Cora finishes, rolling her eyes. That Derek should take Peter had been the hardest part to convince her of, but in the end they both know that he is the better swordsman.
The caravan rounds the bend in the road, bearing the royal colors. It’s indeed the false king - their uncle. Cora shifts beside him in anticipation, but he holds her back. Not yet, not until they’re almost atop the ambush...
At Derek’s signal their small band bursts from cover and engages with Peter’s defenses. For a moment they have the clear upper hand due to the surprise, but Derek knows that will be short lived. He heads directly for his uncle, slicing through two guards to engage his true target before the window of opportunity closes.
King Peter is no fool, though, and has already drawn his own weapon by the time Derek makes it through the second guard. Derek’s first swing glances off Peter’s armor as the man dodges, and his second is caught by Peter’s blade. Then it’s a real fight - their swords clash again and again, the combat close and silent except for their grunts of exhaustion. Derek can’t tell how the rest of the ambush is going; well, he hopes. At the least, no one has come to defend Peter by stabbing Derek’s undefended back. For his part, Peter doesn’t even look scared - and then, worse, he looks amused.
“Why - I’d know that intent little pout anywhere,” he says. “Nephew Derek, isn’t it? I had so hoped you burned the second time, at least.” The smile that pulls on his mouth is infinitely cruel. “Like mother, like son, hm?”
Derek roars, swinging so wildly in his rage that he almost over-balances. He barely dodges Peter’s answering attack. And then Peter...grows. His muscles bulge even as his limbs elongate and his face deforms into something monstrous, hairy and fanged. The king snarls like a beast, spittle flying from his long canines. They’d all taken the stories as metaphors, but this...
Meredith. This must be her work. Derek takes a step back from the monster in front of him, and then another. He’s seen magic in his time, but nothing like this transformation. “What are you?” he says, half to himself.
“The king,” Peter says, guttural and triumphant. Derek has a split second to see the glint of madness in Peter’s still-human eyes before they flick over to blood red and he charges forward.
Derek dodges away just in time, out of the way of Peter’s claws - claws! He gets his wits back about him just in time to slash at Peter as he charges by again, but his uncle rushes by him and crashes into a knot of fighting soldiers instead. He disembowels one of them with a quick slash and is distracted by the scent of blood, it seems, for he begins tearing into the men indiscriminately.
“Cora!” Derek shouts. He spins around and catched a glimpse of her, tangled in the fighting. Meredith is near the fight but separate from it, standing stock still and unimpeded with her hands thrown out in front of her - it seems there’s some barrier preventing Cora or anyone from getting closer. Whatever spell she’s working on doesn’t look to be disrupted soon. Derek needs to stop Peter himself.
Peter turns from the corpses of Derek’s men, his muzzle bloody. Derek adjusts his grip on his sword and this time he’s the one to engage first. Peter’s unnaturally strong with the added power of the spell, and while he’s abandoned his own sword, his clawed grip is almost as long as Derek’s reach with a weapon. Derek gets in a slash or two, but they seem to have no effect; Peter’s wounds knit together moments after they open. The claws that rake across Derek’s ribs, shearing through his armor, are nothing so easily brushed aside. Derek is able to hold his opponent at bay for the moment, but he can feel himself getting lightheaded as the blood seeps into his undershirt and breeches. It doesn’t seem promising that he’ll be the victor. In fact, it seems unlikely he’ll be coming out of this alive.
He can help but think, a little hysterically, of Stiles. It had seemed for a short moment that they might see one another again, as equals - but that’s not to be their fate. After all this time, after all the other near misses, this will be his death: an entire country between them the prince not even knowing. Derek hopes at least to give Peter a mortal wound before falling himself. Perhaps with the war over, the crown prince and his brother can find peace between themselves, as well. Happiness, even. Cora would make a good queen.
Peter looms in again and Derek angles his blade towards his huge, barreled chest. This time he is not considering how he’ll get out of the way of the claws, but only the best opportunity for inflicting a fatal blow. Peter charges towards him - and at the last moment, stumbles. Neither his swipe or Derek’s slash connects. There’s an arrow sprouting from the false king’s shoulder, and even as Derek watches another appears beside it.
“Derek!” He turns to see that Cora and Violet have broken through Meredith’s circle somehow, and wrestled the witch to the ground. His sister holds a knife to her throat, though she’s stayed her hand from a killing blow. Braeden stands beside them, the crossbow in her hand aimed directly at the false king.
Derek turns back to Peter as another of Braeden’s arrows sprouts from the king’s side, distracting Peter’s attention from any defense, he thrusts his weapon forward. The blade strikes home, sinking the deep into his uncle’s chest. It’s difficult, even as sharp as his sword is; It’s as if he’s trying to cut into hard dry earth, or a thick tree, rather than a man. A whine of pain and rage escapes the king, and his attention is back on Derek. His face is a rictus of hatred and bloodlust, and Derek yanks his weapon free to slash again at the beast’s throat. Peter’s transformation fades from him as he falls back, and leaves in the monster’s place a broken man with an unhealthy grey cast to his skin.
Peter chokes on his blood, a hand pressed to the wound that is closing more slowly than the others. But he’s still trying to escape, reaching out to his witch and shoving himself farther from Derek.
Meredith, pinned by Cora and Violet, makes no move to help. Peter turns back towards Derek.
“Nephew, please. I’ve made mistakes, but..”
Derek sneers. “Mistakes? You killed our family. Your sister.”
“You say it yourself - our family. I’m still your blood, Derek.” Peter seems to mean it as a ploy for sympathy, but the thought of sharing anything with this man makes Derek’s feel like he ice in his veins. Peter continues to plead. “There were other circumstances, things you don’t understand…”
“I understand enough,” Derek interrupts, advancing again. Bloodlust has him firmly in it’s grip, as he well remembers from his early battles with Prince Scott. The only thing that will slake it is Peter’s death, Peter’s finally paying for all the hurt he had caused.
“Meredith, you must help me,” Peter says, turning towards her, now that he finds Derek unmovable.
The witch shivers. “You’re not a good man,” she says in a very small voice. Her eyes are wide and roving, lost. She reaches out towards him, and for a second Derek believes she has some final spell, some healing magic that will revitalize him.
“I mustn’t do anything for you. Ever again,” she says instead, and King Peter’s body bursts into flames from the inside, his ribs backlit in red for one insane moment before he turns to ash. Derek stares at the charred mess that’s left over after the spell burns out. That’s the end then; Peter is no more.
What fighting had continued until now is stopped, as everyone stares at the conflagration. Neither side seems sure what to do, now that the false king is neither leader nor adversary.
“The king is dead,” Deaton announces into the lull, stepping in front of the corpse. “Long live the king.”
He turns and kneels before Derek; the opposing side follows suit. Only a few at first, and then the entire company, then Derek’s men as well. Derek looks around, trying to accept the sudden change from a wild brawl to this silent show of obedience - to him. Only Cora still stands. He catches her eyes, and she nods to him with a small smile. They’ve done exactly what they set out to; They’ve avenged their family and ended the nightmare.
It’s surreal for Derek to be welcomed in the streets of the city of his birth. It’s a grand one indeed, even compared to Beacon Hills, and the castle is the crowning jewel. As blurry as his memories of his childhood still are, they tell him that this is home. Here are the gardens he remembers, here is the grand wooden door inlaid with iron, here are the paned glass windows, the tapestries, the wide halls where he can almost hear the echo of his mother’s laughter…
Word of Peter’s death has spread quickly, and the people are eager to accept Derek and Cora as the beloved heirs returned from death. Yet the rebellion’s success at setting him on the throne means an entirely new set of responsibilities that he’s hardly prepared for. There’s land to be reassigned away from those who stood with his traitor uncle and into the hold of his most loyal allies (Braeden laughs in his face when he offers her a holding near the capitol, and assures him when she catches her breath that even for him she will never accept any title.)
As well as rewarding his soldiers, he must also decide how to handle the mercenaries that he was fighting against so recently. They still have a claim to pay, and while he hates the idea of rewarding their work for Peter, he would be more loathe to spark another conflict. In the meantime, there are are taxes to collect, a hungry population to feed, and a rule of law to uphold. Deaton, Lady Morrell and even Cora all seem well in their element, but to Derek it amounts to an overwhelming amounts of work that doesn’t come naturally at all. More than ever, he wishes for Stiles’ wisdom and confidences.
When he thinks on the prince, of course, he can’t help but remember the small detail that they are still at war with his country. It’s true enough that Peter is gone, but King John hardly knows that, or has much reason to trust that Derek will rule Treskelia differently. With the atrocities committed in the war, it’s not as if peace can be so easily restored - not even if the original cause of their enmity has been resolved. Derek sends Violet to Prince Scott’s camp with a formal offer to negotiate a peace in the wake of Peter’s death. He’s antsy with nerves, knowing there won’t be a response for weeks due to travel and any negotiations within Beacon Hills.
The rest of the world doesn’t know - and can’t know - of their arrangement to cooperate even during the war. For Stiles to agree to exchange information with Treskelians, against his father’s orders? Impossible to admit, even if it was the decision that ultimately ended Peter’s reign. The king would not look kindly on such direct disobedience, to say nothing of Lady Jennifer’s reaction.
Derek has inherited a very delicate situation, but he knows that there’s an opportunity to end the bloodshed peacefully. Scott had promised diplomacy. King John and St- the prince will negotiate, they must… and Stiles is still only engaged. Derek can’t imagine not protesting the arrangement if given a chance. He’s barely allowed himself to think it, but a marriage alliance would surely overcome even such violence as has been between their homelands, wouldn’t it?
At the moment, he’s avoiding other responsibilities by going through the portraits of his family and their supporters that were put away while Peter ruled. They’ve been stored in the basement and some are past saving with mold and damp, but Derek enjoys looking at them. Often, an image will spark his memory, which is still becoming more clear by the day. Living here in the castle, where he can see what he remembers, it seems to be more real and less a dream.
It’s there in the basement that Cora finds him. In the castle she’s seemed more like the girl he half remembers from childhood - frequently willing to joke and smile, though still more pleased to be practicing her swordplay than fussing over embroidery. They’ve willingly begun to take meals together, now - at Cora’s suggestion, even. Derek has gone so far as to confide in her the nature of his relationship to the prince, in broad strokes, though he hasn’t admitted to the full intimacy of their relations, or to the fact that his exile was intended to be death.
His sister is fascinated with the idea of him in love. For her, such emotions had only been a thing for storybooks, and marriage a matter of convenience. When he first confessed, Cora told him that she’d never felt what he was describing he had for the prince, and was not sure she would be able to. “Nor,” she had pointed out, “would I want to. Look at all the trouble it caused you!”
Derek had only smiled. It was hardly as if he’d had a choice. Not with Stiles.
Cora is the one smiling now, as she looks at the portrait he’s holding - it’s an early one of their mother, from before she was wed even. Their parents had married for political reasons themselves, but their relationship had grown into a strong affection that both siblings remember fondly.
“I’m sorry you’ll be leaving so soon for the negotiations with Beacon Hills,” she says. “It seems there’s enough to keep us both busy, here. But you must be excited to… to go home.”
Derek looks up at her, startled. “This is my home.”
“It’s your birthplace, but I don’t think it’s truly home for you,” Cora says. “I shouldn’t have been so angry with you for that, and I’m not anymore. You lived in Beacon Hills for most of your life. And of course… you have another reason to return, don’t you?” She smiles shyly at him.
Derek looks away. “I was actually thinking that perhaps you should be the one to go in my place.”
“You’re the better diplomat. And Cora, I don’t think… I don’t think I could help myself but disrupt the engagement. Not even if it angers the desert country, and we can’t afford a war with them after such a draining war as it has been with Beacon Hills. Besides, I was convicted of treason, and...”
“Derek, don’t be foolish. Disrupting the engagement is exactly what we should do,” Cora exclaims. “An alliance of marriage would be the best guarantee of peace. We can handle whatever objections appear. You really care for the prince. Don’t you?”
“I do,” he says, trying to look at the paintings instead of at Cora’s hopeful face. It’s not that he doesn’t want to see Stiles, but if his offer of marriage is misconstrued, or if he’s recognized… there’s just too much that could go wrong.
Cora takes his hand, helping him set down the portrait. “Fight for him, then. He’s not married yet, is he?”
Derek almost doesn’t hear her. He’s frowning at another painting, this one of a familiarly cruel face; Kali, who with Deucalion had escaped after the final confrontation with his uncle to the eastern mountains. It must date to when she had been a noble, before joining in with Deucalion’s pack of mercenaries. And next to her... “Cora, wait,” he interrupts, voice faint to his own ears. “Who’s that?”
“That’s Lady Julia,” says Cora. “She was Lady Kali’s witch before Kali abandoned her land and title. Some say Julia encouraged it, so they could be together as lovers. But nobody’s seen her since then, even in Deucalion’s company. Why do you ask?”
“No - That’s Lady Jennifer. She’s Stiles’ tutor and King John’s advisor.”
“King John’s advisor?” Cora looks at the painting and back at him. “I sincerely doubt she’s giving good advice. Lady Morrell said was always very loyal to our country, despite what happened with Kali.”
Derek curses under his breath before remembering that they’re alone in the basement and cursing out loud as well. Whatever the witch intends, Stiles is in danger if his goals are against her will. Julia- Jennifer- whoever she is, she surely she knows that the war could end in diplomacy now that Peter’s dead, and Derek doubts her goals for Beacon Hills include peace. Stiles will be even more in her way than before, and as Derek well knows assassination has been a threat in the past. King John is already under her thrall, and she may well feel secure in even such drastic action. Perhaps rightly - who knows the extent of her magic?
“We need to depart at once,” Derek says. “King John must know there’s a traitor in his midst.”
Cora’s eyes almost sparkle. “Ah, and beloved Stiles may be in danger.”
Derek turns to look sharply at her. It’s no laughing matter for Sti - the prince’s life to be threatened.
His sister holds up her hands in an almost repentant gesture of peace. “I’m pleased you’ve seen reason and will come with us after all. I promise you, brother, I’ll see you happily married in the end.”
Deaton is less convinced than Cora of the necessity of Derek’s travels.
“I need to go to St- Beacon Hills,” Derek argues, frustrated. “I’m the one who knows what Lady Jenn- Julia is planning. If left to her devices, it will go ill for the prince at least, maybe for all of the country.”
“Ah, so you do know her plans?” Deaton asks, raising one eyebrow. Derek looks away. He knows enough of them, doesn’t he? Perhaps not the specifics, but the general shape. “Certainly Cora and I could handle the situation,” his advisor points out cooly. “You’re needed here.”
“You don’t know Stiles; I do. I’m the only one who can make him listen, and if the king is as much under Jennifer’s thrall as Isaac and Scott believe, we’ll need the prince’s cooperation to expose her without endangering our negotiations. I need to go.”
“It seems foolhardy to me,” Lady Morrell agrees. “The king might be less than willing to negotiate as equals with a man who once claimed to serve him… and who he exiled as a traitor.” Derek scowls. Too true, and they don’t know the half of it. If he’s found to be alive, Scott will be proven a liar as well. Whatever the consequences of that, they wouldn’t be good.
But it has been so long since he lived in the castle, and he looks different now, doesn’t he? Certainly his fellow soldiers saw him more recently, but most of the men who he fought with on the front won’t be in the city, and perhaps wouldn’t recognize him as well without the armor.
But no, it’s only wishful thinking. He has to admit all it would take is one person questioning his identity to prompt recognition from the rest of the court, who couldn’t be so inobservant to miss it once pointed out. It’s infuriating; he’s a king now, but what good is that power if he can’t help Stiles?
“You can make it so the king doesn’t know him,” comes a small voice, and everyone looks to the source. Meredith looks back; they hadn’t seen her wander in. She smiles back, and says, “none of them would.”
“What do you mean, darling?” Morell says, gently. Nobody quite knows what to do with the witch. As damaged as she is, she seems harmless enough - and it had been her spell that killed Peter after all. It would have been cruel to turn her out of the castle or imprison her, given how Peter had toyed with her mind.
Now she’s sending a withering look at Morell. “Don’t say ‘darling,’” she says. “You’re not my type.”
“Meredith,” Derek tries. “What did you mean, make it so they don’t know me? I lived in the castle for years, surely my face can’t be so changed that not a one would be suspicious.”
Meredith laughs, then looks embarrassed when no one joins. “You don’t change your face, you just make it so they don’t recognize you. Like I said.”
“Some sort of spell then? It seems that it would be quite difficult,” Morrell says evenly.
“It’s easy. I can do it now, if you’d like?”
“Yes, show us,” Cora says. Her eyes are narrow and her mouth turned down in displeasure. She doesn’t trust Meredith; None of them do. They may feel sorry for what Peter did to her - but then, the fact she’s insane doesn’t make her more trustworthy.
Derek’s hesitant to submit to another spell after all the trouble of his memories, but at least it’s only his appearance, not his mind. And if this will help him save Stiles....
“Alright,” he says. Meredith looks pleased, patting her hands together like a child.
“The rest of you need to leave,” she says. “And send in a few guards, it doesn’t work if you’re looking, and it’s too obvious if he’s the only man here.”
Cora rolls her eyes, but steps outside the chamber. Morrell and Deaton follow her lead, leaving Derek alone with the witch and the two quiet squires who Deaton sends in from where they had been guarding the throne room.
Meredith reaches out towards him, and Derek can’t help but turn his head away, jaw tight. He knows he needs to accept the help she is offering if he wants to go to Beacon Hills, but it’s difficult to avoid his instinctual resistance.
Her smile falters. “You don’t trust me,” she says. And then more quietly, “you think I’m insane.”
Derek winces. He hadn’t thought she was even connected enough to reality to realize how far gone she often seemed. “I’m sorry.”
Meredith sets her mouth into a firm line. “I know I don’t… that I sometimes get lost. But the important parts are still in place,” she says. “Peter didn’t ruin me. I am not broken.”
Derek gives her a tiny nod, acknowledgement as much as agreement. He takes it as a good sign that she has some awareness of her limitations, and her expression relaxes when she sees that he’s not dismissing her words. When she reaches out again, Derek doesn’t flinch back from the light brush of her fingertips down his face.
“There we are,” she says almost to herself, pleased. “Go stand by the guards, now.”
Derek does as he’s told, but neither squire looks at ease. They’re glancing at him from the corner of their eyes and fidgeting. Whatever the spell had done, they clearly still know who he is.
“You can come back,” Meredith calls to his sister and advisors. “I asked Derek to step outside, and he’ll be back in a moment to show you.”
Cora comes in, and her eyes slide Derek and the guards before resting on Meredith. “Well alright, where is he then? Bring him back so we can see if this glamour is as good as you say.” Neither Deaton nor Morrell points out that he’s standing right in front of them, to Derek’s bafflement. Cora looks around the room again, and certainly she must seen him. Still, no recognition lights her eyes. Derek feels a wave panic; it’s too close to losing her again.
“No, Cora,” he says, “it’s me.”
His sister looks at him, then, as if surprised that he’d spoken. A second later she and their advisors all react in shock, a gasp escaping even the stoic Morrell. It’s as if he’d sprung unexpectedly from the floor.
“But how does that work?” Cora asks wondering. “I saw you but I didn’t recognize you at all, I thought you were another guard. It wasn’t that… She didn’t make you look different. I just couldn’t...” She looks at him searchingly, as if she can’t trust her own memory.
“You break the link,” Meredith shrugs. “But he’s still himself, looks and talks the same. The people who know you well can’t be tricked for long. They’ll connect the memory to the face again if there are enough hints. And once they know, they know.”
She seems to notice for the first time that everyone in the room is gazing in awe at her, and blinks in confusion. “It’s easy,” she repeats.
The reply to his offer of diplomacy comes the day after, with Liam and a small group of wary Beacon Hills soldiers. Exactly as Meredith had promised, the squire doesn’t recognize Derek, even at their audience when he hands the letter directly into Derek’s hands.
King John’s response is straightforward and promising. He offers Derek and his retinue a place to camp outside the castle while they negotiate, which is already a sign of goodwill. Scott remains with his forces on the border, though, an unsubtle nod to the fact that the talks may not go well.
Morelle stays to handle the day-to-day ruling of Treskelia, while Deaton, Cora and Derek make their way to Beacon Hills, deep in enemy territory. Braeden is to come with them as well, though not for the negotiations. Derek catches her packing her crossbow and three knives; he looks at the weapons and back at her, frowning. She shrugs and adds a fourth knife. Derek wishes he could in good faith tell her to leave them as they won’t be needed. Instead he leaves without saying anything.
The worst part of the travel is that Cora keeps teasing the entire time about his possible marriage to the crown prince. She is at ease, almost giddy now, after the war’s end, but Derek can hardly share her optimism. Of course he can’t help but hope for a marriage with his prince, but here are too many potential issues for him to believe it possible. Princess Malia of the desert country is the one who technically has the right to Stiles’ hand, and surely she won’t undo the arrangement easily. No matter what his heart wants, his priorities are extracting Jennifer before she can do more damage and ensuring a lasting peace.
It happens that they are to make camp on the land that would have been his, across the river from the kept woods where he had so often ridden with Stiles. Treskelia’s small caravan travels slowly through the other nobles’ land holdings under the wary eyes of the farmers as the approach the site. If he thought coming to this country as a refugee was bad, this is a thousand times worse. Even if he were to marry the prince, what life would it be among these people who hate him so?
The first day of the negotiations, everyone is there: Derek and his retinue, of course, and King John - who has unsurprisingly brought Lady Jennifer. Even the queen of the desert country has traveled to take part, sitting with regal poisel beside her fidgeting daughter. Sir Jordan and Sir Liam stand guard at the door of the tent hastily erected so that the Treskelians would not need to be invited within the castle. And then, the last empty chair; they are only waiting on the crown prince. On Stiles.
Deaton had reminded Derek not to let the prince make any connection to his true identity. The process of recognition never seems to be particularly subtle, and Stiles’ surprise will almost certainly prompt the others to recognize Derek in their turn. How could negotiations proceed from there? In their eyes, he’s still a traitor. Derek knows that it would be best if the prince doesn’t find out in such a public space. All the same, he believes in his heart of hearts that Stiles would know him anywhere, no matter what he does.
At that moment, the prince storms in. Derek’s breath catches in his throat; Stiles looks tired, rough around the edges and grim-faced as he takes his seat. Still, to Derek, the prince’s beauty is unchanged. He is directly across the table from Derek, and when he looks up their eyes even meet. For a fraction of a second, Derek feels the familiar spark at the glance… but from the prince, nothing. Stiles’ eyes skate away to Jennifer as if Derek was nothing to him. He makes a pointed comment to her about the timing of the meeting being changed, but Derek barely hears. It’s so strange seeing Stiles but not being recognized. He hadn’t anticipated how much it would hurt.
Stiles’ lateness and temper gets them off to an awkward start. Derek feels sure it’s Jennifer’s doing, from the crown prince’s accusation. The lady knows the prince’s temper well and uses it against him. As Isaac said, it seems her intent is to scuttle any goodwill and spur them on to renewed conflict, but now isn’t the right time to speak against her. Derek wishes again that politics was as straightforward as battle. He’d like to see her whisper lies in the king’s ear with his sword between her ribs.
King John brings the negotiation to order, and nods at Derek to begin.
He clears his throat, nervous even though these words are practiced. “As you well know, I inherit my throne from my uncle, Peter. You should also know that it was his treason that resulted in the murder of my mother and father - I am fully aware your country had nothing to do with the fire. It was his plot to blame your country for their deaths and use that excuse to claim your land. I hate what he has done in my house’s name, and I do not share his thirst for power or for more land. Peace with your people is my priority.”
King John smiles. “Ours as well. But we’ve had a treaty with your people before that was breached. I can see how a pause in hostilities would benefit you, now, as you struggle to reunite your country and consolidate power. But in a year or two, with your rule settled? What then?”
Derek freezes up - he hasn’t considered any particularly political reason for peace. He thought that an honest distaste for the destruction of war would be enough. How can he explain he doesn’t care about advantages, not any of the political ins and outs? That he only intends to follow his heart?
“I don’t want to fight a war,” he tries. “If we keep smashing our forces against one another, soon there will be nothing to rule. Is that so hard to understand?”
“Not hard to understand, hard to trust,” Stiles says in a cool, hard voice.
Cora steps in while Derek tries to hold back his hurt at the prince’s curt dismissal. “Of course, we fully understand that the history of bloodshed between our nations requires an equally large show of good faith,” she says. “We would be happy to make an offer of marriage to Beacon Hills; such an alliance is only way to ensure a lasting agreement, isn’t it?”
“Prince Scott is married now, and Crown Prince Stiles is engaged,” Jennifer points out. “Such a thing is really not possible.”
“An engagement isn’t a marriage,” Cora counters smoothly. “And this one has been so long delayed already. Surely we could negotiate another option.” Stiles looks furious at Cora’s commentary, his jaw ticking as Derek well recognizes from their few fiery arguments before his first deployment to the border. But maybe the signs are too subtle for the others.
“I don’t think we must rule out a trade treaty so quickly,” Stiles says. “Economic dependence between our nations as well as a new king with no agenda of vengeance seems enough assurance to my mind.”
“I agree,” the desert queen says. “My men have died in this conflict already, and you suggest leaving us with nothing? We acted under the assumption of an alliance with this country, and I will not see our right to that swept aside in the name of strengthening the ties of our neighbors.”
Cora looks to argue, but Derek sees the desert queen’s scowl and preempts her. The very last thing they need is a third angry nation in the mix. “Yes, a trade agreement could work; Peace is our priority, and as you point out I am not my uncle.” Cora catches his eye, shocked and pitying; he gives her a small smile. It’s not the solution he hoped for, but it will be enough.
What Derek does not count on is that trade agreements, unlike marriage alliances, are complicated. Malia and Cora, the lucky uninvolved parties, get along making faces at eachother while the monarchs talk of the details. Well, the monarchs and Stiles. Derek tries to keep up with his requests and counteroffers, but it’s impossible. Stiles is talking circles around him.
“Surely you can spare more wheat, the amount you’re offering here isn’t 10% of what your fields can produce.”
Deaton’s smile is strained. “If I may, our…”
“Surely King Deucalion can negotiate for himself?” Stiles interrupts innocently.
Derek scrambles through his notes. “Ten, really? I don’t... isn’t it more than that?” he says. Stiles isn’t looking at any notes. How in the name of the gods could he possibly have not only his own country’s but also Treskelia’s production of every crop memorized?
“It’s ten,” the prince repeats, sounding bored. Derek looks up from his notes to glare daggers.
Caught up in such petty haggling, the dinner hour approaches quickly. Before Derek realizes the day is gone, King John stands to dismiss the group.
“Wait,” Derek says as the group starts to disperse. “I wanted... may I speak with the prince?” It’s a bit of a strange request, but not unreasonable considering the circumstances; they’re here to build trust, after all. In truth, he’s desperate for more time between them that isn’t just arguing about stupid wheat trades. Honestly, trying to negotiate had made him want to throttle Stiles as much as he ever had back as a stable hand being given unnecessary work. King John nods hesitantly after looking to Lady Jennifer. Derek tries not to worry at yet another sign that the king seems to trust her judgement implicitly.
“What did you want to speak of with me alone like this?” Stiles asks him coldly, once they’re outside the tent and a bit removed from the others. His question is only just on the right side of rudeness. It’s so unfamiliar to be shut out of the prince’s confidence like this that Derek isn’t quite sure how to react.
“I thought we should get to know one another on better terms. We’ll be allies soon, won’t we? Any peace would be stronger if we were friends. Maybe we could go for a ride in the kept wood,” he offers, remembering how Stiles had enjoyed getting away from the castle and his responsibilities. And perhaps, on horseback so close to their old meeting place...
“There’s not peace yet, and you’re not allowed on our side of the river. Your Majesty.”
Derek forces a smile. “I can meet you across the river, then. I’ll stay on this side and you on the other. I think I recall a clearing that I could wait by, and…”
“It’s all the same to your majesty I’d prefer not,” Stiles says to the empty air over Derek’s left shoulder. “I very much dislike riding.”
Dislikes riding? “Have offended you somehow?” A bit of temper is creeping into Derek’s voice, now. Not recognizing him is one thing, Derek well knows from his own experience how effective magic can be. But why doesn’t Stiles even like him? Stiles has always liked him, even when they were but children.
“Hardly,” the prince snaps, his tone undercutting the denial. “But you must forgive me if I don’t find myself overcome with affection, either. You may not be your uncle, and I know that we have supported eachother’s goals in ending this war.” His eyes flick to his father, ensuring that the King is distracted. “You’re still Treskelian, despite that. It was only strategy, not any approval of you as a person. Your war, your countrymen still caused unimaginable pain for m- mine.”
As if Derek could forget how different things may have been between the two of them without the damned war. Of course Stiles still holds his country responsible, at least in part, for Derek’s supposed fate.
“Of course,” Derek demures. “I apologize for overstepping. Yet, I hope that we can put that behind us, can’t we?”
Something curious flickers in Stiles’ eyes but his words remain cold. “I don’t think I fully understand your game, but if you think you can so easily win me over you’re quite wrong. I am engaged to Princess Malia, as you know,” he adds in a sharp undertone.
“I’ll be by the river this evening,” Derek offers. “If you change your mind.”
“I won’t,” Stiles says, and then he leaves on the heels of his father.
Chapter 9: In Which a Proposal of Marriage is Accepted
And here we are - only a week later than I had planned! Thanks so much for your patience. For anyone who is interested, here is a playlist - the first song is sort of the overall theme for the fic, and the rest are in a general chronological order for how they fit with the plot; it's what I listened to to get in the mood to write. Hope you enjoy!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
True to his word, Stiles doesn’t come to the riverside. Derek waits until the sun sets, all the same. It’s only when it’s too dark to hope that he returns to the camp. The next day is the same, and the day after that: Deaton and he try to negotiate a fair trade treaty with the prince and his father, Lady Jennifer brings up some contentious issue at the exact moment it seems they may be nearing an agreement, and the desert queen looks on as if she’s above it all. It’s incredibly tedious. Cora and Malia have escalated from making faces to slipping each other notes to pass the time. They probably think they’re being subtle; they are not.
Derek, for his part, tries to court the prince’s good will and is rebuffed at every turn. He had been sure that he’d need only use his familiarity with Stiles to win his trust, but the prince seems hardened to everything now. Derek’s managed to coax a few half-smiles out of him, yet each time Stiles crushes his amusement down instantly. After, he only glares the harder at Derek, as if in punishment for daring to impinge on his dour mood. Instead of reuniting with his lover, then, Derek sits in his tent, reviewing notes on Treskelia’s production of apples, of all things.
He wishes he could simply tell Stiles the truth. Surely there would be no need for such contested negotiation, then. Derek’s word would be enough for Stiles, the way it has always been, and between the two of them they could handle the king’s trust of Lady Jennifer.
Derek still can’t guess at her plots. He knows that she must not be a true supporter of Beacon Hills, or she would not be so eager to derail the negotiations of peace and to delay Stiles’ marriage. Yet if she loves Treskelia, why not work directly with Peter, or support Derek’s rebellion when she had the chance? He’s noticed her evaluating looks during their daytime discussions, but doesn’t understand what she is searching for. There must be a clue in her history with Kali, but even Cora can’t say what happened between them.
If Derek could only get word to Stiles, together they might somehow uncover her motives, and… and nothing. It’s only wishful thinking; telling the prince who he really is in the middle negotiations could mean everyone discovering his identity, which is too great a risk.
“Derek?” It’s Braeden, stepping tentatively into Derek’s tent. He’s glad to see her - until he notices her worried expression and realizes who’s behind her.
Jennifer steps forward, murmurs, “My king,” and kneels gracefully before him.
“Please, rise. You owe me no allegiance,” Derek says, his mouth dry. It doesn’t seem to be a formal audience on behalf of King John.
“But, I do. You know me as Lady Jennifer of Beacon Hills, but that name is but an invention. I am Lady Julia - a Treskelian, the same as you and your sister. I was forced to flee my country when Peter and his mercenaries came into power, but I never forgot my home. You can’t believe how hopeful I was to hear that one of Queen Talia’s line had reclaimed the throne, and after observing you I see that you are nothing like your uncle. You would never have forgiven the mercenaries for how they seduced Lady Kali away from her rightful position. He poisoned her mind, yet Peter welcomed him back, gave him more power.”
Jennifer’s expression at pronouncing her former Lady’s name is vicious as well as hurt, too many conflicting emotions warring for dominance to be named. Derek struggles not to recoil, as this glimpse of her true face makes him fear her more. He had looked for sense in her actions, when there is none: she is blindly lashing out in hatred, she craves nothing more than for punishment to be dealt out for her perceived slights.
“If you ask for welcome in your homeland, I am happy to provide it to you. But why come to me so secretively?”
“The negotiations,” Jennifer says with an almost flirtatious smile. “I have King John’s confidence - an another advantage as well. I can arrange it so you don’t need to acquiesce to the prince’s ridiculous terms. Beacon Hills will be far from making any demands of us, soon - You’ll see. Treskelia will be strong and you’ll be able to crush your uncle’s remaining allies.”
“I don’t understand your offer,” Derek says stiffly. “Beacon Hills is not an enemy to us any longer. I simply want to make an alliance that will ensure peace between our country and theirs, and our treaty is well on the way to accomplishing that.”
Jennifer’s brow creases, as if she can barely understand his point. Derek wishes he could just face her in battle, sword to sword. That’s something he’s talented at, not this underhanded back and forth. Unfortunately, killing King John’s closest advisor would rather scuttle the negotiations. Though he reminds her again that he seeks no advantage over King John or the desert queen, she takes her leave with only assurance that her actions will not be tracked back to him.
Derek paces. Jennifer will surely go ahead with whatever she plans, but he can’t work out how to prevent it. After a moment stewing, he asks Braeden to bring Meredith to him; they’ve been over cautious. He thought he could win the prince’s trust even as the king of Treskelia, but clearly he cannot.
When the witch comes, however, she’s accompanied by Deaton. Derek frowns. His advisor won’t like what Derek’s planned.
“Meredith, Stiles needs to trust me,” Derek says. “Is it possible to lift the spell, just for him?”
“My king,” Deaton reprimands. “We’ve discussed this, and agreed it was too dangerous to reveal your true origins to the prince in view of the entire court. Has he agreed to meet with your privately, then?”
“It’s too dangerous to not put a stop to Jennifer’s plots,” Derek snaps. “I’ll find a way to deal the the consequences. Meredith, if you will?”
“Oh, I can’t undo it for Stiles,” she says.
No, that would be too easy, Derek supposes. “Then simply undo the spell entirely. Even if they recognize me, it’s possible that…”
“No, I mean, I can’t undo the spell at all,” Meredith says.
Derek blinks. “What? No, you said it was easy,” he insists.
“It is,” she says. “Easy to break the connection. But it doesn’t go the other way.” Meredith shrugs. “If you need the prince to know you, try to help him make the connection again. If you can, he’ll remember on his own.”
“If?” Derek asks starting to panic. “And there’s a chance he won’t?”
“Oh,” Meredith says, shrinking in on herself. “Well, it’s best if the recognition is on his terms. If you say you’re you, but he puts it into his head as a lie then that view will stick. There might be no way to reforge the connection afterwards.” Derek feels ill; the prince thinks him dead, how easily can he possibly correct half a year of that perception without even speaking to his lover alone? His emotion must show on his face because Meredith looks suddenly sorry. “That’s… bad?”
“It’s not your fault,” Derek says roughly. He runs his hand through his hair, tugging in frustration. He should have known; he understands more intimately than most how magic always has a cost.
Negotiations the next day are a disaster. Derek wouldn’t have thought it possible for them to go more poorly than they had been, but that only goes to show how little he understands of politics. It begins when the queen of the desert country speaks up as soon as King John calls them to order, surprising everyone.
“Before we begin yet another rousing debate on the particulars of a trade treaty, I thought we should return to the original suggestion. Princess Malia and Prince Stiles are betrothed, but Treskelia’s line is strong, and they have two heirs yet unmatched. It would be sensible for us to reconsider breaking our marriage alliance in favor of one with Treskelia, would it not?”
Derek tenses to hear of his own marriage again under negotiation; It’s what he’d hoped for, but the queen’s sudden change of heart smacks of Jennifer’s involvement.
King John frowns, blindsided himself. “I understood that we had already settled on a trade treaty with Treskelia. The specifics of it are still in question, but no impasse has been reached. Why do you now offer to go back on our children’s settled agreement?”
There’s an edge of a threat to King John’s tone - but the queen doesn’t seem to be concerned by it.
“I agreed to the marriage because King Peter needed to be stopped, and Beacon Hills was our best ally in that cause. He was not a good man and made a worse king.” Her eyes flick to Malia for the briefest second, an oddly possessive look sweeping across her face. “Now that he has been deposed, a close alliance with your smaller country is… less urgent. It seems more necessary in my eyes for both of us to ensure good relations with Treskelia’s new king.”
“The same king who told us that trade agreement would be sufficient,” John argues.
“If you must know,” the queen says primly, “I have recently been given information which aligns with previous uncertainties about the wisdom of my daughter marrying your son. I had hoped we could reach an amicable agreement to dissolve the engagement quietly, without need for airing my specific concerns.”
Almost everyone at the table shifts uncomfortably. To have the potential union broken in this way is humiliating for Stiles, who has been looking down at his hands while the queen speaks. She never said directly that he was unchaste, damaged goods... but surely with the rumors that have simmered for years, everyone in the room understands the implication.
Jennifer’s face is a mask of false pity and concern, the viper. Derek wants to kill her almost as badly as he had the last night. After her visit to his tent, she must have arranged to meet the queen and given her some damning hint of the relationship he and the prince had shared. It must have proved enough to break an alliance, though it can’t be proof enough to accuse the crown prince outright. The letters from when Derek was at the front, he recalls with a rush. Had they really been as careful as they had thought in their communication?
“I would still be amenable to a marriage with Beacon Hills,” Derek offers, scrambling to salvage the situation. “If the crown prince is free and willing, I would happily be joined to him and bring peace to our countries.”
The queen smiles. “Princess Malia would be a better match for you, King Deucalion. Our two countries are more equal to eachother than to Beacon Hills, and after my soldiers died for your conflict - on top of the unfortunate dissolution of Malia’s first engagement - I would expect nothing less than for her bridegroom to be the heir of his country, as she is of hers. Your sister may marry Prince Stiles to maintain the peace, if you think it wise.”
Only no, that’s not right at all. Derek’s still trying to find a way to decline that wouldn’t be insulting to the desert country when Stiles speaks up.
“What you suggest is not a fair solution.” The prince is visibly struggling to keep his voice steady, and his cheeks are blotched with an angry blush. “I am currently engaged to the heir of your country, while Princess Coraline has no claim to the throne; even if we accept that you prefer to break our engagement over mere rumors, you must understand that solution as unreasonable. Especially so, if her brother is to wed another of our larger neighbors. Beacon Hills cannot accept such an arrangement.”
Jennifer leans to whisper into the king’s ear. The king’s eyes seem to go dull as he listens to her words and his head begins to nod amiably, in contrast to his sharp temper at the original insult. She sits back with a smile, meeting Derek’s eyes as if to convey that her actions are a gift specifically for him.
“I see, yes,” King John murmurs to his advisor, before turning back to the table at large. “My son speaks from emotion and a laudable national pride, but I understand the queen’s perspective. We wouldn’t contest such an agreement. I release Princess Malia from any obligation; a forced marriage is hardly a foundation for lasting peace.”
Stiles gapes in shock. Even Derek can well see that the prince isn’t wrong about the imbalance of the desert country’s suggestion. Beacon Hills would be incredibly vulnerable, especially in coming generations when the ties of marriage became less direct. King John could never go along with this except for Jennifer’s poisoned council.
“Father…” the prince pleads.
“Stiles, you don’t even like me,” Malia says. “Why does it matter if I marry another? You’ve made it perfectly clear that ours would be a marriage of convenience and little more.” It’s the first thing she’s contributed; Cora looks offended on her behalf.
“I… of course I like you,” Stiles fumbles. “But we’re royals, Malia. Liking isn’t the point, this is about alliances and the proper balance of power to ensure peace. I won’t have my country shuttered off while our two larger neighbors combine forces.”
“I don’t want another war,” Derek says, “If such an agreement is not acceptable to the Prince, it would be in bad faith to accept.” He ignores Jennifer’s betrayed glare.
“King John already agrees,” the desert queen reminds him. “I’m certain the prince will come around. Or if you dislike the thought of your sister matched with him, we can return to trade negotiations between your countries instead.”
“You mistake me, I don’t have any problem with the prince’s marriageability,” Derek says, seething at the implication. Where are the questions of his own chastity? He supposes as a full king, proven in war, the question is irrelevant. “But I agree that a forced marriage is no foundation for peace. We should find another way.”
“Princess Coraline might object as well!” Malia interrupts again; it seems her hesitation to participate was purely boredom with the proceedings, rather than any sense of propriety. “You don’t want to marry him,” Malia says directly to Cora, making a face. “He’s dreary, and angry all the time, he’ll never go riding even though he forbids anyone else from using Buttercup, and all the ballads he has played are awfully depressing love stories. Mother, if Stiles insists on an heir, then he can have the King. Our country is wealthy enough, it doesn’t matter. Why can’t Cora marry me?” The queen looks blindsided - but not quite as much so as Cora, who flushes straight across her cheeks and lets out a squeak of surprise.
Derek holds his breath, hopeful, until the queen shakes her head no.
“Malia, you are a crown princess, it is right for you to marry someone of your own rank,” the desert queen says.
“I can promise a significant dowry,” Cora says. “Perhaps that would lay your mind at ease about any imbalance between my hand and my brother’s.” She glances at Derek, and he nods at her in thanks even as he can’t believe it will sway the queen.
“The only dowry that would make a difference in this is a land,” Stiles snaps. And there, Derek thinks, is an answer.
“That seems fair,” he offers, trembling though he tries to sound aloof and impartial. “I am happy to cede the northeastern lands to my sister, and to maintain the southern borders for myself.” He knows it to be a desperate offer, but he can’t let Stiles slip away from him, not ever again.
Jennifer looks as if she’s bitten into rotten fruit, while the desert wolf seems pleased enough with his solution, though her brows raise in surprise. “You would truly agree to such a division?”
“Of course,” Derek shrugs. “It is more important to me that my lands are well tilled and my people prosper rather than being slaughtered in squabbling wars. What should I care for lines on a map?”
The queen nods. “That would be a fair solution in my eyes, if the Stilinskis agree.”
Deaton looks about as happy as Jennifer that Derek has offered a division of their country, but King John agrees on behalf of Beacon Hills and the three monarchs are finally aligned.
His old advisor is forced to help them draw up the treaty marking the specific lands that will be merged with Beacon Hills upon Derek’s marriage, and the negotiations break up genially; Malia and Cora chat animatedly near the tent, a strange blend of flirtation, nerves, and complaining. Stiles, however, looks anything but pleased to have been forced into the agreement against all of his protests. He’s a little removed from the rest of the group, hanging back by the tent while they wander forward towards the castle.
Derek grabs his arm, and the prince looks down at the hand like he can barely recognize the gesture. Derek releases him as if burned. “I haven’t seen you at the river,” he says. “I’ll wait again tonight, if you’d like? Or, it doesn’t have to be a ride. What do you enjoy?”
Stiles looks at him then, eyes cutting. “Making my own choices.”
Derek winces - yet surely Stiles will forgive him once he realizes who Derek really is. He doesn’t allow himself to dwell on the fact that Stiles may well never remember. “I hope that you’ll come to care for me.”
“That’s not required, is it?” Stiles says. “This is politics. It’s making all the right connections. Trading the pieces around.”
“You’re not a piece,” Derek says softly. “I made the suggestion because… because I want to be wed to you.”
Stiles goes rigid. “Is it because of what she said? That I am unchaste?”
“What?” Derek asks.
“Surely you know that’s what the queen was insinuating,” the prince says. His mouth twists bitterly. “You think I’ll be a wonderful prize for killing your uncle? A pretty, experienced whore?”
“Never,” Derek says fervently. Yet the denial only seems to confuse Stiles more.
“Then what could you possibly want?” he demands. “There’s no reason for you to choose me like this. Malia would give you heirs, you wouldn’t have needed to cede the northeastern territory to your sister… What could you possibly see in me? There is absolutely no political advantage in it.”
“I feel like we could be a good match,” Derek says. “Am I really so… do you honestly see nothing in me?”
Stiles finally softens, hesitant. “I can’t say that I am entirely unmoved, but… I can’t promise love. I don’t think I’m capable of it,” he admits. “Anymore.”
Derek knows that it’s him the prince is thinking of as he looks away, pained. Stiles means that his heart is still with Derek, even the memory of him.
“Come meet me by the river after the evening meal,” Derek repeats, reaching out to touch Stiles’ arm again. “Please.”
This time the prince lets it rest there for a moment before stepping away and walking quickly to catch up to King John. He leaves with his father for the castle without saying anything to indicate he’s agreed to the meeting.
He looks back, though. Derek holds onto that.
Derek can’t free himself from Deaton’s lecturing until the late evening. His old master is less than thrilled that he’s he’s split off a part of their country in a moment of desperation, but it’s impossible to undo now. Anyways, Cora is delighted to be a crown princess once again, as she and Morrell had planned for so long, and she’s equally pleased with her bride to be - it has to help that Malia seems besotted with her after Stiles’ inattention. For Derek’s part, how can he regret his actions when the sacrifice has brought not only his sister’s happiness, but has also assured his own marriage to the man he loves?
The hour is late, and while he knows Stiles probably won’t have left the comfort of his castle to meet with the foreign king he so resents, the hope that he may drives Derek on. He had made a promise as well as a request when he’d asked Stiles to come. On the off chance he’s been able to sway Stiles’ hardened heart, he needs to live up to his word.
It takes time to find their old clearing from the unfamiliar angle across the river, but when Derek finally arrives and makes his way through the trees, he realizes he’s not alone. He hadn’t honestly believed it would happen, but the prince is on the other side of the water. He had come, in the end.
Derek reins his horse to a halt as the prince rouses from his distant musing and spots him as well. There he is, so different in the fading evening light than the golden brilliance their old afternoons as careless youths. Yet somehow, he seems exactly the same. It should be sad, all their missing years, but how could Derek be sad when Stiles is just across the water, waiting for him him?
Derek raises a hand in greeting, unsure what to say to prompt recognition. Meredith’s words echo in his mind - that if he makes a mistake Stiles may never remember him.
“King Deucalion,” Stiles says, loud enough to be heard over the rush of water.
“Deucalion is my uncle’s general,” Derek calls back. “My nickname is Derek. You could call me that - if you wish it?”
In that moment, Stiles’s expression goes from closed off to confused. He turns his head to the side, narrowing his eyes at Derek as his mouth falls open as if to answer. But the only noise that comes is a gasp as his eyes go suddenly wide and Derek can trace the exact moment that the spell breaks and the prince recognizes him.
Then Stiles is slithering down off of Buttercup, stripping off his heavy cloak, tossing his boots carelessly to the side. Derek barely has a chance to dismount himself before the prince is wading into the river with pure determination. Derek shucks his boots, too, his cloak and jacket - the water must be frigid this time of year, and it’s flow rapid enough that the prince could be hurt. At that moment Stiles slips to one knee, Derek gives up removing any other clothing and wades in after him. Stiles rights himself just as Derek reaches him, and then they’re holding each other in the knee high water at the middle of the river, as tenderly as if the moment itself was fragile, as if this is a dream they may still wake from.
Stiles’ head is bowed, eyes lowered and unfocused as he lets his hands assure him the moment is more than a dream. His temple is pressing into Derek’s as he breathes in uneven gulps, and his fingers find their way to the back of Derek’s head, intimate against the short hair at his nape, to draw him closer and keep him there. Derek lets his eyes slides shut as well. It feels like coming home.
He’s muffled with a quick kiss, and Stiles adjusts to press to him the more tightly. “Shut up. Shut up, Scott wasn’t lying, it’s you, you’re really… I don’t care, don’t tell me. Whatever miracle happened to bring you back to me in this guise doesn’t matter. You’re here, you’re mine, that’s enough.”
Derek pulls back enough to lay his palm to Stiles’ cheek, running his thumb across the tear clinging there, and kisses him properly. It starts gentle and affirming, but then Stiles makes a small desperate noise into Derek’s mouth, hands fisting in the collar of his shirt, and it turns claiming and exploratory, a desperate relearning.
Stiles pulls back, flushed lips and cheeks, to gaze at him, and suddenly jabs a light punch into Derek’s gut. “No, I take it back. I can’t believe you let me think you died. I was in mourning, for nearly a year!”
Derek rubs his stomach, wincing through his smile. “Six months. There were a few extenuating circumstances.”
“Extenuating circumst...” Stiles mutters. “There certainly better be a wonderful explanation.”
“I’m sorry,” Derek says, echoing the sentiment with a soft kiss to Stiles’ jaw, nosing down towards his neck.
“Good,” Stiles says, shoving weakly at his shoulder. “You ought to be. You have no idea…” his voice cracks, leaving whatever Derek has no idea about unsaid.
They wade back to the far side of the river, stumbling against each other as their bare feet slip on the wet rocks. Derek makes Stiles remove his soaked breeches once they’re on the shore. It’s a strangely shy moment, considering all they’ve done, but after so much time apart Derek can feel himself blush as he tugs the sticky-wet material over Stiles’ feet. Even a glimpse of the prince’s bare knee has him buzzing with want.
The prince, for his part, is actually quiet for a moment as Derek undresses him. But then the pants are draped over a branch to dry and they’re wrapped in Derek’s cloak and each other’s arms, and the questions start up again. Stiles alternates between protesting that he doesn’t care about what happened since they parted and wanting every single detail.
“Well, which is it?” Derek finally asks.
Stiles groans. “Neither. Both. I think I’m still in shock, for the moment, that you’re really…” he brushes a hand against Derek’s chest, looking as intently at him as if he intends to memorize every feature. “Just that you’re here.”
Derek smiles. “So there may be more yelling, later.”
“Definitely,” Stiles confirms. “But for now, tell me what happened to turn you into a king, of all things?”
Derek explains how Scott had let him go, how he has struggled to stay alive in the hostile wilderness, how Braeden had discovered him.
“I knew that wasn’t a thieves brand on your back,” he says smugly when Derek gets to that part of his tale. Derek surprises himself by laughing, and by how little pain there is in recounting to Stiles every fraught step of his journey back to Beacon Hills since the day of his exile.
“I’m glad you recognized me,” he admits as he comes to the end of the story, with Liam bringing King John’s summon. “After so long thinking me dead, I considered that you may have put our time out of your mind entirely.”
Stiles kisses him tenderly, sucking on his bottom lip and palming his cheek. “Never. I hate that I didn’t know you instantly.”
Derek snorts. “No more than I. Our negotiations were like being youths again, you teasing me so for my ignorance and for knowing more about my own kingdom than I did. No, it’s ten,” he mimics. “I’m lucky I met you earlier, it seems I’m not so appealing without our history to recommend me.”
Stiles laughs. “It’s the opposite. You were giving me a crisis, I had to constantly fight against finding you appealing. I had sworn I would never let myself care for another that way.”
Derek blushes like a boy of sixteen, though he can’t summon any shame for it. “I’ve told you my story, but what was it like for you, our separation? I know that you… well, you’ve left Prince Scott on the border. He fears you hate him.”
“No!” Stiles exclaims. “No, I stopped blaming him for what happened within a month. It was Lady Jennifer. Even before my engagement she was starting to cause trouble, weaseling into my father’s confidence. I was trying to keep Scott and Isaac out of her schemes. Lydia can hold her own, but Scott is too honest to recognize or defend against such maneuvers. With his position naturally tenuous due to having no blood relation to our house… I thought it best to keep him clear of any trouble.”
“But didn’t you think of yourself?” Derek asks. “You must have had so few allies.”
Stiles smiles. “We’ve both had our challenges. And we’ve both made it through.”
“Almost,” Derek corrects. “I doubt Lady Julia will stop causing trouble now.”
“You know her as Lady Jennifer,” Derek corrects himself. “She was a Treskelian, that’s why she has been so set against you, and has given your father such poor advice. I found a portrait of her in my castle, and that’s when I realized I needed to come back. I feared that you would be in danger.”
“I knew she was no mere tutor,” Stiles says under his breath. Derek offers what plans he’s been able to conceive to discredit her, and gratefully accepts the prince’s additions and suggestions. Even after their time apart, they complement each other well and Derek revels in the ease of their planning.
The talking soon subsides into kissing, Derek letting Stiles press him back against the tree as the late afternoon light fades to twilight and then dark. The prince is straddling his lap now, and he can feel how badly they both want to pleasure each other after the individual releases they’ve relied on in their separation.
He reaches for the prince’s erection, but Stiles shys away. “Ah - no,” he says. “Trust me, I would like to... but I think you’ve given me a complex about illicit sex.”
Derek snorts into Stiles’ neck, half amused and half horrified at the reminder of how badly their last encounter had gone.
“Truly, we’d most likely disturb a fairy revel and you’d be taken for another ten years,” the prince continues to joke with a teasing smile. Then his expression goes tender. “No. I want to be with you behind a door with a lock, in a proper bed. Once we’re married,” he twines their fingers together, brushing his thumb over Derek’s ring finger.
Derek kisses him hard. It’s infinitely easier to part knowing how soon they will meet again.
The next day, Derek and his people are welcomed into the castle to sign the treaty, rather than meeting in the neutral tent across the river. Cora and Malia are there with the queen as a formality; they’ll head to Treskelia soon for their own wedding. Stiles still looks tired, but above the dark smudges announcing a lack of sleep, his eyes themselves are bright. Derek loves the easy slouch and smirk of the prince after all the tightly wound anger from the last week. Now they have the same plan, the same hopes.
King John and Jennifer seem a bit confused by the crown prince’s about face, but Cora instantly guesses what’s happened. She keeps giving Derek approving “nicely played,” looks that are about as subtle as her and Malia’s playing around had been earlier.
Jennifer seethes as Derek signs his name next to King John’s on the maps marking out their countries’ new borders. And then, she snaps. “This is madness. Surely you can’t trust that King Derek will stand by such a plan.”
“Have we any indication not to trust him?” King John asks. He looks more irritated than wrathful, until Jennifer touches his shoulder.
“He plans to discredit your son,” Jennifer hisses. “To not consummate the alliance, to see you shamed and rekindle battle - with the desert country allied against you, this time.” King John’s face takes on the now-familiar slackness as he absorbs her suggestion.
“That is not my plan,” Derek says firmly.
“And if it was, would you admit it?” King John replies. Jennifer’s hand is still on him.
Stiles shoves her aside, breaking the connection. “Father, stop.” John startles, almost confused.
“Your majesty, this woman admitted to being a Treskelian,” Derek says. “She does not work in your interest - or mine. She feeds on strife that echoes the conflict of her own soul, and would keep us at war for her own purposes.“
“Liar,” Jennifer hisses. “John - “
“Father, she wasn’t in the castle the night before last when you called for her to discuss the treaty’s position on trading weaponry. Do you remember that?”
The king nods, and Derek offers his part of the tale. “She came to meet with me. To offer her services in making sure the treaties were overly favorable to Treskelia.”
King John glances at Jennifer, a hint of mistrust in his expression.
“She advised against using the rebellion to fight the false king,” Stiles reminds him. “We see now how we could have trusted them. Think on all the times she has tried to turn you against me.”
Finally, Derek produces the roll of canvas that he had brought with the rest of the papers, for exactly this moment. He hands it to King John, who unrolls it to reveal the portrait of Lady Julia with Lady Kali; Not damning in itself, the painting is the final piece needed to tip King John’s decision.
King John’s face hardens. “Sir Jordan,” he says, please arrest this woman for treason.”
Jennifer has the gall to look surprised as she’s apprehended. “I was doing it for you!” she yells at Derek. “For Treskelia! You’ve broken up our country, you let your enemies walk free. You should have killed Deucalion! Killed Kali! I would have made you the most powerful king in…”
“There has been enough killing,” Derek interrupts.
Jordan finishes binding her wrists, and he and Sir Isaac take her away to the dungeons, under Deaton’s careful instructions to not let her touch them; he believes that’s how she’s been insinuating her magic into King John’s mind.
The king himself seems horrified to find he’s been under the thrall of a traitor, though Derek knows it is less poor judgement and more the work of enchantment. The desert queen keeps her own council, not bringing up the contact Derek knows she’s had with Lady Julia - at this point, he considers her silence for the best.
“I don’t know what I was thinking,” the king says. “Stiles, you told me even from the beginning, and I… I endangered Beacon Hills by trusting that woman. I should have seen through her.”
“There is no need for such regret,” Stiles says. “All has ended well, has it not? But I do feel it would be only right to see our marriage agreement completed as quickly as possible,” he adds, with a small smile for Derek’s eyes only.
Just as Stiles suggested, their wedding is thrown together rapidly, with no time to for pomp or fanciness. In the days of preparation there’s barely a chance to breathe, but Derek finds time to make his way to see Erica and Boyd in their city home. They waylay him for rest of the day recounting his tales - after Erica berates him for not giving her time to plan a grand enough feast for his nutipals, of course. Violet is with them as well, and says that she will stay and find work in Beacon Hills. He’s glad to hear it - Derek knows Braeden intends to return to Treskelia with Deaton and Cora.
Scott’s caravan only just arrives from the front in time for the wedding, and he brings with him his warrior bride, Kira. For such an experienced soldier, she is more shy and talkative than Derek would have guessed, strangely reminding him of prince Stiles in their younger days. Lydia takes to her instantly, and Derek enjoys getting to know her as well. Although he’s had the opportunity to carefully reveal his identity to his friends, it’s a pleasant contrast to be meeting someone with whom he doesn’t have such a confusing past. The three of them have more than enough time to converse, as Scott and Stiles have fallen back into their familiar closeness, secreting themselves away after a flurry of apologies to exchange confidences and make up for the missing time.
On the day of the ceremony, Derek can only be grateful that it isn’t a full affair with visitors from other countries. It’s enough to have the entire court watching. He tries not to fidget and look at the floor like an ill behaved child in his formal clothes, wearing a crown whose weight is still entirely unfamiliar to him; Stiles stares at him with his bright, amber eyes, and that part is familiar enough to calm him. The receive their rings from the priest - Derek had managed to exchange the simple bands originally chosen with a pair of Boyd’s - and exchange a tentative kiss to the court’s applause.
“Look at them, their first kiss,” Derek overhears a woman murmur. “Doesn’t it look like they’re in love already?”
Stiles shoots him a knowing smirk, and Derek has to marvel at the strangeness of it. Every time he touches Stiles, he has to remind himself that it’s no longer an offense, that such intimacy is encouraged where it had been so long denied.
And not only mere affectionate touches; for the marriage to be valid it requires proof of consummation. It’s a formality hardly meant for pleasure, but the day includes an hour for them to be alone in the prince’s chambers, with witnesses posted by the door. They must give at least some indication of being joined before they can attend the feast downstairs, to head off any possibility of an annulment that could throw them back into strife.
When the moment comes, it’s strange and awkward. Their nerves subside for the most part when Stiles click his tongue impatiently and draws Derek to him for a real kiss, unlike the chaste peck at the altar. They shed their garments, still kissing as their hands explore every inch of newly uncovered skin. Derek gasps quietly into Stiles’ mouth when the prince takes him in hand, biting back a moan.
“None of that,” Stiles instructs. “We have our locked door, and our bed and these,” he wiggles his hand at Derek, the ring glinting in the light. “No holding back. The whole point is to be loud.”
Derek grins, tackling him back into the mattress and wiggling his fingers into the prince’s ribs. Stiles practically shrieks, squirming into the mounds of downy comforters. After that, neither must prompt the other to make more noise, as it happens quite naturally.
Jordan and Isaac look distinctly embarrassed when the kings emerge from their chambers. Stiles nods generously to them, as if it’s a typical sort of day. His hair is sticking up in all directions, and both his and Derek’s tunics are crooked and wrinkled beyond smoothing. As they dance together at the ball, Derek counts eleven nobles who spend more time looking at the red lovebites all down Stiles’ neck rather than his face - and that’s before he loses track. Derek thinks, smugly, that it would be beyond difficult for anyone to even suggest that their union isn’t a fully enforceable, consummated marriage.
“Why hello, King Deucalion!” his father-in-law says, bringing their waltz to a halt. The king is cheerful with a glass or two of wine in him, and must be as relieved as they are to finally have confirmed peace after a near lifetime of war. Stiles doesn’t move back from their close embrace, choosing instead to rest his head on Derek’s shoulder as they talk.
“Call him Derek, please,” the prince says. “He goes by his nickname.”
“Derek, then.” the King says happily, “Son, maybe? And, Stiles, I’m glad to see you so… so married.” Derek flushes, but the king seems only slightly embarrassed with how disheveled they are, not genuinely appalled. “You know,” he continues in a jovial undertone to Derek, “Stiles hasn’t been this happy for some time, I’d say. Not since… since he was with...”
John tapers off, staring at Derek’s face. Derek stares back at him, frozen. He’d assumed that the king would never remember to think of a lowly soldier, killed so long ago and afield for long before that, but the evaluating squint John is fixing him with is only too familiar.
“What is this? Why, you’re…Sir Derek.” King John certainly looks angry, now, making the connection to Derek’s perceived crime. “The traitor.”
A gasp goes up in the ballroom as everyone who Derek knew before makes the connection to his previous identity - from Sir Ethan and Liam in one corner, to Sir Jordan by the feast table. No, Derek thinks desperately. Not this, not now.
Stiles steps between Derek and the king, holding up a hand for pause. “Father, no! Or, yes, this is the same Derek, but you have it wrong. I meant to tell you,” he pauses to swallow. The whole court is watching. “I meant to tell you that we’ve known about Derek’s heritage as the king of Treskelia since he returned for my engagement. When he was in on the border of his homeland he discovered the truth, and we needed a way for him to return and reclaim the throne without suspicion… so Scott and I concocted a tale of treason. A tale and nothing more.” Stiles is looking intently at the king, willing him to understand. “He never acted indecently towards me, father,” he says quietly.
Derek follows Stiles’ eyes as they flick briefly to Sir Jordan, but Lydia is speaking to the knight in a rapid undertone and he’s nodding at whatever he is being told. He doesn’t step forward to speak of what he had seen in Stiles’ tent.
“But - why wouldn’t you have told me sooner?” John asks.
“We didn’t think you’d believe it,” Stiles says. “Or that you’d accept as an equal one who you knew first as a servant.”
The king is quiet, his expression conflicted. He looks at Derek, Derek’s crown, Derek again, back to the Treskelian retinue, and finally towards Derek. “Is this actually true, Stiles? That the king of Treskelia is also my old stable boy? Or… that my old stable boy is truly the king of Treskelia?”
“Yes, Sir,” Derek says, fully understanding the improbability of it. The whole room is quiet, and Derek fears that his happiness is yet to come crumbling down around him. Then, one lone voice pipes up.
“My gods,” says the lutist. “A lost heir, reduced to servitude...”
“...admiring his love from afar, only to be parted from him…” the woman from the wedding pipes up, looking as if she might faint from sheer excitement.
“...to go and fight Beacon Hill’s enemies,” a guard adds, her eyes alit with the glory of it. “And then to lead a rebellion to slay the false king!”
“And after it all returning, victorious, to wed his prince,” one of the serving boys sighs with a dreamy smile.
King John blinks as the entire room now erupts in exclamations and chatter, each person remarking on the element of the drama they find most exciting or dramatic. The room almost instantly regains the feel of a celebration, and certainly the moment for any punishment or disbelief has passed; it seems their story is being solidified into legend as they watch.
“Well then,” the king says. “I suppose that is the truth of the matter and that all is well that ends well. But I dare say that you two,” he finishes, with a stern finger pointing first at Derek and then to Stiles, “have had more adventure up until now than any two people should rightly expect in a lifetime. By sheer probability, I expect that you’ll live exceptionally happy and peaceful lives from now on.”
And that, in the end, is exactly what they do.
And that’s it! I really appreciate each and every person who stuck around to see this completed! I’m so happy to have written something this long, and everyone’s encouragement has blown me away. This was a really great experience, in large part because of all your feedback! A special thanks to joanaabroad for helping me edit this last chapter; any mistakes left are mine, anythign that makes sense was probably joana :)
Also, I cannot thank Andavs enough for all the gorgeous art (!!!!!) and for her support throughout the process. She’s put up with my procrastination and whining and been there every step of the way. This would 100% not exist without her. She is amazing and her blog is amazing and her writing and art is amazing and you should go check her out.
My blog is on the other hand is shit, but you can find me here if you are so inclined. I cherish each and every one of you!