This was not how Stiles envisioned tonight ending at all.
He assumed decent tips if he was lucky. This was a Maria Stark Foundation charity event, after all. Rich people standing around drinking champagne while staring at the art up for grabs in a silent auction. Art that Stiles firmly believed could’ve been done by a monkey (he just did not understand Modern Art at all; Tiana despaired of him ever having class) but was supposedly done by some up-and-coming hipster out of Astoria.
The art was ruined. Stiles couldn’t really feel bad about that. The abstract collage paintings framed in candy bar wrappers were hideous. The hipster was probably crying into his PBR in a corner somewhere.
Someone cleared their throat, the sound drowning out the ringing in Stiles’ ears. “That’s one helluva swing you’ve got there, kid.”
Stiles looked up from his blood and brain-covered bat to where Tony Stark stood not even five feet away in his ruined tuxedo. Pepper Potts hovered at his elbow, her StarkPhone plastered to her ear as she spoke intently to whoever was on the other side of the line. The bruise coming up on her bare arm was the perfect shape of Stiles’ handprint from when he’d grabbed her and hauled her out of the hellhound’s walking buffet line. The three of them were the only ones left in the now destroyed private gallery.
Stiles’ gaze drifted over to the hellhound’s corpse, with its caved in skull and brain matter leaking out of its nose. He wondered if it could be passed off as a rabid dog? Stiles blinked, his chest constricting. He fought against the hysterical laughter that crawled its way up his throat but couldn’t stop it from escaping his mouth.
Stiles was still laughing by the time the police arrived. Luckily, Tony had taken away his bat.
Six years ago
Senior year of high school was supposed to be the highlight of his adolescent life. That’s what all the teen movies said, but Stiles’ life had more in common with a horror film fest than it did the latest teen romcom to hit the silver screen. The movies never ended well if you were the sidekick, the wallflower, the third wheel hanger-on. You didn’t get to be the hero, be in the spotlight, or get the girl. All those milestones were for someone else to hit.
“I don’t know why I’m doing this,” Stiles said as he measured yet another ingredient on the scale. The pale orange powder kept making him want to sneeze and since Deaton refused to waste even half a gram of the stuff, Stiles kept having to leave the exam room and go have epic sneezing fits in the hallway.
“I can’t, in good conscience, let you leave Beacon Hills without giving you some measure of control,” Deaton said calmly.
“What are you talking about? I have plenty of control.”
“Not giving into your habit for spontaneity doesn’t count as control, Stiles. Now finish the healing salve so I can see if you’ve actually been paying attention today.”
He’d only been at this for five hours or so, give or take his lunch break. It used to be Stiles would spend his free time with Scott. Summer had been a cliché-fest of lacrosse practice, video game marathons, and the forced closeness of two people growing apart and too afraid to accept the loss. Stiles had forgiven Scott for his actions surrounding the kanima mess and Gerard last year, but forgiving didn’t mean he’d forget. He still woke up some nights with the remembered ache in his face and ribs from Gerard’s fists and the ugly, bitter terror that no one was coming for him.
The nightmares never truly went away, they just got replaced with something worse. Story of his life.
Instead of spending Christmas break practicing lacrosse to move off the bench and play one more time before graduation, he was at the vet’s learning to make salves and potions and calling Deaton Snape because he found it hilarious even if no one else did. Even if no one else knew where he was right now.
His phone sat on the metal exam table. Stiles checked it every now and then but he still had no calls, no texts, no communication from anyone in the pack. He’d texted Scott that morning to see if the other teen wanted to hang out, then done a group text to everyone else, asking the same question. It was going on 4:00 p.m. and still no answer.
In the wake of the fallout from the Alpha pack in their junior year and the forced alliances that had drawn everyone together, Stiles thought things would be different. He thought Scott being grudgingly accepted into Derek’s pack at the end of the school year would be a good thing for his best friend. Werewolves needed a pack, Derek had been right about that, and one best friend with a knack for mountain ash and not much else at the moment wasn’t going to cut it.
Scott was learning things with the other betas that Stiles couldn’t hope to teach him despite his Google-fu. He told himself he wasn’t resentful about the change of status quo but every time he’d visited Scott lately, Isaac was there, or Allison when she could slip her dad’s watchful eye and tighter leash. The uneasy truce between the Argents and Derek’s pack was more of a ceasefire than a declaration of peace. Stiles hoped he wasn’t the only one who could see that.
Stiles poured the exactly measured out powder into the metal mixing bowl and stared at the sludge in the bottom. The stuff looked like something scraped off the side of a septic tank and smelled just as bad. He had his doubts the poppy powder could fix it.
“What makes you think I’m leaving?” Stiles asked as he began to stir.
Deaton looked up from the stack of papers on the work table he was reading through. The vet was performing an end of year records audit in preparation for filing his taxes in a month or so. In between verifying notes and receipts, he’d been testing Stiles on the latest lesson of magical chemistry, aka Potions 101.
“Aren’t you?” Deaton replied.
Stiles kept mixing the poppy powder into the sludge and didn’t answer.
Scott never called. Neither did anyone else.
Three years ago
“I think I need to take you shopping again.”
Stiles looked up from where he was trying to get the bloodstains out of his favorite pair of jeans to see Tiana lounging against the door frame. The sequined mini-dress clung to the generous curves of her body and if she wasn’t practically married to her Navy boyfriend, Stiles would’ve made a pass at her years ago.
(He did, once, the first time he got drunk with her and realized—belatedly—that little miss thang could out drink frat boys and still walk straight at last call. Tiana promised to never hold his moment of supreme humiliation against him, but she wasn’t deleting the pictures. Ever.)
“No, no, my clothes are salvageable,” Stiles said.
Tiana pointedly looked at the blood-stained boxers he wore then at the pink tinged water that he refused to believe was ruining his jeans and favorite Dr. Who T-shirt. His red hoodie was crumpled in the sink, waiting its turn to get washed. “Uh-huh. You’re lucky I’m off tomorrow.”
“I’m working,” he said quickly.
“Liar. I checked your schedule when I checked mine. You’re not working.”
Stiles rolled his eyes and went back to the mess in the tub. He was so, so glad he’d opted to share an apartment with her rather than stay at NYU’s residence hall again. It made coming home covered in blood to clean up from a night’s work easier without having to share a bathroom with unsuspecting students.
“What was it this time?”
“Shapeshifter.” Stiles scrubbed hard at the dark stains in the knee area of his jeans and tried not to think about killing Scott with a glyph knife and an iron weighted baseball bat made out of mountain ash.
It wasn’t him, Stiles told himself.
It wasn’t Scott who died beneath his hands and weapons tonight. The only thing that died was a misshapen memory stolen from his mind, a year out of date, because it’d been that long since Stiles had seen his best friend in person. Phone calls and texts didn’t really count, not when they’d forgotten how to talk to each other and mean it.
Tiana settled her hand on his shoulder, leaning over to pull his hands out of the pink water. Her skin was so much darker than his and the calluses on her hands spoke of hard work and dedication to her chosen path. The Haven Café was where they earned their paychecks. This, here, was how they earned their jobs.
“Next time, bring backup,” she said quietly.
“I handled it. This wasn’t my first execution.”
“You think I don’t know that?” She rubbed her thumb over the illusion ward he’d drawn on the back of his hand with a black Sharpie. The ink didn’t smudge at all. “Don’t be stupid, Stiles. That’s how wardens get killed. My uncle taught you better than that.”
He shrugged her off and twisted around until he could put his back against the side of the tub. Looking up at Tiana, he gave her a weak smile. “I have no plans to get killed any time soon. Speaking of plans, are you coming from the club or going?”
Tiana sat down on the toilet seat. She’d drilled it into his head their first month of living together that if he didn’t put the toilet seat down, she would deprive him of every kind of snack food in the apartment, no matter how hard he tried to hide them, starting with his frozen curly fries.
“You’re telling me demons exist.”
“I don’t know how you can question their existence when we had aliens fighting in the street last spring,” Stiles said, trying not to sound defensive.
The older man in a neatly cut dark suit and perpetually calm expression on his face didn’t seem at all put off by Stiles’ attitude. “True. However, most people tend to run away from a threat, not beat it to death with a bat.”
“Personally, I thought that was inspired. Kind of like performance art, but bloodier,” Tony called out from the other side of the interrogation room. He’d left the SoHo gallery with a martini glass and shaker in hand. He still had the drink but he’d lost the shaker somewhere between the limo ride and the first floor of the unobtrusive office building that fronted as S.H.I.E.L.D.’s New York headquarters. “Hey, is that what kids are into these day? Flash mob murder?”
Stiles groaned and put his head in his hands. “Can we pretend it wasn’t me and I get to leave without being shipped off to Guantanamo Bay?”
“You’re not being shipped anywhere. Phil just needs a little more information from you, that’s all,” Pepper promised.
Stiles didn’t really believe her. Then again, she was sitting on his side of the interrogation table so really, he’d take her support over the panic attack he could feel waiting to uncurl in his chest. Stiles could go along with the good cop/bad cop routine if it meant he’d get out of here quicker and in one piece.
“Mr. Stilinski,” Coulson said.
Stiles automatically straightened up at that tone of voice before forgetting himself and slouched back down on the hard plastic chair. “Oh, god, you make me sound as old as my dad. Call me Stiles.”
“Stiles, then. What were you doing at the gallery tonight?”
Stiles waved a hand at his now bloody attire. “Catering, what does it look like? Ever since my last place of employment got crushed by a gigantic alien whale in Midtown, I’ve resorted to looking like a penguin to make rent. Not all of us can be billionaires.”
“You should try it some time. I highly recommend it. Works wonders on your social life,” Tony said.
Pepper shot him a glare. Tony smiled innocently at her and hid behind his martini glass.
“The gallery, Stiles. What were your reasons for being there tonight other than catering and why did you have an iron weighted bat with you?” Coulson asked.
“Because it’s next to impossible to get a gun permit in New York City, much less one for concealed carry, and honestly, my bat is much less noticeable,” Stiles said.
“Uh, I plead the Fifth?”
“Oh, I like you,” Tony said. “Pepper, I want him.”
Stiles flailed in his seat, banging his elbow on the edge of the table. “What? No!”
Tony pointed at Coulson. “I found bat boy first, he’s mine.”
“I’m not a pet! You can’t just lay claim to me and keep me!” Stiles protested.
“Listen, kid. Your choices tonight are be conscripted by S.H.I.E.L.D.—”
“We don’t conscript people, Stark,” Coulson interrupted easily.
“—and never see the light of day again, or join Stark Industries as my personal assistant. We have better medical and superior coffee. I wouldn’t use the sludge they serve on the Helicarrier to grease Dummy’s wheels. Pepper! I want an employment contract drawn up for Stiles. Let’s see how long I can keep him.”
“Tony,” Pepper said with a disapproving frown.
Tony blinked at her. “What? You’re always complaining about me not having an assistant and look, I’ve gone and found one all on my own. Be proud, Pep.”
“I send you assistants, Tony. You just never manage to keep them.”
Stiles raised his hand. “In favor of not being conscripted, I’ll sign on as Mr. Stark’s personal assistant.”
Tony flashed his trademark smirk, the one that had graced a couple hundred magazine covers in the past year alone. “Smart kid. And call me Tony.”
Agent Coulson just sighed quietly and moved on to the next question.
Five years ago
“Money isn’t an issue, son.”
Stiles looked up from the acceptance letters fanned out on the dining room table: Harvard, Berkeley, UCLA, Colombia, NYU, Yale. He’d applied to top tier and Ivy League schools only. He couldn’t stop lying to his father, hadn’t stopped lying yet, but if there was one thing his dad could still be proud about, it was a son who’d gotten into an excellent college.
“Did you apply for the Police Association scholarship?” his dad asked.
“Yeah, but there’s no guarantee I’ll receive it.”
“You’re eligible for it. You’ve more than earned it academics-wise.”
Stiles tried not to flinch at the tacked on qualifier that only proved he failed as a son in other areas. “That still won’t be enough to cover tuition, books, and dorms. I’m looking at a lot of financial aid loans and ramen for dinner for most of my adult life.”
His dad rolled the beer bottle slowly between his hands. Stiles had a beer as well, a one-time allowance by his dad for surviving high school (oh god, if he only knew) and congratulations for getting into college. Stiles was nursing the beer in an effort to convince his dad he didn’t know how to hold his liquor yet at seventeen. His dad was doing a remarkable job at believing him.
“Your mother,” his dad began, then stopped. He cleared his throat and tried again. “Your mother, before she got sick, bought a life insurance policy. It paid out at a quarter of a million dollars. I haven’t touched it. She wanted—she always wanted the best for you, Stiles. Wanted me to make sure the money went towards your college education. You don’t have to worry about financial aid, not for these schools.”
Stiles looked down at the table, at the embossed letterheads from six different universities, and didn’t know what to say, because all he could think about was that his mother never lived to see this. She would never get to watch him walk across any stage but she’d paved the road for him, even in death. He had to wonder how this conversation would have gone if she’d been alive. A quarter of a million dollars could buy a college education, sure, but it couldn’t bring her back.
Stiles would give anything to change that.
Four years ago
“How’s New York?”
Stiles shrugged and dumped his greasy paper plate into the garbage. Pizza was never a bad choice, especially for this crowd. The pack could eat their weight in the stuff and Derek had bought fifteen pizzas for their welcome home party at the newly renovated Hale house. Scott had gotten Boyd, Isaac, Allison, and Erica to vote on Die Hard (everyone’s favorite holiday movie, according to Stiles) over Lydia’s pick of the latest Channing Tattum movie. Jackson had voted with Lydia on threat of no sex for a week while Stiles was in the kitchen cleaning up the dinner mess. There was something ironic about that.
“It’s different, but I like it. Glad I decided to get an apartment instead of a room at the residence hall again. Means I won’t have to look for housing again when summer hits,” Stiles said.
“You’re not coming home for the summer?”
Derek didn’t look or sound accusing, but Stiles still felt like he was being judged. “I’ve got a job lined up.”
“Yeah, they want me back.”
Deaton’s sister said he made the best latte she’d ever drunk and if he played into the college student stereotype of working at a coffee shop while getting his degree, then whatever, he liked the place. Deaton’s family were good people and not just because they wouldn’t quit pushing him to get better with his magic. He liked them, respected them, and wasn’t about to short-shrift them.
“You know you’re always welcome here,” Derek said, the words coming out stilted. Stiles didn’t hold it against him. Dealing with people was definitely not Derek Hale’s strong point.
Stiles offered up a smile; he knew it didn’t reach his eyes. “Sure.”
“I mean it.”
“You say that now.” Stiles waved a hand airily, but his tone was anything but joking. “But I’m not stopping with the magic, Derek. I’m good at what I do, okay? I’m not going to apologize for that.”
“I’m not asking you to.”
“Okay then. Glad we cleared that up.”
Stiles headed for the doorway, intent on joining the rest of the pack for the end of the movie. Derek stopped him with a hand on his shoulder, too warm fingers digging into his muscles. Stiles froze, breath catching in his throat. He chanced a glance at the other man, expecting to find anger in Derek’s eyes. All he found was quiet acceptance.
“When you become a warden, you can still come back here. You’re pack. That will never change.”
When, not if. Years later, Stiles would look back and figure out that Derek always had faith in him, even when he didn’t have faith in himself.
“You know it doesn’t work that way,” Stiles said, the words coming out low and harsh and angry. He didn’t know why.
Derek let his hand fall away. “We’ll make it work.”
Stiles didn’t look away from Derek’s face, not until the collective voices of the pack—five werewolves, one hunter, and one witch—shouted in unison “Yippee ki yay mother fucker!”
Rudolph had nothing on Bruce Willis.
Three years ago
“Dad? What’s wrong? It’s two in the morning.”
Stiles would forever deny that he rolled off his bed and onto the fire escape because it was hot as fuck during summer in New York and their AC was broken and it was only through quick reflexes that he didn’t drop his phone on some poor unsuspecting drunk person wandering the street.
“…Stiles? You there?”
“Yeah, dad,” he croaked, staring up at the night sky limned in light pollution in a daze. “I’m here.”
Stiles had an office in Avengers Tower (that he rarely used), the latest generation StarkPhone (“It’s not on the market yet, I’m still testing it for bugs, so let me know how it reacts when you fritz it with your magic mojo—” “Tony!”), and an entire new wardrobe, courtesy of one Pepper Potts and Tony’s black American Express card (“Is that suit Hugo Boss? I approve. I approve so hard, Stilinski. Damn, son, you clean up fine.” “No one asked you, Tiana.”).
The legalese of his job description filled several pages of his hiring contract. In reality, it could have been condensed into a couple of words: Tony’s super awesome go-to guy (or girl).
Legal nixed his suggestion. Stiles was still bitter.
“I need you to sign this,” Stiles said, shoving the StarkTablet in front of Tony’s eyes, incidentally forcing the older man to look away from his holographic display.
(Stiles would never not find Tony’s lab so fucking cool.)
“I hate being handed things,” Tony said, blinking owlishly at the StarkTablet screen.
“I’m not handing it to you. I’m holding it for you. Sign it, or I’m calling Pepper and telling her you’re holding up the latest transitioning point on your company’s merger in Singapore.”
“Whatever. Just sign your name.”
Tony scrawled his signature on the screen and tossed the stylus onto his work table. “You still haven’t learned to forge my signature yet? It only took Pepper two weeks. You’ve been at this job for a month now. I’m disappointed, bat boy.”
Stiles hit send on his email with the document attached (already prepped, he hated to keep Pepper waiting) and said, “I was forging my dad’s signature by the time I was ten. What makes you think I can’t forge yours?”
“Your scintillating presence in my lab.”
“Just making sure Dummy doesn’t try to poison you with another motor oil shake.”
“Eh, they’re an acquired taste.” Tony squinted at him, blue eyes red-rimmed from too many hours being buried in his projects. After four weeks of following in Tony’s wake and trying not to drown, it was a look Stiles was familiar with. “You graduated from NYU.”
“I know you already know that. You had JARVIS hack my entire life’s file when you hired me. By the way, that restraining order in my sophomore year of high school? It got rescinded.”
“So I read. Summa cum laude. Bachelor of Science. Dual degree in chemistry and chemical and biomolecular engineering.”
Stiles raised an eyebrow. “Your point?”
Tony put down the Iron Man gauntlet he’d been working on and leaned back in his chair, looking at Stiles with a calculating gleam in his eye.
“You haven’t applied for grad school anywhere. You think a Masters degree isn’t worth your time? I know I pay you enough to cover any tuition fees.”
Stiles thought about the small pack of werewolves killed in upper state New York by a family of hunters who overstepped the line. It happened during midterms, middle of autumn, his junior year of college. If he hadn’t been so focused on school at the time, he could’ve prevented it, could’ve sent out the warning for the hunters to stick to their fucking code or risk his version of justice.
(“It’s not your fault,” he remembered Tiana telling him while he drank himself stupid on Jack Daniels after the fact. Oh, how she lied.)
Stiles’ contract came with an addendum, written out by Tiana’s mother, one of the best closing attorneys in New York City. Stiles could take a leave of absence, at any time, for any length of time, without fear of reprisal, in order to continue working in the capacity of his first job.
Tony signed off on it. So had Pepper.
Coulson was still wrangling for Stiles to have consultant status with S.H.IE.L.D. Apparently the supernatural world was erupting at the seams after the Chitauri attack and damned if the government didn’t need someone in the know on their payroll. Stiles was extremely careful about what information he shared.
“Why do you care?”
“I like collecting talented people and hate seeing them wasted when I can put them to good use. Specifically, my use.”
“I had a job before I went to college,” Stiles said. “I don’t need another degree in order to do it.”
Because you didn’t need a fancy piece of paper to know how to dig a grave.
Five years ago
“I thought you were on my side,” Scott said, the angry hurt in his eyes impossible to ignore.
“Scott, bro, I’m your best friend. I’ll always be on your side,” Stiles said as he let the refrigerator door close.
“You’re training with Deaton!”
“And? It’s just magic. I’ve got a spark, remember?”
“It’s not just magic, Stiles. You’re training to be a warden.”
Stiles froze, blinking stupidly at where Scott stood in his kitchen, on the other side of the island, like he needed the barrier. “Oh.”
“Yeah. Oh.” Scott tugged at the hem of his T-shirt before shoving his hands into his jean pockets, shoulders tight and hunched almost to his ears. “Did you think I wouldn’t find out?”
“Were you ever going to tell me?”
“…Yes?” Scott gave him a disbelieving look. Stiles flailed a little, forgetting he held a soda in his hand and splashing Coke everywhere. “Okay, maybe not right now, but I was going to tell you!”
Scott shook his head heard, letting out a strained a laugh. “Unbelievable.”
“I was going to tell you,” Stiles whispered.
“When?” Scott asked sharply. “When I trespassed on hunter territory and they claimed the right to kill me for some slight to a code hardly anyone follows anymore?”
“Scott, it’s not like that. I—”
“You’re training to be a warden, Stiles. It’s exactly like that.”
“To help keep the balance. You know how shit’s gone down in the past and if I can help stop that—”
“How? By standing on the sidelines and letting us die in the name of that balance?”
It would have been better, Stiles thought, no—easier—to deal with this argument if Scott was furious but instead he just sounded so fucking sad.
“It’s not like that. Wardens act as a neutral party in the supernatural world,” Stiles said, sounding desperate even to his own ears.
“Judge, jury, and executioner.”
“I wouldn’t—Scott, I would never hurt you. You have to believe me.”
“I believe you would never want to hurt me. But if you keep this up? If you follow through with it? Then there might come a time where you’ll have to let me be hurt. You can’t be biased if you’re a warden, Stiles. You can’t be pack.”
Stiles flinched like he’d been hit, feeling the blow in every inch of his body. The silence that settled over them was ugly and tense.
“You could give it up,” Scott finally whispered, not looking at Stiles. “Give up the magic, give up the lessons.”
“The same way you could give up being a werewolf?”
Scott’s eyes flashed gold, just for a moment. “You know there’s no cure.”
“I’m not walking away from this, Scott. And I’m not walking away from you.”
“Funny. I don’t see how you have a choice.”
Scott left and Stiles didn’t move until long after his soda became warm and flat and disgusting to drink.
Two years ago
Stiles looked up as the door to the coffee shop was pushed open, bringing inside cold air and their latest customer. Stiles immediately narrowed his eyes. “What are you doing in New York?”
“Surprise?” Derek said, giving him a sheepish grin.
“No, no. You are supposed to be on the other side of this country where it’s warm and not here in the middle of a blizzard.”
“Stiles. It’s barely snowing. The City’s gotten two inches of slush and that’s being generous.”
Tiana came out from the store room carrying a stack of large paper to-go cups. Stiles watched her do a double-take at Derek before gracing him with a lascivious grin. “Ooh, why hello there, mister tall, dark and handsome.”
“You’re married,” Stiles reminded her.
“That doesn’t mean I’m dead.”
Stiles rolled his eyes. Derek squinted at Tiana. “You’re related to Deaton, aren’t you?”
“It’s the jaw line, right?” She chuckled loudly, patting at her salon-styled hair. “Lord knows my uncle doesn’t look this good in a weave. The name’s Tiana.”
Recognition flickered across Derek’s face and he relaxed just the tiniest bit. “Derek Hale.”
“Honey, I know who you are. You think Stiles here doesn’t have pictures of you and the rest of the furballs all over his room? The boy is an Instagram whore.”
“Shut up, Tiana,” Stiles hissed.
Tiana gave Derek a sweet, sweet smile that was all teeth. “Your drink is on the house if you tip us.”
Derek pulled out his wallet and thumbed through the bills before pulling out a twenty. He stuffed it into the gaudily decorated, gallon-sized tip jar that looked like Tinkerbell threw up on it (Stiles went overboard on the glitter one day; he still regrets nothing) and grinned at Stiles.
“I like her.”
Stiles rolled his eyes. “You would.”
(Later, in the privacy of the apartment he shared with Tiana, who stayed away that night, Derek would get him drunk and sit with him when the tears wouldn’t come.
“I buried them,” Stiles would grit out, staring at the wall of his bedroom and seeing something else. “It took hours.”
He never said what he did to the hunters. Derek knew better than to ask, but he didn’t know better not to kiss Stiles.
Stiles let him.)
Six months ago
It took four days before Stiles could call his father.
Four days where the aftermath was still happening, when the debris from the goddamn alien attack kept settling in Midtown. Where the Avengers were on every news channel, every live stream on the Internet, their names both praised and cursed by broad swaths of the political spectrum.
The landlines were down all over the city, the cell phone towers either destroyed or overloaded from use. Calling 911 was a joke and the subway was never going to be the same again. Neither was the Haven Café, judging by the state of Midtown. Only first responders were currently allowed in that section of the city and Tiana’s family wasn’t holding out much hope for the café’s survival. Looked like Stiles’ last paycheck really was his last.
But that didn’t matter. None of it mattered at the moment because his phone was finally, finally connecting and his dad picked up before the first ring faded in Stiles’ ear.
“Hi dad,” he said tiredly.
It was only the second time in his life that Stiles ever heard his father cry.
Stiles was introduced to the rest of the Avengers gradually. He was Tony’s personal assistant, not part of S.H.I.E.L.D. (not yet at least but Stiles had his money on Coulson), which meant he wasn’t privy to the Avengers’ whereabouts. Tony pretty much let Stiles stumble into his teammates—sometimes quite literally—in lieu of a proper introduction. Tony found it hilarious. Stiles found it heart-attack inducing.
The morning Stiles entered the main kitchen looking for Tony (always try the coffee maker first, Steve’s bedroom second, and wow, was that a surprise when Stiles figured it out) and found Natasha sharpening a set of knives while Clint ate his way through a stack of pancakes was something Stiles didn’t need a repeat of.
Stiles froze, one foot still in the air, and very politely said, “Um.”
Clint waved his fork at him. “Thor made breakfast.”
“And there’s leftovers?”
“Nah, I stole some off his plate. He never noticed.”
Natasha didn’t look up from her knife and the whet stone in her hand. “Try the lab.”
“I did.” Stiles gestured wildly with one hand. “I mean, that was my first stop. Tony wasn’t there and JARVIS is being really unhelpful. I think Tony knows I need to talk to him and is giving me the runaround. Er, I’m—”
“I know who you are. Try Bruce’s lab.”
Stiles put his foot down to brace himself. “Right,” he said weakly. “Bruce’s lab. I’ll just—yeah.”
He left the kitchen and went in search of his boss in their daily game of cat and mouse. (Current score being Tony: a billion. Stiles: a paltry ten. Pepper told him that was ten better than the last personal assistant Tony had.)
Bruce, despite the portrayal of the Other Guy in the news, was mild-mannered and even-tempered. He reminded Stiles of his Calculus II professor back at NYU, quiet, but with a commanding presence when required.
“Look who found us,” Tony said, giving Stiles a grin. “See Bruce, what’d I tell you? I can’t shake the kid. Wait. Did you put a locator spell on me or something? Can we scan for something like that?”
Bruce gave Stiles a polite smile and Stiles returned it, hoping it looked natural. “I promise, if you can tie Tony to a chair for me, I will get what I need from him and be out of your space in, like, five seconds, Dr. Banner.”
“That’s supposing you can actually catch me, though yeah, I’m not adverse to bondage,” Tony said, waggling his eyebrows. “Is there something you’re not telling me, Stiles? Is there some unknown kink not found in your file? Does JARVIS need to do some heavy-duty data-mining?”
“I’m secretly a brony,” Stiles deadpanned.
“Congratulations. I have no idea what that means. What do you got for me?”
Stiles pulled out his phone, hit the call icon, and walked over to Tony. He handed the phone to his boss with a bright smile and said, “Pepper wants to talk to you.”
“Tony, don’t hang up,” Pepper said through the speaker.
Three days of the pair playing corporate phone tag and Stiles fled before the explosions started, waving at Bruce as he did so.
“Bye! Nice to meet you!”
He was probably not getting that year-end bonus. Maybe.
(Latest score update ending at Tony: still a billion. Stiles: eleven. Pepper promised she’d cover his bonus.)
One year ago
Stiles called Scott on his birthday. They talked a lot but didn’t say much and Stiles hung up feeling like the worst best friend in the entire world, a fact he bemoaned to Tiana. Repeatedly.
“It’s like, dude, I miss him, you know?” he mumbled into the sticky table top at their favorite dive bar. “He’s my best friend. My fucking brother. And we can’t fucking get past this. Oh god. I think I need another beer. Can I have another beer?”
“You want to be worshiping the porcelain god at three in the morning?” Tiana asked mercilessly.
“You really know how to make a guy feel better.” Stiles levered himself up and stared queasily at her while his stomach settled. “Okay, maybe not another drink. Food?”
“Pop Pub is open. You could probably use a greasy burger.”
Stiles finished the dregs of his beer and stumbled outside holding onto Tiana because she was an awesome friend like that. Even in her stilettos she barely came up to his nose but she was stronger than she looked. Stiles had finally finished growing, was still as lanky as ever, but Tiana was more than capable of hauling his drunk ass around Manhattan. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d done so.
“If I puke into the gutter, will you hold back my hair?” Stiles asked.
“You don’t have enough hair to hold back. If you puke into the gutter, I’m taking a picture and posting it on Facebook.”
He scrubbed his fingers through the bare inch of hair he’d grown out over the past two months or so. “Yeah.”
“Do you think you’ll go back to Beacon Hills any time soon?”
Stiles pressed his mouth into a thin line, letting Tiana guide him down the sidewalk. The muggy night air wasn’t doing anything to clear his head. “Maybe during the holidays. I miss my dad.”
“And Scott. And Derek, and the rest of the pack even if I don’t really feel like pack.”
“You know it’s possible to keep your family while doing this job. You just need to work at it.”
“You make it sound so easy.”
Stiles sighed, feeling like his skin was too tight for his body. “I know. I just—I wish things could be different, you know? I wish Scott could accept what I do. Derek does.”
“Derek knows why we do this. Sounds like he’s the one who needs to talk some sense into Scott. He’s the alpha, right? Let Derek explain why the supernatural world needs wardens.”
“Judge, jury, and executioner.”
“Last resort,” Tiana corrected firmly. “Never, never without reason.”
They didn’t kill indiscriminately, or easily. Stiles still remembered the first life he took in the name of ending a blood feud that would have erupted into the human world with devastating results. A warning here, a death there, just enough of a presence to let people know we’re watching you. We’re judging you. Toe the line within your various codes or we will execute you.
No one ever saw them coming but wardens were thin on the ground nowadays. Keeping the peace came with a price counted up in loss. Neutrality wasn’t completely free of personal bias and Stiles would always have a soft spot for wolves.
Three years ago
The doorbell rang when his dad was still at work. Stiles shoved the last bag of frozen vegetables into the freezer before answering the front door. He couldn’t say he was surprised to find Chris Argent standing on the porch, dressed for the weather but with his leather jacket unzipped. Easier to go for the gun Stiles could see holstered to his belt.
The hunter gave Stiles a blatant once-over. Whatever he was looking for, Stiles doubted he found it. “Stiles.”
“Can I come in?”
Stiles tilted his head until it rested against the door frame. “I don’t think that would be a good idea.”
Chris’ polite smile slipped into something uglier. “So it’s true then.”
“Depends on what you’re talking about. Is it true that I just spent three hours at the grocery store getting supplies for Thanksgiving dinner? Then, yeah. No rumors there.”
“Cut the bullshit, Stiles. I’m here to see for myself that Beacon Hills got itself another warden patrolling its streets. What makes this little town so popular with your kind, hm?”
“I don’t know. Might be the way your family can’t seem to follow that code of yours. The law doesn’t favor arsonists, even posthumously. What’s it like living in a small town with your sister’s crimes hanging over your head?”
Chris laughed, the sound vicious and bitter. “I never condoned what Kate did.”
“Maybe that’s true, but you never tried to stop her.”
“I didn’t know.”
“I find that real hard to believe.”
“If her actions were so terrible, she’d have been killed by a warden, not by Peter. Your people never followed up on her. Makes me think someone in your ranks condoned what she did.”
“Beacon Hills didn’t have a warden when Kate broke your code. We don’t sentence without proof.”
“You don’t kill unless you can keep your conscience clean. Don’t whitewash what you do, Stiles. It won’t help you.”
“Does it help you?” Stiles asked sharply. “Do you sleep easier at night knowing you’ve killed another person whose only crime might just be turning furry? I know my place, Chris. I know my exact place in this world. I don’t need your help in finding it. Seems to me, though, you need help in finding yours.”
Chris stepped forward, shoulders held in a rigid line as he attempted to loom over Stiles. “You listen to me—”
“No,” Stiles cut in fiercely, shoving himself to his full height as he looked Chris in the eye. “You listen. I’m not a teenager anymore. You can’t toss me around and interrogate me whenever you want to further your own agenda. You know what I am. Beacon Hills will always be my home, no matter where else I live. So get it through your thick fucking skull that I’m watching you, Chris, head of the Argent bloodline, and I will never look away.”
Chris reared back, the expression on his face a mix of emotions Stiles didn’t care to decipher. All that mattered was he’d just put the hunter on notice that the wardens weren’t going to ignore him or his family anymore.
“You’re supposed to be neutral,” Chris gritted out.
“I’m a Stilinski,” Stiles said flatly. “We look after our family.”
“Your father doesn’t know—” Chris broke off, teeth clacking together as he closed his mouth. The grimace that crossed his face reminded Stiles of the first time he’d stumbled across a decomposing body. He was pretty damn sure he’d made that exact same face. “Scott.”
“And all the rest of the furballs running around here when college isn’t getting in the way. Including Allison.”
Chris stared at him for a long few minutes, neither one of them moving.
“You’re biased,” Chris finally said.
“Happy Thanksgiving,” Stiles retorted before stepping back inside the house and closing the door in the hunter’s face.
When he returned to the kitchen, he found Derek waiting for him. “Stiles.”
“Were you following him or me?” Stiles asked. He grabbed the pair of kitchen scissors from the wooden knife block and proceeded to cut away the plastic bag containing the turkey. Prepping for Thanksgiving was an all day affair and he still needed to find time to make dinner tonight.
“Allison had a fight with her dad earlier today. She and Scott are at my place.”
“Figures. Do me a favor and get the box of brine ingredients out of the pantry.”
Derek did as he was asked, setting the Williams & Sonoma box on the counter. “Chris is right. You’re supposed to be neutral.”
“Guess he shouldn’t be related to such psychotic people then, eh?”
“Don’t, Derek.” Stiles glanced over at him, giving Derek a lopsided smile. “You said we’d make it work.”
Derek nodded slowly and let the conversation die. “We’re having a pack get together tomorrow night after everyone’s done with family stuff. You better be there.”
“Why’d you think I flew across the country? You think I’d brave holiday travel for just anyone? Now get over here and help me gut this turkey.”
The gala that night was a Stark Industries event, which meant it was Stiles’ job, in conjunction with Pepper, to get Tony out the door of Avengers Tower and to the gala on time. For Tony Stark, that meant arriving fashionably late bitching about how good Pepper and Stiles were when it came to hiding the booze.
Stiles trailed behind Tony for the duration of the evening, smoothing all the ruffled feathers Tony left in his wake and making sure to intercept every other drink waiter and send them on their merry way. A drunk Tony sold gossip magazines but utterly tanked Stark Industries’ stocks.
He got the call halfway through the night, StarkPhone buzzing in his suit pocket. He pulled it out and checked the caller. Technically, he was working but he always made time for Derek.
“Hey, I’m in the middle of something. What’s up?” Stiles said.
“Stiles, it’s your dad.”
He went preternaturally still in the crowd, people moving around him to the sound of a string quartet that Stiles could no longer hear. “What happened?”
Stiles would never fully remember what Derek said. The only words that penetrated his brain were heart attack and unnatural and hospital.
He found Pepper first, the smile leaving her face when she looked at him. “Stiles?”
“I have to go,” he said, wondering how the hell he was forming words when all he wanted to do was scream. “There’s an emergency. My dad—I need to go.”
“Your dad? What happened? And no, of course you’re not staying. Let me call Happy, he can pick you up,” she said.
“I was going to catch a cab.”
Pepper grabbed him by the arm and dragged him out of the gala, much in the same way he’d dragged her out of the reach of the hellhound all those months ago. “You’re not catching a cab, Stiles. Happy will take you to the airport. I’ll deal with Tony.”
Somehow, Stiles made it out of New York and onto a plane for a red-eye flight to Sacramento and a jumper flight to Beacon Hills Airport (not international any time soon). He got a rental car, paid the extra insurance fee for being under twenty-five, and headed to the town he still considered home, above all else.
Beacon Hills General hadn’t changed at all. He suspected it never would. Stiles parked in the adjacent garage and headed inside. He realized he must look ridiculously out of place in his designer suit, judging by the surprised looks on everyone’s faces when he arrived in the CICU wing. Stiles didn’t care.
He simply walked past his friends and into his dad’s hospital room, pulled a chair up to the bedside, and sat down. The spot was familiar, from all the times he’d sat at his mother’s bedside in the cancer ward as a child.
His dad was asleep, five IV lines piggybacking into two catheters, one in the back of each hand. Electrodes were stuck to his chest, monitoring his heart rate and breathing. His face had a grayish cast to it, pain lines etched around his mouth and eyes. He looked old. His dad had never looked old before.
“He’s going to be all right.”
Stiles didn’t look away from his dad’s sleeping form. “What happened, Scott?”
Scott moved further into the room, coming to stand by Stiles’ chair. “A group of hunters came to town last week. They have a witch with them. We kept our distance but they weren’t interested in following the code. Your dad went with Derek yesterday to try to warn them off and the witch did something to him, somehow, to make him go into cardiac arrest.”
“He’s eating salads for the rest of his life.” Stiles drew in a deep breath, trying to choke back the panic attack that had followed him across the country. “Are the hunters still in town?”
“Allison said they haven’t left yet. If they do, Chris will contact us.”
“What are you going to do about the hunters?”
“Nothing.” The word tasted like poison on his tongue.
Scott made a surprised sound. “Nothing?”
Stiles muffled his laughter against his fist and tried not to choke. “Yeah, Scott. Nothing. I’m not going after them.”
“They went after your dad, Stiles.”
“You think I don’t know that?” Stiles snarled, finally looking at Scott. “You think this is where I want to be right now? It’s not my right to go after them, Scott. That’s not how we work.”
“I always thought this was exactly how you wardens worked,” Scott said quietly. “Someone broke the code. You go in and set them straight.”
“My dad was acting within the capacity of pack. And honestly, I make a real shitty warden sometimes because I’ve got a couple of biases that are difficult to ignore but I know what they are. I know when they get in the way. And when that happens, I take myself out of the job and give it to someone else.”
Scott blinked down at him. “Oh.”
“Oh, he says,” Stiles muttered. “It’s not about revenge, Scott. It can’t be. There’d be too many bodies to bury if that was the case.”
But oh, how he wanted to give in to the temptation. To hunt the hunters and make them feel all the rage and helplessness he felt right now.
“Do you want me to stay?” Scott asked after a moment.
“You’re not supposed to be in here anyway. ICU means only one family member gets to sit with the patient at a time.”
“Stiles. Do you want me to stay?”
He swallowed thickly, curling his hands into tight fists. “Yeah. Yeah, I want you to stay.”
Five years ago
“My sister lives in New York City. She’s willing to let you stay for the summer and continue your lessons in exchange for helping out at their café before classes start at NYU,” Deaton said.
“A café? I thought your sister was a lawyer?” Stiles asked, eyes on the dozen or so pens zooming around the exam room. Levitation spells were easy and amusing when the items were small. Trying to levitate himself gave Stiles a migraine.
“It’s a family business. My mother used to run it. Everyone takes a turn behind the espresso machine at some point in their life.”
“I’m actually way better at drinking coffee than making it. They have room for a taste tester?”
“Focus, Stiles. When do you want to leave?”
He would graduate high school in a week. NYU had already sent him his welcome packet. He knew the rules of how a warden worked better than he’d mastered the wards and spells, but the rest would come with time and practice. Sometimes a change of scenery was all anyone needed in order to succeed.
“Two weeks,” Stiles said, watching as the pens dipped and rose above him. “I’ll tell my dad.”
“All right. I think you’ll like my niece. You’re a lot like Tiana in some ways.”
“Now I know why Derek doesn’t mind his weekend trips to New York,” Lydia said, studying Stiles with a critical eye. “Who taught you how to dress yourself?”
“I was working last night,” Stiles muttered, taking another sip of the disgustingly horrible hospital coffee. The cafeteria was in the lull between breakfast and lunch, and the only real offerings were liquid. He almost preferred Tony’s version of coffee to this crap.
“Where? At a party? You don’t wear Alexander McQueen to an office cubicle, Stiles.”
“My boss has high standards.”
“More like astronomical standards, don’t lie,” a too-familiar voice called out. “What’s this supposed to be? Coffee? This is not coffee. Dummy makes better coffee unsupervised.”
“We’ve talked about that,” Steve said mildly, giving Stiles a wave and an encouraging smile.
“What? It’s not like JARVIS will let Dummy poison me. Again. It was only the one time—okay, maybe twice. He’ll get the hang of it eventually.”
“Dude!” Scott hissed, kicking Stiles’ leg under the table. “You work for Iron Man and you never told me?!”
“No, I work for Tony Stark when he’s not using Iron Man as an excuse to hide from the CEO of his company,” Stiles retorted, raising his voice so he could be heard. “What are you doing here? You had a ten o’clock meeting today, East Coast time.”
“And who here is surprised that I’m not attending it? No one? Good answer, all of you. Seriously though, Stiles. I’m here because Pepper didn’t tell me you left last night until she’d already put you on a plane. Next time? Use the company jet. More leg room and it comes with a stripper pole.”
“Tony,” Steve said in a disapproving tone.
“A stripper pole which was removed during the jet’s last safety check,” Tony quickly amended. He clapped his hands together, eyeing the group of people surrounding Stiles. “So! Which of you turn furry during the full moon?”
“I quit,” Stiles said, throwing his arms up in disbelief. Derek’s hand was a warm point of contact on his lower back, bracing him.
“Dude,” Scott said, sounding ridiculously pleased. He grinned at Stiles, the first real smile in years, and extended his fist across the table. “Iron Man!”
(Because that would never not be cool.)
Stiles stared at him for a few seconds before laughing tiredly and giving in to the fist bump. “I know, right?”
Stiles met Tiana for coffee in the Starbucks he used to frequent as a teenager. She looked like her usual New Yorker self that morning, in her fashionable clothes and over-sized sunglasses.
“I hate giving my money to the corporate giant,” she said, slurping inelegantly at her coffee. “This shit tastes burnt.”
“Thank you,” Stiles told her, meaning it more than anything in recent memory.
Because he was too close to the parties involved and he hadn’t yet reached the point where he was willing to compromise his neutrality. That day would come, it was inevitable, and when it did he’d give up being a warden. Stiles knew his limits. He knew his biases.
For now, he knew the right thing to do, had known it in New York when he called Tiana to do a job he couldn’t rightfully take. Not yet, not until his pack was fully settled, and that would take years.
Stiles could wait. He could keep them safe.
“How’s your dad?” Tiana asked.
“The doctor says he’s going to be okay. I’m working on transitioning the healing salve into an edible liquid. Tony said he’ll let me use his lab when we get back to New York.”
“That man is going to take over the world one day.”
“Not if Steve and Pepper have anything to say about it.”
Six years ago
The back door was unlocked but the line of mountain ash poured across the threshold meant no one but a human could come inside without permission this late at night.
Deaton looked up from the supplies he was cataloging, the tiny packets of powder and jars of liquid and powder not the usual sort of medicine one would find in a veterinarian’s office. “Stiles. What can I do for you?”
He swallowed, the bow-tie of his junior prom tux practically choking him. “You said if I thought about it, really thought about it, I could ask you for help and you’d give it to me.”
Deaton put down the jar of mountain ash on the exam table with a quiet clink. “I did.”
He went into his new life with eyes wide open this time. No stumbling around blindly, letting someone else take on the risks that came with running with wolves. Time he paid his dues.
Stiles opened his eyes, the ringtone of his phone cutting through his sleep. The arm around his waist tightened a little as Derek pressed his face against the back of Stiles’ neck. The older man was in town for the week, taking in the glorious sights of Stiles’ bedroom and, on occasion, his bathroom. Eventually they might even make it to the kitchen but Stiles had a couple of restaurants on speed dial that would deliver at 3:00 a.m.
“Don’t answer,” Derek muttered.
“It’s Scott,” Stiles said, blinking blearily at the name on the screen.
Derek huffed quietly but didn’t say anything more. Stiles, though, he answered the phone.
Then and now
Stiles pulled on his red hoodie, grabbed his baseball bat from the corner of his bedroom, and headed out into the night.
As the saying went, if you’re going through hell, keep going.