Derek runs out of money after four years. He’s careful with it, enough, and it’s a wonder it lasts so long already when he’s not doing much with his life besides keeping a bunch of baby werewolves from dying (and their human friends, and their girlfriends, and their families, and himself, sometimes). But after four years he has to stop pretending he can live the rest of his life like this, and so he does the same thing most people his ago do.
He gets a job.
It’s a bit like going back to old habits, like riding a bicycle. He’s lost some of the muscle memory but he hasn’t lost the gestures and the delicateness required for the work. It’s an art, after all.
It’s also something he’s never talked about while in Beacon Hills, something he put to the back of his mind while looking for Laura’s killer, while creating himself a new family, while growing out of the guilt that has trapped him in place for so long. It was something he did while back in New York, when his life was not all about werewolves and how much he’d lost, when he liked to pretend he was someone else.
The good thing about tattoo parlors is that they’re lenient with your past. Derek interviews in the one tattoo parlor in Beacon Hills, shows his skills with a tattoo machine and a drawing pad, and gets asked very little about what he did before. He gives them his credentials and his diploma, and that’s enough. Nothing about what happened to Derek while in Beacon Hills gets even a mention. They need the extra set of hands, and after Derek shows them the tattoo of his own design on a patch of synthetic skin, that’s that. They shake on it, and Derek’s got a job.
College is pretty much the most liberating, amazing experience of Stiles’ entire life. Granted he hasn’t had that much to compare it to, because somehow werewolves and threats to his life don’t quite match huge parties, girls, guys, people who don’t know who he is and what time he was born and how cute it was that he had this little curl of hair at the base of his spine as a baby. Here he’s just Stiles, 19, from somewhere in Northern California, the guy with long slender fingers that’s really good at biochem and can throw a pretty impressive party even when under stressful conditions.
People give him the time of day here, and they find him running his mouth an enthralling quality, not something to smack him over the head for. Here there are no werewolves that Stiles is aware of, and he can enjoy being young and carefree. It’s only going to last four years, so there’s no way he’s not making the most of it.
It’s not like he left everything behind, either. He calls his dad and Scott every couple of days, just touches base and reminds himself that he’s got family back home, that this is not going to last and he can’t let everything go by the wayside. Scott doesn’t really talk about werewolf stuff, but from what Stiles gathers, things are pretty quiet on that front, with Derek finally taking real leadership and Isaac and Scott seconding. Scott still likes to talk about Allison better.
It’s all good, because when Scott talks about Allison, Stiles talks about Graham, or Lauren, or Deb, or Sebastian. There have been some mishaps, of course, but Stiles is just having fun and finding people who want the same out of their college years. It works well most of the time for everyone, and Stiles isn’t a dick; he doesn’t pretend he wants forever out of anyone he ends up kissing.
It’s not a big deal to go home for a week; Stiles is actually looking forward seeing his dad and Scott and Allison and Mrs. McCall, catch up properly with his hometown. He can make it a party.
Derek likes Fridays best because they’re the busiest days in the shop. People trickle in and out asking for sketches or ideas in between proper appointments. The buzz of the tattoo machines is still a soothing sound for Derek, who set himself up in a corner of the main workshop to always be part of the organized chaos. He draws inspiration, some strength and control from it, and it’s a peaceful state of mind he manages to get into when he is in the shop, working away at sketches. He likes the idea of creating something from others’ memories, it helps him get to a better place with his own.
He’s seen so many people coming through the town, just out of jail (or a relationship, or of time) telling him their life story and what they want to get, sometimes a brand to remind them of past mistakes, sometimes an ode to cherished memories. Derek finds himself humbled by some of the things he hears, the heartache and the horrors and the secrets. It helps; the implicit trust between someone and their tattoo artist, it’s like Derek’s own kind of therapy.
It’s good that nobody he knows or that knows him comes into the shop, too. It’s almost like a bubble outside of everything else Derek knows and lives every day, respite from hunters and controlling a pack that expands every few months or so. In the tattoo parlor, he doesn’t have to be an Alpha, he can just be Derek and not have that baggage; he’s a shadow with a hint of a smile for his customers, someone who listens and inks and never judges. It’s like a second skin that he has to shed when he gets out of the shop.
That is, of course, until Stiles walks into the tattoo parlor. Then things get a bit messy. It’s possible it’s because it’s a Tuesday, and Derek doesn’t like Tuesdays much.
Stiles has a tendency to make stupid bets. It’s probably the amounts of beer he’s drunk since starting college that’s playing with his brain cells, but it seems very easy to start making bets when you’re three sheets to the wind, and then when he loses, he doesn’t like not to honor said bets. He’s kind of an upstanding guy that way.
Which is the exact reason why he’s now crossing the threshold of Beacon Hills’ tattoo parlor, all the while feeling a little queasy. He could have gone to one of the shops around campus, but he kinda likes the reassurance that his dad is only a call away; he couldn’t quite explain why, because he doesn’t really want to have to explain to his dad why he’s in a tattoo shop in the first place.
The thing is, if he’s about to do it he’s going to do it right; he’s had an idea for a design for a long time and now is the perfect time not to chicken out anymore and get it done. He lost his bet fair and square and it gives him this one last push to do something he’s been wanting to do for a long time without actually daring to. He’s getting a tattoo.
It…sorts of all comes to a head when he looks around the shop and his eyes land on Derek. Derek Hale, on the other side of the counter, with ink stained fingers and a look between confusion and disbelief on his face. What is Derek doing here?
“Are you getting another tattoo?” Stiles blurts out even though they’re the only two people in the shop, and there is no sound but the low volume music in the background, and surely Derek wouldn’t be tattooing himself, would he? It’s probably something you can do, really, with experience and all that, but it sounds like a shitty idea to Stiles anyway.
Derek considers him for a moment. They haven’t seen each other in months, and they don’t speak often, besides a few emails here and there for Scott-specific things. Stiles has no idea what Derek’s thinking; that much hasn’t changed.
“I work here.”
“You – you work? I thought you lived on glaring at people and cold Chinese. I had no idea you had a job. You didn’t do anything for years!”
Stiles realizes his words sound terribly condescending, but he’s being absolutely honest, and surprisingly enough, Derek doesn’t glower at him. Instead, he looks at his fingers, almost like he’s ashamed, which is stupid, because there’s no reason to be ashamed of work.
“I should have gotten back to work sooner. Got distracted.”
“Oh,” Stiles feels a bit stupid, he got that one backwards. “So you’re a tattoo artist now?”
Derek nods. “Can I help you with something?”
Well, this is it, Stiles is getting a tattoo. He slaps the piece of paper he printed off earlier on the counter in front of Derek, shifting from foot to foot. “I kinda want a tattoo,” he said helpfully, smirking when Derek raises an eyebrow at him.
“You don’t exactly sound sure about this, Stiles.”
“Oh, I am. I mean it’s pretty fucking stupid and I’m doing it now because I lost a bet and I ended up not being able to bench press 200 pounds, can you believe that? I thought I had it in the bag, but you know, nevermind, I didn’t and so I lost and now I’m getting a tattoo, but it’s alright because I’ve wanted one for a while anyway, and I’ve never had the balls so now at least it’s kinda forcing me to do it, which is good I guess. I’ve got cash, is cash good?”
“Cash is good,” Derek nods, looking between the printed drawing Stiles found on the internet, and Stiles himself. “Well, if you’re sure?”
“Yeah, I’m sure. I think. Yeah, yeah, I’m sure. Is this something you can work with? I looked it up on Google, this was pretty much the closest to what I wanted.”
Derek holds the piece of paper between two fingers, considering it for a moment. It’s a Celtic knot, a tree in a mandala, and it reminds Stiles of exactly why he’s here right now.
“I can work with that,” Derek replies, and for some reason, Stiles breathes out, and relaxes.
It doesn’t take long to make something more personalized and stylized of the mandala Stiles brought with him. The initial drawing is nice; simple but intricate, not really unlike Stiles himself, and Derek streamlines it, fills up a few empty lines and then shows it up to Stiles. Approval is quick and a little nervous (Stiles keeps playing with his fingers as he sits, crossing and uncrossing them and tapping them against his now-filled paperwork), so Derek prepares the stencil transfer, and turns to Stiles.
“Last chance to walk away,” he says solemnly. Usually they don’t do tattoos right after a sketch discussion, but his afternoon was mostly free anyway, and he’s sort of scared that, if he gives Stiles an appointment for later in the week, he’s not going to see him again in the shop.
He likes the separation between his job and his Pack but Stiles’ is different. Stiles has gone away. Stiles has severed ties that still keep the others together. It’s not a bad thing; it makes him intriguing. He’s always been intriguing, as much as infuriating. Too smart for his own good, but also unable to shut up. Four years ago he drove Derek crazy.
Now he’s still jittery and he still talks too much, but it’s not as bad as it used to be. There’s something calm in his eyes, something more confident, self-assurance. And Derek has learned a whole lot of patience, too.
“Not walking away,” Stiles says, and then clenches his jaw, the muscle twitching under his skin. Then he’s lifting his shirt and pulling it off his right arm, exposing his side. “I want it there.” He says it like it’s a challenge as he motions for the middle portion of his ribs.
There’s the unavoidable part where Derek has to shave the area, focusing on his movements and not the amused slant of Stiles’ lips when he flicks his eyes up for a second.
Derek’s hands are steady as he puts the stencil on, but through his gloves he can feel the smoothness of Stiles’ skin under his fingers. This is not something Derek usually thinks about, but Stiles has always been different; and now Derek can see for himself that Stiles is nothing of the teenager he used to be. He’s filled out, taller, his voice steadier, his eyes quieter. He used to be intriguing and cute, and now he’s intriguing and, well, pretty fucking hot.
Once the stencil in place, Derek pulls back, smacking his lips together. “Okay, check in the mirror if it’s good for you.”
Stiles hops down from the chair and inspects Derek’s placement, only to nod. “Yeah, okay, let’s do this.”
Derek motions for him to sit back, then, and stubbornly looks at his instruments, dips the needle in the ink carefully, prepares strips of cloth for the excess ink and blood. The first contact of the needle with Stiles’ skin makes him jerk.
“Don’t move,” Derek grits out, not actually angry.
“Sorry, I was surprised. Okay, not moving anymore.”
It doesn’t have to be a first or a last, some people are just jittery and nervous, and the process is difficult, to a point where Derek wonders why some of them come back. But after a few moments, Stiles seem to relax, a long exhalation leaving his chest, and his shoulders drop somewhat – as much as possible considering he’s still holding his arm up to allow Derek to work. The buzz of the machine covers their noises, Derek steady and focused as he goes for ink, goes for Stiles’ skin, wipes, goes for ink.
“So, why this design?”
Stiles makes a noise. “Isn’t it bad luck or something to talk about the significance of your tattoos?”
“Only if you want to believe it.”
"What does yours mean?" Stiles asks, innocently. Derek can't help but grin.
Stiles goes rigid, and when Derek dares to look up, Stiles is staring at him. "I only know - the one on your back."
Derek knew Stiles meant that one, but it's still amusing to see him startle. He can't help but wonder if Stiles is thinking of all the hidden places Derek could have a tattoo on. "It's a Triskelion. To me it means the three ends of a whole. Alpha, Beta, Omega. It's a family thing."
"This is similar. It's supposed to represent an infinite loop of the self, and family, and ancestors. It's kind of rooted in me, so the tree made sense. You know? It's supposed to incite reflection, which I guess is good considering all the shit we've all gone through. Mistakes once made not to be made again."
Derek looks back down at the tattoo, the lines of it soon to be done. It makes sense, and it fits Stiles.
"Hey, you mind if I rest my arm on your shoulder? It's starting to hurt."
Derek looks at Stiles' ribs some more, before nodding. "Yeah, sure."
Stiles didn't think it would hurt this much. It's like getting scraped under his skin, the needle pushing in and out relentlessly, grating all the way to his bones, making his teeth rattle with the electric buzz of the machine. And yet, every time it's on the verge of being uncomfortable, it shifts just enough to start all over again, a slow build up to unbearable pain that never actually comes.
He can feel shapes being inked into his skin, swoops and curves of deep black and blood appearing on his body when he looks down at the skin stretched between Derek's fingers. When he closes his eyes, he can follow the moves of the needle, and it's almost enough to be soothing until his teeth start to hurt from all the clenching and gritting Stiles is doing to bear the feeling.
Derek is precise, quiet; he's got a rhythm that Stiles is afraid to disturb. There's also all the small movements he does that make his skin shift and brush against Stiles where his arm is resting against the curve of Derek's shoulder. It's distracting, unexpectedly, but Derek has changed enough that he's almost a whole new person that Stiles wants to know, all over again. The anger that once made Derek wake up in the morning, that kept his body taut and tense all day long is, if not gone, then displaced, pushed further back than it used to be, better contained and less obvious. Now he seems driven by such calmness Stiles has to ask about it.
"So you do yoga now?"
Stiles starts to shrug, before remembering he's not supposed to jolt Derek. "I know it's been like, two years since we talked, but you used to be, how to describe that...angry. And now you look like you've found Buddha."
Derek snorts, sounding amused. "Maybe I have, Stiles."
"I'm sure Scott would have told me that."
Derek goes for more ink, his fingers pressing into Stiles' side. "Fine, no Buddha. No yoga, either. Would you believe me if I told you this job is like therapy for me?"
Stiles looks down at Derek, sees something soft in his eyes that disappears as soon as Derek blinks. "Yeah, I could believe that," he replies softly.
"College seems to agree with you," Derek says to change the subject, and Stiles smiles before wincing. Derek has started filling out in the lines.
"It is. I'm having fun. I'm popular, you know? Girls ten times hotter than Lydia - if you can believe that exists - are giving me the time of day. I'm good at what I'm studying, and I really love it."
"Biochemistry." It felt kind of an obvious subject when Stiles had started obsessing over Scott's hormonal changes during different phases of the lunar cycle.
Derek doesn't say anything for a moment. Then, out of the blue, he chuckles. "Nerd. You're not getting samples of my blood."
Stiles laughs; loud and a little ugly. "Spoilsport."
It takes a solid half hour more of Derek working while Stiles babbles on about courses and that hot TA he got to make out with one night and parties and that little coffee shop he likes on campus, but then he’s finished, and he’s a little bit sad that he’s got to take his hands off Stiles. Stiles stops talking suddenly, looking down at himself when Derek pulls away.
“There you go, all done.”
“Really? How long did it take?”
Derek checks his watch, calculates quickly. “A little over an hour. Would have taken less time if you hadn’t been so twitchy.”
Stiles snorts. “Whatever.”
Derek keeps Stiles’ arm away as he checks the tattoo over, wiping it clean before going for the usual ointment they use on new tattoos (which is only diaper cream, but he never tells customers that). Using his clean, gloved hand, Derek spreads the cream over Stiles’ side generously, noticing Stiles’ sharp intake of breath.
He dresses the tattoo with cling film, and then snaps his gloves off. “You can get dressed again, now. I’m going to give you your after care instructions, but don’t hesitate to come back if anything feels wrong. Try not to rub against it, and keep the cling film on for at least four hours. It needs to dry so if you don’t have anything to do, hang around shirtless. It needs to be moisturized twice a day.”
Stiles nods absent-mindedly, looking at his own covered tattoo with something like fascination. Derek grins, remembering the times he’d spent catching glimpses of his own first tattoo after he’d got it done.
Finally Stiles gets dressed again, and pays up (Derek gives him a discount, but doesn’t say anything about it), clutching the aftercare instructions written in Derek’s messy scrawl in his free hand.
“Well, cool. I’ll see you around?”
“Sure. When are you leaving?”
If Stiles comes back to the tattoo shop three days later, it’s because he is worried about the state of his tattoo, not because he wants to see Derek again before he leaves and he’s not sure they will arrange anything. Saying they will is easy enough after an hour-long conversation while Derek had his hands all over Stiles, but going through with it is not as simple, and Stiles has chickened out a few times already.
When he walks into the tattoo parlor, it’s buzzing with activity. Three tattoo artists are working in the work shop, bent over an arm, a hip, a back. Stiles hangs near the door for a while until Derek emerges from a back room, his eyes on Stiles already. Oh, yeah. He probably smelled Stiles. Derek crosses the workshop in just a few strides, and leans over the counter, his eyes dark.
“Is everything okay?”
“I don’t know. Look, it’s weird, okay. It’s starting to scab in some places and it itches a lot and I don’t know if it looks right so you said to come back if I wasn’t sure, so um, here I am. And I’d like to show you, but there’s a lot of people here, um, isn’t there some place where we can…be alone?”
He doesn’t mean it to sound like a come on but Derek’s eyes flash anyway and Stiles feels heat flushing up his body. Well, that’s interesting.
Derek’s jaw clenches and he nods, motioning for Stiles to come around the counter, which he does quickly, trying his best to ignore the smirks and looks they’re getting from both customers and Derek’s fellow tattoo artists. Derek’s hand is light on the small of Stiles’ back, guiding him through the shop, and Stiles hides a smile when he catches Derek flipping off one of his colleagues.
The stock room Derek leads him in is dark and on the stuffy side, but Stiles knows Derek will have no trouble seeing Stiles, so he whips off his t-shirt in one move, resisting the temptation to step closer to Derek; the room smells of sweat and ink. Derek inches closer anyway, and he licks his lips when he puts a hand on Stiles’ good side, leaning down slightly to get a closer look at the healing tattoo. His fingers graze the bruised skin, a touch that is barely there but still makes Stiles gasp, he’s so sensitive there now.
“Seems like it’s healing properly, Stiles. I see no signs of infection, and I can’t smell anything bad either,” Derek says, his voice low and slow, like he’s tasting his words on his tongue before letting them out. He straightens up but his fingers are still tucked in Stiles’ sides, a little cold against Stiles’ skin.
“Oh. Okay, then,” Stiles says, and lunges forward, kissing Derek before he loses the balls to do it. He grabs at Derek’s shirt, relief flooding through his veins when Derek responds in kind, backing Stiles against some shelves, bottles of ink rattling next to them. It’s a bit of a desperate kiss, a push and pull but at the same time Stiles can’t feel Derek’s fingers on his fresh tattoo, only brushing just underneath.
When he pulls away, Stiles breathes harshly towards the ceiling, a handful of Derek’s hair between his fingers. “Sorry, ah, sorry, I thought – seemed like a good idea to do that in my head,” he says between pants, and Derek growls against his throat. It might sound menacing under other circumstances, but right now it just turns Stiles’ blood to liquid fire.
“Should I take that as yes?”
Derek sighs, pulls back enough to look at Stiles. He’s smiling a little. “Yes, Stiles, you have the best ideas.”
Stiles grins, barking out a laugh; fuck it if everybody outside the stock room can hear that, he’ll deal. Derek is quick to shut him up anyway, going back to the kissing and heavy petting, making the most of the fact that Stiles is already shirtless to run his hands everywhere but over Stiles’ tattoo, his thumbs digging just under Stiles’ hipbones. Stiles is not going to be left two steps behind, and he attacks Derek’s shirt, the tiny buttons proving a bit elusive but he manages, gets them off, pushes the shirt down Derek’s shoulders.
He freezes mid-kiss when he gets a glimpse at Derek then, pulling away and holding Derek at arm’s length just to be able to take in the massive tattoo winding its way up Derek’s whole side. It’s a tree, thick and intricate, its roots curling down into Derek’s waistband and disappearing down under, to go all the way up to his armpit, growing so big it takes over Derek’s torso and back on each side. It’s full of details that Stiles want to explore later, when his head is not so full of needwantfuck.
“Fuck. Fuck, c’mere,” he says desperately, pulling Derek to him again, kissing him wetly, sound echoing around the ink bottles. He wraps a leg around Derek’s waist and he doesn’t even care that he sounds and looks like a little hussy. Derek is setting Stiles on fire and he wants to climb him pretty desperately. Derek keeps on grunting into Stiles’ kisses, one of his arms low around Stiles’ waist to support him as they rut – there is no better word for it – against each other, still wearing their jeans but obviously hard and apparently far too gone to care already.
It’s a bit of a rush, even for Stiles who’s found himself in this situation a few times since starting college, but it’s also because of the overload of intimacy he’s shared with Derek since he first stepped into the tattoo parlor. All the touches, the looks, even what they’ve been talking about; it was a degree of closeness they’ve never had before but that felt like finding an old friend again. Maybe that’s why it’s all getting to Stiles’ head, the way Derek kisses him with bites and how he’s thrusting into Stiles’ hips, the way he sounds a bit animalistic, a little ferocious, completely sensual to Stiles’ ears.
Stiles comes with Derek’s hand cupped over his cock, through his jeans, and it’s absolutely disgusting yet he can’t help but laugh, feeling sort of hysterical as he holds Derek, slips his hand inside Derek’s black jeans and boxers. He raises a daring eyebrow at Derek when he wraps his fingers around Derek’s erection.
“Fuck, you’ve grown up filthy,” Derek gasps, and comes.
Derek’s never been great with goodbyes so it’s good that Stiles doesn’t come by the shop before he leaves Beacon Hills again. It’s just not something Derek’s comfortable with, and while their weekend together had been fun, he’s not going to go asking for promises. Stiles’ living the high life in college, too busy with classes and sex and parties to pine, which is much better for Derek anyway – he doesn’t do pining very well.
So no goodbye is better. He gets back to work without getting an anticipatory hard-on every time the doorbell chimes when someone walks into the tattoo shop, but he makes the most of Stiles’ calls, which are now a regular thing, every few weeks or so.
Derek tattoos old and young, fat and skinny, he tattoos some ugly designs on gorgeous women and stunning art on scarred backs. He gets his own body art expanded, starts on designs for a sleeve with one of his colleague, which would include elements of his Bodhi tree and, of course, a wolf (that was just too obvious at first, but in the midst of everything else, it fits). It takes a while, but both Isaac and Scott come in, and get themselves smaller versions of the Triskelion.
Even with his own Pack getting tattoos, Derek feels sort of validated when one day he gets a text that says, next time I’m over I’m thinking I’d like a piece on my calf, I already have an idea of what, xx Stiles.
Derek grins when he writes back, come over whenever.