Nothing is ever how Stiles imagined it. Take this, lying face down, head on the padded rest, his right arm dangling down the angled work surface. He curls his fingers, grasping at air.
"You getting the tinglies?" Rachel says, pausing.
Stiles shakes his head, just a little, pressing his cheek down against the headrest. "Nah, you can keep going."
This is the third session on this one. Rachel's already done the outline and filled in the front, so all that's left is the color and shading on the back of his upper arm. Stiles hasn't decided if he'll go for a full sleeve yet. His right arm is his casting arm; it could help, or it could hinder. He's indecisive.
The shop is quiet, normal for an early afternoon in the middle of the week. Sometimes they talk while Rachel works, but Stiles isn't up to it today. Rachel put on Interpol's first album earlier, singing softly while she works. Stiles can barely hear her over the vibration of the tattoo gun moving carefully over his arm. After the first few minutes, the needle's a dull throb in the background as heat blooms under his skin and lassitude settles over him. He could fall asleep right here if he didn't have to keep his arm so rigid and still. It's been forty-five minutes now and he's getting fidgety, twisting his free wrist and grinding it against the table.
An hour in, Rachel turns off the gun and sets on the cart next to her. "Let's take a break. Want some water?"
"Sure," Stiles slurs. "Sounds good."
"Aww, baby." Erica's across from them, setting up at her chair, but she comes over to ruffle Stiles's hair, soft and clean from his shower earlier. "You're so cute like this. I should take a photo for—"
"Cut it out," Rachel says, twisting the cap on the water bottle. She sticks a bendy straw in it before she passes it to Stiles, because she loves him, and probably also because Stiles pays her a lot of money on a regular basis and he's kind of earned the VIP treatment.
When they start up again, Stiles slips right back under. It's almost like dreaming.
In college, Stiles takes a few theater classes—lighting, mostly, and a summer intensive on set construction. He helped demo and redo the kitchen in Derek's house after he and Isaac moved in, but installing drywall isn't the same thing as putting flats together, stapling the plywood to the frame with the pneumatic staple gun. That thing scares the shit out of him. Sometimes he wonders what silver staples would do to a werewolf.
Stiles gets roped into helping light his freshman roommate's short film the summer before senior year, even though he's never done film before and mostly he's pulling the design out of his ass and figuring out where the hell to get Klieg lights for the moonlit murder scene. It's fine until Stiles turns them on to check the angle and Wei has to tug her arm free from the shitty plastic handcuffs to cover her eyes; then he's with Derek again in the Hale house basement, surrounded by dormant floodlights and ash.
They wind up a little before dawn and Stiles walks back to his apartment, fiddling with the phone in his pocket. He texts Derek before he goes to sleep, just, hey, that's all.
Stiles gets rid of most of the furniture in his apartment when he moves back to Beacon Hills, but he brings his dresser. It's thrifted, sturdy, heavy as fuck; he fills the empty drawers with books and stacks them in the back seat of the Jeep because he's kind of lazy and he ran out of boxes before he even started on his textbooks. Dad's the one who drives the dresser and most of the boxes down from Olympia. He meets Stiles outside the house the morning after they get back, with the resigned look on his face that Stiles expected but hoped against anyway.
"There's always room for you at home, Stiles," Dad says as he opens up the hatch of the Suburban. "You know that, right?"
"Please, can you not—" Stiles reaches out, steadies the box of dishes that's wobbling perilously. "That's not cool. You know that. I'm not talking about it anymore."
They don't talk while they unload boxes onto the driveway. Isaac comes out after a few minutes, a pillow crease still smoothing out of his cheek. "Hey, you need a hand?"
"Sure," Stiles says. He doesn't look at his dad.
Derek comes out a little while after that, helps Stiles bring in the box and the overfilled drawers. He's moved his own dresser over so there's a space next to the door, and there's a new bookcase and a plush armchair, not so new, next to the bed. Stiles touches the stiff velvet upholstery, springy under his fingers, runs his fingers along the top of the back cushion. "This is—Derek, I didn't—"
"It's okay." Derek doesn't meet Stiles's eyes. "I just thought, you might… if you don't like it, though, I can—they can go somewhere else."
"No," Stiles says. "They're perfect. This is perfect. You're—"
Derek huffs. "Don't say that."
"You don't know what I was going to say," Stiles says.
His sheets are too small for Derek's bed, so he gives them to Isaac. The comforter Stiles brought with him to college fits on the top shelf of the linen closet, barely, and they have a lot of duplicate pots and pans until Isaac weeds them out. After a while, he doesn't think of the bed as Derek's anymore.
The first time, Stiles drops his spoon on the kitchen floor and bends down to grab it, because, hey, five second rule, and the sink is too far away when he's got a bowl of Cherry Garcia topped liberally with Magic Shell. His laziness is rewarded by a nose-table collision on the way back up that has him whimpering "fuck" and holding it gently until he can process the pain and shock overloading his system.
"What did you do?" Derek shouts from the living room. He sounds angry, which is Derek for concerned.
Stiles rolls his eyes, which doesn't help. "ICE."
There's no ice because Stiles's roommate has this problem with leaving empty ice trays in the freezer. Derek takes the box of mini-tacos instead, wrapping it in a dishtowel before he holds it against Stiles's face. That's fine for the first minute of slowly abating trauma and growing relief, but then they're just sitting at Stiles's kitchen table with Derek touching his face and it's weirdly intimate. Derek just came up to Olympia so Stiles could look at this Armenian bestiary to see if Peter was trolling.
"You didn't have to do that," Stiles mumbles against the towel. He brings his hand up so he can take the box from Derek, but Derek doesn't pull away.
"You don't have to help me, either," Derek says. He takes the mini-tacos back and sets them down on the table. Before Stiles can register their absence, Derek's leaning in and Stiles is leaning in, too, and he must be misreading this, except he's not, because Derek's kissing him, the warmth of his mouth unexpected after the cold.
Stiles has to put more inappropriately-packaged-for-the-occasion frozen food on his nose eventually, but that's okay. Derek doesn't freak out and run for the hills. Instead, he sits on Stiles's couch watching Avatar: The Last Airbender reruns until Stiles concludes that, yes, Peter is trolling the fuck out of them. The mini-tacos are mostly defrosted; they end up microwaving all of them.
The first tattoo Stiles gets is a cardinal, three days after he turns 18. Cardinals were Mom's favorite bird. A few months before she got sick, she bought a stained glass panel with a cardinal on it and hung it in the kitchen window; she liked stained glass, too. Scott broke the fake Tiffany lamp with its vivid amethyst grapes before Mom died, but everything else is still where she left it, hanging or standing. Stiles remembers to dust the panels once or twice a year. The biggest one is in the window looking over the driveway, bougainvillea twining over an arbor. Rachel's finishing it up now, all white blossoms draped over the knots he spent weeks working out with Lydia.
"All done," she says, sooner than Stiles expects. "Check yourself in the mirror."
The white petals are dripping with red, but they'll be clean soon. Stiles resists the urge to touch. "Looking good," he says.
Rachel wipes the tattoo again, bandages it, and sends Stiles to drowse in the back until Derek can get away from the bookstore long enough to pick him up. His sense of time is off, or maybe he falls asleep in Erica's swank leather rolly chair; he's not sure. Derek comes in, helps Stiles up, steadies him when he wobbles on his feet.
"Thanks," Stiles says.
At home, Stiles lies down in their bed and Derek pulls the curtains shut before joining him. Everything's warm and fuzzy around the edges; the endorphins flooding his system always make Stiles feel like he's on tipping point between tipsy and drunk, the magic golden place where he's floating above the world. Derek traces the line of Stiles's collarbone, runs his fingers over the cardinal on Stiles's shoulder.
Cardinals are winter birds, their red on white snow symbolizing life, passion, vigor. Stiles only found that out after, which is fine. His tattoos aren't Platonic forms with fixed meanings. Like all signs, what they point to changes over time.
"You want me to stay?" Derek says.
Stiles nods, turning his head toward Derek. "Yeah," he says. "Just until I fall asleep."