Ink Exchange tf-2, Page 2Melissa Marr
"I doubt that, sweetie. Your vision's clouded by staring at Seth too long." Leslie patted Aislinn's arm. "Niall's top shelf."
His face was as beautiful as Keenan's but in a different way: Niall's had character. One long scar ran from his temple to the corner of his mouth, and he wasn't shy about it. His hair was cut so short that there was no chance of anything detracting from the beauty of that jagged line. And his body…wow. He was all sinew and length, moving like he had been training in some long-lost martial art since birth. Leslie couldn't figure why anyone would notice Keenan when Niall was around. Keenan was attractive enough, with his unnatural green eyes, perfect body, and sandy-blond hair. He was gorgeous, but he moved in a way that always made Leslie think he wasn't quite meant for civilization. He frightened her. Niall, on the other hand, was luscious and seemed sweet—kind in a way that Keenan wasn't.
Leslie prompted, "So relationships…"
"He doesn't, umm, do relationships." Aislinn spoke softly. "Anyhow, he's too old."
Leslie let it drop for the moment. Although Aislinn was spending much of her time «not-dating» Keenan, she kept her school friends separate from Keenan's crowd as much as possible. When they did intersect, Aislinn clung to Leslie like an extra limb, giving no opportunities for Leslie to have conversations with anyone who hung around Keenan—most especially Niall. For a moment, Leslie wondered if she'd be so intrigued by Niall if it weren't for Aislinn's playing keep-away. The more Aislinn acted as an obstacle, the more Leslie wanted nearer Niall. An older guy with a drool-worthy body and seemingly no bad habits to speak of and somehow forbidden: how could that not be appealing?
But Aislinn's plate was overfilled with Seth and Keenan, so maybe she just wasn't getting it. Or maybe she knows something. Leslie forced that thought away: if Aislinn had a legitimate reason to think Niall was bad news, she'd say something. They might be in the middle of this weird dance of secrecy, but they were still friends.
"Les!" Rianne shoved through the crowd with her usual exuberance. "Did I miss seeing the dessert tray?"
"Just two of the tasty treats today …" Leslie linked her arm through Rianne's as they made their way toward their lockers. Rianne was reliably good at keeping things light.
"So dark-and-pierced wasn't on duty?" Rianne flashed a wicked grin at Aislinn, who blushed predictably.
"No Seth. Today was blond-and-moody along with scarred-and-sexy." Leslie winked at Aislinn, enjoying the brief moments of normalcy, of smiling. Rianne brought that in her wake, and Leslie was ever grateful for it. They stopped in front of Aislinn's locker, and Leslie added, "Our little dessert hoarder was just going to tell me when we're all going out dancing."
"No, not—" Aislinn started.
"Sooner or later, you're going to need to share the wealth, Ash. We're feeling deprived. Weakened." Rianne sighed and leaned heavily on Leslie. "I'm feeling faint with it."
And for a moment, Leslie saw a look of longing pass over Aislinn's face, but then Aislinn caught her watching.
Aislinn's face turned impassive. "Sometimes I wish I could … I just don't think it's a good idea."
Rianne opened her mouth to respond, but Leslie shook her head. "Give us a sec, Ri. I'll catch up."
After Rianne left, Leslie caught Aislinn's gaze. "I wish we weren't doing this. …" She gestured between them.
"What do you mean?" Aislinn grew so still and silent in the din of the hall, it was like the noise around them vanished for an instant.
"Lying." Leslie sighed. "I miss us being real friends, Ash. I'm not going to encroach on your scene, but it'd be nice to be straight-up again. I miss you."
"I'm not lying. I … can't lie." She stared beyond Leslie for a moment, scowling at someone.
Leslie didn't turn to see who it was. "You're not being honest, either. If you don't want me around …" She shrugged. "Whatever."
Aislinn grabbed her arms and held her close. Although she tried, Leslie actually couldn’t pull away.
A jerk passing in the hall called, "Dykes."
Leslie tensed, torn between the once-instantaneous urge to flip him off and the still-new fear of conflict.
The bell rang. Lockers slammed. Aislinn finally said, "I just don't want to see you get hurt. There's…people and things…and …"
"Sweetie, I doubt they're any worse than what—" She stopped herself, unable to say the sentences that would follow. Her heart thunked at the thought of saying those words aloud. She shook her arm. "Can you let go? I've still got to go to my locker."
Aislinn released her, and Leslie left before she had to figure out how to answer the inevitable questions that would follow her almost admission. Talking won't change it. But sometimes it was what she wanted most, to tell someone; often, though, she just wanted to not feel those horrid feelings, to escape herself, so there was no pain, no fear, no ugliness.
After school Leslie headed out before Aislinn or Rianne had a chance to catch up with her. She'd spent her free period in the library reading more on the history of tattooing, the centuries-old traditions of marking the body. The reasons—ranging from adopting a totem animal's nature to marking life events to offering visual cues to identify criminals—fascinated her. More important, they resonated with her.
When she walked in the door of Pins and Needles, the cowbell clanged.
Rabbit glanced over his shoulder.
"Be right with you," he called. As the man beside him talked, Rabbit absently ran a hand over his white-and-blue-dyed hair.
Leslie lifted a hand in greeting and walked past him. This week he had left a tiny goatee directing attention to his labret piercing. It was that piercing under his lower lip that had caught her attention the first time Ani and Tish had brought her to the shop. Within a week, she'd had her own piercing—hidden under her blouse—and found herself spending time in the studio.
She felt safe there—away from Bishop O.C., away from the unpleasantness of her father's drunkenness, away from whatever letches Ren brought home to share his drug of the week. At Pins and Needles she could be safe, quiet, relaxed—all the things she couldn't be most other places.
"Yes, always use new needles," Rabbit repeated to the prospective customer.
As Leslie walked around the shop, she listened to the snatches of Rabbit's comments that wound into the silence between songs: "Autoclave…sterile as a hospital."
The man's gaze drifted lazily over the flash on the walls, but he wasn't there to buy. He was tense, ready to bolt. His eyes were too wide. His posture was nervous—arms folded, body closed in on itself. Despite the number of people who came through the shop, only a few would actually lay down money for art. He wasn't one of them.
"I have a couple questions," she called out to Rabbit.
With a grateful smile at her, Rabbit excused himself from the man, telling him, "If you want to look around …"
Leslie walked over to the far wall, where she flipped through the flash—images that could be bought by and put on as many people as liked them. Flowers and crosses, tribal patterns and geometric designs—many were beautiful, but no matter how long she stared at them, none seemed right. The small rooms branching off the main room had other styles that were less appealing: old-school pinup girls, skeletal figures, cartoon characters, slogans, and animals.
Rabbit came up behind her, but she didn't tense, didn't feel that urge to turn so she couldn't be cornered. It was Rabbit. Rabbit was safe.
He said, "Nothing new there, Les."
"I know." She flipped the poster frame board that rested against the wall. One image was of a green vine entwined around a half-human woman; she looked like she was being strangled but smiled as if it felt good. Idiotic. Leslie flipped again. Obscure symbols with translations underneath covered the next screen. Not my style.
Rabbit laughed, a smoker's raspy laugh, although he didn't smoke and claimed he never had. "With as much time as you've spent looking the past months, you'd have found it by now."
Leslie turned and scowled up at Rabbit. "So design something for me. I'm ready now, Rabbit. I want to do this."
Off to the side, the would-be customer paused to look at a couple of the rings in the glass case.
With an uneasy shrug, Rabbit said, "Told you before. You want custom work, you bring me an idea. Something. I can't design without references."
The bell clanged as the man left.
"So help me find an idea. Please? You've had my parental consent form for weeks." She wasn't backing down this time. Getting ink felt right, like it would help her put her life in order, to move forward. It was her body, despite the things that'd been done to it, and she wanted to claim it, to own it, to prove that to herself. She knew it wasn't magic, but the idea of writing her own identity felt like the closest she could get to reclaiming her life. Sometimes there's power in the act; sometimes there's strength in words. She wanted to find an image that represented those things she was feeling, to etch it on her skin as tangible proof of her decision to change.
"Rabbit? I need this. You told me to think. I've thought. I need …" She stared out at the people passing on the street, wondering if the men who'd … if they were out there. She wouldn't recognize them since Ren had drugged her before he gave her to them. She pulled her gaze back to Rabbit and was uncharacteristically blunt, telling him what she couldn't tell Aislinn earlier: "I need to change, Rabbit. I'm drowning here. I need something, or I'm not going to make it. Maybe a tattoo isn't the right answer, but right now it's something I can do. … I need this. Help me?"
He paused, an oddly hesitant look on his face. "Don't pursue this."
Ani and Tish peeked around the corner, waved, and wandered over to the stereo. The song changed to something darker, with heavy bass and growling lyrics. The volume grew loud enough that Leslie could feel the percussion.
"Ani!" Rabbit shot a frown toward his sister.
"Shop's empty now." Ani cocked her hip and stared at him, unrepentant. She never cowered, no matter how grumpy Rabbit sounded. It wasn't like he'd hurt her, though. He treated his sisters like they were the most precious things he'd ever seen. It was one of the things Leslie found comforting about him. Guys who treated their family well were safe and good—guys like her father and brother, not so much.
Rabbit stared at Leslie for several seconds before he said, "Quick fixes aren't what you need. You need to face what you're running from."
"Please? I want this." She felt tears sting her eyes. Rabbit suspected too much, and she didn't want pep talks. She wanted something she didn't have words for—peace, numbness, something. She stared at him, trying to figure out what to say to convince him, trying to figure out why he wouldn't help her. All she had was "Please, Rabbit?"
He looked away then and motioned for her to follow him. They stepped through the short hallway to his office. Rabbit unlocked it and led her into the tiny room.
She stopped just inside the doorway, less comfortable but still okay. The room was barely big enough for the things he had crammed into it. A massive dark wood desk and two file cabinets took up the back wall; a long counter cluttered with various artists' tools and media stretched the length of the right wall; the third wall had a matching counter with two printers, a scanner, a projector, and a series of unlabeled jars.
He pulled another key out of his pocket and unlocked a drawer on the desk. Saying nothing yet, he pulled out a thin brown book with words impressed into the cover. Then he sat down in his chair and stared at her until she felt like running, as if everything she knew about him had faded and he were somehow unsafe.
This is Rabbit.
She felt embarrassed by her brief fear. Rabbit was like the older brother she should've had, a true friend. He hadn't ever offered her anything other than respect.
She walked up to the desk and sat on it.
He held her gaze and asked, "What are you looking for?"
They'd talked enough that she knew he didn't mean what sort of picture, but what it represented. A tattoo wasn't about the thing itself, but what it meant.
"Being safe. No more fear or pain." She couldn't look at him when she said it, but she had said it. That counted for something.
Rabbit flipped open the book to a section midway through and sat it in her lap. "Here. These are mine. They're special. They're like … symbols of change. If the one you need is in here … just… do any of these feel like what you need?"
Images cluttered the page—intricate Celtic patterns, eyes peering from behind thorny vines, grotesque bodies with wicked smiles, animals too unreal to look at for long, symbols her eyes darted away from as soon as she glanced at them. They were stunning and tempting and repulsive, but for one image that set her nerves on edge: inky-black eyes gazed up from within black-and-gray knotwork surrounded by wings like coalescing shadows, and in the middle was a chaos star. Eight arrows pointed away from the center; four of these were thicker, like the lines of a spiked cross.
Mine. The thought, the need, the reaction were overpowering. Her stomach clenched. She pulled her gaze away, and then forced herself to keep looking. She looked at the other tattoos, but her attention returned to that image as if compelled by it. That one's mine. For a moment, some trick of light made it look as if one of the eyes in the image winked. She ran her finger over the page, feeling the slick-smooth plastic sheet covering it, imagining the feel of those wings wrapped around her—somehow jagged and velvety all at once. She looked up at Rabbit. "This one. I need this one."
A strange series of expressions came over Rabbit, as if he weren't sure if he should be surprised, pleased, or terrified. He took the book and closed it. "Why don't you think about it for a few days—"
"No." She put a hand on his wrist. "I am sure. I'm past ready, and this image … If it'd been on the wall, I'd already have it on me." She shivered, not liking the idea of anyone else having her tattoo—and it was hers. She knew it. "Please."
"It's a one-time-only tattoo. If you get it, no one else can, but" — he stared at the wall behind her—"it'll change you, change things."
"All tattoos change people." She tried to keep her voice even, but she felt frustrated by his hesitation. He'd been stalling for weeks. This was her tattoo, right there within reach.
Studiously avoiding her gaze, Rabbit slid the book into its drawer. "Those things you were looking for … those changes … you need to be absolutely positive those are the ones you want."
"I am." She tried to get him to look at her, bending down so her face was closer to his.
Ani poked her head in the doorway. "She pick one?"
Rabbit ignored her. "Tell me what you thought when you picked it. Were there any others that… called to you?"
Leslie shook her head. "No. Just that one. I want it. Soon. Now."
And she did. It felt like she was looking at a banquet and realizing she hadn't ever eaten, like a craving that she needed to fill immediately.
After another long look, he pulled her into his arms for a quick hug. "So be it."
Leslie turned to Ani. "It's perfect. It's a chaos star and knotwork with these amazing eyes and shadow wings."
Ani took one look at Rabbit—who nodded—and then she whistled. "You're stronger than I thought. Wait till Tish hears." She left, calling out, "Tish? Guess which one Leslie picked."
"No shit?" Tish's shriek made Rabbit close his eyes.
Shaking her head, Leslie told Rabbit, "You realize that you're all being über-weird, even for people who live at a tattoo shop."
Instead of acknowledging her remark, Rabbit brushed her hair back tenderly like he did with his own sisters'. "I'll need a couple days to get the right ink for this one. You can change your mind."
"I won't." She felt the unnatural urge to squeal like Tish had. Soon, she'd have it, the perfect ink. "Let's talk price."
Niall watched Leslie walk out of Pins and Needles. When she walked through the city, she moved with her shoulders squared, pace steady. It was at odds with the fears he knew hid inside h
er. Today, though, her confidence seemed almost real.
He stepped closer, pushing off the redbrick wall where he'd been leaning while she was in the tattoo shop. As she paused to survey the shadows in the street, Niall brushed his fingers over a lock of her hair that'd fallen forward over her cheek. Her hair—almost as wood brown as his own— wasn't long enough to tie back or short enough to stay back on its own, just right to be intriguing.
Like she is.
His fingers barely grazed her cheek, not enough for her to react. He leaned closer so he could smell her skin. Before work, she had a lavender scent, not perfume, but the shampoo she favored lately. "What are you doing out alone again? You know better."
She didn't answer him. She never did: mortals didn't see faeries, didn't hear them—especially mortals the Summer Queen had insisted be kept unaware of the Faery Courts.
Initially, at his king's request, Niall had taken a few of the shifts guarding Leslie. When she was unaware, he could walk beside her and talk to her as he couldn't when he was visible to her. The way the mortal girl looked at him—like he was better than he'd ever been, like he was attractive because of who he was, not because of his role in the Summer Court—was a heady thing, too much so, in truth.
If his queen hadn't asked it, Niall still would've wanted to keep Leslie safe. But Aislinn did order it. Unlike Leslie, when Aislinn had been mortal, she'd seen the ugliness of the faery world. Since becoming the Summer Queen she'd worked to find a balance with the equally new Winter Queen. It didn't leave a lot of time for keeping her mortal friends safe, but it did give her the power to order faeries to assure the mortals' safety. Such a task would not normally be handled by a court advisor, but Niall had been more family than mere advisor to the Summer King for centuries. Keenan suggested that Aislinn would feel better knowing that her closest friends' safety was under the direction of a faery she trusted.
Although it had been only a few shifts at first, more and more, Niall took extra duty watching over her. He hadn't done so with the others, but they didn't fascinate him as Leslie did. Leslie vacillated between vulnerable and bold, fierce and frightened. Once, when he had collected mortals for playthings, she would've been irresistible, but he was stronger now.