It wasn't his first time crossing the Mississippi River, not even the first time on this motorcycle, but Rich still wanted to just pull over and watch the water pour by, watch the boats push on up against the current. He didn't, despite what looked a hell of a lot like a sidewalk all the way across the bridge. Cops frowned on that sort of thing, and getting arrested would be too good an excuse not to do what he needed to do.
Even as low as it was, the Mississippi lightened his mood -- somewhere in the last fifteen years, Rich had developed a taste for the scenic as well as the urban -- which made it easier to thread his way through yet another unfamiliar city without getting or giving too many dirty looks. Memphis wasn't entirely what he'd expected; it looked like a nice city in some places and downright shabby a few blocks later, only to shift back again almost as quickly.
There'd been a time he'd have been making jokes about split personalities. This time, Rich changed directions. He swung north, heading towards his destination, and probably drove his GPS navigator a little crazier. Every time he got within a few streets, he turned the wrong way, watching for the ubiquitous 'no left turn' signs and getting a feel for the area. He wanted to learn a few ways out if he needed one in a hurry.
That part he could do. Figuring out why he'd been sent to an immortal tattoo artist in the middle of the Bible Belt might take a few beers, but what the hell, it was well past lunchtime and his appointment wasn't until four.
Whoever this Iris was, she was smart enough to be working two blocks from a police precinct house and across the street from a bar. "Neighborhood looks pretty cool, too," Rich muttered to himself, hearing and barely noticing the amused agreement in the back of his mind. A very full parking lot caught his eye and he swung around the corner, parking his motorcycle where he could watch it through the window.
The signs on either end of the building showed it had two different restaurants; Rich flipped a coin and went left. Molly's ended up being Mexican food, with servers so friendly it made him wary. Wary, but grateful for the way chips and salsa showed up with his first beer, ice water showed up with the refill on the chips, and getting his food didn't take forever. Even better, his pollo con mole actually tasted good.
Huh. That was a nice change.
* * *
Rich pulled up in front of Rainbow Tattoos a couple minutes before four, deliberately running himself tight for time. Tessa had tried to teach him to be prompt (sometimes by bad example, admittedly) but Rich had learned to see being on time as a politeness or a courtesy. Sometimes, being late was a weapon, but he was here to ask for... not a favor. He was planning to pay.
Whatever he was here for, Rich wanted to be on this Iris's good side. He used that to push him through letting go of the handlebars and swinging off his bike. Once he had both boots on the asphalt, he could finally feel it: he was standing on holy ground of some kind. A faint breeze cooled his skin although it never ruffled his hair, and he could almost feel water moving somewhere nearby, not quite a running stream and not quite waves.
Some of the tension seeped out of his shoulders and he took a deep breath, which he promptly regretted. The breeze was only metaphysical. In reality, it was hot out today. Rich pulled his swords off his bike, duffel bag onto one shoulder, yoga bag on the other, before he walked into the store.
It didn't look quite like any tattoo shop he'd been in before. The rolling cabinet for dyes and needle machines and the dentist-style chair near it? Sure. The massage table forming the other side of a V, dyes in the center -- that made sense too. The lights arranged over them all? Yeah. But brass wind chimes hanging off the air vent and humming deep, calming notes through the store with the AC? That was a little strange. So was the bead door into another room which had been painted to look like a rainbow over steep, forest-covered mountains. For that matter, the funky bronze piece on a shelf on the far room looked like a dragon wrapped around a mountain, one in the process of going, 'Mine, all mine.'
The rest of the room had a couple bookshelves, one with an iPod speaker stand, three-ring binders on the shelves and out on top of an artist's drafting table, as well as pictures and sketches of tattoos on the walls everywhere. A pair of chairs were set up near the tattoo table and a full length mirror hung on every wall. Oddly enough, none of the mirrors seemed to reflect each other.
Rich had time to take it all in as he looked around for the immortal he could feel somewhere near.... She came out of the beaded door, hands out and open but watching him intently.
Peaceable until she wasn't, he thought, and he put his own hands out too, bags hanging off them, and held very still. "Rich Ryan. I called you a few days ago...?"
She nodded, which gave him a better view of short hair every color of her dyes, and a face that had a couple of those dyes smudged along her right eyebrow and cheekbone. "So you did. I'm Iris Kaulike. Welcome to my shop." She kept watching him and finally said, gently, "It's holy ground. All right if we both put our hands down?"
Rich blushed, a bad habit he wanted rid of, and tried to ignore the contentment in the back of his mind. "Yeah, sorry." He put his bags down by his feet, shed his riding jacket next to them, and said, "Ceirdwyn sent me here. She said... she said you do tattoos for us?"
Iris cocked her head to study him. "Among other things. You called me for an appointment a week ago, and I haven't seen or felt you around town before. Did you travel so far just for a tattoo that won't last more than a few years?"
Rich blinked then said, "Wait. It won't be permanent?"
"Not on us." Iris added, firmly, "I won't give you a permanent one. I don't know you."
"So... wait. Can you or can't you?" Rich answered his question almost as fast as she did. "Let me guess -- above the neck, sure, it's permanent?"
Iris shrugged and folded her arms, which showed off some of her own tattoos: one down each bicep and another under the edge of her cut-off t-shirt. "Ceirdwyn sent you." A smile edged her mouth. "How is she?"
Rich shrugged. "Doing okay. For a woman who's writing a dissertation, she's using me as an excuse for writing breaks. Keeps calling me every couple days."
Iris shook her head and relaxed. "To each their own. I still don't understand why she went for a degree in neuroscience, but the emails have been very interesting." She waved a hand at the chairs. "None of which discusses what you want done. Are you thirsty or hungry?"
Rich shook his head. "Late lunch, but thanks." He sat down, trying to stay careful of this strange immortal, but Ceirdwyn had vouched for her and there was a quiet pleasure in the back of his head. He tried to ignore that and stick to what he'd rehearsed during his days on the road. "Ceirdwyn said sometimes it helps to have... a reminder. Something to look at and consider."
"Sometimes it can, yes." Iris looked at him very thoughtfully. "How well do you know her?"
"She's a friend of... of my teacher, and his. And I get along well with one of her students." Rich smiled despite himself. "Never thought I'd say that about an FBI agent, but he was a lot less straight-laced than Cory said he was."
Iris grinned at that. "Oh, that student of hers. No, when you catch him in the right mood, Matthew can be as much of a hellraiser as Cory. It can be very entertaining." She nodded again, some decision reached. Maybe not the one Rich wanted, though; she didn't look completely persuaded. "All right, I'll go ahead and tell you what I do, and what I can and can't do, and what I will and won't do, come to that."
Yeah. Not convinced yet. Rich braced himself to lay on the charm if need be. "I thought you did tattoos?"
"I do." Iris considered him very thoughtfully. "I'm just wondering why you want one. On the mortals, it's for art or for memories. On us... it's for art or for healing."
"Healing. Through a tattoo?" Rich tried to stay on the 'skeptical but willing to be convinced' side of 'are you fucking kidding me?' Honestly, he gave his performance maybe an eight. He was a little tired.
"Through a tattoo, yes." Iris was watching him more intently now, sitting a little straighter. Her gaze flicked down across his shoulders, his chest, stopped at his arms before continuing on. Rich made himself relax his hands from the fists they'd clenched into. "How far did you come?"
"Far enough. Does it matter?" He sounded angry even to himself. The happiness in the back of his head felt like a hand on his shoulder for just a moment, and Rich shuddered the touch away reflexively.
"I'll give you a tattoo, Rich. Don't worry about that part. But what and why, you might want to consider." One of her hands lay loose on her thigh; the other was tracing the tattoo on that muscular, gold-skinned belly. What he could see was a series of lines in a circle, going up, curving in, back, up to the edge of her shirt. Her hand stopped when she brushed the fabric, but she didn't break the silence.
She didn't need to. The pattern had distracted Rich until he finally placed the image, or as much of it as he could see. "That's a labyrinth."
Iris glanced down at it before nodding. "Yes, it is. I need the reminder. Some of my habits weren't as ingrained as they should have been."
"Did you tattoo that on yourself?" Rich frowned and added, "And is that the kind of thing you mean?"
"No, another immortal tattooed it on me." She looked amused. "Manoel taught me how to ink, and what and when to ink, too. Now we renew each other's tattoos every few years. But yes, this is exactly the kind of thing I mean." She twisted in the chair to show him her right arm. "What does this say to you, if anything?"
An anvil cloud spread from the top of her shoulder down to mid-arm. Intricate shades of gray, blue, and black spat blue-white lightning, scorching black craters into the skin above her elbow. Rich turned back to her, and as he did, something in the image shifted in the corner of his eyes. Suddenly, the cloud wasn't just a cloud; now he could see sword blades and knife-edges poking out of the gray mass or partially exposed within its lines. He leaned in, momentarily heedless of his exposed nape, and saw tiny drops of red in the center of the craters. The edge of one crater had a double curve like the top of a bone.
He fell back onto his stool, memories of bodies he'd carried and buried surging up in him. When he blinked, Iris was kneeling in front of him, rubbing his hands.
"--to breathe for me, Rich." She saw something in his face that made her voice sound relieved. "Now you're back with me. Deep breath, hmm? And my apologies. I didn't realize that would trigger you."
"You put swords in the cloud," he said, and tried to ignore his hands shaking. "And blood in the lightning strikes, and bones in the impact. You hate quickenings, don't you?" He heard himself thinking, 'And you're probably right-handed, or mostly,' and shoved that calculation down but not away.
"I hate the waste of the Game, yes." Iris settled back onto her heels, still holding his hands, and sighed. "I was an idiot. I took a head I meant to take, but that led to taking two others I didn't want just because they were young, and stupid, and bought into the idiocy about 'There can be only one.' They thought I'd be vulnerable because I'd just taken a head."
Rich swallowed, tasting bile and panic. "A lot of us are."
"True enough. I got to take the heads of two misogynist idiots who thought I couldn't face a second fight, and then a third, because I was female, because I was one of Darius' students, because I'd just taken a head, or two." She smiled just a little, bitterly amused. "I got them in my head. Three of them in a row. I... got lost in their noise and my own mind after that. It took Sean a while to untangle me."
"Sean?" Rich shivered, felt comfort trying to seep into him, and this time he accepted it. "Sean Burns?"
Iris looked at him and said firmly, "Come into my office. I'm going to make you some mint tea, so that you don't throw up, and we're going to put honey in for when the adrenaline in your blood stream finishes devouring the energy from that late lunch of yours." She didn't wait for him to agree, just pulled him up and supported him into her office.
The place had one comfortable chair behind the desk. Iris settled him into that, turned on the electric kettle, and vanished out into the main room. She returned in maybe half a minute, just long enough to grab his bags. "Here." She put them next to him, still zipped up, and pulled out a mug and a box of teabags.
"You always have mint tea and honey on hand?" Rich asked randomly. He was breathing carefully, trying to keep his lunch. He still reached down and hefted each bag in turn, checking the weight to be sure his blades were still in place. She hadn't been gone long enough for a fast change of both, but still.
The weights were right, so he let go of that tension.
"You'd be amazed how many people think they want a tattoo until the needle starts. Mint tea and ginger ale are useful things to keep around. Unfortunately, I think I'm out of ginger ale...." Iris dug in a mini-fridge, then shook her head. "Sorry. Just coconut cookies." She pulled a folding chair out from beside the fridge, pulled it open, and settled into it.
"Mint tea's fine. Sorry about...." He gestured at her arm, the change of venue.
Iris shook her head. "No. I'm the one who set this off. I apologize."
Rich leaned his head back against the chair, his eyes closed while he soaked up the feeling of holy ground, of water running somewhere nearby. It reminded him of being on the Seine, with Tessa still alive, and Darius just around the corner and always willing to listen or talk.... "You said you do tattoos for healing. If that tattoo has half the effect on you it did on me, yeah, that counts."
"It does." She said dryly, "A reminder to keep up the workouts and to be more careful about why I fight, all in one visible image."
"What's the one on your other arm for, then?"
"Oh. That's just in case I ever forget my name." She sounded rueful. "I did that one once, too. It was very embarrassing a couple days later, after the concussion finished healing."
Rich opened his eyes and looked over to see if she was serious; apparently, she was. "Okay. That beats most of mine. I only wished I could forget some of mine." He even laughed, which made him wonder how shocky he was.
The kettle clicked off; Iris filled both mugs and passed a mug and the honey bear over to Rich. "You're my only appointment tonight, by the way. I wasn't sure how much time you'd need, whether you had the tattoo designed, or what. So we can talk about it now, or you can come back later and I'll get an evening free for once, which doesn't happen often in my profession. It's up to you."
"Yeah. I'd like to talk about the tattoo." He tried not to think about how much time he might have for this.
"Good. Once you show me what you want it to look like, and where you want it placed, I'll have a better idea what you want to accomplish with it. I can do it completely from what you've got now, or I'll give advice and help with the art if you want. That might take a little longer, but you're the one who's got to live with it for a few years. What you say goes."
Rich nodded and dug into his saddlebags. "I wanted... can you do something like these?"
He'd spent a while in a library, searching online for images he liked, then hunting down names for the styles to go look offline, too. What he'd come up with was a tiger made of Arabic calligraphy, crouched over a pond, lapping the water. The tiger's writing reflected in the pool and Rich felt like he could almost read it (if he let--).
Rich cut that thought off. He'd saved the tiger and done some very basic messing around with a couple programs on his laptop to superimpose a pair of falling stars into the water's reflection. The tiger was facing left; behind it, a stag was rearing to run (or charge) to the right, head turned back as if it had just seen the tiger. Celtic knotwork filled the stag's body, but it looked intent, not panicked. The tiger looked almost calm.
Iris looked it over and nodded immediately. "Yes. I can work from this easily. Both heading outwards, I take it?"
Rich sighed in relief. "Yeah. That was what I wanted. I was thinking maybe across the chest?"
Iris measured him by eye, then reached for a tape measure, which made Rich smile despite himself. She waved off his offer to shed the t-shirt. "Oh, that's fine. While I'm thinking about it, would you mind if I redrew these? I'll need to balance the sizes and composition, and I'd rather not be completely violating copyright," she added, sounding amused already.
Rich just nodded. "The stag's free-usage clip art. I checked. The tiger probably isn't, so go ahead." He shrugged. "You're the expert."
She looked at the measurements, then back at him. "Yes, but it's your body. Hmm. I can size them down a little to fit them on one plane, certainly. If you'd rather, however, I could also do something like this." Iris shifted the papers around so that the tiger's pool was farther down, the stag's hooves farther up. "The reflecting pool would probably come across the floating ribs, and the stag's horns would be up here, under the collar bone if we did it that way."
Rich looked at them, then shook his head. "No. Size them down, that's fine, but I want them to be on one level."
Iris smiled at him. "As I said, it's about what you want, and what you need it to say. On one level it is."
"Great," Rich agreed. "Yeah. That's what I want."
She picked up a sketch pad and pencil, nodding agreement as her pencil began to move. "Is this a design you're likely to want to keep, or a set of memories you're working through?"
"You said they're not permanent," Rich said. He'd sit up and pull his pride around him in a minute. For now, the chair was comfortable, and maybe this would help.... "I mean, if I can't keep it, does it matter?"
Iris glanced up at him. "Quit stirring your tea and drink it, would you? Your color's only a little better. No. They're not permanent, so you'd have to have a tattoo touched up every few years if you wanted to keep it. We could do that, if you want to have the option of keeping them longer."
Iris kept sketching as he drank the mint tea. "I use my tattoos for reminders, you see, but for us, tattoos can have another use. They will fade if nothing is done, as our memories don't anymore. If you have to, you can tattoo something on to act as an external form of a memory that needs less intensity. If you concentrate on it as being associated that way, the start is unpleasantly intense -- although I doubt you'd have come to me if it wasn't already unpleasant -- but by the end, it's a great deal better. Assuming you want the emotions in question less intense, that is."
"And you think I do." Rich didn't bother making it a question. The tea's not sweet enough, came the thought in the back of his head; Rich added more honey.
The scratch of her pencil over the paper only paused when Iris looked more closely at Rich's cobbled-together image. "You've got to be a good fifteen pounds under your best weight -- the shirt's an old favorite from the way you've washed it down, but it's big on you now. You drove days to get here. Ceirdwyn's worried enough to be calling you every other day with a dissertation to write, but for whatever reason she hasn't called your teacher or his. And you nearly had a panic attack over my tattoo. So, if I were betting, I wouldn't bet you wanted to keep the memory's associations."
Rich managed not to flinch as she laid out her facts like a winning poker hand, but it took energy he hadn't wanted to spare. He sat there and concentrated on breathing and drinking his tea.
She always could aim. But she can also keep her own counsel. Tell her about all of it.
Rich managed not to flinch; he just thought desperately, 'All of it?'
From the Dark Quickening on. She's Darius' and she always could listen and not judge, if I needed her not to. And you're actually listening to me, Rich. You've got to talk to someone.
Her pencil had stilled. When he looked up from his tea, Iris was watching him. Rich swallowed and said, "This is holy ground, and you studied with Darius. Do you do seal of the confessional?"
"I'm a healer some of the time," Iris said soberly. "I do hold to patient confidentiality. I might talk to another healer about your case sometime for advice, if I needed it or they did, but I wouldn't use your name or any details that would tell someone who you were. And I definitely wouldn't give another immortal any details on you, Rich. Anything you need to tell me about the work I'm doing for you, anything you need to talk about while I am working on you -- that's private, and it'll stay that way. Does that help?"
Rich took a deep breath and then told her, "It's... kind of a long story."
Iris shrugged. "This evening is already blocked out for you. If we get the art done in time, I'll start tattooing it on for you tonight. Otherwise, I can start first thing tomorrow morning if you like. If you want to talk while I work... honestly, it will probably help this work better for you. The more I know, the more I can help you set it up to give you the cleanest healing."
Rich nodded and wrapped his hands around his mug. "Okay. It's kind of...." He looked up. "You knew Sean Burns, you said?"
"He taught me sword work, since Darius wouldn't, and a few other things besides. Why?" Iris was still watching him with that calm, tolerant patience Darius had had. It made Rich miss him all over again.
"Because if he was a friend of yours, you won't like parts of this."
"Were you an enemy of Sean's?" She didn't sound angry at the thought, but she did put her pad down and fold her arms across her belly. Her left hand brushed back and forth along the tattoo on her right arm that had set him off.
"No, I never met him. I heard about him from... from my teacher." Rich concentrated through the memories of Joe showing up just in time, one hand coming up to rub away the feel of steel at his throat. "Duncan MacLeod was my teacher. He nearly killed me during... that monumental fuck-up that killed Sean Burns."
"Your own teacher nearly killed you when he was under the influence of that dark quickening?" Iris asked. Her voice was very steady but her face was so motionless it had to be a mask.
Rich nodded, swallowed, and kept rubbing his throat. "Yeah. I didn't... I knew something was wrong. But Mac wasn't sparring me, or trying to make a point. He just hammered my sword down, had his blade at my throat -- he kissed me on the forehead and was going to strike. Joe shot him for me."
"Joe?" Iris was still watching him intently.
"A really good friend. He used to be a marine, can still shoot. He shot Mac, told me to get out of there...." Rich looked up at her, settled his hands into his lap which ended up with his fingers woven together, and tried to steady his voice back down. "Then I got stupid. I wasn't going to let that ever happen again, you know?"
"If you'd just gone to Connor for help or a new teacher, I doubt you'd call that stupid." Iris saw him wince. "You only thought of that option later?"
"Yeah. Much later." Rich said quietly, "I went headhunting."
Iris nodded slowly. "Ah. Yes. After that, I can imagine you did feel a need to become stronger."
Rich shrugged a little, helplessly. "I didn't know what else to do. I mean, it wasn't something I could take to Amanda, Darius was dead, I'd never met Sean and... Duncan killed Sean not long after that."
"And your teacher had to go lick his wounds after his own recovery?" Her tone didn't excuse Duncan's actions, but it didn't blame him, either.
Rich knew damn well he couldn't be that impartial. "He sure as hell didn't come looking for me." More quietly, he added, "He didn't tell Connor about it either."
Iris nodded thoughtfully. "Meaning Connor didn't know to come looking for you. More tea?"
"Yeah, sure." Rich looked down and saw his mug was empty. He had an idea how that had happened, but didn't bother asking.
Iris put the kettle back on and pulled out an actual tea pot. She spooned fresh tea in and said quietly, "We all make mistakes. Which mistake is eating at you?"
Rich studied the blue and white pattern of the teapot as if that could tell him how not to do this again. "I... took a couple heads I really wish I hadn't." He leaned forward onto the desk finally, face in his hands. "No. I took a bunch of heads I really shouldn't have, but two of them.... I killed a woman. She didn't try to dodge the challenge, didn't beg me to let her live, but oh God, I should have walked away. She wasn't ready for the Game. She said she was, but she wasn't, and it was...."
Some of the honey had spilled on his hand and Rich rubbed at it until it was tacky and he was out of excuses. "She lost the sword part, but she did... something after I took her quickening. I don't know how she did it, but for weeks, I'd find myself reaching for foods I'd never really liked before, trying to fit through spaces I was too big for, reaching for a book and a mug of tea at the end of the day."
Rich didn't meet Iris's eyes when he admitted, "She also had me looking at guys. Wanting to flirt with them, wanting to lead them on for the fun of the chase, or take them to bed. "
Iris said gently, "How much of that was new to you?"
He winced, then smiled a little despite himself. "Yeah. I knew I was gonna end up embarrassed somewhere in here. Of course I did, I visited Ceirdwyn... Some of it was embarrassing. I mean, I like women."
"But?" A thread of laughter tinged her otherwise calm voice.
Rich managed to look up at Iris; she had a faint smile and the same unruffled amusement he remembered so well from Paris. "Oh, yeah. You studied with Darius. You've got that calm, 'no, really, you can't shock me' look down."
"Not with that you can't, no," Iris said gently. "And you're dodging it. Which of us don't you want to tell about this: me, or yourself?"
"A little of both," Rich said at last. "I'm not sure which was worse, realizing I was watching more guys than women for a while, or the times they'd see me studying them -- and some of them flirted back."
She nodded, clearly unsurprised by that. "Of course they did. You're a good-looking man who was obviously interested. So did you act on it?" Iris asked. "Or did you just want to?"
Rich winced. "Two of them got pissed at me when they figured out I wasn't entirely sure. Said they weren't going to be my experimental stage. Funny thing was, one of them was loud enough about it that another guy said he didn't mind letting me experiment if I didn't mind the change in partners."
"You're smiling," Iris pointed out. She filled his mug, and Rich sniffed at the tea before deciding it was probably green tea with some herbs in it. It smelled like cut grass and lemon and tarragon or rosemary or something else sharp under that.
"Yeah, well." Rich shrugged and raised his gaze for just a moment. "Eli was a nice guy. Good sense of humor, too."
"A good night was had by all, then?" She sounded somewhere between fond and amused.
The pencil was scratching across paper again. Even knowing she probably wasn't watching him, Rich smiled. "Yeah. Took me months to figure out the part that felt strangest, though. Usually I do the chasing. I was setting up to get chased during that, which felt weird."
Rich studied his hands, remembering Eli's fingers twined with his, the cheerful comments about 'Hey, come on, a handjob is not worth freaking out about, okay? If you just have to have a 'what did I just do?' freak-out, try it over something that is, why don't you?' Rich smiled again. The stubble had been a surprise, but yeah, his kisses really had been worth a few 'how straight am I?' questions later.
Iris' next question sobered him again. "How long did it take before her quickening's influencing wore off?"
"A month, maybe a month and a half," Rich said quietly.
She kept working on the sketch, but after a minute, Iris said, "That's a little longer than usual. Have you had any other aftereffects that lasted that long? Or that strongly?"
"I took up lousy cigars for a while once," Rich offered, still studying his hands and the wood grain of the desk. With an effort, he reminded himself that Ivy had been the unobtrusive one; he wasn't. At least Alec's cigars hadn't been a problem again after that first month.
He expected another question. Instead, Iris pushed her pad over. "Here. Is this what you want?"
Rich studied it carefully, tracing a line on the stag's spine, the arc of the falling star, running a finger just over a paw near the water. Then he nodded. "Yeah. This is it."
Iris nodded. "All right, then. Let's get started."
* * *
Rich had expected being tattooed would be uncomfortable for a few minutes, but nothing compared to sword practice. And yeah, it wasn't as bad as a sword cut. He kept healing up behind the needle, however, so his skin could never quite get used to it.
That minor ache didn't worry him nearly as much as the fact that he kept trying to trance out while Iris worked. Between the constant buzz of the needle machine, the incense that smelled like the woods east of Seacouver (Iris had asked him to pick one; he wasn't sure now that the cedar and fir had been a good idea), and the need to keep his breathing steady since she was working on his chest.... Well, he'd have to pick up some incense the next time he tried meditation, because right now, it was all working a little too well.
The next time she paused to get more ink, Rich asked, "Talk to me?"
"I was hoping you weren't going to start snoring down there, yes." Iris started on the next line. "I've finished the fiddlier bits for now and gotten used to your breathing patterns. Talk away, just try not to take a sudden deep breath."
"That needle's going in plenty far already," Rich agreed as she started up again. "Do any of your clients ever see you pull out that razor and change their minds about the whole thing?"
Iris laughed softly. "Not exactly, but I've had a few people change where the tattoo's going to go when they realize it's that or shave for the tattoo and keep shaving to let the art show."
Oh, yeah, Rich could believe that. "Only a few?"
"Oh, I knew of one man who deliberately put his tattoo under what had been a very hairy chest. He'd lost a bet, apparently, but no one had specified the tattoo had to stay visible."
"Good for him." Laughter echoed in the back of his mind and an impression of a solid, dark-skinned man with a booming laugh rose with it. It helped Rich relax through another line or two before he asked, "Do you usually get people falling asleep on you?"
"Not usually, no. Are you that short on sleep?"
He opened his eyes to study her face, but she wasn't giving much away. "Are all older immortals meddlers?"
Iris dipped into the ink again. Rich was getting used to the pattern of pauses in the machine's hum. "Well. To be scrupulously honest, this is the part where I offer to listen, yes. But I'm not sure it's meddling if you throw yourself onto my table and agree that yes, it's for healing."
"Hey, Ceirdwyn threw me." The next time she lifted the needle, Rich took the opportunity to crack his neck. "You said talking during this helps?"
"It can." Iris gave him a long, measuring look. "And it only now occurs to me. Some days, my brain pays more attention than others. Rich, you do realize your design has a tiger, not a tigress?"
"Yeah." He frowned, puzzled. "Why?"
"Because," and her voice was carefully gentle again. That let him brace before she said, "You mentioned two heads you regretted, and the one you told me about was female."
Rich exhaled slowly, inhaled as slowly, a habit he'd picked up from Matthew. Of course, Matthew was usually trying to cope with Cory. Well, or Cory and Rich. "Ah."
Iris laughed softly. "I'm giving you my bad habits already?"
"Useful. Useful habits," he parried, automatically trying for a light tone. Insouciance, Cory called it, and said it was great for getting dates. Except thinking about Cory led to that last bank robbery, the one they'd done solely because Rich had needed money.
Cory hadn't asked why, hadn't harassed Rich about getting a legal job. He'd just nodded and somehow kept forgetting to wake Rich up for watches while remembering to make sure they ate on a regular basis. And somehow, at the end of the job, a children's hospital had a nice donation, and Rich had a good motorcycle, a spare sword -- and directions to find Ceirdwyn.
Who had sent him here.
Rich finally asked, "So, as an outsider... how bad do I look?"
Iris lifted the needle before she answered, "You look like the wrong end of a hunt."
"Not quite that bad," she said, deadpan.
"Great. Don't quit your day job," Rich shot back. He sighed and admitted, "The other head was a guy. I was really, really stupid. Out of my mind with fear and adrenaline and lack of sleep, drinking too much to try to sleep, and out to 'prove myself.' Fucking stupid of me on all counts."
He went on, "I picked a fight with a guy and partly I played dirty and partly I got lucky. I put a knee in his nuts and he slipped in the gravel." Much more quietly, he added, "So did his lover's car. The guy was a little late getting there, I was already heading away."
Iris kept working steadily and made no comment on his choice of fighting techniques. "I've almost finished the last of the transfer lines, Rich. Don't jump, hmm?" She gave him a couple beats before she asked, "Is his lover in the Game?"
"Yeah. Was and is in the Game."
Iris nodded and added more ink. "Is he hunting you, or is his partner's quickening haunting you?"
Rich concentrated on his breathing for a few seconds and let himself pretend it was because she'd started another line. "I've usually got a few days in a town before he catches up."
He hadn't expected Iris to pull the needle away and clasp his shoulder. "This is holy ground," she stated. "If he tries to interfere with one of my clients, I'll blacklist him with Manoel and Rajya, too."
Rich felt a flinch in the back of his head and blinked in surprise. That was a real threat? Huh. He told Iris, "Look, I was stupid. You weren't, and you shouldn't have to pay for it. I'm trying to be careful, that's all."
"I'm a professional doing both my jobs, thank you," Iris pointed out calmly. "And it's bad for business if I let people be killed on my property."
Rich put his hands up, heedless of how silly that had to look with him lying half-naked on her table. "Hey, no argument. I just... I'll try to be gone fast enough he won't come looking for me and find you, okay?"
"I'm in the Game too," Iris said. She smiled wickedly, eyes sharp with some memory Rich sort of wished he could see. "And I learned sword work from Sean Burns. I'll manage, but thank you."
"Okay." Rich said more slowly, "You asked if his partner was haunting me."
"You said you're susceptible to quickening aftereffects," Iris said. "There are some people who might be willing to teach you how not to have so much trouble with it. I can give you some names to call, or you could ask Ceirdwyn when she calls next. She'd take it calmly and her teacher is one of the ones I'd recommend."
"Yeah, I'll-- Thanks." Rich waited until she lifted the needle again to ask, "You studied with Darius and with Sean. Have you ever heard of a quickening that... kept talking? Even after the lightning was done?"
Iris appraised him, then turned deliberately back to her work. She kept doing that. It reminded Rich of talks where things had gotten intense and Darius had looked away to give Rich a semblance of privacy. She answered, "A few times, yes. Darius said some of the stronger or sneakier immortals might be capable of hiding in their killer, clinging to what survival they could find. Or waiting for a second fight, this time inside the mind."
"Was it ever a good thing?" Rich concentrated on breathing in and out steadily, on the smell of the forest, the bronze bells ringing under the air vent. It kept him from tensing up, or running.
"Not that Darius mentioned, but I rather think it would depend on whose mind they ended up in. If I ended up with Sean's quickening talking to me, I doubt I'd be in a hurry to shut him up," Iris said. "And if someone was talking to Sean or Darius about this sort of thing, well, it would be the difficult ones they went for help about. Do you need a break?"
"I'll put a hand up if I do," Rich said, eyes still closed. "I... he gives better advice than I do. He's got a better sense of humor. And he's... I don't think I could help someone who'd killed me. He does anyway."
"Better advice how? You like the answers better, or it's more likely to work?" She kept working as calmly as if Rich hadn't admitted to being a little crazy. Maybe a lot crazy.
"More likely to work, or there's less damage if it doesn't." Rich added wryly, "Do you have any idea how annoying it is to know that the voice in my head is smarter than I am?"
"More sensible, maybe. We haven't gotten to smarter yet." Iris put down the needle-gun and wiped excess ink away. "That's the last of the transfer lines, Rich. If you want to stretch while I trade out needles, feel free."
"So I admit to a voice in my head and you pull out the big needles?" he joked, ignoring the faint murmur of See? No judgments. Rich took the opportunity to sit up, however. Got up, stretched, and walked over to a mirror to see what the tattoo looked like so far. It was going to look good, Rich thought, but it was also kind of cool to finally have something different about his body. Other than building up muscle or losing it, this was the only major change he could remember in twenty years.
"Some of these are bigger needles; one is smaller for fine work. It'll go faster now. You're half-done, I'd say." Iris was stretching too. She pulled out a bar of chocolate and offered him some. "It'll look better when we're done."
"Hell, it looks better now than I'd really hoped." Yeah, that sounded wrong. Rich glanced back to apologize and felt another immortal come into range.
Iris looked up, too, and picked up her cell phone. "Rich. You can wait in my office if you want."
"I'm a big boy," Rich said tightly. "And it's holy ground." He dropped back towards the office door anyway; his swords were there and he had a very bad feeling about this, about a presence that tasted like high winds and sharp water. He could feel a sudden mix of pleasure and worry in the back of his mind. That didn't reassure him either.
"Yes, but it's my holy ground?" She shrugged and smiled. "And I have the West Precinct on speed dial."
"Yeah, I'm not sure that'll stop him," Rich said. From where he was standing, he could see who was getting out of the car, and God, when had he started admitting that Haresh Clay was gorgeous?
The man was all angles and lean muscle (Oh, there's one or two notable curves, Carter murmured; 'This is not the time to tell me that,' Rich thought) and he made a tailored suit look not just good but dangerous. And oh, yeah. That portfolio on his shoulder could hide a saber, so it probably was. Worst, he looked... eager.
Iris stepped in front of the door, an authority figure despite the cut off t-shirt and even shorter shorts. "Holy Ground, Haresh."
It really should have occurred to Rich that if Carter Wellan knew Iris, Iris probably knew Haresh Clay too. Really. It should have.
Haresh gave her a slight bow, back straight, eyes up, and the faintest of smiles on his lips. "Of course it is, Kaulike. You and yours always work on holy ground."
"And he's my client, Haresh," she went on calmly. "So put the portfolio down over there." She indicated a far corner of the room.
To Rich's shock, Haresh actually did. That's not his angry smile, Rich.
"Not helping," Rich muttered.
Iris glanced at him and said quietly, "Rich. The office might be best."
"I'll stay here," he said immediately. "You're not after her, Clay."
"No, Ryan. I'm not." Haresh prowled toward him, hands open and empty, but his eyes were dancing and his smile was definitely mocking. Empty handed, but not unarmed. Not while he had hands, feet.... "You, now. You, I'm after."
"Not in my store, Haresh, and for that matter, not in my parking lot. Not if you ever want your tattoos redone by someone who won't notice you healing as they work." Iris didn't get between them, quite, but she stayed right next to Haresh as he came.
"It might be worth it to me, Kaulike. You never know." He looked at Rich. "So you're out of Graham Ashe's line, boy. You scrabble for life like his line. Do you enjoy it even half as much?"
"Lately, I just haven't had much time," Rich snapped. "Look--"
"Yes." It was almost a purr and Rich was running out of time to decide if he was going to retreat or stand his ground. "I think I will. What did you come here for?"
"Are you crazy?" Rich snapped -- and then froze. He'd thought he'd had Haresh Clay's full attention before. He'd had something, but it hadn't been this complete.
"No. I'm not." Rich was starting to sympathize with the whole mouse and cat thing. Haresh prowled closer. "Are you crazy, Richard Ryan?"
Iris repeated, "Holy ground, Haresh."
"Oh, I know it is, Kaulike. Do you see a blade in my hands?" He was still smiling, still stalking, in a suit that cost more than Rich had made honestly in the last year, with gold cufflinks and a sleek expensive looking watch.
"I'd better not," Iris warned. "And you're interrupting us."
Rich didn't know if it was Carter's company over the years, or Ivy's influence flaring out of the memories Iris had stirred up, or if it was simply something he'd started to see for himself. (Cory had warned him that he might learn to like things he'd never wanted before, but Rich had thought he'd been talking about sauerkraut or head cheese....) Whatever it was, Rich was looking at Haresh Clay and thinking he was absolutely gorgeous. Lean and balanced as his blade and every bit as dangerous, and oh God, that was attractive. And scary.
Haresh shifted to come in from his left, further away from Iris. His prowl had slowed to a saunter, secure in the knowledge that he was between his prey and the door. "When I saw you were headed to Memphis, I wondered if you might be coming here, Ryan. Here you are, and here Kaulike is, with her acting as if you're a patient to be protected. So I wonder. What tattoo do you need so badly that you came here?"
Iris lifted her phone just outside Haresh's line of sight and raised an eyebrow. Rich didn't accept or refuse, too busy watching that intent familiar face in front of him.
Then he forced himself to relax and gave in to the inevitable. He might as well. Short of calling the cops in -- and Rich knew who of the three of them a) had a record and b) didn't look old enough to drink or get a tattoo -- this might be the best way to get through this. "Fine. Take a good long look if you like. What's it to me?"
"I'm wondering that myself. Finally getting your attitude back?" He was still smiling, alert and intent. "I was starting to worry that a cat had gotten your tongue--" Haresh prowled close enough to Rich to do serious damage, hands still ostentatiously held out and empty. Then he cocked his head, earring gleaming in the light as he stared at the tattoo. Stared at it, studied it... and lifted one eyebrow in surprise. An eyebrow and a hand.
"Haresh." Iris snapped it at him and he paused, his palm so close to Rich's chest that Rich could feel the evening's heat radiating off him.
Haresh looked at Rich and said calmly, "I want to touch the tattoo. May I? Or must Kaulike call whoever is on the other end of her phone?"
Rich looked at him, his mind scrambling for the problem, until he remembered Ceirdwyn offering to teach him nerve attacks or better footwork on his last visit. He wished now he'd taken her up on the nerve attacks instead. "Why?"
"Sometimes I see better with my hands." Haresh waited there, his weight balanced farther back than Rich was used to seeing him.
You usually see him when he's hunting you.
"Give me a truce until she's finished this tattoo and you've got yourself a deal." Rich gave Haresh his best cocky smile. He barely managed to hold it when he received an approving nod and smile in return.
Approving and amused. "Much better. A physical truce until after your tattoo is finished, then."
Rich glanced at Iris, but she just nodded and moved to set up her needles and replenish her ink and water. "When you're ready, Rich."
After a few hours in air conditioning, Rich's skin was much cooler than Haresh's hand. That made it far too easy to track what Haresh was doing without actually looking away from his face and shoulders. It wouldn't give him enough warning if Haresh attacked, but trying to stick to his training at least made Rich feel better.
He traced a line down the stag's back, then trailed a finger along the tiger's spine and tail, slowly enough that Rich had time to see where he'd missed a few hairs shaving his head. When he'd finished, Haresh straightened and backed away, waving a hand at the table. "Don't let me interrupt, by all means."
Iris warned, "Haresh? I need him still for my needles. Remember that."
"I was thinking of asking you to touch up my tattoo, Kaulike. I'd be a fool to annoy you beforehand." Haresh smiled and sat in the dentist chair to watch her work, hands steepled together and chin resting on his fingers as he watched.
That left Haresh in easy range to intercept Rich on the way out, but what the hell, Rich had the length of a truce to think about how the fuck to get out of this. Hell, if he could get onto the bike and get it started, he could always race past the precinct house and hope to get arrested for speeding while young and stupid.
* * *
The tattoos were probably ninety percent done -- at least, Iris was down to a really skinny needle -- when Rich figured out that he should have paid more attention to that truce offer. Damn it, he'd finally relaxed....
"Why are you getting that tattoo now?"
Rich kept breathing slowly and steadily. "It was the image I wanted."
"I didn't ask why that image, Ryan." He was standing next to the table -- not in Iris's way, but in easy reach of Rich. Which, of course, went both ways, but Haresh had a better angle and Rich wasn't stupid enough to start a fight with a needle over his chest. Dying hurt. Broken arms sometimes hurt worse. "I was wondering why you want a tattoo representing me and Carter wrapped around your heart."
Busted. Oh, fuck.
Iris glanced at Rich, at Haresh, then went back to work. "Do let me know if you want him thrown out, Rich."
"We have a truce." That came out in stereo, to Rich's surprise. And Haresh's, judging from the sudden grin.
Rich took a deep breath. "It's okay, Iris. Although I don't know if this is what you had in mind for 'talking can help.' "
"That depends," she said dryly. "If you goad him further after your head? Not really."
Haresh was still watching him, still smiling although it had changed to the wicked, hunting smile Rich was much too familiar with. "And you haven't denied that's what the tattoo means to you." The smile was gone, leaving nothing but enough intensity to burn. "Why this tattoo, why now? Fifteen years I've been hunting you, boy. Why now?"
"I'm not a boy. Thanks." Rich glared back at him. "But damn it, I'm sorry."
"What?" Haresh cocked his head (to the left now, and Rich found it odd that he didn't seem to have a dominant side for that-- pay attention!). His eyes narrowed, gaze gone dark, intent, and angry. "You're sorry. And you aren't insane. I'm to believe either? I'm to care about either?"
Iris sighed. "Truce, gentlemen, and holy ground. I feel like a babysitter tonight."
"You could take a break," Haresh offered, not looking aside.
"I could break something for you," she offered just as cordially. "Not in my shop, not on holy ground. Do pay attention."
"Oh, I am," Haresh purred. "You're out of time, Ryan."
Iris was doing the finer lines on the water ripples, which meant Rich couldn't bolt, and he'd been wanting to say this for... years now, really.
"I mean it. I'm sorry as hell I killed Carter -- the Game is a fucking stupid thing; you've been playing it longer than I have, you should know this already -- and I'm sorry as hell I killed you and Carter."
Haresh had been looking more and more furious, storm clouds gathering, until that last phrase. It refocused his attention off his anger and onto Rich, who couldn't really do anything but lie there and let him see... more than Rich wanted, probably.
Haresh's voice went softer, almost rhythmic. "And yet I stand here still. Tell me. How think you that you murdered my companion of nine centuries' rise and fall and me as well?"
When a man with a hot rage burned cold, it was time to worry.
"I don't mean I killed you. I killed--" Rich gestured with one hand, fingers and thumb folding into a fist. "I killed what you were together. How you were more when you were together." He shook his head and Iris managed not to screw up the line she was drawing, or didn't bitch at him, so close enough. "And I'm sorry. I didn't know."
Haresh was still watching him, but that freezing anger had thawed again. Rich warned Iris off with a hand and took the deep breath he'd been wanting for a couple minutes now.
"You say that as if now you do know," Haresh said. It sounded almost conversational.
Rich knew better.
"Yeah, well, I spent a month with a teacher and student who've been friends for almost eight hundred years now." Rich smiled despite himself. "And they give each other more hell about who got who thrown out of the hostel six hundred years back than they do about who forgot to buy dinner on the way back from casing the-- Forget that part, okay? But... yeah. I've got some idea now. And I mean it. I'm sorry about Carter, and about the pair of you."
Rich met his eyes again, as fearlessly as he could. "But you know, you play the Game too. And you've played it harder and longer than I ever have--"
"Have I?" Haresh watched him. "As a percentage of our lives?"
"Yeah. 900 years with Carter, you said. At least half your life, you were headhunting. Am I wrong?" Rich challenged.
"No. You aren't. At least half." Haresh gave him the slight bow he'd given Iris, more respect than Rich had ever gotten from him. "And you?"
"Half a year. Five heads in six months, and any love of chasing down random quickenings got burned out of me by Ivy and by Carter." Rich waved a hand. "Don't even ask about Ivy. Please."
"And you hand me another weak point to probe at," Haresh said softly. "Are you this foolish in a sword fight?"
Rich just looked at him. "Fifteen years you've been hunting me and you have to ask that?"
Haresh smiled at him. "No. Fifteen years I have tracked you and made your life hell, to pay you for killing Carter without losing my last link to him. Did you have to ask that?" He glanced down and said almost gently, "I believe your tattoo is done. Congratulations, it is... exquisite."
Rich rolled his eyes. "Yeah, well, at least let me get a good look at it and tip the lady before you tell me you know a perfect place for us to fight, huh?"
"Or you could both go across the street for beer and burgers and try to keep this truce going?" Iris suggested, swiping the last excess ink away with an alcohol wipe. She appraised her handiwork, comparing it to Rich's initial image and her sketch before she nodded in satisfaction. "Yes. That did come out well. If you'll let me get a picture for my files and yours, Rich?"
"My files?" Rich blinked, then said, "Oh. In case I'm closer to Manoel or Rajya when I want it touched up?"
"Or for any journal you may be keeping, yes." Iris waved him up and pulled out a camera to get a picture while Rich (and Carter) was still admiring the tattoo.
Rich didn't bother trying to pick a mirror that would get him closer to the door -- Haresh probably wouldn't let him and it would be fucking stupid to leave his blades in the office. He did point out, "Hey, Haresh? You have been doing this a lot longer and to a lot more people than I have, including the guy who taught my teacher's teacher's teacher. Could you at least consider a fucking ceasefire?"
Haresh smiled a little (in the back of his head, Carter chuckled low and rough) and looked Rich over from helmet-head hair to wind-roughened, much-washed clothes to unpolished boots and back up again, slow and thorough and lingering. He took his time studying the tattoo and its placement, too.
Rich would have expected to get slapped by any woman he looked at like that, but it wasn't anything he hadn't done to Haresh earlier. He also wanted to quit looking over his shoulder so badly that his hands ached from the urge to grab Haresh and shake a truce out of him -- which would never work, would only make things worse. So Rich made himself stand there, pretending to be relaxed and cocky, and waited out (yet another?) test.
You're getting the hang of him. That same knowing laughter rippled through his mind, relaxed his muscles. He likes smart mouths. Don't worry.
Rich kept his reply to a thought instead of a mutter: 'Now I'm worried, damn it!'
He handed Iris the full tattoo fee over again, since he'd come asking her to do one job and gotten the benefit of both her professions. If this worked out, he could stay in a job long enough to get paid. If it didn't... Rich wouldn't need the money anyway. He wasn't under any illusions about who'd win if he had to fight Haresh now. In a hundred years… well, it'd be a maybe. Now? No.
Iris gave him a long considering look before she nodded and took the cash. Then she turned to Haresh and said simply, "If you want your tattoo touched up tomorrow, I'll be here at 10:00, Haresh. Is two hours enough?"
"Easily," he said and smiled. He gave her the same half-bow as before. "Fair evening and good painting, Kaulike."
"Go well, yourself." Iris smiled at Rich and said, "And you, Rich Ryan. Come back if you ever want to get a labyrinth or talk about Darius."
Rich pulled his shirt back over his head and grinned at her. He was enjoying being treated as an adult for once, and at that, an adult who could just maybe take care of himself. If he couldn't, hey, at least he'd tried. "I might have to come back for a ball of string. Speaking of."
He held the bead 'door' to her office open with one arm and commented over his shoulder, "Just getting my gear. So? Do we go talk or go find someplace quiet?"
From behind him and left, where Rich had known he would be without thinking about it, Haresh Clay purred, "By all means. Let us go across the street and have a drink and discuss which shots we should stop taking."
Rich exhaled slowly, then nodded. "Great. Let's do that."
Haresh scooped up his portfolio and waved Rich through the door into the still-warm evening, watching with that same feline smile to see if Rich would go ahead of him.
'Which shots to stop taking?' Oh, yeah. This evening was gonna be all about the tests... but just maybe, Rich would keep passing them.
~~~ finis ~~~
Lovely art courtesy of Mischief.