She had been warned about pain as well as boredom, but when the needle first touched her back, Nina wasn’t greatly impressed. Angel’s friend Hope (“but you can call me Faith”) had assured her that this parlor was clean, legitimate, and altogether the best one in town, and that was all she needed to feel at ease in it. That, and the warm brown eyes of the artist when he told her to get comfortable and asked if she wanted the screens put up. There wasn’t any need for that—-the halter top she’d chosen kept her back bare and her chest covered—-but she liked it that she’d been asked.
She liked the artist, too, a soft-spoken man who worked under the name Mr. E. He had been almost overly approving of the design she showed him, and ready to get to work on it at once. When she told him it was her first tattoo, he said, “If you like your first one, you’ll either feel like a finished product when it’s done, or you’ll spend the rest of your life collecting more. Don’t worry, you don’t have to decide right away.”
He seemed to be just a few years older than her, and not really very attractive, but there was something about him that immediately made her feel good. Maybe it was the way his plain long-sleeved shirt hung on his wiry frame, sleeves rolled up and revealing the tribal art on his own forearms. Maybe it was the loving way he handled his tools. Maybe it was nothing at all, and she was just excited about getting her tattoo.
It was a simple design, but large: the phases of the moon represented in an arc of circles, spanning her upper back. The full moon was to be at the base of her neck, and that one and the one to each side of it were going to be adorned with a jagged blue outline. The symbolism was obvious to anyone who knew about her, and to anyone else, it was just a lunar calendar.
The first circle, the outline for the new moon on her left side, was completed before Mr. E asked her why she’d chosen this particular design.
Nina was already lost in thought, studying the range of artwork on the walls and picking favorites. There were pages of the standard skulls and panthers, intricate original designs, stylized reinventions of classic images. She answered the question unguardedly. “I just needed something that was all me. Everything I’ve done lately, everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve just been following my boyfriend. I forget to think about who I am. So that’s what this is.”
That was what she hoped this was, anyway. Making peace with being a werewolf seemed like the obvious way to concentrate on her solitary self, but Angel and lycanthropy were so tied together in her life that she couldn’t even think of one without the other coming to mind. There was a point in her past in which she had been an average woman with average skills and aspirations, and then there was the attack, and then there was Angel, and she had said goodbye to average forever. She had met him because she was a werewolf, and she had learned to accept being a werewolf because he was a vampire. The monthly visits to Wolfram & Hart, the subtle changes in her interests and artistic style, the sudden onslaught of a battle that had awakened the world…all of it had become part of her, and all of it could be traced back to two definitive sources: Angel and lycanthropy.
But they really had nothing to do with each other. Viewed logically, it was just the timing of events that made her associate them. Without Angel, she’d still be ruled by the moon; without her affliction, she would still be in love with him. She had done her best to advance her relationship for its own sake; now it was time to get in touch with her lupine side.
Mr. E had an appealing voice, steady as a ticking watch and kind as a lullaby. “You’re all about the moon, huh?”
In more ways than you know, she thought, but all she said was, “Yeah. I’m a moon child.”
“Right,” he said agreeably. “And your boyfriend?”
“He’s hotter than the sun.” She looked over her shoulder and grinned, and the artist laughed with her.
In the silence that followed, Nina started to feel a little guilty about the comparison. She knew it was irrational, but comparing Angel to the sun he could never see just didn’t seem fair. But then, he wasn’t harnessed to the moon like she was, either. He was no celestial body at all, just the blank darkness of an empty night sky.
And she was an artistic wannabe with a bad metaphor habit. She sighed, hoping Mr. E didn’t notice her shoulders rising under his needle. Angel was anything but empty, but whatever he had under the surface was hidden from her, more often than not. It had always been so and she had always taken it in stride. She just wished she knew how to interpret the new dimension that had been added to his impenetrable stoicism.
He had called her hotel in Paris just a day after she had watched the news with tears in her eyes, believing he had fallen along with Los Angeles, and asked if she would please come back, since he no longer had access to a plane that would allow him to come to her. When she stepped off the plane and saw him waiting for her, she thought she’d never been so happy in her life, but the joy had slowly tapered into mere relief as she came closer and saw the strain in the smile he was offering her. She dropped her luggage and he reached out and pulled her tightly against his chest.
He held her for a long time, but he said nothing, and it was she who had to break away, meet his eyes, initiate a kiss. He responded, but briefly, and then he took the heavier of her bags with one of his hands and her hand with his other, and just like that, they were on their way to the exit. “How was your flight?” he asked mechanically as they walked.
“Fine. How was your world-altering battle that I thought was going to kill you?” She didn’t meant to say it as harshly as she did, but she couldn’t believe that after everything, the first words he said to her were about her flight.
“We won. Are Jill and Amanda okay?”
Every time she tried to ask him about what had really happened, it turned out the same way. He would give a minimal answer and then divert the topic elsewhere. The routine hadn’t changed since that first conversation at the airport, and Nina had given up trying. She had found enough details about the battle elsewhere to satisfy her curiosity.
“So you’re not from around here?” asked Mr. E, reviving her from the bleak chain of memories. He had finished eleven of the moon outlines, and was nearing her spine.
“No, I’m California-grown. And I don’t know how long I’ll be staying. I only ended up here because my boyfriend-—well, there I go again.”
He made a sound of surprise deep in his throat. “California, huh? You’re not an LA evacuee, are you?”
“I guess I am, sort of. Don’t worry, though, my neighborhood wasn’t touched and I didn’t lose anyone. Once they let us back in...” She wasn’t sure how to finish the thought. Was she going to return there? Was she just waiting to find out where Angel would want to go?
Mr. E seemed to sense her reluctance to discuss it any further than that. “I know a family from So Cal,” he said. “Sunnydale, if you believe that. They got out before the really serious stuff started going down, but from the way Ken tells it, there was never a time that something weird wasn’t happening there.”
“Yeah,” Nina replied, “I’ve heard about the Sunnydale legends.” Angel had lived in Sunnydale once, but the legends she’d heard didn’t come from him. All she knew was that he had moved there for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and left there for Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
It was part of the deal-—there was another woman in his life, and he was always going to love her. He had been very, very forthright about this, though the explanation was delivered in quick, toneless words, and he never returned to the subject of his own accord. He also credited Nina with the intelligence to fill in certain gaps, the ones that couldn’t be spoken sensitively. Thus, she was told that his love for the other woman had made him lose his soul, she was told that he would never risk that again, and she didn’t need to be told that his relationship with her would only last for as long as he was absolutely certain that he didn’t love her too much.
He had made no move to leave her so far.
She accepted it. She accepted all of it. There was even a kind of beauty in his tragedy, one that could never be admired by those forced to live it. Nina enjoyed a good romance novel once in a while, but she had never pictured herself as a character in one. As for Angel’s supposed true love, still out there somewhere and probably still pining for him, well, Nina had been in open relationships before. This wasn’t that different.
“You know about the Hellmouth?” Mr. E asked casually.
Nina whipped her head around to look at him, grateful that he had stopped inking when he asked the question. A violent jolt like that one could have caused an irreversible slip of his hand, she thought. “Do you?” she demanded.
“Yes I do. Sunnydale had one; that’s why it’s a crater now. And I don’t usually tell anyone this, but...we’ve got one here too.” He shrugged innocently. “I just wouldn’t want you making any choices about where you were going to live before you knew that.”
“Yeah, I...Angel said it wasn’t fully active.”
“It’s not. It’s not even that dangerous in Cleveland, compared to some bigger cities.” He gestured at her back. “Do you want to take a break, or...?”
“No, I’m fine.” Slowly she settled back onto the table and rested her head on her crossed arms. “We’re here for the Hellmouth. Angel’s making sure it’s guarded enough to keep Cleveland safe. Slayers, and magic and stuff.”
“Can’t turn that down,” said Mr. E in that reassuring voice of his. “Angel’s the girl who dropped you off here?”
Nina snickered. “No, that was Hope. Angel’s my boyfriend.”
“Ah, I see.” He didn’t sound embarrassed at his error, which she appreciated. Everyone always seemed to have some reason to feel nervous about Angel; it was just annoying when that theme carried through to those who hadn’t even met him. “The one you followed here.”
“He’s a hero,” she said fondly, then realized she sounded like a simpering bimbo and went on in a matter-of-fact tone. “So is Hope. She’s the leader of the Slayers you’ve got here. Lots of heroes in town right now.”
Her flesh tingled as the center circle was completed, but Mr. E kept working without commenting on the process. “What about you?”
I’m a wolf, she thought. “I’m just a girl,” she said.
“Bet that’s not what Angel says.”
“No,” she agreed, “but he knows.” Angel was never demeaning and would never suggest she was somehow less than him. But he never would have called her a hero, either. Heroes risked their lives for others. Heroes were allowed to stay on the battlefield when all hell broke loose.
“Hard to say what the warrior types are thinking, sometimes,” said Mr. E. “I’ve met a few of those Slayers. Nice girls. Don’t think I’d have the guts for a relationship with one of them.”
Nina laughed, but even in her own ears it sounded humorless. She kept wanting to step up and defend Angel, which didn’t make sense because Mr. E hadn’t actually said anything against him. She wanted to declare that being in a relationship with a hero was completely wonderful, but she was trapped by her own inexplicable certainty that the artist would know it for a lie. If she wanted to brag, she could spend all day extolling Angel’s virtues, and none of them would have been evidence that she was happy with him.
When she tried to think about the best times they’d had together, she would inevitably end up reminiscing about their first date. For once he had been fully expressive, easy to laugh with, not intimidating by anyone’s standards. His transformation hadn’t worn off yet, giving him ample excuse to forget all of his duties and just enjoy himself for once. She still had to stifle a giggle when she thought about the silly grumpy face he made each time she begged him to count something with a Transylvanian accent, just once.
So there was that. The memory she cherished most was a date with a puppet.
She wanted the excuse of the battle of Los Angeles, and it was true, the experience had changed him, but she didn’t know who he had been before the change anyway. Any fool could see that he needed to let himself grieve, but evidently, she was not the fool he wanted to convince him. They spent more time together than ever, and knew each other less and less. She hadn’t even told him yet that she could now recognize his scent as easily as he could hers—-she hadn’t been able to take any pride in it.
Mr. E’s attention was on her back, gradually moving down the right side of the arc of circles, but she turned her head to face away from him anyway. In a way, the entire tattooing process seemed far too intimate; it had allowed her mind to stray onto topics too deep to ponder in the presence of another person. The other person made an art of his respectful silence, though, and there was something comforting about the contact of his needle on her skin, as if it were the hand of a friend instead of an ongoing dull sting.
It was time, she realized, to start thinking about the future. Being with Angel meant living in the moment, and she loved it, but she was the one who wasn’t going to live forever. He might stay faithfully by her side until she grew old and died; who really knew, when it came to him? But even if he did, she would still have to look back and think about all the things she had given up to keep her hold on a man who didn’t love her enough to leave her.
Mr. E spoke, and though the silence had gone on for some time, his voice didn’t startle her—-it seemed to have some hypnotic quality that prevented it from ever sounding sudden. “Can I ask you something kind of personal?”
Nina cringed. She had a few good guesses about what that personal question could be, and she wasn’t ready for any of them: Why are you still with that guy? Do you want to do something later? Do you feel a connection between us? She wanted to deny him permission to go there. She liked him too much to let him to ruin it by trying to close in before she had even really decided how to deal with Angel.
On the other hand, she really wanted to know what form his question would take. Curiosity won. “Go ahead.”
“How long ago were you bitten?”
So much for her guesses. Her first impulse was to panic, but it passed quickly. She may have just met this man, but she knew he wasn’t a werewolf hunter (or worse, a gourmet). All the same, she kept her eyes directed away from him, and she waited to feel the needle again before she answered. “Hope told you?”
“No,” he said calmly.
She’d known that couldn’t be the case as soon as she said it, anyway. He hadn’t even remembered Hope’s name. “Well, I hope you have a better story prepped than telling me you guessed. A lunar cycle tattoo is definitely not proof in itself.”
“No,” he said again. “I knew before you showed me that. I can’t quite place your species, though. Most of us around here are Chippewa Greys.”
“Lycanthropus exterus,” said Nina faintly. She turned and faced him again. “Most...most of you?”
“We tend to gravitate toward Hellmouths. Once we find each other, it helps to stick together, so there’s a network. About fifty on the mailing list right now, I’d say.” He refilled his ink and started to shade in the new moon.
“And you could smell me? How come I couldn’t smell you?”
His eyes flicked to hers for a second before returning to his work. “Experience. You’re still new to it? Less than a year?”
“Ten years strong. You’ll hone your senses naturally as time goes on, but I can show you some tricks, too. If you want.”
She nodded. “Can you put me on the mailing list?”
“Sure thing. Oh, and I have another benefit for you, too.” He leaned down closer to her face, and showed his teeth in the first wide grin she had seen from him. “Ten percent werewolf discount.”
When the phases of the moon were complete on her back, Nina looked into the mirror over her shoulder and spilled out profuse admiration and thanks. Mr. E sent her off with a page of information on caring for her tattoo for the next few days, and an unofficial pamphlet with a cover that said “Welcome to the Pack.”
She stepped outside to a clear night sky adorned with a beautiful silver half-moon. Hope was coming soon to pick her up, but she couldn’t wait to get back to Angel and tell him the news.
She was staying in Cleveland.