A/N: We have been anxiously awaiting the posting of this chapter for awhile now – thank you so much for being patient! We wanted to have a backlog of chapters before we began so there will, hopefully, be few interruptions in our posting schedule. We're going to try to post every Sunday morning.
Thank you so much to our betas, AHelm and kimberlycullen10, and to our prereader, EchoesOfTwilight, for reading this continuously and giving us fantastic feedback. We love you ladies!
We don't own any of these characters, but these two boys sure as hell own us. We hope that you grow to love them just as much as we do.
A tinkling bell sounded as I pushed open the glass door of Black Ink and stepped into the familiar tattoo parlor. The smell of oiled leather and ink battled with astringent and cleaning supplies, all nearly masking the underlying hint of cigar smoke to create that unique fragrance I'd come to appreciate. Taking a quick look around, I noticed that a typical assortment of patrons were spread around the shop in the semi-private booths – college kids getting their first rebellious tattoos, an older man nearly covered in ink having more added to the back of his neck…and there, in the far booth, was exactly the person I had come here to see.
Billy Black was tall with deep russet skin weathered by time and too much smoking in his younger days. Strangely, his teeth were untouched, a brilliant white that he showed often in his easy, friendly smile. His black hair was pulled into a ponytail at the base of his neck held back by a leather thong, and tattoos covered much of his exposed skin. He preferred his own ink to be primarily black, so there was very little color to be found anywhere in his personal designs.
He was standing with his back to me when I walked in, putting the finishing touches on a bandage for one of his customers. I hung back, waiting for him to clean up so I could go talk to him, but when he stepped to the side, I smiled at the familiar face that turned to look up at him as she spoke.
I walked to the low dividing wall and leaned against it on my elbows, grinning crookedly as I greeted them. "Hey Alice, Billy…"
"Edward! It's good to see you!" Alice flashed a smile at me and then turned back to Billy, stretching up as high as she could to hug him. He chuckled, a deep rumbling sound in his chest, and leaned down, hugging her close. She was easily a foot shorter than he was, but her hair was the same shade of black. It was chin-length and brightened by subtle streaks of deep purple that somehow seemed to play up the gray of her eyes. She was wearing a yellow tank top that revealed a scrolling, floral design covering her left shoulder and dipping down into her shirt. The bandage was over the base of her neck, bunching up as she inclined her head over Billy's shoulder. She kissed his cheek before she turned around to pick up her button down shirt from the wall beside me.
"Oh! Stay right here, young lady…I nearly forgot…" Billy wandered off and then glanced over his shoulder, calling out, "Hey, Edward…I'll be right back." Muttering to himself, he headed toward the back. "Sue'd skin me alive…" was the last we heard before Alice turned her playful grin to me.
"What the hell are you doing way over there?" she asked, and I laughed, shaking my head as I walked around the wall and into the booth to give her a hug. I leaned back against the low wall, resting on the ledge as she put on her shirt and began buttoning it up.
"How's Rebecca?" Remembering the two of them brought a smile to my face. It had been a few months since I'd seen Alice, but the warm hug I'd seen her give Billy and the fact that she was having him do another tattoo for her made me feel like it was a pretty safe bet that she was still dating his daughter.
"She's great," Alice answered with a warm smile before she sighed. "She just left to go visit Rachel for a couple of weeks…I'm trying to be a big girl and just be happy she's getting to see her twin, but I already miss her." She wrinkled her nose. "So I decided to go ahead and have some work done while Becca's gone…" She kept talking, telling me about the project at work that had kept her from joining her girlfriend. Everything about her from the way she spoke to the set of her shoulders to the soft smile that graced her lips when she said Rebecca's name spoke of her contentment, and I found myself feeling a little jealous.
The feeling was uncomfortable, making me almost grateful when Alice suddenly said, "So where's that handsome man you were always bringing around here?" The subject was one I'd rather not talk about, but I could tell from the understanding look in her eyes that she already sensed something even though she kept her tone light.
I grimaced, saying simply, "We're not together anymore."
She frowned. "I'm sorry…" Her eyes were alight with curiosity and concern, but she didn't push, which made me all the more willing to talk.
Wonder if she knows that shit about me…
I shrugged and said, "It's for the best, I guess. We weren't really a good match."
"But you always looked like you had so much fun together! What happened?" Her eyebrows were pulled down, matching the frown on her lips.
I gave a humorless laugh. "Yeah, that was sort of the problem. All Alistair ever wanted was to have fun, but I wanted…more." To settle down. To have a family. "We just finally got to the point where we couldn't compromise anymore…"
I watched as she nodded sympathetically before her eyes widened. "Oh!"
"Oh?" I raised an eyebrow, amused at her change in expression.
"I think I know the perfect guy for you! He's smart and funny, and he's got a smile that just…" She didn't finish, just shaking her head and humming appreciatively. She gave me an appraising look, leaning back slightly and putting her hands on her hips as she pursed her lips. "How do you feel about blonds?"
Laughing, I shook my head in amazement and said, "That's never really mattered much to me, but I know how I feel about blind dates…" I trailed off and watched as her face fell. "Sorry, Alice, I just really hate them…walking into a restaurant, looking for some random guy I don't know…" And then having to spend all night listening to some guy who bores me to tears talk about the stock market or whatever the hell else he's into. I made a face. "Thanks, though. I appreciate you looking out for me."
She opened her mouth to protest, but I quickly interrupted, changing the subject, "So what did you have done today, anyway?"
Her eyes brightened, but she looked at me shrewdly for a moment before she reached over, picking up the design sheet and handing it to me. I chuckled quietly. "Is that a Moogle?"
"I'm impressed!" She winked at me. "Yeah, kind of a long story, but let's just say Becca will understand?"
I nodded, laughing as I handed the design back to her. She let it fall back onto the counter, and I decided to tease her as she was straightening her collar. "You know, you still haven't posed for me."
She wrinkled her nose again as she said, "Yeah, I know…I've just been so busy!" She began explaining all the things she'd been doing on the job as well as the volunteer work she did at the women's shelter. I watched her as she spoke, noting again the piercings in her ears and the tattoos scattered over parts of her body. Unlike most people, Alice never got a tattoo without some deeper meaning behind it, and I knew that there was a story to go along with every bit of ink etched into her skin. She really was a beautiful woman, petite with delicate, animated features and a bright smile, and I could easily understand the attraction Rebecca felt toward her – those qualities transcended gender. My musings were interrupted when I realized that Alice was trying to apologize for not being in touch sooner. "I'll try to call as soon as this one heals…" she promised, but I shook my head with a smile.
"It's completely fine, Alice, really…but you know…" I gave her my crooked grin and saw her smile broaden in response. "Maybe we should do a session with you and Rebecca both. I know she's not nearly as inked as you, but the two of you together would make a great addition, I think."
Her eyes widened along with her smile, and she said, "Oh, we will definitely call…"
She was interrupted by Billy returning, dragging a cooler on wheels behind him. Alice said, "What in the world…?"
Billy just shook his head with a smile and said, "Sue." Alice's smile was beaming when he continued, "She didn't want you going without a home-cooked meal while Becky's gone."
Alice laughed, throwing back her head as her eyes danced. "And she knows I won't be cooking," she finished for him, giggling again. "That is so sweet! I'll have to call and tell her thank you."
She glanced down at her watch and frowned. "Shit, I gotta go…" She stretched up, kissing Billy on the cheek again before she hugged me quickly around the waist. "Thanks, Billy, for everything," she threw over her shoulder with a grin as she picked up the handle of the cooler and began rolling it out of the shop.
"Need any help with that?" Billy and I asked as one.
Alice just laughed and shook her head. "I got this. Thanks, though. See you later!"
The door swung shut behind her, and I glanced over at Billy. I caught him watching her with a fond smile before he finally turned to me. "So what brings you here, Edward? You didn't have an appointment, did you?"
I shook my head with a smile. "Nah, no appointment. Just came to talk to you."
Billy's eyes were mischievous as he grinned. "I didn't think so…the ink can't even be dry on that torch yet."
I laughed. "Yeah, I won't be getting one there again. Who knew I was so goddamn ticklish?" He had recently finished a tattoo of a torch and garland – a nod to Hymenaios and my own personal reminder that my next boyfriend needed to have the same goals I did – on my lower abdomen, and I had actually fucking giggled the entire time. Every time his fingers brushed the skin just inside my hip, I twitched and tried to jerk away. Billy was exasperated and amused, and it had easily taken twice as long as it should have. I chuckled again at the memory, and I saw him smile and shake his head. "I actually came to ask you if you'd mind if I talked to a few more of your customers. I finally got all the other pictures developed, and I've got a good layout going, but I think I need a few more to really fill it out."
He said he didn't mind at all and that he couldn't wait to see my book when it was finished. I'd been working for the last year on a picture book of tattoos and graffiti, for once actually using my background in social anthropology as I studied the way people chose to permanently mark things – overpasses, subway stations…their own bodies. It was fascinating to me and a bit of a personal study as well, as I was definitely one for body art. I had several tattoos and piercings, and it always seemed like I started thinking about my next just as soon as one healed.
Billy was teasing me about that tendency, saying, "You know I don't mind. Jake's costing me a damn fortune right now, and your new obsession is helping put him through school." He flashed me that easy grin.
"How is Jake?" I asked. He sighed and began filling me in on the latest news about his only son, who was attending business school. He hoped to take over the tattoo parlor some day, and Billy had great expectations for him…though right now, he spent a lot of time bitching about him as well.
The whole time he was talking, he was in motion. He cleaned up the instruments from Alice's tattoo and brought out new ones encased in plastic. He straightened things up, muttering to himself about the things he needed in between telling me all about his family.
As we spoke, the tiny bell over the door rang occasionally, and I glanced over my shoulder each time, a reflex reaction to the sound. I watched as a pair of barely legal girls entered and giggled their way over to Austin's station. He was a good-looking guy, extremely well-built, and he'd apparently earned quite a reputation in the sororities because a steady stream of girls poured into Black Ink…all heading straight for him. Oddly, he was a bit of a misanthrope, but I guess his silent, brooding stare added to his facial piercings and the tattoos spread over most of his skin to create a dangerous appearance they found alluring.
Well, so did I, to be perfectly honest. But Austin wasn't a possibility, and his personality wasn't exactly something I was interested in anyway.
I smirked, turning back to Billy, who grinned at me. "He's good for business…" He winked with a chuckle.
We spoke for a few more minutes, with me following behind him as he moved to the counter at the back of the room, just before the private booths. He disappeared from sight as he squatted down, and I heard the rattle of a few sacks. I leaned forward, resting my weight on my elbows as we chatted idly.
He finished whatever he was doing behind the counter and stood again, his eyes widening. Then he said, "What do you think…?" and I looked at him curiously. He looked pointedly over my right shoulder and jutted his chin in that direction, prompting me to glance back.
I saw a beast of a man, ripped like no one I'd ever seen in person, lifting his arms to pull a Boston College t-shirt over his head. He tossed it to the side and ran his fingers through his hair, and when he dropped his arms by his sides, they were too bulky to even lie flush. As he went to sit in the leather chair, I turned back to Billy, rolling my eyes. "The Incredible Hulk's not my type…sorry." Besides, that fucker looks too much like Emmett. I gave a mental shudder as I smirked. "But thanks, man…good to know you're looking out for me."
Billy chuckled and shrugged, saying, "I just thought maybe you'd be looking for a date." His eyes were dancing, a mischievous gleam in them as he teased me. He grew more somber, though, as he said, "Seriously. Isn't it time?"
I groaned. "Not you, too. Kate won't fucking leave me alone, and even Alice tried that shit earlier. Besides, I am dating, but hell if I can find anyone halfway interesting." I shifted my shoulders, grimacing. "I'm not good at dating just to date."
Billy nodded along as I spoke, and his eyes drifted to the door, making me realize I'd been following him around for close to an hour as we talked. I drummed on the countertop, still leaning against it, as I told him I should probably get out of his way. He frowned at me and started to protest, but I just thanked him again for letting me talk to some of his customers. I reached out to shake his hand, saying, "I really appreciate it, man."
"Sure, sure," he agreed easily. "Least I can do since you keep coming back for more." He grinned and winked.
I barely heard him, though, as the tiny bell rang again, drawing my eyes to the front of the shop. Through the glass door walked a tall, trim man dressed in a blue button down shirt with a tie over charcoal dress pants. It was a common enough outfit, but I never could resist a handsome man who dressed well, and I found myself studying him thoughtfully. He looked like some sort of businessman, clean-cut and likely boring, but his wavy blond hair was too long to fit that image, some of it falling forward to frame a face made gorgeous by chiseled cheekbones and pouty lips.
Well, what do you know? I guess I fucking do like blonds…
My own lips pursed as I took in his light blue eyes, and I let my gaze wander, trying to see if this straight-laced man had a more daring side he kept hidden. Unfortunately, he was largely covered, and I found nothing to reveal why he might be in a tattoo parlor.
Damn it, Billy. You're so ready to set me up with the Incredible Hulk over there. Why don't you make yourself useful and call him over?
I frowned at the older man, but before I could even begin to will him to introduce us, his face split into his careless smile and his gruff voice called out, "Jasper!"
The new guy ambled over to us, a swagger in his step. His gaze never left Billy as he walked, and he stopped just before us. "Hey Billy," he drawled, revealing a faint Southern accent. "Hope I'm not interrupting…"
As he trailed off, his eyes finally flashed to me quickly just as Billy said, "Nope, you're not interrupting at all. Edward here just stopped by for a few minutes to keep me company while I was getting ready for you." A few minutes? I was smirking when he continued. "Oh, Jasper, Edward…Edward, Jasper." He patted his chest like an old man looking for something in his shirt pocket – despite the fact that he was wearing a black t-shirt – and then frowned. "I must've left that design in the back…" He muttered to himself as he wandered off, just like always.
Jasper and I shook hands, our eyes locking as we studied each other. His grip was firm, his expression confident as his eyes began to roam. They made a slow path down to my feet, and I took his obvious appraisal as an invitation, letting my eyes wander as well. My hope that a closer look would begin to unravel the enigma of him was dashed, though, as I saw nothing that made sense. What I did notice was that he seemed to take care of himself, as he was toned without being overly muscular. His tie caught my eye, a swirl of blues and grays and yellows that it took me a moment to place but that I finally recognized as being taken from Van Gogh's The Starry Night.
At least it's not an Ed Hardy.
I repressed a snicker as I idly let my eyes roam further down, taking in the black leather belt that matched his shoes before I looked at his face again. Those blue eyes hit me hard, and I let go of his hand finally, smirking as I said, "So what sort of work are you having done, Jasper?"
His lips twitched when I said his name, and I paused for a moment, watching those perfect lips when he answered. "Just having a knot done on my inner biceps…" He shrugged and began unbuttoning the cuffs of his shirt. He turned his back to me, taking the few steps necessary to enter Billy's booth. I stood for a moment as he walked away, watching long enough to determine that he had a nice ass before I shrugged and followed behind him.
I tried to see if I could spot any other tattoos, but his shirt was too dark for me to see through it. I found myself smiling as I thought of what might be lurking beneath all those clothes. I'd always had a thing for guys that seemed conservative but harbored a hidden darker side, and I had to admit that Jasper was definitely appealing even without that possibility. With it? Well…
My head was tilted to the side, my eyes focused somewhere around his waist when I heard him speak. "Hmm?" Caught off-guard, I glanced up and saw him grin.
"Tattoos," he said with a teasing look in his eyes. "Do you have any?"
Apparently I wasn't the only one a little distracted. I smirked as I gestured toward the thick brown tribal swirling down to my elbow. "Yeah, six…is this your first?"
Jasper's cheeks were lightly flushed as he chuckled and began loosening his tie carefully, and I thought about reaching out to help him. I could see my fingers on the knot, drawing our bodies closer together before I slid it down and pulled it off. Instead, I sat back on top of the half-wall, resting my hands beside my hips and enjoying the view as I idly played with my tongue ring.
"No, I have a couple already…on my back and chest." He rolled his tie and slipped it into his pocket before his fingers moved to the top button on his shirt as I asked what his tattoos were. He laughed outright and said, "Wait just a minute, and you can see for yourself," with a playful smirk.
I watched impassively as he unbuttoned his shirt, but when he tossed it to the wall beside me, a delicious fragrance wafted over – slightly sweet, just a little zesty with a hint of citrus, and…something…some undertone I couldn't place but that smelled very familiar. The mystery ingredient was forgotten when I glanced back at Jasper and caught sight of him in a thin white undershirt. The dark shadow of a tattoo spread across his chest on the left side, and the twin outlines of nipple rings made my eyes widen.
As much as I enjoyed the aesthetics of beautiful tattoos, there was something primal about piercings that evoked a visceral reaction from me every time. The feel of metal biting into the soft flesh of my lips, the metallic, tangy flavor…I swallowed against the saliva invading my mouth as I forced my eyes back up to Jasper's face just in time to watch it disappear as he took off the undershirt. That, too, landed on the wall beside me.
He motioned me forward with a simple hand gesture and a "See?"
I stepped toward him, stopping a few inches away as I examined the first one. The black ink of the tattoo was dark, a moonless midnight against the fairer skin of his chest. I looked closer, catching that tantalizing scent again. The design was abstract, a mix of thick curves and angles. The only parts I could be sure of were a wing and what must be a head. "So what is it?"
"A phoenix." His answer was curt, the playfulness in his voice gone.
He was reticent and withdrawn now, and the change piqued my curiosity, but I wasn't about to push this man I'd just met on something as personal as his ink. Like Alice, I knew all of mine had meaning, and there were some I wouldn't want to talk about with anyone, much less a stranger.
I straightened, taking a step back as he turned around to let me see the tattoo on his back. At first, I thought it was a pair of unusual wings spread across his shoulder blades, but then I realized that the design was more abstract - a series of chaotic swirls that somehow blended together into a perfect, ordered image.
"I've never seen anything like this…" I murmured.
His shoulders shook as he chuckled, his light tone returning. "It's a fractal."
"Look closer…" he invited, and I stepped toward him and lowered my head, my face inches from the smooth, fragrant skin of his back. "The image keeps repeating itself…see? With a real fractal, you can never reach the end…it just keeps going."
I studied the design and saw what he meant, vaguely listening as he talked about math and computer science, about equations generating fractals and how they were found in nature. He found them fascinating…and I was finding my first exposure to a fractal fucking arousing as the sight and smell and sound of him surrounded me.
"Plus, they can look pretty badass," he finished with a smirk in his voice.
I reached out, touching the dark ink lightly as I breathed, "Beautiful." Instantly, I wasn't sure if I meant the design…or Jasper. His skin was soft and smooth under my fingertips, which I let trail along the ink, prolonging the sensation of touching him. He shivered and turned slowly around, our eyes meeting with our faces only inches apart. I slowly stood up straighter, realizing that we were almost exactly the same height as his blue eyes gazed into my green. Reflexively, I licked my lips, almost startled when he did the same.
Billy returned then, breaking our gaze as he apologized. Jasper and I both took a step back, our eyes snapping to the tattoo artist when he spoke. "Sorry about that. Jake moved my shit again…boy should know better than to touch my stuff." He kept up a running stream of complaints about his son as he began to work on Jasper, moving in between us with apparently no awareness that he'd just interrupted…something. I was frustrated – I wanted to know what would've happened.
"You watching this one, Edward?" Billy said abruptly, and I realized I hadn't asked yet. The look he gave me was shrewd, and I wondered if maybe he did know that something – I had no idea what – had been going on when he returned.
I felt an unfamiliar heat on my cheeks as my eyes met Jasper's again. "Do you mind?"
He shrugged with a grin, his eyes guarded now. "Nah, doesn't bother me."
But he suddenly seemed uncomfortable, refusing to meet my gaze as he moved to sit in the chair. I frowned, resuming my place on the wall as I wondered if I should leave. My hands rested beside my hips, my fingers idly tapping on the wood as I thought. With a sigh, I pushed away and started to reach into my pocket for my keys when Jasper's eyes shot to me. He was frowning slightly, those fucking beautiful lips pulled down in a pout that made me smile in response.
I pulled my jeans up by the belt loops and leaned against the wall again, stretching my feet out in front of me and crossing my ankles. Jasper looked ahead, lifting his right hand to run his fingers through his messy blond hair. Billy was still moving around the small booth, a minor distraction that drew both our eyes from time to time. Stopping for a moment, he turned to me, holding out a design sheet with an intricate knot. I felt both my eyebrows lift as my eyes sought Jasper. "Escher?"
Jasper turned to look at me again, this time in surprise. "You recognized that?" I nodded, and his eyes widened. "I'm impressed."
And that's the second time I've heard that today.
"I love his work – I have one based on his 'Reptiles' drawing."
"Cool. Show me," he demanded, the uncertainty I'd seen on his face fading away as he spoke. I paused. "Come on now. I showed you mine – let me see your lizard."
"Lizards," I corrected, chuckling at his confidence as I tried to ignore the unintentional innuendo. "Ehh…it's not exactly in a place most people see." He arched an eyebrow questioningly, and I said it was on my thigh.
"Thighs have never bothered me."
My voice was cocky as I crossed my arms, an image of Jasper on his knees to inspect my tattoo implanting itself in my mind. I allowed myself a moment to think of his hands gripping my hips as I answered. "Might not bother you, but given the circumstances, it would probably bother Billy here." I nodded to the tattoo artist who was studiously ignoring our conversation while he gathered his supplies. When Jasper looked at me curiously, I smirked and mouthed, "Commando." He looked taken aback for a moment, but then his lips curved into a wicked little half-smile.
"Like I said…" He smirked. "Thighs have never bothered me."
For once, I had no answer. I just watched him with a matching smirk on my lips as Billy finally began his work. The incessant buzzing of the needle became the ambient soundtrack to our conversation as we talked throughout Jasper's new tattoo.
We skipped all the normal getting-to-know-you bullshit. I had no idea what Jasper did for a living – or if he, like me, didn't have to work. I didn't know his last name or how old he was. Hell, I didn't even know his sexual orientation.
Yeah, so that was one question I probably should've asked.
But I really didn't think I needed to.
He asked about my tattoos, and I showed him the ones I could – the tribal on my shoulder, the small bit of text over my heart, the shield in its matching place on my back. I even told him that those two were for my parents – but I didn't get into the whole story of how I'd lost both my parents by the time I was twelve. It wasn't one of those kinds of conversations, but as we continued to talk, I thought we might eventually get to that point.
I pulled my green t-shirt over my head again, and as I was straightening it over my torso, I noticed Jasper's eyes lingering just above the waist of my pants, right where my torch tattoo peeked out. Had we been alone and not in the middle of a tattoo parlor, I would've offered him a closer look – and the expression on his face made me think that he might've asked for one.
But then he blinked, the possible desire fading from his eyes as he asked me about music, changing the subject abruptly. I raised an eyebrow as I told him about my love for classic rock, and he was nodding before I'd even finished.
He grew animated, talking with his left hand while his right was still firmly in Billy's grasp. His face was passionate as he said, "You know, bands like the Kinks always get overlooked by people who are all about the Beatles and Led Zeppelin. Don't get me wrong…"
His voice washed over me as I watched him, my eyes drawn to the metal ring through his left nipple. I drew my tongue ring between my lips as I imagined it was the bite of his metal instead. I wondered what his skin would taste like with that gentle tang of metal mixed in, and I could nearly hear the muted click of the ring in my mouth meeting that on his chest.
I'd once dated a guy, Mark, with a frenum ladder, and I could admit to myself now that I stayed with him longer than I should have because I'd enjoyed it a little too much. Of course, I cringed whenever I thought of piercing myself there, and there was no way I would ever ask someone else to do that, but it was fun to play with while I had the chance.
Abruptly, I realized I was staring at Jasper's chest, not even pretending to listen as my tongue slowly moved along my lips and I remembered the way Mark's metal barbells had felt in my mouth.
I knew I wouldn't be able to begin piecing together what he'd said, so rather than make an ass out of myself repeating a point he'd already made, I changed the subject. "So what kind of movies do you like?"
Jasper gave me a knowing smirk and just happened to reach up, scratching idly beside his piercing as he answered. "I'm kind of a pain in the ass with movies…I pick them apart a lot. But I like a lot of different types. I guess I watch comedies more than anything, especially the random shit like Monty Python or whatever."
I chuckled and nodded, and our conversation continued much the same throughout the rest of the tattoo. Jasper was easy to talk to, funny and playful, although I glimpsed a bit of an attitude from time to time. It – like most everything about him – was pretty fucking hot, and the looks he gave me made me think he liked what he knew about me as well. We laughed a lot while Billy, who was usually chatty as hell during a tattoo, remained silent, his head bent over his work.
At one point, Jasper asked what I was doing in the shop since I obviously hadn't had any work done, so I told him a little about my book. He was curious, asking questions about where I'd taken pictures of graffiti and what kind of tattoos I'd already gathered. He asked about piercings, and I felt the smirk on my lips as I told him about some of the different ones I had. As I looked at him again, running my thumbs lightly along the smooth wood of the half-wall beside my hips, I realized what a perfect opportunity I had to spend some more time with him, so I asked him if he would mind posing for me as well.
One corner of his mouth lifted into a little half-smile as he said he thought he could do that. He asked if I had a studio, and I told him I worked with my friend Kate from time to time, but that I usually did pictures for my book in different places – most often my house because it gave me a variety of familiar settings. He nodded as he listened and asked a few questions before steering the conversation back to his favorite movies.
Before I was ready, the work was complete, and I looked around the shop to find that it had emptied. I'd been vaguely aware of the door opening by the sound of the little bell, but I hadn't bothered to look up – to look away from Jasper – to see who was coming or going.
Billy began cleaning and bandaging Jasper's tattoo as my mind was suddenly racing. I thought back over the night and the way Jasper had smiled at me…looked at me…talked to me. I was relatively sure he was interested, and it took only a second of thought for me to admit that I definitely was, so I decided to ask him out – or at least ask for his number – before we said good night. With luck, maybe he'd even be free to go grab some coffee when we left here.
I stood a few feet away as Jasper paid for his tattoo and said goodnight to Billy, who waved to me and disappeared into the back to finish up for the night. We were the last two left in the shop, and the windows shone with neon signs and headlights from passing cars. We walked to the door together as I was working up my courage, trying to figure out what to say, but his phone rang before I got the chance.
He muttered, "Sorry…" and glanced at the caller ID before answering it with a grin. I tried not to listen, standing a few feet away and looking at some of the artwork in Austin's booth as I waited to give him my information so he could contact me about the pictures – and hopefully get his number in return.
Instead, I listened as Jasper said, "Yeah, man, we're all going out tonight…" There was a pause and then, "No, you have to come! It's the last chance for us all to get together before the baby!" My eyes snapped to him at that, and I saw the proud grin on his face. "Yup, she's due this weekend – can you believe it?"
He continued as my hopes fell, and I realized I must've been mistaken. He was practically glowing as he talked, and he was so fucking beautiful that I ached.
I shrugged and scowled, rolling my eyes at myself. Nothing to get so upset about. He was just a guy I barely knew.
Jasper hung up the phone then and turned to me with a bright smile. I couldn't stop the small smile I gave in return as I handed him my card in silence. He glanced down at it and then up at me, his eyes wide. "Beacon Hill?"
I nodded. "Give me a call when that tattoo heals, and we can arrange a time for you to come over? If you still want to, of course." I meant to leave it at that, but when he caught my eye, I murmured, "I'd really like to hear from you…" and realized what I'd said. I quickly added, "I think that fractal would make a great addition." I wanted to kick myself for sounding like a total tool.
He frowned slightly and was about to speak when his phone rang again, and he checked the caller ID with an exasperated look before a smile formed. I gave a frustrated internal growl as I told him I'd see him later.
He answered, "Yeah…later. Hey, it was nice to meet you, man!" His attention was already far from the tattoo shop as he waved and walked away, his phone at his ear.
I felt an inordinate sense of disappointment as I watched his retreating form. I couldn't stop myself from admiring the way his torso tapered from his broad shoulders to his waist, nor the way his ass looked in the dress pants he was wearing. I rolled my eyes at myself, sighing as I turned to walk to my car.
This is ridiculous. Obviously Alice and Billy are right – I need to fucking date again.
The sight of my baby parked at the corner put a smile on my face as I walked toward her, helping me force thoughts of Jasper out of my mind. She was a '65 Mustang convertible painted a sublime maroon that had made the trip with me from Tennessee years ago after I rebuilt the engine with my "sister"-in-law, Rosalie. Rose had been a part of our family for a long time, dating my cousin Emmett for years before they finally got married three years ago. Despite the fact that Emmett wasn't really my brother, I still thought of him and his sister Tanya as my siblings – they were the only ones I had.
I settled into the slate gray leather driver's seat and started the engine, turning on the lights and putting on my seatbelt before I pulled away from the curb. Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" was pouring through my speakers, and I turned it up, singing along as I drove. I tried to find the energy that music normally gave me, but everything seemed flat, distorted.
When the song ended and "Kashmir" began, I started to change it to find something that fit my mood but kept my hands firmly on the steering wheel, realizing as I did so that I was being both defiant and petulant. I hadn't recognized the feeling building in my chest as I talked to Jasper throughout the night for what it was – hope. And now that hope was gone, leaving me feeling empty and actually depressed, which was really pathetic, considering I had just met the man.
Rolling my eyes at my own puerile behavior, I reached over, skipping through a few songs before I heard a familiar chord. I shook my head, a small smile on my lips as I sang quietly, "You really got me going; you got me so I don't know what I'm doing…"
I let my mind wander, thinking about the work I needed to do at home, the trip to New York I had coming up in a couple of days, the laundry and packing that waited for me, anything and everything. Jasper kept cropping up into my thoughts, his blue eyes and that smirk on his flawless lips mixing in more and more often as I made my way back home to Beacon Hill. I shifted in my seat, muttering quietly at the arousal I obviously felt when I thought of him.
It had been a really long time since I'd been with anyone – not since Alistair months ago – so I knew part of my reaction to him came from me just being sexually frustrated in general. But that didn't account for all of it. Not for the way the memory of his laughter made me smile and not for the way the sight of his tongue peeking out to wet his lips made me lick my lips in response.
I wanted him.
And he was a fucking impossibility that I needed to forget about immediately.
Maybe I should call Alice up when I get back. Ask her about that guy.
I took a deep breath when I remembered her question about blonds. But so what? Who cared if Alice's guy was a blond, too? There were countless blonds in the city, and shit like that had never mattered to me.
Before too much longer, I made it home and climbed the few steps to my front stoop. I hadn't left the porch light on, intending to be home hours ago, but the gloom suited me at that moment anyway. I felt for the door handle, the keys jingling in the lock as I let myself in and locked the door behind me. I walked through the second set of doors and hung my keys on the little hook in the hallway, kicking off my shoes and leaving them beneath the wooden bench before I padded toward the kitchen in my socks.
There, I flipped on the light above the stove and immediately went to the pantry, taking out a black canister. Humming to myself, I went back to the counter, pulling my coffee grinder to me and filling it with beans from the canister. As the hum of the grinder filled the kitchen, I caught myself singing under my breath, "See, don't ever set me free; I always wanna be by your side."
I pursed my lips and then smirked at myself, getting the coffee going before I wandered back into my den, where I clicked on a couple of lamps. It was mid-July, but it had been a cool day and I'd left the air conditioner running the whole time I was gone, so it was actually a little chilly in my house. I felt a sudden urge to lounge on my couch in front of the fireplace with a good book, so I knelt down, pressing the button to start the gas logs. I sighed as I remembered the old fashioned log fires we'd always had during the winter at my aunt and uncle's house when I'd gone to live with them, and I decided on the spot to go home for a visit sometime soon. My cousin Tanya would be thrilled, and her brother Emmett would never pass up the opportunity to give me shit.
With a small smile at the thought of my family, I made my way across the hall and up the stairs to my bedroom where I let my jeans fall to the floor. I was contemplating calling Kate to see if she wanted to hang out for awhile – even though I wasn't really sure I wanted company - so I reached into my top drawer for a pair of boxers and pulled them on. I opened another to grab the first pair of pajama pants I felt, shaking them out before I put them on as well. I glanced in the mirror over my dresser, frowning when I saw the way my brow was furrowed. The sight of that expression was enough to bring back that feeling of intense disappointment.
I sat on the edge of my bed and then fell back, staring at my ceiling, barely visible in the dim light drifting in from the hallway. My palms were on my chest, fingers idly tapping as I sighed. There was no use pretending. I had it bad for this man I'd just met.
And I didn't even know his last name.
I sat back up quickly, running my fingers through my hair as I suddenly realized that I had no way to contact him if he didn't call me. I mean, yes, I could go talk to Billy, I guess, but that idea was not appealing for a variety of reasons.
And what if he didn't even want to hear from me? If he didn't call, that was answer enough…
Without thinking, I got up, grabbing my jeans and pulling my phone from the pocket. I held down the 2 button, bringing the phone to my ear as it started ringing.
"Eduardo! I figured you'd be packing tonight."
"Hey, Kate." Even I heard the flat tone of my voice, and I knew she'd be able to sense the strange depression I felt for…no real reason. What the hell was going on with me?
"Uh oh…I'll be right over. You - pot of coffee, pajama pants, and pick out a movie."
The phone was silent as soon as she finished giving out her orders, and I smiled ruefully, at once embarrassed and really fucking grateful that Kate was my best friend and knew me well enough to realize I was obsessing and depressed, even if she didn't know why yet.
I let the phone fall into my pocket and walked back down the stairs to the den to pick out a movie. I wanted something light-hearted to try to counteract the funk I was in, but I also wanted something Kate and I knew well because I had a feeling we'd be doing more talking than watching. After spending a few minutes looking, I pulled one from the rack and opened the case, popping the DVD into my player. I tossed the case onto the coffee table and grabbed the afghan from the armchair, folding it over Kate's end of the couch.
I glanced at the clock on the mantle and then went to the kitchen to check on the coffee. I pulled down two coffee mugs – a random one for me, but I made sure to get Kate's favorite for her. For some reason, she refused to drink coffee at my house out of anything but this god awful bright yellow mug that had a zigzag stripe meant to look like Charlie Brown's shirt and the words "Good Grief" written on the inside. Whenever I asked her about it, she just shrugged and said it tasted better.
There was a small, fond smile on my face as I poured us both a cup of coffee and arranged everything else we needed on a wooden tray. Kate teased me about being a little old lady when it came to coffee and tea, but damn it, there were certain things that needed to be done right – and I never heard her complain while she was drinking it. I returned the coffee pot to its stand and carried the tray back into the den, leaving it on the coffee table before I went to the door.
Kate had a key, but after years of nights like these, we had it down to a science. I reached the door just as she was parking across the street, and I flipped on the porch light, holding the door open for her. She didn't say a word when she walked up the stairs, just held out a tub of ice cream so I could read the label.
I chuckled. "Chocolate Therapy, huh? Did I sound that bad?"
"You didn't sound good," she answered with a faint grin, but I saw her eyes scan my face carefully as she slipped her arms around my waist for a hug. The ice cream tub brushed against my forearm, giving me a surprising chill as I wrapped my arms around her and held her close. I held on for a little too long, proving Kate's point that I was a little worse off than I realized as I seemed to be craving human contact.
We parted, and I locked the door. Kate repeated my actions from earlier, kicking off her flip flops beneath the wooden bench and hanging her keys on the hook beside mine. She unzipped the thin, baby blue jacket she was wearing, and I was reminded of Jasper's eyes as she hung it up.
In silence, we made our way to the den, where she immediately flopped down on her end of the couch. She moved her mug of coffee to a coaster and put the carton of ice cream on the tray in its place before she looked at me, arching an eyebrow. "A fire? It's July 18th, Edward."
I shrugged, opening a packet of Splenda and pouring both it and cream into my own mug. I stirred my coffee and sat back on the couch, sipping it before I finally answered. "I just…felt like it."
"What the hell happened to you?" There was a slight frown on her lips, her eyes concerned as she studied me. Finally, she moved to fix her own coffee, giving me time to think before I responded.
My mind was a blank, though, as I stared ahead, feeling the warmth spread through my chest as I sipped my coffee. I realized that the cold seemed deeper than the chill in the air, compounded by something within, and I frowned at the thought.
The clink of Kate's spoon against the rim of her cup drew my eyes, and I smiled when I saw her drinking from that silly mug. She raised both eyebrows at me pointedly over the rim, making me sigh. I cleared my throat and said, "So I met a guy tonight…"
She waited expectantly for a moment and then answered in a hushed tone appropriate for a funeral home. "Oh, I'm so sorry."
I laughed and reached out, tickling her before I settled back in my corner of the couch. I turned to face her, one leg bent in front of me while my other foot was on the floor. My foot moved with nervous energy, my heel tapping against the floor as I propped my left elbow on the back of the couch, the fingers of that hand tangling in my hair. "It's ridiculous," was all I said in the end.
"Try me," she challenged, pulling both her feet up on the couch as she leaned back against the arm to face me, her mug held in both hands. She blew on it lightly, watching me the whole time.
My fingers were constantly moving, running through my hair, tugging at it, as I spoke. "Alright, so I went to Black Ink to talk to Billy about getting a few more subjects for my book." Kate nodded for me to continue. "Well, as I was leaving, this guy walked in, and…" I trailed off, shaking my head as I tried to put into words what had happened to me during this one, theoretically uneventful, evening. I didn't go into detail. I just told her that I'd found him extremely attractive, thought he was interested…and then had felt supremely disappointed when the evening ended. "It was just so ludicrous, Kate. I was standing there, feeling…I don't know…crushed, all because this random guy is having a kid."
Kate's face was sympathetic as she listened, nodding and frowning. She leaned forward, putting her mug on a coaster as she opened the ice cream and picked up both our spoons. She scooted down the couch to sit beside me, leaning against me as I put my arm around her. "That really sucks," she said simply, handing me my spoon and balancing the carton between us.
"Yeah." I could tell by the way our silence hung in the air that there was more to come, but Kate was processing everything I'd told her.
I could also guess, at least in part, what she would eventually say. But our rituals had to be observed, so I wasn't surprised at all when she changed the subject. "So what movie?"
With a rueful smile, I held up the DVD case. She laughed and said, "Gene Kelly? I'm shocked!"
"Oh, shut up!" I popped her on the leg with the case before I tossed it back on the coffee table and picked up the remote to start Anchors Aweigh. "I felt like watching something light…"
"You mean you felt like some eye candy," she muttered under her breath as she tried to hide her grin by taking a bite of ice cream.
"That, too." I smirked. We settled in, eating our ice cream as we commented here and there on the movie. Idle talk sprang up in the lulls between musical numbers, with Kate filling me in on her most recent shoot. She was starting to gain some recognition and had been working this week on the promotional photographs for her first national campaign. We talked a little about how she was enjoying her job despite the added stress, and I shared in her excitement with the way things seemed to be going for her.
She asked about my family in Tennessee, and I told her I thought I would go see them sometime soon. She asked if there was any particular reason I was thinking of going now, and I shrugged, telling her I missed them. "Oh, and remember what I told you about Tanya?"
"About her thinking about having a baby?"
I nodded. "Yeah…I think she's going to do it. She said she went back to her doctor to discuss some options about sperm donors and all that…I think I might be an uncle soon." I grinned. "Well, sort of."
Kate beamed at me and said, "That's really awesome. Has she told anyone else yet?"
I shook my head. "No…not after the minor freak out. I don't think they're…opposed to the idea, necessarily. They just think that she's making things harder on herself with dating and getting married or whatever." They didn't seem to get that Tanya didn't really want that part of it. She wanted to be a mom, and I knew she would be an amazing one. We spoke for a few minutes more about families and jobs and random trivial things, and then I sat up straighter, turning my eyes to the screen as I heard the familiar music begin and saw Gene talking to Jerry.
"You're adorable with your little crush. You know that, don't you?" Kate teased me.
"You know you like him, too."
She was already shaking her head. "Not as much as you do. What is it about him, anyway?"
"What is there not to like?" I countered. "He's charming and handsome and has a great body, and he can dance and sing…"
Kate laughed softly. "You know you're describing yourself, right? Narcissist."
"I am not a narcissist." I frowned, playfully pouting a little before I sighed and the pout became real. "Besides, I don't have blond hair and blue eyes." I leaned against the back of the couch, my eyes focused on the TV but not really seeing the scene in front of me.
"Neither does Gene." Kate's voice was confused before she said, "Oh…" She sighed and reached over, taking my spoon from my hand. "I'll be right back." She put the lid on the ice cream and piled everything, including our empty mugs, on the tray before she carried it out of the room.
The dance had ended, and I was staring blankly ahead by the time she returned with a mug for each of us in her hands. She put them both on the coffee table, sat on her end of the couch, and motioned to me, patting her thighs. I gave her a tiny smile before I stretched out with a sigh, resting my head on her lap. She played with my hair, running her fingers through it soothingly as she let me talk.
I told her everything – the idle curiosity and attraction I'd felt when I first saw him. How it had grown stronger as the night wore on. The way I'd been drawn to his body art – although I did at least keep it cleaner than what had really been in my imagination. I talked about how his sense of humor matched mine, and how enticing everything about him – even his passionate temper when he debated – was to me. I don't even know what all I said, but eventually I found myself winding down, ending with, "I don't remember ever feeling a connection that strong before…not with anyone. And especially not after just a few hours of talking."
Her hand stilled in my hair and I glanced up to see her sitting with her lips pursed, not looking at me. I knew what was on her mind, but that didn't stop me from pushing belligerently. "What?"
She glanced down at me with a sigh, and the sight of the concern in her eyes was enough to crumble my defiance. Even though I didn't like what was coming, I knew she was only worried about me. "Edward…" She paused, running her fingers through my hair again before she continued. "Do you think maybe you're getting a little ahead of yourself? You have a habit of just diving in head first…"
I sighed, my eyes drifting closed as my hand found its way into my hair as well. My fingers brushed hers, and she squeezed my hand briefly before pulling away, knowing that – for whatever reason – playing with my hair always helped me relax. I knew what she meant…and she was right. When I knew what I wanted, I just went for it, consequences be damned. But I also knew that this was different. The pull to Jasper was something I hadn't felt before, but she wasn't going to understand that because, unfortunately, I'd said the same thing several times before.
Instead of the boy who cried wolf, I'm the gay man who cried love…
My smile was sardonic when I opened my eyes to see Kate watching me. "Doesn't matter anyway," I said, my voice flat. "He's not interested."
"Gah, that really sucks." She leaned down and kissed my forehead, grunting when she had to bend over further than she thought. I managed a small chuckle when she sat back up. "It's been a long time since I've seen you so…intrigued, I guess. I'm sorry, sweetie."
When I just shrugged, she wrinkled her nose and said, "But it must be…not nice, but easier, maybe? To know that he's not interested just because he's not gay. I mean, he obviously liked you otherwise. You guys had a great time talking and all that…"
She trailed off, and I rolled my eyes, muttering, "Not interested is not interested…the fact that it's because I'm a man doesn't make it any easier than if he didn't like something else about me."
She sighed. "I know…and it sucks ass. Was just hoping your powers of logic would fail you on that one, and you'd buy my line of utter bullshit."
Chuckling, I sat up, kissing her lightly on the cheek. "Thanks, but you need to work on your bullshitting skills if you expect me to fall for that." She made a face at me, sticking out her tongue, and I was ready to be done with Jasper. I hated obsessing over him and letting him ruin my night, so instead, I decided to torment Kate. "Oh!" I said as if I'd just remembered. "Guess who called me this morning."
She said, "Tanya?"
The movie was scrolling through the end credits, so I got up to change it out, laughing as I said, "No. You're way off."
I snapped the DVD back into its case and returned it to the rack, running my fingers along the titles as she kept guessing. I just chuckled, finally pulling out Singin' in the Rain and putting it in the player.
Might as well make it a theme night.
"Damn it, Edward! Just tell me!"
I nearly expected Kate to stomp her foot, but I was having way too much fun. So instead of answering, I absently rubbed my stomach and said, "I think I want some more ice cream…can I get you anything?"
The sound of her grumbling faded into the distance as I wandered into the kitchen with a grin on my face. I actually did want more ice cream, so I pulled it from the freezer and grabbed a couple of spoons from the drawer. I rummaged through the stash of chocolate in my cabinet, sticking a few of Kate's favorite hazelnut truffles in my pocket as a peace offering.
When I made it back to the den, she was sitting on the end of the couch in a huff with her arms crossed. I laughed softly and saw her lips twitch as she tried not to smile. "I'm sorry," I said, tossing the truffles into her lap.
"Ooh! You're forgiven!" she said, accompanied by the squeaking rustle of the plastic as she unwrapped her candy. "But you damn well better talk now." She popped the chocolate into her mouth and flashed a grin at me.
"Well," I began, dragging it out a bit longer, "I'm not really sure you'll know who I'm talking about. Do you remember a photo shoot you did a few weeks ago? That one I helped you with? There was a guy there…but you probably don't remember him."
She coughed, her eyes wide. "Shut up! He did not call you!" When I just smiled, she said, "Wait. We are talking about Garrett, right?"
I laughed, finally taking pity on her. "Yeah, he called this morning. He said he was sorry he hadn't gotten back to me sooner, but he'd been out of town…" I glanced at her pointedly, raising both eyebrows as I ate a spoonful of ice cream.
The stupid look on her face was priceless as she sat back against the arm of the couch and tried not to grin. She failed utterly and ended up looking almost like she was in pain. I chuckled, eating more ice cream, and she reached over to hit me, muttering, "Oh, shut up. And give me some of that." She stretched out on the couch, putting her head in my lap as she took the tub from me and began eating.
"Kate…" I tried not to whine. "You're going to make a mess."
"No, I won't," she said, another spoonful disappearing in her mouth as she smiled up at me. "So he really called? What did he say?"
I couldn't help but smile at her as I filled her in on my conversation with Garrett. I'd helped her out at a shoot a couple of weeks earlier where he was one of the primary models, and Kate'd had a very hard time concentrating. I'd never seen her so flustered, and I'd ended up doing a lot of the work that was normally hers. She hadn't been able to work up the courage to talk to him directly, though, and she'd nearly beaten the hell out of me when she'd learned I'd passed my number to him with an invitation to pose for my book.
Of course, she didn't look too pissed about that now with that ridiculous grin on her face and the sparkle in her eyes.
"He's going to come over the Saturday after I get back from New York for a session." I shrugged. "We talked about his tattoos a little bit, and he asked if he needed to wear anything special, and that was pretty much it. Now, when he comes over, I might just mention a certain friend of mine…"
She let out a strangled squeal – whether in happiness or protest, I wasn't sure - and started to sit up, slinging her spoon in the air. A huge glob of ice cream went flying, landing right on my crotch.
"Shit!" We both spoke at once, and Kate bolted upright, reaching out to clean it up before she pulled her hands back and laughed. "Umm…I think I'll let you handle that."
I rolled my eyes, smirking. "Told you you were going to make a mess." I stood up carefully, catching the ice cream and carrying it with me as I went to change. "I'll be right back," I called over my shoulder, and I caught sight of her sitting on her knees on the couch, watching me with a sheepish expression.
Upstairs, I walked through my room, kicking the door closed on my way to my bathroom, where I dumped the ice cream in the sink and used the back of my hand to turn on the water to wash my hands. Glancing down, I saw that somehow that little bit of ice cream had spread, and I had chocolate all over the front of my pants. I could feel the fabric clinging to my thighs. I made a face as I stripped out of them, finding that some of it had soaked through to my boxers as well.
How the hell did she manage that?
I felt sticky and gross, so I turned on the shower for a quick rinse, pulling my shirt off and wandering back into my bedroom to get fresh clothes while the water heated. Once I was beneath the warm spray, I had to remind myself that Kate was waiting for me – otherwise, my quick rinse would've turned into a nice, hot, relaxing shower.
As it was, I was clean, dry, and in fresh clothes all within a matter of minutes. As always, I felt better after a night of banter with Kate, and I was even humming as I made my way back into the den. I was all set to tease her more about the mess she'd made…
…right up until I walked in and found her curled up in a ball with her head on the arm of the couch, fast asleep. She was covered with the afghan, and her lips were slightly parted as she breathed evenly.
I smiled, shaking my head. She'd always been able to fall asleep anywhere, anytime – so much so that I joked with her about being narcoleptic. With a quiet chuckle, I turned off the TV and carefully pulled the afghan off of her, tossing it to the end of the couch. Leaning down, I picked her up, murmuring, "Come on, Katie-bug; it's bedtime…" She just sighed, barely stirring as I carried her across the hall and up the stairs to her room. She'd chosen it years ago and decorated it herself in browns and blues.
Once she was tucked beneath her covers, I kissed her forehead and went back to the den, closing her door on the way. I spent a few minutes straightening up and turning off the fireplace and the lights before I went back to my room and stripped down to my boxers. I rarely slept in clothes at all, but I always felt strange sleeping nude when Kate was in the house, so I compromised by at least wearing underwear.
I was exhausted, both mentally and physically, and I expected to fall asleep right away. Instead, I spent the next few hours alternately staring at my ceiling and tossing and turning, trying to forget the pair of blue eyes that kept haunting me every time I closed mine.
A/N: This story began as a one-shot for the Tattward and Inkella Contest, where it placed fifth. From the beginning, though, we had the entire story for these two men in mind, and we are so happy that now we can write and share it.
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