Author Notes: I seem to be obsessed with making Kenshin an orphan in most of my fics, which is technically canon but poor guy. I planned this story to be a one-shot, much like a lot of my other stories. But I kind of want to make this a short little multi-part story. Hopefully something under five or ten chapters. This will be a nice interlude for me from the crazy world of 'System Compatibility.' I'm not really a sci-fi writer or reader, I just enjoy things that investigate the human condition and all the messy emotions that come with it.
Disclaimer: The Rurouni Kenshin world and all characters depicted are a creation of mangaka, Watsuki Nobuhiro.
"Next virgin that comes here? She's all yours." Sano growled as he slumped down in one of the chairs situated behind the front counter tattoo parlor.
Kenshin momentarily spared his friend a glance before returning back to his current sketch. "You know the drill, we go in rounds."
"Uh-uh." Sano shook his head adamantly. "I've done two fairies, a rose, and three tribal tats this week. I'm done. You're getting the next virgin."
"And if the girl is hot?" Kenshin continued sketching, he was used to Sano's rants.
"What? You think the sorority girls that asked for the matching fairies weren't hot? They were. But it's just not worth it."
"Still your round." He replied without looking at his grumbling friend.
"Come on! Just take the next one. I'll do the rest of my share!" Sano pleaded, and quickly added, "I'll do your next cover-up."
Kenshin peered up from his drawing with his hand stilled. Sano's offer did seem tempting. Despite requests from virgin skinned people being painfully cliché, Kenshin hated working on cover-ups more. Usually cover ups were to hide the previously mentioned cliché first tattoo. It was typically something cheesy like a cartoon character, a significant other's name that now wasn't so significant, a dated design, or a piece of tattoo flash that is deemed too generic now. He was never the biggest fan of cover-ups because the clients were difficult -they wanted the impossible done. They expected him to work magic by covering up an all-black tribal tattoo to the point of hiding it like a coat of paint. It was like they couldn't understand that it called for finesse and some artistic license.
He tapped his pencil on his notepad and considered his friend. "A one for one trade right?"
Sano grinned, "Yup. Just one. I need a break."
Kenshin furrowed his brows but nodded. "Okay. Just one." He wondered who really came out worse off in the deal, him or Sano.
Virgins were terrible. On average they were scared of the needle, which was ridiculous considering everyone knows how a tattoo is applied; wanted to look at every piece of flash, before deciding within the first ten they looked at; rebelling against their middle class background; or doing it on a dare. But he couldn't fault them. Everyone with a tattoo was at one point or another was a virgin.
Then, there was the occasional virgin that actually held value in what they requested. Kenshin stretched his back hearing it pop, he reminisced about his first tattoo. He had gotten it back when he was still a messed up teen that was put through the ringer of the state-run foster care system. It was a silly little koi tattoo at the top of his left arm. He had gotten as a commemoration of surviving through the system. He had turned eighteen and the state had let him loose into the world.
Kenshin had heard of the koi being a traditional symbol of adversity as it climbed the river against the current and became a dragon. Or something along those lines. What he got tattooed was less important than when the buzzing needle pricked against his skin. It had changed his life. The process was so methodical and practiced. He was fascinated and became addicted. Somewhere between his sixth and seventh tattoo, Kenshin decided to get an apprenticeship from a local tattoo artist. Hiko Seijuro had grumblingly taken him as an apprentice and beat everything he knew into his pupil.
Ten years since his first tattoo, Kenshin now sported a fair collection on both arms and parts of his torso. He also eventually teamed up with Sano, a fellow artist and friend, to open a small parlor.
Kenshin continued with his sketches, letting his mind wander as he considered the possibility of having a coworker that complained a little less. Sano was an amazing artist, but had a tendency to grumble when giving a tattoo he didn't necessarily care for -which ended up being the majority of tattoos requested. That was the thing of it; most people went with pretty common designs. There wasn't very much room for artistic freedom, and especially not on virgin skin.
Hearing the bell above their storefront door chime, both artists looked up. Kenshin spared the girl with dark black hair and blue eyes a momentary glance before going back to his drawing. There was no use trying to talk to the girl, before Kenshin would get a word out Sano would jump in. Sano's customer service skills left much to be desired, but a young attractive girl like this one was where he whipped out the charm.
"What can I help you with little lady?" Sano grinned and leaned over the counter as the girl approached.
She frowned at the way he called her. "Well big sir, are you taking walk-ins?"
"Sure are." Sano eyes skimmed the skin available from her t-shirt and jeans, and saw no visible signs of ink. "Do you know what you want?"
The girl shrugged, "Kind of. I was wondering if I could see the artist's portfolio."
"Sure thing." Sano dug under the counter for his binder. "So when was the last time you went under the needle."
She seemed distracted as the glanced around the shop with the various displays of flash. "First time."
Kenshin whipped his eyes up from his sketchpad at that and raised a brow. The girl in question knew to ask about walk-ins and the artist portfolio, he could only assume that she had done her research -something he wished all virgins would be smart enough to do.
Sighing, he looked over to where Sano had previously been searching for his own book, instead now he was looking for Kenshin's. Bringing out the black binder he set it out on the counter and flipped to the first page. She drew her attention away from her surroundings to the photographs and chewed on her lower lip as she considered each picture. Scrutinizing some pictures closer than others, it was obvious she was checking the line work.
Halfway through the book she looked up toward Sano. "You did these?"
Sano shook his head grinning and thumbed at his redheaded companion. "Nope. Those are Kenshin's. He'll be your artist."
She considered the man, then questioned. "You're Kenshin?"
Hearing the tone of her voice Kenshin frowned. "Yeah. Is that a problem?"
She raised her hands and waved them gesturing she meant no offense. "No, actually this works out. A friend recommended you."
Sano stepped away from the counter and headed toward the back. "I'll be at light boxes. Holler if you need anything."
Kenshin tapped his fingers on the counter as she continued looking through the photographs. Being as she hadn't said what she decided on yet, he suspected that she would end up picking a common piece of flash. He guessed possibly the swallow or maybe a rose.
Flipping to the final page she studied the last piece, and then looked up at him. "You do original work right? It's not all flash?"
He nodded, his portfolio was only filled with original work -things only worth taking a picture of.
"Can I see what you're working on there?"
He observed her carefully as she scrutinized his drawing. She continued chewing on her bottom lip and Kenshin sighed. "Look, if you're not sure about getting a tattoo no one is forcing you."
Her piercing azure eyes snapped up to his. "No, I'm sure. It's just..."
"The needles." He finished for her.
She shook her head, "No, I'm not an idiot. I know it will hurt and my pain tolerance isn't that bad."
"Then what? Daddy won't approve?"
Her look turned into a glare. "You know what? Never mind. I'll go elsewhere."
As she turned to walk away, Kenshin tugged her back by her retreating hand. "Sorry. You're nervous. I'm being an asshole."
She paused and turned back around. "Is that supposed to be an apology?"
"Kinda." He sheepishly shrugged and released her hand.
She considered him for a long moment then nodded. "I want to get a tattoo."
"You don't say."
She narrowed her eyes at his smart mouth, but continued. "I don't know what I want exactly, so I'm leaving it up to you."
He raised his eyebrows at her, "Seriously? Pure artistic freedom?"
Seeing the giddy look on his face she couldn't help chuckling. "I'll give you a theme, size restriction and a location. If not, I feel like I'm going to get a humongous tiger on my back."
He laughed, "That seems fair. But that's surprising for a virgin."
She blushed and sputtered, "What does that have to do with anything?"
Apparently he hit the nail on the head, not that he had planned to. "Tattoo virgin. Most people don't leave it up to the artist."
Her blush grew deeper, realizing what she inadvertently gave away. "No one comes to my work telling me how to do my job. Figured you'd know better than me right?"
"My thoughts exactly." He leaned against the counter and looked her over. "So what are my playground rules?"
"Right upper back. Nothing bigger than three by three." She patted the area and then added. "And whatever you come up with that represents 'the sword that gives life.'"
"Gives life?" He sifted through various ideas in his mind while still considering her words. "You won't be able to hide it. Bathing suits, tank tops, strapless dresses... a strapless wedding dress..."
She shook her head, "You let me worry about my wedding dress. Anyways, it's not something I'll need or want to hide."
"Okay." He pointed to the seats in the waiting area. "Why don't you take a seat over there and I'll draw something up."
Kenshin turned away and headed toward the back where the light boxes and his business partner were. Seeing the redhead, Sano grinned. "Sorry man. A deal is a deal."
"I'm not complaining." He sat down at his station and pulled out paper and a pencil.
"So what is she asking for? A butterfly? A nautical star?"
"Nope." Kenshin started by doodling various concepts floating around in his head.
Peering over his shoulder, Sano frowned. "Wait, what did she ask for?"
He smirked as he continued sketching. "She left that up to me."
"What!" Sano allowed his voice to rise. After catching his overreaction he glanced toward the girl who spared him a point stare after looking up from her book. She raised a brow at him then continued on reading.
"Don't disturb the clients." Kenshin's hands passed over the paper with skillful practiced ease.
"That's complete bullshit! The one time in a million that the ideal virgin comes in here and I pass her off!" Sano's voice could be clearly heard around the small tattoo parlor and all three occupants were well aware. He leaned over his partner, "I'll trade you two virgins for her."
"What? Now you're willing to tattoo two additional virgins along with this one?" Kenshin continued sketching and refined one particular drawing.
"I don't know if I have a say in this or not, being my body and all..." The girl approached them from where she had been sitting. She crossed her arms with the book hanging from one hand.
Kenshin pulled out a new sheet of paper and continued with his work. Sano grinned and turned toward the girl. "Look, wouldn't you rather have me, who's better at tattooing by the way, doing this than the rookie here?"
Kenshin rolled his eyes and ignored his friend.
"Really? Because from what Megumi told me, Kenshin's has a few years on you in the business." At her comment Kenshin glanced at her. "And I picked him before you pawned me off."
Sano sputtered a bit then grabbed his jacked from the back of his chair. "I'm going out for coffee and a smoke. Text me if you need me."
As Sano left grumbling, the girl let out a laugh once he stepped out. "You don't think I bruised his ego too bad right?"
"No, not too bad." He wiped off the eraser dust and slid the drawing closer to her. "It's more the mention of Megumi than anything."
She didn't comment further on the topic of Sano as she looked over the clean precise lines of the line drawing. Her fingers traced along the lines. "You did this in that short amount of time?"
"Well, I sort of do this for a living." He tapped his pencil against the surface of the light box. "Does that work for you?"
She looked the drawing a bit longer, then faced him and smiled with a glistening gaze. "It's perfect."
Kenshin was tempted to say something, but backed off. Maybe the girl was easily emotional, but this was the first time he had gotten a response like that for something he'd done. He motioned for her toward the table where she would spend the next couple of hours. He went about preparing the outline and setting up his station.
Sitting on the table like a child waiting for the doctor to examine her, she swung her legs. Kenshin rolled over to her on his low stool and gestured to her top. "I have towels if you want some modesty."
Without a second thought she pulled off her t-shirt revealing a bandeau bikini top. She shrugged, "Figured I'd come prepared. Nothing here people can't see at the beach."
He chuckled shaking his head. "You're a trip, you know that?" He patted the table next to her. "Lie down and I'll get the process started."
He proceeded to wash her off and getting her prepped. He had her stand for the stencil and after careful placement and peeling -the bluish-purple line art was on.
"Check it out in the mirror. See if the placement works for you." Kenshin slid back on his stool to give her some room to step toward the mirror.
As she admired her shoulder, he was able to look her over. She was sinewy little thing, probably stronger than she looked at first glance. With her hair in a ponytail and little make up on, she looked barely in her twenties -if even that. He momentarily wondered if maybe he should ask for ID, but she seemed to comfortable in her skin to be under eighteen. Her skin was like porcelain. Kenshin felt a small pang of guilt thinking he would purposely scar it with ink, but then again her skin was the perfect canvas.
"It's perfect." She made her way back over and lied back down on the table.
"You keep saying that." He picked up his tattoo machine and scooted up closer to her.
Lying down on her stomach as if to get tanned, she turned her head to the right: facing him and the needle. "I'm Kaoru by the way."
He smirked and leaned over her, his face close to her shoulder and inches from her face. His breath caressed over her skin as he readied the machine to poise over the outline. "Ready Kaoru?"
"As I'll ever be."
As the machine buzzed alive he went to work. His hands were steady and purposeful. Having clocked his fair share of minutes under the needle himself, he knew that doing the lines correctly once instead of multiple strokes was the least painful way.
Once he was finishing up the black outline Kenshin peered at her face. Her eyes were closed, but she wasn't cringing like he expected. "You hangin' in there?"
Kaoru blinked her eyes open. He paused in his movements as he was about to change out the gauges of his machine. Her eyes were serene as she studied his face, and then closed them again. "I'm fine."
Shaking off the odd feeling her look crept up in him, he continued on with the tattoo. "So Kaoru, are you from around here?"
"Born and raised." Her voice was steady.
"Are you a student?"
"No, I recently graduated. I work now."
"What do you do?" He asked his questioned between the buzzing of his machine as he dipped for more color ink.
"What's with the chit chat?" Her eyes pierced him again.
He laughed and continued on, despite the stirrings caused by her unwavering gaze so close to his face. "Aside from hair stylists, tattoo artists are the most conversationalists."
"You mean gossip."
He smirked, "Not really. It's just we're allowed into people's personal spaces. Who else can say that?"
"Manicurists and prostitutes?"
He raised a brow and chuckled, "You got me there."
After a few minutes where he worked quietly, Kaoru answered. "I'm a kendo instructor."
Kenshin smiled at her response. "Hence, 'the sword that gives life.'"
"That's part of it."
When she didn't say more on that, he asked the next typical question. "So why this tattoo? And why now?" She froze at his words. Feeling her stiffen under his finger, Kenshin used the back of his free left hand and gave a reassuring tap on her forearm. "You don't have to answer that."
Kaoru relaxed a bit at that but remained tense, as if preparing herself for something. "It's okay. It's a fair question."
"There are all sorts of reasons why people get tattoos. Some more personal than others." He gestured with the end of his nose at a tattoo near his right elbow. "See the two playing cards there? The jack and ace of spades? I got that when I turned twenty one."
"Celebrating legal drinking?" She smiled at the thought and peeked up at him through her bangs.
"Kind of." He diligently continued on with his work. "I was in the foster care system."
Instead of closing her eyes again like she had so far, she kept them opened as she listened.
"Not every foster parent is kind and caring. Sure, there's the lot that do from the goodness of their heart. Then, there's a few that do it for the money." He dipped the needles into more ink. "I had the bad luck of being in one of their homes when I was thirteen. I'm not going to lie to you and say I was this angel or something. I was an angry little kid, but being under those bastards' care didn't help much.
Anyways, after this one time where I mouthed off to them and the husband beat me with his belt, he said something I will never forget. He said, 'You're a fucking waste of space. If we're lucky enough, you'll be dead before you can take your first drink and stop being the deadweight you are on the rest of us.'"
Her eyes were wide, and he sighed as he changed out the needles again. "I'm not looking for pity you know." He calibrated the machine for the new gauge, and then turned back to her. "I got the tattoo right when I turned twenty-one. Well, after I got over the hangover that is." He grinned at her, "It wasn't a self fulfilling prophesy. According to that bastard, I beat the odds and the house."
"Twenty-one, like in black jack." Kaoru chewed her lip. "But if the house gets twenty-one, then you haven't won."
He shrugged, "But I haven't lost."
"You're an optimist." She pointed out.
"I try to be. It's hard sometimes, but I'd like to think life has its moments." Kenshin replied with a smile.
Kaoru allowed the sound of the buzzing machine prickling against her skin to send her into a lull. She couldn't really feel the pain anymore; it was a steady throbbing numbness. The words left her lips before she realized. "My father."
He paused momentarily, but continued on. Not saying anything to stop or encourage her.
"He died recently. There was a robbery. Some thieves broke into the dojo attached to our house in the middle of the night. I have no idea what they thought they would find there, but my father heard noises and went to investigate." She took in a shaky breath then expelled it slowly to calm her nerves, "They brought a gun and... he was shot."
Kenshin stopped and considered her face. Her eyes were squinted shut, as if trying block out an image. Her lower lip trembled, until she bit it. He leaned forward and blew a noiseless whistle at her bangs. Her hair fluttered and her eyes relaxed then blinked open in question.
He brought his black gloved hands up as if surrender. "I would have to change these if I touched your hair."
"It just seemed like you were stirring around in your head there." He leaned forward with his machine and settled on her shoulder. "We're on the last leg here. Just shading left." The machine buzzed to life again. "So what was he like? Your old man?"
"He was strong. And I don't just mean at kendo. He was the bravest and most righteous man I know. He came from long kendo line of our family's sword technique. Strong men who kept up 'the sword that gives life.'" Her voice held pride in it as she continued, "He raised me alone. My mother died when I was young, I barely remember her. But I was never left wanting for affection -even if he raised me more like a son."
"I don't know," he looked at her face from the corner of his eye. "From what I can see from this angle, looks like he did a pretty good job."
"Thank you." She smiled, "I promised myself that I wouldn't do anything he wouldn't approve of."
He groaned at her phrase. "God, no wonder you were pissed from my comment earlier."
"No, I... I shouldn't have jumped down your throat like that. I should have a thicker skin."
"Better not, it'll be more difficult for the ink to catch." He kept going as he added the final touches of shading. "Do you think he'll approve of your first tattoo?"
She barked out a laugh, "No, not likely. But he was in the marines so he had his fair share. He would have warmed up to it by the end of the first day."
"Well no turning back now." He pulled back and set the machine down. He grabbed the necessary items and started wiping down the tattooed area. "You're all done here."
She craned her neck to try to see. "Really?"
He laughed at her attempts. "Go check it out in the mirror before I apply the ointment."
Kaoru scrambled off the table and stood with her back toward the mirror and peeked back. When Kenshin offered a hand mirror, she gladly accepted and grinned at her reflected reflection. Her voice was breathless but joyful, "It's perfect."
Before Kenshin could react, Kaoru had launched herself at him and hugged him. Still sitting on his wheeled stool, he was flung back until his back met the table. He kept his arms up, avoiding wrapping his arms around her like he wanted.
"Thank you." Pulling back she grinned, "And you don't know how to properly give back a hug."
He smirked, "Well, I would. But I need to apply that ointment before I take these gloves off. Remember, I can't touch anything."
Kaoru humorously rolled her eyes and turned away from him. "Go on then. Patch me up."
Kenshin proceeded to finishing the necessary steps and dressing the area. Once he was done, he took off the black gloves with a snap. "Now, keep to that paper with the dos and don'ts I gave you."
She nodded as she gingerly tugged on her t-shirt, realizing she was sorer than she felt earlier. "I should have considered doing this before a long weekend or something. How long should I expect it to hurt?"
"Hurt? About a day. It'll be sore and stiff for about a week."
"I can deal with that. Just don't know if I'll be up for my lesson today." She bent down carefully and hooked her purse on her healthy left shoulder. She made her way to the front of the store and stopped at the counter. "So how much do I owe you?"
Kenshin stood behind the counter and considered his answer for moment. "So you teach kendo, your family's style?"
Kaoru cocked her head to the side, confused at his question. "Yeah. I'm the acting headmaster."
"How old are your students?"
"Depends on the level. The lower the level, the younger they are." She allowed a confused smile to cross her face. "Why are you asking these questions?"
He ignored her question and asked another. "Do you have any adult beginner courses?"
She laughed at his question. "What? You want to start kendo or something?"
He shrugged, "Something like that."
Pulling out her wallet she leaned forward on the counter to get closer to him. "Just tell me what I owe you. And if you want some kendo courses go to the local Y."
He frowned, "The local Y is where senior citizens go to do water aerobics."
"Then you'll be in good company." She tapped her wallet against the counter.
"Tell you what. I'll trade you that tattoo for a few private kendo lessons."
"That better not be some kind of weird euphemism." She sighed is exasperation, "When Megumi recommended you, she said you would never try anything. That between you and Sano, you would be the safe bet."
"Also a little awkward having your friend's boyfriend breathing down your neck for two hours." He pointed out.
She rolled her eyes, "So you're going to make a liar out of Megumi?"
"If it gets me a couple of lessons." He smirked slyly.
"Is this some kind of weird way to get a date or something?"
"Is it working?"
"No." She fetched her credit card out and slid it over to him across the counter.
He sighed taking the card and processed the transaction. "You're a tough sell."
"Or a tough buy in your case." She picked the pen from behind the counter and signed the receipt. "Thanks for the tattoo."
As she walked away toward the door, Kenshin called out. "You know..." When she turned with her hand poised at the door handle, he continued. "He would be proud, your father."
"Of the tattoo?" She answered smiling.
"No, for keeping up the family line and 'the sword that gives life.'"
She paused, then shook her head as she pulled open the door. "You can't be so sure. You don't even know me."
Just as she walked out, Sano slid in past her and gave her a nod in greeting. Seeing the retreating figure of the girl the tall tattoo artist let out a low whistle as he joined Kenshin at the front counter.
"So what did you do to have her running off like that?" Sano waggled his brows with his suggestive tone.
"She didn't run off." Kenshin shot him a deadpan look, "I didn't do anything. Well... nothing that bad."
Sano laughed as his friend as he walked toward the back of the tattoo parlor. "You were always bad at flirting."
A/N: I'm sorry if certain things are incorrect in the tattooing sense. I've never even gotten one, and I'm basing this all on what I've seen on TV and what I Googled. I plan to write a couple more snippets for this particular story line, but if you've read my other one-shots this could be a stand alone as well.