Goddamn plotbunnies fucked with my whole week. I started this son of a bitch on Monday, five days ago, but I got the idea on Sunday. Finally, I just had to write it.
This is Part One of the "Blood and Ink" series. The next one (no idea when I'm writing this) is going to be "Blood and Bone," a Destiel story in this same AU. The third and probably final part is "Love and Ink," a Sabriel story. After the series is complete, I'm probably going to be writing related oneshots because I FUCKING LOVE this AU.
Many thanks to Mems, who pre-read most of this and who gripped me tight and raised me from Perdition. I obviously do not own Supernatural. Heavenly Ink is loosely based off a real tattoo shop in Grenada Hills, California, called La Rue Tattoo Co. I highly recommend checking it out if you're of a mind - it's where I get all my work done.
The first time he saw Lu, he was swaggering into Heavenly Ink with a grin on his face and a sheet of paper in his hand. The first time he saw Lu, he was wearing blue jeans, a black T-shirt, and a green button-down over it. The first time he saw Lu, there was no one else in the shop apart from him, Anna behind the desk, and Dean in the back. The first time he saw Lu, he scanned the entire shop before his baby-blue eyes fixed on him and his lips quirked up in a smile. The first time he saw Lu, he was already lost and didn't even realize it.
"You have any artists free?" the tall strawberry blonde asked Anna, even though it was perfectly clear just from the glance around that there was no one here. It was just after one on a Tuesday afternoon, though. It was understandable.
"Of course," Anna answered. She glanced toward the chairs and saw Balthazar watching. "Taz, you doing anything?"
Balthazar shook his head. "Not at the moment," he said, heading toward the front. His "new-customers" smile slid into place as he approached the other man and shook his hand. "Balthazar Roché. Welcome to my shop."
"Lu Pellegrino." Lu smiled back. "Nice to meet you."
"Well, Lu, what can I help you with today?"
Lu handed him the folded-up sheet of paper. As Balthazar unfolded it, Lu said, "I want to get that over my heart. Think you can make that happen?"
It was an interesting design. Balthazar felt certain he'd seen it somewhere before. It was hand-drawn, a five-pointed star in a circle with a small design in each of the five corners of the circle. "It's called a Devil's Trap," he heard Lu say, and he felt himself nodding. "Yeah, I can definitely make this work. You want it this size, bigger, or smaller?"
"Bigger," Lu said. Balthazar nodded again, glanced up to see Lu still looking right at him, and swallowed.
"Alright. And did you just want the outline, or did you want it filled in, too?"
"Just the outline. Black, of course."
"Of course. Anna has some paperwork for you to fill out. I'll be back in a minute." It wasn't that he didn't like Lu's eyes on him—it was the intensity of his gaze. Balthazar wasn't quite sure what was so telling about it, but he couldn't help wondering what Lu was thinking.
After he scanned the design and enlarged it, he brought it back to the front for Lu's approval. The slightly-taller man was still only about halfway through the three sheets he had to initial and sign, but he looked up as Balthazar approached.
"How's that?" he asked, showing him the new size.
Lu grinned and nodded. "That's great."
Before Balthazar went to the back to transfer the design to a stencil, he happened to catch sight of the name across the top of the first page. Pellegrino, Lucifer M.
His name is Lucifer? Well, that was unexpected. He shook it off and headed back as Dean slipped in through the back door.
"Hey, boss. I got the inks sorted back here. Do you need me right now?"
"Not at the moment. Did you already get lunch?"
Dean shook his head. "No, not yet. That's what I was just about to ask."
"Yeah, go get lunch. See if Anna wants anything, too."
"What about you?"
"We just got a walk-in. Shouldn't take more than an hour or so. I'll just grab something later."
Dean nodded. "Sounds good. Back in a few." He headed to the front, stopping by the desk to talk to Anna.
By the time Balthazar finished transferring the design to the stencil, Lu had just finished signing and dating the paperwork. Balthazar waved the strawberry blonde back to his chair and motioned for him to sit down. "So, I take it this isn't your first tattoo?"
"Nope," Lu said. He pulled off his shirts and sat down on them. Now that his torso was bare, Balthazar could see a pinup girl on Lu's right upper arm, the beginnings of a nautical sleeve on his left arm, and something—he couldn't quite see what—stretching across from his back to the sides of his ribs. He wondered if he had any tattoos below the waist but quickly shoved that thought out of his mind.
"Where'd you go for your other tattoos?" Balthazar asked instead, pulling on a set of gloves and fishing a razor out of his drawer.
"Yankee Designs in New York City, Seventh in Dallas, Ink Box in San Diego—I got a few things done there, actually—and Crossroads Tattoo in Atlanta. But I'm here now, so…"
"You did a lot of moving around, it sounds like." Balthazar finished shaving the patch of skin he was about to tattoo and threw away the razor. He picked up the stencil and held it up, rotating it to try to figure out which end was supposed to be up. Lu laughed at his confused expression and tapped the correct point.
"Yeah, I joined the Navy after high school. They sent me to a few different places, but I got out after three years. I was in San Diego for most of that time and I moved up here about five years ago. I just haven't gotten inked in forever. Felt like I needed something fresh, you know?"
"I definitely know what you mean." He laid the stencil against Lu's skin and smoothed it out. He peeled the paper back and peered at the design. "What do you think?"
Lu went to the mirror and tilted his head to one side, then the other. "Yeah, that looks good."
Now that Lu's back was to him, he could see a set of wings, like angel wings, tattooed across his shoulders. They wrapped around to his sides—that was what he'd seen on his ribs—and stretched all the way down to his hips. The tips actually disappeared under his jeans. He admired the color, a dark red with almost golden streaks, and the impressive detail, but couldn't help wondering how much farther down they went. Most of all, though, he wanted to run his hands over those wings. "Alright, then let's get started."
After Lu settled himself back in the chair, Balthazar swapped out his gloves, poured a small amount of black ink into a plastic ink cap, pulled out a bottle with soapy water, and unwrapped a set of needles. He fitted the needles into the machine, pulled out a roll of paper towels, wetted a few sheets down with the water, and wiped down Lu's skin. "So how did you find us?" he asked, dipping the needles in the ink cap and starting the needle gun.
"My buddy Gabriel gave me the number," Lu said. He winced ever so slightly when the needles first touched down, but his voice never betrayed a tremor. "He's been here a few times."
"Gabriel. Gabriel Speight?"
"Yeah, that's him. He said he got done by Dean."
"That was Dean—the one who just left. He's very skilled for someone who's only been doing this about four years."
"And how long have you been tattooing people?"
"Fourteen years." He finished the second line of the star. "This shop just opened up about two years ago, though."
"And you said it's yours?"
"Technically, I co-own it. The other owner isn't a tattoo artist, though. He's just a financial backer. He's not in here much. For all intents and purposes, I run this shit," he joked. He glanced up at Lu just long enough to register a grin on his face before turning back to the next set of lines. "So what do you do now that you're not in the Navy?"
"I'm an electrician. It's not as bad as it sounds—I make a good chunk of money, actually, and they're really lax with their tattoo policy. That's kind of a big thing for me. It's basically the same job I was doing in the Navy, so I started off higher than most people."
"Nice. So what's the significance of this tattoo?" He was always intrigued by the stories people had. Part of him also hoped that Lu's explanation would help him figure out where he'd seen this design before. "Did you draw it, or…?"
"I actually found it in this book on demonology. It's a Devil's Trap and basically it just traps demons. They're unable to get out of it. I did actually freehand it, but I was looking at the book as a guide. But I liked the design and… Well, I'm sure you saw my legal name."
His head down, Balthazar grinned to himself and nodded. He finished the last line of the star and wiped the blood and excess ink off Lu's skin.
"I like to think that it'll keep the Devil inside me. I don't want him getting out."
"He might jump-start Armageddon."
"Heaven forbid," Lu said, trying not to chuckle. "So I've always wondered this—who do tattoo artists go to for their tattoos?"
"Other tattoo artists?"
Balthazar chose that moment to finish one of the sections of the circle around the star, allowing Lu to snort with laughter. "I meant who, specifically? More specifically, who do you go to?"
Balthazar rolled that around in his head for a moment. "Well, the last time I got any new ink was about two years ago, just before the shop opened. I got a skull on the back of my calf from Dean. It was what made me decide to hire him. I don't normally do that, but the last shop he worked at highly recommended him. Before that, a few friends who run their own studios in the area. Now, though, if I was to get another tattoo, it would probably be from Bobby. He works here, too. He's been tattooing for… bloody Hell, like thirty-five years now. Maybe forty."
"So, if you don't mind me asking, why doesn't he run this place?"
"He didn't want the pressure. He likes to make his own hours, and because he's a veteran, I'll let him come in basically whenever he wants. He's probably gonna be retiring soon, anyway. It'll be a shame to lose him. A lot of our clients from back when we first started absolutely love him." He finished the last arc of the circle, wiped off Lu's skin, and swapped out the needles for ones with a finer point.
"But you were okay with the pressure?"
Balthazar shrugged before turning the needle back on his skin. "I don't have a family. He does. I'm not even dating anyone. I have more time to devote to the shop than he does."
"So you're here almost every day, then."
"'Almost'? I'm here every day."
"How many other people do you have working here?"
"Two more artists—Ray and Meg—and a bloke named Michael who works behind the desk, too. Meg has maybe five or six years of experience, and Ray is an apprentice right now. He's pretty good, though. His artwork is brilliant, but he needs to hone his needle technique a bit." Balthazar lifted the needle off the second pattern in the design and wiped the blood and ink away.
"How long do you usually have apprentices for?"
"Six months to a year. Ray's been here for about four months, but he's already made significant progress. He's doing well. Still haven't decided if I'm gonna hire him after his apprenticeship is over, but if I don't, I am gonna recommend him highly, of course." Wiping at the tattoo again, he said, "So, Gabriel's been here a few times. How did you meet him?"
"He's one of my best friends from high school. After I found out I got a job up here, I called him and he helped me get set up in an apartment and everything. Obviously, I trust his judgment. He actually wondered why I didn't get another tattoo ages ago. But I've had things to deal with. It just didn't come together until now. Personally, I'm glad it did because I've been meaning to get this sleeve finished for a few years now."
"Well, if you like us, we'd be more than happy to finish it for you." Balthazar wiped off the tattoo again and leaned back, making absolutely sure he hadn't missed any lines.
"Yeah, I definitely think I'll be coming back." When he looked up at Lu's face, the strawberry blonde was smiling.
"Sounds good. Alright, go check it out." Anything to get those eyes off him. That gaze burning through him made him feel weak.
Lu slid off the seat and went back to the mirror. A giddy grin crossing his face, he checked it from all angles before nodding. "Yeah, it looks great. Thanks."
"No problem." Balthazar stripped off his gloves and dug a disposable camera out of his drawer. "Mind if I get a picture for my portfolio up front?"
"Not at all." Lu grinned as Balthazar snapped a picture even though his smile wasn't even in-frame.
Balthazar's mind was racing and the words spilled out before he could stop them. "If you're serious about coming back to finish your sleeve, I should take a few photos for reference. But it's fine if you're still on the fence about it," he added quickly.
Lu nodded again, still grinning. "Yeah, go ahead. Just, when you do plan it out, I want a shark right around my forearm and a chest of treasure on the seafloor on my wrist."
"Right about here?" Balthazar asked, touching the spot on his arm.
"Yeah. Exactly there."
Balthazar nodded quickly, averting his eyes from Lu's face, and took three pictures of the existing part of Lu's sleeve. On a whim, he took two giant steps back and took another picture, just of Lu. Balthazar got his face to just below his new tattoo in the shot, and he was relieved to see that Lu was still smiling. As he lowered the camera, Lu gave him an exaggerated pout and crossed his arms over his chest. "What, you don't want a picture with me?" he asked.
Actually, that was exactly what he wanted. A grin spreading across his face, he moved to stand next to Lu and held the camera up in a MySpace pose. Lu slung his arm around Balthazar's waist, grabbed the other side of the camera, and hit the button; the camera flash nearly blinded Balthazar but he found it difficult to care. Lu's arm was around him and he couldn't focus. As he finally lowered the camera, though, Lu removed his arm, and Balthazar was able to get his thoughts together. He said, "Alright, now I have to wrap that sucker up." He set the camera down and put on a new pair of gloves. He pulled a roll of plastic wrap and a roll of painter's tape from his drawer, cut a sheet large enough to cover the new tattoo, and taped it over the design. "I'm sure you know the protocol for after-care, but I have to run through it with you anyway. Leave that on for at least four hours. Once you take it off, you can leave it off. Wash it every few hours with a non-scented antibacterial soap like Dial—liquid soap, not a bar. Pat it dry with a clean paper towel—don't rub it and don't use a cloth. I recommend Lubriderm for your lotion, or Aveeno. Just nothing with scents or dyes. Keep it moisturized, otherwise it won't heal properly."
"Aye-aye," Lu joked, giving Balthazar a mock salute. He pulled on his shirts, dug out his wallet out of the back pocket of his jeans, and handed him twenty-five dollars.
"You pay Anna," Balthazar said.
"I know, but this is yours." He smiled at Balthazar. "Thanks."
Balthazar finally took the money. "My pleasure." His eyes never left Lu as the strawberry blonde went back to the front, paid Anna, and walked out the door. It wasn't until he was completely out of sight that Balthazar blinked again.
Anna whirled around. "I've never seen you flirt with a client before," she said accusingly.
Balthazar made a few indistinct noises of offense before finally spluttering, "I wasn't flirting!"
She smirked. "Whatever you say."
The second time he saw Lu, it was two and a half months later. The second time he saw Lu, he had those same blue jeans on with a blue T-shirt and a darker-blue button-down shirt over it. The second time he saw Lu, Dean was also on standby and Meg was with a client. The second time he saw Lu, his eyes zeroed right on him, drawing him to the strawberry blonde like a moth to a flame. The second time he saw Lu, he knew he was lost.
Just like the first time, he hadn't expected to see him, but he still felt himself smiling as he went to the front. It was Michael behind the desk today and before he could even get a word in, Balthazar said, "I've got him, Mike."
"Did you schedule an appointment and not tell me?" he asked, flipping through the book of appointments.
"No, but my next one isn't for another three hours, right?"
"Alright, sounds good." He met Lu's blue-eyed gaze—all the blue he was wearing had nothing on those eyes—and asked cheerfully, "What can I do for you?"
"Well, two things really. First, I had this quote I wanted to get on my arm. And second, I was interested in seeing your ideas for the rest of my sleeve."
Balthazar had been poring over those pictures he'd taken more than he had any right to. Fortunately, he'd been making good use of that opportunity and finished several rough sketches with a few different sharks. He really liked the one with the hammerhead shark because it seemed to fit Lu's personality—what he knew of it, he reminded himself—the best, but there was also one with a great white shark, a mako shark, a blue shark, and a black tip reef shark. "Alright. Mike will get you some more paperwork to fill out, and I'll locate my sketches."
Lu flashed him a winning smile and turned to Michael. Balthazar swallowed sharply and went to get his sketchbook from his drawer. He flipped through it until he found the pages and drummed his fingers on the top until he heard Michael call, "Balthy! He's ready!" Trying to appear casual, he waved Lu back to his chair and handed him the sketchbook.
"I didn't really know what kind of shark you wanted, so there're five different variations. Of course, if you completely hate all of them, feel free to tell me," he added with a smile.
Lu slowly leafed through the pages, a smile of his own creeping up as he went. "No, these are all amazing. These are really good. I almost wish I had another four arms," he joked. He kept flipping back and forth between two pages and finally said, "My first instinct tells me to go for the great white, but… I don't know. I really like the hammerhead. What do you think?"
Even though he was internally swelling with pride, he managed to keep his voice cool. "As your artist, I can't really pass an objective judgment on my own work, y'know?"
"That's bullshit. As my friend, tell me what you think."
Balthazar snorted with laughter, but inside, he felt like a teenage girl whose crush just looked at her for the first time. Not an appropriate comparison, he reminded himself. "Alright. As your friend, I thought the hammerhead would fit you the best."
Lu nodded, smirking. "Alright, then we'll go with that."
Balthazar made a mental note to have Lu actually schedule an appointment for it—this would probably take close to six hours and he wanted to be absolutely sure he had the time to devote to it. "And then the quote that you wanted done today?"
"Right. I haven't been able to find a good font for it. I like script, but a lot of them are a pain in the ass to read. But, yeah." He pulled a scrap of paper out of his pocket and handed it to Balthazar.
No one gives us the right. We take it. Balthazar nodded. "Nice. Well, I have plenty of fonts back here, so…" He motioned for Lu to follow him into the back, where they had a computer set up. He typed in the quote and highlighted it, then started sifting through all the script and cursive fonts, hyper-aware that Lu was standing incredibly close to him. He was just about halfway through when Lu put his hand on Balthazar's shoulder, sending a rush of warmth through him. "That one. That one's perfect."
When Balthazar turned his head to look at Lu to agree, everything he wanted to say scattered. Lu just looked so enraptured, his gorgeous blue eyes alight. All he could think was of how beautiful he looked. He swallowed and tried to pull his thoughts together, but Lu's hand was still on his shoulder and significantly complicating matters. "Y-yeah. It looks good. Shall we go with that one then?"
"Of course." Lu was still grinning and he finally, mercifully removed his hand from his shoulder. As Balthazar printed off the quote in the selected font, he heard a short blast of what significantly sounded like The Damned before Lu muttered, "Dammit."
Balthazar turned as Lu answered his phone. "Hello? Yeah, that's me. Well, I—really? No, of course not. Her mom was supposed to pick her up today. Yeah, I'll come get her. I'll be there in ten minutes. No problem." He hung up, looking annoyed. "Sorry, man. I'm gonna have to postpone. My daughter is still at school. Her mom was supposed to pick her up today, but I guess she had something better to do. Can we reschedule for tomorrow?"
He has a daughter. He has a wife or a girlfriend or something. Now that he was looking, he didn't see a wedding ring on Lu's hand, but that didn't necessarily mean anything. He tried to convince himself that the heaviness in his chest wasn't his heart sinking. "Well, if you want, you can bring your daughter here. I mean, this shouldn't take that long. Forty-five minutes, an hour, tops."
"Are you sure?" Lu looked hopeful. Balthazar knew he couldn't deny him anything with that look on his face. He nodded. "Thanks," Lu said, grinning. "She's really well-behaved, I promise."
"I'm sure she'll be fine," Balthazar said.
"Thanks. I'll be back in like twenty minutes." With a giddy, cheerful wave, Lu darted out the front of the shop. Again, Balthazar couldn't help but watch him go. As soon as he was out of sight, he tore his eyes from the front window to see Michael, Dean, Meg, and Meg's client all staring at him. "What?" he demanded.
All four of the quickly looked away, but he knew what they were thinking. The expressions on their faces were quite clear. You've got it bad for him, haven't you? He wanted to argue, to insist quite loudly that he didn't have a "thing" for the tall, blue-eyed, strawberry blonde who'd just ducked out of the shop, but someone would have probably made a crack about him protesting too much. Instead, he let out a huff of annoyance and went to start inking in the sketch with the hammerhead.
He was about a third of the way done when he heard the door open again. He glanced into the lobby and tried to suppress his smile. Lu was back, and sitting on his hip was a three- or four-year-old with light-blond hair, her dad's blue eyes, and a tiny backpack over her shoulders. He headed right for Balthazar's chair, shifting his daughter a little higher in his arms. She had the fingers of one hand twisted tightly in his collar and her other arm around his neck, and it was the sweetest thing Balthazar had seen in months. She swung her head around to fix him with a penetrating stare that a four-year-old had no right to have. "She's beautiful," he heard himself saying. "She looks just like you." It was only partly true—her nose was a bit different, but she couldn't have gotten those eyes from anyone but Lu.
Lu smiled. "Thanks. She's looking less like Mommy every day, which is great because Mommy's kind of mean, isn't she?" This, he directed at his daughter, who grinned and laughed. He gently set her down and ruffled her hair. "Do you have homework from school?" The little girl nodded. "Okay, then. While I'm getting my new tattoo, why don't you work on that? I'll be right here if you need me, okay?"
The little girl nodded again and scooted over to the wall across from Balthazar's chair. She took off her little backpack and sat down on the floor. Balthazar immediately stood up and wheeled a spare chair over to where she was sitting. "You don't have to sit on the floor, love. It might be easier to do your homework if you had a chair."
She looked up at him and smiled before hopping onto the chair. "Thank you!" she said cheerfully as Balthazar pushed her a few feet so she could work on a table.
"You're quite welcome, love." He went back to where Lu was patiently sitting, his blue button-down already off but his T-shirt still on. "So where is this quote going?"
"Right here," Lu said, indicating the spot on the side of his right forearm.
"Alright. Is this size gonna be good?" Balthazar held up the stencil he was planning on using for Lu's approval. Fortunately, Lu nodded, so he put on a pair of gloves, grabbed a razor, and started shaving his arm. "So what's her name?" he asked.
"Oh," Lu laughed, looking embarrassed. "Yeah, sorry. Her name—God. Eve, her mom, decided that Lilith was a great name for a kid. I mean, I guess she thought I'd be okay with it, considering my parents named me after the Devil, but it just seemed a bit… I don't know, cliché, I guess. Her middle name is June, though. That's what I call her."
"How old is she?"
"Turning four next month. Jesus, it's weird, seeing a three-year-old with homework. When I was her age, I couldn't even tie my own shoes. But Eve's got her enrolled in this accelerated pre-K prep school or something and I'm just sitting here like, 'When's nap time? When does she play outside?' F—" Lu seemed about to drop an F-bomb, but he caught himself just in time with a glance toward his daughter. "I mean, she's already learning Spanish, and she can barely speak English."
As Balthazar snorted with laughter, June looked over at them and gave her dad what could only be described as a condescending look. "I'm right here, Daddy. I can hear you, you know."
"Do you like having homework every night?" Lu asked as Balthazar threw away the razor. He filled an ink cap with black ink and wiped down Lu's arm with the soapy water before pressing the stencil to his skin.
She shook her head. "No," June admitted. "It's boring."
"Go take a look at the positioning," Balthazar said, peeling the paper away.
Lu got up and held up his arm in front of the mirror. He cocked his head to one side, and then the other. "I like it. June, what do you think?" He held out his arm for his daughter's approval.
She looked up at it and nodded. "Are you done?"
"No, baby. This is just the outline. It's gonna look like this when it's finished, except black."
"Oh. Okay." June hunched back over her homework while Lu sat back down in the chair.
"Alright, majority rules. Let's get started."
Balthazar dipped the needles into the ink and turned toward Lu's arm. As the buzzing started, June looked up to regard the sound with interest. She watched intently as Balthazar first touched the needles to her dad's arm. Every once in awhile, her gaze would flick up to Lu's face. Finally, as Balthazar finished up the v in gives, she asked, "Does it hurt?"
"What, the tattoo?" When June nodded, Lu smiled. "A little. But sometimes a little pain makes the best things seem better."
Balthazar smiled to himself as June went back to her homework. "So," he started casually, "your girlfriend—"
"Eve? Eve is not my girlfriend. She's… she's just my ex. I really wouldn't have anything to do with her, but she is June's mother." Lu sighed. "That being said, there's a very good reason she only has joint custody."
"That bad, huh?"
"Worse. I'm trying to get sole custody and a restraining order. Eve definitely isn't the motherly type. But…" His voice dropped so Balthazar had to strain to hear him over the machine. "I still haven't mentioned it to June yet. I'm gonna ask her what she thinks before I finish up the paperwork, but I think she'll be okay with it."
"I'm sure if she's as bad as you say, a good lawyer will be able to make it work."
"Yeah. I have a good lawyer, but it's all starting to weigh on me. I've been fighting battle after battle with Eve before June was even born. Four and a half years and it's still not over." He glanced at June and a small smile crept across his face. "But it'll be worth it in the end. I know it."
Balthazar finished the h in right and wiped at Lu's arm. As he mentally fumbled for something to say, June spoke up again.
"Daddy, is that you?" she said, pointing over Balthazar's shoulder. Both he and Lu turned to look at where she was pointing, and Balthazar felt a flush of embarrassment wash over him. The picture he'd taken specifically of Lu's tattoo had already gone in his portfolio, along with a flash-art copy of the design itself. The three pictures he took of Lu's existing sleeve were taped to the inside of his sketchbook for reference. But the one picture they'd taken together, Lu's arm around him and both of them grinning like idiots—that one had gone up on the corkboard by his drawer. He looked at it every day, wondering why he never got tired of seeing it.
"Yeah, that's me." Before Balthazar quickly moved onto the next letter, he saw that Lu was smiling. "That picture was taken the last time I was here. Balthazar here took it. You like it?"
June tilted her head to the side and Balthazar wondered if she'd picked that habit up from Lu. She had an intensely analytical expression on her face until it resolved itself into a happier one. "Yes. You're smiling. I like it."
"Good." Balthazar sensed that Lu was still looking at that picture. "I do, too." All at once, his tone changed from almost dreamlike to his normal one. "Still working on your homework, baby?"
"Mmhmm," June said. Out of the corner of his eye, Balthazar watched her hunch over her homework again, pencil firmly clenched in her left hand. The corner of his mouth turned up in a smile. He was a lefty, too. It always made him happy for no real reason to see another lefty.
"Where are the other pictures?" he heard Lu ask softly.
He hoped he wasn't blushing or at least not blushing so that Lu could see. "The one of the Devil's Trap is in my portfolio," he said carefully. "The other three are in my sketchbook. I needed them for reference," he added even though Lu probably knew why he needed them there.
"What are you gonna do with them after my sleeve is done?"
"I haven't decided." He really wanted to keep them at home, but as it was, keeping the picture of the two of them here was already bordering on creepy and obsessive. "Either shred them or keep them as before-and-after comparisons. Why?" He swallowed nervously, finishing the t in take and wiping off Lu's skin. "Did you have a preference?"
"Nah, not at all. I was just curious. Actually, I like that comparison idea. You should do that." Balthazar heard the smile in his voice and smiled to himself.
"Alright, then. I'll stick with that. I mean, since you're so enthusiastic about the idea." He paused to wipe off the tattoo again. "So, this quote. What's the story behind that?"
"Nothing terribly Earth-shaking. One of my friends at work asked someone, 'What gives you the right to be such a—'" Lu glanced at his daughter. "Well, I won't say exactly what he said, but the other guy said something along the lines of, 'Nothing gives me the right. I just take it.' I thought that was pretty cool and I realized he's right. Especially after my military experience—no one gave me any rights. I had to fight for all of them."
Balthazar continued dragging the needle through Lu's skin, letting that roll around in his head. He had a feeling this legal battle with Eve was another source of identifying with this quote, but he wasn't about to say that. Lu seemed sad, nearly exhausted, while talking about it. He didn't want to bring it up again. It was obviously a point of some irritation. Still, he couldn't help himself. "So you have joint custody right now?"
"Yeah. She spends one week at my place and one week with her mom. It's not ideal, but it works. This was supposed to be Eve's week, but this isn't the first time she's forgotten to pick her up from school. The school knows by now to call me if Eve doesn't show up." He sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose with his free hand. "She's really only screwing herself over at this point. The school makes a record of every time they have to call a parent for pickup and this is like the eighth time now. My lawyer's gonna make sure the judge knows about this once we finally take it to court. But anyway, I'm gonna bring June to her mom's place after this. Technically, she shouldn't even be with me right now, but she hasn't called to flip out on me or anything, so I'm probably okay."
Balthazar finished off the last period and inspected the tattoo to make absolutely sure he hadn't missed anything. Once he was satisfied, he sat back. "Alright, then. Go take a look." He watched as Lu eased off the chair and went back to the mirror, holding up his arm for inspection. The taller man grinned and looked at his daughter.
"What do you think, June bug? Like it?"
June looked up and slid off her chair to approach her father. She fixed that same intense look on the tattoo and finally nodded. "It looks good. I like it." Then she looked up at Lu and asked, "When we leave, are we going back to your house?"
Balthazar saw the sudden, slight hunch to Lu's shoulders. "No, baby. I'm taking you to Mommy's apartment. I wish I could bring you home, but it's Mommy's turn this week."
"Oh." June pouted slightly and shuffled back to her chair. She looked so sad that Balthazar felt his heart breaking. He didn't know how Lu could look at that face without promising not to take her to Eve's, but he managed it.
Balthazar pulled another disposable camera out of his drawer. "Do you mind?" he asked, holding up the camera.
Lu smiled faintly. "Not at all." He held up his arm and Balthazar located the tattoo in the viewfinder. He snapped the picture and looked up. Lu's smile had widened and he glanced back at his daughter. "I have an idea. June, c'mere." As June looked up and came over to Lu, Lu motioned for Balthazar to come over, too. Not quite sure what he was thinking, he moved toward the Pellegrinos until he was within arm's reach of Lu. The taller man threw out his arm and caught him around the waist as he leaned down to pick up June. Then he nodded at Balthazar. "Okay, take the picture."
Grinning in spite of himself, he held the camera up above their heads and took a picture. The flash nearly blinded him, but he didn't care. Lu's arm was around him again and he felt safe and happy.
He wrapped up Lu's tattoo, gave him the spiel about after-care again, reminded him to schedule an appointment for his sleeve. Lu dug out his wallet and handed up thirty dollars, smiled, promised to talk to Michael as soon as he got up front. He watched as Lu set June down so she could grab her backpack and trail after him to the front desk. He watched as Lu paid, set up an appointment, took his daughter's hand. They left and still his eyes never left the strawberry blonde. And then they were out of sight.
He mentally shook himself and realized Michael, Meg, and Dean were staring at him again. Meg gave him a self-righteous look. "You know, I think there's a certain river in Egypt you're intimately familiar with."
"Fuck off," he spat.
The third time he saw Lu, it was four weeks after that. The third time he saw Lu, he was wearing black jeans, a white T-shirt, and a black button-down shirt with the sleeves pushed up to his elbows. The third time he saw Lu, Anna was back behind the desk with Bobby showing Ray something and Meg with a customer. The third time he saw Lu, he was expecting him—he knew about the appointment, after all. The third time he saw Lu, he tried to convince himself he didn't feel that stupid surge of happiness.
It was a lie, though. The man put a smile on his face and he knew it but he couldn't figure out why. What he did know, though, was that he was going to make sure Lu absolutely loved the rest of his sleeve today. He had a full six hours to devote to it, to get it mostly, if not completely, finished. He was looking forward to spending that time with him.
While Lu ran through the three sheets of disclaimers and waivers again, Balthazar scanned the sleeve design and printed it out several times, each one getting incrementally larger. He had a fairly good reference for the contours of Lu's arm but he wanted to be absolutely sure he had the right size available—and if not, he could still adjust. He left his sketchbook splayed open on his table and went out to where Lu was filling out the last sheet. "Alright, Lu, let's see if this works."
He looked up in interest and held out his arm. Balthazar wrapped the sheet around his arm and made a face. He was going to have to step the size up—his forearm was more defined than he expected. "Alright, no problem. We'll just have to go bigger. When you finish that up, you can just head back and wait for me."
Lu smiled. "Sure. Sounds good." Then he turned his attention back to the page in front of him.
Balthazar slunk toward the back, pointedly ignoring the way Bobby was already eyeing him. It was now well-spread shop gossip, how Balthazar was making a fool of himself over a client. Even though Bobby didn't know who that client was, he probably had a good idea now. He saw Meg glance up at him with a stupid smirk on her face as he passed by, but he ignored her, too.
He went back and printed up a bigger size outline, pausing for a moment to run his fingers through his hair. He sighed and picked up the new sheet, holding up the old one for comparison. Maybe a bit bigger. He printed off another two copies, both larger, of the outline, just in case he was still off, and started to go back to his chair, but he froze.
Oh, fuck. Lu was back there, and he'd picked up Balthazar's sketchbook. That in and of itself wasn't necessarily a bad thing—he didn't have as strong an aversion to letting people see his unfinished work as, say, Ray or Dean—but there were a few sketches in there that he did not want Lu to see. Namely, one of June. As he watched, though, something changed across Lu's features. He went from looking intrigued to looking spellbound. Balthazar swallowed hard and finally continued toward him, praying Lu wasn't too creeped-out—or that he hadn't actually stumbled onto the sketch of June. That would be ideal.
But, no, that wasn't the case. He'd definitely seen the drawing. Balthazar felt his face heating up, but Lu didn't seem to notice him at all. He was just staring at the page like it was the first thing he'd ever seen in his life. "You weren't supposed to see that," he muttered, setting down the outlines in his hand.
Lu's head jerked up and Balthazar couldn't describe the look on his face. He was wide-eyed and unblinking, staring like he'd just realized something important. "Why the Hell not? It's… it's beautiful. Just… I'm so confused. What did you use for reference?"
Balthazar ran his fingers through his hair again and looked down. He sighed. "I didn't. I mean, apart from that one picture. I just drew it from memory." The expression June wore in the sketch was the same smile she had on her face when she looked at that picture of Lu and him. He'd only seen that smile for a split second, but it was permanently etched into his brain until he finally had to put it on paper a few weeks ago. It still wasn't finished; he wasn't sure it would ever feel complete. He just knew that he hadn't wanted Lu to see it. He wasn't sure why—maybe because the subject was his daughter and maybe, just maybe, he wouldn't think it was good enough.
"You drew this from memory?" Lu sounded incredulous. Balthazar bit his lip and finally looked back up. The strawberry blond still had that same expression on his face, that one of sudden, surprise clarity. Probably realizing how creepy I am.
"Y-yeah. It's not that good. It's not done, either. I just—"
"I'm coming back here in a month and I am getting this tattooed on my arm." Lu looked the sketch over again for a moment before setting the book back down. "I have no idea what you're talking about—'It's not that good.' Bullshit. It's fantastic." Lu shook his head. "You really underestimate yourself, don't you?"
Balthazar had no delusions about his talent. He'd had enough people raving about his work to know he had a gift. But it felt different coming from Lu. It felt like he wasn't necessarily talking about his artistry skills. It almost felt like he was simply speaking to him as a person. He swallowed and murmured, "Not really. Shall we get on with your sleeve then?"
Lu gave him a look that said, quite clearly, We are not done talking about this. Still, he let it go for the moment and said, "Yeah, alright." He held out his arm and allowed Balthazar to wrap one of the stencils around it. This one finally fit, so as soon as he transferred it to a stencil, he settled into his seat and pulled out several different types of needles, about a dozen colors of ink—most of them, varying shades of blue, including one that matched Lu's eyes exactly—a roll of paper towel, his bottle of soapy water, and two razors. Once Lu pulled off his shirts, Balthazar pulled on a pair of gloves and got to work shaving his arm. It ended up taking a little longer than he expected since Lu had a rather long arm and he shaved from his wrist to his shoulder. "I'm gonna do a little touch-up on the existing work," he explained. "There's one or two spots that need to be fixed anyway, but it'll also help the whole sleeve come together and not make it so obvious the sections were done at different times."
Lu nodded as Balthazar pressed the stencil to his skin and smoothed it out. Once he peeled back the paper, Lu slid off the chair and went to inspect the placement and alignment. He looked over it carefully and finally nodded. "Alright. I guess we're ready to get this bad boy inked in then." He flashed Balthazar a small smile, which he returned as Lu sat back down and put his arm on the armrest. He turned to fix the needles into the machine and dipped them in the black ink. With one last glance up at Lu, he started in on the outline.
For a few minutes, the silence between them was only broken by the buzzing of the tattoo machine. Balthazar couldn't think of anything to say. He wanted to say something, ask about how his legal battle with Eve was going, how June's birthday had been, how work was going, something—but the words wouldn't form themselves. Fortunately, Lu didn't seem to have that problem. He finally said, "You still here every day?"
Balthazar nodded. "I don't think I've not come in since… since New Year's. I just take the major holidays. New Year's, Christmas, Thanksgiving. Why?"
"You don't even take your birthday off?" Lu sounded scandalized.
He shrugged. "No. Why would I? I mean, it's not like working here is terrible or anything." It's not like I have anyone to spend it with anyway. Frankly, the only reason he didn't come in on the major holidays was because they were closed. That was only because he was the only person who would have been okay with coming in on Christmas.
"You were serious, weren't you?" When Balthazar paused to look up at him in confusion, Lu explained. "The first time I was here. You said you don't have family. You were serious, then?"
"Yeah." Why would I lie about something like that? "Any family I do have is back across the pond. It's not that easy to pop in for tea when there's a seven-hour time difference."
"And you don't have a girlfriend or friends you could be hanging out with? I find that a little hard to believe."
"I have friends," Balthazar protested. "Just because I'm here every day doesn't mean I'm here from open until close. I shorten my hours sometimes."
Bobby chose that moment to call over, "Yeah! On Fridays, he leaves at nine instead of eleven!" When Balthazar shot him a glare, the older man just laughed.
He was glad he had something else to focus on. He really didn't want to have to look at Lu's face right now. The man seemed determined to pick him apart. "That sounds lonely. How do you handle it?"
"For one thing, I actually like my job. I make a fair bit of cash doing what I love, and I meet a lot of cool people. This shop is my baby. I fought for several years to get it open." Even as he spoke, though, he started realizing that he was lonely. When he left the shop for the day, he went straight back to his flat for some takeout and then went right to bed. He would wake up, do a bit of sketching or inking or something, eat breakfast, and then head right back to work. It was telling just how much it was starting to weigh on him. Thirty-two years of being basically alone, never living with someone after he moved out of his parents' house—only now was he starting to realize he was getting tired of it.
And part of him—a very big part of him, actually—wished he could spend more time with Lu, get to know his daughter. But Lu had never given any kind of indication of liking men. And even if he did, he probably didn't want a romantic attachment right now. And even if he did, he probably wouldn't want him. Balthazar swallowed and tried to push his train of thought out of his head. "It's not as bad as it sounds." It was going to be a long six hours—he could tell already.
"That, I doubt. You should get a dog or something." Lu ran his fingers through his hair, being careful not to move his left arm from where it was perched. "You can't work every day. You'll lose your fucking mind."
"I've managed this far without going mad," Balthazar said, sounding sharper than he intended. Being this close to Lu again and again was driving him mad. He wanted to say something, but he couldn't. If Lu rejected him, he would feel like an idiot. Besides, he was a client. Something like this wasn't supposed to happen.
But he'd never felt so lonely before this man walked into his shop. Before Lu, he imagined his future as still owning Heavenly Ink in twenty years, living in a nicer flat or even a house, having a lover, but not getting married and definitely not having kids. What happened to that plan? Why was the first thing he thought of in the morning and the last thing he thought of at night Lu? Why did he wonder how he was doing, what he was doing, if he had June that night? Why did he feel the need to draw this man and his daughter? Oh, man, he was so glad he left his sketches of Lu at home. Talk about embarrassing.
"I'm sorry," he heard Lu say. It almost seemed like he could tell where Balthazar's mind was and he was apologizing for that, too. The older man shook his head.
"It's fine," he said softly. He swallowed and quickly changed the subject. "So June's birthday wasn't too long ago, right?"
"Yeah." Lu chuckled. "All she wanted for her birthday were Legos. I got her a few small Star Wars sets and she got one of them put together in about four hours. I just…" He laughed again, leaning his head back on the seat. "It blows my mind, how smart she is. But anyway, we were at Eve's place for her birthday and my mom was there and so were her parents and a couple of our friends. It wasn't so bad, actually. Certainly nothing too traumatizing." He sighed. "I just hope that this time next year, she won't have to be around Eve as much."
Balthazar swallowed and lifted the needle long enough to wipe off the blood and excess ink from Lu's skin. "How's that going? The legal stuff, I mean. Still working on that?"
"Yeah. I mean, I'm not really sure why, but I want to give her more chances. I know she's not the greatest mom in the world, but I don't really know if taking June away from her is what's best for her. For June, I mean. I just want to believe that maybe Eve can change. That probably sounds really naïve, though."
"Not really. She's an important person in your daughter's life. You want to believe that that alone will make her want to improve herself. Besides, she must not always have been like this, right?" Balthazar paused the needle again. "I mean, you were in love with her at some point, right?"
As the needle touched back down, Lu nodded slowly. "Maybe not in love with her, but I did care about her. Hell, I still do. But I was twenty-two. I was stupid. I let my dick do my thinking. Which isn't to say I regret having June, because I absolutely do not. She's the best thing that happened to me. I just wish I knew the right thing to do for her."
"Well, she obviously has one parent who cares about her a great deal. That's at least better than nothing, right? I mean, I don't feel qualified to dispense advice on this front, mostly because you didn't ask for any, but I don't have kids so I have no idea how that feels. But I'm sure June will be okay if she has you." Balthazar slowly worked the needle down Lu's arm, following a line from the inside of his upper arm down to the hammerhead. He felt Lu watching him, watching the needle's progress, watching the tattoo come together.
"Yeah. I hope so. She deserves something good. She shouldn't have to deal with Eve's bullshit, but…" Lu sighed. "I don't know. It's a lot to consider." He let out a short, mirthless laugh. "You know, right after Eve told me she was pregnant, I proposed. Now I'm really glad she said no."
"Yeah, I've told that having a kid is a really bad reason to get married."
"Definitely. Of course, I'd heard that and didn't care. I just wanted to do the right thing by Eve and June. Eve was having none of that, though." He was silent for a few moments before he spoke up again. "So what do you do when you're not at work?"
Balthazar took a moment to shrug, barely hearing the front door opening and closing. "Obviously, I do a lot of sketching." His lips quirked up in a small smile. "When I'm painfully bored, I watch B-list horror films and really trashy sci-fi films. Apart from that, I really don't…" He bit his lip, continuing to drag the needle through Lu's skin. "I'm at work a lot." It sounded bad even as he said it. Yeah, he knew he spent a lot of time at the shop, but it never really occurred to him that it was upwards of twelve hours a day. It was a lot of time.
And then the most unexpected thing happened. As he wiped at Lu's arm, he glanced up and saw that a dark-haired bloke with blue eyes was talking to Anna. Castiel!
Castiel Collins was someone Balthazar hadn't expected to see in a good long while. Actually, he hadn't expected to see Castiel Collins ever again, which he'd considered a tragedy at the time. The last he heard, close to three years ago, he'd been a heroin addict and dangerously close to getting evicted from his flat. He didn't want to accept any help from anyone and had shunned everyone, including Balthazar, his once-best friend. However, based on that one solitary glance up, he was doing much better for himself. And somehow, Castiel Collins had caught sight of him, as well.
"Balthazar? Balthazar Roché? Is that you?"
He lifted his needle as he and Lu both looked at Castiel. "I thought that was you," Balthazar said as Castiel headed toward his chair. "What's going on? How've you been?" He looked back down and focused on the outline in front of him, not really sure how to feel about this surprise visit.
"Good, actually. I, uh…" Castiel subtly glanced at Lu, who was watching him with interest. "I know it's been awhile since we've seen each other."
"Right. Well, I honestly had no idea you were here. I just heard good things about this place, that's all. But, anyway, I guess you wouldn't know this, but I went to rehab about a year and a half ago. Got out five months later." He offered Balthazar a small grin that the blonde couldn't see, considering he was still hunched over Lu's arm, poking at him with a needle. "So I figured I'd come by and get a tattoo to mark the anniversary."
Balthazar looked up, carefully set down the needles, stripped off his gloves, stood up, walked around Lu's chair, and pulled Castiel into a tight hug. "God, I am so bloody glad to hear that." He held out Castiel at arm's length, grinning. "Of course, I'd love to do your tattoo myself, but I've got Lu here, so…"
"Lu Pellegrino," he said cheerfully, holding out his hand to Castiel.
"Castiel Collins. Nice to meet you."
"Anyway, I'm gonna have Lu here for at least another five hours, so I'm pretty much booked the rest of the day. I think Dean's free, though. He's coming in… maybe a half an hour from now? If you're serious about getting it done today, you can wait for him. If you want me to do it, it'll have to be tomorrow." Balthazar leaned back against the arm Lu's chair, crossing his arms over his chest. His heart felt lighter than it had in months. Castiel was alive, he wasn't strung out in some gutter, he was healthy, he was happy. This was exactly the news he needed to cheer him up. He was so relieved that it took him a moment to realize Lu's fingers were tracing circles on the small of his back. Even through his shirt, it sent heat flooding through him. It was more intimate than it had any right to be—not that he was going to complain.
Castiel thought it over. "Well, I was kind of hoping to get it done today. How's… Dean, you said? Do you trust him?"
"Dean Winchester? Absolutely. I wouldn't have hired him otherwise. He did a little piece on the back of my leg two years ago, and he's only improved since then." He gave Castiel a warm, reassuring smile.
"You wouldn't have hired him?" Castiel sounded incredulous. "Are you telling me this is your shop?"
Balthazar's smile widened and he spread his arms. "That's exactly what I'm telling you. Everything you see here is mine. Heavenly Ink, owned and operated by yours truly." He crossed his arms back over his chest again. "You like?"
Castiel grinned and looked around, taking in the shop again. The light-blue walls with the white border around the top, all the posters pinned up in various corners, an unnamed angel painted onto one of the walls in the waiting area—it had all been decided on by Balthazar. He was incredibly proud of it, as well he deserved. This shop really was his baby. "It's fantastic. I love it. And you've wanted to own a shop as long as I can remember." He focused back on Balthazar. "I can wait for Dean, though. If you trust him, then I trust him. You said he'll be here in a half an hour?
Balthazar shrugged. "Right about then, yeah. Check with Anna, but I'm pretty sure he's free for at least a few hours."
"Alright. I'll do that. And then I need to go get some food. I'll be back, though."
Balthazar smiled. "Alright. I really am glad you're okay, Cas. I wondered what happened to you. For awhile, I was worried you'd never resurface."
Castiel looked down, smiling faintly. "Yeah, me too. But I did, and that's the point." With one last glance at Lu, who was still eyeing him with curiosity, he went back up to the front to talk to Anna.
"Sorry about that," Balthazar said, reluctantly pulling away from Lu's hand still against his back. He headed back around to his seat, put on a new pair of gloves, and picked up his needles, dipping them back in the black ink before wiping off Lu's skin again.
As he resumed his task, Lu said, "Not at all. Three years is a long time. What happened?" He genuinely didn't sound upset.
Balthazar chuckled softly. "You really don't want to hear that story."
"I do actually." Balthazar looked up at Lu. He was looking at him with interest and concern. "I mean, I don't know anything about you," he added softly.
The blonde swallowed. "Alright. Well, we've been friends basically since I moved here. This was like ten years ago. We were taking this class at the community college—I don't remember if it was math or some art class—and, I don't know, we just happened to sit next to each other and started talking. And for five years, we were mates, really close, you know?" Once he started, he realized he couldn't stop talking. It had always been lurking in his subconscious. He'd slowly stopped looking for Castiel, just accepted that he wasn't coming back. But it was something he'd never told anyone before, not even the friends he had in common with Castiel. But Lu had asked, and now that he started talking, he just couldn't stop. "But he started getting into street drugs—I still have no idea how; he never told me that—and just started slipping further and further away until we tried to stage an intervention. It ended… badly. He basically told us all to fuck off and he just left. Got up and walked out." Balthazar glanced up to where Castiel was still chatting with Anna. He was smiling, and it was a genuine smile he hadn't seen in years. It was unforced and honestly happy. "That was the last I saw of him. That was three years ago. He changed his mobile, quit his job, stopped answering whenever I dropped by his flat—and then eventually, I heard he got evicted. I have no idea what happened after that. But he looks like he's been eating. I really believe he did go to rehab, too. I mean, you have no idea what he looked like the night he walked out. He was thin and just… he looked ill. Not like this. He's healthy now." Balthazar swallowed and dragged his wrist over his eye; he felt tears pricking at the back of his eyes, but he'd be damned if he cried, and especially in front of Lu. "I'm sorry to say that the night he left, I basically wrote him off. I kept expecting that, one day, Andy or someone would call me and tell me they found Cas's body in some alley or something and I'd have to go to his funeral and wonder why the stupid son of a bitch didn't just get some help. And then I started thinking we'd never see him again, never know where he was or what happened to him. God, that not knowing… that was the worst. The uncertainty just ate me up for the longest time." Balthazar set down his needles, rested his elbows on his knees, and braced his forehead against his wrists, making absolutely sure not to let his own skin touch his gloves. A moment later, felt Lu's hand rubbing between his shoulder blades. Fuck, but that was soothing. He couldn't resist leaning into the touch, just a little.
"You okay?" Lu asked softly. When Balthazar nodded, Lu asked, "Have you told any of this to anyone before?"
The slightly-shorter blonde shook his head. "Maybe I should have, but I just never felt like there was anyone I could tell before."
"So why'd you tell me?"
"You asked." He looked up, meeting Lu's beautiful blue eyes. "No one else ever asked. And stuff like that, it's not information I typically volunteer."
"I'm glad you told me, though. I mean, it sounds like you needed to tell someone. And it wasn't easy, right?"
Balthazar shook his head and picked up the needles again. No, it hadn't been easy, but he'd just spilled his guts to this man over something that wasn't even an issue anymore. Lu set his arm back down on the armrest and he started tracing the purple lines again. He was drained, emotionally exhausted. He decided that, as soon as he was done here, he was going home. Everyone was always telling him he needed to spend less time at work, right? Well, today, he was going to do exactly that.
For the next five hours, they kept their conversation light. Each sensed the other couldn't handle much more emotional upheaval that day, so they turned to movies they liked. Lu confessed a love of strange, cult-classic musicals—Repo! The Genetic Opera, Rocky Horror Picture Show, and the like. Balthazar admitted he'd only seen Rocky Horror once and had honestly liked it, but had never been able to get his hands on a copy. That was right around the time he put the finishing touches on Lu's sleeve and set his needles down, allowing the strawberry blonde to get up and look it over in the mirror.
The smile on his face was wide and appreciative. "It's amazing. Better than I expected—and I expected a lot, okay? It's… this is fantastic." He turned to fix Balthazar with his grin, only to be caught off-guard as the tattooist snapped a surprise photo of him. Lu laughed held out his arm, allowing Balthazar to take a few more pictures of just the new tattoo. "Same as last time?" he asked, gesturing toward the camera.
Balthazar knew exactly what he was referring to. He smiled and nodded for a moment before Lu grabbed him around the waist with his not-freshly-inked arm and grabbed the camera with his other hand. Before he could really prepare himself, the flash went off and Balthazar rubbed at his eyes. "Alright, now let me wrap up that new sleeve of yours," he laughed, snatching the camera out of his hand and setting on top of his stack of drawers. He pulled out a roll of plastic wrap and a roll of painter's tape, wrapped his arm up, and gave him the same tattoo-care lecture he was obligated to repeat every fucking time.
Lu tugged his shirts back over his head. "I'm coming by tomorrow to talk about that sketch of June. I'm absolutely serious about it—it's phenomenal. Okay?"
Balthazar chuckled and nodded. "Yeah. Okay. I'll see you tomorrow then."
"Great." Lu dug his wallet out of his back pocket and handed Balthazar fifty dollars. The blonde didn't even try to decline this time. He knew Lu would just leave it with Anna and she would make sure he got it anyway. He just shoved the cash in his back pocket and pulled open the drawer one last time.
The picture they'd taken last time of the three of them—Lu, June, and him—had gone up underneath the first one. That hadn't stopped him from getting a second copy. He imagined that Lu would at least like a photo of his own daughter, even if he decided to cut out the weird tattoo artist who happened to be in the frame as well. He glanced at it before holding it out to Lu. "Here. I figured you'd want this."
"What about you?"
"I had two copies made. That's yours."
Lu smiled and took the picture, letting his fingers remain against Balthazar's for longer than was probably necessary. "Thanks," he murmured, sliding the picture ever-so-casually into his pocket. He started toward the front, and Balthazar found himself following him. "I have to bring June to her mom's house tonight. I know I do it every other week, but it never gets easier."
"I'd imagine so," Balthazar said, not really sure what else to say. Lu pulled out his wallet again and handed over a small stack of twenties. As Anna counted out the bills, Lu suddenly seized a business card and a pen off the desk and scribbled something on the back of it. He handed it to Balthazar, who flipped it over. It was a mobile number.
"If you get any more ideas for my tattoos, just give me a call," Lu said, smiling.
Anna looked up. "You're all set, Lu," she said cheerily. Lu set the pen back down, flashed Balthazar another smile, and sailed out the door.
Balthazar looked back down at the ten digits Lu had scrawled across the back of his business card. His heart was racing and he told himself he had no idea why. Okay, Lu had given him his phone number. It was strictly professional, though. It had to be. He swallowed and started back toward his space.
"Idjit," he heard Bobby mutter. The only thing that stopped him from telling Bobby to fuck off was realizing he was too drained to even summon indignation.
The next day, Balthazar spent most of the early afternoon working on a scheduled appointment and the rest of the afternoon finishing—or at least trying to finish—his sketch of June. He must have been some kind of masochist—even though it hurt, seeing Lu and reminding himself that he probably only saw him as a friend, he couldn't help looking forward to seeing him. But as the hours wore on and there was still no sign of Lu, he felt worry ballooning in his chest. He got the sinking feeling that something was very wrong. Sure, he hadn't given a time for when he'd be coming by, but it was nine and Balthazar figured he would have been here by now. No, something was definitely wrong. He could feel it.
Still, he waited until nine-thirty before he finally dug out Lu's number from his wallet and called him. The other line rang and rang until that snarky bitch said, "You have reached the voice mailbox of…" "Lu Pellegrino." "To leave a message, press one, or wait for the tone."
Bugger that. He hit one, and there was a beep in his ear. "Er, Lu, it's Balthazar. Listen, it's about nine-thirty and I thought you said you were coming in today. Maybe I heard you wrong. Anyway, just… Just give me a call back when you get a chance." He rattled off his phone number, feeling awkward. "Er, bye." He hung up, feeling sick. He glanced at Bobby and Dean, both of whom quickly pretended they hadn't been looking at him. He shoved his phone back into his pocket and stood up. "Alright, I'm taking off for the night."
"Night," Dean said, keeping his eyes carefully on his work in front of him.
"Don't worry about him too much," Bobby said. "I'm sure he's fine. And if he comes in later, we'll call you, okay?"
"Yeah. Thanks." He pulled his leather jacket off the coat rack in his corner and headed to the front. On a whim, he stopped by the desk. "Mike, where's Pellegrino's paperwork from yesterday?"
"Hang on." Michael pulled open one of the drawers next to his desk and dug out the small stack of forms Lu filled out the day before. He handed it to Balthazar, who rifled through the papers until he found the copy of Lu's driver's license. Lucifer Mark Pellegrino, date of birth December third, 1984, address—Balthazar grabbed a pen and a business card and wrote down Lu's address. He knew that area pretty well. It was an apartment complex a few miles away. He handed the sheets back to Michael and darted out of the shop, pocketing the business card. He just had to check on Lu.
He was relieved to see, as he parked his motorcycle, that police cars were not swarming the parking lot. That had to be a good sign, right? Not that he expected something like a homicide. He cut the motor and tucked his helmet under his arm, looking around at the sides of the buildings for apartment numbers. Once he found the one that 1332 was in, he hurried up the one flight of stairs, hung a left, and knocked on the door.
There wasn't a sound from inside. No lights came through the windows. All dark, all quiet inside. He swallowed hard and slowly accepted that Lu wasn't home. Just to be absolutely sure, though, he headed back down to the parking lot, dialing his number again.
The space that was reserved for the occupant of 1332 was empty, and Lu still wasn't answering his phone. Giving up, he finally went to the main office where a woman was sitting, reading a newspaper. "Er, evening," he said in a would-be casual voice.
"Hello, honey," she said warmly, setting the newspaper down. "How can I help you?"
"The, er, the tenant in 1332 is a friend of mine. We were supposed to meet today, but he never showed up." As he spoke, the woman's smile disappeared. His heart sank—she knew something. "I was just wondering if you knew what happened to him. He isn't answering his phone, either," he added.
The woman gave him a sad look. "Well, I'm not really supposed to tell you this, but… There was a fight last night. Lu and June's mother—well, it was really only her—just screamed at each other. I think it was because of June. This went on for about thirty minutes or so. I almost called the police, but I really didn't want to. He's a good man, but that woman…" She shook her head. "And then it just stopped. I saw him running toward his car with his little girl in his arms and… Well, I don't know what happened after that. I do know June's mom left shortly after that, but I really don't know where Lu and June are." She gave him a concerned look. "You okay, honey? You look like you're ready to collapse."
Balthazar definitely felt dizzy. He let her lead him to a chair and dropped his helmet on the floor next to him.
"Do you want some water or something? I have Coke and I think there's a few sandwiches in the fridge still."
Now that he was thinking about it, he hadn't eaten all day. He nodded slowly. "Yeah. Whatever you have is fine." He was too numb to genuinely feel hungry, but he knew he needed to eat.
She came back with a sandwich in plastic wrap and a can of Coke. "I'm Missouri, honey. Just so you know. And you are…?"
He popped open the Coke and took a long gulp. "Balthazar. Balthazar Roché." He didn't miss the sudden flash of comprehension in her eyes.
"Oh, you're Balthazar? Then you're the man who did that beautiful sleeve for Lu, right?" When he nodded, feeling himself perk up (whether it was the sandwich, the recognition, or both, he wasn't sure), she smiled widely. "Oh, honey, Lu came in here yesterday showing off that new tattoo, all proud and everything. Oh, but you're cuter than he said, and that's saying something."
"Yeah, honey, he talks about you all the time. Raving about your artwork and your tattoos and how handsome you are and how you're so sweet to June. I'll tell you what, the way to that man's heart is through his daughter. I hope once he gets this mess with her mother sorted out he'll find someone who'll treat them both right. Lord knows they deserve it." She smiled at him and patted his arm as he took a huge bite of his sandwich, feeling himself calming down even though he was still worried about Lu and June.
"But you have no idea where they went?"
"None at all. I'm sorry, honey. If I knew, I'd definitely tell you, though."
Balthazar nodded. He just knew that Missouri was telling him the truth.
Over the next week, he tried calling Lu at least once a day. There was still no answer, and on Monday, all his calls started going right to voicemail. Still, he kept trying until Thursday, which was the day the annoying tart on the other end cheerfully informed him that the number had been disconnected. He tried not to worry but failed miserably. On Friday, he drove back to the apartment complex and noted that the parking spot for 1332 was still vacant. Fortunately, when he went to the office, Missouri was still there.
"Well, hey, honey. How are you doing?" She set her newspaper down and walked around her desk to give him a hug. It took him by surprise, but after a moment, he returned it.
"Alright, I suppose. Still no word from Lu, though. He apparently disconnected his mobile. He… he hasn't been back, has he?"
She gave him a sad look and shook her head. "No, he hasn't. Neither has Eve—thank God. I don't know where they went. But why don't you leave me your number? In case he does come back, I'll pass it on to him or give you a call, okay?"
Balthazar hesitated a beat and then nodded. It was a pretty good idea, after all. Missouri handed him a pen and paper and he scribbled down his number. "Do call me if he comes by, alright?"
"I promise, honey. I will call you." She smiled and he accepted that there was nothing else he could do here. Reluctantly, he went back outside and headed back home.
That evening, he finally finished inking in his sketch of June. He stared at it for a few moments before tearing the sheet out of the book and pinning it to his wall. He'd done that to a lot of sketches—he had one of Bobby with Ray hovering over his shoulder, several of Dean with various-sized smiles, one of Meg in a rare moment of contemplation, one of Anna with her hair pulled back and a dreamy look on her face, and even one of Michael with a murderously angry look on his face. More recently, though, the wall right in front of his desk had slowly been taken over by Lu. Smiles, half-smiles, laughter, irritation, sadness, contentedness—all the expressions he'd ever seen on Lu were on this wall. He ran his fingers through his hair, wondering just what had happened to the Pellegrinos.
A glimmer of gold caught his eye out of nowhere. Brow furrowed in confusion, he lifted one of the sheets to see a drawing that had been covered by another. Oh. This one was of one of Dean's customers, the only one that he'd ever felt a need to color in because this man's eyes were the strangest shade of brown—half brown, half green, all gold—he'd ever seen. Gabriel, wasn't it? Gabriel Speight…?
"My buddy Gabriel gave me the number. He's been here a few times."
"Bloody Hell," he murmured, feeling his eyes widen in comprehension. Without stopping to think, he jumped up, grabbed his jacket and his helmet, and headed back outside.
He broke a few speed limit laws on the way back to the shop, but in ten minutes, he was pulling up in the parking lot and trying not to dash inside. There were cars in the lot he didn't recognize, meaning they had customers and he didn't want to startle them by bursting in half-crazed. His phone started ringing as he rounded the corner to get to the door, and when he saw who it was, he chuckled.
"Anna, I'm right…" His voice trailed off as he stared at who was in front of the desk. It was Lu, turning around and giving him a nervous sort of smile with his lower lip split open and… "Christ on a bike, Lu. What happened to you?"
He kept grinning that small, anxious grin, rubbing his hand over his right arm nervously. Now that Balthazar could see his whole face, he felt his heart sinking. He'd clearly been in a fight, although who would be stupid enough to pick a fight with Lu was beyond him. He was six-foot-one and built like an athlete, solid muscle. Still, his lip had been busted, it looked like he was still recovering from a black eye, and there was a cut on his cheek that had been taped over. "Eve, if you can believe it," Lu joked, even though there was nothing funny about it.
Balthazar took a moment to let that sink in. "Come on," he murmured. "Let's go talk." He led Lu to the back and into the staff break room which was mercifully empty. Bobby was up front with a client and Meg was just finishing up with another, so he wasn't worried about being interrupted. He just had to make sure everything with Lu was okay. Once the younger man was sitting, Balthazar dropped into the seat right across from him. "Are you and June okay?"
Lu nodded, not looking at him. He kept his eyes on the floor and it worried Balthazar. He looked like he was a few well-aimed words away from shattering. He wasn't used to seeing him look so vulnerable.
"What happened?" he asked softly.
"It's a long story."
"If you want to tell me, I've got all the time in the world."
"Alright. Well, before I bring June to her mom's place, I always have dinner with her. There's no real reason for it—I just like to have that one last chance to bond with her before I have to say goodbye. So last week, we're in the middle of dinner, and Eve calls me. Says she's right outside and she has to talk to me right fucking now, you know? I tell June to stay there and keep eating and I go to the door and let Eve in. She's all pissed because she finally heard that I'm planning to sue her for full custody of June. I'm already worried at this point because, you know, I'm about to leave my daughter with this woman and she just found out I intend to not give her back soon. I think she's going to kidnap her or something. So I'm trying to calm her down but I don't really know what to say because I'm not about to take it back or anything. I'm still going through with it, no matter what she thinks. She's freaking out and I can sort of see why, but I'm still trying to get her to stop yelling because she's being loud. I'm surprised the manager didn't call the cops."
"She said she didn't want to," Balthazar said automatically. "She said you're a good man and I think she figured the cops would only make trouble for you."
"How do you know that?"
Balthazar swallowed. "I was worried about you. I called you a few times and you stopped answering and then you disconnected your number. Anyway, I…" He glanced at the floor and then back up. "I went by your apartment and when you weren't there, I asked the manager if she knew what happened. She said she didn't, but that she was worried about you, too."
Lu nodded slowly, chewing on the uninjured side of his lower lip for a moment. "Yeah. I took off in a hurry. Anyway, while Eve's screaming at me, June wanders into the living room and Eve sees her and she… I don't know, I guess she thought that she could convince me by convincing June that this arrangement was fine. But she's four, you know? And her mom yelling at her really isn't good for her, especially when none of this is her fault. June's starting to cry because she doesn't understand what's going on—she just knows her parents are fighting and she probably has a vague understanding that she's in the middle of it. So I get in between them to get her calmed down and then Eve starts yelling at me again." Lu ran his fingers through his hair, closing his eyes. Balthazar had the dim awareness that he was probably reliving the event and wondered how many times he'd told this story in the past week. "I'm… I'm really close to going off on her but I manage to keep it together. I keep reminding myself that June's right behind me and I don't want her to see both of her parents completely losing their shit, you know? So I'm really trying to stay calm and I guess she thought I wasn't paying attention or she just got even more pissed off or something—she slapped me. It's happened before so I just kind of shrugged it off. She seemed to, like, take a step back, watch my reaction, and I guess it wasn't what she wanted because she punched me in the stomach after that." He took a deep breath, and then visibly winced. "I'm definitely not about to hit a woman, especially one I outweigh by almost a hundred pounds and even more especially not in front of my daughter. So I just… let her. I thought it was gonna be one or two more punches. I can handle something like that. I mean, she's pretty freaking strong for someone her size, but, you know, I can take a punch. Except it ended up… Well, when I got to the hospital, I had a black eye, a bloody nose, a split lip, a few cuts…" He raised the wispy bangs covering his forehead. Right by his hairline was another cut, also taped over. "And a few bruised ribs. The nurses thought I was in a bar fight or something. But anyway, this goes on for a few minutes and I guess when she realizes I'm not going to react, she tries to get around me to get to June. I'm not having any of that, though. The moment I see her try to get at June, I swing around, pick her up, and get the fuck out of there. I can't… I just can't let Eve hurt her. And as I'm running toward my car, all I can think is, my little girl's probably gonna look back on this night as the worst night of her life. And I just… I just start apologizing and then I can't stop talking. I think I'm a little hysterical for awhile. I get June buckled into her car seat and I just take off and I don't really know where the Hell to go because, really, what can I do? But somehow I know where I'm going because I pull up in front of Gabe's house about a half-hour later and he takes one look at me and he just knows what happened." He let out a small sigh, probably because his chest couldn't handle a larger one, and leaned back in his chair. "So he drove us to the hospital and made sure the police were contacted and they did a full report and took pictures and everything. We spent that night at his place—they wanted to keep me for observation but I just wanted to go home and be with my daughter, so I was like, 'Fuck that.' The next morning, I took June up to Santa Carla so my mom could watch her because, yeah, I want her with me, but I'm doing so much stuff with the cops, filing this report and pressing charges and talking to my lawyer. And I'm definitely pressing charges. She… I just want Eve away from my daughter. I know she's her mother, but she sure doesn't act like it. But the good part about this is that it's gonna be so much easier to get full custody now and get that restraining order." He ran his fingers through his hair again, shifting forward. "June's been up at my mom's place for the last week or so and I've been living at a motel for awhile. Once shit settles down here, hopefully within the next week or two, I'm gonna go get her back. I just want to find a new place to live, first. I wouldn't put it past Eve to try to throw a Molotov cocktail through the window or something. I got a new phone number, too, just to make it that much harder for her to find us. I just…" His voice trailed off. It seemed like he was caving in on himself. Balthazar scooted his chair closer to him and gingerly laced his fingers together behind Lu's neck. Two sets of blue eyes locked and Balthazar had to struggle to keep his thoughts together.
Finally, though, he was able to murmur, "You're alright. You're just fine. You're gonna get through this." He was hyper-aware that their mouths were only inches apart. It would be almost too easy to just pull him a little closer and kiss him. He just had to keep himself talking because if he didn't, he might end up doing just that. "You're so strong for going through this all on your own. I don't think I'd be able to do what you're doing. And then to not even have your daughter here… That must be so difficult."
Lu nodded slowly, then looked away. "Yeah." He stood up. "I… I should head home. I just wanted to stop by, let you know I'm still alive. And I guess I'm gonna be holding off on that new tattoo for a little while. I'll… I'll see you later." He headed toward the door and Balthazar got the sudden feeling that this wasn't how it was supposed to go. No, just letting him know he was alive, that wasn't why Lu came here at all. If that was all he wanted, he would have just called or something. He was here for something else, something he hadn't gotten. But he wasn't going to push it. Maybe he would have a last month or even last week, but not now. And Balthazar just knew if he let him walk out that door, it could be the last time he ever saw him.
That was the last thing he wanted. He swallowed hard. "Lu, wait."
Lu turned around. There was hope in his eyes, but he managed to keep the rest of his face cool. "Yeah?"
At the last second, though, he couldn't do it. "Look, I… I imagine you're really lonely now, right?" When Lu nodded slowly, he went on. "Why don't you spend the night at my place? No sex," he added quickly, before Lu's face had even a chance to register a reaction. "Just as friends. So you don't feel so alone."
Lu stared at him for a few moments, weighing the offer. Finally, his lips cracked into a small smile. "Yeah. That sounds good. Thanks."
That night, neither of them felt alone. They ended up watching Rocky Horror Picture Show on Netflix, Balthazar laughing as Lu sang along to every song. About halfway through, they paused it so Lu could call June and say goodnight to her before she went to bed. He went into the kitchen while he talked to her and when he came back, he looked both happier and more tired. The extended separation was really taking a toll on him.
By the time the movie finished, they'd settled into each other. Balthazar's arm was draped over Lu's shoulders, Lu's arm had snaked around his waist, and the strawberry blonde rested his head against Balthazar's shoulder. The box of pizza they'd ordered now stood empty on the table and Balthazar was sure he'd never eaten so much pizza before in his life. He never ordered pizza because you always needed at least three people to finish it off unless you wanted to be eating leftover pizza for the next week and he didn't like to make that kind of commitment. Not to food, anyway. But tonight, the combination of having Lu with him and Lu eating a good two-thirds of the pizza had ended with an empty pizza box and the faint smell of cheese still lingering in the living room.
Lu went to go wash his new tattoo and Balthazar threw away the pizza box. He wandered back to the bathroom, where Lu was standing in front of the sink with the door wide open, and leaned against the door frame. "How are your other tattoos doing?" He'd seen the one on Lu's arm, the quote, and it looked to have healed well, and from what he'd seen of the Devil's Trap while he was working on Lu's arm, it was doing fine, too. But he just wanted to make sure.
"Great actually. And considering this one's only a week along, it's doing pretty well, too." Lu half-smiled, patting his arm down with a paper towel. "I'm just glad Eve didn't hit my arm. It would have sucked if all that hard work just got fucked up."
Balthazar nodded as Lu turned to face him. Suddenly, he felt a wave of nausea. Lu's whole torso was a sick yellow of fading bruises. Lu looked down and then back up at Balthazar's face.
"It's not as bad as it looks," he said softly. "Really." He offered up another smile. "I barely even feel it anymore."
That was a lie, and Balthazar knew it. He'd seen Lu flinching every so often out of the corner of his eye or felt it when they were leaning up against each other. "Did they give you painkillers for that?"
"No. I don't need them. It's not even that bad. I think the worst part is that I have to sleep on my back now. I'm so used to sleeping on my sides or my stomach, it's just weird to me. Really, it's not that bad." He looked at Balthazar's disbelieving face for a few moments before sighing. "Alright, yeah, it does still hurt a bit. You have a spare toothbrush I can use?"
It should have been awkward, lying next to someone he had a really strong attraction to and who Balthazar knew liked him as well, and both of them fully aware that nothing was going to happen with them tonight, but it wasn't. Somehow, it was so easy to just lie there and know he cared about Lu and Lu cared about him and that everything was starting to pull together. He finally had someone close to him, someone to remind him he wasn't alone. His hand found Lu's in the dark and they laced their fingers together. "I'm glad you're here," he murmured, knowing Lu wasn't asleep yet.
"Me, too. This is probably the most relaxed I've felt in months. Just… thank you."
Balthazar couldn't resist bringing the back of Lu's hand to his lips. "Not at all. I…" He struggled for the words. It was tougher than he expected, trying to explain how he felt even though both of them knew. "I care about you a lot. And I know this is probably the worst timing ever. I should have told you a long time ago and I'm sorry I didn't. You're dealing with an idiot here." As he spoke, he could see a smile spreading across Lu's face and it only encouraged him. "But I do care about you and I care about June and I want to be in your lives if you'll let me. So, I guess—"
"You know you can shut up any time, right?" Lu joked. Balthazar was puzzled for a moment until Lu pulled him closer. Their lips met finally, and he felt himself sidling closer, cradling the back of Lu's head with his free hand, and turning his whole body toward him. And then Lu was pulling back slightly, just enough to say, "Yeah, it took you a little longer than I hoped, but we don't need to rush things. I've done enough of that already." He gently touched his lips to Balthazar's again. "One step at a time, yeah?"
Balthazar nodded, smiling. "Yeah. Definitely."
When they finally did fall asleep, their fingers were still tangled together, and though they didn't know it then, it was the first night in a very long time that either of them slept through until the morning.
I promise, there will be oneshots in this AU that are smutty. This is rated "T" for a reason, though. (I wanted to challenge myself!) I think this is the first time I've written them not having sex the first night they spend together.