Disclaim: The recognizable characters in this fanfiction were created by Marvel Inc., who owns relevant copyrights to additional material referred to herein. The characters are used without permission but no material profit of any kind is being made from the following work. Marvel reserves rights to their copyrighted material, but all characters and situations unique to this work of fan fiction are property of the writer.

Notes: In this fic, Erik is mentioned as helping to develop two styles; photoshop and trash polka. The reality: Xoil Loïc is the French creator of photoshop style. Trash polka was developed jointly by German artists Simone Pfaff and Volko Merschky.


The boy with the heart on his sleeve

He sees all kinds of people in his two-person operation. All kinds. Hands down, Raven gets all the flakes. She gets the ones she works with several times in a month to design exactly what they want, who then drop off the face of the earth once they've given her the initial deposit of one hundred dollars. They then take her designs to artists that are little more than scratchers. She also ends up with people that want her to work with whatever is currently en vogue and will likely be regretted and lasered off years later.

Caveat: Raven also ends up with the most interesting people on her bench or just hanging out in their small hardwood floor studio and gallery. Professors, housewives, and musicians press their flesh to her bench or just run their jaws. She is the most interesting and vexing apprentice he never wanted to have, but she's probably the only reason he's succeeded running his own studio.

In contrast, Erik's clientele are a curious mixture of rich hipsters, suspected criminals, and devoted international collectors. His attitude is often bad for business; only people that like his hard regard, sarcasm, and no-nonsense approach to his art come to him.

"I'm getting it," Raven laughs, picking up her cell phone. She has a copy of Inked in front of her, open to an advert for UV ink. "I'm getting it and then I'm going to have you do 'tramp' in Helvetica, all caps, across the top of my ass, in the style of a rubber stamp. It will be completely invisible except when I go dancing in tacky bars with black lights."

"The perfect habitat for a tacky tattoo," Erik snorts. He's amused despite himself. He decides it's as good a time as any to drop a bomb on her. "Once you've got the schedule sorted, I want you to finish the planning for your journeyman tattoo."

Raven spins around on her work stool, frozen in mid-dial. Her pretty mouth is open and working in shock. "Erik. Are you serious?"

He nods, continues reassembling one of his tattoo guns. He has an obsession for tinkering with his guns. Raven is one of the only people he has ever met that lets him test his modified needles on her. He could test them on pigskin, but he doesn't like even coming into contact with them. His mother would be proud of that, at least.

"Have you decided placement?" she asks, eyes wide. She drops her phone onto the magazine.

Erik snorts softly as he works. "I have plenty of skin open. Up to you to place it somewhere that will work with the natural lines of bone and muscle. When I'm done here I'll strip down so you can get a better idea."

Raven grins and begins to prepare for a snarky comment, when the first floor door to the second floor studio opens. A rain-scented gust comes up the stairs, through their open door, and into the gallery space. Raven's sitting by the benches, which aren't visible from the gallery space that doubles as a waiting room, but Erik's leaning against the cabinet and has a straight view to the longish hallway.

A man comes in behind the breeze which flutters the navy noren in the doorway between the gallery and work area. He isn't of substantial height. He has the look of recent travel; his smart wool suit is a little rumpled at knees and elbows and there's a bit of ginger shadow about his jaw. A casually expensive messenger bag is slung across his body. His eyes are bits of sharp blue beneath expressive, neatly groomed eyebrows.

For a moment, Erik thinks he's the journalist they're expecting tomorrow for an interview and photoshoot, but the suit is too fitted and he doesn't really look like an Angel Salvadore. Plus, the shoot will be casual, so the idea is thrown out. If he's there for a consultation, Erik thinks he wouldn't mind fitting him in.

A smile comes easily to the man's lips and eyes. Erik finds himself intrigued; the man has seen his penetrating glower and hasn't shrunk back in the slightest. He asks in a standard English accent, "Excuse me, is Raven in?"

Raven always gets the flakes, but she gets the most interesting people, too. There's something about the man that makes Erik feel annoyed that he isn't there for him.

Erik nods, and turns back to Raven who is preoccupied with her phone. "One of yours."

Huffing at the interruption, Raven sets her phone and magazine aside, murmuring about the schedule being clear for two more hours. She sighs, sweeps her golden hair from her blue-inked shoulders and heads through the noren that separates the work area from the gallery.

The sudden shriek of delight is unexpected. Erik's hands are steady though; he doesn't drop or mishandle his gun. His hands don't even twitch. His eyes though, narrow as he returns his gaze to the man Raven suddenly attacks.

Raven's propensity for throwing herself at people is one of the many reasons she has so many clients. It is also how she ends up with all the flakes. But, this man is the only person Erik's ever seen catch and then swing Raven around in a circle. Their breathless laughter is a curious thing in the stillness of his studio.

"Oh my God," Raven is exclaiming, her voice shrill with joy. "What are you doing here, Charles? Did you just get off a plane?"

Charles sets Raven down with a laugh. "I'm in town for a genetics conference. And yes, I just arrived. Perfectly astute of you, darling."

Erik stares at the happy couple. He's seen pictures of Raven's boyfriend, so he's not certain who this man is. She's mentioned a brother that works as a professor, but her visitor looks nothing at all like her. Erik picks up a bottle of alcohol and starts spraying the gun down.

"You have amazing timing," she laughs, takes Charles' hand possessively and gestures to Erik. "Erik was just telling me I'm ready to do my journeyman tattoo!"

The smile never leaves Charles' eyes. "So you're Erik. I can't tell you how pleased I am that you took my sister in under your wing."

One of Erik's broad shoulders twitches in a shrug, but he doesn't say anything. At least the mystery is solved; this is the older brother after all. He sets the gun aside and walks over to the noren-covered door way. He pushes the linen aside to join the two of them despite his inclination to stay away.

Charles removes his hand from Raven's grip and offers it to Erik, seeming unperturbed by the glower, height, and profession that intimidates many. For a moment, Erik stares at the appendage, but then he takes and shakes it once. Firmly. Charles is not put off; his grip is excellent with nothing to prove. "Erik Lehnsherr."

"Charles Xavier," Raven's brother greets.

"Professor Charles Xavier," Raven laughs, "Please meet Erik 'Magneto' Lehnsherr."

"Magneto?" Charles asks, head tilting to the side in inquisitiveness. "How did you fall into a nickname like that?"

Erik shrugs, disinclined to answer when he knows Raven will do it for him. She does not, of course, disappoint.

"Years ago, Erik was at a huge convention in Florida," she smirks, switching to hold Erik's arm instead as she speaks to Charles. "There was a crazy lightning storm and a bank of transformers was right next to his room. They ended up exploding and that somehow killed all his batteries and the hotel's electricity. So he jury rigged a treadle-run magneto to run his equipment. Anyway, it was a huge convention and the story got around."

"An EMP," Charles smiles and Erik wonders if that's the only expression Raven's brother is capable of. "That's interesting! How did you manage?"

Raven's hands bob up then down with Erik's arm when he shrugs. "I'm good with my hands."

Raven nods emphatically and, he thinks, winks at her brother. "He has the steadiest hands in the business. He even does pin-striping on the side."

Charles nods in interest, though Erik doubts he even knows what pin-striping is. "So, then, what is this milestone? This journeyman tattoo?"

Raven grins wildly and runs to the noren. "Let me get my tablet and I'll show you!"

Erik doesn't want to explain, so he offers, "What kind of coffee do you drink?"

"I don't?" Charles laughs softly. "Do you have tea?"

Erik continues to stare; he can't comprehend people that don't drink coffee. However, he isn't going to let that get in the way of him escaping the two of them for a few minutes. "Tea, then."

He turns on one bare foot and heads for his boots and Raven's colorful umbrella. He shuts the door behind him on the way out.

...

Charles is still staring at the door when Raven comes back into the room with her tablet and stylus. She gestures toward the sturdy claw-foot couch against one of the small gallery's walls. "Where'd Erik go?"

Charles walks over and drops down on one of the plush red cushions. The couch is a nicely refurbished piece with a dark wood frame and firm cushions. He wonders how much of a dent the antique made in the shop's budget or if Raven or Erik ever nap on it. Raven swiftly joins him, all but sits on top of him. They've always been very tactile siblings. "He said something about coffee."

She raises an eyebrow in interest. "That's usually my job. Do you want anything to eat? We've got a minifridge with some basic groceries. Erik keeps it full of fruit and vegetables. I'm pretty sure there's hummus in there."

Charles shakes his head. He's hungry, but he's more concerned with Erik's silent animosity. "He's… different. Is he always so recalcitrant or did I break some sort of tattoo shop etiquette?"

"Oh," Raven soothes, "Erik's got a thing about people and surprises. I'm like his first line of defense. New people frustrate and drain him until he gets used to them."

"Is he the same with customers?" Charles wonders. He can't see how anyone can maintain a business with so little in the way of customer service skills. Then again, tattooing has a tough image, so maybe treating people like animate canvases is acceptable.

Raven shakes her head and looks down at her tablet. She wipes the smudges off with the lacy hem of her spaghetti strap top and starts going through her art files. "No, he's better. He knows what to expect from them. Control issues. He's very hard to get to know."

"And he's letting you do a journeyman tattoo?" Charles asks, trying to turn the subject back to Raven who he hasn't seen in well over a year. "You must have really improved in the last… What? Two and years?"

"Hell yes, I have," Raven enthuses. "Erik told me to start designing two or three months ago. Since I'm putting it on him, I've had to think a lot about it. I mean, I'd put thought into anyone's tattoo, but he took me in when nobody else would and he's helped me grow as an artist this whole time."

"I tried to take you in," Charles reminds archly, "but you refused."

"Right, and where would that have stopped?" She opens the file in question. "The thing is, I may have to tweak it, because I never really decided where to put it on him."

The file Raven opens is nothing like what Charles has come to expect from tattoos. The image looks like she's scanned in a watercolor painting. There are layers of color and little to no black work.

There's a cloudy spiral of mist emanating from a human heart; within the loose end of the tightly coiled mist is the impression of a dragon's upper body. It has two heads. One head has a broken unicorn horn plunged into an eye and is either screaming or roaring. The other has smoke coming from its nose that mingles with the mist until it is hard to determine where the mist from the heart ends and the smoke begins. He's left with the impression that either the heart has summoned the dragon or the dragon has summoned the heart.

It's nothing like Raven's normal graphic work. It's gorgeous and intensely intimate. When he looks at the piece, he sees beauty, skill, and something of what she sees in her mentor's essence. Of course, the first thing he noticed was the man's beauty: his looks wouldn't be unusual in fashion or entertainment, but are striking in the bearded landscape of Portland, Oregon. Normally looks are enough to catch Charles' interest, but Raven's piece, her impression of him, fleshes him out and reveals him in a way that's hard for Charles to witness.

"The shape would work best on his chest and upper arm, but that's a lot of real estate," Raven sighs, oblivious to Charles' discomfit. "I have to be careful how much space I take. He's only thirty-three; there's plenty of time for him to get more ink."

Charles can only stare at the work. She's achieved something strange and beautiful that makes his heart clench. "Raven, this looks nothing like your normal style."

She nods and leans further into him. "It was something I did when Erik was working. Sometimes, if our clients don't mind, we burn incense and it kind of inspired the whole thing. Erik relaxes with incense. Maybe because he meditates in the backroom with it before he starts work every morning."

Pensively, Raven taps the stylus against the tablet. "He may not like this, though. I may have put too much of him into it."

"Dragons and unicorns are heavy symbolism," Charles muses, wrapping his arm around her blue shoulders. He doesn't really want to admit how emotive her vision is, so he looks for another way to critique it. "Are you sure about using them? They're very cliché."

"They are heavy and they are cliché," Raven agrees. "But I don't think they deserve to be cliché. Why should I deny Erik symbols that work for him, just because millions of people have taken them as talismans or because they're cool? It would be like not going by Charles because there are millions of Charleses in the world."

...

Erik hears Raven's shrieks of laughter and her brother's answering low chuckle as he's coming up the stairs. He has a paper carrier with four cups, a bag of muffins clutched in his teeth, and is trying to open the studio's door with the hand clutching Raven's folded and wet umbrella. He manages after a couple tries and drops the umbrella into the ceramic vase he inherited with the space. The umbrella's metal tip rings against the bottom like a chime.

He uses the heel of one boot to pull the other off, the second boot heel he secures with his toes. Though he prefers the feel of hardwood paneling to wool he doesn't remove his socks. Without looking at the siblings on his dumpster-sourced couch, Erik goes straight to the gallery space's expansive factory windowsill and sets the bag of muffins and carrier of drinks down together.

He sets Raven's short, two-shot, soy cappuccino on the left, his tall Americano to the right, and Charles' Assam in the middle. The fourth cup has a little almond milk for the tea, as the coffee shop is vegan. All three muffins are vegan, of course, and allergen-free since he never bothered to ask Raven if Charles has any allergies. Neither he nor Raven are vegan, but they both like the coffee shop's food and the owners. He and Raven even collaborated on the design for the owners' wedding band tattoos.

He's aware Raven is saying something to him, but Erik simply takes the muffins out and flattens the paper bag so he can set them on top. If she's saying something important, she'll repeat it. Steam and the scent of coffee rises up toward the ceiling when he removes the lid from his Americano. The steam fogs the window until he picks up the paper cup and places it to his lips. He sips the hot coffee and he stares out at the rain between their window and the next building.

Erik likes rain; it soothes his frequent agitation. It is the meditation of clouds. Sometimes he thinks about moving shop to Seattle, but he's certain it would cause Raven and her researcher boyfriend problems. Portland's roughly nine months of drizzle are good enough for now.

"Which one's mine?" Raven asks as she draws up beside.

"The one with foam," Erik replies dryly. He points to the smaller cup, "Almond milk for the tea."

Raven turns around and waves her brother over. When he steps between them, Erik realizes he should have switched the drinks, because now he's shoulder-to-bicep with a professor. He takes it like a champ.

"Thank you for the tea," Charles smiles pouring the milk into his cup. "The milk and… the muffin?"

Erik hears the question in his voice and shrugs. "I'm not eating two."

"Raven was just showing me her updated portfolio," Charles continues. "I think she may have improved more in the past two years with you than in the years she spent in art school."

"She's not the school type," Erik replies and expounds despite himself. "Art school is a place for the privileged to spend enormous amounts of money to learn to sound intelligent, inflate egos, and expound on the existential crisis of lint caught on daguerreotypes. Raven's the type to thrive in a realistic work environment where her work is graded by earnings and a growing client base."

"She already knew how to do those bourgeois things anyway," Charles chuckles. His smile, though, has an extra edge of humor that indicates a possible hit. Erik's statement wasn't designed to inflict harm, but he knew as he said it there would likely be collateral damage.

Charles takes a sip of his tea and turns to Raven to change the subject. "It's a tragedy you've been here two years and I'm only now meeting Erik."

Raven snorts inelegantly. Erik turns to look at her past Charles. "Right. You hardly talked to me for a year after I dropped out. You only warmed up to any of this after you lost our bet six months ago."

"Bet?" Erik asks before he can stop himself. He doesn't really want to know the answer to his question. Next to him Charles shifts uncomfortably and takes a long shielding drink of his tea.

"One year," Raven smiles and she is only slightly more triumphant than bitter, "without touching my trust fund. If he won, I'd give up tattooing. If I won, he'd get a tattoo."

"You're here to get a tattoo," Erik states, his tonelessness a possible precursor to disgust and, of course, anger. It's one thing to make bets about permanently marking one's body, but quite another to threaten a person's happiness; especially when that somebody is as important to him, and his business, as Raven.

Charles has no idea the fortuitousness of his head shake and soft denial. "No, I'm in Portland for a conference. I'm in this studio to see my sister and to appeal to her good sense. Losing a bet is a terrible reason to get a tattoo."

"True." Raven's bitterness makes an apt reappearance. "Too bad. We've talked about this, Charles; you can't honor only the bets that you win. That's not how it works."

Erik turns to look at Raven for a moment. She gives his observation a quizzical look in reply and watches as he steps back to take a closer look at her brother.

Professor Xavier is arrogant, that much is obvious to anyone that looks at him. He has style; the well-cut suit and the rakish mop of his hair say that just as much as the careless adoption of a messenger bag rather than a laptop case. There's a flair for the old-fashioned, too: his surprisingly broad hands have fingers with writers' calluses and ink stains that speak of fountain pens.

"It appears you are no stranger to ink, Dr. Xavier." While the siblings look on in different shades of wonder, Erik takes Charles' right hand and lifts it before him for closer scrutiny. Overall, his hand is soft, warm where Raven's is cool, and in keeping with his initial handshake with its strength. Too bad it is attached to an asshole; Erik likes capable hands. "Back when I was nothing more than a scratcher practicing on drunks, I'd get people that lost bets all the time."

"That's the sort of life I was hoping to spare her," Charles replies and though he's probably trying not to sound like a condescending douche bag, he does anyway.

Raven makes a choking noise and kicks Charles' leather shoe; it leaves an obvious scuff. There's no subtlety to her demand that he shut the fuck up.

There's an audible click from Erik's sharply cut jaw as his chin juts in an angry sort of amusement. His grip on Charles' hand turns hard, just shy of painful, and willfully uncomfortable. "Raven doesn't need anyone to save her, but I'll spare her the indignity of doing art for a bet. I'll do it."

He releases Charles' hand and takes his coffee over to the schedule book that sits on the large open space in the railroad tie wall. He picks it up and swivels back to the siblings; holding the book illustratively. "We cleared Friday midafternoon for Sentimental Ink. Go ahead and pencil the professor in for consultation afterwards. Charge my normal rates."

The concussion of the book hitting the surface echoes fatalistically about the loft space, but Erik's feet make no noise on the floor as he walks out.

...

Charles has time to return to his hotel for a nap, a bite to eat, and to freshen up before taking a cab to Portabello Tratoria in Hosford-Abernethy to meet Raven for drinks. Raven frequents the place for the marvelously talented bartender, rather than the dodgy service or vegetarian fare. She says even her acerbic employer goes there just for the drinks.

He's not sure what to make of Erik other than his immediate attraction to Erik's physical form. He's handsome of face, a minimalistic symphony in motion. But while Charles is grateful to him for employing Raven, he's irritated that Erik has enabled the foolishness of her chosen profession. Fine art is where Charles envisioned Raven, with groundbreaking works in the Whitney and beyond. Places tattooing will never take her.

Despite Erik's good looks, he's predisposed not to like Raven's mentor. So there shouldn't be a conflict of interests, especially with the way the bastard challenged Charles' understanding of her. He's known Raven longer than anyone; Erik's only known her, what, two years? His presumption is galling.

And yet, something in Raven's struggling dragon image seems tattooed on the underside of Charles' eyelids even before her ink has been worked into Erik's skin. When he closes his eyes in the cab he can still see the dragon through smoke and mist.

When Charles walks in from the light rain, he sees Raven at the bar with her boyfriend, Hank. He studies the young man's profile and body language on the way over. The light flush on his cheeks from whatever he's drinking suggests they've been here for about half an hour.

Silently, Charles applauds Raven's guile; she's obviously been feeding him liquid courage before the coming introduction with her older brother. With both their parents are dead, Charles is the one Hank has to impress. But even if their parents were still alive, Charles would still consider himself the arbiter of Raven's relationships.

Even from a distance, Charles can see the young man's thick-framed, black glasses aren't an attempt at hipsterish irony, but the honest mark of a socially awkward researcher.

Raven sees Charles and pushes back her chair to meet him. She's not surprised this time, of course, but she's no less enthusiastic and squeals his name in joy. She runs and throws herself bodily at him. Charles barely has enough time to throw his arms out wide before Raven tackles him. She nearly knocks him down in her enthusiastic embrace.

Stumbling back, arms wrapped around her, Charles laughs and kisses her round cheek, one of the few places on her body that doesn't carry the mark of her profession. They hold each other, the sides of their heads pressed together in mutual affection.

"I swear," he murmurs next to her ear, "I will never go so long without seeing you. Not ever again. I've been an ass."

Her lips press firmly against his cheek in return. "You've always been an ass, Charles, but don't you dare. And be nice to Hank or I will have Erik tattoo 'Pretty Pretty Princess' on your forehead."

"Challenge accepted," he whispers back. He releases her lingeringly, one hand slow to release its hold on her inside elbow.

Hank is smiling nervously at them when they part, but has the social grace to vacate his chair and greet Charles with an outstretched hand. "Hi, I'm Hank. Raven's told me a lot about you."

"That's unfortunate," Charles grins. He takes Hank's hand and shakes it firmly. Hank's grip is soft, but he uses his full hand and isn't too quick to let go. "I hope you like me better than her employer did."

Hank flushes a little darker; his smile becomes apologetic. "Oh, yeah, Raven says Erik can be difficult. I haven't met him yet; she says she's shielding me until I'm stronger."

Charles chuckles politely and the three of them move back to the bar, which is crowded, but not unpleasantly so. He notes their drinks: Hank's locally brewed beer is mostly full and Raven's cocktail is watery with melted ice.

Raven manages to get the bartender's attention and order him a rye whiskey. When he makes a face at the order she only laughs. "Charles, you're in North America, drink some local whiskey, you snob you."

Appetizers arrive with Charles' rye; in the interim Charles learns Hank is a post doc at Oregon State University with another PhD dissertation in its final stages. His first doctorate is in physics and his second is in chemical engineering. His education and research are remarkable, but most of the small talk is dry and wholly uninteresting. By Charles' second drink, he steers Hank into talking about his research and Hank finally, thankfully, has his full attention.

By his third drink, Hank admits quite bashfully that he's being wooed by several research and development firms, but he's not sure he wants to leave academia.

Charles can relate. "Even though academia is highly political and competitive, I've found many people thrive under those conditions. Personally, I tend to enjoy the petty mind games among my rivals."

Hank frowns dramatically at the mouth of his bottle. It takes him a moment to reply and when he does he's clearly nervous, barely making eye contact. "Actually, that's the one thing I hate about the university. I don't mind competition, but I'd prefer a friendlier environment. I mean, I like the freedom to research and publish on whatever I want, but in a private lab there's more solidarity of purpose."

"In a private lab you lose the impetus to publish," Charles snorts dismissively, "and that's the beginning of the slow death of one's will which only ends in a grave of complacency. Never leave academia, Hank, you'll regret it."

"I don't know about that," Hank murmurs, staring doggedly at his beer. He picks gently at the bottle's paper label. "I like publishing; it's the best way to get dissenting views."

"Don't listen to Charles," Raven smiles and snakes her arm around Hank's. "He's never been outside academia, so how could he actually know for certain?"

A bit of the former light returns to Hank's eyes as he looks at Raven. Charles feels ill witnessing how besotted Hank is.

"So, Hank," Charles finally says to break the two out of their soul-gazing. "I still haven't heard how you two met? Raven says it was at a coffee shop."

"Oh, yes, we did! In Corvallis." If the light in Hank's eyes had dimmed before, it positively lights up his face as he touches on the memory. "She was in line right in front of me ordering a double-shot, short cappuccino with whole milk. I was staring at her awkwardly while she ordered. Then, when she went to pay for her coffee, she was a quarter short. So I gave her my quarter."

A bright peal of laugh rings from Raven, "You did not give me that quarter! You practically threw it at the barista! But then he was exactly a quarter short on his order. It was immediately obvious he fancied me."

Charles shakes his head at Raven's grin and Hank's flush, which is now even darker from embarrassment. "I'll remember that tactic next time I'm in queue with somebody I fancy."

Still flushing with embarrassment, Hank slips from his seat. He gestures awkwardly toward the bathrooms, head ducked. "I'll be right back."

Hank's gate is a little unsteady as he walks away. As soon as he's out of earshot, which is quickly considering the noise level, Charles turns to Raven with a carefully neutral expression. Raven is staring back, her brown eyes sardonic.

"I can't wait to hear what you think about Hank," she drawls.

"I like him," Charles says, raising one eyebrow. "In fact, I think your union would yield highly superior little human beings. His brains, your wit and beauty; perfect."

Raven's chin ducks and she looks at him from under a creased brow. "And now I'm simply dying to hear the caveat."

"Caveat; please don't get married," Charles says, shrugging. "I would hate for my legion of nieces and nephews to inherit that unfortunate anxiety complex of his."

"Charles," Raven says quietly, though her face contorts with outrage. "There you go again, channeling Sharon. I thought when she died I wouldn't have to hear this sort of shit anymore."

Charles blood runs cold with the comparison but he keeps the anger from his face. His reply is swift as it is calm and cool. "If you're so opposed to my channeling Sharon, I don't know why you'd date someone like her. He's a nice enough chap, but I can't entrust you to a man that needs to drink in order to face me. You can do better."

Raven's eyes widen with incredulity, white showing all around her irises. "The beer was my idea! My god, Charles, he dropped everything and drove all the way up here from Corvallis on no notice whatsoever just to meet you!"

"I didn't ask him to," Charles replies nonchalantly. He knows he's being a dick, but now his pride has gotten involved and there's very little he won't sacrifice to that beast.

"He wanted to meet you!" Raven leans forward in challenge. "God, why are you always like this? You know what your problem is? You're so high up on that fucking horse of yours that you've failed to notice it was Dali who painted it."

"My high horse," Charles returns, "gives me an excellent view of the horizon. I'm just telling you what I see from up here."

"You know what?"

"Probably," Charles deadpans. If Raven leans any closer, Charles thinks they'll both go cross-eyed in the attempt to maintain eye contact. He can smell her shampoo and feel the puff of her breath on his face.

"I don't care what you think."

"Which is why you asked me in the first place." Charles shakes his head and leans back with his hands up in mock surrender. "You know, let's be reasonable. I'm only here for a few days and I don't want to spend all my free time arguing with you."

"Right, of course you wouldn't. Because this is about me being irrational, not about you being a patronizing asshole!" For several moments, Raven remains half-standing, bringing menace into his personal space. The tension is palpable, a few patrons even watch them from the sidelines. They make a remarkable pair; Charles in his cardigan and khakis, Raven resplendent in her tank top which shows knots of blue serpent coils on her shoulders.

Finally, Raven shakes her head and subsides, sitting heavily back on her stool. She shakes her head a second time as she drags her purse into her lap and digs around inside. From the depths of her bag she produces a folded piece of paper which she slaps down on the bar next to Charles' third rye.

"These are Erik's rates," she explains. "His going rate is $200 an hour, at a two hour minimum, with the option to buy his original sketch after he's finished the outline."

Charles sighs; he welcomes the change of subject, but not to this. He takes the paper and unfolds it. Hank returns as he scans the text. From the corner of his eye, Charles notes the fond squeeze he gives Raven's hand before sitting down. He chooses to ignore it.

"So you'll be there tomorrow, after your seminar?" Raven asks, her hand turning up to casually trail her fingertips along the underside of Hank's wrist.

"It appears so." He folds the paper and slips it into his back pocket. He wishes he'd never made the bet with Raven, but at least it gave her the impetus she probably needed to be more independent. He wonders how big a two-hour tattoo will be and where the most inconspicuous place to have it is.

"Oh," Hank says, "are you going to tomorrow's photo shoot? Raven's been fretting about it for a week. She thinks Erik's idea of giving an interesting interview is to be confrontational."

There's an understatement if ever Charles has heard one. "He's not much of talker, either."

"No, Hank, Charles is coming in afterwards for a consultation with Erik. And, actually," Raven continues over Hank suddenly choking on his beer, "I have an idea I think the magazine will go for that will save me a lot of Erik-wrangling."

...

It's dark under Erik's eyelids; the barest red is the only indication diffused light is coming into the studio's huge windows. He's breathing slow and deep through his nose and though they don't have any incense burning this afternoon, enough has been burned in the space that the room smells of it still. Entwined with the lingering incense scent is the smell of rain on the reclaimed factory's bricks.

Raven's hands are cool on Erik's warm skin; he likes the sensation. There's always been an underlying animal attraction between them, but it has never developed beyond a physical craving. A craving they consummated one drunken Passover night when he was miserable, she was horny, and both of them were single. It's never happened since and it never will; their working relationship comes first. Still, he likes the sensation of cool hands on his skin as she swabs alcohol across his right pectoral and shoulder.

When Erik opens his eyes, he can see the magazine's photographer shooting away, capturing Erik's serious face and the thoughtful grin on Raven's. There's no need to instruct Raven; she knows what she's doing. He can answer questions and philosophize with the woman writing the story whether his eyes are closed or not.

The magazine is dedicated to the stories behind tattoos rather than the tattoos specifically. All the same, it is de rigeur that all tattoo rags have an artist spotlight and Erik knows the exposure is good for business. She thinks having him shirtless for the photoshoot is good for business. It also might be good for his sex life if the photographer's enthusiasm is anything to go by.

The journeyman tattoo angle was Raven's idea. The magazine has never covered a story like this, so after a quick call to the editor, they ditched their original concept and are now focusing on the mentor-student relationship. Erik was bothered by the change at first, but he's been able to relax into it thanks to Raven.

"So, Erik," the interviewer, Angel, is asking, "the impact of this piece is pretty big for Raven. She's already said it is the most important tattoo of her life as an artist and as your friend. What's the tattoo's impact on you?"

He wants to shrug, but he's conscious of the effect that would have on Raven's sketching. He takes his time to think before making his answer. "In a way, this is a mutual journeyman piece. Raven is stepping over the threshold from apprentice to journeyman in her profession, but I'm doing the same as an instructor. I've never apprenticed someone before and I've never been an apprentice myself."

He smirks and the camera's shutter clicks with abandon. "Also, Raven's getting prime real estate: after this, my chest and my right arm are almost covered."

Angel chuckles at the more practical point of view. "Speaking of being covered; when we got here we were surprised that you had no ink showing at all. Why is that?"

"It's cold," Erik deadpans.

Raven takes her surgical pen from his shoulder and laughs. "People always ask why Erik wears long sleeve shirts. He's a private person and so is his personal gallery."

"Oh, no, this is so perfect, Angel," the photographer suddenly laughs. He's taking several shots of the human heart Raven sketched over Erik's bicep previously.

Angel raises one well-shaped brow. "Okay, what?"

Erik stares straight ahead, past the writer to the unlit incense sticks sitting in their dish on the long cabinet beneath their bookshelves. He thinks he hears the studio door open, but he's sitting on his rolling stool and can't see the entryway.

Raven notes Erik's faraway glance and places her hand on the middle of his chest once more. "What's perfect?"

"You are," the photographer smiles warmly, genuinely tickled. He takes several photos of Raven's hand on Erik's broad chest. "The future answer to why Mr. Lehnsherr always wears shirts that cover his arms is right there. You've put his heart on his sleeve."

"What?" Raven tilts her head and stares at Erik's right arm. His forearm is covered with tattoos from wrist to bicep. The tattoo she's drawing connects the arm work to his upper body, thus completing a sleeve. "Holy shit, I never thought of that. Unintentional brilliance."

"Brilliance runs in the family."

All four turn to Raven's brother who managed to make it in without anyone but Erik the wiser. He had heard the door open, but hadn't expected Charles so soon; not when Raven made it clear that her brother was often woefully late to his personal engagements.

"Raven," Erik says dryly, "aren't you adopted?"

Raven snorts through a comically exaggerated grimace and retracts her pen. "Erik, whoah, down boy." She turns her face to Charles next, giving him a wink and teasing smile. "Not that you're wrong."

Erik watches dispassionately as the two trade conspiratorial smiles. Something about their familiarity irritates him. Everything about Raven's brother irritates him so far; if he were a decent sort of person, he'd look for traits they share in an attempt to keep the peace, but he's long since given up the hope of being a decent person.

Angel also turns her attention from Erik to Charles. "So you're Raven's brother? Do you have any of her work?"

Amusement returns to Erik as awkwardness floods back and forth between the siblings. He says nothing, content to remain quiet and enjoy the ensuing familial crisis.

Both siblings shake their heads and give each other significant looks. It is clear that each one is communicating something different. Raven is looking at Charles when she shakes her head; definitely signaling Charles to keep his mouth shut on the topic. Charles' eyes are on Angel, however, and his headshake likely means that she should interpret his answer as an unquotable 'no'.

Unfortunately, Sentimental Ink is a positive force among countless hipster zines; Angel holds back uncomfortable questions on that topic. "You are Raven's brother, though, right? She doesn't have your accent."

"Oh, yes," Charles smiles at her. "I spent my formative years in England. Our parents adopted Raven when we came back to America."

"Do you like her art?" Angel presses, taking a tack that allows Charles to interpret her question in whatever way is most advantageous for him.

Raven gives Charles another warning look, but he simply winks at her before answering Angel. "I've always loved Raven's art. I haven't always approved of her being a tattooist, but I've always loved her art. And this piece she's doing now, I think, is really indicative of her growth as an artist. It's very courageous and personal. In fact, it might be my favorite."

Though his face doesn't betray his consternation at Charles' words, there's something there that Erik immediately latches onto. Courageous? Personal? His first instinct is to scoff, but then Raven's pen descends again and he turns his attention back to the lines left in its felt-tip wake.

People seldom remark on the personal or sensitive nature of his original concepts. He often executes flawless pieces based on the requests of his clients that garner talk of his eye for detail, his technical prowess, or even his penchant for designing and producing his unique tattoo needles. Those pieces receive emotional reviews, but the pieces he does for collectors are usually wholly his own design and those, while praised across the tattoo world, have never once been referred to as personal or courageous.

More often than not it's Raven's work that's called personal, sensitive even. He used to think it was because people always look at her in light of her gender, but now he wonders. Is the tattoo she's designed for him courageous of her? Technically, it is her most ambitious design. It will take several layers for her to complete and a steady hand for all the delicate shading. She'll be at it for multiple hours over many days, depending on how quickly his skin heals.

But courageous? Personal? He doesn't see it. Two dragons coming out of a heart shrouded in spiraling smoke doesn't seem personal at all. Courageous, he decides he can grant; dragons are heavy subject matter. They're so cliché that he never envisioned he would ever wear one. Additionally, it's a piece that could easily go wrong though she modified it exactingly to work with his musculature before she'd left the night previous.

Erik remains quiet, no doubt nobody find his silence unusual; he's not a talker. But then Raven's pressing him back, to roll his stool over to her work bench and he realizes he hasn't been paying attention at all. Angel and Raven's brother are chatting away and the Sentimental Ink photographer is changing lenses on his camera.

Raven doesn't give any indication that he's zoned out for very long; she gives him his space both figuratively and physically. But one glance at her workspace tells him he zoned out for a minute or so. She has everything assembled, from a box of disposable gloves, to spray bottles of alcohol and hospital grade germicide, to ink cups, and petroleum jelly.

She looks to him for approval after wiping her gun down with alcohol for the third time. He reaches over for a pair of gloves, pulls them on and spritzes his chest, shoulder, and bicep with alcohol then the hospital-grade anti-bacterial spray. He shaved the areas going under her needle before the Sentimental Ink people showed up.

"Okay, boss," she says, smiling slightly, but with a crease in her brow. "Can I go?"

He looks up, finds it strange to look up when he normally towers over her, and locks his gaze with hers. "Unless you want to wait another three months, I think you should get started."

"Okay, then," she breathes. She hooks her ankle around her stool and pulls it close. Once seated she turns the gun on.

The equipment's sudden whine alerts the photog and the other two, but Raven is fixed on Erik and Erik is fixed on her. "You're ready for this, Raven."

The crease in Raven's brow smoothes. "I promise this will be the best piece I've ever done."

Erik snorts lightly. "I won't hold you to that. Just don't fuck it up."

His snark releases some of her anxiety, enough for her to come back with, "I'm not worried; you usually keep 'em covered up anyway."

The first pass is always the cruelest, but Erik knows to expect that. A sheet of pain shrouds his mind once the needles start perforating his skin, stabbing ink underneath the epidermis to the deeper dermis layer. He's had enough work done to have a rough idea of when the endorphins will kick in and the pain begin to lessen, but he doesn't bother to hide his initial scowl. He takes his mind from it by watching Raven's hands as she marks him and wipes away excess ink and blood with the paper towels gripped in her other hand.

"That looks intense," somebody says above the gun's buzz. It takes Erik a moment to register that the voice belongs to Raven's brother. He glances at Charles, ponders a rejoinder, but opts to stay silent and let other people fill him in. Other people will. They like that; like filling the air with meaningless noise. He half wishes Raven was doing the tattoo on his head so he wouldn't have to listen.

"The first minute or so is pretty painful," Angel supplies. "Then you adjust to it and it isn't as bad. Raven's doing the outline right now, which is the most painful part."

Charles swallows in clear dismay which makes Erik smile just a bit. He considers playing the pain up a bit, just to fuck with him in preparation for his coming work. In the end he doesn't, but he doesn't listen to Angel conducting Tattooing 101, either. He watches Raven work, grits his teeth in pain when the needle rattles over his clavicle, again when it hits different parts of his shoulder joint, and ponders the design once again.

Vaguely, he's aware of the photog shooting; this time he hasn't bothered to strike up any conversation. The gun buzzes away and the camera whirs. All backdrop to Erik's questioning; why is this design personal? What makes a two-headed dragon, one with an eye put out, personal? It isn't something he and Raven have talked about, though she said it suited him.

Then a wave of chill flows over him; it displaces the pain but is far less welcome. A two-headed dragon could represent two sides of his personality. Since it seems to emanate from the human heart, it is likely something to do with Raven's perception of his true nature. Erik swallows and stares through the ink, blood, and Vaseline at the sketch. One head is destructive; a unicorn horn, maybe representing truth, is imbedded in that head's eye. The other head is fierce, it has no blood on its claws, so Erik supposes it must be ready to attack or defend.

Erik has a lot of ink, that isn't to say he's covered in tattoos. Most of his work covers his left leg from foot to hip; some of these are his own doing or collaborations with other artists. The ones on his chest and arm are works from artists he respects. None of them are personal imagery as far as he knows; some are abstract, others graphic. His favorites are the collaborations that helped bring photoshop and trash polka onto the scene.

His tattoos say volumes about him as an artist and as a developer of a subculture's art movement, but they don't say he's a man who is constantly struggling with his own nature. They don't reveal him as a person, but they all necessarily expose him as a violator of Halakha, if not an apostate.

Erik isn't sure what he's feeling; when emotions get complicated he's often at a loss. What he feels, looking at the tattoo taking shape, is something uncomfortable and powerful. Something he doesn't understand.

"Stop."

Raven stops. She looks just as surprised as Erik that the word came from his mouth. Erik finds that he has more words where that came from.

"Stop shooting," he says.

Raven's face clouds with uncertainty. The photographer puts down his camera and flashes a confused look over at Angel. Erik begins to stand.

"Do you need a break?" Angel asks, watching Erik as he finishes the motion of getting to his feet. Beside her, Raven's brother looks on, a crease at his brow.

Erik doesn't look at them directly; just collects the view in his peripheral vision. He takes off the surgical gloves from earlier and discards them appropriately in the haz mat bin, turns and walks into the backroom without a word. In his wake he hears Raven say, "Why don't you two go get lunch downstairs? I'll let you know what's up in a few."

The backroom is spartanly furnished. It is lit by another of the big factory windows that allows indirect light in from the back alley. The hardwood in the room is scarred and half-covered with a large secondhand Persian rug. Erik likes sitting on it when he meditates. The weave feels good under his feet as he walks across the rug to lean, forehead buffered by his left forearm, against the wall. From the other room he hears low voices, but he doesn't try to understand what anyone is saying.

He breathes.

Erik remains unmoving when Raven walks in. She joins him, leans back-first against the same wall. She listens to him breathe in through his nose for a few moments before asking, "Hey, what just happened?"

The problem with times like these is that he doesn't have anyone that can explain things to Raven for him. He can decide against speaking as he usually does, but there's nobody to make the noises that fill up empty spaces he doesn't want to. She can, and may, wait him out.

"I don't know how to explain." It's the truth, at least. "Started to feel strange."

Raven settles a gentle hand on his back. "Did you eat before we started?"

"That's basic intelligence," Erik snorts. He hadn't.

"So you lack basic intelligence?" Erik's sigh is answer enough to that question, but Raven doesn't drop the subject. "After we get your blood sugar up, let's start again. Fifteen minutes on, fifteen off."

He lifts his head from his forearm just to shake it. "No, we can do the whole outline today and start shading, but I want the shop empty. No bystanders, Raven."

"But you have to do the consultation with Charles," Raven protests.

"Obviously we'll start again after the consultation," Erik says, turning around so Raven's hand slips from his back. "That shouldn't take long."

"You obviously don't know my brother." Raven scoffs. "But okay. What do you want me to tell the magazine people?"

"Tell them something they'll like," Erik retorts, anger beginning to creep in to vanquish the feelings he can't understand. "Tell them the tattoo was too personal or that I felt exposed."

Raven's gaze drops to the smears of ink and blood suspended within the Vaseline. She opens her mouth to say something only to change her mind; no words are given breath. Her lips close on silence, but her eyes are full of things he doesn't really understand. With a brief nod she returns to the studio. He appreciates having his space.


This story might upload a little unpredictably. I'm hoping it will be only three chapters, but everything always takes longer than what it takes with me.