ANOTHER fractured line streaked above the cityscape, followed almost immediately by low, drawn-out rumbling. The air crackled with electricity. He could smell the first drops of rain as they hit the hot asphalt road and turned to steam. The humidity suppressed the noise and subdued the normally exuberant inhabitants of Chapel Street.
Dominic knew the street well; he had watched it change over many years. These days the geography of the street housed two very distinct cultures. Closer to South Yarra, Chapel was all trendy, upmarket boutiques and sushi bars, where pretty young things with glitter sprayed on their skin and too-high shoes hobbled their way into clubs and cocktail bars. Dominic always found the rundown Windsor end infinitely more interesting. Café culture had only begun to intrude, and you could still see storefronts with bondage corsets and adornments for the multipierced sitting comfortably next door to white orthopedic shoes for lawn bowlers.
A tramcar rattled past and gave its warning “ding” to an errant pedestrian; Dominic looked up to watch its progress. Tonight, as on many other nights, he sat at the outdoor table of a small café, where he could see the passing parade of people coming out of the tattoo parlor with their small patches of cling wrap taped to arms or ankles. Even when it wasn’t visible, Dominic could smell the newly broken skin. It sent a wave of hunger through him, but he ignored it. Not tonight; tonight was for other pleasures.
He paid for his coffee, which, as usual, sat untouched, and walked to the painted windows of the little shop across the street. Nothing could be seen from the outside. The entire shop front was a montage of demonic creatures and skeletal dragons, the name Ink taking up an entire glass panel. Dominic pushed open the door. Inside a man flicked through a photo album while another checked out the designs on the wall. Both glanced at him but quickly looked away.
Dominic stood quietly at the counter until a woman sporting a kaleidoscope of color work on her arms and a head of startling crimson hair came out from the back room. She smiled at him and asked, “Can I help you?”
“I have an appointment,” Dominic answered quietly.
She frowned, sensing something slightly off kilter about this man, but reached for the appointment book. “I don’t think so. It’s almost closing. Scott is with someone, and I’m sure Michael is finished for the night.” She opened the book and checked under each name to affirm what she’d just said.
“Look again,” Dominic said in a deceptively soft voice and pointed to a blank time slot. “There’s my name.”
This time she could clearly see the name printed under Michael’s, although the moment she looked away, she’d forgotten what it said. “Oh, I’m sorry. I’ll get Michael for you,” she mumbled, confused, and called out to the back room, “Mikey, you have a customer.”
A young man with dark curls and equally dark eyes walked through the curtained doorway with an almost sheepish grin and said, “Hey, sorry, I thought I was done for the night. Come through.” He turned and bid Dominic to follow him.
The back room had obviously been part of a previous owner’s home at some stage in the distant past. A high picture rail that would once have displayed much-loved family portraits barely managed to cling to the crumbling plaster, and the disused fireplace now housed an odd collection of movie action figures and battered metal lunchboxes. The walls of the room were painted a dark purple, although they were all but hidden by screen-printed posters advertising obscure industrial bands. The two workspaces, however, were a sharp contrast to the carefully composed chaos of the décor; the bench tops and ink trays were immaculately organized and clean.
Michael walked to the second workstation and sat on the small vinyl swivel stool. He indicated for Dominic to sit in what looked a lot like a leather dentist’s chair and smelled like it had just been wiped with antiseptic. Michael usually made small talk at that point to put customers, particularly first-timers, at ease, but there was something about the man that stopped him. Instead, he asked quietly, “What exactly is it you want?”
Dominic almost laughed at the question. What is it I want? But he answered, simply, “A design on my left arm.” Almost as an afterthought, he turned his face, stared directly at Michael, and added, “I’ll let you decide what.”
The vampire knew this scenario well: along with the spoken word went an echo in Michael’s subconscious that left him more than a little shaken. Dominic’s pale gray eyes locked him in place, trapping Michael’s breath until his chest ached.
They may have sat like that for a mere second, but to Michael it felt an age before he was released to look down at the location of the intended tattoo. “No, man. I mean, are you sure? Um, maybe something tribal would look good. You know, black work?” His eyes flicked briefly up to Dominic’s before he swiveled the stool around to the workbench where he could focus his attention on preparing his tattoo gun.
Dominic watched as Michael’s fingers fumbled with the elastic band. It took him several attempts to get it correctly placed, and then he slotted the needle into the tattoo gun. His chest rose with a deliberately deep breath, deep enough to calm his nerves a little but not enough to hide that he was rattled.
Michael’s reactions were familiar to Dominic because he’d grown accustomed to the discomfort of others when forced to share his space. He looked at the other workstation, where a teenage girl’s young skin was being broken by a man with long dreadlocks, some blond, some blue, and one with a bronze key sewn to its end. Even from that distance, Dominic could smell the girl’s blood, and his senses twitched at the sharp tang the ink added to the normally rich, earthy smell. He wondered absently how it would taste if he were to slide his tongue over the newly tattooed shoulder, red and black staining his mouth. He felt the hunger rise, but denying it felt good.
The sudden touch of Michael’s fingers through the linen of Dominic’s shirtsleeve pulled his attention back to the young tattooist.
“I’ll get you to roll up your sleeve or slide your arm out, and you can show me how big you want the design,” Michael said, beginning to feel more at ease as he slid into his comfort zone of routine.
Dominic carefully unbuttoned his shirt and slipped it down to fall on the back of the chair, then waited for Michael to begin. It had been a long time since Dominic had felt nervous, and it surprised him that he could still feel the flutter of anticipation. He watched Michael closely, not willing to let any part of the experience escape unnoticed. So intent was his focus on the movement of Michael’s hands that he was startled when the fingers actually made contact with his bare skin. Over the years, his heightened senses of sight and smell had become part of Dominic’s nocturnal life, but he had almost forgotten voluntary touch. Generally people avoided any form of physical contact; it was as if a primal survival instinct made them cringe away when he was close.
He closed his eyes. It was such a simple touch, fingertips marking out the boundaries of the proposed tattoo, but it sent a deep shiver through Dominic’s long-neglected body and sparked a different hunger. Michael felt Dominic shudder and shrugged it off, understanding that clients were often more nervous than they looked. He laid his palm flat on Dominic’s arm, spread his fingers, and asked, “How about this for size? It would be from the tip of my thumb to the end of my little finger?”
Dominic didn’t look. He merely nodded and said softly, “Whatever you want.”
Michael frowned. “Okay, man. It’s your arm, I guess.”
When there was no response, Michael shook his head, picked up the black marker pen, and began to sketch out a design directly onto Dominic’s arm.
The cool tip of the marker skittered over Dominic’s skin. With eyes still closed, he felt every slide and stop it made. He tried to see the image as it was drawn, through touch alone, but was constantly distracted by the heat of Michael’s hand and the puff of his breath as he leaned in to check his work. Dominic opened his eyes and looked down at Michael. The young tattooist was totally engrossed in his work. A slight frown of concentration creased his brow, and he chewed lightly on his bottom lip. While he drew the gently curving lines, his thumb stroked absently over the sensitive skin of Dominic’s arm.
It had been so long since Dominic had been this close to someone other than prey that the rush of sensations threatened to overwhelm him. The warmth radiating from Michael’s unblemished olive skin. The faint smell of his shampoo. Cigarette smoke and sweat. Human smells without the sharpness of fear.
Suddenly the hair on the back of Michael’s neck prickled, and he looked up to meet Dominic’s gaze. As Michael stared into the pale eyes, the vampire felt the long fingers wrapped around the cool skin of his arm tighten their grip. It was only then that Dominic broke the connection and looked down at the design coming to life on his arm, and Michael was able to murmur, “Is this the kind of thing you want?”
Dominic’s voice was quiet and tinged with a sadness that didn’t go unnoticed as he said, “That is what I want.”
Michael sat and looked at Dominic for a lot longer than he intended, then he gave himself a mental shake and turned to the workbench. He finished setting up the gun and pulled on a pair of fine latex gloves. Dominic smiled at the care the young man was taking. Unnecessary. I would catch nothing and pass nothing on to you.
“The outline usually hurts a bit, but your skin soon gets numb,” Michael said while he gently placed a steadying hand on Dominic’s arm.
The first touch of the needle bit the surface of Dominic’s flesh. Dominic watched the point of the gun glide along a section of the hand-drawn outline. The excess black ink bubbled out the edge. The pain was minimal, but it was enough to remind Dominic of things long absent.
Michael lifted the needle and wiped away the ink to check his progress. He glanced up and asked, “You doing okay?”
Dominic considered the question seriously and answered, “Yes, I’m okay, thank you.”
It surprised Michael at how carefully Dominic had answered what was a standard question. He blushed a little when he realized he was smiling at Dominic’s response and dipped his head to get on with the tattoo.
Normally, Michael chattered in a continuous stream while he worked, partly to distract the client, but mainly because it was his nature to talk. With Dominic, however, he barely spoke. There was something about the man that silenced him. Michael was too aware of the pale smoothness of Dominic’s skin, the rise and fall of his chest, and the way his eyes held you locked in place.
With a mental shake, Michael told himself to stay focused on the task. After all, it was just another inking, one of many he’d done that day. But when Scott finished with his client and headed over to watch, Michael realized he was actually irritated by Scott’s close proximity to his client. Although it was normal practice for the two friends to check out each other’s artwork, tonight Michael did not want him there. He clenched his teeth and tried to push away the feeling that Scott was somehow intruding on something intimate.
When he finished the outline, Michael stopped and looked up. “Listen, man, I’m gonna be a while yet. You head off, and tell Abby I’ll lock up when we’re done.”
Scott frowned. That wasn’t the usual way they operated. It wasn’t safe to be on your own with an unknown client that late, and something about the guy made his skin crawl. “Nah, it’s fine, mate. I can hang around until you’re done. Abbs and I have nothing planned tonight, just TV then bed.”
Michael was about to argue when Dominic said in a barely audible voice, “He told you to go.”
Something about the voice, rather than the words, convinced Scott that it was indeed time to go home. “Okay, I’ll see you tomorrow, Michael,” he conceded, but he refused to take his eyes off Dominic until he was out the door.
Michael was also watching Dominic. There was something about him he couldn’t quite define. Clients usually fell into very distinct categories, but this one was different.
Once Scott had gone, Dominic gave Michael a small smile that instantly sent a flood of heat through the young tattooist’s chest and down to his belly. “Um, yeah… the outline is done…. It looks good,” Michael stammered as he began to gently wipe the excess ink and smudges of blood from Dominic’s arm. “Filling it in will feel a bit different.” He glanced up and smiled but quickly dropped his eyes back to the skin. As he ran his gloved fingers over the raised and reddened outline, the burn in his belly spread, and he felt his cock twitch within the confines of his jeans.
Dominic could smell the change in Michael and closed his eyes. This can’t happen with him. Why am I doing this to myself? But he knew. He was genuinely curious about the outcome of a tattoo on his inhuman skin, but the main reasons were his fascination with the tattooist and the desire to be touched again. It had been so long.
The pain of the coloring process was less sharp. It was more like a dull and insistent burn on his skin, yet it was no less intense. Dominic let his head fall back against the seat, allowing the smell of the ink and his blood to blend with the human scents while he listened to the steady hum of the gun. He told himself to enjoy the experience—and his time with Michael—but remain detached. This must not become more than it was. Dominic knew that, even though he walked among its people, he was no longer part of this world.
Michael had to force himself to concentrate, and although he took the necessary care, he frequently stole glances at Dominic. Knowing the man’s eyes were shut, Michael would take extra time wiping and cleaning the area so his gaze could flick to Dominic’s face and body. He could tell Dominic was older than he, but other than that, he could only guess Dominic was maybe early-to-mid thirties. His clothes were pretty conservative, bordering on old-fashioned, and he had no visible piercings. In fact, he could have been one of those people who would simply blend into a crowd unnoticed. Except for those eyes.
A trickle of sweat ran down Michael’s back as he filled in a swirl near the top of Dominic’s shoulder. He swapped the already soaked tissue for a new one and wiped away the last traces of ink from the unmarked surrounding skin. Though Michael was loath to admit it, the tattoo was finished. The problem was, he didn’t want it to end, and despite the fact it was well past their usual closing time, he didn’t want this man to leave. But Michael knew he could only drag it on for so long. He sighed and said, “It’s done.”
Dominic opened his eyes and looked first at Michael and then the fresh artwork. Melancholy seemed to hang in the air of the small purple room when he said, “You do beautiful work. Thank you.”
“Um, that’s okay,” Michael mumbled, suddenly more than a little flustered by the man’s attention. “Here I’ll, ah… I’ll put some of this on and get it patched up.” He fumbled under the counter until he found the tube of antiseptic cream and carefully smeared a thick layer over the raw inking. He held up the roll of cling wrap and taped on a square, ensuring it was completely covered while explaining, “There, that will keep it clean and protected. Try to leave it on for a couple of hours, okay?”
Dominic smiled at the way Michael had begun to babble and said simply, “Thank you. How much do I owe you?”
Just another fucking job, remember, just another inking. Dominic “heard” Michael’s thought clearly and cursed himself for unsettling the beautiful young man. The cost was disclosed, and they walked together to the front desk. Dominic handed over the money, thanked Michael again without making any more eye contact, and headed for the door.
A surge of panic instantly rose in Michael at the thought of Dominic leaving, and he quickly followed him. “Hey, um, I’m heading out for a drink if, ah, if you’d like to join me? Nothing special; I’m just going to the pub around the corner.” Michael had had no intention of going anywhere after work, but he needed just a little longer.
Dominic stopped and looked back at him, immense sadness evident in his eyes. He reached out to Michael and gently stroked his cheek before walking alone through the door.