Author note: Rikarah, the customer in this chapter, is a character I have many other stories about, including The Golden Rule, Four Scenes of Halloween, Unholy Night, Scary Christmas, among others. Although none are needed to understand this story, you may be interested to read if you find her interesting. This is my only Rikarah story that has multiple chapters. But of course, she is not the main focus of this story; this is Rinji's tale.

"Customer's coming in," announced Blane, sounding supremely bored from his position at the front semi-lobby area, behind the counter. His next words were disrupted in the middle by his yawn. "I think it's that Rikka chick, whatshername…"1

I perked up slightly at that, sitting up a little straighter behind the curtain in the small side room just behind Blane's position at the counter- the room where we artists usually hang out together when not busy with a customer. It was a Wednesday, a slow day in our business, and three of the four artists working today weren't yet preoccupied with a customer. Out of the three of us available- Manuel, Arden, and me- I knew that if this was Rikarah- not Rikka, as Blane had said- she was a regular customer of ours. She preferred to have her tattoos done by a woman- which I could understand, although she wouldn't have to worry about the guys being inappropriate here- and for some reason, she always chose me over Arden to do her work.2

From her position on Manuel's lap across from me, Arden smiled, her purple lipstick a colorful contrast to her long bright blue hair.3

"Looks like you've finally got something to do, Rinj."4

Manuel smirked, his large, clashing arms covering Arden's slender ones. His brown hair, nearly as long as Arden's, blended with the blue of hers as he leaned his head down closer to hers.5

"Don't worry, babe, I'll keep you from getting bored in Rinji's absence."6

"I bet," I mumbled, smiling in spite of his corniness. I had seen the glow in Arden's eyes and I knew what this simple scene meant to her. It had been years since she'd been able to feel that way toward anyone, and once she finally did, she was lucky enough for it to be Manuel, who we'd already worked with for three years. Manuel didn't exactly look like most women's dream guy, but then, most tattoo artists aren't exactly conventional. Including us. I was just happy for them both- although, still being single myself at age 27, there was some envy mixed with that as well.7

Sure enough, I could hear the intelligent, well-modulated voice of Rikarah Pallaton speaking with Blane, who replied in the dead monotone he was infamous for. Apparently even regular customers- even notoriously attractive female ones like Rikarah- weren't enough to liven him up a bit. I rolled my eyes at Arden, who returned the sentiment in kind, still smiling. I noticed in amusement she was pressed even harder against Manuel, and his wide hand was running up and down one of her tattoo-splotched arms slowly, with a gentleness that seemed strange coming from such large hands.8

A few moments later, I heard Blane call out flatly, "Rinji, you have a customer. She's already got her work picked out for you."9

I smiled at Arden and Manuel, relieved. I enjoyed hanging with them- in fact, I considered Arden one of my closest friends- but too much down time and I got restless. And besides, earning money was always a good thing.10

Parting the curtains, I stood and walked into the lobby, where Rikarah was standing waiting for me, and Blane was slumped against the counter, his eyes bleary, dyed black hair covering his eyes. I swear, the kid is all of 19 and already seriously deprived of both sleep and caffeine. Or maybe he's just depressed- that seems all together too common for kids now.11

The walls of the lobby were covered with tattoo examples, the portfolios of each of the seven artists employed at this place, Ink Blots. Rikarah was standing before my portfolio, and her dark eyes brightened when she saw me. She was wearing a wife beater with stilettos- my kind of girl- and I noticed with satisfaction the exposed tattoos- my work- on her chest, shoulder blades, and ankles.12

"Hi, Rikarah," I greeted her. "What's going on?"13

"Hi, Rinji," she greeted back- with my regular customers, I usually establish a first name basis. "I have a new design I want, do you think you can do this one for me?"14

She held up a piece of white sketch paper with a small but detailed ink drawing of two daggers twisted intricately around each other. I knew Rikarah had drawn it herself- she was an amateur artist who always designed her own tattoos.15

"That's very interesting," I murmured, studying it carefully. "Where would you want this on you?"16

"On the small of my back," she replied. "About that size I drew it. Do you think you can do that?"17

I winced. "That's a tough spot, Rikarah- the small of your back will be pretty painful."18

"Oh, I can handle it," she assured me- and unlike most kids her age, 20 or so, I believed her. I'd worked on Rikarah six times now, and each time she had not so much as cried out- she had an extremely high pain tolerance.19

I studied it again, then nodded. "Sure, I can do this. It'll take a little while, but you're used to that."20

"Yep," Rikarah replied cheerfully- an odd concept for most young girls faced with a needle sticking them in the back, but unlike most girls, I could understand her excitement. There's nothing quite like the exhilaration you experience right before adding another work to your body…21

"Follow me," I told her, and I led her through the door to the right of the lobby, which in turn opened up to a short hallway with several other doors. I opened the fourth one to the left, ushering her inside my work room.22

I think all this- my personality, my life, even my profession- was destined from birth, or at least the moment my mother chose my name. I mean, Rinji- how many white, blonde American girls do you know called that? It's Japanese- some foreign movie character my mom saw a month before I was born, I think. She always had this thing for foreign films. I hated it as a kid- everyone else was Heather or Jessica or Jennifer, and I was stuck with this weird name no one could spell or say. But I loved it by the time I was a teen. It made it all the easier to be different, an individual.23

My name probably planted a seed, but I really got into the whole tattoo scene when I got my first piercing. I was 15, and I let my friend pierce my belly button. I had to hide it from my parents, but I didn't care- just knowing I had it under my clothes gave me a secret thrill. Later I didn't even attempt to be so discreet- I pierced my ears four times and had pierced my own lip by the time I was 16. I had my first tattoo by 16 too, though I'm shocked it didn't get infected based on the place I chose and the fact that they never asked to see my ID- not to mention about ten other health codes they violated. It was a word between my shoulder blades, not very well done, spelling out "Live". I honestly can't remember now why I thought it was so great to put that word on my body- but it's there now, and I don't regret it.24

I've gotten more since then, of course- two large purple and blue hibiscuses on my arm, with 'Dreams' written above them in sparkly looking letters, and a circle of tiny blue stars around my left wrist. Arden did that one for me, actually, and I appreciate it all the more because it was done by her, a friend. I've had very few friends in my life, so I value the few I've managed to round up. She wanted me to do a tattoo for her as well, but I refused, in spite of all her threats and pleadings. I could never tattoo someone I consider a close friend- I would be way too critical of my work, hold myself to much higher standards that usual. I'd probably cringe every time I saw it on their skin. 25

Anyway, I started seriously wanting to be a tattoo artist when I was about 17. I had always been artistic, into drawing and painting and sculpting, etc, and tattooing seemed like taking it up to the next level- artwork that was permanent, indestructible. My work on someone's skin, forever…26

It seemed an honor as well as an awesome responsibility, for someone to allow me to change their skin forever- trust me enough to. It still does at times, even now.27

I'm 27 now, a year younger than Arden, and I've been a tattoo artist for six years. It took three years of training about blood and bone pathogens and cross contamination, health and anatomy, inks and needles and machinery, and my passing a health and safety test before I was considered a licensed artist- and even then I had to mainly watch the more experienced artists a while longer before I was allowed to do any work myself. I've gradually progressed through the years until I can do the very small and intricate designs, or larger complex ones, as well as fairly simple ones. The seven of us all have our specialties- Manuel likes to do "arm sleeves" like his own, or things like demons and fantasy stuff- the more manly or tough stuff. Arden enjoys doing small, detailed tattoos, or larger complex ones like portraits. As for me, I'm kind of a hybrid- I love doing large, very precise scenes and figures, as well as smaller simpler ones.28

You'd be surprised how many kinds of tattoos I've seen and given to people. I've done all the typical tattoos like flowers and fairies, crosses and butterflies, skulls and words, but there are some tattoos- and some people- that tend to stick out in your mind. I've done portraits of famous people, like Bob Marley, Madonna, Angelina Jolie, and Marilyn Monroe. That's not as common as ones of people the person knew in their life, such as wives or dead family members. (I always wince inwardly when they want one of a wife or girlfriend- talk about regret if America's high divorce rate kicks in.) Probably the saddest of those I've had to do was a beautiful little girl on a man's chest, his daughter- with her name, Grace, underneath it, and the dates she was born and died.29

I've had people ask me to tattoo bracelets or necklaces on them- one girl even wanted tattooed earrings. I've done more naked or nearly naked girls/sprites/hookers on people- some girls too, believe it or not- then I can count or care to recall. It always kind of amused me to think of a guy who could get a boner by looking at his own arm…30

I've had people come to me to tattoo over what had once been tattooed- a ex lover's name or even a badly done tattoo or one they no longer liked. One man came to me to tattoo an elaborate cross over what had once been a gang brand- that touched me, which is unusual in my work.31

My best tattoo so far was an intricate willow tree that took up nearly all of a girl's back. That inspired me- I want something like that now, something wholly unique and beautiful. Once I figure out what I want, I'll have Arden do it for me- she's about the only one I trust enough to take the extra care and effort to be sure to get it just the way I want it.32

Arden's tattoos are beautiful… not just the ones she does on others, but also the ones she's chosen for herself. All across her upper back, shoulders, and the tops of her arms are these dark, gorgeously executed scenes of angels and statues, in gothic cemetery style. All done in grey, white, and black, it is still somehow so colorful and striking you have to look at it. Manuel has his neck and both arms covered- one arm is his black arm, covered with thick designs done in black and white, and the other is his colored arm, with a collage of skulls, dragons, and other mystical stuff in a bright array of colors.33

Doing tattoos can take anywhere from fifteen minutes to days, working hours at a time, depending on the size and complicity of color and detail. And obviously, there are some things I refuse to attempt, either because I consider myself unqualified, or because they're just wrong- I've had people wanting gang tattoos, and one guy was crazy enough to want me to tattoo his entire body orange with black stripes, like a tiger. Apparently he was inspired by some idiot in the Guinness book who was a tattooed leopard. 34

I've had to call for Manuel or some of the other male artists before when I refused to do a tattoo- some customers can get ugly, especially with a woman. Even in a well-run place like this, you're gonna get shady customers sometimes. We back each other up- the guys are especially protective of Arden and me. There aren't many women artists, and I guess they respect us for it, even if they aren't the sort of guys who would say it to us.35

That was what originally attracted me to Arden, obviously, her being the only other female in the place, and also my age. It helps that she's wonderfully unique and slyly sarcastic as well- my kind of person. She's been the closest- actually, the only- female friend I've had for five years now, which is partly why it makes me so glad for her that she's finally decided to open up romantically for someone. Without getting into the sticky details of her past, I'll just say that Arden's had it rough, and it's not exactly astonishing she would have a hard time trusting men. I mean, I'm not exactly Miss Flirty either, and I haven't been through the shit she has.36

It's an interesting job, to say the least, being an artist of this nature. You meet such a huge variety of people of all ages, races, and cultures… some of them come in brazen as can be, taking the pain in stride, while others get drunk before coming. I always hesitate to work on those- they'll usually regret it in the morning. Some get flirty, thinking that since I'm a woman and touching their bare skin, I can't help but be hot for them- as if. I try to handle that carefully, using dry wit without offending them- but if they try to touch me or get too offensive, I get serious. I know some tae kwon do, and if defending myself makes me lose a customer, so be it. I don't usually do that unless I think they're really serious trouble though- I've only had to do that once. Usually I just call in one of the male artists who aren't with a customer- one look at the bigger guys usually pipes them down.37

You'd think there wouldn't be nearly as many girls as guys wanting tattoos, but there are a good many- probably 40% of our customers. They can actually often handle the process better than some of the men- I've had people swear wildly at me, scream, cry, pass out… it's kind of like working in a labor room sometimes, which is funny to think about.38

As I said before, Rikarah is one of my best customers in that way, with the high pain tolerance. So far I've done naked fairies on her shoulder blades, a field of flowers across her chest, Japanese symbols on her ankles, and the words "Apathy is death" trailing across her left wrist. Through all that, she hardly flinched- the girl has nerves of steel. Not only does she have high tolerance, she's friendly without flirting and she tips well- an absolute high scoring in any artist's book. All in all, too bad they're not all like her.39

In the work room, I asked Rikarah for her ID, although I knew by now she was 20- two years older than necessary to get a tattoo. I always ask for ID even if the person's 60- it's Ink Blot's policy. I wouldn't want to accidentally do an escaped convict, or worse, a minor- even though I got myself tattoos as a kid, and this place is cleaner than most ones a kid would pick. The last thing I need is to get sued.40

"Here you go," she smiled, handing it over for me to examine. "As many times as you've seen it, Rinji, I expect you to know my birthday by now- not to mention I expect a pretty awesome present. Free tattoo?" she suggested flippantly.41

I smiled as I went to wash my hands in the small sink, then slid on the gloves I'd use throughout the process. Turning to Rikarah, I said, "All right, you can go ahead and remove your shirt now, Rikarah- and show me exactly where you want these daggers."42

She pulled her tank top over her head casually, exposing further my work on her chest and back. Turning around and tracing an area of her lower back, the small of her spine, she said, "Right here. About this long."43

I touched the area myself gently, tracing a vague outline of the two daggers.44

"Does this feel right?"45

"Yes," she nodded.46

I handed her a handheld mirror, and she dug out a compact from her purse to see for herself where I was touching. 47

"Right," she confirmed.48

I wiped down the tables and machinery, then opened a packet of needles in front of her, inserting them into the tattoo machine.49

"Alright, you can just lie on the table and relax while I make a stencil," I told her. As Rikarah did as suggested, I began to prepare the stencil for her carefully, making sure the size and details were accurate. It took about ten minutes for me to be satisfied. 50

"All right… I'll just swab you down, and we'll be ready to go."51

I cleansed her back carefully with alcohol and antibacterial liquid, then positioned the machine carefully along with the stencil, preparing the autoclave last of all.52

"This good Rikarah, right here?"53

"Yep- go ahead."54

And so the actual tattooing began… ink inserted into Rikarah's skin, via the needles soldered to the bar driving in and out rapidly. She lay fairly relaxed, not saying anything- a pretty uncommon reaction, but one I appreciated, as it made my job easier. Every now and then I stopped to wipe her back down again, inspecting the wound, before starting the machine up again.55

It took a little more than an hour before I was satisfied with the final effect. Wiping down the machine and throwing away the used needles, I cleansed her wound once more, then bandaged it with gauze. Removing my gloves and washing my hands once more, I said to her, "All right, Rikarah, this looks pretty good, if I do say so myself. You know the drill for afterward- no water contact for a few days, keep the wound wrapped until then. And no picking at the scab when it forms."56

"Yep, I know- a few groady days ahead," Rikarah smiled. She sat up slowly, and as I handed her back her shirt, she pulled it back over her head. 57

"Thanks, Rinji," she said, "how much do I owe you?"58

I told her, and she counted out the amount- unlike most young girls, Rikarah always paid in cash- and added a generous tip to it as well. I thanked her with a smile, squeezing her shoulder. If Rikarah wasn't my customer, she'd definitely be the kind I'd befriend- but of course, if we were friends, I couldn't tattoo her.59

We left the room together, with me stopping at the front counter to drop the allotted tattoo-price-portion off to Blane, who stuck it in the register with the same bored expression on his face. The kid needs some Red Bull- and some sun.60

"Bye, Blane," Rikarah said nicely. "Have a good day. You too, Rinji."61

"Thanks," I called after her as she exited- Blane didn't even look at her.62

I went back behind the counter to the curtained area, fairly sure someone must still be back there to hang with. There was only Arden, her face soft, pensive- Manuel and Ray, the other artist working, were with customers.63

I pulled up a chair beside her, and she looked up, smiling quickly. "Hey Rinji. Another nice tip?"64

I nodded, smiling back. "Nice tattoo too. She has good taste."65

"When will you ever do one for me?" Arden asked, her tone only half teasing. "I trust you not to put a potato or 666 or something if that's what you're worried about."66

" Sorry, not an option," I said lightly. "Maybe you should ask Manuel…" I put deliberate, teasing emphasis on his name, and Arden's eyes shimmered suddenly, her smile widening.67

I shook her shoulder gently, my face turned toward her. "Come on, woman- how serious is it getting?"68

"I don't know," she mumbled, her voice less controlled, higher-pitched more than usual. "We're just, kind of riding with it, seeing where it goes."69

"Uh huh," I teased. "Just exactly what do you mean by 'riding'?"70

Arden laughed, but she flushed slightly as well- another uncommon response for her. 71

"Shut up, Rinji- Blane's right there."72

"And the kid doesn't have an interested bone in his body," I replied. Making my voice serious, I added, "But really- you really like him, don't you, Arden?"73

"You sound like you're in high school," Arden muttered, evading my question. I shook my head at her.74

"Arden. Come on. You can say it- it's okay," I said, my voice gentler.75

She paused, still averting her eyes from me, and then nodded, her mouth held strangely, as if she could not decide whether she wanted to smile or frown.76

"Yeah… yeah, Rinji, I do. And it's the weirdest thing."77

"Scary?" I asked her, and she nodded, looking up at me now- realizing, I think, that I understood.78

"I know," I said to her quietly. "But I'm proud of you, Arden- I think this is a good thing, a really good thing. I'm happy for you- in fact, I'm a little jealous. Round me up someone too, will you?"79

She laughed a little, but I saw a small measure of relief in her eyes. Sometimes it helps just to have someone understand, even if it doesn't really change anything…80

I hugged her impulsively, and startled, but hesitating for only a few moments, she hugged me as well, her long hair brushing my shoulders. When we pulled apart, Arden changed the conversation topic quickly. I knew she was just trying to distract me to a subject she felt more neutral about, but I went along with her, acting clueless. We sat there together, talking, waiting… for the other artists to return, for the end of the slow work day. 81

On slow days like this, we seem to spend more time waiting than working- but that kind of seems the way life is too. In our field of work, we spend every day changing people's skin, redefining their physical appearance. Sometimes, I feel as I sit behind the curtain with Arden or Manuel or the others, as though I am waiting- we all are waiting- to be redefined as well- but in some way that is more than our outward appearance… In some way that would change us inside as well…82

But then again, what the hell do I know? 83