Skin pushed taut between thumb and forefinger. Fine needles, dipped like a brush in thick, dark ink. Sharp, decisive motions, thrusting needles into flesh. Push-push-push-push-push-push-pull of the brush, swipe of the ink- and bloodstained towel, dip, press the skin tight, and start again. It was quick, clean, and… elegant, even. Different from the gentle brush of ink, punctuated by the repeated tap-tap-tap of the tattoo rake that Sofia had seen so many times—had experienced, even, with its small wake of the feeling of fire under the skin, quickly cooling and settling into place.
The brief pause between each swipe revealed the slowly emerging landscape of muscle overlapping muscle, tendon stretched like guitar strings, light films of tissue wrapped around both at once. It wasn’t quite like the slow peeling away of skin—more like a steady erosion of that which lay between the sight and the tattoo, with the outline being the first to emerge. Alvaro’s arm had gone from bare to a sketch of his years-long dream throughout the course of the night.
“The Avengers, hands down,” Sofia said, slowly returning to the prior conversation as she pulled away from her musings. “That’s the movie I miss the most.”
Alvaro gave her a half-smile “Which one was that again?” He followed it up with a puzzled squint of an eye. It was almost as if he was winking, a covert, inside joke-like wink.
Which one was what again? C’mon Sofia, pull it together.
Right. Avengers. Movie.
Wait, he didn’t know which movie The Avengers was? No way. No way he didn’t remember that one.
Okay, okay, maybe he’d grown up somewhere that didn’t really have access to the latest and greatest movies. Alvaro did mention that he wasn’t originally from the United States—and Sofia was pretty spoiled when she was little, and lived in a very fancy apartment in one of the most expensive cities in the world at the time. Maybe it’d only just come out wherever Alvaro lived two years after its premiere. Or maybe he didn’t have a television. She decided she’d only give him a little bit of a hard time for it.
“It was, like, the third biggest box office hit ever, before the world ended.” Sofia sent a look the tattoo artist’s way. “Back me up here, Norm.”
“Sorry, can’t say I remember that one,” the tattoo artist replied, not looking up from his work.
“You know, the one with Iron Man, Captain America, Black Widow, Hawkeye, the Hulk, and Thor, all teaming up together to thwart Loki’s plans and save the world?”
“Sounds vaguely familiar.” Norm paused to wipe and dip once more. He froze, then looked up at Sofia. “That’s the one with Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson as a redhead, right?”
Sofia smiled and nodded.
Norm brightened. “I remember! Chris Hemsworth was in that one, too!” He turned back to Alvaro’s arm. “What a hottie. And that character he played…” He paused, furrowing his brow. “Well, I actually don’t remember much about him. Some big, ancient guy? Who was pretty precious?”
“Thor,” Sofia pointed out helpfully.
“Right. That guy.” The tattoo artist narrowed his focus and began pushing his needle-brush along the remaining outline. So Sofia turned back to Alvaro and tried a different tack.
“What about you, Alvaro? Movie you miss the most?”
Alvaro grinned, glancing at his arm. “Wall-E.”
Sofia straightened as nostalgia struck her squarely over the heart. “Oh yeah! That’s a great one.”
“Yeah… I was pretty… persistent about it.” Alvaro’s grin took on a bit of a bashful tinge. “It got to the point where, when it was my turn to pick a movie for movie night, everyone answered for me the moment I opened my mouth.” He chuckled. “It was quite the shock when, a few months later, as Father McKinley started heading for the movie shelf without even waiting for me to say my choice, I asked him to get out Princess Bride instead.”
Princess Bride? Gods, that was another one that made her ache for electricity, a TV, and a Blu-Ray player.
Sofia mirrored his grin. “Okay, we need another topic. You keep getting me to rethink my choice.”
“Your turn,” Alvaro pointed out.
“Right.” It was her turn wasn’t it? The ceiling didn’t really offer any initial inspiration. She blew a strand of hair out of her face. What about staying on the “miss the most” track? TV shows. Video games. Books. No, it was time to branch out. Favorite subject in school? Not a good one—Sofia’d had private tutors, and she’d liked every subject anyway.
The tattoo artist pulled away and rubbed his eyes blearily on the back of his arm. Then he glanced past Sofia’s shoulder. “Well! Being as it’s almost dawn, I’m going to have to call it about done for now.” He examined Alvaro’s arm, lifting and turning it this way and that for a final inspection.
It was as if a hammer had struck Sofia square on the sternum. The chair nearly toppled as she realized that she’d jumped up, but she caught it in time and carefully righted it.
“Sorry! I… um…”
She paused, caught. What was she supposed to say? How could she explain this without being super evasive about it, or without prompting more questions?
She really wished Moe was here. Moe would know what to say.
Oh, shit, Moe!
“Ihavetogo!” Sofia squeaked.
She had to go back to Dis. Did she even remember the way? Quickly, the landmark images flashed through her head. The bakery on the corner. The rusted hippy bus. The “SKEAM” graffiti, done in a warm-colored gradient and big block letters. Okay, yeah, she knew the way. And Moe was okay, as her brand had been cool and quiet throughout the evening. In fact, if Moe had ever gotten into trouble, Sofia wouldn’t have been able to ignore it.
Of course, that presented an entirely different problem: Sofia was comfortable leaving Moe alone because she could’ve instantly gotten to her if she’d ever once been in even the slightest amount of danger. But without any kind of threat, Sofia couldn’t get to her, couldn’t even locate her.
Now how the heck was she supposed to find Moe? Go to Dis and ask? Yell her name? Wade throughout the dance floor and look?
What was Sofia even thinking, splitting the party like that? You never split the party! And even if you had to, you at least came up with a plan to meet up with them again. This went way beyond doofushood. Was she bit by one of Hera’s leftover gadflies or something—the one that somehow transmits the terminal stupids? At what point throughout the night had that seemed like a good idea anyway?
“Sofia! Hold on!”
Another hammer struck. Sofia found herself practically skidding to a halt and turning about-face.
Alvaro’s feet tapped quickly and smoothly down the steps to the landing. He looked up at her as he drew closer, concern written in the knot of his brow, which dipped below the graceful swoop of his hair, and the set of his lips.
“How can I help?” he asked quickly.
“I… uh…” Think, Sofia, think! Alvaro passed her, tapping her lightly on the shoulder, indicating that she should continue running. She picked up the pace beside him. Okay, first goal. “Moe.” She paused. “I need to find Moe.”
“Dis?” Alvaro asked.
“If Dis isn’t closed before we get there I’ll search the floor, you search the loft. Okay? There won’t be many people there at this time, should be quick.”
Dis might be closed? Maybe Moe would be waiting for her out front! That would make things a lot easier. In any case, it didn’t look like it was going to be as hard as Sofia thought. Maybe this would work out okay after all.
Again she nodded.
Left a couple paces after the “SKEAM” graffiti. Another left at the end of the block from the hippy bus. And a right around the bakery’s corner. A few massive buildings towering over her later and there was Dis again. The smoke wasn’t pouring out from behind the sign now, but the fire had not yet been put out.
A winged shadow, concealed by the dark before dawn, swooped down quickly behind the sign. Tlanextli! He was so good and thoughtful, being ready for her like that! Sofia would have to reward him with lots of apples once they got back. Another weight, lifted from her shoulders.
A passing silver streak caught Sofia’s eye, swooping over the early morning sky too quickly for her to track. A shooting star, maybe? Wait, no, that looked like Qui—
Someone collided with Sofia.
Her feet stopped running, her hands flung out, and she stooped, catching this person just before they hit the ground.
Moe blinked blearily up at her, slowly processing her surroundings.
“Moe!” Sofia squeaked. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, yeah.” As Sofia righted her, she sniggered, stumbling around a little as she caught her balance. “Wow. See, I always ‘sthought your boobs’d give someone a concussion one-a these days.”
It was Sofia’s turn to blink as she tried to process.
Moe flipped her hand at her, shaking her head. “Oh, don’ worry, Sofie, I ain’ concussed.” She grinned. “An’, I gotta say, it’s notta bad way to get knocked out.”
Right. Moe was drunk. Okay. Sofia could deal with this.
Moe’s eyes swung to fix on something just over Sofia’s shoulder. A mischievous grin broke out on her face. “Inn’at right, Alvaro?” she asked.
A rock dropped in the pit of Sofia’s stomach, splashing heat up suddenly into her face. “Moe!”
“Awww, Sofie, you’re so blushy! You never get blushy! It’s cute!”
Okay, maybe Sofia couldn’t deal so well with this.
“Ah, good, you found her,” Alvaro said, pulling up beside Sofia. “Anything else I can do?” He paused, holding out a hand palm up. “Walk you two home, maybe?”
Moe swung her finger around a little before settling it to point at Alvaro. “You, sir, are adorable!” She crinkled up her nose and started forward. Sofia quickly grabbed her shoulder to prevent her from pinching Alvaro’s face.
Alvaro obligingly drew back a little, out of Moe’s reach, then offered Sofia a smile. “Or I could… sober her up for you.”
Moe barked a little laugh. “You could try!”
Sofia tried to offer a laugh herself. She sounded like a… well, she needed more words for doofus. She cleared her throat in an attempt to undo that laugh. “No, it’s… it’s all right. We’re… we’ve got a ride waiting for us.” She paused. That was nice of him to offer. “But thank you, though!”
“Of course.” A small silence fell as Alvaro searched Sofia a little with his eyes. Then he continued, “Oh, ah… when should I set my next appointment?” He offered her a little half-smile. “I mean, I’m still in the paper tiger jungle after all, right?” He nodded briefly at Moe.
Moe laughed again, doubling over a little and stepping back and forth to keep herself upright. Wow, she was really drunk. “Sofie, can we keep ’im?”
Okay. Ignoring Moe time.
Paper tiger jungle? Oh, right! The tattoo! Wait, why was he was asking her?
Oh. He wanted her to accompany him again, as a “guide through the umbral fog.” Duh. Gods, Sofia was in rare form tonight. Was there a platonic ideal of dopiness there, and was she coming close? It sure felt like it.
Wait. He wanted her to accompany him again.
“Oh, um… I…” A smile broke across her face, so quickly and so unexpectedly that she had to rub the back of her neck to ease off it a little.
“One month,” Moe filled in.
Sofia glanced at her. That sounded good. She turned back to Alvaro and then nodded. “One month.”
Alvaro’s own smile grew.
“One month,” he confirmed.
“It’s a date!” chirped Moe. “Okay now, c’mon Sofie, ‘fore our pumkin ‘comes a glass carriage.” Moe took her by the hand and began to drag her away.
Alvaro’s smile eased a little and he offered a brief nod. “Get home safe, you two.”
One month. That wasn’t so far away! Well, it kinda was, but there was plenty that Sofia could do to occupy herself in the homestead—go on patrols, help Dovile hunt, help Moe cook, read The Lord of the Rings to the boys, maybe learn some more Lithuanian. Sure, she’d just agreed to sneak out again… but maybe it didn’t have to be sneaking, not for long, anyway! If everything was alright on their way home and at home, then maybe they could start talking about trade or something. Of course, the more responsible thing to do would be bring it up right away…
Sofia could tell Carmen. Carmen was gonna find out anyway. And she’d be able to offer some advice as to who else to tell.
Moe paused, let go of Sofia’s hand, and turned to face her. They were in the alley behind Dis, where’d they’d departed in the first place.
“B’fore we go anywhere, Sofie, I jus’ wanna say…” Moe reached out with a hand, tried to set it down on Sofia’s shoulder, missed, and tried again, concentration written on her brow. Before she could miss a second time she gave up and stumbled forward to wrap her in a tight hug. “Bes’ birthday party a girl can ask for. Totally, hunn’rd percent worth the deep shit we’re prolly gonna get into. Thanks.”
Sofia hesitated. That’s right, today was her birthday. There’d been so much going on that it’d been pushed to the back of Sofia’s mind. She should’ve spent more time with her, instead of running off with Alvaro first chance she got. “But I didn’t spend any time with you. I didn’t even dance once with you.”
“Pffft.” Moe gave Sofia a tighter squeeze. “We spend time together at home. I wouldn’a gotten here without you. ‘Sides, you can make it up to me inna month. Now you gonna hug me back or what? ’Sgettin’ kinna awkward here.”
Sofia obliged, a smile pushing at one edge of her mouth. After a couple of moments, Moe gave her a pat and drew away.
“Now gimme a boost.”
Once more, Sofia obliged, setting a knee on the ground and placing her palm out. Moe placed her foot on it, her balance unsteady.
Wait a minute…
“Moe, where are your shoes?”
Moe paused, one of her hands pressing against the wall. “Shoes? I’m…” She hesitated, looking down. “Oh. ’mnot wearin’ ‘em. Whoops! Fancy that!” After laughing for a little bit, her laughter died suddenly and her expression grew grave. She tossed a drunkenly over-dramatic look over her shoulder at Sofia. “‘Mwearin’ pants, though, right?”
Sofia rolled her eyes and stifled her smile. “Yes, Moe, you’re wearing pants.”
A slow answering smile spread on Moe’s face. “Oh, good. That would be ‘mbarrassing.” She paused for effect, a poorly-contained grin leaking around the edges of her expression. “Get it? ‘Em-bare-ass-ing’?” The laughter burst from her. She leaned on the wall for support. “Oh, ’mfeckin’ brilliant!”
Despite herself, Sofia sniggered. She quickly schooled herself back to normal.
Moe’s smile became a grin. “You can’t hide that smile, Sofie.” She pulled her grin back into a smug smirk and narrowed eyes. “You’re jus’as immature’s me, admit it.”
Well, okay. That one was awful. ‘Em-bare-ass-ing.’ Again Sofia found a grin breaking across her face. “You are pretty brilliant, Moe. And pretty drunk.”
“D’aaw, you’re so suhweet.” She paused, reaching back to clumsily pat Sofia in the general head vicinity. “Now, ’m I gonna stand here all day ’r are we gonna get our—thankfully clothed—asses home?”