Twenty-Four

Julian stared at his reflection, surprised once more by how mature he looked with his head shaved. Everything seemed sharper about him somehow, from his cheekbones to his pointed smile—even his nose, weirdly enough—as if he were an image which had suddenly resolved in a photograph. The light from the bathroom glinted off the silver ring in his septum and he turned his face to take in the sharp planes of his cheekbones, so sharp they could cut. He looked almost dangerous like this, more like a shark than a person, but he knew the danger was within him. It comforted him oddly to think he matched on the outside what was inside. He didn’t look fragile or breakable like this—and he wasn’t sure why that was.

He ran a hand—fingernails painted a glossy black—over his head again, reveling in the novel feel of touching his scalp without the more familiar sensation of hair between his fingers. He felt like a warrior, or maybe a monk.

Today was the day, he thought. The day he checked himself into a hospital, the day he began his treatment. The day he would start to fight for his life in earnest. It was a thrilling feeling, tempered only by the feeling that he was leaving something important behind, something he was leaving undone. He didn’t know what that was, either.

Before that, though, he had a date with destiny. Teddy had promised to take him to the tattoo shop before dropping him off at the hospital and while there, Julian was going to find out all he could.

Problem was, he didn’t exactly know how to begin the conversation. One did not simply walk into a place of business and start asking, “So, how do you know my friend here and who is that creepy guy in the picture I’m not supposed to know exists?”

But he would have to think of that when he got there; now, he needed to get ready. He stuffed a few more things in his bag beside the bathroom sink, then zipped it up. He was wearing an off-the-shoulder striped shirt and a pair of expensive acid-wash jeans. A white beanie sat beside the sink as well, and he pulled that on top of his head, moving it around until it sat comfortably. As armor went, it was a strange choice, he knew. But it was him, and he liked the overstated simplicity—and the way it showed off some of his favorite tattoos, like the one along his collarbone.

Someone knocked on his door and Julian picked up the mask he had to wear if he was going out, putting that on his face too. “Coming,” he called, slinging the bag on his shoulder.

To his surprise, it wasn’t Teddy on the other side of the door, but Grey—she looked positively glowing, which was odd considering the day’s itinerary, but it was nice to see her happy nevertheless. “Teddy wanted to give you something,” she said, taking his hand and pulling him to the center of the living room. Before he could even get a protest out, she had pulled his bag off his shoulder and set it on the couch, pushing him down beside it.

Julian laughed, pulling his mask down. “What is wrong with you?”

She shrugged, grinning at him. “Nothing,” she chirped in a way that very much seemed to say ‘something,’ which only intrigued him more.

Teddy stepped out of his room, then, holding something gingerly in his hand. Julian nearly did a double take when he saw it—it was the crystal he’d seen in Teddy’s hollowed out book the other day, but he was holding it with a cloth, which seemed odd to him. “What’s that?” he asked.

Teddy didn’t answer right away, carrying it over to him and then taking a seat in the couch next to him, holding the crystal out to him. “Go ahead, take it.”

Julian glanced at Grey, who only nodded. Shaking his head at the eccentricities of his friends, Julian reached for the crystal then stopped. “Should I hold it with a cloth too?” he asked. He suddenly felt very guilty about the way he’d handled it before—carelessly, as if it were just another mystery in the growing list of mysteries that involved the secret life of his best friend. Teddy held it like something sacred and magical—two things he wouldn’t have pegged as being interesting to Teddy at all just a few weeks ago.

“Nah, I have a slight…erm…allergy to the chain. You should be fine.”

Julian already knew he would be, but he nodded as if this were new information and accepted the gift. “What is it?” he asked again.

“It’s amethyst,” Grey said. “I know you don’t believe in that new-agey healer stuff, but amethyst is supposed to be very healing as far as crystals go. A lot of people say that wearing it, or hanging it by their beds at night, helped them fight their illnesses.”

“You’re right, I don’t believe in magical healing crystals,” Julian said. “But it certainly can’t hurt to try. Thank you.”

He slipped the chain over his head, tucking it into his shirt so that the crystal settled down over his heart. Julian pressed his hand to it, as if holding it closer might jumpstart this whole healing process, then dropped his hands to take one of each of his best friends’ hands into his. “We’ll make it through this,” he said, squeezing them both. They exchanged quiet, meaningful smiles before Julian released them and stood, pulling his mask back up over his mouth and nose. “Shall we?”

“Let’s,” Teddy agreed, helping Grey to her feet. She still moved a little stiffly, as if breathing or moving too quick was uncomfortable, but she seemed much better today than she had yesterday. They all exited the apartment and piled into Teddy’s car, Grey accepting her place in the backseat but taking up the middle so that she could easily lean forward and fiddle with the radio controls.

The tattoo parlor wasn’t too far, still being on the western part of town, but Teddy took his time. Julian couldn’t tell if he was just being extra cautious today, or if it had more to do with his reluctance to take Julian to meet the man in the photograph. Whatever the case, Julian wasn’t going to dwell on it. He found himself fiddling with his new necklace, trying to formulate ways he could get the information he needed without revealing that he’d been in Teddy’s room without permission.

It felt strange, being the one keeping a secret for a change.

They pulled up and Julian stepped out of the car, looking at the place he’d seen in the photograph just days before. It was a typical old building that had been repurposed for modern use—probably it had been a railroad refueling station or quick stop once upon a time due to its proximity to the old train tracks—but it wasn’t grand or over the top. It had a charming quality to it, with a hand painted side out front advertising their services.

Julian glanced at Teddy again, half expecting him to try to convince him one last time to turn around, but he didn’t, simply throwing an arm around Julian’s shoulders and escorting him to the door. He did seem nervous, but the kind of nervous that came with being resigned to something, like a dentist appointment; an unavoidable inconvenience.

The shop wasn’t especially busy. It was pretty early and most people tended to wait until later in the day to get tattoos—oftentimes they tried it only when they were already several beers in the wind. There was one person loafing about at the front desk, poring over a magazine. Behind her, Julian saw the bearded guy from the photos. He was sweeping his floor and humming some song, his deep bass voice rumbling through the otherwise quiet shop. “Hello, bass daddy,” Julian whispered under his breath. Teddy swallowed his laugh and the bearded guy looked up immediately, as if he heard. Julian felt his cheeks flush—there was no way he heard that…he was wearing a mask and everything. Right?

“Nice,” Grey laughed, poking Julian in the side.

The man—Ulfric if Julian remembered the name from the photograph—smiled. “Good to see you, Teddy, Grey. And you brought a friend!” he said. The familiarity was surprising, not because he was familiar—he already knew that he was friends with Teddy from the photograph—but because he made no effort to hide it at all. Maybe their relationship and whatever they did wasn’t really as much of a mystery as Julian thought; maybe he’d gotten this all wrong and it had been a coincidence. But he needed to know who that golden-eyed guy was. He didn’t know why he mattered, but he did. “Can I help you with something?”

“Um…yeah,” Julian said, shifting uncomfortably and looking at Teddy. “I’m here for a consultation? I can’t get a tattoo right now because…”

“Reasons?” Ulfric guessed, pointing at the mask. “That’s fine. Just come over and have a seat.”

Julian made his way over to one of the chairs. The mirrors were all covered in photographs piled on photographs, from regulars or from friends, and his dark eyes immediately started raking over them to see if he could find one of the golden-eyed man.

“What are you looking for?” Ulfric asked.

Julian looked away quickly, as if he’d been caught sticking his hand in the cookie jar. “Sorry?”

“For your tattoo,” Ulfric continued patiently.

For the second time, Julian blushed in embarrassment. Of course he meant the tattoo. “I was thinking of getting it on my forearm. Something meaningful.”

“Yeah?” Ulfric sat across from him and grabbed a sketchbook. “What has meaning for you?”

“A lot of things, I guess? But right now…” he glanced at Teddy and Grey, who were perched in a chair nearby, watching the proceedings. “I’m sick. And I guess I want something that’s symbolic of…healing. Of fighting back.”

His hand moved to his necklace again. He pulled it out. “Maybe this?” He tugged it up over his head and handed it across to Ulfric, who took it without a second thought.

Teddy and Grey both made an odd sound of protest, but it was too late. He took the necklace by the chain…and promptly cried out as it touched his skin.

 

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