Title: history is what you've travelled on and take with you
Rating/Warnings: R (for disturbing themes, slavery, nudity, an f-word)
Length: 2,625 words
Summary: There’s a woman with a red hourglass on her cheek who visits Clint’s tattoo studio as she reclaims her skin and herself. A dystopian future type AU.
Author Note: Originally posted here for be_compromised's 2013 Promptathon.
There’s a red hourglass on her left cheek, crudely done: just two triangles, one pointing down and the other up and the pair of them meeting in the middle. She points to it with one hand, slams a freedom receipt and fifty credits down on top of his drafting table with the other, and tells him, “I want it outlined in black.”
There are laws against altering ownership marks, which are only ever in one colour and always in the same prominent place on a person, and laws against marking anyone with an ownership mark anywhere else without said owner’s permission, and Clint highly doubts that freedom receipt is genuine. Anything the Owned earn automatically belongs to their owners, so they can never buy themselves free, and this woman looks too hard, like life has sharpened her edges, for her to have a wealthy family that might pay.
Two of his designs, already close to the edge before this hurricane woman blew into his studio and disturbed them, slip from the table and flutter to the floor. Appropriately one is of a bird in flight.
“Outlined?” Clint queries.
He waves her over to the other table, the one covered in leather padding, in the centre of the room under the main light. It has other lights around it, freestanding balanced-arm ones that he can move around, and a stool that he can sit on and be at an equal height.
The woman perches on the edge and looks annoyed when her boots don’t touch the floor.
Clint picks up his fallen drawings before he joins her, not dragging it out but taking his time. He lays out his equipment on the table next to her, pushes the stool aside, and adjusts three of the lights until her cheek is illuminated so clearly he can see her pores. The area he’s going to be working on is cleaned with an alcoholic wipe, latex gloves are pulled on, and ink selected.
“Don’t move,” he says quietly, and she doesn’t.
She comes back again a few months later.
It’s early, the morning light streaming through his open door and hitting his drafting table just right. When someone entering casts a shadow he holds up his right hand to say ‘stop’ and carries on drawing with his left without looking up. Inspiration and the light coinciding is something that can’t wait; customers can.
When the design is finished – a tree without leaves, a winter tree, suited to growing up someone’s spine with birds carved into its bark – he looks around to find the woman with the hourglass tattoo sat watching him. Her sleeveless leather vest, buckled boots, and cargo pants with chains look less intimidating than they’re intended to be when paired with the striped orange seating he scavenged from a train at the junkyard. Clint loves his customer seating; it makes everyone look less than however they mean to look, unless they mean to look ridiculous.
“I need a family mark,” she tells him.
Family marks are gang tattoos, usually on the upper arm, not particularly complex but costly to discourage those who haven’t earned them from cashing in on a gang’s reputation.
“I can pay,” she says, “and it’s legit.”
Clint knows that she can. He likes to keep track of what’s going on in his neck of the woods, and it’s amazing sometimes what people will tell him when he has his needles in them. Tattoo artists, bartenders, and holy men: the trinity of confession.
“I hear you’ve been making a name for yourself.”
Rumour has it there’s a new cage fighter called the Black Widow at the matches further down the docks from him – close enough that he gets the drunks who have a sudden urge to be marked, but far enough that if they’ve managed to walk along the waterfront to his studio without falling in the sea then they’re sober enough to make the choice. Rumour has it that she’s never lost. Rumour has it that she’s made a fair amount of money not losing, and joining one of the gangs running the matches would be good for her health.
“I hear you already made a name for yourself, Hawkeye,” she replies as she stands. “They say you’re an artist.”
“I have an eye for it, that’s all.”
She sits cross-legged on his tattoo table this time. Clint snags the stool and sits in front of her, their faces level.
Clint nods and starts adjusting his lights.
“Don’t you need me to describe the design to you, or a copy to look at?” she asks him, her head tilted slightly to one side the only indication of curiosity with her face and tone blank.
“No,” says Clint, “I don’t.”
The third time Clint already has a customer. She acknowledges him with a small upward quirk of her lips and settles in to wait.
The customer is a large man in rich clothing with his large, meaty hand wrapped around a boy’s arm like a manacle. The boy is about fourteen maybe, that or small for his age, has a shaved head, downcast eyes, and a bright new ownership mark on his cheek, a deep blue family crest. The Metcalfe’s if Clint isn’t mistaken, and he rarely is when it comes to images; he has a good eye.
“His whole back,” the customer is saying, “from nape to his cheeks as a manuscript. I want you to mark it out as a music sheet, with staves and clefts – you do know what a music sheet looks like, yes?”
“Good.” He grips the boy’s arm tighter, hard enough to bruise. “I want a blank music sheet, to be filled with notes as and when I choose.”
“Would you like me to sketch out a design for you, Lord Metcalfe?”
The customer glances around at the art already on display on the walls, from the pencil drawings to fully inked images, examples of font types and sizes, alphabets in foreign languages, and photographs of some of Clint’s completed work.
“Just something like that,” he says, indicating an image.
Clint nods again.
Metcalfe addresses the boy then, telling him, “I’m not going to wait for you, but if you’re not here when I return you understand the consequences?”
The whispered, “Yes, sir,” is accompanied by a flinch.
Clint watches the man leave and notices that the Black Widow has also gone.
He doesn’t blame her.
“What would you like it to look like?” he asks the boy in front of him, who just shakes his head mutely, eyes still fixed on the floor.
“You’re never going to be able to see something that’s on your back,” Clint says. “It’s for him, not you. But if we make it look like what you want, every time he sees it, this thing that’s for him, it’ll be something you designed that he’s looking at. You understand?”
Young eyes peer up at him.
“But won’t that get you in trouble?”
“Me he doesn’t own.”
That and Clint doubts Metcalfe will even notice.
“Maybe,” says the boy, “maybe something not all curly lines, yeah? Old-fashioned. More Guns N’ Roses, or Titans. More…”
“Rock and roll?” suggests Clint and the kid grins. “Up on the table, Axl Rose. I’ve got just the thing for you.”
The Black Widow returns at the start of his evening opening hours. Nine in the morning until four and eight in the evening ‘till two, Monday to Saturday, states the sign on Clint’s door. They’re far from the worst hours he’s ever worked and it’s important to be available when his customers are.
Her gaze sweeps around his studio, confirming that there’s no one else here, before challenging, “You’ll mark anyone?”
Clint raises his eyebrows and folds his arms.
“Even people with dubious freedom receipts, yes.”
He understands the mistake that she’s made, thinking that because he’s altered her ownership mark and is familiar enough with the local gangs that he can do their family marks without reference, marks that are called family marks for a reason, that he’s a supporter of Abolition. If owners didn’t come to him though they would go to someone else, likely someone who wouldn’t do things properly when working on an Owned, certainly someone who wouldn’t treat an Owned like they should have a say in how their own skin is marked. And Clint has to eat.
“Was there something you wanted?” he asks.
Her eyes dart across to the Cyrillic alphabet sheet on the wall and back again.
“Black Widow.” She taps her arm underneath her family mark. “In Russian.”
Clint knows what that means. It means that she’s had a promotion. It means that she isn’t a cage fighter for the Water Rats anymore. It means that she’s an Enforcer and an Assassin.
“In black?” he confirms.
He doesn’t ask if she’s sure.
He doesn’t see her again for a long time after that.
It’s winter and years later when she blows back in through his door. The Water Rats are long gone, replaced by the Hatters and then by a union of Shanked Hearts and Cockroaches. He’s inked four lines of music on Metcalfe’s boy’s back. Abolitionists firebombed five tattoo parlours in the city. The Black Widow has blooded knuckles and bruises, her hair is dyed a deeper red and shorter, and the Russian words he so carefully inked under her family mark have been burnt into an unrecognisable black mark. So it goes.
“I want a tattoo,” she tells him.
Clint doesn’t dignify that with a response.
“I mean,” she clarifies, wrapping her arms around herself, “I want a tattoo, but I don’t know what I want a tattoo of.”
“Alright,” says Clint with a sigh. “Up on the table.”
She crosses her legs like she used to, but it doesn’t make her look less vulnerable this time, not with bruising stark under the harsh lighting, not with her head ducked but her hair too short to hide her face or the fact that she’s biting her lip.
“Hand,” he orders softly, and she places hers in his outstretched one.
Clint reaches for an alcoholic wipe and starts cleaning off the blood. She stares at him, confusion in her eyes but she doesn’t ask what he’s doing, and it must sting but she doesn’t take her hand back.
“If you don’t know what you want a tattoo of, do you know what you want it to say?” he asks as he starts on her other hand. “What it should mean?”
“I want one just for me,” she says, watching him work. “You… You never asked about that freedom receipt.”
“No,” says Clint, “I didn’t.”
“Because it doesn’t matter to you, does it?”
He discards the used wipes and sits back on his stool.
“It’s your skin. You’re the one that has to live in it.”
“Yes,” she says. “That.”
She comes back every few days, perching on the edge of his drafting table whilst they discuss design ideas and Clint sketches them out roughly. She brings ThaiBok takeout, that they eat sat facing each other on the seats Clint once stole from a discarded train, and they talk about what’s important enough to her that she wants it forever on her skin. She examines the final coloured version carefully, and they go over corrections and alterations. She watches him work, with his customers’ permission, and starts to hand him inks and needles before he thinks to reach for them.
Clint gets used to her being around. One of his regulars even asks if he’s gone and gotten himself an assistant, and Clint has to smile. The amount of time she spends observing him she probably could ink someone, but Clint would never label her as anyone’s assistant.
“Do you have any tattoos?” she asks him eventually, watching him sterilising needles at the end of a shift.
“There’s an old riddle,” Clint tells her. “It’s about a guy who wants a haircut and there are two hairdressers next to each other that he has to choose between. One’s a mess, all worn down, and he can see through the window that the hairdresser has a god-awful haircut. The other one is really nice, clean and posh, and the hairdresser’s hair looks fantastic. The riddle is which one should he choose?”
“Well,” says the Widow, tapping her fingers on her thigh thoughtfully, “what does the guy look like? Where would he blend in better? What type of haircut does he want?”
“You’re supposed to say the worn down place, because the idea is they each cut the other’s hair.”
“That’s a stupid riddle.” She hands him a tray. “And someone could probably cut their own hair, with practise.”
They start with her stripping to the waist and Clint carefully running a razor over the skin he’s going to work on. Then the alcohol wipes and adjusting the lights. An outline first, then the colouring, and then the detail work. It takes more than one session, the time marked by her steady breathing under his steady hands.
She doesn’t leave, when it’s done and she’s healing, she doesn’t leave. She still hands him inks and needles, still brings takeout, still haunts his studio. A spirit creature with flaming hair creeps into Clint’s latest design; it’s not one he advertises on his walls.
The last customer of the day walks out, Clint flips the sign on the door to ‘closed’, and the Widow dims the lights. This is usually when she heads out, to wherever she’s staying and Clint doesn’t ask. This is usually when he gets some sleep, in his small living space through a door at the back of the studio. He waits for her to walk past him, but she doesn’t.
“I want you to see it,” she tells him.
It’s been long enough for her tattoo to properly heal and he wonders if this is what she’s been waiting for, if this is when she finally walks out for good.
He nods. She sheds her top and her bra, dropping them both on the floor.
The light in the studio now isn’t good enough for inking, but he can clearly see the marks he’s made on her skin. There’s a heart, anatomically correct and directly over hers, and it bleeds. It looks like someone has ripped open that part of her chest, perhaps to reach her heart to fix the damage or perhaps to inflict it. Then there’s the spider. A black widow, with the red hourglass marking it a female of the species clearly visible, crawls out of the wound, her legs gripping the edge. Behind her she leaves webbing that holds everything together, intricate knots and sometimes precarious threads in spider silk.
It’s good work and it sits well on her.
“I want you to see it,” she says again and he knows what she means, that she wants him to see her, and he does.
“I want you to see it, I want you to fuck me, and I want you to know my name.”
Clint raises his eyes to meet hers and swallows, a shiver running down his spine like a dozen needles. He walks forward until he’s standing in front of her, close enough to touch and he does. He follows the curve of her cheek with his thumb, over her hourglass, drops his hand to cover the family mark on her upper arm with his palm, swipes his thumb across the ruined mark underneath it, and then places his hand over the heart that is over her heart, feeling it beat, faster and faster.
“What’s your name?”