Sal had seen Liam’s tattoos many times, but before sex, she usually had other things on her mind, and afterward they either dozed off in the dark or one or the other of them left. This particular encounter, starting with apologies and ending up in bed, took place in the afternoon, without other demands on their time. A thread of sunlight snaked over his torso, and Sal got up to open the curtains.
Liam shielded his face and winced. “What are you doing?”
Sal flopped on the bed and propped herself on her elbows to study his ink, lit in delicious detail by the afternoon sun, like smoke signals from someone trapped deep within him.
She traced her finger along his ribs, making him twitch. Wispy smoke trailed up Liam’s flank from a brassy lamp tattooed on his hip. “Why do you have Aladdin’s lamp down here when the rest of you’s covered in . . . Catholic stuff?”
“That’s a thurible. An incense burner.”
Sal frowned, tracing the smoke over his ribs and chest, keeping her finger on him even as he squirmed. “But all your other ink’s religious.”
Liam caught her hand in his and kissed her fingers. “That tickles,” he said, pressing her palm against his chest. She could feel his heart beating. “Hang on. You work at the Vatican, but you don’t know what a thurible is?”
“Have you ever seen me at mass? I’m still very much not Catholic, in case you forgot.” She freed her hand and poked him in the thurible. “So what is it? I’m guessing a genie doesn’t live there.”
“The priest burns incense in the thing, swings it around, and makes the sign of the cross. It’s used in blessings, consecrations, and the like.”
“Oh,” Sal said. “And I guess that’s a rosary?” The beads tattooed on his neck and chest were red and black and grouped in irregular numbers. At the end, a detailed crucifix was inked over his sternum.
“I got that one after a job where it would have been useful to have a rosary along, and I didn’t. Now I’m never without one.”
“Did you get Menchú to bless the tattoo gun or something?” Sal asked, laughing.
Liam looked very serious. “Every time. It’s like holy water, but for ink.” He touched the backs of his hands, first the left and then the right. Tiny crude crosses occupied the knuckles where many tattoo enthusiasts put letters. The back of his left hand sported a more detailed cross, while the right had three spirals bundled together. “Except for these. I got these before joining the Order.”
Sal examined his other tattoos, from the lamb on his left bicep and the lion on his right to the Greek character on his forearm. More and more Christian imagery. “Why so many? You ink your faith all over you, but you don’t seem the devout type day-to-day.” She tweaked his nipple.
Liam sat up, removing her hand from his chest. He examined his own tattoos as if he hadn’t looked at them in a while. “They’re reminders. Protection.”
“You think God will protect you more with seven tattoos than six?”
“Leave it,” Liam said, looking away.
“These are important to me, and you’re laughing at them.”
“I just wondered if the number mattered,” Sal said. “I didn’t realize you took it so seriously.”
“Sure, I cover myself with ink on a dare,” he snapped.
“And then you have dirty premarital sex with a colleague.”
Liam’s eyes narrowed. “Are you calling me a hypocrite?”
“I just don’t understand. The Church isn’t really into this sort of thing,” she waved her hands, encompassing his room in general and their naked, postcoital state in particular. “As far as I know. You have all this holy ink, like you’re armoring yourself, and yet you’re fine fucking me. We’re not married; we’re not even in love. How does that work?”
He looked at her sharply, as if stung. “This is why I don’t discuss my faith with you. You don’t ask—you’ve already made up your mind.”
“Liam, I don’t assume. I don’t care, really. I’m just curious. I want to learn more about you, so—” She faltered.
“So what?” he asked, leaning toward her, challenging her. “So we can start ‘dating’ in between saving the world from demons? So we can fall in love and maybe get to have a tragic moment as one of us dies in the other’s arms? How about we plan a wedding and have it interrupted by the Orb telling us Satan’s about to take a piss on Buckingham Palace?”
“That’s a little over the top—” Sal began, but he didn’t let up.
“When Menchú found me, I was damned,” he said. “I had been corrupted, body and soul. When he saved me, I opened my eyes and saw God’s hand in the world. I pledged myself to do His work.”
Sal pursed her lips. She hadn’t heard him talk like this before, like someone from a fundamentalist documentary. I’ve opened a door I shouldn’t have.
“What you don’t get,” he continued, “is that we aren’t normal people who can afford to have normal lives. We’re always on call, with a duty more important than any friend or lover or spouse. Since we can’t be normal, I let myself peek through the window at real life...