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Perfection's Birthday
Series: Reverend Alpert
Word Count: 3000
Summary: It was one year ago that Perfection met Alpert, and she wants something very special...
Notes: This story was prompted by Megan and rolodexaspirin, and sponsored by the Patreon crowd! Extra thanks go to Megan, who kindly let me play with her character Puck for a little while. (You can read Puck's first appearance here, and see pictures of her here and here.) Also, instead of an illustration, I gave this story the word-count it deserved.  Happy birthday, Perfection!  Further notes at bottom.


The letter burst into life outside the window, stuck to the Ace of Wands.

Alpert sighed. “Dorothy Ives. What could she want now...”

“Mine! It's mine!” Perfection cried, crawling over the back of her chair and taking a flying leap to the window so as to snatch the letter before Alpert could move to look at it.

“Yours?”

Perfection was already shoving him out the door, letter clutched in her teeth. “Yup! Mine! Get out, go find a job or something!”

And Alpert found himself unceremoniously ejected from his own inn room, perplexed and a little indignant.Part of him was tempted to pound on the door until she let him in again, but Perfection was an adult entitled to her privacy, and anyway, he didn't want to give her the satisfaction. So after smoothing his clothes and putting on his hat (she'd thrown it out the door after him), he went to explore the city.

Oddly, although his compass work had led him here, no job seemed forthcoming. The city was bustling and happy, with aerial gardens occupying the upper stories of the old pre-Plague buildings, which were connected by elaborate systems of bridges, pulleys, and ladders, plus the stray clothesline. The people seemed content and healthy, their crops green and robust. The old skyscrapers had been meticulously maintained, altered, and rebuilt over the years, and laughing children leapt and glided between them like flying squirrels, the wind rippling their billowing outfits. A nice place, but not one that seemed in need of an exorcist.

Pausing at a bench near a hanging garden, Alpert pulled his chalk from his belt and drew three concentric circles on the back of his glove, then divided them in eight.

The compass burst into life, but only for a moment. The center bloomed for a little longer, then faded as well. No doubt about it; he was supposed to be here.

But to do what?

Suddenly, the compass blazed into life again—the innermost left section, which suddenly shifted downward. Alpert looked up and saw a stocky, brown-skinned woman with red hair bustling by with a bag of produce and a baguette. As she passed, the compass's light followed her, and so did Alpert's eyes.

She didn't seem to be in any particular distress or danger; in fact, her stance spoke of health and confidence. Her arms were beautifully tattooed, in a way that seemed almost familiar…

Then she turned and looked at him, and he saw the silver circle hanging around her neck.

“Hail, Gestaltist,” Alpert said, tipping his hat.

“Hail,” she said, shifting her bag to her hip. She took in his traveling blacks, his collar, and looked guarded. “You're not from the High Church, are you?”

“Goodness no, exorcist.”

Her eyebrows went up, but she relaxed. “That so? What’re you doing all the way out here?”

“I have no idea,” Alpert said ruefully. “Perhaps you could tell me.”

“Huh.” She joined him on the bench and tore off a chunk of the baguette for him; Alpert gratefully took it while she observed his glove. “Chalk, huh? Can't remember the last time I saw that.”

“It's been out of vogue a while,” Alpert agreed. “What’s your line?”

She flourished her tattooed arm. “Ink.”

The woman's name was Puck, it turned out, and for the next hour, she and Alpert happily talked shop. As expected, she was responsible for the tattooed populace, inking wards, wellness charms, fertility symbols, and luck sigils. Between her work on individuals and the priest's work on the city as a whole, the place had prospered and she made a good living. But though the compass pointed to her, she didn’t need any of Alpert’s services.

“Not unless you got a cure for existential ennui,” she said, chewing a mouthful of bread. “Don't get me wrong, I love my work, everything’s great, but I haven't had the chance to do anything real challenging in ages. Don't suppose you want anything done? Maybe you need my services, not the other way around.”

Alpert thought of the old scars over his heart, on the backs of his hands, and looked away. “No. No, I have no need for tattoos.”

“Ah well, if you ever change your mind, come on by.” She gave him the address to her shop, dusted the crumbs off her lap, then stood up. “Speaking of which, I ought to be getting back. Nice talking to you.”

“Likewise.” Alpert tipped his hat to her, and then got up to return to the inn. Surely Perfection was done now, and he was deeply curious as to why she was getting letters from the Most Revered Dorothy Ives.

When he returned, he found Perfection sitting on the bed, tail wrapped around her knees, lost in thought.

“The letter was good news, I hope?” Alpert ventured, trying not to sound too curious.

“Hmm. Maybe.” She raised her head, and he was surprised to see a look of earnest anxiety in her eyes. “Alpert, do you remember when we first met?”

Alpert pretended to take great interest in pulling up a chair, to borrow some time. After he sat down, he said, “Yes, I remember. The orgy in Nuevo Angelo. I exorcised you before you took material form.”

“And the second time? The third?”

“A drunken brawl in Guadalupe. Then the feasting in Hayward. You were almost solid then.”

“And the fourth?”

Alpert bowed his head. “Yes. I remember the fourth.”

“You fucked me.”

“Yes.”

“You welted my back with chalk. Bound me and made me repent and practically fisted me.”

“Yes.”

“And you loved every second of it.”

“I did.” There was no point in denying it.

Perfection stared hard at him. He didn't look away.

“Things have changed a lot since then. I've felt pain, fear, and grief. I've hated you and left you and run my own cases and been something even when you weren't there. I've tried to become a person.”

“You have. And I'm honored to have been able to watch you grow.”

She blinked quickly. Her eyes were full of emotions she hadn't been capable of, not long ago.

“Do you know what next week is?”

“Of course,” he said. “It's your birthday.”

Her eyes teared up. Alpert reached over, and when she didn't pull back, he brushed the tears away with a gloved thumb.

“Did you think I'd forgotten?” he asked gently.

She took a deep breath, nuzzled into his hand briefly, then pulled back and straightened up.

“I want something for my birthday, and I asked Dorothy Ives's help to do it.” Her hands fisted on her thighs. “You have an edge on me, Alpert. Always have. You can exorcise me at any time and keep right on living without me, while if I tear you apart, I'll die with you. I'm sick of you having that power over me. I want you to do a work on me that'd protect me from being exorcised—by you or anyone else.”

“Ah,” Alpert said. “So that’s what the compass meant.”



Puck's shop was bright and clean, filled with art and clean copper, bone, and wood. There was a padded table and two chairs. Perfection sat on the table, tail swishing with nervous energy; Alpert and Puck sat in chairs, brows furrowed in thought.

“Wow, a heavy ward that'll protect you without hurting you,” Puck said. “That's a tricky one.”

“Alpert can't protect me from his own works, he says,” Perfection said, “but you could. And since I’m never going to see you again, you’re a good candidate. I want it on my birthday.”

“The timing won’t be a problem, it’s the making of it,” Puck explained. “My wards are meant to protect against monsters—no offense. Reversing it to protect one from humans, that’s a trick. And doing it without your body rejecting it… how’s your healing?”

“It’s hard to hurt me, and I heal real fast.”

Puck winced. “Yeah, your kind usually does. Not a good thing, here.” She turned to Alpert. “Any works of yours that haven’t set her off?”

“Only my low broad ones—the kind I use for vegetables.”

“Yeah, no, that won’t cut it against our fellow exorcists.” She thought for a second, then stood up. “I’ll consult you if I need to. Right now, let me talk to my client in private.”

Alpert found himself once more ushered out. He tried not to feel superfluous.

...

The next few days passed with Perfection and Puck spending all day in the tattoo shop, pondering a design and performing experiments. Or at least, that’s what Alpert assumed; he was neither invited nor consulted, and when Perfection came home at night, she gave no details. He could only guess how it was going by her mood. While she worked, Alpert wandered around and tried his best to enjoy the unusual experience of being a tourist in a beautiful, happy city where nobody wanted him dead.

As the week wore on, Puck started chasing him down at random moments, asking questions that Perfection herself couldn’t answer—mostly because they involved details of human health still alien to her.

“Has she ever been poisoned?”

“What about food? Anything ever made her sick?”

“Have you been sick around her? Contagious? Did she catch that? How sick were you?”

“How about infection, huh? She ever gotten an infected wound?”

Alpert would answer as best he could, and she’d frown, nod thoughtfully, and rush off again.

One day, she tracked him down at the aerial pond, where he was attempting to feed some ducks. (They didn’t seem interested in him.) With a look of determination, she held out a few vials and a knife.

“I need a blood sample.”

Alpert gave it. She then handed him the vials.

“Fill these up with your fluids.”

Alpert’s eyebrows went up. “Which ones?”

“Frankly, I don’t care, long as you do it. If you could separate them out per vial and label them, that’d be convenient.”

Alpert took the vials back to the inn and tried the best he could.

...

The morning of Perfection’s birthday, just as Alpert had successfully befriended the ducks, Puck and Perfection sought him out.

“I think we’re ready,” Perfection said, “but I want you to look over the work, see if it looks right to you. We’ve been staring at it too long.”

To the shop they went, and Alpert sat down in one of the chairs to survey the paper holding the work the two women had designed.

“Spirals here for trapping and concentration, octagonal for balance, power, and longevity,” Perfection said, pointing with a claw. “Like in the book you gave me and the theory lessons. Connects to the wards here.”

“Figured you might have a hard time finding refreshers,” Puck said. “So we designed it to absorb and use for fuel any exorcist attack she takes—well, Gestaltist anyway, not sure how well it’d work against a Catholic--”

“Oh, but here’s the really cool part,” Perfection said, “we’ve been testing inks and binders on me all week. Puck figured out that since I came from you, an ink made from you-juice might help prevent the rejection! And it seems to be working!”

“Not like we need to worry about infection,” Puck said, “we’ve been testing that all week too. I’ll give you a list of the results, might prove helpful down the line. As long as she doesn’t get the work hacked or burned off, it should work. My stuff’s meant to last for ages. You might need a few tune-ups now and again, especially as the ink fades, but not nearly as much as normal.”

Alpert held up the paper at arm’s length, looked from it to Perfection. “This is a work of art,” he said. “I’m impressed and have no corrections to suggest.”

Puck smiled with pride and confidence. Perfection beamed and punched the air.

Alpert lay the design against the floor. “May I?”

Puck grinned. “You don’t think I made the design live for nothing, do you?” She tapped the paper, and the ink burst into life.

Alpert spent the next hour pitting his chalk against Puck’s ink. Starting with a simple cleansing circle, then increasingly powerful binding stars, until he was sweating and out of breath.

The diagram remained glowing and strong.

“All right, that’s enough,” Alpert gasped, collapsing into the chair. “I’m starting to overheat. Good! Very good. I couldn’t do better myself.”

Puck and Perfection gave each other high-fives.

“All right,” Puck said, shaking out her hands. “Let’s get started.”

Perfection practically danced in place. “Yes! Happy birthday to me!”

...

“Fuck birthdays,” Perfection growled a couple hours later.

“You’re doing very well,” Alpert said, and when he brushed her sweaty crest from her eyes, she didn’t protest.

Despite all of Puck’s inspirations, nothing could change that Perfection was a monster and Puck’s work intended to defeat her. Worse, Perfection’s tough skin slowed the process to an agonizing crawl. Making the ink and binder from Alpert helped, but the tattoo still fought its host, causing Perfection’s skin to split, blister, and peel. Even for a demon, it hurt.

“The pain will fade,” Alpert promised. “Soon it’ll be part of you and you’ll forget it ever hurt.”

“Shut up and give me something to bite,” she snarled.

Alpert went out and bought her some bullets—a wise decision as she promptly set to chewing her way through them.

Puck knew a few tattooing methods, but the only one quicker than Perfection’s healing involved repeated stabbing with a brush of needles. The technique got the ink in before Perfection’s skin could heal up around it, but darker shades required Puck go over the lines over and over again. Between that and the hardness of Perfection’s skin, the art became manual labor. Puck had to keep pausing to slug back water and shake out her strong arms and hands. She enlisted Alpert to wipe the sweat from her brow so she could keep her vision clear and hands steady.

“Wishing I was less ink and more blood right now,” she panted. “Then I could just cut this into you...”

Perfection just set her teeth on the latest bullet and said, “the lines have to be clean for it to work. Do what you have to.”

Between the size and strong black lines of the work, Perfection’s tattoo ended up taking all day, but finally, at long last, Puck put down her brush, stretched her shoulders, and said, “Happy birthday.”

Perfection just lay on the table, expression bleak. “Is it over?”

Though he didn’t say so, Alpert was dubious. Perfection’s breasts and buttocks were a mass of blisters, burns, serum, and ink.

“We won’t know for sure till you heal up,” Puck said, stripping off her gloves and stretching, “but I am damn good at what I do. Your odds are good. You’re tough.”

Perfection hardly seemed to care. “Good. That’s good.” She hissed as Puck began rubbing ointment over her skin.

“This is to help it heal,” Puck said. “No bandages, no soaking it in water until it’s healed. Gentle washing is fine. It’ll itch like hell, but do not scratch. Slap it instead. Okay?”

“Okay,” Perfection said. “Can I go home now?”

Alpert helped her back to the inn and onto the bed, where she lay in an awkward twisted position to avoid putting any pressure on any of the work. She didn’t move even as he carefully washed the sweat from her skin.

“Why is some pain so much more painful than others?” she lamented.

“You did very well,” Alpert said. “You’ll feel better after you rest.”

“Worst birthday ever, Reverend.”

He scratched lightly around her horns, and her tail gave a half-hearted wave. “You know, when people have birthdays, we often have cake.”

She shut her eyes and groaned. “Tell me you didn’t buy me a cake.”

“I baked you one.”

“I hate you sometimes, Reverend.”

“I glazed it with honey.”

“Honey’s expensive.”

“It’s a special day. Oh, and I got you a fish. Raw and fresh, with lemon juice, just how you like it.”

She sighed, opened one eye. “What kind?”

“Tuna.”

“Extortionist.” But she began to sit up, carefully.

Alpert went and fetched the honey yellow cake, and the fish. He set them on the tray table in front of her, and then brought out a candle, which he pressed into the cake and lit.

“What’s that for?” Perfection asked.

“In a moment, you’ll blow it out and make a wish.”

“What kind of wish?” she sulked.

“Any wish. It’s a secret. And there’s one other tradition you should know about,” he said, and when she raised her eyebrow, “we sing.”

“Oh no, no Reverend, no...”

But it was too late.

...

After her fish, some salad, and two slices of cake, Perfection perked up.

“Maybe this birthday wasn’t so awful,” she conceded. “The tattoo’s hurting a bit less.”

“I’m glad. It’s looking better.” The blisters were fading and the swelling was going down.

She was silent a moment. “You know, Alpert, there is one more thing I wanted for my birthday.”

“Oh?”

“Well,” and she smiled, a spark of demonic wickedness came back into her eye, “you know what would help me heal faster?”

He looked at her on the bed, bedraggled and exhausted and sore. Beautiful.

“After everything?” he asked.

“Oh,” she said, tracing a claw around his ear and down his jaw, “you don’t get what you want today. This is about me. My birthday, my healing, me. This doesn’t make everything peachy keen between us; this is a birthday present to me. Understand?”

He nodded. She fisted claws in his hair and pulled him to her to kiss him. When she let go, she grinned, fangs sharp and white, and he felt her demonic power. Lust and rage, power and strength. A force of nature.

“Didn’t I tell you I’d repent and mend my wicked ways?” she purred.

Alpert caught his breath. “I’ve never been so proud to be wrong.”

“You’re wrong about a lot of things,” she said, easing herself up onto her side with a wince. “Now sit there and look pretty. I have plans for you.”



The next day, her skin was whole and clean, marked in clean black ink. And they were happy.

Notes: The tattooing method Puck uses for Perfection is called 'irezumi.' There are lots of different ways to tattoo a person, using needles, thread, brushes, or cutting, but since Puck doesn't have access to a good electrical needle, 'irezumi' is the best version for Perfection.
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