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cards on the table (no one's here to sleep)

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She's got the awful habit of chewing her nails.

 

It's not any of his business what she does or why she does it, but he can't shake away the feeling of worry whenever her fingers splay over his chest and he sees the nails bitten down to the meat and the blood dried on the edges.

 

"Bad habit, that," he chances one night; shrugging off his shirt and laying it carefully over the back of the one chair in her apartment.

 

Tess takes another drag of her cigarette, arching one thin brow at him. “You’ve never complained before.”

 

“Didn’t mean the smokes,” he mumbles, scratching at the tuft of hair on his chest somewhat shyly. “You bite your nails. Ain’t good for ya.”

 

She makes something like a laugh in her throat, the low, husky sound that he'll dream about in the loneliest nights. Milky threads of smoke come from her lips; real threads of the pull she has on him. She puts out her cigarette in the blackened bowl.

 

"Not the worst one I've got," she says, reaching for his belt buckle. "Won't be the last one, either."

 

She takes him into her mouth, and Joel forgets to ask about her hands for a little while longer.

 

-------

 

One night, she pushes off of him with shaky legs, his come dribbling in thick rivulets from her cunt, fucked open and sore. Her brows are furrowed tight, but she pushes his searching hands aside and stumbles into the bathroom for a piss.

 

Joel rolls over to see the bare lines of her legs just through the open door. She doesn't shut her bathroom door when she has clients; the last thing she needs to do is turn her back on them with her goods out in the open, he knows, but still.

 

Somehow he likes to think it's because she wants to.

 

The toilet flushes as she staggers back into view, leaning against the doorway wearily. The grimy backlight of the bathroom overhead makes her look like a ghostly apparition, a Lilith in the dark of night that his mother had warned him of when he was younger. The curve of her hip isn't porcelain; the planes of her skin aren't perfect, carved in scars and lines and bruises from where the other men had mauled her body, and Joel looks away in shame.

 

When he leaves that night, he leaves in his place a stack of cards, and a bottle of whiskey to her name.

 

-----

 

He gets into a fight once because of her.

 

A real, bare-fisted brawl. It's no secret to those in his circle, where he goes at night with his weekly wages and half his rations. He can't stand the knowing smirks, the greasy sneers that he sees whenever they ask about 'his girl'. "Ain't none o' ya damn business," he growls, and often it ends there with a loud guffaw and a placating smack on the back.

 

One night, though, it doesn't.

 

It's got to be the moonshine. It's always the moonshine, and it doesn't help that Joel doesn't particularly like Tony from the docks all that much to begin with. So when he starts to run his mouth, it doesn't take much.

 

"Say, Joel, that fine piece of ass of yours was down by the Wharf last week, didja know?"

 

Joel grunts. "Ain’t my business to know." He gives Tony a withering glare from the corner of his eye, takes another hit of moonshine that goes down like turpentine in his throat.

 

"Gotta be your business, man. Don't ya wanna know who's stickin' their dicks in your bitch?"

 

"Mind. Your damn. Business," he warns, teeth grinding down each word. His grip on the bottle tightens despite himself, and Tony's eyes flicker from his hand to his face with a seedy little grin.

 

"Don't ya wanna know if I paid her a visit?"

 

Joel turns his head to Tony dangerously. The rest of the men around the fire have gone deadly still, watching with anticipation at the way Joel's breaths get deeper, and Tony's grin wider.

 

"Fine, fine piece of ass, that one, Joel. I see why you pay so much to fuck 'er. Got the tits of a goddess she does, I just wanna stick my dick between 'em and -"

 

He's holding a broken bottle in his hand before he realizes, and Tony's on the ground howling in a ball. There's blood running warm and slick down his arm, pooling around Tony's head, but he doesn't stop there. It's like a dream, a haze of breaking bones and splitting skin when he breaks Tony's nose and dislocates his jaw.

 

It takes four grown men to haul him back. Four of them, and then another to pin him down.

 

There's a sharp, vile taste on his tongue; acid and moonshine, and a murky red haze over his eyes. He imagines Tess knelt down in front of Tony, sees the twisted look of pain on her face when he fists her hair in one hand and pushes his bare cock between her breasts. He blinks, and sees her kneeling in front of him , mouth curved into that feline smirk and holding her breasts pressed together for him, liquid desire in her eyes as she leans forward and presses a kiss to the head of his straining cock.

 

He tears himself free, doesn't care at all that he's got glass in his hand, or the fact that Tony isn't moving.

 

He heads North, to the sagging, creaking brownstone he knows too well.

 

-----

 

Her nails are clawing deep into his back; marks he'll feel when the sweat burns them into memory.

 

Her breaths come out in sharp, short pants into his ear; sounds he'll remember when the quiet becomes too much.

 

Her body writhes under him, pressed hard into the bed; a feeling he'll remember whenever he's not there, not in her bed, between her legs.

 

It's bits and pieces, he tells himself - things he can't help but know. Pieces of her, just the physical, always just the physical. He remembers her just in the physical way she presses her body into his and begs with her skin, the way her lips press into the pulse of his neck and he feels as if he’s bleeding his soul onto her tongue. The way she pulls back long enough to look at him in the dark, eyes hazy and glittering, and yet somehow - so clear.

 

Her teeth catch on his ear, a sharp hiss with a thrust too deep, and he remembers her in fragments of pain.

 

His hands will bruise her hips by the end of the night, his teeth will mark her anew over the ugly old bruises of greedier mouths. His throat will catch with her name over the sound of her moans, and he will finish inside her with enough strength to leave her shaking from the strain of it.

 

He will leave by the end of the night.

 

He will leave a part of him there with her between the sheets.

 

-----

 

He likes the taste of her before, and after, and even during.

 

It's like a drug to him. A hit of something sharp and citrus and bittersweet on his tongue while he's crowding into her space and grinding her down into the thin mattress. He likes the way he moves her, even against her will -- especially then. The way her thighs shake and clamp down against his ears and then jerk back, as if she isn't sure if she wants less or needs more. Likes the way her body arches off the bed and the sounds come from her lips between breathless curses and whispers of his name.

 

He likes the taste of her off his fingers when he's spreading her open around his cock. Slicked in her wetness and rubbing over her clit until she's squirming away; he always pulls back and pulls out, and she always turns around to watch him take his fingers into his mouth.

 

He even likes the taste of her after he's pushed his load inside her as deep as it can go, likes the way the sharp bitterness of his seed tastes with her wetness, sweet and tangy in his mouth. Likes to taste them together and know, somehow, inside, that they went well together.

 

He likes the taste of her at different times of the month; bittersweet sometimes, heady and sweet, and citrus with a copper tang other times.  He likes the look in her eyes when he asks for it - he asks, always, always asks, never takes -, that quiet, curious little smile at the edges of her lips as if she's amused by him, by his need to have her.

 

He likes the look on her face after, when she's twitching and stretched out on the bed with a purr in her throat. The high flush on her cheekbones and the thoughtful, indulgent look in her eyes when she rolls over and grabs the whiskey.

 

He likes that she lets him touch her.