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stick and poke

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His breath ghosting over her ribs is humid and tickles, a little.

They’re sprawled on top of his covers, skin cooling in the early evening. The record he’s put on is too fast, too peppy for quiet moments like this but it’s a better cover for their activities than something that would fit the mood and it’s the cover she cares about. They don’t need it, not really, but they do it for the same reason she still jumps out of his bedroom window in the morning, even as the countdown clock draws closer to Day Zero. Because it feels, unlike so many things in their lives, normal.

His hair is a riot and she just makes it worse with every pass of her fingers, pushing this way and that, tugging when his wandering digits hit a ticklish spot. He’s claimed her torso as his favorite place to rest his head after sex, which she didn’t expect but finds she rather likes. It makes her feel powerful and important in ways she can’t quite fit words to.

In moments like this he is her supplicant and nothing in two universes can touch them. When he goes, he will take that with him, and what will she have then?

His arm around her shoulders, their fingers laced together, his sweater with her jeans or his coat over her shoulders when she’s cold; she’s gotten used to wearing him. Has made it part of her daily armor and without it she feels weaker than she is willing to admit. With weeks still to go she finds herself preparing for full exposure. She needs part of him to keep when he is gone.

Perhaps she murmurs some of that aloud, or sighs it, but his cheek moves against her skin, scratching her with the lightest layer of stubble as he looks up at her.

“What’s that?”

“Nothing,” she shakes her head. “Just thinking.”

He drops a kiss on the sharpest point of her ribs. “About what?”

“Nothing,” she laughs, not wanting to dissipate the hazy warmth in her blood, the pleasure still trickling through here veins. “Or, not nothing, but nonsense, really. Not… I don’t want to ruin the mood.”

He’d been kissing a path down to her navel but that stops him, sends his head shooting up in alarm, and she sighs for real this time. She didn’t want to, but she did anyway.

“Ruin it how?” His wariness is all over his face, and she relents in only seconds.

“Everyone’s going to think we broke up,” the words are hard to get out, “when you go.”

“Ah. Ruin it like that.” His eyes search her face carefully. “I wasn’t planning to break up with you.”

“Me neither,” she rushes to assure him. “But I wish there was a way – I don’t know, to keep you?”

His eyebrows shoot up his forehead and his mouth briefly purses into a line before the snort escapes him.

“Like as your boyfriend, or your pet?”

She sticks her tongue out at him and swats at his head, and he hauls himself up over her to press a kiss to her lips before returning to his spot on her stomach.

“Sometimes I wish you could mark me,” she admits as he nuzzles the underside of her breast.

Mark you?”

“So everyone would know I’m still yours,” she explains, backing away from the truth of it with a joke. “You know, like the territorial man you are.”

“What would I do?” he wonders, disregarding her attempt to deflect and sucking a dark purple spot just below her left breast. She feels him trace a pattern with his tongue, odd and halfway familiar. “JB Wuz Here?” he says aloud, following his tongue with his fingertip.

She laughs, nearly soundless; a huff of breath more than anything else. “You’re marking me now.”

“These fade,” though he leaves another spot, this time on the soft bulge of her breast, before raising his head to look at her, eyes dark and knowing enough to make her want to squirm. “You want something more permanent. You already have a scar.”

His hand finds hers, turns it over. The scar on her palm is lighter than ever, fading with every passing day. Sometimes she wants to scream about it; why should the cells of her hands turn over so much more frequently, so much more efficiently, than the rest of her?

This thing binds them together and sometimes she wants to reopen the wound, deepen it and make it uglier, like the wounds that can’t be seen, the ones that split open from a thought or a memory or a feeling, when it comes too strong.

“I could take another,” she says instead, pauses when another idea flashes bright across her mind, “or a tattoo.”

“A tattoo?” he seems genuinely shocked by that, which makes her feel a little prouder than it should. “What would your mother think. What would my mother think?”

He’s already laughing when she shoves him off her, rolls easily onto his side and props his head up on his hand.

She’s not sure why she’s blushing. “Stop laughing at me. I’m not joking.”

“I know you’re not,” and though he’s still grinning his voice is serious.

“Would you get a tattoo? If I got one?”

“I don’t know. What would you want me to get?”

She looks at him, pale and finely muscled and so lean, practically glowing in the warm sunset. She wants to crack a joke about sailor tattoos and hearts with her name in it, but she’s suddenly acutely aware of how many spots he’s left on her and how few she’s left on him. She knows if she turns him there will be scratches on the back of his shoulders, light and pink, but suddenly she wants to leave a trail of purple spots from neck to hips, to spell her name out in kisses and the scrape of her teeth.

He doesn’t protest when she pushes him onto his back and straddles him, just sets his hands on her hips and squeezes as she sucks hard on his collarbone. Against her inner thigh she feels him stir.

She leaves her marks and doesn’t talk about tattoos again that night.

+++

“Stick and poke,” he says to her a week later, stretched out on his stomach on her bed when they’re actually supposed to be in fifth period. She’s got her sweater rolled up under her breasts and her jeans open to the top of her underwear, and he’s sketching something out on the curve where her side and stomach meet with a ballpoint pen.

“Gesundheit,” she replies politely, blinking at him. He rolls his eyes at her and adjusts his angle. She returns her gaze to her ceiling and tries her best not to laugh and jostle him.

“It’s a tattooing method,” he explains. “They do it a lot in prison.”

“And you’re bringing it up because…?”

“All you need is a needle, thread, and ink. A lot of prisoners just break open a pen,” he lifts the one in his hand, “like this.”

“How do you know all this?” she looks down, trying to get a glimpse of what he’s drawing, but all she can see is the top of his head. Rests her hand on it, marveling for the millionth time at just how soft his hair is.

“Went to the library. Looked it up.” Her surprised laugh jostles his hand and he protest. “Hey! Stay still or I’m gonna mess this up.”

“Why? And what are you drawing anyway?”

“I’ll show you in a sec, I’m almost done. And I looked it up because you were asking about it. I thought you wanted a tattoo.”

“It’s less about the tattoo, and more about… well. I told you.”

“You did,” he looks up at that. “You want me to mark you.”

There’s a heat behind his eyes that she feels echoed in the pit of her belly. Squirms a little as heat flashes between her legs. They’re both fully clothed but this feels so intimate; she can feel the desire rising within her.

“I do,” she confirms.

“So, stick and poke,” he repeats and bends his head again. This time the press of the pen is preceded by the brush of his lips against her hipbone. “You dip the needle, wrapped in thread, in the ink, and then poke at the skin. It makes little dot tattoos. The book said it hurts – you have to poke hard – but it’s supposed to be permanent.”

He looks up at her, eyes still swirling. “I could do it to you.”

His voice is deep, hoarse, and altogether too much, and she can’t keep her hips still. They lift, twist a bit and he sees the movement for what it is, an invitation, and slides up her body so she can kiss him, hard.

She bites down on his bottom lip, soothes it with her tongue and bends her knees around his hips as he grinds down against her.

“Seems like you like the idea,” he murmurs against her mouth, worming a hand between them and into her underwear. Pulls back a little and raises an eyebrow at what he finds. “A lot.”

“Shut up,” she tries to snap but there’s no bite to it, not when he’s doing that.

“I thought you’d at least want to see my drawing before you let me tattoo you,” he breathes against her cheek, though the way he’s moving his hand seems to imply otherwise.

“I do,” she gasps out, and forces herself to push him off her, whining a little at the loss of his touch. He flops on the mattress beside her, breathing hard and with a noticeable bulge in his jeans.

At first she tries not to move, just looks down at her stomach, but the lines and curves don’t resolve into anything recognizable. She climbs off the bed and stands before her mirror, trying to ignore the way desire is making her tremble. Trying to focus on the drawing instead.

“What am I looking at,” she asks, sincere, as he stands shakily and fits himself behind her.

“It’s a road,” he traces the lines with his fingertip, “and a horizon. Diminishing perspective. And,” he taps on a shape next to her bellybutton, “a cactus.”

His hardness pressing into her lower back and the slide of his hands up her ribcage, pushing her sweater further up to expose her bra, her chest, is immensely distracting but she forces herself to concentrate.

“You,” she says, lifting her arms and letting him pull the sweater off her, “are a terrible artist.”

He guffaws loudly at that, tossing her sweater somewhere across the room.

“It’s true,” he admits. “Will got all the talent there. Want him to draw you something?”

“No,” she turns in his arms, looping her arms around his neck. “But maybe we’ll pick something smaller, and simpler, alright?”

He looks genuinely surprised. “You really want me to do this?”

“I do. As long as it’s not… this.”

“Okay.” He sounds breathless, just before he fuses his mouth to hers, turns them and lays her down on the bed, climbing on top of her.

By the time her mom gets home they’re the picture of a responsible couple, fully clothed with homework spread out on the bed before them, and if anyone notices the small designs she doodles along the edges of her worksheets they don’t say a thing.

+++

“A sun?”

She flips another page in the photo book, considering the intricate floral design.

“Eh."

“A star?”

“You can’t do the kind that are only outlines, though.”

“I could do it the normal way and then only poke the outline?”

Eh. It doesn’t mean anything.”

“A cube?”

“Be serious, Jonathan.”

“I am being serious,” he looks up from his own book, “As you’ve noticed, my illustration skills are limited. We’re pretty much down to happy face, frowny face, and cluster of dots.”

 She turns another page, revealing a photo of a full back, covered in complex geometric designs. She turns it around, shows it to him. “What about this?”

He looks up from his own book. “Sure, no problem.”

She sets the book aside, scooting across the sofa and nudging at Jonathan’s shoulder until he lifts his arm, lets her settle into his side. He keeps his art book propped on his thigh and she turns the page for him.

“Do you want me to do one too?”

“You?”

“On you,” she clarifies, then considers for a moment. “Do you want a tattoo?”

“Oh yeah, a big ol’ heart on my bicep that says ‘MOM,’ that’s what I want,” he laughs and she pokes his thigh with her free hand. “It’s not really my style. Axl Rose I am not.”

“And thank god for that,” she chuckles, but doesn’t turn the page when he gives a little nod. Keeps her eyes trained on the photo of a man’s leg and a very, very intricate dagger tattooed on it. “But…would you?”

“Do you want me to?”

She shrugs with just one shoulder, still not looking up, and stays still until he takes the book out of her hand and sets it aside.

“Nance,” his voice is soft, fond, “just say it.”

“We just,” she reaches for his hand, flips it over, runs her fingertip over the scar. “We match here.”

She can feel him looking at her but it takes effort to raise her head, her gaze. She’s not sure why she suddenly feels so vulnerable, so shy. Not about this, at least. But she does.

He is smiling, soft and fond and crooked, her favorite smile. She’s going to miss seeing it so very much when he’s gone.

“If you want,” his voice is barely above a whisper as he tilts his head and brushes the barest kiss across her lips. “We’ll match if you want.”

He drops another barely-there kiss on her mouth, the ghost of his lips and warm breath, and she’s about to tilt her chin up for something more substantial when the thunk of a car door closing invades her peripheral attention.

Jonathan sighs and kisses her quickly before sitting up and gathering their small cache of books into a pile and sliding them back into his bag. They’re just barely out of sight before the front door opens.

“Jonathan?” his mother calls, shouldering her way into the living room with bags of groceries in her hand. She jumps a little when she sees them on the sofa, like she wasn’t expecting her son to be so immediately accessible. Nancy’s pretty sure Mrs. Byers isn’t surprised to see her there; she’s practically moved into their house since the decision was made to move away. “Oh! You’re here. Great. Can you give me a hand? There are a few more bags and some boxes in the trunk.”

“Sure, Mom.” He stands and waits for her to move further into the room before heading outside. Nancy stands too, wiping her hands on her jeans and watching him go.

“Hi Nancy,” Mrs. Byers says, continuing on her way to the kitchen. “You staying for dinner, sweetheart?”

She watches her boyfriend and his mother move around each other as she has a hundred nights before, making dinner, setting tables, herding Will and El to clean up when they get home, and tries to keep herself in the moment. Tries to keep the heaviness from settling into her stomach, into her heart. Tries not to think about the future, and her loss.

Jonathan sits next to her at the dinner table and squeezes her thigh when he catches her drifting away, his touch and the heat of him keeping her grounded.

She just wants it to stay like this, him by her side, forever. She’s thinking that for what must be the twentieth time before dessert when she realizes she knows exactly what she wants.

+++

There is no moon in the sky when she taps on his window after midnight, the only light in his yard the pale yellow glow of his desk lamp through the glass.

He’s got everything spread out on a tray sitting at the end of his bed: a bottle of rubbing alcohol, a lighter, a cotton ball, a spool of thread, a small Dixie cup from his bathroom, a Sharpie, a ballpoint pen. She almost wants to laugh at the little contraption he’s assembled at the end of that row – a needle, neatly wrapped in thread, taped to the eraser end of a pencil with not-quite-clear Scotch tape – but he looks so serious regarding her that she settles for a gentle smile instead.

She sets down her bag, toes off her shoes, and unbuttons her jeans. Slides them down her legs and steps out of them as well, but keeps her top on. She’s wearing his sweater. He doesn’t look surprised.

Instead he looks pensive. His knee jiggles as she comes to sit next to him.

“Relax,” she implores, kissing his cheek. “Don’t look so serious.”

He doesn’t reply, just takes a deep breath and moves so she can lay down. She arranges his pillows so she’s comfortable, not quite sure how long this is going to take.

Carefully, he pulls down one side of her underwear until her hipbone and the dip beside it is exposed. He wets to cotton ball with the alcohol, swipes it over her skin a couple times, then stretches it out and carefully, as if he’s performing surgery, draws the elongated sideways figure eight onto pale flesh.

“Rub some of this on,” he says, handing her a small jar of Vaseline which he usually keeps at his bedside for his lips.

“Won’t it wipe off the ink?”

He cracks a smile at that, “Just a thin layer, and be gentle.”

While she does as asked, he grabs the ballpoint pen and cracks it, carefully, over the Dixie cup. It takes a moment and some vigorous shaking, but the ink starts to drip out. She watches it, black droplets into white cup. Black ink for pale skin.

“Hold this?” he asks and she takes the cup, pen halves still tipped inside it, still dripping,

Finally, he picks up the contraption and the lighter, oh-so-carefully touching the flame to the very tip of the needle, avoiding the thread.

“I sterilized it before I wrapped it but, you know, just in case,” he explains, and he sounds so nervous. She wants to throw her arms around him, reassure him, ask him where this sudden crisis of faith is coming from. This is the same boy who once ran across Starcourt Mall, sterilized a chef’s knife, and cut into a young girl’s leg with barely any hesitation. This is nothing, nothing at all.

He wipes the soot from the end of the needle with a tissue, dips it in the ink, uses one hand to pull her skin tight and then pauses, poised over his drawing, over her. Looks up at her with eyes wide and fearful.

“You don’t have to do this,” he says, voice shaking. For a moment time folds in on itself, his words echoing back to a very different moment in this same house. But this time she’s not scared, she feels nothing more than anticipation and how much she loves him. With her free hand she reaches out and touches his cheek.

“Jonathan,” she replies softly, thumb tracing his cheekbone. “Stop talking.”

It hurts, more than expected. At first he presses too light and the needle doesn’t penetrate; it takes a stern warning to get him to poke harder. But eventually his shoulders relax and his movements become smoother, more confident. And a warmth begins to follow the pain.

It’s a very different kind of pain, not the sharp heat of a dull kitchen knife slicing from one end of her palm to the other. That pain laced up her arm, causing her to cry out, tears to spring to her eyes. She’d squeezed her hand around the knife reflexively, digging the blade in deeper, watching with horror and awe as blood dripped out from between her fingers and onto the Byers’ carpet.

This time the dull ache of the needle poking over and over again gives way to a bubbling heat, warmth building in the pit of her stomach and flowing along her circulatory system. It suffuses her, brings a flush to her cheeks and a familiar slickness between her thighs. More than once she wants to stop him to kiss him, to touch him, to make him touch her. But he’s focused, carefully wiping away the excess ink on her skin with a tissue, examining his work, making another pass.

It takes three passes in total, and when he finally lifts his head and declares “Finished,” she feels her heart skip a beat.

She looks down and there it is: an infinity sign, as imperfect and individual as his handwriting, barely the length of one of her knuckles. But it is there, and the permanence of it steals her breath.

“Do… do you like it?”

All she can think about is that it won’t wash away. That the day after he leaves she will climb into the shower and the smell of his skin, his detergent, his shampoo, his deodorant, it will slough off. Over time the cells on her palm will turn over, will renew, and the scar will become lighter, fainter, smoother. But this, this will stay. She will run her fingertip over it and it will not smear, it will not fade. It will live, forever, under her skin.

They have mingled breath and blood, sweat and spit and cum, but now there is a piece of him under her skin and it can never be washed away.

“I love it,” she whispers, unable to raise her voice more than that. When she lifts her eyes to his she’s surprised to find there are tears swimming them. “I love you.”

He smiles, takes the ink from her and then her hand, drawing her up to sitting, her lips to his.

“Forever,” he murmurs against her lips.

She smiles. “Forever.”