THIS IS MY SKIN
(and it's thick. this is not your skin - yet you are still under it.)
forever alone until i found you
and now you're always there
voice in the air, scent on my clothes -
but when the sun exposes all my demons
will you stay or run away?
- 7 -
His house smelled like stale coffee and bleach. When the lights blinked on, they were harsh, too white, cutting through the shadows that crawled beneath the aged furniture. Dust coated every surface, hung unmoving in the air like a haze, obscuring the flat faces of empty photo frames that were lined up like obituaries on the side table. Everything was still as if the house was waiting, waiting.
When Harley stepped onto the threadbare carpet, Tommy stared at her like she was an intruder. Uncomfortable, she turned to survey the hallway, her gaze snagging on the patchwork wall by the staircase, squares and rectangles of paisley wallpaper paler than the rest: ghosts of where photos used to be, faces that were no longer welcome. There was a coat stand by the corner that had one hook broken off, and the understairs cupboard looked to have been kicked in a long time ago.
"It's nice," she found herself saying, the compliment bleak at best. Tommy didn't even bother to humour it as he watched her appraise his home, learned eyes spotting her discomfort like she was a target and he was lining up his shot. Then, as if suddenly remembering who she was, he took her jacket and hung it over the bannister.
"Want a drink?" he asked her, sounding solemn. Harley sucked in a breath, the sound rattling around the hallway like a copper penny in a beggar's tin, and clenched her fists tight. The amicable air between them was curdling in the cold, Tommy visibly withdrawing from her and she knew she had to grab onto him lest he bow out before they even sat down.
"Sure! Coffee, if you have any?" He nodded and disappeared into the kitchen without indicating where she should go. Feeling silly lingering by the front door, she wandered into the living room that looked out onto the dark, empty street, and perched on the corner of the lone couch. The leather squeaked as she pulled her legs up underneath her, folding in on herself in that way she did so well.
Tommy entered in silence, the steam of her drink wisping around his jawline like smoke, and Harley thought that he looked too big for the room, too much for the four walls. He handed her the coffee and sat down next to her, keeping his feet firmly on the ground. Perhaps she should have thanked him for inviting her in, but it sounded false even in her head so she kept her mouth shut, deciding instead to watch him. Or, rather, observe him.
It was clear to see that he was not in his natural habitat. It might have been his house but it was not his home, moving as he did through the space like he was a guest, afraid to settle, afraid to leave a mark. She wondered what stories were hidden here, in the depths of the brick and mortar.
"Is this your childhood home?" Harley was intrigued when Tommy's gaze snapped to her with a trained precision, that deep expanse of grey blue threatening to swallow her whole.
"Yes." There was a warning in his tone, though it was more habitual than anything, Harley decided, and she was struck at how a whole lifetime lay buried within that single word, spoken with such acrid articulation it made her toes curl.
"It is just you and your dad that live here?" She thought of the man that answered the door to her, face like a history book, voice like gravel, and she watched as Tommy's lips pursed for the briefest of seconds.
"Have you always lived here? When you weren't with the Marines, I mean."
"No." Jesus, Harley thought. Maybe she should stop. It was barely ten minutes in and he was drawing up the boundary marks, leaving very little room for her to stand. Maybe she should stop, but she thought that whatever there was between them deserved better than that.
"Ah, right. Did you move as a family?" Tommy twitched, her questions burrowing like parasites into his flesh. He hesitated, breath hissing between his teeth as he tried, tried to be normal but then Harley tilted her head, brows furrowing in a sympathetic kinda way and he stopped trying so hard.
"Depends what you call family." Harley's lips quirked, pleased at the little teases she was getting, so she decided to play fair.
"Hmm. Okay. Your turn." She wasn't exactly an open book but clearly she was more used to this game of give and take than he was.
"Huh?" His confused expression made her grin, and shrugged, shifting on the seat to get comfortable.
"This ain't the Spanish Inquisition, honey," she said lightly. "You get a turn." Tommy watched her for a moment, weighing up his thoughts before turning the tables.
"Why'd you come here?" Harley raised an eyebrow at his choice of question, a little taken aback at the ruthlessness of getting straight to the heart of the matter, but knew that if she was going to get anything out of him, she had to lead the way.
"I already told you... mum was born here. She was desperate to go back to where she grew up and since the best hospital for her type of care isn't far, I made it happen." She was as open as she thought the situation deserved and watched how Tommy tried to read between the lines, though it didn't reveal more than what he already knew: her mother was sick. So he tried again.
"How you long you gonna stay?" Oh, well. Wasn't it obvious? She felt like she had it plastered on her forehead, an anchor tied around her chest that she carried everywhere she went and my god, wasn't it obvious? She hadn't offered the information before, she avoided the subject, but who the hell takes their sick parent halfway across the world to stick them in a hospital for a goddamn vacation?
"I can only be here for three months because of my ESTA."
"That's not what I meant." Tommy tilted his head, mimicking her earlier action in an almost mocking manner.
"What did you mean?" She knew what he meant and was dumbstruck. Was he so cruel? She thought of the way he'd held her, he'd kissed her, the broken skin of his knuckles after he'd defended her, and she didn't understand.
"You know what I mean." His tone made her sit back, nails digging into her palms, expression hard.
"Is this how's it going to go?" she asked in return after a long pause, words like glass. Tommy clenched his jaw and looked away, trying to ignore the alarm bells that were burning in the back of his throat. When he said nothing, Harley put down her coffee and leaned forward like she was eager to a share some otherwordly secret, the weight of her gaze forcing Tommy to turn back to her. It was then she smiled, and it was beautiful, radiant, but it held no warmth. Tommy felt struck to the bone, unsure whether it was the smile of prey resigned to being devoured, or the smile of the predator, hungry for blood.
"You want to know whether I brought my mother here to die, is that it? To be honest, I don't know. The illness isn't terminal but she wants to die so who knows whether I'll have a travelling partner on the way home. I guess I'll have to get back to you on that one, if that's okay with you."
Not even waiting for him to acknowledge her words, Harley swung her legs round and stood up with a grace that seemed more deadly than her rage. Without looking back, she left for the front door.
It took Tommy a second to realise what he had just done, the reality of the situation startling him as if he was waking from a dream, and he sprang from the couch to grab her wrist. She was radiating fury but her bones were slender and delicate beneath his calloused fingers, and he was suddenly very afraid of how badly he had hurt her. When she tried to pull away, he used his other hand to gently twist her around to face him.
"Harley, I'm - I'm sorry," he said - begged - the words leaving him in a rush. "I don't know what I was doin'."
"You were trying to prove a point!" she exclaimed, and he realised her hands were shaking. In the stark light of the hallway, she seemed very young. "I don't know what you want from me, Tommy. One minute you're kissing me in the street, the next you're trying to push me away. I'm not your emotional rag doll and if you're going to treat me like one, then I'm gone."
Tommy moved his grip from her wrist her to her hand and tugged her close. This wasn't something he was comfortable with in any sense but the idea of her just walking out that door and not coming back made him panic. He couldn't let her go, not even if it costed him the truth.
"I'm sorry," he breathed, trying to shake off the chains that held him. "Seein' you here, in this place… you don't belong here, you're so much better than this shithole and I just - you're so much more than me, than all this…" The words were thick, sticking in his mouth like sawdust and he didn't know how to say it, but then Harley sighed, shaking her head.
"You wanted to bring me down." Her anger sparked like an electric flame, scaling Tommy's skin but he refused to let go, preferring to suffer her fire than the ice of the absence that haunted these halls. He realised that beneath her fury was a bottomless sorrow that he had forced her to swallow, and he wanted her to know that he knew, he knew that taste of it well.
"I don't tell people shit, Harley, I don't spill my sob story like some goddamn chick flick, but you were just takin' it from me so easy and I…" He trailed off, took a breath. "I don't let people in, Harley. I don't talk t' people, I don't have 'em over for coffee, I don't show 'em this - any of this. But here you are, makin' me do it anyway." Harley sighed, swiping her hair out of her face.
It was then that Tommy noticed how her makeup was smudged, purple circles heavy beneath her eyes that were red from lack of sleep, face gaunt and pale beneath the artificial light. She looked so small braced in his shadow and yet there was strength in how she held herself on the verge of shattering but refusing to break. It was like seeing her for the first time and he thought her beautiful.
"Neither do I, you know. Let people in," Harley replied pointedly, sounding irritated now rather than angry. "It's hard, I get it, but I want to be with you." She looked away, embarrassed, and Tommy smiled despite himself. "I'm not expecting your life story right away but you've got to work with me here. I can't do this by myself."
"You won't have to," Tommy promised quietly, determined to end the vicious circle he had fallen into. There he was, standing before a brilliant flame, a light in his shadow, and he had been ready to extinguish her fire because of, what, jealousy? Was he so far gone that he would tear her down so heartlessly, after everything she had given him?
Seeing her standing there, so clean and pure amongst the filth and rubble of his past, he had felt that broken part of him twist, and like a jealous child he had tried to take from her what he couldn't have. He had wanted to hear her say it: admit that she was at the mercy of her mother's death, trapped in a long, slow procession towards the graveyard. For the smallest, darkest of moments, he had wanted to see that light dim, all because he had been desperate for someone else to feel his pain.
Harley, in all her beauty and grace, had breezed into his home with a face full of pity and mouth full of charity, moving over the floorboards that were stained with his mother's blood realising they had picked the wrong house. Tommy had seen her pluck out missing photographs, scrunch her nose up the stench of bleach, appraising what she saw and finding it wanting. She had expected more and he hadn't delivered, and just for a minute, he had loathed her for her disappointment. What right did she have, he asked himself, to act like she knew better? There was tragedy in her wake but she controlled the shift of it so well that she seemed almost at ease. Yet here he was, the years he spent growing up in this house carved into the walls and she had expected him to decipher his child's scrawl; and where she had confused his invitation into his house as an invitation in his life, he had confused her courage for arrogance.
And so, yet again, Tommy had erected his defences too quickly and nearly smothered out the one light that he had in his life. If he had just thought about it for two seconds, he would have known that Harley didn't feel like she was superior to him. He had seen her break, held her in his arms as she crumbled within herself and the sound of her crying had wrenched at him, so why he had so quickly pushed her towards breaking point again was beyond him.
"You don't have to tell me everything, you don't even have to tell me anything if you don't want to. I just - I want you to know that you can tell me anything, Tommy, and I won't judge you for it. If you need someone to just listen, I'm here." Harley looked down, fidgeting with the hem of her shirt.
Who is this girl? Tomy asked himself. He ached to find out.
Discarding the last of his doubts, Tommy cupped Harley's jaw, his thumb raising her chin so that he could look her in the eye. She looked up at him from under thick eyelashes and her gaze was so full of hope that the words just came out without any effort at all.
"Ma died when I was eighteen. Cancer. It was just me an' her, my brother an' Pop were still here. We left to get away from Pop an' his drinkin'. When she died, I joined the Marines an' - an' when I left, I came back here. Been to warzones an' battlefields an' towns you don't even know exist, but I ain't really been anywhere. Just the same four walls that follow me no matter where I go."
The effect was instantaneous. The tension that had been gripping Harley's body vanished and her wary, anger-lined gaze softened into a sad yet warm smile. She tilted her head so that she was pressing against his hand and she lifted her own to run it through his messy hair. It was an intimate gesture, a gentle caress, and Tommy could only hope that she would do it again.
"I'm sorry about your mum. It's very brave of you to come back here to live with your dad, even if you had no other choice." She stopped and watched him for a moment; he wondered what she saw. "Anyway, we came here to talk about us, not our pasts." Tommy looked at her in surprise, having expected her to push the matter. Instead, she reversed their grip so that she was now holding his hand and she led him into his own living room. They sat back down on the couch and this time Harley crossed her legs and sat facing him.
"I'll go first this time. Right." She took a deep breath as if to steady her nerves then looked him dead in the eye. "This is probably hasty and reckless of me because I haven't known you for very long and I don't know you that well... but I feel like what I do know is more than enough. I was attracted to you the moment I walked through the gym door," she said without shame, a slight smile pulling at her lips. "I like when we hang out. I look forward to seeing you even if I do end up making a fool of myself sometimes. I like the way you talk, the way you smile, the way you laugh. I like how even when you're really pissed off, you're still crazy-polite, like you don't know how not to be. I like how you've got all this strength but you're never rough. I like the way you light up when you're with me, when no one else is looking."
It felt like there was a thunder storm taking place in his chest, lightening racing up and down his veins with a white-hot electricity, and all the while Harley was sat there smiling at him in that coy, mischievous, tired, warm way that she did and it was as if a flare had been lit in front of him, lighting up his darkened world with a fierce green light. In his foolishness, he had wanted to smother that fire but now it blazed so brightly before him and he wanted nothing more than to fan the flames.
Tommy's thoughts were endless but words were finite and they escaped him now; how could he vocalise the tumbling, burning, pouring hurricane that had suddenly erupted just from the way she looked at him? Instead, without thinking about what he was doing, Tommy launched himself forward so that Harley was pinned beneath him, one of his hands cupping the back of her head.
Harley's seawater eyes widened at his spontaneity but then he was pressing his lips against hers like the world was imploding all around them. Tommy kissed her with an almost animalistic ferocity; he kissed her like he was dying and she was his last chance at redemption. His body was hot against hers, burning through her skin as she arched up into him, arms wrapped around his neck so that she could pull him closer, and just for that moment, he and his touch were the sole reason for her existence. The Devil was in his lips, sinful and lusting and searching for more as he pressed them against her jaw, her neck, her collarbone, the bare skin of her breasts, and Harley thought that if this was Hell, even eternal damnation wouldn't suffice.
When they broke apart, Harley was breathing heavily, her chest heaving against the weight of him above her. Tommy kept staring into her eyes and she knew that he was waiting for a reaction, and that no matter how strong the man against her was, she had full control over him now: her next words would either make or break him. It was a power that tasted like his lips, that felt like his hand pressing into her side. She stared unabashedly back, unable to hide her smirk.
"And I really like that." Tommy grinned down at her and it sent her reeling, her thoughts moving through her like whiskey. "So is this happening? Are we...?" Tommy shrugged then lowered his head so that his lips brushed against hers.
"We are," he murmured, and he kissed her again, more tender than before. He kissed her like he meant it and in the end that was all she really wanted. She could feel her body reacting to his touch and when he adjusted his position above her, she could feel his react too, and yet he did nothing more than kiss her. Harley was pretty sure that she would have done anything he asked of her in that moment but he didn't move and so neither did she. Tommy pressed his face into her neck and raked his teeth across her skin, making her moan and writhe, and she could practically feel him smirk against her.
"Bastard," she gasped and he laughed before capturing her in a kiss once more, biting her bottom lip when she ran her nails down his muscled back. He was built to destroy, to take down any opponent, and yet here he was, hovering above her like she was his only reason to breathe.
When the fire got too much for either of them to stand, they sat up. They glanced around the room and as if looking through the same eyes, they saw that it was no longer so cold. Their heat had melted the ice and it seemed that things really did look better in candlelight after all.
They stayed on the couch for a while longer, Tommy playing with a lock of her hair while Harley gave them questions to answer. Both of them felt more comfortable than they had in a long time, and they were content with just finding out the little things. Harley spoke about her home city, her love for dance and how she regretted not finishing her degree, and Tommy told her about MMA, what it was like being a Marine, and how his talent for cooking was a closely-guarded secret. They talked about silly things, things that didn't really matter, but it was those little things that really made them who they were. It was things like favourite colours, guilty pleasures, laugh out loud moments and embarrassing memories that filled in the spaces around their pasts. They didn't know it yet, but as they shared the small things, they were slowly coming to realise that it wasn't their most tragic experiences that defined him: they were more than the things they had lost.
After a while, they drifted into comfortable silence. The cold had started to creep back in but they kept each other warm, and when Tommy next looked down, he found Harley asleep against his chest. She looked so calm and peaceful, the lines of her face smoothed out, and Tommy took a moment to watch her to just appreciate her stillness. Unable to bring himself to disturb her, Tommy carefully turned and slipped his other hand underneath her knees and brought her up into his arms. She stirred as he got to his feet but she didn't wake, and Tommy was able to walk through the house and gently lay her down onto his bed. He pulled his covers up over her shoulders and her breathing slowed, her body relaxing into slumber.
It was so very ordinary. There was a girl sleeping in his bed. They had talked and fought and kissed and talked some more. He had made her coffee and she had made him smile. He liked her; she liked him back. And that was it.
When his father came home, sober but sad, Tommy asked how he was doing. Paddy was surprised at the sincerity in his son's voice but didn't question it. He replied, a mixture of honesty and courtesy, and Tommy answered in kind. The coat over the banister didn't go unnoticed and when Tommy said that the girl from the night before was asleep in his bed because she'd had a long day, Paddy actually smiled. They slapped each other on the shoulder - awkward but passable - and bid each other good night. So very ordinary.
Tommy changed into a pair of tracksuit bottoms and a plain t-shirt, then climbed onto Brendan's old bed. It didn't take him long to fall asleep listening the steady rhythm of Harley's breathing, and when his nightmares caused him to wake, it wasn't sand he saw but the smooth outline of Harley curled up in his bed. Her presence didn't keep the memories away but he found it easier to calm his panting when he knew that all he had to do was reach out and she would be there. Tommy lay back down and just as he was drifting off, he noticed that he couldn't smell the burning anymore.
This chapter was rewritten on 25 August 2016. The quote in this chapter is from the song I'm Yours Tonight by The Academy Is.