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helen ; chapter five

be seeing you

Si vis pacem, para bellum. Or, the choice.

series masterlist | my masterlistpairing: joel miller x f!readertags/warnings: 18+ (MDNI), john wick AU, hitman!joel, husband!joel, established relationship, artist!reader, love as worship, sacrilege in the name of romance, flashbacks, graphic violence, guns, blood + injuries, tess cameo, childhood/religious trauma, criminal underworld, secrecy/lies, betrayal, ANGST, bamf miller bros, smut, fingering, joel is an emotional munch, shower sex, unprotected PIV, handjob, male whimpering, conflicting emotions, org*sms aplenty, Big Angst and Big Sad but also Big Epiphanies, ambiguous ending, i'm getting emotional writing these tags, it feels so final, the typical alcohol/smoking/profanity, dividers by @/saradikaword count: ~ 9.3ka/n: hi, friends. i can't believe we're already at the end of the main story, and tbh if i think about it too much i'll probably cry. i want to thank @cavillscurls for beta reading this chapter as always and giving me the guidance and support i need. we'll have an epilogue after this chapter, so there's still more to look forward to, but nonetheless, i hope you enjoy and thank you so so much for reading. xoxoprev | next

Her eyes are so sad, you think, stepping back to take in the full scope of the canvas. It’s doused in paint from corner to corner, still wet to the touch, the woman and her lover intertwined so thoroughly that it’s difficult to tell where they both end. It’s in shades of glum blue and flecks of angry red and brown where his eye watches you. But it’s her eyes that cannot lift to meet yours. It’s her lashes that fan across her cheeks as she casts her gaze toward the bottom edge where the canvas is wrapped taut around the wood.

The sun will soon rise, but you haven’t slept. The contours of the sky are washed in a haze of greys and pale blues and light pink and the air smells warm, heavy—a storm about to roll in. The clouds on the horizon are thick with a blackening rage. You sit in the alcove by the window and put your temple to the cool glass. You yawn. Joel does not come back.

“Do you think it's true,” you asked him one night, your head on his chest, hand on his heart, “that art makes nothing happen?”

Joel, drawing shapes on your back, dozing off in the golden light of the sunrise, frowned. “Someone tell you that?”

“It's something my art teacher used to say,” you told him. “No matter how much it moves people, it doesn't do anything.”

“Your art teacher sounds like a f*ckin’ downer.”

You laughed, hiking your thigh up over his hip and playfully biting his jaw. “So it's bullsh*t?”

“I think,” said Joel, tucking his chin to kiss the top of your head, “that your art makes people feel. It brings ‘em together. It's important because it's yours.”

You propped your head up on his chest and threaded your fingers through his too-long hair, overdue for a trim. A curl draped over his forehead, his beard patchy and soft under the pads of your fingers. “Sometimes I wonder why you chose me,” you said. “I wonder why the universe brought you to me.”

Joel shook his head, guiding his rough, callused fingers up your arm, curling them around your wrist, gently prodding your veins. “Wasn't the universe,” he said quietly. “Wasn’t a choice. I was yours the second I saw you. So, I guess it's your fault.”

You just rolled your eyes and kissed him, mouth to smiling mouth.

Your paintings may be yours, made with life and energy and colour, but when they are finished, they don’t move. They are stagnant as a heavy rock beneath a cliffside, washed over and over again by the cresting waves, its salt stolen for the water, eternal damnation to a fate of non-movement. And sometimes an artist will walk under the cliff, shove their easel into the fleshy ground the way a man erects his country’s flag in the earth he has stolen, and paint the rock. The artist is moved by the breathtaking colours of the shore and the way the wind flutters through the grass. But the rock does not budge. It never will.

Your art will never erupt from the boundaries of the canvas and tell you what it means. The lovers in your painting will not tear open their mouths like the seams holding a wound together. They will not tell you what they want, need, crave. They are you, and that is what you hate—because dimpled flesh and lustful fingers and the press of his mouth to her throat cannot tell you what you’re supposed to do.

You had become complacent in his love for you. You had let him press his worn hands to your body and pull your soul out through his mouth and you had been a wife, while all the time there was a stranger who occupied his heart, a spirit in an abandoned body. All the time, he'd been haunted. And although you had loved him, your love had not been enough to exorcise the guilt and trauma, pecking at him, an eagle at his liver.

Crossing the room and sitting back down in front of the easel, you press your fingers to the corner of the canvas. The paint is cool to the touch, and you leave behind fingerprints where your signature should be. Pulling your hand back, you examine the accumulation of colour, the blues and reds swirling into the deep purple of a bruise, the bodies on a canvas that may only ever mean something to you, and you wonder, Is this all I am? A cautionary tale, a love lost? A f*cking footnote at the end of a clause that reads: “See, for example, the one who never loved deeply enough to make it count”?

You bring your hand to your face to wipe away the tears beneath your eyes and blink hard at the sting, realising you’ve smeared paint across your cheekbones.

In the bathroom, you scrub furiously, the cloying scent of it clinging to your throat and your tear ducts, washing away the evidence of their entwined bodies, their love, your pain.

Once, you tried to get Joel to paint. You sat behind him on your bench, your legs bracketing his hips, your paintbrush in his hand.

“I don’t know where to start,” he said.

Your lips brushed the shell of his ear as you spoke. “There’s no rulebook.”

He tried to turn his head and kiss you, but you nipped his ear in reproach. “Remember when you took me out driving at the airstrip because you wanted me to feel the road? Think of this like feeling the canvas. Go on, cowboy. Make nothing happen.”

Joel’s painting still hangs over your shared bed. The intruders never found it, or never cared enough to destroy it. It’s a candle, just a candle, its lines imprecise, the paint unevenly applied in places, the shine of the flame more orange than yellow. But it’s a painting, so the candle always burns. He titled it Love.

The pain still sits low in your chest, pulling down your heart as if tied to it by a string. But Joel is still out there, fighting his way back to you, the way he always has, always will. You look down at your left hand, clutching the edge of the marble vanity, and decide to clean your wedding ring.

“I’m sorry, brother,” says Tommy, turning the gun on Joel.

“What the f*ck are you doing?” growls Joel, struggling against his bonds. The clip rattles faintly in his brother’s hand as a tremor courses through him.

“He’s following my orders,” says Cabrera, clapping his hand down on Tommy’s shoulder. “Fascinating what a man will do when he must consider his family’s well-being.”

Joel sucks on his teeth, his eyes not once leaving his brother.

“It's my son,” Tommy says through his teeth. “It's Maria. If I don't do this—”

“Yeah? You gonna kill me, Tommy? Is that why your hand’s shakin’?”

“Shut your goddamn mouth,” his brother snaps. “You think I want to do this? I gotta save my family, Joel. You know what that's like.”

“All I’ve done for you,” says Joel, his hands curling into fists behind his back, “and you put a bullet in my head?”

“Not just your head, Joel,” says Cabrera. “When we're done with you, we’ll take your pretty girl as payment for my son’s life.”

Joel growls like a dog, blood roaring in his ears. “Kill me yourself, you goddamned coward. Kill me yourself and don’t you mention my wife again, or I swear to Christ—”

“You take His name in vain a lot for a nonbeliever,” says Cabrera, pulling his sleeves through his coat and setting his teeth as he looks toward Tommy once more. “Do it.”

“Yeah, brother,” Joel says darkly, “do it.”

Tommy nods once, planting his foot and pivoting. Five distinct sounds of handguns co*cking echo throughout the warehouse as Tommy points the barrel between Manuel Cabrera’s eyes.

“Now that I’ve got a gun to your head,” he says evenly, “you can go ahead and pull that contract.”

Joel at last twists his wrists free of the ropes that bind them and shucks down the sleeves of his jacket to rub the raw skin. Not one soul does a goddamn thing to stop him as he rises to his feet. His chest heaves, his open lungs coarse and wet with a brittle rage, his exposed heart throbbing red, transparent as the stained glass windows of the church.

God does not tolerate anger, said the Sisters, again and again, bringing down the whip across his back. Sinew and bone and skin peeling back to lay bare some tender part of him they sought to rot out. Put your energy into His worship.

Slowly, Cabrera lifts his hands, sneering. “Your wife,” he warns, “and your unborn son—”

“Are family,” says Tommy. “Just like my brother. Now tell your guys to put down their guns and I won't kill you where you stand.”

Joel joins Tommy at his side. “Took you long enough,” he says under his breath.

“Got held up,” he says. “Your wife’s a good artist.”

“Yeah, whatever. You bring me a gun?”

“I’m sure you can find one yourself.”

“Jesus, Tommy. I’m too old for this.” Joel turns to Cabrera and glares at the same stubborn arrogance that once gleamed in his son’s eye. “You pull the contract, and I’ll leave for good.”

Cabrera’s laugh weans out in the air like rings of smoke. “You think you can really leave, Joel? You think that there won't be consequences for what you've done to my son?”

“Yeah,” says Joel, “I think I’ll take my chances.”

“And you?” Cabrera’s lip curls up at Tommy, whose gun no longer wavers in his grasp. “I promised your wife and child security. You’re willing to throw that away?”

“My wife and child are safe because I don’t take deals from men like you,” says Tommy. “You trusted a Miller to turn on his own blood, Manuel. That was stupid. Now pull the contract.”

“So this is your great suicide mission.” Cabrera smiles, a man who knows he has lost or a man who still expects not to. “A man who has seen Hell does not willingly descend back into its depths—not unless he likes the taste.”

Joel feels the corner of his mouth twitch, a wound on his cheek reopening. “Maybe I do,” he says plainly. “Maybe it’ll taste even better when I take you down with me.”

The gleam in Cabrera’s eye shifts as his gaze flickers behind Tommy. Night has since descended, and yet the predator’s eye glints in anticipation of the hunt. Joel turns and shoves his brother out of the way—just as the shot rings out.

He hears Tommy’s breath punch out of him as they both hit the concrete hard. Joel tears the handgun from his brother’s grasp and puts a bullet between each of the two men behind them. He rolls behind one of the hulking bodies and holds up his weight as a shield against the incoming bullets. Tommy takes the dead man’s gun and fires at the remaining three assailants. Only one shot misses, but Joel sends his brother a look anyway and finishes the job.

“Rusty,” grunts Tommy, pushing himself to his feet.

Joel grimaces as he accepts his brother’s outstretched hand, his wrists bleeding from the relentless rub of the ropes. “He ran,” he says, grinding his teeth. “Goddamn coward. Just like his son.”

“Yeah, you’re welcome, by the way,” says Tommy, giving Joel the dead man’s gun and snatching back his own. “Saved your ass.”

“And he got away.” Joel kicks his chair, and the clattering echo of metal reverberates like a choir off the cavernous walls. His hands flex, open, closed, open, closed, until they make tight fists and he can see nothing but red and the silver moon mocking him through the broken windows high above.

“Joel…”

For a moment, he hears the young boy his brother once was, whispering across their shared bedroom to him in the middle of the night when they were both meant to be asleep.

Joel… Are we going to be okay?

“I gotta finish it, Tommy,” he says quietly, his hands shaking loose. Parts of him bite and sting, touched by new and old wounds alike, and he wants to come crawling home to you. He wants to curl into your side and wash away the blood in your cleansing pool, daisy and honeysuckle, some faraway field where you are the warden, where he knocks on the door to be let in, to be gathered, covered in white, buried, unearthed.

“Was he right?” asks Tommy. “Do you… enjoy this?”

Joel casts his eyes toward the ground, his trembling hand, the gleaming band on his ring finger, his skin speckled with blood but the metal pristine. “I don’t know,” he says.

This is who you are, Cabrera would tell him. The Sisters: Your place is here, under God, under His word. And God Himself, silent as the air, the ringing in his ears only ever quieted by the soft brush of your knuckle across his cheek, the whisper of My Joel in his ear.

“Think hard on it,” says Tommy, “because you may like it, but you’ve gotta consider if your revenge is worth more than what you’ve already got. And if you choose wrong, Joel, you’re gonna lose no matter what.”

A figure leans stone-still against the wall by the hotel room door, the gleam of a blade in the soft light the only indication that it is not a mere shadow.

“Hey, kid,” says the apparition.

Joel nods in greeting. “Tess. Could get in trouble with that knife out in the open.”

“You expect me to keep your girl safe with just my fists?”

“You make it sound like you couldn’t.” Tess snorts, and Joel places fifteen gold coins in her waiting palm. “I appreciate you doing this.”

Tess peels away from the wall. “You and your brother are paying me good money to babysit a door. I think I can live without the thanks.”

“Still,” he says, “you did us a solid.”

Tess, who itches at the prospect of gratitude as much as any other gun-for-hire, shrugs. “Everyone’s saying you’re coming back. That true?”

“Just visiting,” says Joel. “On my way out soon.”

Tess flips one of the coins and turns it over and over across her knuckles, evidence of a restless energy that’s always made Joel’s eye twitch. “One way or another, huh?” she says.

“One way or another.” He shakes her hand and watches her retreat down the hall, still twirling the godforsaken coin, before he turns toward the door. Joel presses his forehead briefly to the cool wood and turns the key to seek the field that awaits him.

A key rustles in the door and Joel steps through, closing it gently behind him. Judging by the quiet click of the lock, he expects you to be asleep, but you jolt upright from your seat in the alcove and cross the room toward him.

He meets you halfway, his right hand flexing at his side. You inspect him: the gash on his cheek, the bruise on his jaw, the blood splattered on his white shirt. He makes no footfalls as he walks but you can hear every stride like thunder between your ears. You feel his hand at the back of your neck, cool from the night air, rough as the underside of a shark’s belly.

The moment coils taut between you as your hand reaches up to grab the lapel of his jacket, and he smells of iron, cologne, Joel, some paint. Maybe that smell is you, stuck underneath your fingernails, embedded in your blood. Maybe this is a mistake, maybe you could never help but fall, maybe it never mattered anyway, and you’re already snipping the final thread, unwinding the spool, and kissing Joel Miller like it’s the first time.

He let out a small groan, tasting the first drop of water in a drought, steadying you with his arm around your waist, his hand cradling your head. He’s gentle, exploratory, careful not to jostle, to shock you out of it. You feel his heartbeat thud, strong, calm, steady behind his clothing and skin and muscle, and your body caves.

It’s coming home, you realise, your arms snaking around his neck, fingers tousling the messy curls on his head. It's the warm press of his hand to your spine where it begins to curve inward. It's a soft mouth, a plush lower lip, made for slow mornings and black coffee, for the aching release of a thumb pressing deep into a muscle knot, a wound. Old aches soothed in the space where bodies meet, beginning to colour the slate-grey world.

It’s the exchange of gasping breaths when you pull apart, his mouth still vaguely chasing yours, opposite charge.

You hold him tighter, swallowing the lump in your throat, your hands squeezing his shoulders. "Are you…"

Joel inclines his head. "Yeah."

"Did he..."

"Yeah."

Need pulses. Supernova. Bright as the moment of obliteration. "Can you—"

He nods vigorously. "Yeah."

Joel’s kisses are like raindrops: velvet-soft to the touch—his hands bringing the hem of your shirt up over your head, his fingertips scorching, branding, grazing the supple swells of your breasts—before the crescendo roars in your ears and he loses himself to the storm. He always does.

There is nothing reserved about the way he shows his love. Lightning crackles across your skin where he touches you, baring you to him, his lips making a map of you, mouthing at your jaw, your throat. You hear yourself hum at the press of his lips to the spot beneath your ear, detaching from your own body, absconding with the pleasure of being close to him and leaving the f*cking world behind.

Joel staggers forward so he can press you to the wall and begins to sink to his knees. Your breath catches as he pulls down your ratty bottoms, your cotton panties, his mouth burning into your hips and your belly and the ring on your finger.

“Joel,” you say brokenly as he clutches your fingers. Tears prickle, pressure building behind your nose, and he shakes his head, unfurling your palm like a bud in bloom and kissing its heel. Wordlessly, you watch him, your eyes shuttering, blood singing.

Don't hurt me again.

He understands even though the words cannot come alive on your tongue. He squeezes your hips, his thumbs dumpling your flesh, his forehead falling to your belly.

“I’m yours,” he says. “I’m whatever you want.”

Your legs haven't forgotten the way they part so easily for him, one thigh on his shoulder, opening the core of you to his waiting mouth. His lips part, his tongue wetting them, glistening, and your stomach tightens at the sight of his eyes so black.

You could easily cower. His hands are stained with blood. His knuckles are split. But your terror has become an arid thing, no kindling to burn, no oil to ignite. Watching him now, as eager to please as he always has been or maybe more so, on his knees like a supplicant, the hairs on your arms do not rise in apprehension. Your body does not squirm in fear. You see a broad horizon, the sun outside spilling its golden blood over the city, and you see all of him in a way you never did before.

He’s Joel, who grew up in darkness, lashed and beaten for not believing in a false god. He’s a man who has lied and killed and yet he is no liar, no killer. He holds you as he always has, your body liquid in his hands, your mouth proclaiming the word he will follow. You're the truth he's always told.

It still unsettles you to see the dark eclipse that warm brown, to watch his desire consume the hypnotic shapes in his irises, and wonder if that cavernous black was the last thing so many men saw before he snuffed out their lives. But there's nothing of the death shudder in the way you guide your fingers through his hair and beg him—

“Please.”

He brings his mouth to your core and parts your folds with his thumbs, slowly gliding his warm, wet tongue through your slit. You die a hundred little deaths in the split-second of that first touch, that first agony.

You sigh, your head thudding against the wall as he licks through you, his hands holding your hips in place, keeping you from writhing. Joel flicks his tongue over the sensitive pearl of your cl*t, the pleasure searing, and you tug at his curls to push him away even as you cry out, More, please, please. God, I need more.

He obeys you as easily as breathing, though you suspect he can barely hear your pleas, opening his mouth and flattening his hot tongue to your cl*t. You gasp, your core pulling taut, your eyes locking with his as the muscle undulates over, over, and over again.

“Oh,” you whimper, your hips bucking to meet his face. He groans, his mouth working your cl*t, closing his lips over it and sucking. You cry out, your leg kicking, the sounds of the world muffled in his stifling closeness. Your thighs begin to ache, tensing and relaxing a hundred times over in the throes of his attention.

And his fingers are gliding across your hip, seeking the warmth between your legs. You gasp his name, your hips flexing, as he collects your wetness on two fingers.

“Let me in, baby,” he says softly, pressing a kiss to your puffy cl*t. It relaxes you enough to welcome the press of his fingers inside you, sinking to the knuckle, curling up against the spot he would know in his sleep.

You whine, your body keening toward him, tugging his face back toward your puss*. He obliges with a quiet moan, and you think he needs this just as badly.

The obscene squelch of his fingers inside you rings in your ears as he licks and sucks at your cl*t, his free hand grabbing desperately at your ass to keep you fixed to him. You’re crying, “Yesyesyes, Joel, please—f*ck, that's it,” the pleasure stuck in the grooves of your brain. Absentmindedly, you reach for his hand and clasp it tight, your engagement ring digging into his palm. He holds you with the same fervour as he coaxes you higher, his face buried in your puss*. He grunts and groans like it's his own pleasure he seeks, his battered knuckles stinging.

“Joel… Joel, oh, I’m…”

He knows, of course, from the telltale squeeze of your thighs around his head, the relentless crushing of his fingers in your own, your body tightening for him, cavitating, unwinding—

You come with a shout, your throat raw, writhing in his grasp as he keeps sucking, keeps licking, rubbing, pressing. You're dizzy by the time your head lolls to the side, your muscles twitching, eyes glazed, and Joel is there, pulling his fingers out just to place them on his tongue and swallow you down.

Your breath rattles through your lungs. Joel presses his lips to your inner thigh, beard soaked in your arousal, moustache glistening. His mouth soothes your sore muscles and your eyes begin to droop.

“You need a shower,” you say, your tongue like lead in your mouth. You gently pass your thumb over a cut on his cheek and frown. “You're all bloody.”

He nuzzles his face against your thigh, inhaling you. “I know.”

“You were gone so long.” Your voice quivers, pressure prickling behind the bridge of your nose. “I thought…”

Joel rises to his feet, his hands cradling your face. “I’m all right,” he says. “I’m here, and I’m safe, and I’m so goddamn sorry.”

You shake your head, pressing your lips together so the sob will not escape. Tracing his face with your fingers, broken in places, healing in others, you see the echo of a boy who didn't know his place in the world. You see the haunt of days gone by. A ghost still occupies the cage of his ribs.

“I think you should tell the little boy that still lives here,” you say, putting your hand on his chest. “Tell him he’s alive. Tell him that he made it.”

Joel lowers his head, watching the way your fingers splay over his heart. He puts his hand on yours and pushes, and you feel the strong thump-thump-thump of his heartbeat.

“He knows.”

You lean forward and put your mouth to his temple. “Shower, Joel,” comes your whisper in his ear.

He nods, wrapping his arm around your waist and guiding you into the bathroom. The water hits you both true, scalding, the drain circled with red. He’s naked, his back to you as he sets his hair and lets his wounds bleed what they need to.

You lift your hands and trail them down his broad shoulders, your forehead dropping between his shoulder blades where your name is inked into his back. Joel’s muscles idly flex, his palm flat against the shower wall. His body shudders when you press your lips to the name on his back.

Wordlessly, you bring your arms around him, caressing his side, careful of the new bruises. Your other hand drops to his steel-hard co*ck and you begin to slowly stroke him. The noise that wrenches free from his throat is half pleasure, half agony, his hips bucking into your fist. You bump your nose against his back, your years-old sign to Just relax, and Joel hides his face in his bicep as you work your hand over him.

“G—f*ck,” he grunts. “Goddamn… honey, I—”

You squeeze him at the base and twist your hand up and down the length of him, the weight warm and heavy, your thumb coaxing out a bead of precum. Your cheek is warm on his back, your arm struggling to reach around the width of him, your chest humming at the sound of his gruff moans.

“Let me…” He cuts himself off as you speed up your strokes, and you can feel his abdomen tense. “f*ck, let me make you feel good. sh*t… let me…”

“Joel,” you say, “for once, stop trying to be my hero.”

His head falls back and you press your lips to his throat, nibbling the sensitive spot behind his ear: the old scar, that tiny circle, that hairless patch. He groans your name, and you’re smiling despite yourself, your mouth curling against his warm, tender skin.

“Inside me,” you whisper, the pace of your fingers over his length slowing to a crawl. “Remind me how it feels.”

He turns his head to look into your eyes, his lashes dewy, blinking hard to flick away the water, brow furrowed. His moustache bristles as his lips part in a question he does not (or maybe cannot) articulate, and you’re fractured into pieces by the intricate curve of his nose, the freckles on his jaw, the silver strands in his beard. A rough hand cups the back of your neck and another takes you by the waist, and you’re flattened to the wall, your hand braced on the glass next to you as he kisses you deeply.

Consuming, heady, warm—you give in, your hands avoiding the delicate skin of his wrists where he’s been bound, helpless. Sighing softly into his mouth, you let his kiss humble the part of you that still needs the walls you’ve built from the marrow of your anger. It circles the drain, lead-filled paint, as you remember under his hands how it feels to live.

You reach between your bodies, your leg wrapping around his waist, and slide the head of his co*ck through your weeping slit. Joel sucks in air through his teeth, the water lashing his back like a whip, and he surges forward, grasping you by the waist and sinking his co*ck into your tight hole.

You cry out his name, burying your face in his throat and baring your teeth. Your name leaves his mouth in kind, an apparition, sounds you barely recognise anymore. As you take him inside you, the memory of who you were with him pounds at your ribcage, begging to be let out. And you covet them, selfish as you are now for f*cking him this way, needy and impatient, your fingers tugging his wet locks.

You see no point in scooping out the marrow; there is still sweetness stuck to the bones of your old life with him. Instead, you coat your teeth in this, the slow drag of his co*ck, the depths he reaches so easily, so knowingly. His fingers prod the bruised flesh of your hurt and yet you still guide him inside. You still pull his hair and kiss his throat where his Adam’s apple bobs and you still let him hold you close enough to splinter.

He’s grabbing fistfuls of your ass and sucking on your throat, his thrusts sloppy as he tries to hold back, to make you come first, but you tighten, clenching down on him, making his groans pitch up into whines.

“Joel,” you gasp, your needy fingers prickling his scalp where you pull his hair. His teeth graze your throat and you want him to bite, you want him to sink in deep, you want his jaws to latch onto your skin. You want him never to leave again.

He comes hard. His hips buck, pushing so deep he disappears into your body, and you see the blues, browns, reds of your painting as he empties all he has left inside you.

Panting, he drops his head to your breast, his open mouth still scattering weak, worn kisses over your skin. Your lungs expand under his palms, fingers stuck in the grooves between your ribs, his body an offshoot of yours, not the other way around. In the ringing afterlife of your pleasure, you vaguely feel him mouthing words you cannot hear. You run your fingers through his hair and enjoy the battering of the scorching water as it melts you both into one.

Later, in the sticky, humid silence of the bathroom, steam still swirling around your heads, fogging the glass, you trim Joel’s hair.

"Do you ever get scared?" you ask him, the shhhick of the scissors gliding across a chunk of his hair. "Do you ever go out on a job and think to yourself, What if I slip? What if this is it?"

Joel huffs. "It's not so much about myself as making sure the other guy goes down first."

“I think I’d be scared.” You twirl a lock of hair around your finger and let it fall over his forehead. “I don’t think I’d be able to look into someone’s eyes and take their life.”

He casts his eyes to his lap, flicking off some hair from his thigh. “One time, I thought it was over. I wasn’t quite seventeen yet, runnin’ drugs for some gangster. He sent me to El Sauzal to discreetly transport a couple kilos out of the city; someone had snitched and he didn’t want any rival gangs to find his stash. But the people there, they… They didn’t know any better. There were mothers, kids. Innocent people, y’know? Just strays. I decided I’d come back for ‘em.”

Your stomach twists. “What happened?”

A muscle in his jaw ticks. “I was too late. By the time I got back, the whole goddamn city was on fire. The people were either dead in the streets or close to it. They didn’t do anythin’ wrong. They didn’t ask for any of it. But they were weaker, slower. I couldn’t walk ten feet without seein’ some kid wrapped up his mother’s arms, burned to a f*cking crisp. So, I came back with weapons, marched into the gang’s territory, and I killed ‘em all.”

Days ago, you’d be afraid of the man whose back warms your belly where you stand just behind him. You would hesitate to reach out and put your hand on his shoulder the way you do now. But you curl your fingers over the muscled curve of his arm and his head falls back against you, spidering open, his gooey molten centre bared for you.

Joel. Just Joel.

“Did you see the painting?” you ask him quietly.

“I see everything you do,” he says. “It's beautiful, baby.”

You drop your gaze from his face in the mirror and set down the scissors on the vanity. “I can't pretend to understand what you've been through, Joel, and that makes things even harder. All I've ever wanted is to love you, to take your pain, and all this time there's been so much I never even knew about. And I’m sorry.”

Joel’s hand comes to cover yours, clasping your fingers. They’re warm, rough, but you do not sense the phantom blood. “If I’d told you from the beginning,” he says, “maybe I never would've hurt you in the first place. All those years I thought I was protecting you from myself, I was hurting you—the one thing I swore I would never f*ckin’ do.”

“Joel…”

“Baby, don't apologise to me,” he says firmly, putting his lips to your knuckles. “Never apologise to me. And don't you let me off easy.”

“Have I ever?” you say with a halfhearted smile.

“Yeah,” he says, “the day you let me marry you.”

You scoff. “Oh, please. Wedding planning was hell on earth for you.”

“Just because I didn't like the photographer—”

“You didn't not like the photographer, Joel. You wanted to draw and quarter the photographer.”

He huffs like an angry dog, frowning at you in the mirror. “He kept puttin’ his goddamn hands on you.”

You laugh, brushing your thumb over the patch in his beard to indicate you're finished. “He was posing us, cowboy.”

Joel rises to his feet and closes the scissors away inside the drawer. “Posin’ you, sure.”

“He was afraid to touch you. Probably thought you’d take off his hand. And the pictures turned out great.”

“Yeah,” he says, a smirk twitching at the corner of his mouth. “Way the sunlight caught in your hair, your eyes… I don't know. Beautiful.”

He was so shy the first time you kissed him. Cheeks flushed, eyes cast toward the ground, the wind ruffling his curls where it blew over the water. He was made in an artist’s image, you thought that night, the details pored over like paperwork, the sparkle in his eyes something the painter covets. But the portrait has never wilted in the years you've known him. It's grown older, sure, but it is not old. He's still shy sometimes; he still looks down when he smiles, and he still turns his cheek when you tell him he's beautiful.

“Do you…” He rubs his palms over his thighs, looking up at you through his lashes. “Do you wish you could go back?”

It's your turn to sit. You drop into his chair, your arms curling over the back of the seat, and watch him on his journey to his knees. “I don't know, Joel,” you tell him. “I think about that day and part of me wants the magic of it back. I want the breeze and the sun and the white canopy and I want you sliding this ring on my finger. But knowing what I know now…”

“You wouldn't have married me,” he says like it's the only answer. His eyes are wet and sad and they sparkle so bright in the day.

“I wish I’d known,” you say plainly, bringing his hand to your cheek and resting it over the cool wedding band. “I wish you would have told me everything. I wish you didn't make me question your love, even for a second. I wish you could have spared me all this anger I have—all this pain.”

He’s stone-still, a figure in a portrait, and you brush your fingers across his cheek. “But killing isn't what you are, Joel. It’s what you do. And I’m so tired of being angry.”

You say it fiercely, your tongue sticking to the roof of your mouth, your throat tightening. You swipe your thumbs under your eyes and meet your husband’s eye. “I love you more than my anger and my hurt have room for. And if I can love you this hard, if I can feel all this pain and still be that same girl who fell for the guy from the restaurant, then I can let myself get hurt all over again.”

Joel shakes his head, cupping your face in his hands as his eyes brim with tears. “Oh, baby…”

“I know it's never been an easy marriage,” you say, your voice breaking, “and I’m always travelling, and I know that I can get snippy and we bicker, but I wouldn't go back to that day, Joel, because I wouldn't change anything. Even if I have to feel all of this again, I wouldn't take it all back.”

His inhale shudders through him and your heart lurches out of your chest. “I don’t deserve that,” he whispers, his thumb stroking your cheek, catching a tear that falls. “I’ve hurt you too much to ever be worthy of what you've given me, sweetheart. I ain't a good man, or even a decent one. But f*ck, if I can be good for you, I’ll pray to whatever God they want me to. I’ll scrape my knees and put my hands together and fake it ‘til I’m someone you want. I swear it, baby.”

“Joel.” You gently pry his hands away. “The life you've lived, the things you've been through… I can't change any of it. I can't be what you need all the time, and f*ck, I want to be. I do, Joel. But this life is something you have to figure out yourself. Nobody should force you to believe in something that's only ever caused you pain.”

He never told you about the tattoo; you had to find it yourself. Shucking the hem of his shirt up over his head, two weeks separating the last time you’d been able to indulge in his body, you trailed your fingers up his back and paused at the sound of him hissing through his teeth.

“Easy, cowboy,” you cooed. “Are you all right?”

Wordlessly, he turned, taking your hand and lifting it to the reddish skin around the black ink. You gasped, your fingers jolting backward as if struck by a feeler of lightning.

“Joel,” you said tremulously, “please don't tell me you were drunk and this was an impulse decision.”

“Guys in the Marines would get tattoos that meant somethin’ to them. Easier to carry around with you when you're away.” Joel met your gaze again, your tearful eyes, and brought your knuckles to his mouth. “Tell me you want it gone, and it's gone.”

You shook your head, a laugh snaking past the lump in your throat. “Selfishly, I think it’s very sexy.”

He chuckled, kissing the breath from your lungs.

The memory is heavy in your stomach. It's something you'll have to roll around in your mouth a thousand times before the taste begins to dissolve.

“I need time, Joel,” you tell him. “I need to wrap my head around things. I… I can't be the girl you want right now.”

Joel brushes his thumb over your chin. “You have always been the girl I want,” he says. “If you need time, you have it. If you need a warm body, you have it. I’m whoever you want me to be. And if it ain't a husband, then… then that's okay. But I can’t promise you that I won't stop tryin’ to get my wife back. That’s not who I am.”

You sniffle, twirling the ring on his finger. “You’ll get sick of it. The waiting.”

He smiles so softly that you can feel a bud begin to bloom in the core of you, nourished by the way he keeps his hand on your thigh, absently rubbing the sore muscles there. “I waited my whole life for someone like you to come along—someone who could give me the purpose I’d been lookin’ for. I can wait another lifetime. I can wait a thousand.”

“You’ll resent me. You’ll start to hate me.” You don't know why it comes pouring out of you, but the gates are brittle wood and they snapped in the torrent. “I’m an angry drunk. I smell like paint half the time. I travel for work.”

Joel just studies your face, some inexplicable calm etching out the agony. “You take your coffee with milk and sugar and you can't stand it black, but you make it that way for me anyway. You sleep until noon when you're jet lagged and I sit up in bed just to watch you dream. You lie in my arms on the couch at home and ask me about my day even when you're noddin’ off. You dreamed about love when you were a little girl, the way it happens in books. You told me in your wedding vows that you'd found it with me. You think I could resent a girl like that?”

He smiles like it hurts and heals all at once, like it's a foregone conclusion, like you were meant to be loved by him.

“Time doesn't mean a goddamn thing. I know the girl I see in front of me now. Time won't change how much I love her.”

Flipping through the list of potential venues, Joel tucked into your side, you said, “We’ll have an outdoor ceremony. No churches.”

“Baby, I won't burst into flames if I step inside a church.” Joel playfully flicked his tongue over your nipple, obscured by his T-shirt. “Tommy, on the other hand… things he's done…”

You laughed, gently pushing at his head. “No churches,” you said again. “I don't care how much more we’ll have to pay or travel to get around it. You're my husband. You're my comfort, and I want to be what's comfortable for you. Understood?”

He looked up at you, his lips parted as if on the precipice of speech. You beamed, bringing his face to yours and kissing him deeply.

“But if the wind knocks over the gazebo, you're not getting your dick inside me on our wedding night,” you said against his mouth. Joel shook his head, yanking you on top of him and tearing the shirt from your body. Your binder landed with a flutter of loose pages to the floor.

“You didn't kill Cabrera.”

Joel lowers his eyes. “No. He got away.”

“So there's still a contract on your head.”

“For now.”

“So,” you say with a sigh, crossing the room and digging through your bag, “you have to go.”

“I have to go,” he echoes, following you like a shadow. “No matter what… I’m finishing it. Tonight.”

You pull the switchblade from your bag, open Joel’s fist, and place the cool wood hilt in his palm.

“Goddammit, Tommy,” he says under his breath. “He shouldn't have…”

“But he did,” you say. “He said I should be the one to have it. I think it should be yours.”

He curls his fingers over the hilt and flicks open the blade. It's light, but it seems to weigh him down. You rest your hand over his.

“Do what you need to do.”

He drops his forehead to yours and closes his eyes, soaking in this final breath exchanged between your silent bodies, dipping his fingers in the sanctified waters and coming out unscalded.

Bill calls Joel not a moment after he steps onto the street outside the Continental.

“That's a heavy price on your head.”

“Yeah, Bill, I know.” He breathes in the cool air, like cigarette smoke, his nostrils stinging. Trash and a new, fresh breeze carried into the city. Nothing that stays here ever thrives. “Stayed alive so far.”

“So I hear,” grunts the Manager, “and leaving behind a hell of a lot of cleanup.”

“I won't stick you with the check,” says Joel. “It's my business.”

“I don't conduct business inside this hotel,” says Bill, “which is why I won't tell you that a certain helicopter at a certain helipad is refuelling as we speak.”

Joel smirks, flicking out his cuff to check the time. “Any reason why you aren't tellin’ me this?”

“I like you, Joel. Despite myself.”

Silent, he waits for more.

“Besides,” Bill continues, “we live and die by honour. And you've saved my ass more than once.”

Joel snorts. “Which time are you thankin’ me for?”

“Just take my goddamn advice and leave this world. For good this time.”

“I will,” says Joel. “One way or another. Thanks, Bill.”

High above the ground, sitting in the alcove by the window, you watch storm clouds gather over the city, darkening the sky, the sun, and your Joel, so far away, slouching calmly toward whatever end he will choose.

It's raining.

The first time you kissed him, a downpour suddenly swept up the both of you and you'd scrambled underneath a bridge by the water. You both laughed until your ribs were sore, holding hands as you ran, a soaking wet playbill above each of your heads for cover.

“At least the show was good,” you shouted over the roar of the rainfall.

Joel was mesmerised into stillness by the colours of the traffic lights in your eyes, how they shifted over the planes of your face. Starting to think like an artist, you'd tease, and he'd lean into it, a planet circling its sun.

“It was all right,” he said, taking the playbill from your hand. “You could catch a cold. We should get a cab.”

“Always my hero.” You grinned up at him, your eyes scanning his face in that particular way they did, as if ingesting the sight of him to later put the lines to a canvas. “Did you have a good time, Joel? I mean, really. You won't offend me.”

He grimaced. “I, uh… well, see, I’m not the best judge, and… I guess—”

“Joel.”

There was a gleam in your eyes that could have been amusem*nt or could have been hunger. He doesn't remember. He only saw you tilt your chin and lower your eyes to his mouth, to that one place the Sisters always called vulgar, obscene, a place meant only for His word—

“Can I kiss you, Joel Miller, or will you keep being all heroic?”

It was soft, gentle, exploratory. Your mouth opened his like a wound, setting the scorching blade of your lips to the gash, staunching the blood. You healed and burned him, one hand on his back beneath his jacket, the other cupping his face. It reminded him of the statue that lived in the theatre underneath the church where all the boys and girls trained. An angel cast in white marble, cradling the face of Saint Eustace. The statue was chipped where his eye was meant to be.

He remembers the way he shuddered when you touched him like that. He remembers the chill that started in his feet and crept up his spine. Something like coming alive, settling back into his own body—no longer a spirit haunting the shell of a home but a man.

You pulled back, but Joel curled his hand around the back of your neck and kissed you again, deeper, maybe a little too eager, too inexperienced—but you gasped, fingers curling in his hair, your body curving into his. Your noses bumped when you separated, and he remembers laughing.

The rain is nothing like that night. It's the lash of a whip across his face, seeping colour from the world instead of infusing it with light and movement. The water by the docks slaps against the concrete and boats rock and groan against their mooring. The lights of the city are distant now.

Joel steps out of the car.

He marches toward his target, co*cking the pistol in his hand, and calls out a name. It gets lost in the roll of thunder across the sky and lodges in his chest.

Cabrera waits on the landing pad, looking wraithlike in a long black coat and a pair of leather gloves. His pilot fuels the helicopter nearby. Neither of them hear Joel’s voice in the air. The rising sun is what gives him away—or maybe the gunshot, as he lifts his arm and pulls the trigger.

It does not pierce flesh. It ricochets off one of the rotor blades. He had aimed slightly to the left.

The pilot scampers off into hiding, but the slash of the bullet through the rainfall is enough to get the attention Joel wants. Cabrera reaches inside the lining of his jacket and fires a single shot. Joel can feel it tear through skin and muscle, but it doesn't hurt.

“Joel,” greets Cabrera.

“Manuel.”

His chest heaves, his jacket soaked through, the cold sinking bone-deep.

“Let's finish this.”

The glimmer in those depthless black eyes is the panther at the hunt, relentless in its hunger, licking its chops at the sight of a challenge. For all the coward’s blood in his veins, it still pulses at the prospect of winning.

“Like men,” says Cabrera, tossing his gun aside at the same time Joel does. “With honour. No more guns.”

And it's laughable: the thought that there is any honour left in a world like this. A world where children are beaten and lashed and trained to hold a weapon too big for their hands. A world that burns villages, butchers families, and still claims that without rules, we live with the animals.

A world as unruly as this cannot be ruled. He never truly considered it until he saw the sad gleam in your eye, felt the empathetic touch of your hand on his face, and began to realise that maybe he should be furious.

But because he already knows he's going to win, Joel lets his opponent land the first blow.

The blood is tangy, near-sweet, as he swipes his forearm over his mouth and smears crimson on his shirtsleeve. It tingles faintly on his lips and crackles, warm as the melt from a late-winter snow. He feels it settle in the grooves of his palms, the hairs of his beard. He’s drowning in it.

Cabrera hits hard, but he’s slow. He’ll take five punches in the time it takes to wind up for one. Joel brings his arm up to block the next and delivers a blow to the sternum with his knee as his opponent’s guard drops. Wide open, Cabrera stumbles a few steps back, choking down the telltale wheeze of being winded. Joel marches forward, relentless in his crusade, grasping him by the scruff of his neck, teeth bared like a mad wild dog, and bears his skull down on the side of the railing. Around them, the wind howls and lashes at his clothes, but he still hears the pained scream as if it were poured into his ears.

Cabrera drops to his knees, and Joel grabs him again, bashing his head repeatedly against the steel bar, the lapel of an Italian leather coat bunching between his fingers, tainted by rainwater and the fist of the man who's come to take his life.

And f*ck, Joel wants to make it last.

But there's a knife in his opponent’s hand, conjured from the darkness of his coat pocket, and Joel must release him to avoid the lethal slash of the blade. Blinking blood and lashing rain from his eyes, the man lunges with a snarl, and Joel recovers from his lost victory, stopping him with his fingers curled around his opponent’s wrist. He brings his hand to the crook of Cabrera’s elbow and uses his leverage to snap the bone.

Yowling, Cabrera drops to his haunches, the knife clattering to the ground. Joel, chest heaving, stands over him, flexing his fingers as he readies his fist for the killing blow.

His name leaves Cabrera’s bloodied mouth, accompanied by a mouthful of crimson-tainted saliva spat on the ground at Joel’s feet.

“Joel…” He lifts his head, cradling his broken arm, and sneers. There’s a chilling glow of satisfaction in it. “Did you get your perfect life, Joel? Do you really think you’ve won? It won’t ever stop. Not after you’ve killed me, not after you’ve killed all of them. Is that what you’re going to do? Kill them all?”

He could. He has done far worse. He has spilled blood for gold coins and superficial alliances and someone else's revenge. He has stalked, stolen, lied, killed, and he could finish this now, so easily, with the flick of a blade.

But the song of death does not call to him now.

For so long he had trudged, unmoored, through heavy crimson blood. Like pulling at the seams of velvet, he'd sewn more lives into the sea of red and he never looked behind him to see the souls trying to pull him down at the ankles. He didn't know purpose until he saw the way the candlelight flickered in your eyes, until he tilted his head to the side and realised your smile was a new kind of beautiful from each angle.

The rain sticks to his lashes and he thinks of an old song of prayer the Sisters used to chant. He remembers curling his fingers around one of the rosaries that hung from the large cross in the cathedral and wincing in anticipation. He thought he would burn—that the metal would leave a red stain on his palm. It never did.

Maybe that's why he never believed. Surely, if there was a God, Joel Miller would have burned by now.

He thinks of shopping for furniture and date nights and lazy mornings, tangled in bedsheets. Your mouth, smiling against his, whispering I love you across the breakfast table. Dancing—or swaying, more like—under the kitchen light. Loving easily, never feeling as if he must grab hold of the cross and burn himself upon it just to feel.

Joel turns the switchblade in his hand, lurches forward, and plunges the knife into Cabrera’s chest.

There is no noise but a faint gurgle from his mouth, his hand weakly rising to grasp the hilt. Joel drops to his knees and fishes Cabrera’s cell phone from his pocket.

“The blade is stuck in your aorta,” he says. “If you pull it out, you’ll bleed out and die.” He puts the rain-slick screen in front of Cabrera’s face. “Pull the contract.”

A few feeble taps are all it takes, and Joel Miller is no longer a target. His name glares back at him on the screen, from two million to nothing, not the boogeyman any longer but something akin to a civilian. Joel tosses the phone into the water and turns to leave.

“See you in hell, Joel,” Cabrera chokes, still grasping the shiny wooden hilt of the blade.

He barely hauls himself into the car, which chokes to a rumbling start. There's blood seeping through his shirt where Cabrera shot him, and his fingers shake as they pull away from the wound, the red so bright, so alive. Joel grits his teeth and squeezes his eyes shut.

If there’s a God, he thinks, I hope you f*cking hear me now.

Tell me that we don’t get what we deserve. Because there is nothing I deserve in this world if I cannot keep what I’ve found.

His fingers trembling, smearing blood across the screen, he makes a call.

And your voice on the line, soft, sticky with sleep, whispering his name—just his name: Joel?—is what wrenches the first sob from his throat.

Joel, you say, like it means something, like it's precious. A jewel pressed from dusty black coal. Come back to me. Come home.

So he does.

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