MJ shot awake, convinced that someone was laying on top of her. Her heart pounded in her ears as her eyes searched the dark for whoever had just been attacking her. Looking around the moonlit room, the only person she saw was Steve, who was snoring lightly next to her.
It was a dream, she said to herself, just a dream. It wasn’t real.
Except, of course, it was real. Had been real, all those years ago. And it still felt real now, even when MJ knew it wasn’t.
Her heart was still racing and her breathing was becoming more shallow. Knowing what was coming, MJ tried to convince her body to slow itself down. No matter how hard she tried to stop herself from spiraling, this always happened. She felt like she could never get control of herself, and feeling out of control was something MJ hated. It was like she was outside her body, watching herself hyperventilate and rock back and forth while she sat helplessly.
Mouth dry and hands beginning to shake, MJ shot a glance at the clock on her nightstand, hoping that it would be late enough in the morning that she could justify getting in the shower- sometimes a splash of freezing water would snap her out of her panic, a trick that was especially useful when she woke up from nightmares. If it was late enough in the morning, she could take a shower without her family questioning her, and she would emerge from the bathroom an hour later, fresh-faced and ready to start her day. It was like nothing had ever happened, and that’s how MJ intended to keep it.
Rather, that’s how the old MJ wanted to keep it. She had spent so long hiding herself and her emotions from her family that it was still second nature to her to act like nothing was wrong, even when her entire world was collapsing around her. She baked a fucking quiche after she heard about Bella’s rape for Christ’s sake- she was a master at pretending everything was fine. Even at her worst, she still presented her best.
But that was the old MJ, and this was the new MJ. The new MJ was still hesitant to share her feelings, still guarded in her emotions, but she was slowly learning to ask for help. She was trying, at least. Her nightmares were still something she tried her best to keep a secret from Steve, and he was such a deep sleeper that he never woke up during her little episodes.
And tonight was no different. As MJ’s breathing grew more shallow and more constricted, Steve was still asleep.
MJ was still desperately trying to calm herself down. Casting another look at the clock, she saw that it had been over twenty minutes since she had woken up. Eeven in her panicked state, she knew that was too long. She should have her heart rate down by now. She should be fine.
Beside her, Steve shifted in his sleep, turning his head so he was facing MJ. When she saw his face, MJ couldn’t help but whisper, “Steve” into the dark.
When he didn’t respond, MJ repeated his name louder, causing him to sit up and look at her with confusion written on his face.
MJ immeadiartly regretted waking him up. It was a Saturday, after all, the one day of the week he could sleep in. And now here she was waking him up at four in the morning because she had a bad dream.
Steve took one look at MJ and even in the darkness, he could tell she was having a panic attack. Her breathing was so shallow he was puzzled as to how she was still sitting up.
Steve rolled over and clicked the switch on the lamp, casting soft light over the room. He turned back and looked at MJ. She was sitting up straight as a board, but her entire body was shaking and he swore he could hear her pulse racing. Gently, Steve sat up and inched towards MJ, who was staring straight ahead with tears rolling down her cheeks.
“Mary Jane, honey, can you look at me?” Steve asked softly.
MJ kept her head where it was.
“MJ, sweetheart, please look at me”, he tried again.
When that didn’t work, he pulled himself out from under the covers and moved to sit in front of MJ. His eyes met hers and he could see fear etched on her face.
“Okay, MJ, look at me and focus on my breathing, okay? Can you try that for me? Try to match my breathing” he said as he gently took hold of her hands, which were picking at her sweatpants.
MJ tried to slow her breathing down to match his. Steve could tell she was trying, but it wasn’t working. Then, he remembered another technique their therapist had told them.
“Mary Jane, can you list five things you can see?”
MJ looked at him, puzzled, but then Steve saw the lightbulb go off in her head. His MJ, his calm and collected MJ was in there somewhere, and he just needed to get her out.
“You”, MJ started. “Bookshelf, window, T.V., dresser”.
“Great job, honey. How about four things you can feel?”
MJ’s heart was still racing, but it was definetly getting slower, along with her breathing.
“Your hands” she said before shifting her left hand out of Steve’s so she could feel around the bed. “Blanket, pillow, bedframe”.
“Okay, how about three things you can hear?”
MJ paused, almost holding her breath. Steve could tell she was coming back, that the rational part of her brain was taking over.
“You talking, me breathing. And…” she trailed off, staying as still as she could so she could hear something else. Outside, a train whistle blew faintly. “Train”.
“There you go, MJ. You got it” Steve responded, deciding to forgo the remaining senses as MJ became calmer.
They sat for a few minutes, not saying anything as MJ caught her breath. Their knees were touching, but just barely, and Steve still held on to her right hand, tracing circles over it in an attempt to calm her down.
Once MJ’s breathing was steady and her heart rate had slowed, Steve initiated the conversation he knew they needed to have.
“Did you have a nightmare?” he asked gently.
MJ nodded in response.
“What was it about?” he asked, even though he already knew.
MJ took a deep breath, then sighed.
“It was about… that night” she answered.
“Oh, Mary Jane” Steve said as he moved closer to her.
MJ started crying again, and Steve shifted next to her to wrap her in a hug.
“It just… felt so real” MJ sobbed into his chest.
There was nothing Steve could do but hold her and rub her back, wishing that he could make this all go away for her. He was so desperate to take her pain away, even though he knew there was nothing he could do about it.
After a few minutes, MJ’s crying stopped, and she pulled away from Steve, embarrassed.
“I’m sorry I woke you up,” she said.
Steve’s heart broke. If he could experience her nightmares for her, he would do it in a heartbeat.
“MJ, you should wake me up every time. I want to help you through this, do you understand? I want to help”, he said, his voice breaking.
MJ looked up at him. They had been kids when they met, fresh out of college with no worries. Of course, MJ had plenty of worries, but Steve didn’t know that. Wouldn’t know that for another 20 years.
They had grown up so much since then. Nick, their struggle to get pregnant a second time, their adoption. It had all changed them both so much, but Steve was still the same boy she fell in love with. Smart, kind, and willing to do anything to protect his family. And now he was protecting MJ, even if he was protecting her from something neither of them could see.
MJ leaned against his chest and nodded, while Steve wrapped his arms around her tightly.
“Let’s try and go back to sleep, okay?” Steve said gently. MJ just nodded again, already closing eyes as Steve laid back against the pillows. Her body and mind were exhausted, and she wanted nothing more than to go back to sleep without being woken up by a nonexistent predator.
But if she did wake up, Steve would be there. He always had been, and he always would be.