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Changing Channels

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Hello again (or for the first time)!

This fic was born from a chaotic idea about the multiverse and took on a world of it's own (see what I did there? Ha!)  This is definitely a crack fic treated seriously and I have 0 regrets. 

If you enjoy authors who take lots of artistic liberties, unhinged storytelling and gratuitous smut (?) then hopefully you'll enjoy this work!

Disclaimer: I don't own any of these characters (except Frank, he's mine.) But I do love Peter, Thomas, Arvin, Nathan and Nico/Cherry with all my heart your honor. 

"It's all yours for $25."

"$25? That's a ripoff and you know it!" MJ told the pawn shop cashier, patting the small television between them on the counter. "I'll give you $2 for the hunk of junk and do us both a favor

"Not a chance, $20."

"$5," she countered. "It's not even a flat screen and there's a crack in the corner."

"$15 is the lowest I can go," the man shrugged nonchalant. "I'll even throw in a free HDMI cord. Used, obviously." MJ tucked her grin into her cheek, she had him right where she wanted.

"$10 and you have a deal. And I want the HDMI cord too," she smirked, pulling the monitor toward her and holding out her palm. "Pleasure doing business with you."

MJ was kind of a home body.

The studio apartment she lived in was tiny and a bit cramped, but it housed everything she needed so she didn't have any complaints. Well, except for her new lack of a television. There had been a particularly rough thunderstorm last week that knocked out the power to her building right in the middle of an episode of 'You' and Joe Goldberg had been just about to pull some more of his creepy shit. It was hours before the power was restored and while her fire stick seemed fine, she couldn't get her television to turn on at all.

Which was NOT okay.

She'd been browsing thrift stores and pawn shops all week trying to find a replacement for a decent price. Being a broke college kid didn't lend a lot of money for a fancy smart TV.

"I'm so glad your crisis is finally averted," her best friend Betty's sarcastic voice came through the cell phone propped against her cheek. MJ plugged the fire stick into her new monitor and started setting it up.

"Me too, now I can finally finish 'You'."

"That sounds vaguely dirty and I'm not sure I'm okay with it, but hey, buy me a few shots and we'll see where the night takes us," Betty teased, earning an eye roll she couldn't see but probably perceived all the same.

"I'll take that deal," MJ laughed.

"Hey seriously, Liz wants to go out to the bar tonight. Why don't you join us after you've finished your show?"

"I don't know, I've got like 4 episodes left so it'll be pretty late and I'm sure I'll be tired."

If tonight is like any other Friday night (which she knows it will be) she'll order delivery something, watch her show and around midnight reach over into her nightstand for her favorite pink bullet and ensure herself a very good nights' sleep. And that's just the way she likes it.

"MJ, you have got to get out of that apartment more. You're missing out on life," Betty pleaded.

"I'll come over tomorrow, okay?" she promised. "Class drained me today, I just kind of wanna stay in and not move."

"Okay fine, but tomorrow you're at my door by 3 pm or I'm coming myself to retrieve you."

MJ winced, remembering vividly the last time she overslept for a date with her best friend. Betty had the spare key to her apartment and let herself in. When she found MJ was perfectly fine, drooling onto her pillow, she'd proceeded to use the other ones to swat and smack her awake.

Lovingly, of course.

"I'll set 3 alarms," MJ promised, rolling her eyes fondly.

"Sounds good. See you tomorrow."

MJ showered the day away quickly but efficiently and had pizza Doordashed to her front door by the time she stepped out of the shower. So she spread out her paper boxes and glass of wine in a little bed picnic, pulled out her remote control and turned on the television. The fire stick home screen blinked across once before the screen went grey and white, glowing at her ominously.

"Oh, you've got to be fucking kidding me," she groaned, sliding her food to the open side of her bed. "Come on!"

She started pressing buttons on the remote randomly in her frustration. The screen flashed brightly and she blinked away the light, but when she re-opened her eyes there was no light anywhere except the open stars over her head.

What the fuck?

The air around her was suddenly cold, strong winds were pushing at her where she stood, causing her to stumble forward slightly. When she looked down, she no longer wore the sleep shorts and camisole that she had seconds ago, but knickers, a button down and a thick coat. Her long brown hair wasn't tumbling freely down her shoulders anymore, but was tied up in a tight bun and tucked away into a hat. And when she looked around, she noticed that she was standing on a large boat on the open ocean at night. Her stomach turned with the realization and the feel of the waves rolling beneath her.

But the most bizarre thing was the fact that she somehow knew she was on a whale fishing boat and in theory had been for days, though she'd been here for about twenty seconds. How the hell did any of this make sense? The more pressing matter at the moment however, was the bile that was rising violently in her throat. There was a loud yell from somewhere around the corner but MJ paid it no mind as she rushed over to the edge of the ship. Holding onto the rail tightly she emptied her stomach into the impossibly dark ocean water. It was a terrifyingly beautiful sight, once she'd rather not face down for too long.

When she wiped her mouth clean on the edge of her sleeve she ambled around to where the yell had come from and spotted a tall, extremely muscular man holding someone by their ankle over the edge of the boat. The person dangling was pulled back up before MJ could so much as scream, and the older man, who she recognized as Mr. Chase, the ships co captain, was talking quietly to the younger guy he'd just been dangling. The boys' eyes were blown wide with a unique blend of panic but respect, his slender body trembling in the wind.

MJ felt the urge to reach out to the boy, to offer him some sort of comfort or maybe give Mr. Chase a kick in the balls for what he'd just put the poor kid through. But things had clearly calmed down and the kid was enraptured with whatever Chase had to say. So instead, curious, she crept closer trying to hear the explanation of whatever she'd just stumbled upon.

She was startled when Chase clapped the kids shoulder then turned to face her. "Good night, Mitchell," he said in his deep rumbling voice, giving MJ a solid clap to the shoulder as well. "We rise with the sun in the morning, there's much to be done."

MJ nodded to him. "Yes sir."

She followed him with her eyes, letting them pass over a window in the process and getting a good look at herself. She was herself, but younger, maybe 13 or so. And with the baggy clothes and her hair tied up under her cap, she could pass for a young man. And she realized that Mitchel was her alias. She'd snuck on the ship to be part of the great whale hunt, posing as "Mitchell". She shook her head, attempting to get a hold of the chaos in her mind and the longer she sat with it, the less it started to feel like a dream, and the more it became reality.

She rubbed at the spot Chase had clapped cause damn the man had a heavy hand and made eye contact with the kid he had been talking to. The boy had sunk down to the ground, back against the railing and he was considering her curiously.

"Are you okay?" he asked, curly hair blowing about in the gusty wind.

MJ balked, because no, she sure as hell wasn't and that was probably evident on her face, but she'd just watched him almost get tossed over the edge of a boat and into the deep dark depths of the ocean.

"Am I okay? Are you okay?" she questioned, raising a brow at him. "I thought you were about to be whale bait."

His eyes brown went wide, cheeks pinking up quickly. "You saw that?"

"Hell yeah I did. Well, some of it anyway. What happened?" she asked. Letting her curiosity get the better of her, she turned and slid down to sit next to him. "You do something to piss off Mr. Chase?"

"Not exactly. He just wants me to toughen up is all," the boy reasoned, summarizing what must've been a much more dramatic conversation. "I wanted to come work on this boat, I can't be afraid of the sea, or anything," he informed her, sounding like he was directly quoting Chase. "I need to be a man."

MJ frowned at the sentiment. "What does that mean, exactly? To be a man?"

He took a few seconds to consider her words. "I'm not sure. To be brave. Tough. Fearless. Like Mr. Chase and Captain Joy. I should be more like that."

"Everybody feels fear, men and women alike. That's just part of being a human being. And there's plenty of brave and tough women out there, so that can't be the answer."

The boy smiled softly at her. "I guess I don't really know then. You'll have to teach me how you figured it out so well."

MJ's brow lifted in confusion. "What?"

"Being a man. You've been passing as one since we stepped on board this boat, ma'am," he whispered conspiratorially to her.

MJ's eyes went wide at his words, impressed in spite of the panic that being found out brought. "You knew. Does anyone else know?"

"I don't believe so. They would've turned around immediately and sent you back home. That or put you on permanent food detail," he teased, smiling shyly.

MJ rolled her eyes. "Yeah, they would have. So why haven't you told on me then?" From what she could tell the guy was probably a brown-noser.

He looked away from her, leaning his head against the rail to look up at the stars. "I figure, I'm not actually supposed to be here either, I had to lie about my age to get on board. You have as much right to be here as I do, who am I to stand in your way?"

MJ nodded, regretting her prior judgment of him. Then another strong waved rolled against the boat, stirring her stomach once more. "Oh no."

She rushed to her feet and leaned over the railing to vomit all over again. She retched a bit, having thrown up almost all she had to give the first time. As the nausea waned humiliation set in when she realized the boy was not only watching but had risen with her. He had one hand on her waist to anchor her while the other held her cap firmly in place on her head.

When she leaned back he let both hands drop, wringing them together awkwardly. "Sorry. I just, didn't want cap to slip off and expose your secret."

"Thank you," she whispered to him, wiping her mouth on the back of her other sleeve. "I appreciate it."

He nodded. "Of course ma'- I mean, Mitchell. Sorry," he blushed. "I'm going to head in for the night. Early morning," he reminded her, taking a step back. "I'll see you around. And don't worry, your secret is safe with me."

MJ watched the sweet boy walk away before letting her own feet carry her to the quarters that were hers. There were two other men already in the room, sprawled out on their cots and snoring loudly. The one nearest the door groaned when she opened it and let the cold air in, so she closed it as quickly and quietly as possible. She moved over to her own cot and fell onto it, stripping her coat but leaving the cap in place like she did every night. Then she flopped an arm over her eyes and prayed sleep would take her quickly, before she needed to throw up again.

She slept for only a blinks length, yet she opened her eyes feeling wide awake and clinging to the wall of the cabin while they watched a huge whale terrorize their ship. Mr. Chase was screaming orders she couldn't hear, people were frantically attempting to keep the boat from capsizing and she stayed frozen, completely terrified by the chaos around her. Mr. Chase threw a spear into the water, but his failure was evident in the frustrated way he bellowed after.

The stillness was eerie for countless seconds until the whale rammed itself into the boat, causing a vast ripple that knocked MJ to her knees. Then the stillness was quickly overtaken by the crew running everywhere at once, waves crashing over the boat and soaking them all. Mr. Chase demanded the largest spear they had left and everyone watched with bated breath as he aimed for the whale once again.

The throw landed, but this result was significantly worse than the first.

They all watched helplessly as the whale, even from the water, managed to demolish their ship. It swam around with the spear Chase had thrown stuck in it's side, but the thick rope that was still attached to that spear wreaked havoc on board as a result. People were thrown overboard, the deck crumbled as the rope crashed through it, the ships anchor went flying across the deck like a bullet. At the sound of a panicked yell she recognized, MJ watched in horror when her friend from the night before dove out of the way to avoid being hit by the flying anchor, but subsequently fell and slipped right off the boat and into the ocean water he'd been so terrified of.

"No!" MJ screamed, breaking free of her frozen horror to run towards the edge he'd slipped off of. The railing was torn away leaving a huge gap in it's wake.

She searched the water anxiously, searching every bubble and ripple for a sign of him. She was losing hope when he finally emerged, brown hair clinging to his forehead, sputtering water from his lips and flapping his arms to stay afloat.

"Over here!" she called, waving her arms toward him. His panicked eyes met hers and locked on. She saw the determination in his face as he started swimming toward her, kicking wildly and pushing his body forward.

MJ looked around for anything that might help, settling for a torn sail that once helped steer the boat. She balled it up as best she could and tossed it into the water toward him.

"Grab on!" she called.

And he did, swimming with all his might until he caught the white fabric in his hand. MJ started to tug with all the strength she could muster, pulling him closer and closer to the them until he was just within reach.

"I've got you!" she promised, heart pounding against her ribs.

He grabbed the ship's edge, she caught him at his underarms and together they pulled him onboard. The boy landed half on top of her, panting for air and fighting to catch his breath.

"Thank you," he gasped. "Thank you so much." His own heart raced so strong she could feel it beating against her.

They didn't have much time to recoup, the ship was devolving into chaos all around them and the fact that they were sinking was becoming glaringly obvious. So the boy stood up, squaring his shoulders and extended his hand to help her up.

"Let's move!" Chase bellowed, directing them to abandon the main ship as the water continued to rise, taking over.

People were scurrying around collecting weapons and gathering whatever supplies they could carry, attempting to salvage anything they could. They raced to prepare the emergency boats on the side of the ship as quickly as possible. MJ and her friend joined the fray together, blindly accepting supplies and stumbled them over to the rescue boats.

Then there was a hand on her shoulder, squeezing to capture her attention. She looked up into the warm brown eyes of her boy.

"We've got to get you onto a boat ma'am, you should be the first one," he demanded, more authority in his voice than she would've thought him capable. He left no room for argument, grasping both her shoulders and guiding her towards the nearest rescue boat.

She didn't need much convincing, following him easily. The panic did flare up though when she glanced over the edge and really looked down at the tiny boat, toppling more unsteadily in the rustling waves than she cared for. She cast weary eyes over to him, pausing at the edge.

"It's okay, I've got you," he promised, offering her words back to her.

MJ nodded and held onto his calloused hands so they could lower her into the boat. And if the rocking of the ocean beneath them had been bad on the big boat it was ten times worse on this much smaller one. The boy made sure she was settled but instead of following her he turned back for the sinking ship.

"Wait!" she called. "What are you doing? You're supposed to get in here with me!"

"I'm just going to make sure no one's left behind that we can help," he told her, face set with determination and a tiny voice in her head wished he could see the bravery written all over him in this very moment. "I'll be right back. Save me a seat!"

And she watched as all the rescue boats filled quickly with people and supplies and there was no sign of her friend. She didn't even know his name and he could die on the ship sinking before her eyes. She'd never get to tell anyone about him, assuming she survived herself.

Eventually, thankfully, she breathed a deep breath when she saw his mop of brown hair appear at the edge of the main ship, now almost level with the rescues since it'd sunk so far. He pushed Mr. Chase ahead of him, who hopped from one boat to the other with no hesitation, then jumped on himself. Both men barely made it off before the ship went completely under, finally signaling the whale's victory over them.

Mr. Chase stood at the front of the boat, staring dejectedly out at the endless water before them, and she could see the resignation on his face. He lost, and now they were all lost. The feeling of fear sank her stomach, her face falling with it. What would they do now?

Her friend made a beeline for her through the crowded boat, stumbling a bit as it rocked beneath them.

"I guess you didn't save me a seat then," he tried to joke pitifully, standing in the center. He kept both hands out to his sides in an effort to stay balanced.

Fueled by her fear and the need for comfort, she stood and guided him to sit in her spot then placed herself down on his lap. She curled into him, tucking her face into his shoulder and cried. She cried, letting the hot tears fall for their sunken ship and for the people they'd lost in the wreckage. She cried for the young boy who she'd nearly watched die, she cried for herself and for the fate of the last of their crew, now stranded on the open water.

The boy's arms wrapped around her tightly and she felt him start to cry as well, the evidence of it dripping onto her own cheek and down to her shirt like a strange waterfall. They clung to each other until she thought she was out of tears, then she pulled her face back, not bothering to dry them on her soaked sleeves.

"I'm scared," she whispered.

"Me too," he agreed, rubbing soothing circles into her back. "But we're going to be okay, we have to. Mr. Chase will come up with a plan, I know it."

His blind faith in the same man that literally held him over a ships edge by the ankle was astonishing if not comforting, but she supposed he knew him better than she did.

"What's your name?" she asked, catching him off guard.

"Uh, Thomas. Thomas Nickerson," he told her. "What's yours? Your real one."

"Michelle," she said, uselessly adjusting the collar of his ripped jacket to distract herself. "But you can call me MJ."

"MJ," he whispered, studying her face. "It suits you. Far better than Mitchell."

She felt eyes on her and turned to see a few of the men staring at them curiously, particularly at the way Thomas' arms were wrapped around her.

MJ rolled her eyes and yanked the cap from her head, allowing her long hair to tumble free and down her back. The eyes of the men around them went wide, gawking at her.

"We've had a bloody woman stowed away on the ship the whole time!" one said, like that was somehow more dramatic than the fact that they'd just lost everything on said ship, there was no land in sight, and the whale was still on the water with them.

For the first time Mr. Chase turned to face them, acknowledging the existence of others on the boat at all. He looked directly at MJ and nodded once. "I thought so. Men, and women," he added, opening his hands to them all. "I'm sorry that I failed you but I promise you, I'm going to do everything left in my power to get us home. As many as I can. Keep your eyes sharp, and -"

He was cut off when all of their eyes were drawn to the enormous whale making it's rounds once more, making a direct path towards where their boats sat in a circle. MJ gasped in fear, hands gripping subconsciously to Thomas' coat lapels. For his part, he gripped her tighter and scooted towards the center of the boat. They were all on edge, tension settling over them like a blanket.

"Thomas," MJ whispered.

"I know. I've got you," he promised. "I've got you."

"I've got you too," she vowed, gripping him so tightly that even another ram from the whale couldn't tear him from her grasp.

MJ squeezed her eyes shut, bracing herself for the impact of the crash into their tiny boat, but it never came. She chanced peeking one eye open to see if it had changed course, but she found the bland beige walls of her NY studio apartment looking back at her. The TV was off now, remote control lying next to where she cuddled her pillow close in her arms.

She yawned before taking a quick glance at her cell phone to find it was 1 am. Damn she'd slept a long time! When had she fallen asleep? She wasn't sure, but God that had been a vivid dream. Though it was fading with every passing second. She remembered boats and whales and old clothing and warm brown eyes.

MJ yawned, and picked up a piece of pizza from the box on the open space of her bed; she hadn't eaten a single slice. She really must've been more tired than she realized. She bit into the room temperature pepperoni and reclined, feeling exhausted for someone who'd just slept for about 6 hours straight. And she couldn't remember watching anything on TV at all or even falling asleep, but she felt herself being pulled under once more. She allowed her eyes to droop closed again, cuddling back up to the pillow beside her.

"That's your 7th loss in a row, you're really gonna have to step it up if you wanna impress this Ned guy," MJ told Betty, tossing the game controller at her when her own Mario Kart character came in first again.

"You could've at least let me win one."

"What kind of friend would I be if I didn't make you earn your victory's?" she challenged. "There's no joy in a cheated win."

"You suck. Let's play a different game. I have Mortal Kombat, I think that's one of the ones he said he likes too!"

MJ peeked at her watch and frowned. "I really need to get home, Bet, sorry."

"But can't you stay a little longer?" Betty whined before smiling brightly. "Ned will be off work soon, I can call him and put it on speaker so we can analyze him in real time." She wiggled her eyebrows excitedly. She was really excited about the new guy she'd started talking to and while it was tempting, MJ shook her head.

"I've been with you all day," she reminded her friend, and she had. She arrived at Betty's apartment a few minutes before 3 pm thank you very much, and they'd been playing games (at Betty's request shockingly) and watching trash tv in-between rounds ever since. "Besides, I still haven't finished my show."

"Aww, you came here even before finishing your precious television show?" Betty coo'ed, leaning forward to hug MJ. "Okay, I guess you're free to go, you've proved her love for me," she grinned.

MJ said her goodbyes and took the subway home, content to people watch quietly. A young girl in her car was gushing to someone on the phone about running into Spider-Man prior to boarding the train and getting a selfie with him, and MJ wondered if she would ever have an encounter with the masked vigilante herself. She moved to the city to start at NYU a year ago and while she had definitely seen the aftermath of some of his fights, she'd never actually laid eyes on him herself. At least not that she knew of, Spider-Man could really be anyone under the mask couldn't he? For all she knew he sat next to her in her art history lecture, hell, maybe he was the lecturer.

MJ entertained herself with her own thoughts all the way home moving on from Spidey to her theories for Joe Goldberg's next move to if she should use garlic or ranch dipping sauce for her leftover pizza for dinner. She ended up going with the ranch, poured herself a glass of wine and settled into bed to find out how close she was in her theorizing.

She snatched the remote and turned on the TV. The home screen popped up immediately but just as quickly blinked out, replacing itself with grey and white static. MJ frowned, didn't this happen yesterday too? What had she done to get it to work? She turned the TV off then turned it back on, watching as the very same thing happened again. Annoyed that the pawn shop might've gotten over on her, MJ started pressing random buttons hoping something would jog the TV into working.

The screen flashed bright white and MJ put a hand to her eyes to block the sunlight.

The sunlight?

She dropped her hand and stared up at the hot sun shining down on her, squinting into it then over at the sign depicting the high school they stood outside of. A soft tug to the sleeve of her blue cotton sweater captured her attention, causing her to freeze and whip around to where a young brunette girl stood at her side. The girl tugged insistently at MJ's sleeve, attempting to pull her along with a frown.

"Come on, Michelle. We gotta meet Arvin," the girl whispered in a distinctly southern accent under her breath, clutching a bible to her chest.

MJ stared at Lenora, wondering why she recognized this girl, why the cream colored sweater wrapped over her shoulders seemed so familiar, and wondering how the heck she got here.

There was a catcall from around the corner and MJ instinctively knew that Gene Dinwoodie and his cronies were rounding the corner, ready to torment she and Lenora like they often did after school. They saw Lenora's adopted brother Arvin's car approaching at the same time the girls did though, and started to run towards them quicker.

They weren't quick enough. Arvin pulled up to the curb and flung the door open. "Get in!"

Lenora jumped into the backseat while MJ stole into the front with Arvin, slamming the door behind her with a heavy thump. He took an extra second to flip off the boys through the back windshield before pulling off, screeching the tires angrily.

Lenora frowned at him. "You shouldn't do that, Arvin," she scolded, referring to the unholy bird he'd flipped them.

Arvin ignored that, like he usually did. "Y'all okay?" he asked, that same southern grit present in his voice as Lenora's but much deeper. His jaw was set into a tense line. That stubbly jawline was sharp as a knife's edge but had a nice scab on it from the number Gene and his friends had done on him two days ago, smashing his face into the asphalt.

Arvin had warned them about exiting the school on the back end. The boys had cornered them behind the school after the bell rang and put a bag over Lenora's head, telling her that's the only way anyone would ever fuck her. MJ had tried to fight back, slapping at Gene's back but it wasn't very helpful, there were three of them after all. They'd been in the middle of putting a bag over her own head when Arvin had shown up, diving out of the truck and flinging himself at the boys to defend them, throwing punches wildly.

The three goons inevitably wrestled him to the ground, abandoning the girls altogether to pummel Arvin instead. There was now a healing cut in his eyebrow for his efforts and were bound to be bruises covering his ribs from the way they'd kicked and stomped at him. It made her heart ache; all that just for trying to defend them. At least Lenora was his kin. He had no reason to try and defend MJ, but he did anyway, had been for months.

Since she moved to town a few months ago and become friends with Lenora, Arvin had adopted her as well. She had family of her own, of course, but barely. Her momma died when she was a little and nowadays her daddy was drunk on the couch more often times than not.

"Yeah, they didn't hurt us none," Lenora assured him, nose already stuck in the open bible on her lap.


She and Lenora didn't have a whole lot in common, but they made good friends. MJ respected the girls' pure, kind heart and Lenora was good to her, like she was to everyone. Lenora was a model good girl, constantly reading her bible, spending time in prayer or visiting her mama's grave at the church cemetery to do both, like she did every day after school. Arvin went with her every day and MJ tagged along more often than not. She had no real interest in the cemetery, mostly she liked sitting in the car stealing glances at Arvin, talking about nothing and poking fun at him.

MJ studied him while he drove, noting the tight grip he had on the steering wheel. Having both girls in sight and knowing they were out of harms' way should've been enough to ease his tension a little bit, but he was stewing in it quietly. He cranked down the window and lit up a cigarette while he drove them, blowing the smoke out the window every few seconds. His worn blue jean jacket rustled in the wind and his baseball cap was turned backwards and even with the scab on his jaw and the cut in his eyebrow he looked divine.

The drive to the church was completely silent save for a hum from Lenora in the back every now and then. Arvin didn't park when they got there but pulled up behind a fancy blue car and stalled.

"That preacher's a little flashy," he commented, eying the car with distaste. Arvin's feelings about the young new Reverend in town had been clear since the moment he arrived; he had no regard for the man.

Lenora looked at him pointedly. "Are you not coming?"

"Nah, I got some things to do before we go home," he said evasively, staring out his window to avoid their gaze. MJ narrowed her eyes at him. He was being weird, suspicious even.

"Can't we do them after I see mama?" Lenora tried, leaning forward over the front seat.

"No, y'all go on. I'll be back." He finally turned around to look at his sister over his shoulder, speaking with more finality. "Go on."

Lenora was a good girl, she always did as she was asked, so she pouted at Arvin once then climbed out to head for the cemetery behind the church. MJ on the other hand didn't move a muscle but to click her seatbelt back into place. He'd screwed up now and made her curious.

"So what are we doing?" she spoke up for the first time.

He turned to stare at her, eyebrows which seemed to be in a constant state of furrow, raised intimidatingly. "Didn't you hear what I just said?"

"I did, but you don't scare me," MJ shrugged, turning around in the seat to face him straight on. "So, where are we going?"

"I have stuff I need to do on my own. You can't come with me, Michelle," he told her. "It's no place for you to be."

"I think I can decide what's for me and isn't," she told him firmly, crossing her arms. "And I've decided I'm coming."

He worked his jaw anxiously and she could just tell that he wanted to kick, scream or maybe even hit something in his frustration but he refrained himself. Eventually he settled for pinching the bridge of his nose between his fingers.

"You don't understand," he started, "I need- just, please. Please go out there back Lenora today. I'll be back soon."

"Are you going to do something dangerous?" she asked, ignoring his requests. Arvin looked away from her and out the window, betraying himself and his ill intentions. Yeah, she was definitely intrigued, and he'd just have to suck it up. "Uh-huh. Look, you can keep sitting here whining about it if ya want, but unless you plan on physically dragging me outta this truck, then I'm going with you."

Arvin's deep brown eyes narrowed, staring her down like he was seriously considering it and MJ was embarrassed to find that look alone made her thighs squeeze together, a thrill zipping up her spine. Would he really do it? His palms flexed on the steering wheel and for a fleeting, loaded second her breath hitched thinking he might, but then he looked at his watch and sighed, squeezing the steering wheel.

"You stay in the car and you don't say a word."

The order was useless. She hadn't listened when he told her to stay, why the hell did he think she wouldn't have anything to say about whatever mission they were about to go on? There was zero chance and they both knew it, but she chose to let him have his moment, sinking comfortably into the seat while he drove.

Arvin Russel may not have been known for fighting and he may have gotten his ass beat a few days ago, but MJ watched on in concerned wonder as Arvin drove them around town and proceeded to beat the absolute dog shit out of Gene and each one of his cronies, one by one. She couldn't see everything, but she did see him put a paper bag over Gene's head, holding his face down into the dirt much like they'd done to Lenora and herself then it clicked into place.

This wasn't just a petty revenge mission; Arvin was still protecting Lenora in the only way he knew how. Well, Lenora and her. It made her stomach do a funny little flip.

MJ knew how the teachers at the school house barely shook a finger at bullying, when they weren't completely turning a blind eye to it. Everyone at the school, hell, the whole town knew that Gene and his friends were full of hell, raining it down on anyone they pleased, most often herself or Lenora it seemed, and no one lifted a finger to stop it. But not Arvin, no Arvin had finally taken matters into his own hands.

When he finally flung himself back into the car beside her those hands were bloodied and cut up from fighting, though she suspected some of the blood wasn't his own. It had started to rain around their first stop and she wasn't sure if that's why his body was trembling or if it was from the sheer stress of what he'd done.

Arvin didn't start the car immediately, he pushed his greasy brown hair back and stared straight out the windshield like he'd forgotten there was another person sharing his space. He gripped the steering wheel so tightly it made his cut up knuckles seep blood out just that much more, and MJ grimaced. If she thought he was radiating tension before it was nothing compared to his behavior now, vibrating against the seat with it, his breaths quick and choppy. She itched to reach out and touch him so she did.

MJ tentatively, so as not to startle him, reached forward peeling his trembling fingers away from the steering wheel. He still jumped at her touch, brown eyes red rimmed, crazed some might even say when he looked over to her. The look he gave her was fractured, part small boy asking for help and part broken man denying he needs it.

She knew which half she was listening to. MJ slid across the bench seat to him and pulled his palm up to rest on her over her heart, his fingers lingering across her neck. She placed her own hand on top of his to hold it in place and started to model taking deep breaths. Arvin's wide eyes watched her chest rise and fall with the action, darting back and forth between her eyes and her where his hand lay on her skin.

"You're okay," she told him, stroking the back of his hand softly. "It's okay."

The blood on his hand was likely smearing onto her, but she didn't care. His eyes were softening by the second and his breathing pattern started to line up with the one she was setting. It was incredibly intimate she found, more so than she imagined when she moved into his space, but that was fine by her.

Eventually, when Arvin felt more stable, she let her hand fall from his and after just a second more he let his own hand fall to his lap. He rolled up the hem of his t-shirt revealing a bit of his abdomen and confirming her suspicion of bruises, then dabbed at the open wounds on his hands.

"So. Are ya scared of me now?" he asked quietly.

"I don't think I could ever be scared of you, Arvin," she told him.

Knowing what she'd just bore witness to, he turned to look at her then, searching her face for any hint of a lie he might find at her admission. She knew he wouldn't find any, Michelle Jones always told the truth. And for the first time since she'd seen him today, his shoulders seemed to relax a little.

"Maybe you're as crazy as me then."

"Definitely crazier," she grinned, pleased to see him half smirk. "Can we stop at the corner store?" she asked, making his handsome face scrunch up in confusion.

"Um, okay?"

The corner store was just up the street. MJ ran in and after batting her eyelashes at the cashier a few times she managed to score a free cup of ice from him. While he was getting the ice she also snagged a bottle of alcohol which she would've absolutely paid for if she actually had any money.

The rain was coming down harder now so she ran back to the truck with an armful of loot, shutting it out with the slam of her door. She shook her wet hair out not, grinning when Arvin had to wipe some of the resulting drops off his face.

"What'd you need from the store?"

"I didn't need anything," she told him. "This is for you."

She realized belatedly that she should've also probably stolen a Ziploc bag or some kind of towel, but here they were. She peeked into the backseat for a cloth or old t-shirt or something but came up empty handed.

"I didn't need nothing. 'Cept maybe an umbrella," he grumbled, moving to crank up the car again.

"Wait, let's go ahead and do this now." He looked confused when she slid right next to him for a second time and grabbed his hand. "Gonna hurt like a bitch though," she warned.

With an apologetic smile she popped the top of the alcohol and poured it over his bloodied knuckles. Arvin winced and cursed, brows pulling together tightly.

"Told you," she muttered.

His left hand seemed to be okay, catching the least of the battle, so she focused on his right. She cleaned the wound as best she could with no napkins before she caved and used the cleanest corner or his shirt she could find to dab at them.

Unable to find anything to put the ice in, MJ improvised. She bunched up the hem of her skirt and poured the ice into a small section of it, twisting the edges to form a makeshift ice pack then laid his hand to rest on her thigh. He blushed at the contact and she thought he might try to pull his hand away so she made her intentions clear by putting the ice on top of his now cleaner but still swollen knuckles. His eyes danced over the exposed skin of her leg then darted away, making MJ grin. She wondered what it might look like if Arvin really smiled. Probably ungodly gorgeous, she reckoned.

"You know you didn't have to do that," he murmured, though made no attempt to move. "I would've handled all this mess myself when I got home."

"But now you have someone to help you," she reasoned, adding pressure. "You don't have to do everything yourself, ya know."

He studied her quietly before asking, "Why are you doing this?"

"Doing what? Icing your wound? Cause it's swollen dummy."

Arvin rolled his eyes, smirking at her insult in spite of himself. "Following me today, taking care of me, all of it," he explained, gesturing towards her with his left hand. "Why?"

"Arvin, all you do is take care of Lenora and me. Is it really so hard to believe that I might wanna do the same for you? Let somebody take care of you for a change. And don't whine about it," she added, teasing him just a bit to see if he'd smile.

He did, tiny, but a smile still.

"Why do you do it?" she asked then, leaning her head onto the seat back. The movement tugged on her dress skirt, making it ride up just an inch or so more on her lower thighs and Arvin definitely noticed. His eyes landed on the newly exposed skin then moved back to her face. He gulped.

"Why do I what?"

"Work so hard to take care of us. Even when it gets you hurt, or causes you to hurt yourself," she looked pointedly at the state of his hands.

"You're my people. You take care of your people, no matter the cost," he responded, quoting the sentiment in the same way Lenora quoted scriptures.

"I'm your people?" she asked, tilting her head.

"O' course you are."

MJ nodded, considering him. He really was achingly beautiful and something about his accent really did it for her. And while he was claiming her as his people he couldn't strictly mean in a familial sense if the way his eyes lingered on her thighs or her lips were any indicator.

"So, you think of me the same way you think of Lenora then?" she asked, leaning a little bit closer to him.

"Um," he started, eyes moving down to her lips. She darted her tongue out to wet them, enjoying the way his eyes tracked the motion. He licked his own subconsciously and she smirked.

"Like I'm your sister?"

"Not...quite like that," he admitted. His palm flexed where it lie against her thigh, molding to the shape of it. "A little different."

"Hmm. Different how?"

Arvin's eyes took the scenic route from her eyes down to her thighs, heating up every inch of skin in their wake. His thumb stroked softly across her skin when he spoke. "I'm pretty sure you already know."

"I was only about 67% sure actually," she told him.

"So," Arvin started, taking another small gulp. "How do you think of me?"

Screw it, MJ thought, reaching up to run her thumb across Arvin's bottom lip, pressing down on it just to hear the soft sigh that escaped him. When she looked up his eyes were already on her mouth, pupils blown wide. So she did the only logical thing and threaded her fingers into the hair at the nape of his neck to draw his face to hers as an answer.

He tasted of menthol which shouldn't have worked for her, but the most dominant thing she tasted in their kiss was just Arvin Russel and that she couldn't get enough of. She teased the seam of his lips with her tongue, grinning into the kiss when he opened up to let his tongue dance with hers. And dance they did, fighting for dominance and letting it ebb and flow between them naturally.

When they paused to breathe MJ swung her leg across his lap and straddled his hips between hers. It was awkward maneuvering her skirt and his hand so they didn't lose the ice, and the steering wheel pressing into her back was a little painful, but Arvin's free hand rushing up to grip the back of her neck and pull her to him made it worth it. He cupped her there, massaging her with the tips of his fingers before letting them trail down her spine, landing on her ass.

She moaned when he squeezed, arching her back into the steering wheel and accidentally making the horn honk. They were startled apart at the sound, MJ's head hitting the roof of the car when she jumped.

"Ow," she giggled, automatically rubbing at the spot. Beneath her even Arvin was chuckling and it was a sight to behold. His usually serious eyes crinkled in the corners adorably and this was her favorite look on him so far.

"Sorry 'bout that."

"No it's okay, trust me, just a little cramped up here." The movement of some folks walking into the corner store ahead of them caught her eye, reminding her they weren't the only people in the world and MJ reluctantly slid herself out of Arvin's lap. "I guess we shouldn't really be doing this in public, huh?"

Arvin sighed and she could hear the same wave of longing she felt echoed in the sound of it. At least they were on the same page. "Yeah, you're right. We should probably go pick up Lenora anyway, she's been by her self long enough."

"She's not by herself Arvin, she's with her mama," MJ corrected, nudging his knee with hers.


"She probably went in the church when it started raining," MJ reasoned. "Maybe Reverend Teagardin's keeping her company."

"That's comforting," Arvin grumbled sarcastically, earning an eye roll from MJ.

"You're cute when you're grumpy. Which to be clear, is all the time," she teased, getting another low laugh from him.

So she stayed right next to him when Arvin started up the truck and pulled off, pretending it was so she could keep the ice pressed to his hand. He didn't call her on it but they both knew it was bullshit, cause he let her hold his hand in hers the whole way. The ice slid off and started melting into the floor before they pulled up to the church.

It was a literal blink of an eye and yet somehow days later when MJ felt her back pressed against the back seat of Arvin's truck, her hair spilling over the seat towards the floor. He lay between her thighs, his mostly healed up hand curled around her hip bone and slid to hitch it over his side smoothly, making her stomach clench with excitement.

They were parked on a dead end dirt road not far from the river under an oak tree. The sweet spring air and warm sunlight streamed in through the open windows, highlighting the auburn hues in Arvin's stringy brown hair beautifully. Almost as beautiful as the sounds of his little moans against her throat.

Since they'd kissed in his car, Arvin had steadily become more and more affectionate with her. He hadn't even let go of her hand when they picked up Lenora, though the girl hadn't seemed to notice. She must've sensed the change though because she told them that she could go visit her momma on her own from then on, she knew they had other things they could be doing. And that was all the permission they needed.

So neither of them felt guilty that Lenora was at the cemetery alone once again while Arvin dragged his lips up the column of her throat, across her jaw and beneath her ears. MJ tangled a hand into his hair and rubbed herself against him, thrilled when he bucked back.

"Shit, Michelle. You can't do that, baby," he warned, the breathlessness in his voice just turned her on that much more.

"Why not?" she challenged, running her hand down the muscles of his back.

He stared down at her pointedly for a second before groaning. "We should probably stop now before this gets out of hand."

"What if I didn't wanna stop?"

He chewed his lip, staring down into her eyes. "Do you?"

MJ took a deep breath, reaching up to stroke at the hair falling across his forehead. "Do you have a condom?" she tried, too nervous to outright ask if he'd like to fuck her senseless in the backseat of his car.

"I, um, yeah, I do."

"Well, I'd like to use it if you want to," she told him, using the leg wrapped around him to pull him closer to her.

Arvin dropped his head to her shoulder and took a deep breath before pulling back to look at her again. "Have you ever had sex before?"

"Why?" she wondered. "Does that matter?"

"It's none of my business, really, I'm just wondering how gentle I need to be," he murmured, making her stomach do a swan dive.

"Maybe a little to start," she decided. "And we'll go from there."

That was good enough for Arvin.

They shed his their clothes and tossed them into the floorboards of the car, giggling when she accidentally elbowed him in the jaw as she took off her bra. He got caught up kicking off his boxers and fell off the seat altogether, making MJ cackle, but she felt bad and pressed gentle kisses all over his face when she accidentally squeezed the scar on his knuckle.

He sat back on his knees to roll the condom onto his length and MJ eyed him hungrily. Just the sight of Arvin stroking himself slowly, preparing to enter her brought a fresh wave of wetness between her thighs. When he leaned forward MJ adjusted herself, allowing her legs to fall open for him.

He kissed her lips sweetly. "Gentle," he reminded himself, taking his dick in hand and pressing it against her.

"To start," she added, eyelids fluttering closed when he pushed his hips forward, slipping the tip of himself inside.

He lowered himself, pressing in a little bit further and softened the sting by pressing kisses to her lips, her cheeks and her eyelids. When he was fully inside, his chest pressed flush against hers, MJ released a short gasp, wrapping both arms around his shoulders to hold him against her.

"Just a second," she whispered, adjusting her hips around to accept him more comfortably. She could feel him straining to hold himself back and after a few seconds she pat his shoulder. "Okay, Arvin. Move."

He rocked his hips back and forth slowly and it felt okay, she just loved being joined with him so intimately. He reached for her hips, holding onto them tight while he moved then tried hitching her leg back over his side, thrusting shallowly and it was all really nice. She sighed into his ear, combing a hand through his hair and telling him as much.

"I can do better," he growled.

Then Arvin changed the game, slipping out of her to sit up and push her forward on the seat, nearly bumping her head into the door. He shifted to brace one foot on the floorboards and slipped his arm under the small of her back dragging her closer to him. He slipped back into her and grabbed the edge of the open window with his other hand, leveraging himself to hit deep inside at a toe curling angle.

"Oh!" she yelped at the feeling, arching even further into him. "Right there."

Arvin was a good listener. He pumped into her steadily, making her eyes roll back and her fingernails dig into his shoulders. The leg wrapped around his hip pressed into him, begging him closer.

"Can you take it faster?" he panted, leaning down to kiss her messily. MJ nodded, she'd been just about to ask.

He sped up his pace, driving into her faster than before, a little harder than he'd tried yet and it was the most divine kind of pain pleasure she could imagine. She keened beneath him, whimpering every time he hit that spot deep inside her. Her neck arched back into the seat and she dug her nails into his bare chest, calling out his name.

"Arvin," she cried. "Feels so good," she said, reaching one hand back to clutch at the window edge alongside him.

"You feel too good," he countered, pinching his eyes shut. "I don't know how much longer I'm gonna last baby."

"Don't stop," she whined, she was so close. MJ released her tight grip on his chest to drop her hand to her clit, rubbing tight circles against it in time with his thrusts. She moaned at the combination, both of them driving her towards release. "Don't stop Arvin, please."

"Fuck," he groaned, the muscles of his forearm bunching and flexing with how tightly he held onto the side of the car. He was thrusting powerfully inside her now, though she could tell he was still holding back so as not to hurt her. He stared down at where their bodies joined listening to the slap of their bodies meeting, watching how her fingers worked herself above where he pounded into her. "You're so damn beautiful, Michelle," he praised.

"MJ," she pled, feeling the coil in her belly tighten and she was almost there, right at the edge. "Call me MJ," she gasped, feeling it finally snap within her, her muscles clenching and unclenching involuntarily around where Arvin was still buried inside her.

His hips stuttered against her almost in the same moment, a reverent "MJ" falling off his lips. Then he leaned back flashing her the brightest smile she could've ever imagined on his handsome face.

So it went that they'd drop Lenora off at church then go park somewhere and fool around as often as possible until the day Arvin went home to find Lenora hanging from the rafters of their barn. MJ didn't see him for a few days after that and when she did, he was short and evasive, unwilling to look her in the eye for long.

Michelle was as shocked as anybody by the fact that Lenora would kill herself, because she couldn't imagine a world where that would even be possible. No more possible than the idea that Lenora was carrying a baby when she died, because Lenora was definitely a virgin. So she hounded Arvin to make sure he wasn't alone when she could, she asked lots of questions around town and paid close attention to that preacher Lenora spent so much time with in her last days and that's how her theory was born.

Lenora had been sleeping with the Preacher. Just like he was sleeping with a few other young girls in town MJ had been sneaky enough to discover. It was disgusting. She couldn't fathom how a supposed man of God could manipulate himself into young girls' pants like that then turn around and lead worship before them and their parents at Sunday service.

She wasn't sure how to bring any of it up with Arvin so she went to the church to confront the preacher about it herself when she heard gunshots ringing from within. MJ froze for just a second then ran at a full sprint to get there, throwing the doors open. She didn't know what to expect, but Arvin Russell standing over the Preacher's dead body searching for the casings of the bullets he'd just emptied into the man wasn't exactly it.

So Arvin had figured it out too.

She was reminded of that day in his truck. How he'd sought out Gene and his buddies to dish out justice on she and Lenora's behalf in the only way he knew how, and he was back at it though he'd definitely upped the ante this time. A twisted part of her understood though; the Preacher was a monster. He was getting away with his crimes and rubbing it in the face of everyone in the town too ignorant to notice, but not on Arvin's watch. Never on Arvin's watch.

He looked just as shocked to see her as she'd been to see him.

"You shouldn't be here," he muttered, tucking the casings into his pockets and the gun into his pants. "Go home."

"I don't know when you're gonna get it through your thick skull that you don't tell me what to do Arvin Russell," she said as coolly as she could muster.

"This isn't a fucking game," he all but yelled, storming across the aisle to her, seething. "You need to turn around right now and go the hell home."

MJ didn't flinch, staring straight back at him. "I ain't scared of you," she told him.

He laughed, delirious probably with what was happening. "I just, I fucking killed somebody MJ, do you get that? There's a dead body over there, because of me," he pulled the gun from his pocket and waved it in front of her for emphasis. "That's who I am. You're not scared of that?"

"No, I'm not. I know why you did it," she whispered, folding her arms across herself. "I know what he's been doing to those girls. What he did to Lenora."

Instantly Arvin crumpled, tears pooling in his eyes, his chest caving in with a shudder. But almost as quickly as he'd crumpled he righted himself, hauling in a shuddery breath. She was going to get whiplash just watching him. Apparently committing murder was taxing on one's emotional well being, no matter the motive.

"You don't gotta leave, stick around if you want. I'm going." He started past her then paused just past her shoulder. "Goodbye, MJ."

As impersonal as he was trying to be, had been trying to be for days, maybe it was the use of her nickname that let her know he was still in there, no matter what he said. He was still that same lost boy who needed help shielded by the broken man who denied it. And damn if she didn't love both sides of him.

"Let's go then," she decided, turning on her heel to head out the door before him. "We gotta be gone before the cops get here and as loud as those shots were, all four of them," she added icily, cause yeah he'd gone a little overboard, "they could show up any minute."

Arvin gaped at her, frozen in place despite the urgency of the situation. "What the hell are you talking about? You're not going with me."

"You said it yourself. You just killed a man in cold blood, you're-"

"Probably going to be on the run for who even knows how long and that's if I don't get locked up and thrown under the jail before I get outta town," he sputtered, letting himself get wrapped up in the bleak possibilities.

"We wouldn't have to worry about that if you'd stop fightin' with me and let's get in the fucking car," she argued, slapping her palms against his chest.

"Why do you keep doing this? Stop trying to follow me, stop trying to take care of me," he cried, exasperated. "You're just going to end up dragging yourself down with me."

"Good then," she shouted, finally fed up. "Because that's all I want, is to be with you. Whether that means at church, or in the backseat of your car or on the run from the law, I want to be with you." She dug her finger into his chest, holding his gaze in hers. "You're my people and we take care of our people, no matter the cost, remember?"

He stared at her dumbfounded, eyes darting back and forth between hers, desperate to take the life raft she was offering him, she could see it.


"No but's, we need to move now," she told him, thanking the Lord when he allowed her to pull him towards the door.

She peeked outside to make sure no one had shown up to see what was going on yet, breathing a sigh of relief when she didn't see anyone. They ran for his car as fast as their feet would take them.

"Do I need to drive? Are you okay?" she asked, holding out her hands for his keys just in case.

She was met with a quick shake of his head. "I'm good."

They buckled in and Arvin squealed the tires, rushing to get down the dirt road and outta dodge. The drive was silent for a few minutes, her mind whirring with what their next steps should be or where they should go next until Arvin finally released a long, deep breath.

"This is crazy, you know."

"Luckily we're both crazy, so we can handle it," she shrugged, hoping to tease him into some normalcy, but he didn't budge. "We'll figure it out, Arvin. We'll get through this together." She turned in the seat to give him her full attention and noted the bag tossed into the backseat, a pillow and blanket shrouding it and frowned.

"You were already prepared to leave town?"

"Yeah," he confirmed. "I knew I couldn't stay after...what I did."

"Were you even going to say goodbye?" she whispered. He at least had the decency to look ashamed. "Really, Arvin? I can't-"

"I didn't think I'd be able to leave you if I said goodbye in person, and obviously I was right," he told her, shaking his head. He reached into the pocket of his jean jacket and pulled out a folded sheet of paper. He handed it to her and she saw her name scribbled across the front. "So I was gonna drop this by your house on the way out of town like the coward I am."

MJ unfolded the note and started to read, annoyed by the tears that spilled out her eyes and disrupted her sight while she read his sweet words. Words of realization, calls for justice, hope for her understanding, and outright pleas for her to forgive him then ultimately to forget him. The most catching part though, was the "Love, Arvin" scribbled at the very bottom of the page.

She wiped her eyes on the back of her sleeve and slid over to Arvin not for the first time, pressing their thighs side by side and curling her hand around his.

"I love you, Arvin Russell. I could never forget you, but I do forgive you for wanting me to try." He squeezed her hand in response, bringing their linked hands to his lips to press a kiss there that said everything he was unable to in the moment.

When MJ awoke it was well into the next afternoon. She didn't remember much about her dreams but that they'd been angst-y judging by the way she'd tossed and turned and pulled the sheets up from their corners. A pillow had even been flung onto the floor in her slumber. She thought maybe someone died, or she'd saved someone, or maybe some combination of the two, but no matter how angst-y it may have been, she knew it'd been a good dream.

If only she could remember.

"We don't do refunds. This is a pawn shop," the same cashier who sold her the TV monitor told MJ, a bored look on his face.

She narrowed her eyes at him, slapping a hand to the counter. "The TV doesn't work right!" she fumed.

"Does it turn on?"

"Yes but I can't get any channels to -"

"You didn't purchase a cable plan or a streaming device here ma'am, you purchased a TV," he reminded her, smirking just enough to make her wanna punch him in the face. "A monitor that turns on, which means it works."

"This is bullshit," she pouted, giving up. "Your goatee looks ridiculous by the way," she gave one parting shot in her frustration when she swept out of the shop, ignoring his amused laugh.

Later, after a full day of classes MJ had her cell phone balanced between her ear and her shoulder, locked in a stare down with the TV monitor before her.

"I'm telling you, it's weird Betty," she told her friend, studying the blank screen.

"So let me get this straight, you think your TV is haunting you?"

"Not really haunting me so much as, possessing me, maybe? Or making me possess it," she questioned, unsure of the right description. She didn't have any evidence to back her theory, it was more just a feeling.

"And you think this why exactly?"

"Every night I remember turning on my TV, but I never watch anything. I do have the strangest fucking dreams though, really really vivid ones that I can't remember the next day."

"Uh-huh, and have you been drinking on these nights?"

MJ grimaced. "I, well, yes...but that's not-"

"MJ, I love you, but you sound like a maniac."

"I'm not a maniac! This stupid pawn shop TV has it out for me!" she argued, annoyed her friend wasn't taking this as seriously as she was.

"Maniac was extreme, you're right, I'm sorry. But MJ, I really think you've just been watching too much TV and now it's catching up to you. I mean, the last show you were binge watching was a crazy thriller, right? And now magically you think you may be stuck in some kind of bizarre thriller with your TV as the villain? That doesn't sound coincidental to you?"

MJ frowned, pulling at the threads on her shirt sleeve. "I don't know. I think it's more than that Betty."

"Okay, so this has happened two nights in a row you said, right?"


"Okay. Don't turn on the TV tonight," Betty suggested. "And if you don't have any weird dreams you can't remember then maybe we can start to suspect the TV really is haunting you or whatever."

"Betty you're a genius," MJ said excitedly, "a damn genius. That's brilliant."

Her friend laughed on the other end of the line. "Let me know the verdict in the morning Ghostbuster."

"Will do."

MJ caught up on some homework to distract herself from her (maybe) nemesis in the corner of her room, ignoring the temptation to turn it on and see what would happen. She was actually really productive, finishing the homework for art history and even doing the reading for her marketing course that wasn't due until next week.

After a thorough shower she even took the time to paint her toenails and fingernails just for something to distract her mind. She drank a glass of chardonnay to calm herself down and decided to listen to some music to go to sleep, setting her Spotify playlist on shuffle. The air seemed to be thicker in her apartment than usual and she tossed and turned in her sheets, flopping around to and fro to get comfortable.

Eventually, thankfully, she was turned horizontally on the bed and sleep was about to pull her under when she rolled over, shoulder digging into the remote control on her bed. She barely registered the screen lighting up and blinking in the dark of her room.

I wanna fuck you like an animal.

I wanna feel you from the inside.

The dirty, sultry sounds of nine inch nails blared through the speakers of the club. MJ gripped the pole tight in her fist and spun herself around to press her spine directly in line with it, arching her back seductively. She peered out at the faces surrounding the edge of the stage, flirtatiously bored in the way that was her trademark.

She circled her hips in time with the music, letting one hand run over the curves of her body before spinning around again to do body rolls against the pole, grinding herself against it. When she dropped down into a split the bills rained onto the stage at her and she smirked.

She'd been dancing at the Uncharted Strip Club for about two months now and while a lot of folks looked down on the profession, she loved it. She was able to pay off her law school tuition and pay all her bills with little to no stress and she still had lots of time for a social life. Not to mention that she loved dancing as an art form, and it kept her in shape.

Yeah, MJ had zero complaints about her job.

It truly was what you made of it. There were some girls at the club who didn't share the same philosophies as Michelle and that was their prerogative; she found it intriguing learning other peoples' perspectives. For example, the back rooms for private dances were rarely frequented by MJ, but some of the girls spent a lot of time back there making more money than she could imagine. That was their choice, and MJ didn't think any less of them for it.

Just like it was her choice to never dance fully nude. She'd strip down to her bra and a G-string and that was the best the crowd would get out of her. Sure, she didn't make quite the same money as the girls who bared it all, but she did well enough that it didn't hurt her. She was a natural entertainer and a really, really good dancer, so that tended to make up for her modesty.

When the song came to an end she was on her knees, chest flat against the floor with her ass in the air, a dramatic arch in her back. She dragged her chest back and popped up to sit on her ankles, flipping her hair to complete a perfect "stripper push up" with a wink to the audience. Specifically at the hot bartender Nathan Drake who'd paused his serving to watch her perform, like he often did.

She collected her money from the stage and waved goodbye to the hollers and cries for an encore then disappeared behind the curtain so the next girl could go on. She elected not to take any private dances for the night but had two more main stage performances to change and get ready for. By the end of the night she was good and tired. MJ changed into her sweatpants and hoodie then tied her hair back into a loose bun to head home.

She maneuvered through the hall and past the private rooms ignoring the questionable sounds of groans over the blaring music to get back to the front of house. For a strip club this was a relatively upscale place, but still, it always felt sketchy to exit through the back door, you never knew who could be waiting out there. Plus, she liked the "security" up at the front anyhow.

Nathan Drake was closing up a supply closet just outside the main room, smiling from ear to ear when he saw her.

"You were amazing tonight," he told her, locking the closet behind him.

"You say that every night," she accused.

"And it's always true," he shrugged. Nathan held the door open and she followed him out past the dance stage and the bar. "Is tonight the night you finally let me take you out for a drink?"

"Take me out? When there's a whole bar right here we could use for free?" she teased, gesturing to the bar they'd just passed.

"We could stick around after hours if you'd like. I'll make you a cocktail. Maybe a 'Leg Spreader', my specialty." He wriggled his eyebrows and MJ snorted a laugh, swatting at his shoulder.

"You're an idiot. Ask me again next week, maybe I'll forget I don't like you."

"Oh I will," he laughed, pushing the exit door open for her before following her into the dark parking lot; her own personal body guard.

She didn't actually dislike Nathan, and he knew it. He was a decent dude, even if he did sometimes ogle her dancing just like the other horny men in the audience. He couldn't really be faulted for that; MJ was a smoke show. And if sometimes she was a little extra, added a little special oomph just for the pleasure of watching him get distracted at the bar and over pour a drink or nearly drop a glass, well that was her own little secret.

It was best not to get involved with co-workers, that was a secret to no one and the complications that could come with working alongside your stripper girlfriend could be astronomical. So Nathan flirted, she flirted back just a little, and they left it at that.

The story of how their relationship developed was actually pretty random. In her first week at the club she'd gone out to find her car wouldn't start. When she went back inside for help Nathan was the one to diagnose the problem and give her car a jump to get it going again. He hadn't stopped walking her out after her shifts since.

Now they arrived at her car and he waited for her to unlock the door and get inside. She cranked the engine to life, knowing he'd be waiting for that and rolled the window down to see him. "I'm all ready to go, Dad."

"I love it when you talk dirty to me," he smirked, brown eyes twinkling while he laid a hand on the top of her window.


"You say pervert, I say enthusiast."

"I say goodnight, weirdo," she smiled, rolling her eyes fondly.

"Goodnight, Michelle."

Cast me far away. Play these little games.

Actin all okay. Today, today.

The next week MJ was midway through her second number, high up the pole and holding her figure head pose when she realized she really didn't like the way her favorite bartender's eyes twinkled at the petite blonde seated in front of him. She was giggling way too loud at whatever stupid thing he was saying, leaning towards him and flashing a shiny bracelet on her wrist like she wanted to show it off. Nathan grinned right back, making her drink with a grand and entirely unnecessary flourish. It grated her nerves.

She was distracted through the rest of her dance, stumbling through more than one pirouette messily and ending in a different pose than she'd choreographed.

Nathan was constantly flirting at the bar, it was basically his whole personality not to mention how he made the majority of his tips, she reminded herself, shrugging it off. It's not like she actually cared, she was just frustrated was all. It had just been a long day, she wasn't performing to her full potential and she was just having an overall off night.

MJ needed a drink.

Her next dance wasn't for a little while, so she threw on her regular clothes and made her way to the bar to try and get one.

She plopped down at the first open seat she could find, pointedly ignoring the leers of the man next to her and raised a hand to signal Nathan's attention. He looked shocked to see her out on the floor. Blondie looked annoyed that he was leaving when he walked down to MJ, not that she was paying attention.

"Fancy seeing you here," he noted. "Shouldn't you be backstage?"

"I should and I'd love to go back, but I need a drink first. An alcoholic one please," she added, gesturing to the bottles behind him.

"Should you really be drinking before you go onstage?"

MJ narrowed her eyes at him. "Don't be boring, Nathan. Be my partner in crime."

"I'd love to, Michelle, I would. The thing is I couldn't bear to see you go for a trick spin and end up halfway across the stage because I was irresponsible," he told her, feigning remorse.

Down the bar blondie waved him down, holding up her empty glass. "Nate!" she called in a high pitched, nasally voice. "I'm empty!"

MJ rolled her eyes.

"Just a sec," he told MJ, turning away quickly to serve the woman. MJ did not pout about it, she pouted over the fact that she came out here on a mission and failed to get what she wanted.

Nathan took a few minutes to appease blondie then charmed a few others down the bar easily. His brown hair was slicked back, broad shoulders highlighted by the black vest he wore that fit him so well. MJ silently admired him while he worked, annoyed when she noted how closely blondie was doing the exact same thing until he returned to where MJ sat.

"Sorry, duty calls. So, before you return to yours is there anything else I can do for you that's not against the rules?"

"Actually, yes," she decided, leaning forward across the bar. MJ reached out and pinched his black tie between her fingers, feeling the satin-y fabric. If blondie was watching, huffing in MJ's peripheral vision, she didn't notice (but she totally did). "Could I borrow this, Nate?" she asked sweetly, mocking blondie because she just couldn't help herself.

"My uniform?" he smirked, eying her hand on his tie with interest.

"Only part of it. This part specifically," she clarified, giving it a slight tug to pull him forward. He stumbled into the bar with a laugh that somehow managed to be sexy as hell, teeth digging into the side of his bottom lip.

"I really think it'll set off my next costume perfectly."

"What kind of friend would I be to not support your art," he reasoned, holding eye contact with her while he loosened the tie and pulled it off. She smiled sweetly in victory when he handed it to her. "Happy?"

"It's not the stiff drink I ordered, but it'll do."

He didn't take the bait she'd given him to make an awful joke, he wasn't even looking at her anymore, distracted by something down the bar. Maybe blondie had an "accidental" nip slip or had done something to re-gain his attention.

"I'll bring this back to you after my next dance if it survives the routine," she teased, trying again. "I'll be finished after the next one."

"Sounds good," he said, still not looking at her.

The look of rage that settled over his features happened in a flash and he bolted down the bar, grabbing a man by the hand just as he'd been tipping some sort of powder into the glass of the unassuming woman beside him. MJ's jaw dropped open watching Nathan twist the man's arm backward.

"Get the fuck out," he spat, holding the man in place despite his words.

The woman, now aware of what was happening covered her mouth in horror and pushed the drink away from her. "Oh my God."

The Manager came walking over then followed by her favorite bouncer, Frank, after the little commotion.

"Michelle you shouldn't be out here, you're on in five minutes, get backstage," the manager ordered, breezing past her and to the bar. "What's going on over here?"

MJ made her way backstage while Nathan gave the run down to their boss. Thank God Nathan had caught it in time. Unfortunately, this wasn't the first time someone had attempted to drug a patron. It wasn't a common occurrence per say, but even once was more than she was comfortable with. It was probably another reason Nathan refused to serve her a drink while the club was open.

She readied herself for her final number in a just a loose white button down, Nathan's black tie and her strappy black heels then went out to the sounds of "Desire" playing through the venue. It didn't give her quite the fulfilment she'd been hoping for though because when she looked behind the bar, there was no Nathan. The other bartender, Mark, was holding it down all by himself.

At the end of the night she re-dressed into her clothes and headed for the front like usual, Nathan's tie clutched in her fist so she could return it. But he wasn't by the supply closet and he wasn't at the bar when she walked out.

Stupidly, absolutely ridiculously, she stood for a few moments waiting for him to pop out from a corner somewhere, but he never did. So she rolled her neck, stuffed the tie into her pocket and made for the door alone for the fist time in almost two months.

When she pushed the front door open she found a startled Nathan Drake jumping back to avoid being hit by it. "Sorry, I- Oh! You're not gone, great!"

"Where were you?" she asked before she could help herself, peering around the lot.

"Why? Did you miss me?" he wondered, stepping aside to let her out.

"No. I missed my security escort. It's not safe out here," she cringed at her own joke, recalling the events from the bar earlier. It wasn't really a joke, it was true.

"I noticed," he said with a scowl. "We called the cops for that ass hat with the rufie's earlier and I was giving my statement," he explained. "Took longer than I expected."

"Did they take him in?" she asked.

"Yeah, they've got him. Asshole."

"Good. I'm glad you were there to stop it," she told him, turning to face him when they reached her car.

"Me too. Guess I'm pretty good at my job," he shrugged off the seriousness, taking on the teasing smirk she knew and loved when he leaned against her door. "Not as good as you though."


"Did my tie actually make it onstage tonight?" he wondered.

"It did. You missed it."

He groaned. "Damn. You have no idea how much I hate I missed it."

"And it was an excellent performance. Some of my best work," she lied, knowing she'd mostly marked through the movements without him around to inspire her performance.

He chuckled, staring her down with an evil glint in his eye. "Is that right? And all because you were jealous?"

MJ's jaw dropped to gape at him. "I'm sorry, what?"

"Don't try to play dumb with me, Jones. I saw you scowling at that lady at the bar right before you started playing with my tie," he accused.

She snorted an indignant laugh at him, placing her hands on her hips. "I was not jealous, I just have RBF."

"Sure. That's one of the oldest tricks in the book, ya know. Stealing a piece of clothing to flaunt around in front of any potential suitors. You may as well have peed on me."

"Potential suitors? What is this, Bridgerton?"

"Ah, deflection, nice. It's okay. You being jealous can be our little secret. Just between the three of us," he whispered, holding his now crumpled tie up between them with a wink. When the hell had he grabbed that out of her pocket?

"I can't stand you," she informed him, unlocking her car with a click.

"Then by all means, have a seat," he said cheeky as you please, opening the door and holding it for her to get in. She rolled her eyes but sat, letting him close the door behind her. She cranked the engine to life and rolled the window down to see him.

"Thanks for walking me out, weirdo."

"Anytime, Michelle."

"You can call me MJ if you want," she allowed, fiddling with her keys. "My friends call me MJ."

His jaw dropped scandalously. "First you're jealous over me and now you're giving me access to your super secret nickname? All in one night? Are we about to go steady?" he teased, leaning down into her window grinning from ear to ear.

"I seriously can't stand you," she laughed, shaking her head.

"You say the sweetest things, MJ," he cooed, smug as she'd ever seen him.

"Screw you."

"And hey, if you ever wanna borrow my tie again, just say the word," he flirted, patting the hood of her car. "For on or off the stage purposes, we're available," he winked.

Michelle laughed, flipping him the bird as she pulled out of the lot.

So why you standing over there wit' ya clothes on? Baby strip down for me go on take 'em off.

Don't worry baby Imma meet you halfway cause I know you wanna see me.

Fuck Nathan Drake.

Fuck his perfectly coifed brown hair that made a girl wanna run her fingers through it just to see how wild it could get.

Fuck his intricately sculpted arms and cute ass.

Fuck his stupid crooked nose that she found adorable for some bizarre reason and his dreamy brown eyes.

And mostly, fuck him for not showing up to work the next Friday night, denying at least half of MJ's fun while she danced onstage. To make matters worse, on the final notes of the song she nailed a perfect Roxy spin but felt her bra strings snap in the process. Shit. She played it off, shooting a hand behind her to keep it in place before collecting her money and strutting off.

When she was offstage she yanked the broken bra off and tossed it in the trash. She snagged her robe from the hook, covering her bare breasts and tiny yellow G-string before going into the back hallway. As she was making her way to the dressing room to get ready for her next number she heard a commotion at the other end of the hall, looking up to see Nathan slam into the corner and come barreling towards her, running at full speed.

"What the hell are you doing?!"

He looked over his shoulder, still sprinting ahead. "Long story, need to hide."

Without skipping a beat MJ grabbed his wrist and tugged him into one of the private rooms, slipping the latch so that it would read 'occupied' from the outside.

"Hide from who?"

She pushed him toward the cushy chair directly in front of the single pole in the room, her brain working a mile a minute at the frantic way his eyes kept darting toward the door. He was panicked and he too knew the door wasn't actually locked, it was a flimsy deterrent.

Music played on a constant loop in the private rooms so she turned the chair around so that her back would be to the door, covering him.

"Um, bad guys," he whispered, letting her take the lead and shove him down into the chair. "I don't know."

MJ too looked over her shoulder, worried whoever these 'bad guys' were could walk in at any second and find him.

"Bad guys? Like the mafia?" she whispered, on high alert.

"No! Not the mafia!...I don't think." MJ sputtered, smacking his shoulder. "No, no, not the mafia." He went from anxious to confused when she straddled his spread legs, taking a seat. "Umm, what are you doing?"

"I'm hiding you," she said deadpan. Wasn't it obvious?

Automatically, he shifted to give her more surface area to sit on, reaching for her hips to keep her steady. "Not that I'm complaining, but how exactly is this hiding?"

There was a loud bang on the door but instead of freezing MJ jumped into action. With a swift tug she unwrapped her robe and tossed it behind Nathan's chair. She grabbed his hair and pressed his face into her chest, holding him there and grinding herself against him frantically with her head thrown back. MJ started to fake moan, ignoring how frozen he was beneath her to sell the performance.

"Open up!" came a foreign voice beyond the door and just a beat later it was swinging open.

"Uh! Uh! Oh!" she bounced filthily in his lap before peeking over her shoulder and pretending to be caught mid coitus. "Oh my God! Get out!" she shrieked.

The burly man stumbled backward muttering something unintelligible and hurriedly shut the door, presumably moving on to the next room.

After a few seconds of bated breaths and stuttering heartbeats MJ released her hold on the back of his head, allowing him to sit up straight.

"Holy shit that was close," she breathed, steadying herself with a hand on his shoulder. "I had no idea if that would actually work."

"But it did. You're a fucking genius," he said in awe.

MJ looked down at his face to find his eyes locked onto her breasts, studying them as if he were committing them to memory.

"My eyes are up here asshole."

"They looked at me first," he defended, struggling to pull his attention away from her body.

But again, fair.

She looked down at her near naked body pressed intimately against his strong, fully clothed one and felt herself throb with desire. His hands were latched to her hips, brown eyes drinking her in and his slacks were so thin, not unlike the tiny G-string covering her. It was suddenly degrees hotter in the room now that the threat had passed. Speaking of which...

"Wait, okay, what the fuck was that? Who's looking for you?"

"I don't know who that was," he answered, finally meeting her gaze.

"What did you do to piss them off?"

"I have no idea. We didn't actually have a conversation, MJ. They've been tailing me for the last hour and I thought I gave them the slip but they tracked me here."

"Do you think they'll come back?"

"I...don't know," he sighed, unlocking one hand from her hip to run over his face.

"That's kind of terrifying, don't you think?"

His warm eyes hardened. "I'll quit. I won't put you or anyone else here in danger if they come back," he told her, more earnest than she'd ever seen him be. "I'll leave. Immediately."

MJ nodded in understanding, taken aback by the ferocity in his tone. "Well, let's hope they don't," she commented, still making no move to get out of his lap though it was probably time. "It would kind of suck here without you."

The seriousness dissipated from his face and melted into something more flirtatious. "Aww. I knew you liked me, Jones."

"You wish," she huffed, crossing her arms over her chest. "I enjoy your company, there's a difference. You're fun to tease."

"Whatever you say," he smirked.

"If anything, it's you that likes me," she challenged, shifting forward on his lap just a hair to see him fidget.

"I thought that was pretty obvious." She wasn't sure if he was referring to the stiffness at the center of his slacks or speaking generally, but her eyes were drawn there nonetheless. "But it's nice to know the feeling is mutual," he teased, smirking at her with a pat to her hip.

"That is not what I said," she huffed.

"It's what you meant. Plus, it was pretty obvious from the way you flashed me and proceeded to grind on my junk a few minutes ago."

"Oh my God, I was trying to protect you, asshole. I was doing you a favor," she whined, swatting his chest and staying resolutely on his lap despite her own argument.

"Yeah, you really were." He wriggled his eyebrows and she snorted.


"And you like me anyway."

"Whatever. I really hope you enjoyed that little performance because that's all it was and you'll never be experiencing it again," she told him, using every bit of her will power to pull herself out of his lap and stand. She walked over to retrieve her robe from the floor and wrapped it around herself.

"MJ, wait," he said, touching her elbow. She looked up to find gentle, probing eyes and took pause.


"If I'm never going to see them again, can I at least tell them goodbye?"

It took her a second to catch up to his meaning, and when she did she rolled her eyes as dramatically as she could. Feigning resignation, MJ turned to face him with a put-out sigh.

"You have ten seconds, starting now," she told him, holding the robe open. His gaze dropped to her boobs instantly, softening with a reverence that nearly made her giggle.

"God, where do I start? Girls, Ladies, I guess this is goodbye. We weren't together for a long time, but it sure was a good time wasn't it?" he smiled fondly. "I hope you never forget me, because I'll certainly never forget you."

"You're such an idiot," she told him, closing the robe and tying it.

"I like you too," he responded. "See you at the end of your shift?"

She sighed, but relented. "Yes please. If the mafia doesn't kidnap you before then," she teased, slipping out the door and leaving him to adjust himself.

Tonight I wanna dance for you.

Tonight I'm gonna put my body on your body, boy I like it when you watch me.

MJ did not like Nathan Drake.

She hadn't been thinking about his eyes and hands on her body all week. She wasn't plagued with the memory of grinding on his lap or stuck fantasizing about what it'd be like to do it for real. She wasn't charmed by his stupid personality or attracted to his handsome face and swoon worthy physique.

He was wrong.

Except that he wasn't at all and every bit of that was a lie and she knew it. Her mind was a near constant loop of him, replaying over and over and over.

She liked Nathan Drake. A lot.

More pressing though, she wanted Nathan Drake.

They'd been flirting with their eyes alone all night and she thought she might combust. So from the moment she stepped onstage for her final number of the night her eyes were locked onto his and they never left. She poured everything into her routine for him, he may as well have been a part of it.

Through every sexy crawl she looked to him, wishing she could crawl right off the stage and onto his bar. For every stripper push up she arched her back dramatically, held her ass in the air just a second or two longer and stared into his eyes, hoping to convey how much she wished he were behind her. She lay in a shoulder bridge to thrust and roll her hips in time with the music, letting her hands roam over the curves of her body, pretending they were his and hoping he was imagining the same. She grinded against the pole much like she'd grinded against his body, tossing her hair and getting lost in the way his eyes clouded over with lust while he watched her, mesmerized.

This was more than the usual, he could feel her reaching out to him, pulling him into the dance with her.

He'd long given up serving drinks, losing tips in the process she was sure, but his focus was solely on her. By the time the music came to an end she was panting in exertion.

She hurried to collect her money from the stage and rushed to the back. MJ barely took the time to stash it into her bag and throw on her robe before she was sprinting toward the front.

Nathan met her in the hallway, dark eyes boring into hers. "Are we-?"


Quickly, but still not quick enough for her liking, he pulled her by the hand, unlocked the supply closet and ushered her inside.

The door had barely closed behind them when Nathan pressed her back against it roughly, attacking her lips in a hungry kiss. She skipped the pretense of a buildup and opened her mouth for him instantly, stroking his tongue with hers. He responded in kind, tilting his head to kiss her deeper, probing her mouth with his, but managed enough presence of mind to lock the door behind them.

MJ was very aware of her state of undress while they made out, and it quickly became unfair. So she worked at his belt buckle, working his pants off his hips to hang out around his ankles until he kicked them off. His vest and button down took more effort than was preferred and she nearly ripped the buttons open in her haste to get to him but a distant part of her mind realized they would have to eventually exit this little closet and his shirt should be intact for that.

She broke apart from their hungry kisses to breathe, smirking at him. "The tie stays on," she ordered, holding it in place while they pushed his shirt off.

"Kinky, I like it."

When his torso was bare MJ took the time to really appreciate it, much like he'd done her breasts. His pecs were truly impeccable, the rippling muscles of his abs and his bulging biceps making her stomach swoop and her mouth water. She ran her fingertips over his skin, tracing every muscle and vein she could find while he reached behind her to unhook her bra. When it fell he leaned back and gazed down with a goofy grin on his lips.

"I missed you, ladies," he breathed before pulling one nipple into his mouth to suck and roll between his lips.

MJ gasped, twofold when his hand came up to pinch and tug at the other, lavishing the same attention to them both. Heat swelled within her, the ache building between her thighs with her need for him.

"Stop talking to my boobs and talk to me," she pouted, tugging the tie around his neck to pull him back in for a searing kiss.

"I can multitask," he told her, dropping his head to lick and suck at her neck while his fingers continued their exquisite toying with her nipple.

Clad in just his boxers his excitement was made well known when he ground against her, the hardness between his legs pushing insistently against the wet spot in her G-String. MJ moaned at the contact, arching her neck to give him better access to her throat.

"Fuck me, Nathan," she breathed into his ear, gasping when he planted both hands on her ass and hoisted her onto his front.

She locked both legs around him and he carried her over to the counter, sitting her atop it. He stayed between her legs, holding her hips and tonguing at the dip in her collarbone. "Say that again for me."

MJ rolled her eyes, well fluttered them really but she was counting it as an eye roll. "I'm not saying it again."

"Come on," he urged, tangling a hand into her hair to wrap it around his fist and tug sharply. "You were basically screaming it at me the whole time you were dancing just now," he accused (correctly), dragging his other hand down her belly and toward the edge of her panties. "The least you can do is let me actually hear you say it one more time."

"No," she said stubbornly and his hand froze. MJ peeked an eye open to find him staring at her hesitantly, the question written clearly on his face. "But yes to that, please touch me," she encouraged, wiggling to push her hips toward him.

He resumed the path his hand had been taking with a chuckle, letting his fingers dip down into her panties and delve into the wetness there. She was so wet that she could hear it when he touched her. He groaned, dipping a finger in shallowly before sliding it up to work at her clit and a surprised whine spilled from her lips, an honest to God whine. She'd be embarrassed if she weren't so turned on. When he removed his finger and brought it to his mouth he released a filthy moan at the taste of her. MJ thought she might die right then and there.

Before she knew what was happening he was slipping her panties off and had his face buried between her legs, lips wrapped around her clit and sucking.

"Fucking delectable," he growled.

Her hands flew to his hair, tugging insistently at his gelled down locks when he slipped a finger back into her, thrusting and pulsing in tandem with his working of her magic button. She lay blissfully open for him, arching her back and moaning embarrassingly while he worshipped her body. He moaned into her, letting a hand trail up to tug at her nipple and by the time he added a second finger, letting the both of them pulse and drag inside her she was absolutely thrumming with pleasure. She came with a staccato gasp, hugging his face to her.

"You're so damn sexy," he praised, kissing her flushed cheek. "Absolutely gorgeous."

Nathan's fingers continued to move inside her, working her through the orgasm until she started to come down. When he did pull his hand from her she eyed the prominent tent in his boxers and bit her lip. She leaned up on an elbow and used the tie to pull him closer.

MJ pressed her lips to his in another heated kiss and grasped the edges of his boxers at both sides to push them off his hips. He stepped out of them and kicked them away with the rest of their clothes. She took a second to drink in his glorious naked body, dick standing tall and flushed and desperate for her. She clenched around nothing, desperate to have him inside her.

"Come here," she beckoned, taking his face in both hands to kiss him deeply again.

He leaned in to her, letting his hands roam freely over her hips and waist, her ass, her arms, everywhere he could touch and she couldn't imagine ever denying this man anything.

It came as a shock when he pulled back, untangling her legs from his waist to step away. He moved over to his discarded pants and dug around in the pockets until she saw the glint of a condom wrapper. He ripped it open and slid it down his cock, hooded eyes locked onto hers while he made his way back to her.

Nathan returned to where she sat on the counter and kissed her slowly, exploring her mouth and letting their tongues dance together. One hand tugged at her hair while the other slipped back between her legs, collecting the slickness there and spreading it up to her clit once more to rub small circles.

"I'm ready," she told him, sucking behind his ear and giving it a soft bite.

"What do you want, MJ?" he asked, pressing down on her clit and making her whine.

"Want you to fuck me," she breathed, giving in. She'd give him anything he wanted at this point.

He removed his hand from between her legs and pulled her to her feet. Nathan turned her around and pressed her chest flat against the counter. Her hands splayed against the top while he nudged her feet wider.

"That's all you ever had to say."

His hand was firm at her hip when he finally entered her, groaning low in his throat at how easily he slid inside. She moaned at the divine intrusion, squeezing around him and clawing at the countertop while he worked himself in and out of her, stretching her in the best way. His hand trailed up her spine gently then fisted into her hair to give a sharp tug, forcing her back to arch. The resulting angle allowed him to hit a new spot deep within her, making stars explode behind her eyes.

"Nathan," she cried, pushing herself back onto him. "Fuck."

"You feel amazing, MJ," he growled, holding her steady to pound into her from behind, driving into that sweet spot relentlessly. "So fucking tight."

She was grateful for the countertop holding her up while he ravished her, pushing her nearer and nearer her next orgasm.

The wet sounds of him plunging into her filled the small room, his skin slapping against hers with every firm thrust of his hips only adding to the building pressure within her. She cried out her pleasure with no reservations, living for the sounds of his moans and groans.

"Feel good?" he asked, reaching around her front to tweak at her nipple.

"Yes," she gasped, "Uh! Keep going."

"I wanna see you," he demanded, pulling out of her swiftly.

MJ whined at the sudden feeling of emptiness, but it didn't last long. He spun her around and lifted her back onto the counter.

"Lay down baby," he ordered, pressing his palm to her chest and laying her flat across the top. He took her hips in his strong hands and pulled her right to the edge, re-entering her as quickly as he'd left.

"Gorgeous," he rasped, tweaking her nipple with one hand. He placed his other palm flat against her abdomen and pressed down gently but firmly in time with his next deep thrust.

MJ nearly came off the counter top at the feeling, choking around a gasp.

"Holy shit!"

She whimpered as he pounded into her faster, pressing down on her in that same spot with each rough thrust. The pressure was building in double time, her head turning from side to side on the counter trying to keep up with the maddening pleasure he inflicted on her.

"Too much," she cried out, eyes rolling back into her skull.

"You can take it MJ," Nathan panted, taking her hand in his to tangle their fingers together, never losing his perfect rhythm. "Take it for me."

And he was right, she did. She wanted to. She squeezed his hand, digging her fingernails into his skin and clutched at his forearm with the other, feeling the hard muscles work while he fucked into her.

"Nathan, Nathan, Nath-, Na," she gasped, the pitch of her voice escalating as he drove her to the finish line.

"Come on, Michelle," he breathed, bucking into her. "Give me another one. I wanna watch you cum while I'm inside you."

At his words MJ came with a loud wail, back arching off the countertop. She thrashed beneath him with the force of it, squeezing his hand tightly in hers, the only thing keeping her grounded as she floated on her high.

He came a few moments later, holding her hips in his hands and slamming into her wildly. She was still slightly trembling with the aftershocks of her orgasm when he tied off the condom and pulled her back into a seated position.

Surprising given the way he'd just absolutely railed her, Nathan stood between her legs and wrapped her up in a sweet hug. He held her with gentle hands and stroked her back and pressed kisses to her forehead, each cheek, her nose, and her lips like she were something precious, something to be adored. He made her feel adored.

"That was incredible," he told her, pushing her now sweaty hair behind her ear. "You're incredible."

"You too."

Thoroughly fucked out, she chose to sit in her post orgasmic euphoria and allowed Nathan to re-dress her in her bra, panties and robe where she sat on the counter then watched him dress himself.

When they were both somewhat decent (his usually perfect hair was now destroyed thanks to her and hers was probably much the same) he helped her down from the counter, smirking like the smug bastard he was when she swayed on her feet slightly and he steadied her.

"Fuck you."

"You already did. I'd say let's go for round two, but it looks like you may need a minute," he teased, earning a halfhearted smack from her.

"You're the literal worst."

"I know, I know. You can't stand me," he did an awful impression of her voice, grinning like an idiot and making her laugh. Then he pressed a kiss to her cheek again, seemingly unable to help himself. "Meet you out front after you're changed?"

"Yeah," she agreed, taking a step toward the closet door just to show him she could. "I may even let you take me out for that drink."

"This really is my lucky night," he grinned, moving to unlock the door. He paused. "Do you wanna walk out first, or should I?"

"I'll go. It'll give you the chance to ogle my ass one more time," she reasoned, winking at him.

"Works out great for me," he decided, pulling the door open but she pushed it closed at the last second.

"Hey, Nathan," she started, looking up at him with her hand resting over his on the doorknob.


"I like you too."

His answering smile was bright. "And here I thought you'd never admit it, Jones."

Let me show you how proud I am to be yours.

Leave this dress a mess on the floor and still look good for you, good for you.

It was a few days, a few dates and even more orgasms later when Nathan text MJ to let her know he wouldn't be coming in to work, that 'something had come up' about the people who'd been following him before. She knew he didn't want her to be close to the drama of it all, whatever it might be, so she didn't pout about it too much, though she did miss him, not that she would tell him that.

She stroked his ego plenty already.

At the end of the night she was surprised when she walked out to find him standing at her car, leaned against it and watching her.

"Hey, beautiful," he greeted, stepping forward to kiss her cheek.

"Hey yourself," she said back, eying the duffel bag hanging from his shoulder suspiciously. "Going somewhere?"

"Uh, yeah, actually."

"Running away from the bad guys?" she joked, fighting to ignore the anxiety that was clawing it's way up from her stomach for whatever he was about to say.

"The opposite, actually. I'm kind of running to them," he explained, gripping the duffel bag's strap.

" I take it you found out why they were looking for you?"

"Kind of. There's a lot I still don't know, but, I think it has something to do with my brother and," he paused, looking up at her with a thousand emotions in his eyes. "I've gotta go find him, Em."

MJ had heard him mention a brother on more than one occasion, a brother he idolized. The love and devotion was clear on his face, his mind was made up.

"Okay. Where will you go?"


Her eyes went wide. "Wow, that's...some trip. I'm not sure you packed enough," she commented, poking his duffel bag with her index finger to avoid letting him see the sadness in her eyes.

"I'm not planning to be gone forever, MJ," he told her softly, moving into her space and wrapping his hand around her waist. "I'll be back, I promise."

She nodded, brushing his nose with hers. "Good. Or else I will go looking for you," she warned him, narrowing her eyes playfully to disguise her seriousness.

Nathan laughed. "I know the odds are slim to none, but, is there any chance you wanna come with on this adventure? You'd never have to go looking for me if you're just, with me," he suggested, giving her puppy dog eyes.

MJ snorted. "To Panama?"

"Yeah," he grinned. "I hear the weather's lovely this time of year."

She allowed herself to dream of abandoning all responsibilities and following him on some wild adventure for only a few seconds before letting reality sink in. "I can't, Nathan. I wish I could go with you, but I can't just up and leave, I have to be here."

He dropped his forehead to hers with a sigh. "I figured you'd say that, but I had to at least try."

"It does make me really happy that you wanted to take me though," she whispered, pressing a kiss to his lips. "You're definitely getting lucky tonight just for that. We may even pull out the handcuffs."

In spite of her flirting Nathan frowned, brows pulling together shamefully.

"Actually, I leave tonight. In a few minutes to be perfectly transparent." He pointed across the lot to a shiny black car. A very muscular man, even more so than Nathan, with a goatee sat in the driver's seat eying his wristwatch and pretending not to be watching them.

MJ shook off the dread that made her stomach sink at the realization of his impending immediate departure. She didn't want him to see her sad though. This clearly meant a lot to him and she didn't want his worrying about her to get in the way or cause him to be distracted.

"Alright. As soon as you get back then."

"Promise?" he grinned.

"I'll be right here waiting for you," she told him. "Just don't take too long, or again, I will hunt you down Nathan Drake," she warned.

Nathan laughed, a sound she committed to memory knowing he'd be notably absent from her life for a little while. "Will you miss me?"

MJ pretended to be considering her answer just to screw with him before relenting with a smile. "You know I will."

"I'll miss you more," he told her, leaning in to press a sweet, lingering kiss to her lips. It was a precious moment until he squatted slightly to speak directly to her breasts. "Don't think I forgot you ladies, I'll miss you too."

"You're such an idiot," she admonished, but found herself pulling him into a tight hug.

He held her just as fiercely, cradling her in his strong arms and burying his face into her neck. She held onto him for probably longer than what was necessary before a honk, probably from the random dude in the car waiting for Nathan, caused them to pull away. He flipped the guy off with one hand and caressed her cheek with the other, holding her face in his palm and looking at her like she was everything.

"Promise me you'll be safe," she demanded.

"I promise."

"And you'll call me?" she asked.

"As often as possible," he promised, holding the door open so she could get into her car. It was such a simple, routine gesture, one that she'd miss dearly in his absence.

She cranked her engine and rolled the window down, leaning over the window edge to see him clearly while she fucked with him one last time. "I know I said I'd be here, but without your overprotective ass around to walk me out every night, I could easily be kidnapped ya know. You don't want that on your conscience, so I suggest you have your adventure and find your brother and come home as quick as possible."

Nathan scoffed. "Don't think that just because I'm not here that you'll be walking out alone, Ms. Jones," he informed her, causing her to arch a questioning brow. "I've already arranged for Frank to walk you out every night while I'm gone, so you be sure to let me know if he starts slacking."

MJ pursed her lips. "I was joking Nathan, you shouldn't have done that. I'm a grown woman, I can handle myself. I only let you do it because you were hot."

"Frank's hot too."

"No thank you," she protested immediately, shaking her head.

"Good, that's the reaction I was hoping for," he grinned. "I don't need you going and falling in love with him like you did me. That's our story."

MJ sputtered. "I did not-, what? That's just-, Ugh. I hate you," she settled on, rolling her eyes at him in false exasperation.

"No you don't," he smirked.

She huffed. "Well. While I'm not falling in love with Frank, what about you? Will you be in Panama walking some unassuming girl to her car under the guise of protecting her just to get into her pants?"

"Are you insinuating that I was only trying to get into your pants? Because we both know that's not true."

MJ merely shrugged, letting her chin jut out. "Didn't answer my question."

"No. I'll have no interest of getting into anyone's pants since I'll have a girl at home," he said, feigning casualness while his eyes shined at her.

They both ignored random guy's next horn honk.

"Oh? And who might that be?" she asked, propping her chin on her hand.

"You're not gonna make me say it," he said, shaking his head stubbornly even though he was smiling from ear to ear.

"I think you will," she sing-songed, grabbing him by the belt buckle to pull him closer. "Who's your girl, Nathan?"

"Well," he started, leaning down so that his face was level with hers. "Her friends call her MJ."

He pressed one more kiss to her lips through the window, quelling the butterflies in her stomach and she beamed. "I guess that settles that."

Random guy waiting for Nathan laid on his horn even more impatiently and Nathan smirked.

"See you in a few weeks?"

"You better."

MJ woke the next afternoon to find herself drenched with seat having kicked all of her covers off the bed. She glared at the TV. Once again, she knew she'd dreamed something but she couldn't remember what. She did remember something about hair gel, stripper poles and black ties. The wetness between her thighs and the way her heart raced told her it'd been a very, very good dream, so she couldn't quite decide if she was upset or not.

With a sigh, she reached over to her nightstand and dug out her pink bullet.

"I'm onto you," she warned, tossing her abandoned sleep shorts across the screen in case it was somehow watching her.

"I can't go, Betty. I have too much to do at home," MJ told her friend, walking into her tiny apartment with a bag full of take out Thai after her last class of the day.

"Come on MJ. Pretty please," the girl pouted through the speaker. "You never go out with me anymore! We need a night out to remind ourselves we're still young!"

MJ laughed. "We're only 22, calm down."

"22 going on 76, well in your case. I'm really looking out for you here," the girl chided. "I have a really strong suspicion you're gonna get a cat soon and then I'm dragging you out of that apartment myself."

"I'm allergic to cats and you know it," MJ defended, but if she was being completely honest, the thought had occurred to her. She toed her shoes off and padded over to her fridge for a drink.

In all honesty, since the Covid Pandemic Michelle had settled more and more into being a homebody. Almost everything she needed to do outside of school and work could be done online so her social battery wasn't diminished nearly as often as it had been before. Was it healthy? Probably not, but that seemed like a future-MJ problem. Besides, she still had a mystery to figure out with her new maybe-magical TV. Or at the very least a show to watch if she could ever get the piece of shit to work.

"Fine," Betty pouted. "But you're coming out with me next weekend, no matter what bullshit excuse you come up with or even Spider-Man won't be able to save you from my wrath."

MJ gulped. "Yes ma'am."

She'd decided against telling Betty anymore about her television suspicions, knowing the girl already thought she was crazy. Hell, maybe she was crazy. What she needed was solid evidence that something weird was going on, something more than vague dreams she couldn't remember and a "gut feeling".

MJ poured herself a glass of wine, then thinking of what Betty had said, she took a glance at the bottle. It was 14% alcohol, which, sure, was significant and it was a brand she didn't usually buy. And come to think of it, she had been sipping from the bottle every night that she'd had the strange dreams.

So to test the hunch, she poured the red liquid back into the bottle and grabbed a water instead.

"I'm not drinking tonight. It's just you and me," she said to the TV when she settled on bed in front of it. "I'm listening with a clear mind or whatever." She took a deep, steadying breath. "If you're alive, blink twice."

She stared at the screen unblinking for a few seconds, daring it to react and feeling like an absolute Looney Tune in the process. "If you really are trying to reach out to me for some reason, I'm listening. I'm awake."

After a few seconds of only seeing her own bewildered expression reflected back at her in the screen, MJ sighed in defeat. Of course her television wasn't alive and reaching out to her. And then she realized the big flaw in her theory.

If the TV was actually pulling her in, wouldn't she remember all that happened, like in Jumanji? Wouldn't it work more like her turning to a channel and finding herself pulled into that specific world, not a random one out of thin air she then would have no memory of? What was much more likely, and much less exciting, was that she bought a busted, no good TV from a crappy pawn shop and rather than accepting defeat she was creating wild theories and supporting them with her overactive imagination.

So she sighed in defeat and decided to try one more time. MJ pulled out her fire stick from the USB port and blew into it to remove any dust that may have slipped in before replacing it. Then she turned on the monitor and was shocked when the home screen appeared for more than two seconds.

"Oh my God," she gasped, sitting straight up. "Finally!"

She navigated over to the Netflix tab and was overjoyed to finally hear the loud "Dun Dun" signaling the opening of the app before the screen went white and everything shifted.

"What can I get you?" MJ asked, leaning across the bar towards a middle aged man with salt and pepper hair. Like most of the gentlemen she'd served so far tonight, he wanted an Old Fashioned. She had the glass and the whiskey in hand before he'd finished speaking.

The restaurant wasn't completely filled, but there was a decent crowd. The manager was throwing a private party tonight and she'd been lucky enough to get scheduled to work. She didn't mind much; it gave her the opportunity to score some pretty good tips and allowed her more time to study the new guy, Cherry.

He'd only started working at the restaurant a couple weeks ago, but she found him fascinating in an odd, "could he be a potential love interest or could he one day shoot up the local" kind of way. He didn't talk much and his unkempt brown hair, generically disheveled appearance and mild personality made him kind of a wallflower, but MJ noticed. Despite his carefree, "don't give a fuck" disposition, there was always so much more going on behind his eyes.

She especially took notice the first time he came in to work high as a kite. He didn't do anything overtly obvious to give himself away and he thankfully managed not to screw up their shift or she would've been royally pissed off. No, what told her was the slight glaze in those expressive brown eyes, and the way his crooked nose was upturned grinning like he had a secret.

He'd been scheduled to work the party with her tonight and right now he and his friends were down at the other end of the bar, not as discreetly as they probably thought sneaking shots together. She and Cherry weren't exactly super close, but they'd become friendly while working together. Which is why she wouldn't snitch on him and he knew it, as long as he didn't get too caught up and abandon her to man the bar herself.

Every once in a while when they passed she would hear him talking about his recent break up. He seemed upset about it, but it sounded like the girl, Emily, was supposed to be coming in to see him soon. He seemed on edge about the whole thing.

Later she knew exactly who Emily was simply by the heated glare Cherry tossed at a pretty, petite brunette who walked in with another guy's hand on her shoulder. Cherry stormed around the bar towards them and she wondered if this might be the penultimate moment where he flipped out and set the restaurant into chaos, admittedly that would've made the night a whole lot more interesting, but he didn't.

MJ watched the interaction, eying the way he pulled the girl aside and whispered heatedly to her. The way the girl's wide eyes looked up at him as if she were surprised he would be upset. It didn't last long at all, one of Cherry's friends approached them aggressively and Cherry moved out of the girls' way, gesturing for her to go.

When the ex and maybe new guy? were both gone, she spotted Cherry near the bar with tears in his eyes. The manager had a hand on his shoulder and was saying something to him that got him to laugh. Minutes later she watched Cherry suck it up, blinking away his tears like they'd never been there in the first place and go back to work like nothing had happened.

MJ sidled up next to him. "Hey. You okay? I saw what happened."

His mask faltered slightly. "I'm fine. It is what it is." He moved down to serve a red haired lady with too much lipstick while MJ considered him.

After the manager left, warning them to keep an eye on one of his friends, Cherry's own friends approached the bar to say their goodbyes to him before bustling out the door. None of them, including the one who inserted himself into the confrontation seemed to mention what happened or even ask him about it and MJ frowned. When they were gone she watched Cherry move around the bar serving drinks and checking on the manager's friend. He wore an impassive smile but his shoulders were tense, lips were pulled tight and his eyes stormed.

It was exhausting watching him move about like everything was fine in spite of his internal turmoil.

"If you're upset it's okay to talk about it," she told him when she couldn't keep quiet anymore.

For a second he looked like he might cave at her invitation, then he shook his head. "It doesn't matter."

"It obviously does," she corrected, narrowing her eyes at him.

Cherry avoided her gaze, moving around her to wipe at a spill on the bar. "Whatever, it's stupid. Nobody cares," he added at a whisper, so low she nearly didn't hear him.

MJ raised a brow, staring him down. "It's not stupid. And I think at least one person does care."

He turned to face her, skeptical. "Who, you?"

"I was going to say you, actually," she told him. "You're counting yourself out when you're the most important one to consider." He stared at her with wide eyes, unsure what to say. "Ya know, for years toxic masculinity has made men believe they're not supposed to embrace or God forbid talk about what they're feeling, but it's all a crock of bullshit," she added.

"Okay, Dr. Phil."

MJ shrugged. "Just saying, we could start breaking the cycle right now, right here with you, young man," she teased. "But I do also kind of care and I happen to be a very good listener."

He narrowed his loud eyes to study her, not noticing a man who approached the bar trying to get his attention. MJ moved around him and served the man while he processed.

"Why do you care?" he wondered quietly, curious.

"Because you're a bottler," she told him without hesitation, turning to face him when the man's drink was served.

"A bottler?"

"Yes. It means you suppress things. Like, okay, think of a bottle of coke. If you shake it up, lots of pressure builds inside, the already natural fizz goes wild and you can actually feel the tension coming from the bottle, right? When you let the cap off or even just under the right conditions, what's inside explodes out. You're the bottle of coke."

He looked down at his hands on the bar and mumbled. "That sounds...pretty legit, actually."

"I know, and I get it. I used to be kind of a bottler myself and it can be pretty lonely," she commented, avoiding his eye.

"How'd you get all that from me though?" he wondered, chewing his lip in contemplation. "You barely even know me."

"I see you," she said casually as if that were a small thing, to be seen and understood by another person. "You don't say much verbally, but your eyes do. They say a lot that you, ya know, suppress."


"I also have a theory that's why you get high so often," she added, exposing herself and her fascination with him further. Oh well.

"What?" he whispered, peeking around to see if anyone heard her. "When, um, when do you think I've been high?"

"Let's skip the bullshit," she said, waving him off. "You've come to work high half as much as you've shown up. I think either it's another avenue of suppressing yourself OR a means of giving yourself license to feel and talk freely without having to actually give yourself permission to do so. The drugs do it for you."

He sucked on his tongue, studying her. "Or maybe there's no deeper meaning and I just like being high," he challenged.

"That's possible too. You tell me which ones' most accurate in this case. Your theory, or mine?" She stared him down, counting her victory when he wilted under her gaze.

"Alright, psycho-therapist. What do you suggest I do?"

"Release some of that tension and pressure, Coke bottle. Talk. Express yourself, the real stuff, and do it on purpose," she encouraged. "You may even find you really like the way it feels."

"I do talk, I talk all the time!"

"Sure, but how often do you say what you're really thinking?" she challenged, noting his silence.

She could see the wheels turning in his head, watched patiently each time he pumped the brakes and attempted to back pedal then changed his mind. She didn't say anything, allowing him to make his own choice with what she'd given him.

"I...don't know where to start," he said softly, twisting a dish towel between his fingers.

"Okay. Well, let's start with picking a feeling. How do you feel right now? About what happened with Emily," she added to help him narrow it down.

He took his time to consider, serving a few more people before he leaned against the counter beside her.

"I feel confused," he decided, brows pinching together, crooked nose scrunched up. "She broke up with me, ya know? Totally out of the blue. One minute we were fucking around and doing a crossword in bed together then the next she's telling me she's moving to fucking Montreal and I should be mature about it," he recalled. "She was so nonchalant about the whole thing."

"Damn...How long had she been planning to move?"

"I have no idea. Didn't find out she was even considering it until the night she broke up with me." He said the words calmly, but she could read the storm in those deep brown depths.

MJ walked down the bar and served an old fashioned and a sex on the beach before returning to him thoughtful. "So, you were completely caught off guard by the news?"

"Well, yeah."

MJ eyed him curiously. "So nothing happened in the relationship that might spark her to do something so dramatic?"

She watched him think, running memories through his mind before he seemed to catch onto one that made him frown. "I told her I loved her a few days before," he admit. "She didn't say it back."

"Ah. Okay, this is good. We're getting somewhere. What else?"

"I feel angry that after basically saying she didn't love me and breaking up with me, then she calls me up to ask if she could come say goodbye. And she has the nerve to bring another guy with her?" he muttered, letting his thin lip curl with distaste. "What the fuck was that?"

MJ tilted her head at him quizzically. "Did she say she didn't love you?"

"I mean, basically. She didn't say it back."

"Hm. Do you think she loves you?" she asked, curious. "Whether she actually said it back or not, do you feel like she does?"

He was silent for a minute, thinking over his answers and likely searching his memory for evidence. "I...don't know. What do you think?"

"I literally don't know the girl," MJ laughed, taken aback. "So I have no idea."

"You have thoughts, though," he rightly deduced, tilting his head to read her the same way she was doing him.

"Well yeah, I have thoughts about everything. But mostly, I think you need to have an honest conversation with her and figure it out. For both your sakes," she added.

"An honest conversation," he snorted, like it was funny. "Yeah, that sounds likely."

"Do you not talk to each other or something?"

"Oh we talk a lot," he responded, shaking his head. "We just don't really, it doesn't...I don't know it's not always- it's not like how we're talking right now," he admit, gesturing to MJ. "Sometimes it feels like me and Emily know so much about each other and still don't understand one another at all, to be honest. I know all about her classes and how her parents broke up and how she orders a sandwich, but when it comes to the deeper stuff...I'm in the dark."

"Does she understand the deeper stuff about you?" she asked, already knowing the answer. He shook his head.

"Probably not. I barely even understand me."

And yeah, that checked out. "Would you say that in your relationship you've been very emotionally available to each other?" she asked, searching his face. Immediately, it fell.

"Maybe not always..."

"Hmm. How about with your last partner? Were you emotionally available to each other in that relationship?" His frown was all the answer she needed. "So this is a pattern."

"Shit," he muttered, running a hand through his hair. "Why do you think that is?"

"Could be any number of reasons, many connected to your parents, honestly. But at the heart of it, for you I think, is the fact that you've been emotionally unavailable to yourself," she told him, feeling like her old psych professor would probably be really proud of her right now. That or he would tell her she should've shown up for more tutoring hours if she planned to run around acting like a damn know it all without a license.

"I'm self sabotaging," he breathed, eyebrows drawn high on his forehead like a bomb had just been dropped on him which maybe, emotionally, it had.

MJ shrugged, offering him a tight lipped smile. "Possibly, yeah."

He was quiet for a while and they busied themselves managing the bar, making drinks and calling cabs for those who needed it. After making a round of tequila shots for the manager's already drunk friend, she walked over to find Cherry leaning against the counter lost in thought.

"I didn't break you, did I?" she joked.

They were getting dangerously low on clean glasses so she dumped an armful of dirty ones into the sink for a quick wash.

"Nah, as you probably know I was already fucked up to start with," he assured her, grinning with a bashful shrug. "Thank you, for tonight. Listening and talking and, shit, I don't know, processing I guess," he said, raking a hand through his hair. "You were right. It was weird, but it was really nice."

"Anytime." She set a clean glass into the drying rack. "We can keep it up if you want. Talking, letting you practice popping your bottle cap so you don't flip out and kill us all one day," she teased, smirking at him.

He groaned, making her arch a questioning brow. "I wish we'd started talking like this sooner," he said, sounding guilty. "Maybe you could've actually talked me out of enlisting in the army."

MJ balked. "You did what?"

"I know, I know," he sighed. "It was a spontaneous choice right after the break up."

"Self - Sabotage," they both said in unison, breaking the slight tension.

MJ shook her head, studying him carefully. "Well, I am proud of the self awareness."

"I've learned a lot tonight," he shrugged. "Being introspective is enlightening."

She resumed washing a glass, having paused at his news. "So you're really enlisted in the army?"

"Swore in a few days ago. Haven't given my notice here yet, I've got a few months before I leave for Basic."

"That's a pretty huge decision," she said carefully. When she looked up at his face he was lost in thought again. "How do you feel about that? Joining the army?"

He pursed his lips, thinking, then turned dark eyes to her. "Honestly? I feel like I just made the biggest mistake of my life."

Later when the party was over the manager's now superbly inebriated friend offered to drive Cherry home and the dumbass nearly jumped on the vehicle with him. MJ swooped in and charmed the man's keys from him to stash behind the bar before ensuring him she was calling a Grade A cab service to usher him home for the night. When he was accounted for and the restaurant was shut down she offered to give Cherry a sober lift home, which he accepted.

He paused with the passenger door open when she pulled up to his apartment complex. "That's Emily's car," he noted, pointing to a little blue Honda in the crowded lot. "What do I do?"

"You talk to her, just like you talked to me," she instructed, putting the car in park. "So you can sort out your feelings and figure out where you go from here. Communication is key, remember? Honest communication, between the both of you."

He started to fidget. "Maybe I had all of this wrong, I was overreacting. It probably wasn't even like that with that guy. He was probably just a student she was showing around, or-"

"Nope, absolutely not," she cut him off, holding up a hand. "While any of that could be true, you can not make up a story on her behalf and fill in the blanks yourself. You talk to her, tell her how you feel and give her the chance to do the same. Figure your shit out. Communicate, honestly," she re-iterated, giving his shoulder a light shove. "And listen to what she has to say. You got this."

He took a deep breath and rolled his neck. "Okay. Thanks for the ride, Michelle."

"No problem."

The next day at work MJ was placing her things in a cubby when Cherry walked in.

"Hey," he greeted, moving to place his own stuff into a cubby next to hers.

"Hey. How'd it go last night?" she asked.

"Well, we finally got to say the goodbyes she wanted," he told her, shrugging lightly before divulging. "We did talk, more open than we ever have and...she doesn't love me, not really, she loves being loved by me."

He seemed disappointed, but not as sad as she would've expected.

"How do you feel about that?"

"Not great, but, okay. I want her to be happy and find someone she will love ya know?"

"Yeah, of course."

"And I'm not sure how much I actually loved her either," he admit. "I thought about it a lot last night and I think I was more, just, comfortable with the half love we offered each other maybe? I don't know, I'm still-"

"Processing," they said together.

"I get it," MJ grinned. "Self awareness is a good look for you, very healthy," she teased, giving his back a clap.

"Thanks," he chuckled, fidgeting with his apron before tying it around his waist. "And umm, thank you again for last night. For taking the time to talk with me and being honest and, I don't know, seeing me, I guess," he mumbled, words mixing together so quickly she barely caught them. "I'd like to keep talking with you."

"Anytime, Cherry."

"You can call me Nico," he told her, grinning. "That's my real name. The nickname's kind of stupid and impersonal, I like Nico better."

"Well if we're leveling up our friendship, I guess you can call me MJ."

"Alright, MJ," he noted, cracking his knuckles. "Now, I think it's my turn to get to psycho analyze you."

Over the next few weeks MJ and Nico really did take the time to hang out and get to know one another. It turned out he was a really good listener himself. He cut through her own defenses more easily than he probably realized with his honest to God interest in her and his genuine disposition.

MJ liked to watch him process things, his brows pulled together and thin lips pursed while his eyes danced. Even more than she loved watching him process she loved hearing what came out when he was ready. It felt like a privilege.

She enjoyed the pure, simple way he looked at life and appreciated the beauty in things while he relished in her blunt honesty and lack of judgment that gave him license to be himself.

She better understood the whirlwind romance trope in all the old army movies now. She hadn't actually meant to start falling for him, it was never her intention, but she found she was falling fast. Maybe it the thrill of racing the clock knowing that he'd be gone soon and for such a long time, with no guarantee that he'd come back. Maybe it was the urge to fit in as much as they could in the time they had before that dreaded day on the calendar struck.

Or maybe there was just something about him and her that fit.

After a few weeks, while they were closing up at the restaurant he asked her on an official date and she said yes.

They went out to a hole in the wall Italian joint and it wasn't awkward at all. They laughed, they talked, they stole from each others' pasta bowls and stashed leftover breadsticks into her purse. They poked fun at one another's garlic breath and still ended up making out hotly by her front door at the end of the night and it was perfect.

For their third date she invited him over for dinner at her apartment. The burgers she cooked were sub-par but the vibes were immaculate as they sat on her couch ignoring a movie and sipping the Coca-Cola she'd bought just to tease him.

"Look, it's you!" she'd grinned, slipping the bottle into his hand.

As the night wore on she found them sliding closer on the couch, reaching out to touch each other needlessly, and letting their fingertips linger for no other reason than just to prolong the contact.

As his personal communication sponsor, she leaned in and brushed her nose against his.

"How do you feel?" she asked softly. So close she could feel his breath against her lips.

He sighed, closing his eyes and breathing her in. "Like I really, really wanna kiss you," he breathed, chasing her nose when she leaned back. "How do you feel?"

"Like if you don't kiss me right now I'm kicking you out."

He leaned forward to press his smile to hers and she folded her arms around his neck loosely.

One kiss led to two, which bled into a full make out session on the couch. She swung herself into his lap and folded her hands into his hair. His own hands traveled the length of her body, exploring the skin of her thighs where her dress rode up. It wasn't long before MJ felt his dick stirring where she was pressed against him, reaching out, begging to join the party.

She slithered down his lap and dropped to her knees before him. He didn't try to stop her when she unbuttoned his pants and pulled them down his hips, just watched her intently with blazing eyes.

"Is this okay?" she asked anyway, letting her fingers hesitate at the edge of his boxers. There was a little wet spot right where his dick was begging to be let out that probably could've answered for him, but she wanted him to tell her.

"Yep. I feel...really good about this," he breathed, reaching out to stroke her hair.

MJ yanked his boxers down to free him and if his dick could talk she knew it would be saying thank you. She wrapped her hand around him and stroked, spreading the moisture leaking from his tip around to get it good and slick.

If she liked his processing face then she loved the face he was making right now, staring down at her while she pumped him slowly, licking her lips. His eyes were alight with fire, molten and glued to her, his jaw working in the sexiest way.

It felt like a loss to look away from his face but the punched out gasp he gave was worth it when she ducked down to wrap her lips around him and sucked, swiping her tongue around the tip of him.

His hands flew to her hair, holding it out of her face while she licked and sucked at him, using her fist to stroke what wouldn't fit into her mouth. She moaned around him, egging herself on as much as she was him while she worked him. MJ sucked and swallowed him up, hollowing her jaws and sucking hard just to hear the little whines and gasps that spilled from his lips.

She looked up to meet his eyes when he stroked his knuckles across her cheek. "You look so damn pretty with your mouth full of me," he said, voice dripping with awe while he stared at down at her.

His words went straight to her center, making her thighs squeeze together desperately. She sucked at him with more fervor, shifting to let him slide farther down her throat and gagging slightly in the process. His groan was loud but his hand was gentler in her hair, giving a slight tug to pull her off of him.

"Fuck, I want you, all of you," he pleaded. His cheeks were red, pupils blown dark with lust and she wanted the same thing.

"I'm yours."

"There's a condom in my wallet, grab it," he told her, gesturing to the jeans around his ankles.

MJ could've made a quip about making assumptions, but in the moment she was just really happy about his forethought. She found the condom and ripped the foil off with her teeth before sliding it down onto him.

Still kneeling between his knees she held both arms up and he took the cue, grasping the hem of her dress to pull it over her head. He gave her his hand and when she stood he peeled her panties down her thighs before placing a hot kiss to her clit. She moaned and quickly resumed her spot in his lap, kissing him with everything she had.

MJ placed her hand over his and guided him in touching her just the way she liked, rolling her clit between her own fingers while he curled his into her and dragged just right. When her moans became unintelligible mumblings she pushed his hand away, lined him up and sunk down onto him slowly, rocking her hips until her ass touched his thighs.

"You're so deep," she gasped, clenching herself around him.

She took her time to adjust, to savor the feeling of him inside her then with a fist full of his hair she really started to move, rocking in his lap and moaning out his name.

"That's it, baby," he groaned, squeezing her hips. "Look so fucking gorgeous riding my dick."

She clutched him tight and bounced in his lap, grinding filthily. His hands roamed her back and her thighs, occasionally squeezing her ass and tugging her down onto him harder. She experimented with angles and speeds and he let her set the pace until eventually her legs started to ache with the effort.

As if he knew, as if he were reading her body he turned sideways and reclined with his back flat on the couch, holding her hips firmly in place so he didn't slip out. When he was settled she folded to lay atop him, pressing a kiss to his lips. Her palms flew to his shoulders when he thrust up into her sharply, hitting a spot that made her eyes shoot open and a loud squeak escape her.

"Holy fuck."

"How do you feel baby?" he asked, holding her hips steady to drive into that spot with abandon.

She couldn't answer, clinging to him and moaning into his neck unrestrained. Every nerve ending in her body was on fire and she never wanted it to stop.

He stayed in her ear, letting her know just how good he felt every minute of the way and she reciprocated the best she could, right up until she jerked on top of him and came with a choked cry. He flipped them over and pumped into her hard, finishing shortly after.

He spent the night in her bed that night, and most nights after.

The months leading up to his departure for basic training were good. He was a little anxious and he was open about it, but at least he was talking about it, which seemed to help.

There was so much be done, so many choices to be made that he had to work through in preparation and she helped where she could. When he decided to move all his things into a storage unit since his lease was up anyway, she helped him. He paid his friends in pizza and cheap beer and he repaid her with his tongue when they got back to her place that night. When he made the trip to tell his parents the news, he took her with him and introduced her as his girlfriend.

His final weeks at home he lived in her apartment with her. It made things easier, and yet made his goodbye so much more difficult. She drove him to the airport, paid for parking and followed him as far as security would allow.

"How do you feel?" he asked, beating her to the punch.

She tilted her head, looking him up and down thoughtfully. "I don't know if it's a feeling, but I'm wondering if I were to kidnap you right now and not let you get on this plane how quickly the United States Government would find me."

He chuckled, dropping his bag to take her face in both his hands.

"It's my turn," he reminded her, tucking a hair behind her ear. "Ask me."

"How do you feel?"

"Like I'm gonna miss you a fuck ton." She laughed, blinking the tears from the corners of her eyes. He swiped them away with the pads of his thumbs. "Like I already can't wait to come home to you." He tucked his finger under her chin, turning it to make her look in his eyes. "And I feel like I'm in love with you."

MJ froze, blinking at him.

"And whether you say it back right now or not, I know that you love me too," he continued, smiling at her. "And that's the best feeling of all."

She dove into his arms, kissing his cheek and making a scene in the airport, but she didn't care.

"I love you too."

While he was off at Basic Training he called her every couple of days, checking in for the few minutes he was allowed on the phone and letting her know it was just nice to hear her voice.

"How's it going?" she asked a few weeks in, curled up on her couch to talk to him.

"Good, I guess. Constantly getting called names, belittled and hit for no reason is really growing on me," he said, tone dripping with sarcasm.

"They're trying to desensitize you," she commented, frowning. "I read about that. Tell them to go screw themselves."

"I'm sure that'll work on Drill Sergeant, thanks babe." She rolled her eyes. "How are you doing?"

"New day, same stuff," she shrugged.

"You started cheating on me with the mailman yet?" he teased.

"I actually have a dick appointment with the ice cream man as soon as we get off the phone, so if we could wrap this up that'd be great," she joked back, beaming at the sound of his laughter.

"You would never."

"I wouldn't," she agreed. "You're the only one I want, Nico Walker."

"Good. Because you're it for me, Michelle Jones."

Before she'd hung up she heard who she figured was his basic training bestie Jiminez yell "what about me, Cherry?" , the hoard of catcalls from his fellow trainees, and his exasperated laugher.

They wrote letters almost as frequently as the phone calls and that's where they were really able to express themselves, unlike the phone calls where his fellow training mates were listening just over his shoulder. Sometimes she just sent letters, sometimes she sent care packages with his favorite things that you could send through the mail. Occasionally she even slipped a tasteful nude into her letters to him.

"You didn't open it yet, right?" she asked excitedly, laying in bed and twirling the phones cord around her fingers.

"No. It says 'do not open until you're on the phone with me' very clearly across the seal," he noted, reading directly from the letter he likely held.

"Okay, open it.'

MJ knew he'd found her naked picture by the sound of his breath catching. It sounded like he dropped the phone and she snickered, imagining he was rushing to cover it up so no one else would see.

"Do you like it?"

"Hell yeah, I love it," he whispered. "A little warning might've been nice."

"Nope, this was about the reaction I wanted."

"Of course it was, evil genius," he laughed.

"How do you feel, Nico?" He took a long pause and she knew it was because he wanted to say something dirty.

"Like, I need to go now."

"So you can jerk off to your super hot girlfriend?"


"Sweet. Because I'm about to do the same over you."

It was around Christmas time when he graduated his medic training program and called her excited to share the news. She had a bottle of champagne stashed in the fridge for the occasion so she could celebrate with him.

"Today was a good day. Took forever and it was gross as fuck but we passed." She could hear the proud smile in his voice.

"Hell yeah! I knew you would," she told him, cheering in spite of the fact he couldn't see her. "Tell Jiminez I said congratulations to him too."

"I will. He's gonna be a dick about it and start making jokes about my girlfriend liking him more than me, but I will."

MJ laughed, cause yeah that sounded like Jiminez. "Well I'll have both of you know that this bottle of champagne I'm popping is dedicated to you," she promised. "I just wish you were here to drink it with me."

"I do too."

She sighed. "Do you need anything? I'm putting together a package to send you this weekend, so if you have any requests now's the time."

"Actually, not for me, but yeah," he said, dropping his voice a little which usually meant he was about to say something private. "I'm gonna send you Jiminez's girlfriends info. I was hoping you could go into my bank account and send her a little something for the Holidays. I know I don't have much but she just had their baby ya know and he didn't have a job before this so they've got nothing saved up for Christmas and I just thought, I don't know, he's done a lot for me here, we look out for each other and-"

MJ cut off his precious rambling. "That's really nice, Nico. I think that's a great idea," she praised. "Of course I'll do that, just don't forget to send me her address."

"I won't. Thanks, MJ."

"Now, what about you? Is there anything special you want for Christmas young man?" she flirted, already planning to take some new pics in the sexy holiday themed lingerie set she splurged.

"Well, nothing that you can send in a package. But I do want something," he revealed. "Not really for Christmas either, just in general."

"Okay, what do you want?"

"I want to marry you," he said simply. "As soon as I get home."

MJ gaped, dumbfounded with the bottle of champagne held in her hands. "What?"

"I meant it when I said you were it for me. I wanna marry you and never do another day of life without you. So...what do you think?" he asked, hopeful.

MJ let the top of the champagne pop off loudly and poured herself a glass through a mega watt smile. "Yes. The moment you come home and not a second later."

After he finished basic training they were stationed in Iraq for active duty and things got much more intense rather quickly. Slowly, their phone conversations and exchanged letters took on a darker tone. No longer was he just moving through training protocols he could complain about or working with dummies that just resembled human bodies, now he was dealing with real people in the real throes of war.

She worried constantly for his safety, her nailbeds were nonexistent and every time the phone rang or there was a knock on the door she was terrified it would be bad news. He didn't tell her all the horrors he saw, but she knew it was bad, the news told her it was brutal over there. She could tell he was starting to harden, to become numb, but she did her best to help him cling to humanity. She talked to him about the rings their parents helped her buy for their nuptials and about her new job at the library. They discussed getting a dog and talked about anything to distract him from the nightmare he lived in.

The worst was the night he called her after Jiminez and some of Nico's team got killed in the desert. She'd heard about it, seen Jiminez' name on the news report she checked every single day and had already started cried buckets for him before her phone ever rang. She felt absolutely awful for the man, for his girlfriend and their baby, but she was also so thankful it hadn't been Nico. He was still here.

He barely said anything on the phone, breathing unevenly, harshly into the receiver, trying to hold himself together. She realized he probably hadn't called her so much to tell her the news as he had just for the comfort of hearing her voice, of talking to her, reminding himself that she was still here too.

"How are you feeling?" she whispered, curling into herself on the bed.

He choked on a sob, shattering her heart. "I'm okay."

"You're not," she breathed, shaking her head even though he couldn't see her. "It's okay to not be okay, Nico."

She heard him break, heard the phone drop from his hands and to the floor, heard his broken cries through the receiver that trembled in her hands. "I'm so sorry, baby," she whispered, clutching the phone closer to her as if she could pour comfort through it and directly to him. She desperately wished she could.

"I miss you so much," he finally said.

"I miss you too."

"Can we just," he started, sniffling through the phone. "Could you just talk about yourself for a second? How are you?"

Not a day passed and she wasn't praying to God that he would make it home safely, that he wouldn't become one of the names or numbers on the screen depicting the fallen. Until the day she watched him walk across the shiny floor of a gymnasium in town and get pinned a medal of valor for his war efforts. She beamed, proud for the man's accomplishment and simultaneously heartbroken for all he'd endured to achieve it.

When the ceremony was over she ran to him, throwing herself into his arms and hugging him tight. He was stronger than when he'd left. His hair was different, shaved on the sides with a wide stripe of hair running down the center of his head, but she could see how it could grow on her. He held her tight to his chest, breathing her in and sighing in contentment.

"Did you bring them?" he asked when they pulled apart.

MJ reached into her pocket and revealed the wedding bands their parents had helped them purchase, grinning shyly. "Of course I did."

"Good." He slid his hands into her back pockets.

"How do you feel?" she asked, searching his now reasonably more haunted brown eyes. They still shined at her.

"Like we have a date," he smiled, pressing his lips to hers.

They went down to the court house and sealed the deal quickly and easily. They celebrated the wedding with Pizza and doughnuts and she brought him back to her apartment, now their apartment to get settled.

When he went to shower his travels away MJ followed him, dropped to her knees and took him into her mouth. He made love to her against the shower wall. He came first, she figured he might, then finished her with his fingers.

After dinner, his first home cooked meal in ages, they washed dishes together then he bent her over the counter and fucked her hard, making up for lost time.

And when they went to bed she crawled into his lap and rode him like she had their first time together, wrapping herself around him and moving together until they were both exhausted.

That night, they slept like champions.

The next night, she realized something was wrong.

She was roused awake thinking there must be an earthquake the way the bed was shaking but when she looked over it was him, trembling and shaking where he lay. He was drenched in sweat, tears streamed down the sides of his face, he whimpered helplessly and it was the most devastating thing she'd ever seen.

"Nico, baby," she whispered, reaching over to touch his shoulder.

He reacted immediately, jumping and swinging out his arm before his eyes unclouded and he saw her. He gasped.

"I'm sorry. I'm sorry. Are you okay? Come here," he reached for her, pulling her to his chest.

"I'm fine, baby, it's okay, I'm okay." She let him hold her for a second before gently pushing back to look at him. "But you're not. How do you feel right now?"

His lower lip trembled, fresh tears springing to the corners of his eyes. "Scared."

MJ pulled him into her arms, wrapping them around him as tight as she could manage without hurting him. He sobbed into her neck, soaking her hair with his tears and shaking in her arms. She held him, stroking his back and his hair and humming gently to him until he eventually fell back asleep, hours later.

For a couple weeks that was their norm. MJ would go to work with dark circles under her eyes after a long restless night and come home to find him throwing up blood in the bathroom or sprawled out in the living room in pain. He became so angry, volatile even, throwing things in fits of anger and lashing out at her verbally when he was overwhelmed.

She couldn't remember the last time he'd actually answered her with something other than "pain" when she asked him how he was feeling. They stopped having sex, they stopped having meaningful conversation, she stopped recognizing him.

She was at her wits end and then his old friend James started coming back around and things changed again. Instead of coming home to find him sick, she found him well, gone so to speak. He didn't know he was even in the world, lounged out in their bathtub staring at the ceiling or staring at the television set enamored even though nothing was playing. He wasn't lashing out, he wasn't doing anything at all, he was a shell of himself.

After a few days of this behavior she cornered James and got it out of him that he'd been slipping Nico OxyContin under the table to deal with the pain. She confronted her husband about it and after James ran out of his supply she finally convinced him to go see a doctor to get some help.

The lazy ass doctor diagnosed him with PTSD and almost prescribed him OxyContin of his own but MJ politely crumpled the prescription slip up and passed it back to him.

"With all due respect, this isn't what he needs," she told the doctor, leaning forward to stare him down. "You can't just slip him a, to be brutally honest, harmful prescription and send him on his way. You took an oath to help people and dammit my husband needs help. Please, I know there's more you can do."

So the doctor referred him to a therapist that specialized in PTSD Nico would see three times a week and prescribed him the highest dose of pain medicine that wasn't classified as an opiate they could get. After a consult with his new therapist, a middle aged guy with a goatee Nico actually really liked, the man prescribed him new anxiety medication he was confident would help.

The road to his recovery wasn't easy, but it was better.

They had to experiment with his dosage and timing for each medication to keep him from feeling foggy or sick on the stomach. There were some inconvenient side effects to work through and for as much as Nico liked the therapist it took quite a bit of convincing for him to accept that it wasn't a better option to break down and go back to the opiates and have the instant fix for his pain.

Some days were harder than others, but he didn't give up and she didn't give up on him.

Time passed like it always does.

Progress was evident in little-big ways. Like the Tuesday morning she was getting up for work and looked over to find him fast asleep. No pain set into his eyebrows or his jaws, just sleeping peacefully.

When he started to ask her how she was doing in return again.

The way he started to full belly laugh at a TV show he was watching.

Or the night she came home from work and he'd cooked them dinner. Boxed macaroni and cheese and hotdogs. It was the best meal she'd had in weeks.

When she walked out of the shower to get changed one night and he pinched her ass and wiggled his eyebrows at her.

But it was monumental the night he took her hand and started to talk to her about Jiminez.

"I've been in Limbo," he explained. "Doc says I had survivor's guilt after Jiminez and my team died. I should've died too. Me being a smart ass was the only thing that kept me from being on that jeep with them, and that's not fair," he frowned, working through the words. "They didn't deserve to die."

"Neither did you."

"But it's more than that," he continued. She wasn't even sure if he heard her. "A part of me did die out there in the desert," he whispered, reaching out to take her hand but not looking at her. He stared straight ahead sadly. "The things I saw," his hand squeezed hers, "the things I had to do, to human being should ever have to. Doc says it killed part of my innocence or whatever, my humanity," he explained sadly. "So I've been in Limbo; trapped between feeling guilty about being alive and coming to terms with the fact that part of me was dead."

"So what does Doc think you should do?"

"He said it might be a good idea for me to have a service to mourn Jiminez and the guys, since we didn't get to before," he told her. "Something small, maybe even here with just the two of us."

"That sounds nice," she agreed, giving his hand a small squeeze.

"And for me, for that part of me that died too," he added, finally looking into her eyes. "He says maybe that'll help me to let that part of me go, maybe even some of my pain. To stop carrying it around and start to move on." He tilted his head, looking at her thoughtfully. "What do you think? Would that be weird?"

"How do you feel about it?"

"I feel...I think he might be right. I wanna try."

She shook her head. "Then I think it's a good thing we pay that Doctor the big bucks. Sounds like he's full of good ideas."

Almost two years later, Nico seemed like his old self again and said he felt as much too. He was still on anxiety meds and still saw his therapist regularly which was working out great, and he'd successfully kicked the pain meds, a feat he was enormously proud of.

He was able to sleep without drugs, only having the occasional case of insomnia. He had a new job he loved that paid really well, she'd been promoted at the Library, they finally got the dog they'd once dreamed of and orgasms had become a regular occurrence in her daily life again.

Nico came home from work one Thursday evening and she was was waiting for him on the couch, sitting with her legs crossed and a hand tucked behind her back.

"Hey beautiful," he smiled, walking over and dropping a kiss to her forehead. He paused when she didn't respond right away, looking down at her suspiciously. "How you feeling?"

She sighed dramatically but didn't quite pull it off for the grin stretched across her face. "I feel like we should start looking for a bigger place."

MJ pulled her hand out to reveal the positive pregnancy test she couldn't wait to show him and watched his processing face. It went from shock to awe to beaming joy in about two seconds flat.

Nico dropped to his knees and wrapped his arms around her, kissing her sweetly. He dropped his face down to rest against her belly and started talking to the baby as if she weren't like, five minutes pregnant. It was silly and she rolled her eyes at his antics and she'd never loved him more.

The next night MJ downed a cup of coffee with a triple shot of espresso, feeling the effects of the monstrous amount of caffeine within minutes. Then she pulled a chair up in front of her TV monitor, turned it on, and decided to have a staring contest. She woke late that night on the ground beside her chair, drooling onto the arm she rested on. She awoke anxious, gasping for air, her mind racked with thoughts of tsunamis and blood and too full hospitals.

The night after that she took the batteries out of her remote control and put the remote in the junk drawer of the kitchen. Even still, she would swear that when she was going to sleep she heard the monitor turn on. The next morning she awoke burrowed underneath her pillows, as tired as if she'd just run a mile. She couldn't remember anything from her dream but open fields and space ships, a really cute dog, and thoughts that could be read like a picture book. Also, bizarrely she had a strange urge to punch one of the Jonas brothers.

And when she was really fed up the following night, she completely unplugged the television set from the wall. When she woke the next day with a vague fondness for a historical mace weapon and traces of killer drones and first kisses on destroyed bridges on her mind MJ had finally had enough. She lifted the TV from her stand and marched downstairs.

She stormed out to the dumpster in back of the building and tossed the TV in with a satisfying crash. She flipped off the (maybe?) cursed monitor and of course felt like an absolute freak when another person from the complex walked out and caught her in the act. They pursed their lips and looked her up and down with questioning eyes before turning around with their trash still in hand and turning to re-enter the building.

"Damn technology," she tried awkwardly, much too late and sighed at herself. "I have got to get out more."

"I'm so glad you finally came out with meeee," Betty sang, pulling MJ in for a hug in the middle of a crowded night club. She proceeded to dance her around in a circle giddily.

The pretty blonde girls' hair was piled up high on her head, showing off her neckline beautifully in a hot little black dress. MJ wasn't easily wrangled into a dress but Betty had managed to talk her into wearing a bright red jumper that showed off her long legs. She even shaved them for the occasion; her first night out in months, even though she was totally being a third wheel.

"So what's his name again?" MJ whisper yelled at her friend on the dance floor, swaying from side to side to a song she didn't recognize.

"You know his name is Ned," Betty reprimanded, rolling her eyes fondly.

"Ah, right, video game guy," MJ pretended to remember, as if Betty didn't take every opportunity to talk about him. He'd been the reason Betty wanted to brush up on her gaming skills in the last few weeks.

"Yeah," she said dreamily. "And he's really cute and really funny and I can't wait for you to finally meet him," she gushed. "He and his friend should be here soon!"

"His friend?" MJ asked, arching a serious brow at her bestie. "Betty, please don't tell me you're trying to set us up," she groaned. "I just wanted to get out to escape my bedroom and have some fun! Not to get set up on a blind hook up."

"No, no, it's not like that," the girl assured. "It's just his best friend, they go out together sometimes, ya know, like normal people," she teased pointedly. "But I mean, after a few drinks there's no reason you couldn't escape back to your bedroom for some fun too," the girl winked and turned MJ in a spin that did not fit the music at all.

MJ laughed, shaking her head dramatically. "I don't know about that."

"Just saying, don't shut down the possibility," Betty shrugged then beamed. "I know who I'm going home with tonight."

The girls giddy smile only grew while her eyes tracked something over MJ's shoulder and she knew that her third wheeling had officially begun. MJ turned to see the exact same smile on a guy she recognized from the pictures Betty had shown her. He was shorter than them and wore a hat that had no business in a nightclub and his heart eyes were aimed directly at her best friend and she instantly liked him more.

He shuffled through the crowd with a beer in hand but no one at his side and MJ relaxed a bit at the realization that there wouldn't be an awkward interaction between her and the other third wheel. Ned kissed Betty on the cheek sweetly before turning a friendly smile to MJ.

"Sup," he greeted, holding out his fist to her. She tapped it. "You must be MJ."

"You must be Ned," she responded.

"I am. You already knew that though. I'm aware most of mine and Betty's text conversations have probably directly involved you and our relationship so far has been closely analyzed by the both of you to determine my potential as a romantic partner."

MJ snorted a laugh. "You're not wrong."

"Betty talks about you all the time too, MJ. So I figure, by proxy, we already know a lot about each other. It's kinda nice." His chest was puffed out proudly and he took a swig of his beer. "I'm hoping by the end of the night you and I are best friends to better my chances," he winked, making Betty giggle.

"Well I think the fact that she's let you call her MJ twice now means you're already in pretty good standing. That nickname is reserved for special people only," Betty said sweetly, leaning in to kiss him again. MJ shrugged. "Hey, speaking of best friends, where is yours?"

Ned frowned. "Oh, umm, he had something come up so he's running late. He should be here soon though. I think."

"Okay, I- Ooh, I love this song!" Betty squealed. "Let's dance!"

The girl grabbed both MJ and Ned's hands and started an incredibly awkward circle dance between the three of them that probably looked a lot like a kumbayah circle. The failed logistics of it were quickly made evident so Betty twisted and wriggled around and finally settled herself between them to make a Betty sandwich. MJ actually did recognize the sounds of Doja Cat this time so she laughed and rocked to the music with Betty at her back.

Until Betty's elbow dug into her MJ's shoulder. She looked back to find her friends arm thrown behind her to hold onto Ned's neck, the both of them dancing off beat awfully but staring into each others' eyes like there was no one else in the room to notice. So MJ subtly shifted herself forward and away from the pair to give them some space.

There was something really freeing about the bright lights, the pulsing music and the sight of a mass of people gyrating and moving together as a unit and yet somehow on their own little islands. She'd nearly forgotten what it was like. Still, she would definitely need more alcohol in her system if she was going to be one of them all on her own.

"I'm gonna go to the bar," she told the pair of them. "I need a drink."

"Put it on my tab," Ned said proudly, so quick that she figured he must've practiced that. "Just don't go crazy," he added then, thoughtfully.

"What?" she asked, pretending not to hear him over the music. "Order shots for the whole bar?" She smirked at his frightened face. "Just kidding."

MJ made her way through the throng of bodies and took the first seat she could find to signal a bartender. Being by the bar was always her favorite past time on a night out. It gave the best vantage point to people watch. The bar was full and the bartender was busy, so she waited patiently to order her drink and turned to peer around at the crowd.

She caught two nip slips and what she was pretty sure might be actual sex in a dark corner of the dance floor. She watched a bridal party perform a whole choreographed routine to a song she recognized from TikTok and witnessed a couple kiss goodbye while one half groped the ass of someone else right behind the others' back then the bartender finally approached. She ordered a Long Island Iced Tea and when they walked away someone slid into the seat beside her, capturing her attention by knocking their knee into hers.

"Hey there. You having fun?"

A dark haired man stared her up and down as if he could see right through her clothes. With all the super villains and high tech bullshit in New York these days she almost wondered if he actually could.

"Lots," she said dryly, nodding with tight lips.

"I'm Brad."


In spite of her noncommittal answers, he leered at her, licking his lips.

"I must be a really lucky man snagging the seat next to you. You're absolutely fucking gorgeous, did you know that?"

"And therefore I have value?" she deadpanned.

His smarmy smirk only widened. "It certainly doesn't hurt." He had the audacity to grab the back of her chair and twist it to face him straight on. "You're a beautiful girl, I'm a good looking guy. What do you say we skip all the bullshit and get out of here?"

"Yeah, it's gonna be a no for me, sorry."

"You here with someone?" he asked, as if no wasn't a good enough reason.

"Yes, I am."

He looked around pointedly, then looked down at her ring-less left hand. "You look pretty lonely to me."

MJ wasn't usually a violent person but she really wanted to punch the cocky, self satisfied smirk right off of Brad's face. And where the hell was her damn drink?

"There's no reason either of us has to go home alone tonight if-"

Then a new guy was moving past Brad to stand between them. She would've thought they were just randomly being rude at a pretty convenient moment but he leaned sideways against the bar and faced her with a timid smile.

The new guy had messy brown hair that he'd attempted to slick back but it looked windswept, a loose curl lingering on his forehead. He was a little shorter than her and had a crooked nose, a funky eyebrow and really familiar kind brown eyes. The light blue button down he wore made them pop especially, at least that's what she was going with.

"Hey babe, sorry I'm late," he said loudly, shooting her a questioning look.

Ah, a good Samaritan. He must have overheard their conversation.

MJ's eyes lit up with mischief.

She leaned closer to the handsome new guy with the disarming eyes. "I was getting really lonely without you," she responded just as loudly. "But better late than never I suppose."

He grinned a crooked grin and it made her stomach do a little flip. He was really, really cute. And it was all going great until.

"Wait, is that...Penis Parker?"

She watched alarm then realization pass over his features before his face pinched. With a sigh he turned slowly to face the ever charming Brad.

"Brad Davis. What a small world," he grimaced.

Brad clapped his back harder than what was absolutely necessary but he didn't even flinch. "I haven't seen you since high school, Parker," he laughed, eying the other man. "You finally lost the braces, huh?"

Parker groaned, pale cheeks pinking up adorably. "I haven't had braces since 9th grade, dude."

"Sure. Hey, wasn't that also the year you peed your pants in the middle of the Homecoming dance?" Brad went on, guffawing at the other boys' expense. Parker's ears turned red.

"I didn't," he started angrily then glanced over to MJ and took a steadying breath. "I didn't pee my pants," he clarified, coldly. "Flash Thompson dumped a drink on me then told everyone I peed my pants."

Brad had already annoyed her enough for her own sake, but now MJ felt for the Parker guy. Here he was, trying to do a stranger a solid and got pulled into a fresh round from what had clearly been a high school bully.

"Bullshit, Penis."

MJ placed a hand on Parker's straining forearm. "Sounds like you guys have some interesting high school stories you haven't told me about, babe," she smiled up at him. "I at least get why they called you Penis Parker though. You do have a really big dick."

Brad and Parker sputtered at the same time and she almost laughed so hard she gave the whole gig away. Thankfully, the bartender came back with her drink.

She took it and linked her arm through Parker's. "As much fun as it's been Brad, I'd really love to have this guy to myself now. Maybe you can re-live the glory days and deal with your homo-erotic feelings about his new looks without the braces another time," she suggested sweetly.

Brad, unbelievably, was left speechless a moment. He opened and closed his mouth a few times before scowling at her and settling on, "Whatever, you weren't that hot anyway."

When he left, MJ wondered if Parker would take Brad's seat. She was happy when he didn't, just shifted his weight and remained at her side.

"Sorry about that," he started, raking a hand through his brown locks to get them in line. It didn't work. "I didn't really mean to insert myself, I just have a bit of a hero complex I guess," he smiled bashfully.

"Nah, it's okay. I didn't need saving, I could've handled that ass hat fine on my own, but it was nice having some back up."

"Yeah, I see that. Thank you, by the way," he blushed. "For um, taking up for me too."

"I hate bullies. I got made fun of a lot in high school too," she told him. "People like us gotta stick together," she shrugged casually and took a sip of her drink.

"Wait, seriously? You got made fun of in high school?" he wondered aloud, looking her up and down with disbelief and unlike when Brad had done it, this time it was more than welcome. "No way."

"Oh yeah, for sure. I was a big loser," she summarized, grinning in spite of the less than ideal memories. "Still am, probably. But now I'm in college and nobody gives two fucks."

"Same, honestly. Where do you go to school?"

"NYU," she told him.

"Me too! I don't think I've ever seen you around though," he frowned. "I'd remember you."

"Yeah? Why so, Parker?" she asked, turning in her chair to face him.

His ears pinked again. "You're umm, well you're really, really pretty."

She tucked her smirk into the corner of her mouth and tilted her head to the side to study him. She couldn't help herself. "And therefore I have value?"

The color drained from his face in an instant, eyebrows climbing high on his forehead. "No!" he sputtered. "Not at all! I just mean-"

"It's okay, I'm just messing with you," she teased, giggling at his panic.

He breathed a sigh of relief and studied her right back with those eyes that put her at ease. "That was a test?"

"It was. You passed," she assured him, leaning on her fist and taking another sip.

"Awesome," he grinned a goofy, charming grin. "I'd really like to buy you a drink, but you already have one."

"And you don't," she commented, noticing for the first time. "I'd offer to buy you one, but someone else actually paid for this."

"Oh, that's okay," he shuffled, scratching his neck. "So um, are you here alone, or...with someone?" he asked awkwardly.

"I'm with some friends," she said, noting the clear relief on his face when she did. "I'm the designated third wheel for the night."

"No shit, me too!"

MJ narrowed her eyes at him playfully. "Bullshit, now you're just agreeing with everything I'm saying."

He chuckled. "No, really! My buddy Ned is here on a date with this girl he's crazy about-"

"You're Ned's best friend," she cut him off, shocked. "Seriously?"

"You know Ned?"

"He bought me this drink," she told him, holding up the glass. "Betty's my best friend."

"Wow. It really is a small world huh," he murmured before looking around. "Where are they, anyway?"

"When I left them they were right on the verge of making out in the middle of the dance floor."

"I should probably let him know I'm here. Wanna go heckle them like responsible third and fourth wheels?" he asked.

"Obviously, yeah."

He moved out of the way and offered her his arm so she could step down from her chair easily. Then he motioned for her to lead the way. She quietly added him brownie points for being a gentleman. There were more people now, it seemed, so she reached back to grab his hand ensuring they wouldn't get separated in the crowd.

When they found their friends they were swinging and swaying in their own little world dancing innocently, though there was lipstick all over Ned's face and neck. MJ snickered.

"Hands where I can see them, Leeds!" Peter called in a deep voice, startling Ned into turning around with wide eyes.

"Peter!" Ned called when his eyes landed on the pair of them. When his gaze then dropped to MJ's hand wrapped around Peter's, she awkwardly let go. "You made it! I wasn't sure if you'd be able to swing by."

Peter's expressive cheeks turned pink and he glared at his friend. Weird.

"I texted you I was on my way," Peter reminded him.

Ned shrugged, noncommittal. "I see you've met Em- I mean, Michelle," Ned corrected himself, winking at her conspiratorially.

She turned to look at Peter. "You can call me MJ," she conceded, blushing.

"Oh really?" Betty asked with interest, leaning on Ned's shoulder to stare at them. And she thought she and Peter would be the ones teasing them. "You must have made quite the impression, Peter."

"Hey! She's my new best friend, don't try to steal her," Ned warned him.

"Yeah, Peter, don't steal me," MJ agreed, nudging Peter in the side.

"No promises, MJ," he grinned.

"Awhh, Ned, they're being cuter than us! Let's make out," Betty decided.

MJ caught the wink her friend tossed at her before pulling Ned in and starting their make out dance all over again. Honestly, she wouldn't be surprised if they ended up in one of those dark corners themselves soon.

"MJ, huh?" Peter asked, eyeing her thoughtfully. "Is that a nickname?"

"Most people call me Michelle. 'MJ' is reserved for a special, select few," she explained, raising her voice to be heard over the pulsing music.

"So you think I'm special, huh?" he asked, eyes bright.

She shrugged. "You have potential."

"I can accept that," he reasoned. "It's really nice to meet you, Michelle. I'm Peter Parker," he told her loudly, reaching out to shake her hand. "I can't believe I didn't introduce myself before. I'm an idiot."

"But a cute one, so that helps."

"Did you just equate my value to my looks," he teased, narrowing his eyes at her.


They stood smiling at each other dumbly in the middle of the full dance floor for a few seconds before Peter scrubbed at the back of his neck awkwardly.

"Do you...wanna dance?"

"Do you?"

He hesitated. "I'm not really a great dancer and to be completely honest I'm more interested in talking to you than dancing. Would you wanna sit at the bar and -"


She agreed before he could even finish, curling her hand around his to lead them right back off of the dance floor.

MJ would like to say that Peter Parker snuck up on her. But from that first night she met him she was smitten. There was something so familiar about him, something comforting and exciting all at the same time.

He asked for her phone number and called the very next morning.

She'd woken to find her potentially (but probably not) haunted TV hadn't magically appeared back on it's stand in the morning, so she was feeling extra confident when she received the call. MJ suggested they get brunch and bottomless mimosas and found out that Peter Parker had an absurd alcohol tolerance.

Their next date Peter took her for lunch at what he claimed was the absolute best Mexican Food Truck in the city. He hadn't been far off, the food was delicious. MJ made him agree to go to the actual best food truck in the city, (her favorite that parked in her neighborhood every Tuesday) next time. Because of course there would be a next time. She linked her fingers with his and he walked her to her next class.

They had homework dates together even though they weren't in any of the same classes or even programs and ate junk food in her apartment. .

He critiqued her artwork even though he didn't really know what he was talking about and he let her sketch him often just for fun.

She let him go on and on about scientific equations and theories and he might as well have been speaking another language most of the time, but he was passionate about it and she liked the sound of his voice.

They went on double dates with Ned and Betty.

She knew she really liked him when the four of them sat in her apartment for the express purpose of watching Ned and Peter try to assemble some huge Lego contraption in under the world record time while she and Betty sipped wine and judged the nerds not so quietly with adoring smiles.

It took MJ about three weeks to realize that she was falling for Peter Parker.

It took her about six to convince herself that Peter Parker was Spider-Man.

Ned often made horribly obvious innuendos, but it was Peter's over the top reactions that truly gave it away. That and the way he often flaked on things he was meant to show up for or suddenly rushed off in the middle of a date. Or the random bruises and scars he would turn up with out of nowhere that seemed to disappear in a day or so and the subtle displays of his incredible strength and stamina. All of which were especially highlighted the more physical their relationship became.

Right now MJ was hanging by a thread, overstimulated after the first two orgasms he'd given her with his talented tongue and fingers alone. She absolutely vibrated with pleasure in the center of her bed, listening to the squeak of the mattress mix with their sighs and moans to create a perfect soundscape. Peter lay between her legs pumping into her with purpose, deep and slow while she whispered his name like a prayer.

His hands cradled her, wrapped around her. Everywhere she looked there was Peter, everything she could feel was Peter, to the very depths of her. There was no distance between them, his sweaty chest sliding against hers while he whispered praises into her ear, begging her to come with him. And when he grabbed hold of her hips and plunged forward as deep as he could go she felt him throb with his release, triggering her own. It lasted longer than the first two, taking her by storm and tossing her around greedily.

She was still coming back to earth when she felt him freeze. His annoyed sigh after such a euphoric experience gave her the sign even before she ever heard his phone go off.

"Dammit," he sighed, seconds before the vibration started.

She was boneless, absolutely wiped from their lovemaking and right on the edge of sleep. She lay half covered by the sheet and watched him get dressed with droopy eyes. No more than a minute later he was kneeling beside her bed, reaching out to stroke her cheek.

"I really, really hate to say this, but-"

"You've gotta go," she finished for him, smiling a small smile.

His head dropped anyway. "I'm so sorry, MJ. I hate leaving you like this, but-"

"It's okay, Peter, I get it. You have to go," she murmured, pulling him close to kiss his face.

"You really are the best girlfriend."

"I know," she nuzzled his nose lazily.

"I'll make this up to you tomorrow, I promise."

"You could always just come back," she suggested around a little yawn. "After you're done Spider-Manning."

She felt him freeze for a second time. "What?"

"When you're finished being Spider-Man, you should come back and stay the night," she clarified. "That's what you're going out to do, right?"

He sputtered, stammering. "No! That's not, why would you-," he took a deep, steadying breath. "I'm not Spider-Man," he finally settled on, scoffing unconvincingly.

"Okay," she let him off the hook. He could tell her when he was ready. "Well, wherever you're going, be safe." And maybe it was the passionate way he'd made love to her moments before or perhaps she was loosened up with the dopiness that came with being fucked to sleep, but it just slipped out. "Love you."

His voice was small, but she still heard it. "You do?"

"Mhm." She pat in his general direction and let her eyes drift closed.

"I love you too."

Her heart brimmed with joy at hearing him say the words for the first time, but she would celebrate it later. For now, sleep took her.

After a few hours there was a tap at her window and she woke to find New York's web slinging hero perched outside of it. She climbed out of bed to open it for him without a word then climbed right back into bed. He locked the window and turned to face to her slowly, wringing his gloved hands together.

She stared at him from her pillows expectantly until he pulled off the mask.

"So...I am Spider-Man," Peter revealed.

"I know," she smiled. "But not right now. Right now you're Peter Parker. So get out of that sweaty suit and come cuddle me."

And he did, smacking the spider emblem on his chest so that it slipped off and left him in his boxers. He pounced onto the bed with a light, carefree sigh, and lay back. He pulled her onto his chest and started to trace patterns into the skin of her back softly.

"Was that a test?" he asked after a minute, thoughtful.


He cleared his throat. "You didn't just tell me you love me tonight because you thought I was Spider-Man...right?"

MJ pressed down on his chest to lever herself up and peer directly in those warm brown eyes that felt like home. She cupped his cheek. "I loved you long before I figured it out, Peter," she told him earnestly, blushing all the while. "Whether you were Spider-Man or weren't, I just love you."

Dr. Stephen Strange had a hard time repairing the TV Michelle Jones had so carelessly tossed into her dumpster, adding to the cracks across the delicate screen. When it was finally restored he put it back into the collection of enchanted objects at the Sanctum Sanctorum and locked the door.

"Remind me why you went through all of this trouble for a couple of kids," Wong said, walking alongside him.

"It's my job as the Sorcerer Supreme to protect our reality," Strange reminded him easily, walking down the stairwell for a cup of coffee. Young folks were a handful, he needed his caffeine.

"And that had what to do with the TV and the kids?"

"Those kids are soulmates. They're meant to find each other, sparking a significant chain of events that directly affect the state of our world," he explained. "There's a war coming and they're going to play a significant part. They need each other but at the rate they were going they would've never even been in the same room," he sighed, rolling his eyes. "So I just helped the process by giving the girl a nudge in the right direction. Hands off, no guidance, I followed the rules," he added at Wong's disapproving stare.

"No guiding, huh?"

"The TV only showed her highlights of some of their variants across the multiverse," he shrugged, waving a hand. "She couldn't even remember it when she woke up. Doesn't count against us."

"Uh-huh," Wong remarked, sighing. "Did you make any contact with the boy?"

"No. He's out and about all of the time, she was the one who needed some assistance getting out of her house so they could meet. Haunted TV does the trick every time," he smiled proudly.

"So what now? Did your matchmaking mission work? Is this reality secure, at least concerning the two of them?"

Dr. Strange twisted his magic green stone and looked into the various possibilities of the future. There were so many routes things could take from here. He could see love and weddings and pregnancy announcements but also upcoming wars, bloodshed, pain and confusion.

But in every single variation, Michelle Jones and Peter Parker had each other. They stood together, they planned together, they fought together. Their fate was in tact, the world stood another day, and they lived happily ever after.

As they should, and they always would.

Thank you so much for reading, I hope you enjoyed!