Disclaimers: Marvel owns 'em, I don't.

Chapter Three

The Dog Days Are Over

"Happiness, hit her like a train on a track.
Coming towards her, stuck still no turning back.
She hid around corners and she hid under beds,
She killed it with kisses and from it she fled.
With every bubble she sank with a drink
And washed it away down the kitchen sink.

"The dog days are over,
The dog days are done,
The horses are coming so you better run!"

—Florence + The Machine

"The Dog Days Are Over"

The South Street Seaport, 2:47 pm:

"Excuse me," the attractive red-head greeted the receptionist in the Horizon Labs lobby. "I believe I have an appointment with Peter Parker today. My name's Mary Jane Watson."

"Ah, Miss Watson," the receptionist smiled at her. "Mr. Parker did mention you today. I'll inform Dr. Modell." She pressed a button on her phone pad and spoke quietly into her headset's microphone. After a few seconds, she nodded and turned back to Mary Jane. "Dr. Modell will be up shortly to escort you to Lab Seven." She opened a file drawer behind her desk, and produced a plastic card with a 'V' printed on one side, hanging from a red lanyard. "Visitor's pass," she announced as she handed the card to MJ, along with a clipboard and pen. "If you could sign in, and note the time please."

"Thanks," MJ took the proffered pen and signed her name in the appropriate space. As she handed back the clipboard and pen and slipped the lanyard over her head and around her neck, a stocky gentleman in dark blue khaki pants and a light blue polo shirt approached her. His beard was somewhat shaggy but fairly well-trimmed, and his sandy-red hair, while receding, was still combed back in an impressive widow's peak.

"Ah, you must be Peter's friend, Miss Watson," he greeted her heartily with a warm handshake. "I'm Dr. Max Modell. He told me about you this morning. Didn't go into too many details, merely suggested that you may have use of his latest invention."

"Thanks, Dr. Modell," she answered as she accepted his cordial handshake. "And call me MJ."

"Only if you agree to call me Max. Peter will be meeting us at the main testing lab. If I may escort you?"

"Lead the way, Max," MJ answered as she followed him to the elevator.

"I understand that Peter is working on a new kind of high-security lock," Max commented as the elevator descended. "From previous experience with him, I'd say we're in for an entertaining demonstration."

"He's pretty much the smartest person I know," MJ answered with some sly pride.

The elevator doors slid open, and Max escorted MJ to Peter's lab. Peter was talking with a statuesque woman with a neatly trimmed afro, while a muscular figure with a clean-shaven head and a white t-shirt leaned against the wall watching. "Ah, Peter," Max greeted his young protégé, "your guest for the afternoon has arrived."

"Hey, MJ," Peter greeted the redhead. "Dr. Modell, this is Misty Knight from Knight-Wing investigations, they're the security firm that I'm working with for the new Guardian deadbolt system." Misty gave a curt wave. "And the surly gentleman in the corner over there is Luke Cage, an associate of Miss Knight's and a member of the Avengers."

Luke straightened himself up long enough to take Max's hand in a firm but friendly handshake. "Pleased to meet you," he greeted the scientist.

"And you," Max replied, smiling.

"And this, ladies and gentlemen," Peter held up a brass tube with a doorknob assembly attached to it, "for your edification and entertainment, is the Guardian electronic doorknob lock. A high-security locking system designed to be unobtrusive and install the same way as a convetional doorknob. Also comes with a deadbolt that operates with the same key." With a slight flourish, he handed the lock mechanism to Max.

"I don't see a keyhole on this device," Max observed as he turned the lock over in his hand. He tried turning the doorknob, but it held fast. "How does it unlock?"

"Like this," Peter answered, holding up a round red plastic piece roughly the size of a quarter. "Electronic key, similar to those used for keyless entry on your newer cars. Just press the button in the center—" As he triggered the switch, the key emitted an electronic chirping sound, the tumblers rotated, and Max was able to twist the doorknob easily.

Peter continued with his demonstration; "The locking mechanism contains electronic sensors. This panel here," he indicated a brass plate on the side of the doorknob base with four screw holes, "slides off so you can take out the circuitry and battery pack. I removed the screws for demonstration purposes." He slid the panel off with his thumb, and pressed a stud inside the base to release a black plastic battery-pack. "The pack contains the circuitry and a Lithium-Ion battery pack, and a similar pack is inside the deadbolt assembly. The lock package will come with two battery packs for each lock, so you can always have one in rotation. It also comes equipped with a USB cable that you can use to connect the pack to a home computer so you can recharge it or reset the passcodes. The cable can also charge the mini-batteries in the keys. The system comes with four keys, because let's face it, people lose their keys, or pockets get picked or purses get swiped. We've all been there, am I right?"

As the others murmured in agreement, Misty Knight took over the pitch; "If someone tries to use the key without setting a proper pass-code, or if someone tries to tamper with the lock or jimmy the door open, the lock will send a silent alarm signal to either Knight-Wing Investigations or the police, who will then contact the owner of the lock at a preferred phone number to verify if they're in trouble. You can also set up the lock to sound an alarm, like this." She triggered the electronic key she was holding, setting off a shrill chirping sound that caused most everyone in the room to cover their hands with their ears. Pressing the key again, she silenced the alarm. "My partner Colleen and I, we have the website for this lock up and running, complete with instructions and trouble-shooting aids. With the software we're including as part of the package, you'll be able to reprogram the lock from your PC. The lock is also Bluetooth-compatible, so you can download a free ap from our site for your smart-phone. With the ap, you can reset both locks and all four keys simultaneously from your smart-phone. If you lose the key or it gets stolen, you can reset your lock immediately to prevent anyone from using it, and even use your phone to unlock the door."

"How far can you be from the lock for the key to work on it?" Max asked.

"Fifty feet, give or take," Peter answered. "Makes it convenient if you're trying to carry grocery bags or other bulky objects while fumbling for your keys."

"And let me tell ya," Luke added, "that lock is tough. Me, I can routinely bench roughly 25 tons, and break through normal locks like they were made of Lego bricks, but I couldn't break that sucker. Pete has some video footage of me trying to break down a door that's set up with one of these bad boys."

"I should like to see that," Max commented.

"I have the DVD right here," Peter announced, pulling a disc out of a desk drawer.

"I shall peruse it later," Max offered as he accepted the disc. "I'm sure that I'll be as suitably impressed by the footage as I am from your demonstration. From what you've shown me, it looks like you have another winner on your hands, Peter." To MJ, he added, "And may I say, MJ, that I am indeed grateful for your participation in this project. Please keep us informed about how well the product works."

"I will," MJ promised. "Is this the model I'll be taking home with me?"

"That's the demo model," Peter explained, producing a parcel wrapped in brown paper from under the lab table. "Here's yours. Max, do you mind if I take this to her apartment and help her with installation?"

"Not at all, Peter," Max grinned. "You've certainly earned your paycheck. I'll see you later this week."

"Mind if I tag along, Pete?" Luke asked. Misty nodded at Luke's words, prompting Peter to shrug his shoulders. "Not at all," he answered as he and MJ prepared to leave.

Before she joined the others, MJ turned her attention back to Max Modell. "It was a pleasure meeting you, Max," she tipped her hand to Peter's boss as she collected her new lock. "Peter's had nothing but good things to say about you since he started working here."

"What a coincidence," Max replied, chuckling. "I've had nothing but good things to say about Peter." With a somewhat conspiratorial tone in his voice he added, "You're a most fortunate woman, MJ."

"What?" she stammered slightly at his comment. "No, we—we're just friends."

"Of course," he nodded noncommittally, although the knowing expression didn't leave his eyes. MJ shrugged her shoulders as she and the others waved their goodbyes to Max Modell.

"Hey, Luke," MJ ventured after they boarded the elevator, "how's Jessica these days? Haven't seen her in awhile."

"Oh, she's doin' well," Luke answered. "And you should see Dani. She's trying to stand, using the coffee table or the sofa armrest to support herself. Hate to sound cliché, but man, kids grow up fast." He paused, regarding the redhead with a discerning eye. "So what's really going on, MJ?"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean," Luke observed, "that you're a reasonably successful actress, former reality TV star, done some stage work, and now you need to beef up security. Shut me up if I'm out of line, but I'm thinkin' paparazzi or stalker."

MJ's shoulders sagged as the center of her brow creased with the tension of the last 24 hours. "Closer to stalker, Luke," she admitted. "Guy I used to date. Steroid user. I dumped him but he won't take a hint."

Luke Cage regarded the red-haired actress before her; during the time she and Peter had lived at Avengers Tower, Luke had quickly learned to respect Mary Jane Watson as a woman possessed of great courage and strength. Certainly being in love with a superhero required an abundance of both. Her courage only failed her, and her relationship with Peter, during that terrible ordeal last year, when the passage of the Superhero Registration Act resulted in half of the country's heroes being branded as outlaws. Luke scowled inwardly at the thought; those dark days nearly cost him his marriage to Jessica as well. To say nothing of giving that psychotic Norman Osborn a clear shot at the keys to the kingdom.

And seeing MJ as she stood before him now, clearly shaken by this possible stalker, brought it all back to him, how fragile human strength can be.

Misty was clearly thinking the same thing as well. "You consider getting a restraining order on this clown?" she asked.

"I went to the police first thing this morning," she answered soberly. "My landlord's a retired cop and he offered to serve as a witness. Figure it may take some time to process the request." Misty and Luke nodded in understanding.

"Well, first we'll get this bad boy installed," Peter promised, hefting up the Guardian lock, "then we'll work it out from there. Don't worry, MJ, we'll have this taken care of."

"Say, Misty," Luke asked nonchalantly, "you know if Danny's doin' anything over the next few days?"

Misty pursed her lips in thought. "He'll be fine for Saturday," she answered, "but he promised me dinner at Benedetti's on Friday. They make this sausage tortellini soup and eggplant parmagiana combo that just dances on the tongue. Seriously, you guys need to check it out sometime." The elevator slowed to a halt as she spoke and the door slid open.

"Wait," Peter stopped the conversation suddenly as he and his friends filed out of the elevator. "You and Danny get back together, Misty?" Luke smirked knowingly at Peter's comment; the on-again, off-again romance between Misty Knight and Daniel Rand, the premiere martial artist known to the world as Iron Fist, had become something of a favorite soap opera among the Avengers. Luke for his part was pleased to know that his two closest friends in the world had chosen to give their love another chance.

"Hey," Misty shrugged her shoulders defensively, "it ain't easy being in love with a superhero, but the heart wants what it wants! Am I right?" She addressed this last question to MJ, who felt a compulsive urge to avert her eyes from Misty's face. "So what were you thinking, Luke?"

"I was thinking," Luke drawled in that familiar tone he assumed when he was on the verge of making a suggestion, "maybe if you wanted to, Peter, while you're out, you know," he briefly raised his right hand, pressing his middle and ring fingers into his palm while extending his index and little fingers, "I thought you might like to join Danny and me out on patrol. I'm thinking of hanging around MJ's neighborhood, y'know, just in case..."

"Wait up, Luke," MJ turned sharply toward him. "I can see where this is going, and no, I don't want you..." she then turned and pointed at Peter, "or you, going after Bobby Carr."

"Who said anything about going after him?" Luke asked.

Peter smiled as he understood his meaning. "A little 'impact police work', Luke?"

"Impact police work?" MJ was clearly puzzled by the turn of phrase.

"Exactly," Luke answered. "Sometimes, the Mayor will send a bunch of cops into a troubled neighborhood and just have them hang around and be visible. This sends a message to any drug-dealers or gangs that they should seriously consider relocating. So what I'm thinking is that we won't do anything out of the ordinary, just hang around the neighborhood, make sure the streets are safe, y'know, business as usual. But if this Parr guy starts noticing that Spider-Man, Luke Cage and Iron Fist are frequenting your neighborhood, maybe he'll get the idea that hasslin' you ain't worth his time."

"Well," MJ demurred, "I guess that could work. I just don't want to see you guys getting into trouble on my account, not with 'Hizzonnah' Mayor Jameson on his anti-Spider-Man crusade."

"Don't worry about us, MJ," Peter assured her, "we won't be going out looking for him." He turned back toward Luke, his voice suddenly more quiet, less casual. "But if he happens to find us..." He left the sentence deliberately hanging, and MJ couldn't help but notice that his eyes darkened slightly.

Peter and MJ said their goodbyes to Luke and Misty and made their way across Manhattan for her apartment. MJ's spirits were starting to lift, thanks to the offers of assistance from Peter and his associate from the Avengers, and she finally allowed herself to relax. Her conversation with Peter on the subway back home became more animated, especially when Peter asked her how her initial rehearsals for "Much Ado About Nothing" went.

"It was mostly reading the first act," MJ explained, "and setting up the details of the production. The way this production works, they're setting the play in 1945, just after V-Day, when the American soldiers returned home from World War II. Fits with the main plotline of Claudio romancing Hero after the fighting was over."

"Yeah, that's the one thing that bothered me about the play, at least when I saw the movie," Peter interrupted. "I mean, the way Claudio treated Hero when Don Pedro made him think she was unfaithful, then acting like everything was all hunky-dory-fine when her good name was cleared. If I were Shakespeare, I'd have ended the play with Hero telling Claudio to sit and spin."

"I see your point, Peter," MJ admitted. "And actually that question was brought up during the initial cast meeting today. Beverly Jenkins, the director, she said that she wanted to explore that a little, by showing that while Claudio's treatment of Hero was, well..." She struggled briefly to think of the right word.

"In violation of Wil Wheaton's Law?" Peter offered. "'Don't Be a Dick'?"

MJ pursed her lips in thought for a second, and then nodded; "Yeah, that works. Anyway, the way they're setting it up, Claudio's as much a victim of Don Pedro's schemes as Hero was, and when the truth comes out, he'll be making a genuine show of remorse for his actions, so he'll end up a little bit more sympathetic by the end of the play."

"So no unearned happy endings?"

"You got it," MJ answered, smiling. The train stopped at the station nearest to MJ's apartment and they disembarked, Peter still carrying MJ's lock. Pale gray clouds began to obscure the eastern sky, carrying the promise of rain later in the evening. "Meanwhile," MJ continued to explain her role in the play, "I'm supposed to play my character, Beatrice, like Rosie the Riveter, a real independent spirit."

"Bit of a stretch there," Peter smirked, winning a playful slap across the shoulder. Peter laughed and feebly defended his statement; "I'm just saying that I don't see you playing Bella Swan anytime soon."

"Ugh, don't remind me!" MJ started to laugh along with Peter. "A friend of mine in LA kept telling me, 'You have to read 'Twilight' it's the best book ever!'. I got through two chapters and started to reevaluate our friendship..." MJ's voice tapered off as she turned her head toward the direction of her apartment. A police car was parked in front of the building, its lights flashing from the vehicle's roof. "Oh, that can't be good," MJ muttered under her breath as she ran toward the building, Peter following behind her.

She approached a policeman standing on the steps to her apartment building. "Excuse me, sir," she asked, her voice breathless from the exertion of running a city block in heels. "What's happening here?"

The cop regarded her dispassionately. "Are you the tenant in apartment 204?"

She swallowed hard and nodded. "Yeah, Mary Jane Watson, what happened?"

"Miss Watson, you okay?" a voice called out from the entryway. Mr. Metzger made his way down the steps toward her, his face a mask of concern. "I was trying to call ya earlier."

"Sorry, Mr. Metzger, I was with Peter at his lab," she explained to her landlord.

Peter stood behind MJ as she spoke to Mr. Metzger. "I'm Peter," he introduced himself nervously. "She told me about her run-in with an old boyfriend last night and I offered to help her install a new high-end lock for her front door."

"Yeah," Metzger answered gruffly. "Well MJ, I'm sorry but it looks like your friend from last night paid a visit while you were gone." MJ's heart sank like a leaden weight in her chest at those words. She immediately rushed to her apartment, only to find two cops sealing off her doorway with a strip of yellow cordon tape bearing the words 'CRIME SCENE, DO NOT ENTER' in black block lettering. "Oh my God," she whispered as she approached her apartment.

"Excuse me, miss," a female detective asked her in a firm yet polite voice. "My name is Detective Morales. Is this your apartment?" When MJ nodded, the detective told her partner, "Let her pass."

The officer escorted MJ into her apartment, and MJ was sickened by what she saw. Torn magazines scattered over the room. Deep rips in the upholstery of her sofa. The words 'BE MINE OR DIE' scrawled over the window in livid red spray-paint. A framed photo of her on her coffee table, the glass smashed with a hammer. "Your landlord told us that he heard a commotion this afternoon and chased someone off the property around 3 pm," Morales informed MJ. "Miss Watson, do you have any idea who may have been responsible?"

MJ held her forehead with her hands as the dread she felt the night before after her initial encounter with Bobby Carr re-emerged and threatened to overwhelm her. "Bobby," she spat out in response to the detective's question. "Bobby Carr. Ex-boyfriend, I dumped him last year when he started doing steroids. He came by my apartment last night..."

As she glanced around her vandalized living room, she noticed Peter standing in the hallway, his hazel eyes radiating concern. She rushed toward him, collapsing in his arms, sobbing with nameless terror. Peter just held her in his arms, murmuring, "It's okay, MJ, it's gonna be okay." All the while he desperately tried to ignore the vaguely floral scent that he recognized as her favorite shampoo or the soft smooth planes of her back where his hand touched.

"Miss Watson," Detective Morales spoke up, "we'll need to close this crime scene for the night, to find more information. We've also put out an APB on Carr, but if you could provide a detailed physical description it would be very helpful."

"I'll tell you what I can," MJ answered, tears still shining in her eyes.

"Is there a place where you can stay for the night?"

"My apartment," Peter volunteered immediately. "I have a large fold-out sofa-bed in my living room, I can sack out there while she takes my bedroom." MJ looked at Peter as if to protest, but ultimately nodded her head in silence.

"If I may take your statement, Miss Watson," the detective continued, "then you can pack some clothes. From what we've seen, the perp only messed up the living room. Evidently your landlord scared him off before he could go any further."

"Thanks," MJ said flatly. "Peter, could you just wait for me? I'll be down in about ten minutes or so."

"Take your time, MJ," Peter assured her. "I'm not going anywhere. I'll be outside." MJ gave Peter a wan smile as she turned her attention back to the detective.

Peter stepped outside the apartment and quietly made his way to a nearby alleyway. Glancing left and right to make sure no one was listening, he pulled out his cellular and dialed a familiar number.

"Luke Cage speaking."

"Luke, it's Peter. I took MJ to her apartment, but it looks like her stalker beat us there. Place got trashed, and he left a threatening message in spray-paint."

"Sweet Christmas!" Luke swore angrily. "You wanna suit up and scour the neighborhood with me tonight, see if we can collar this scum?"

"Wish I could," Peter admitted. "Look, MJ's pretty shaken up, so I'm going to take her to my place and watch over her tonight."

"You do that, Pete. I'll hook up with Danny and do some scouting around."

"Thanks, Luke, I owe you."

"Just keep her safe, Pete. Later." The phone disconnected.

Peter went back to the front steps of MJ's apartment, just as Mr. Metzger escorted MJ out, a suitcase in her hand. "Here, MJ," Peter offered, taking MJ's suitcase in his left hand and placing his right arm around her shoulder. "Let's get you safe."

As MJ sagged into his side, Peter silently prayed that he didn't run into Bobby Carr any time soon. Not that he feared for his own safety.

More accurately he feared for what he would do to Carr if their paths crossed.

"Are you sure about this, MJ?" Peter asked her as they entered his apartment. "I mean, I don't mind sleeping on the sofa."

"I'm not putting you out of your bed tonight, Tiger," MJ insisted. "I'll be just fine on the sofa. Besides, I have a rehearsal tomorrow morning; I'll be up well before you are."

"You sure about doing rehearsals, MJ?"

"If I don't show up for my second rehearsal they'll give the role to someone else," MJ insisted. "Besides, if I don't keep busy I'll go nuts worrying about Carr."

"If you say so," Peter conceded. "But you sure you'll be okay on the sofa?"

"Peter, I once did a location shot at Monument Valley and the bed on the trailer was six inches shorter than me. I'll be okay, really." As Peter regarded her with that familiar compassionate gaze of his, she swallowed hard and willed herself to smile. She had to be okay. She had to show him that she was okay.

"Hey," he volunteered, "you want me to order us a pizza?"

MJ nodded. "Yeah, I'd like that," she whispered. Same ol' Peter, she thought to herself, always putting someone else before himself."Look, I'm feeling kinda grubby from the subway and all that, would you mind if I took a quick shower? I won't be long..."

"Take as long as you need," Peter smiled reassuringly. "Mi casa es su casa and all that. Pepperoni and bell pepper, right?"

MJ smiled inwardly. Of course he would still remember her favorite pizza toppings. She nodded briefly before heading for the shower, as Peter grabbed a phone to contact the nearest pizza delivery place.

By the time MJ finished her shower, the pizza had arrived. She was wearing her normal bedclothes, a pale pink t-shirt and blue sweatpants. She joined Peter on the sofa and they consumed the pizza in relative silence. Where yesterday evening there was conversation and occasional laughter, the only sound now was the rattling of a steady summer rain on the window, punctuated by the occasional rumble of thunder. The bitter irony of this was not lost on MJ. Their Chinese take-out dinner roughly 24 hours ago, it seemed like a lifetime now, as her joy at getting a new job was now supplanted by fear for her life, fear of the greatest mistake she ever made following her home.

She glanced furtively at Peter as he took a bite out of his third slice of pizza. She saw those hazel eyes fixed on her face, so warm with compassion. No, she corrected herself sadly, Bobby Carr was only the second-worst mistake she ever made. Her fear began to subside, replaced by resolve. For the first time in many months, she saw the clear path before her, and she was determined to take it.

Peter, for his part, was dealing with his own private thoughts, which were becoming increasingly polarized. His heart, as always, went out to the sad redhead sitting beside him, but he wasn't sure what he could do to protect her. She had faced dangers before when they were together—being involved with your friendly-neighborhood Spider-Man came with more baggage than a safari. Not to mention the fact that her own chosen career had its own inherent risks. He still shuddered at times when he recalled how a wealthy psychopath named Jonathan Caesar had kidnapped her, feeling that because he loved her—or whatever passed for 'love' in his twisted mind—that he was entitled to her, and her desires in the matter be damned!

But this sudden situation with Carr felt different. More urgent, more dangerous. All he knew was that in all the years he knew her, Peter had seen Mary Jane Watson this truly frightened only once before. After the initial passage of the Superhero Registration Act over a year ago. When his opposition of that controversial law resulted in a sniper shooting his Aunt May, while MJ was in the same room with her.

And MJ's wellsprings of patience finally reached their limit, and she walked out of their apartment and their relationship for good. Probably the smartest move she could have made, Peter reflected some weeks after the fact, but it was something that he never fully got over.

Six weeks ago, he saw his ex-girlfriend Carlie Cooper off at JFK International. He could still remember the last words she said to him before she boarded the plane to Los Angeles; "Do us all a favor, Peter, and tell MJ you're still in love with her, huh?"

He had protested Carlie's words in his mind ever since that day. He and MJ had their chance, and they both moved on. Didn't they?

He wasn't in love with MJ anymore. Was he?

Finally, the last of the pizza was eaten, and Peter quietly stashed the cardboard delivery box into a recycling bin under his kitchen sink.

"Hey, MJ," Peter offered as he returned from the kitchen, "I'm about to take a shower myself and turn in. If you wanna watch a movie or something before sacking out, feel free."

"Thanks, Peter," MJ shook her head. "But I think I'll pass."

Peter sat on the sofa and instinctively reached for MJ's hand, which she offered without protest. "Look, Red. I know you're scared, I get that. Scared is the preferred emotional response for a situation like this. But we're going to beat this, you hear me? Luke Cage and Danny Rand are out there right now looking for Carr, the cops are on his case. He'll be locked up for stalking and vandalism charges. Trust me, it's all gonna work out."

MJ leaned into Peter's arms, taking what comfort he had to offer as her face nestled so easily, so naturally, into his shoulder. Peter's hand absently sifted through MJ's long red hair as he brushed the top of her head with the lightest of kisses.

After several minutes, Peter reluctantly pulled his head away, but his arms remained around MJ's waist. "Hey, MJ," he asked, "is there anything else you want me to do for you before I turn in? Need me to help you pull out the sofa-bed?"

MJ lifted her face to meet Peter's eyes with her own. Her lips were upturned in a slight smile, as she felt her resolve strengthen, and a throaty chuckle escaped her lips. "What's so funny?" Peter asked.

MJ chuckled again, almost sensuously. "I was just thinking about my fortune cookie last night?" she commented. "The one that said, 'You will soon have the opportunity to correct a great mistake'." She paused for a pregnant moment. This could go wrong so many ways, she mentally warned herself, but right now nothing else matters. Put up or shut up, girlfriend."Yes, Peter," she declared. "There is something I want you to do for me."

Deliberately she placed her hands around the back of Peter's head and pulled him toward her. Tilting her head slightly, she soundly kissed his lips, her hands combing through his hair.

Peter suddenly jerked his head away from her, his mouth hanging open in utter shock. "MJ!" he stammered, "what are you doing?"

"Correcting a great mistake," she replied, her voice an earthy growl, as she moved toward him. Peter tried to diplomatically move away, but ended up leaning too far back, allowing MJ to push him gently down with his back on the sofa and her weight pressed against his chest. She lowered her head to his, again planting searing kisses on his lips, his cheeks, his chin.

"Uh, we—we shouldn't be doing this," Peter stammered weakly, his own resolve fading as the woman he now realized he never truly fell out of love with continued her assault.

"Trust me, Tiger," she murmured between kisses, "we should." Her hands had begun to trail feather-light caressed across his shoulder-blades, slowing working their way downward. "That is," she added as a polite after thought, "unless you don't want it."

"It's not that, MJ," Peter assured her. "It's just that, well, given all that's happened, I really shouldn't take advantage of you like this."

MJ stopped her onslaught of kisses and lifted her head slightly, a bemused smirk playing on her lips which in Peter's eyes made her look even sexier. "Peter," she observed wryly, "I don't know if you've noticed it, but I'm on top of you right now. Who's taking advantage of whom here? Look, let's make it simple; do you want to make love to me tonight?"

Peter stared longingly at the red-haired goddess lying on top of him. "Oh God yes," he breathed, as he lifted his upper body to a more upright posture, his arms still firmly wrapped around MJ's waist. "Tonight, tomorrow night, any night. But I don't want you doing this out of fear. I just don't want you to do anything you'll regret."

MJ leaned forward again, placing another kiss on Peter's lips. "I am afraid, yes," she admitted. "Afraid of Bobby Carr, afraid that he'll hurt me, hurt you, hurt my sister and her kids, yeah, I'm afraid of that. But I'm not afraid of you. Not of us. And no matter what happens tomorrow, I will never regret loving you."

She leaned in for one last kiss, her mouth open and waiting. The last of Peter's resolve eroded away by the desire he and MJ shared, he placed his right arm under her legs and held her back with his left. He stood up, lifting her body in his strong arms, eliciting a whoop of surprise and joy from MJ as he carried her slowly toward her bedroom. She hugged him tightly by the shoulders and purred in his ear, "I think I just remembered why I call you 'Tiger', Tiger."

Hours later, two naked lovers slept soundly in each other's arms, her hand placed gently on his chest, his arms wrapped protectively around her torso. Their last thoughts as they drifted to sleep after their passionate lovemaking were much the same. That the game had changed. That nothing would ever be the same again.

And that living apart from each other would no longer be a viable option.

And from the deepest pit of Hell, Mephisto watched...