Bonded in Life and Death (REUPLOAD) by ValleyofLight
Summary:

Nayely Polite and MJ Park have many things in common: dead parents and group homes.

When their stories converge, an indestructible connection tethers these two together in ways they'll never understand. Even when they spend years apart, trying their best to steer clear from one another, Nayely and MJ will soon realize that there's no escaping the hold life and death has on them.


Categories: Original Fiction Characters: None
Classification: General
Genre: Drama, Family, Friendship, Romance
Story Status: Active
Pairings: None
Warnings: Adult Situations, Character Death, Drugs/Drug Use, Extreme Language, Original Characters, Racism, Rape, Sexual Content , Strong Sexual Content
Challenges: None
Series: None
Chapters: 17 Completed: No Word count: 100841 Read: 31834 Published: September 07 2018 Updated: June 08 2021

1. Chapter 1 by ValleyofLight

2. Chapter 2 by ValleyofLight

3. Chapter 3 by ValleyofLight

4. Chapter 4 by ValleyofLight

5. Chapter 5 by ValleyofLight

6. Chapter 6 by ValleyofLight

7. Chapter 7 by ValleyofLight

8. Chapter 8 by ValleyofLight

9. Chapter 9 by ValleyofLight

10. Chapter 10 by ValleyofLight

11. Chapter 11 by ValleyofLight

12. Chapter 12 by ValleyofLight

13. Chapter 13 by ValleyofLight

14. Chapter 14 by ValleyofLight

15. Chapter 15 by ValleyofLight

16. Chapter 16 by ValleyofLight

17. THE LIGHT SHINES AGAIN by ValleyofLight

Chapter 1 by ValleyofLight
Author's Notes:

Hello again! This is a reupload with an updated story line. Many parts have remained the same but there are significant changes to take note of. All comments are welcomed! Don't be shy!

Nayely Polite

Nayely

 

Min Jae "MJ" Park

MJ

 

October 3, 1995

"But Mama! Daddy said we could go to Miss Taylor's to pick out a puppy today." Shondra Polite's eyes drifted to her rearview mirror as she watched her five-year-old daughter, Nayely climb from the backseat. The old Cadillac jerked beneath them as they waited at a red light. Turning around quickly to cut the girl a knowing look, Shondra's quiet command ceased Nayely's short leg from reaching over the middle console in an attempt to sit in the passenger seat. Flopping back, the young girl inhaled the smell of old leather as it cooked from the sunrays of the afternoon.

Looking to her right, Nayely watched as her baby brother fidgeted as the rays slowly glided across his face. Sticking out her hand, she blocked the intrusion so not to wake the infant and silently marveled at the way her brown skin shined with gold.

"Nayely, don't start bugging about that dog." She chastised softly as the cars began to roll. "'Your daddy said he would think about it. He didn't make any promises, okay?"

"Daddy has been really nice to us since he came back home. Remember when he bought me my scooter? Or when he took us to the fair and let me ride the strawberry cups?" Shondra listened to the sound of Nayely's feet tap against the seat as she recalled the moments that had set her little heart ablaze in the last three months. Her mother's hands gripped the steering wheel tightly as she pursed her lips.

She saw the change within her husband, Damien. Leading up to the birth of their son Kai, Shondra had suffered the brunt of his sporadic behavior. Some nights he would beat her with his belt across her back, drawing enormous welts to the surface of her skin as she shielded her protruding belly. Then the next day he would lay beside her in their full size bed, pressing handfuls of ice wrapped in paper towels against her mutilated skin.

When Kai was 6 weeks, Damien took another one of his hiatuses from his life, disappearing to God knows where as he left behind no clues for his trapped wife. She was trapped by the fear housed in the pit of her stomach fueled by the memories of the consequences of her previous escape attempts. What would she do with a brand new baby and a daughter who was more than receptive to the world around her?

When Nayely had been a toddler who could barely string along two syllables, it seemed much easier to pack her up and take off into the night. Even then her plans would be foiled once Damien had any inclination that something wasn't quite right at home as he was off getting his fix. It would be impossible to even think about running away now.

Besides.

If she cast away her fears and doubts, something good may be ahead of them.

When Damien returned three months ago, he walked through the door of their old home looking as fresh as the day Shondra met him. His skin shined with a happy glow about him, one that was so foreign yet inviting as she carefully walked towards him, throwing herself into his arms. That day, Nayely had pulled Kai by his rocking bassinette into the bathroom, following a natural reaction she had learned to use whenever her father was around. It took Shondra nearly 20 minutes to convince the young girl to come out to greet her father. While she was hesitant, Shondra could see the deep desire within the girl to trust the smiling face of her father and the uncharacteristically gentle hold he had around her as he lifted her into the air.

Shondra had never seen anything like this before. Nayely had grown to trust her father in this time with him. As she cleared her throat, Shondra couldn't help but to allow the recent dread she had felt as she waited to see what new Damien would be revealed after shedding his last skin. She recognized all of the signs as he slowly but surely began to fall through on the promises he had made to Nayely. The job he had detailing cars with his uncle started to sound more and more like a farce for whatever activities he was truly getting himself into. Shondra began to doubt the influx of customers needing his assistance at 2, 3, and 4 o'clock on the morning on any given day. She wanted to think of the possibility of them being a family for once, but it was hard to do so as more and more his all too familiar grip whenever he touched her returned.

That morning she had noticed the change in his posture as he walked through the house with a slow and unateasy dip, surveying all that he could with scrutiny. His once bright eyes dulled whenever he spoke to Nayely, while Shondra could barely remember the last time he even looked at Kai. When he had assured Nayely that morning that their evening would still be filled with a ride out to Miss Taylor's to pick from one of her newly born puppies, Shondra's skin had crawled at the sound of sarcasm that coated his half ass promise..

"Listen to me, how about we focus on having a good time at your karate class?"

"Its not karate, mama! It's taekwondo!" Nayely reminded her as she slapped an exasperated palm to her head. Happy to see that she was able to embarass her 5 year old know it all, she smiled.

"That's right! My bad!" Shondra teased. She had been grateful for the classes that were being offered by Nayley's school. It gave her daughter the outlet Shondra feared she lacked the most. The girl spent so much time up under her, that she sometimes forgot her tender age as she spoke with the knowledge and wit of someone far beyond her years. Shondra wasn't ignorant to the girl's hesitancy to anyone new-adults and children alike. Through the afterschool program, Shondra watched as bit by bit, Nayely began to find her voice among her peers. She had even attached herself to a little boy within the class.

"You'll get to see your little friend today, won't you? Doesn't that make you happy?" As Shondra pulled into the parking lot of the community center, she watched as a large grin spread across the girl's face, showing off her deep dimples as her little body swayed with the motions of the car.

Shutting down the Cadillac, Shondra glanced across the parking lot as she watched children and their parents enter through the doors of the center. Some children were so skinny that the white uniforms seemed to engulf them. One small figure in particular caught her eye. Shondra watched through the glass as a small boy doubled back to find his young mother engrossed in the blue pager she held to her face. Shondra watched as the younger woman adjusted herself in her white halter top, marching along in her platform heels until she came to a stop just before the door. Though she could not hear anything, Shondra knew that the boy was pleading with her to walk him into the center before she quickly bent to deliver a barrage of kisses against his cheek and scuttled back to the sports car she left parked haphazardly in the lot. Hearing her own car door shut, Shondra watched as Nayely ran across the lot to meet the boy.

"I know she didn't...Watch where you're going, Nayely!" Shondra yelled from the window as she hurried to grab Kai. Keeping her eyes trained on the young mother who peeled out of the parking lot, she gritted her teeth as the front bumper barely missed Nayely as she hopped to the curb just in time. Shondra held her breath as she held the infant to her chest, making her way to her daughter.

Grabbing a hold of the back of her uniform, Shondra stopped Nayely before she could drag off the solemn looking boy. Turning her around, she lifted the girl's chin so that their eyes met.

"Before you go anywhere, let's get one thing straight. Never. Do something like that again, do you hear me? You've got to be careful." Wringing her hands in front of her, Nayley shook her head in understanding as her mother caressed her cheek. Turning her attention to the young boy who held onto Nayley's hand, twiddling with her fingers, she gave him a warm smile as she smoothed out his long hair, her fingers skated across s jaw much too sharp for a growing boy.

"It's nice to see you again MJ. You look like you've gotten even bigger!" From the brief conversations Shondra has tried to hold with the boy's mother, she could figure that his small stature wasn't just due to the fact he was a couple of months younger than her daughter. Shondra wouldn't be surprised if the young woman who could only talk about the next casting call that would jump start her stardom couldn't recall the last meal she had given her son.

Bending at the knees, Shondra reached for Nayely's free hand as she led the children inside. Looking over her shoulder, she watched as the young boy and girl stole shy glances at each other. When Nayely stuck out the tip of her tongue at the boy, Shondra watched as a smile finally relaxed his tense face.

 

 

MJ nervously scratched his neck as his mother led him towards a strange house. Looking up, he watched as her dark hair floated around her, making her the prettiest mom he had ever seen. The 21-year-old donned a fitted yellow dress that complimented her warm skin tone. As a 16-year-old, Eun Jae had possessed the same beauty that had given her confidence as she joined every acting and modeling club at her high school. She had always been an ambitious girl, willing to go further than either of her parents were ever comfortable with tto get what she wanted. When she had snuck out one night with a group friends in search of the secret party of an up and coming star, she had hoped to return with great news of an undercover agent finally discovering the goldmine that was her talent. Instead, she had left infatuated by a college freshman who had caught her attention so fast, she couldn't help but lie about who she really was as he doted her with attention like she'd never had before. As she walked away from that night in bliss, a new life awaited her as her son grew until she could no longer hide his presence beneath the baggy clothes she hated.

When her parents finally saw what their mysterious daughter had been up to, she was immediately sent from the home to figure things out on her own as it was decided she had no intentions of appreciating the life of comfort they attempted to provide. Eun Jae bounced around from basement to attic to friend to stranger in search of somewhere she could rest her body as it grew beyond her imagination. By the end of her pregnancy, Eun Jae had not seen the inside of her high school in months, nor had she stood on a stage doing what she loved most. As the stubborn girl she was, she fought off the urge to reach out to the leaders of the womae's shelter where she took refuge, in search of information on adoption. Her parents had shunned her for the choices she had made once again, and Eun Jae felt that she had to prove to them that she knew what she was doing. She could make this work, just like she would make her dreams shine bright. The night MJ was born, she introduced him to the world as Min Jae-a complement to her own namesake.

For the early years of his life, Eun Jae worked odd jobs, travelling to neighboring cities hoping to finally land the gig she was looking for to make some cash. She had made it into commercials for local businesses and had even landed a non-speaking role for a popular restaurant. Though some recognized her as the pretty face that catwalked a steaming hot plate of fajitas into everyone's TV screens during primetime networking, Eun Jae needed more to satisfy her thirst. She just knew it was a part of her predetermined path to make it big and she knew she had to do whatever she could to get there.

To do that, it meant Eun Jae had to make many sacrifices that affected her relationship with her child. Some days she would pay a meager babysitting fee for coworkers who were also single parents to watch him. Eun Jae wasn't ashamed to say that on the days that she couldn't find anyone willing to take on her responsibility, children's Tylenol assisted her in keeping MJ asleep in their locked apartment until she could return. Finding the time to balance being a mother and searching for a job came to a head one weekend when she pushed her luck to its limit. When MJ was 3, she had been given a greasy napkin with a party invite scribbled on it. She had spoken to an older red headed woman who had visited the midnight diner she waitressed. The woman was instantly captivated by the way Eun Jae made the restaurant her stage as she served her. When Eun Jae and her bleeding heart told the woman of her dreams to act, she was immediately given an offer that she could not refuse.

As Eun Jae walked home from the bus stop that night, she gripped the napkin as if it were the most precious thing in the world. Committing the address to memory, Eun Jae ran her finger over the name Slade written in beautiful cursive. The woman told her that all she had to do was find this man once she arrived at the mansion party and at that moment, her heart beat with excitement as she rushed home.

Eun Jae kicked out of her white keds as she ran through the small apartment, stripping free from her uniform. She sniffed the ends of her long hair, instantly cringing from the smell of chili and fried foods laced in it. A shower was a must...perfume couldn't get her by for a night like this.

As the young mother ran around the apartment, humming her favorite tunes, she hadn't noticed her small toddler watching her from the old couch in the living room. He lied beneath an empty bread loaf bag that he fed from that night while she was away. His heavy eyes followed her as she moved with purpose. Even at 3 years old, he knew that she would be gone as fast as she came and there was no point in getting too excited that she was home. Sitting up, the little boy crossed his legs at his ankles as he watched his mother tie on her best heels as she fumbled with her clutch. When Eun Jae breezed towards the front door, she caught sight of her son watching her from the corner of her eyes. Whirling around, Eun Jae looked at her son with a surprised expression.

"Mommy?" His small voice called out through the darkness. Immediately, his mother kneeled before him, placing his face in the palm of her hands.

"Did I wake you? Mommy's sorry." Kissing his cheeks, Eun Jae rubbed at the jelly stains on his lips."Mommy has to go somewhere, but I'll be back as soon as I can, okay? Don't open the door and only eat what's in the cabinets." Eun Jae relayed her typical instructions. This was the drill for whenever she had to leave and she was always happy to return home and see that the young boy had survived another day. His ability to do so well gave her confidence that he could easily fit into a hectic lifestyle with no problem. That confidence made her feel less guilty each time she left him behind.

When Eun Jae arrived at the mansion, thoughts of her son were long gone as she moved in between the bodies of young hopefuls who grooved to the music that blared throughout the home. A new sensation had taken over her as she eased her way through, hoping to find the man who could unlock the door she needed to emerge into this world. That night, Eun Jae was swept off her feet by the mystique of Slade, an industry guru who took her to a new world. She was so enraptured by his being, that it took two days for her to come up for air.

The next time she had stepped through the doors of her apartment, to find a soiled toddler lying in a heap of vomit and oatmeal cakes, Eun Jae cleaned him up without complaint, as she gladly stepped into her new role as EJ, the next big thing.

However, two years later she had found that her number in the line of next best things was keeping her further from the front. Yet, EJ held onto the hope that Slade instilled within her. He had convinced her to do away with her birthname, as the first few weeks of their trysts left him annoyed whenever she corrected him after calling her by a name that was not her own. Through compromise, Eun Jae agreed to become EJ, hoping that it would suffice. As the days went on, EJ found that she was vying for Slade's attention now more than ever. It seemed that no matter how much she changed for him, things remained the same. To cope with the constant failures, EJ had joined in on Slade's habits which drew her to the lone house that stood before her and her son. Needing her fix, EJ adjusted her dress that stuck out like a sore thumb on the dark street. The neighborhood they walked through was a far cry from the elite mansions she was typically drawn to. But Slade had messaged her saying that he had a special surprise for her, with the promise of a hit she wouldn't forget.

2NITEATK

BIGSHOT LOWKEY. B THERE.

Low key? EJ had pulled out as many stops as she could tonight because if this was the real deal, then she would not pass this chance up. The small squeeze of her hand drew her eyes down to the little boy who walked at a fast pace to keep up with her longer legs. Taking a deep breath, EJ recalled her questions on what she was supposed to do with MJ-- there was no one to watch him. Leaving him home alone was out of the question as her nosey older neighbor made it her business to watch and document EJ's every move and would happily report her to child services. There had been a close run in that almost had MJ taken from her, and unless she followed their every condition, she knew the next time they came knocking on her door it may be the last time she saw MJ.

Wiping at her nose, EJ flipped her hair over her shoulder as they stood in front of the large house. "Do you remember what I told you? Stay quiet and wait until mommy is finished, okay? If everything goes well tonight, you'll finally get to see mommy on real TV and in movies, wouldn't that be fun?" Her wide eyes sparkled at the thought. MJ tightened his grip on her hand as he shrugged his shoulders.

"Can't we go home? I don't want to be here." He began to whine

"Stop it!" EJ's command came out with more force than ever before as she glared at the boy. "Don't...don't do this tonight, MJ. If it hadn't been for the fact that you like to open doors for strangers, I'd be able to leave you at home without worrying about you." She spat at him. Seeing the glossy look in his eyes, EJ chastised herself and delivered a kiss to the top of his head as she crouched in her heels. Pushing her forehead against his, she spoke in a softer tone.

"I'm sorry, MJ. I-I just need you to work with me here, okay? I promise we won't have to do this much longer." Sticking out her pinky, EJ waited patiently as her young son debated on believing her. As she was his mother and the only love he had known in this world, he obliged as his small hand was wrapped against her own.

"Um...hello? Did you think I was inviting you to a daycare, EJ?" The scratchy voice of Slade pulled the two from their private moment as the man in leather stepped from the house. MJ covered his nose immediately as he could recognize the skunky smell of marijuana waft outside. The boy had made contact with the smoke before and he was all too knowing of the weird way it made him feel. When he looked to see the excited grin on his mother's face, he knew that this would be another night of her doing the adult things she always said he wasn't allowed to touch. She had told him before that the things she did made her feel good, but whenever he witnessed her during her high, she never seemed all that happy.

EJ rushed her son into the house as Slade looked over his shoulder anxiously. Donned in dark circle sunglasses, he looked down at the boy with disgust and annoyance.

"You say one word..." He whispered to the boy as he delivered a veiled threat.

"He's good, Slade! MJ is a smart kid he knows what to do." Striding past EJ, Slade looked into the cracks of the nearby rooms. He knew for a fact there was no way he could take the kid upstairs, as a special production was underway and having the presence of a 5 year old boy on set would definitely kill the vibe. The sounds of men and women shouting in ecstasy carried downstairs as they moved along.

After trying three different doors, Slade cursed as he realized they were all occupied.

"So, where's the guy at? Is he here yet?" EJ asked, completely oblivious to Slade's irritation.

"Listen sweetheart, if we can't figure out what to do with your fucking kid, there will be no need for you to worry about meeting anyone tonight, do you understand?"

Looking around with an anxious expression, EJ spotted a small door just beneath the spiraling staircase. Rushing forward, she pushed MJ in the direction of the crawlspace.

"Mommy, no!" He yelled. Placing her hand over his mouth, EJ looked around to see that no one had heard his small voice amidst the sounds of the party. Peering down into teary eyes, EJ pleaded with her son.

"It won't be long! Just stay in here and I'll be back for you." MJ attempted to speak through his tears, but the palm of her hand prevented any sound from escaping. MJ's body resisted against her stronger hands as she forced him into the door.

"Do not come out, or you'll be in big trouble!" EJ gave the order with a stern look. Just past her shoulder, MJ watched as Slade lifted his dark sunglasses, giving the boy a deadly stare. That was enough to send MJ scooting backwards further into the dark space. When his back met the wall, he drew his knees to his chest as he watched his mother's face disappear behind the door. The shutter design on the front of the door allowed for only a few slivers of light to shine through, obscured by the shadows of bodies as they moved about freely.

MJ couldn't help but to cry softly.

 

"Nayely, please stop crying! What did I tell you?" Shondra yelled over the shrill screams of her daughter as she dealt with the fussy infant in her arms. Nayley was distraught from her father breaking his promise to her and Kai wouldn't take his bottle no matter what Shondra did.

She felt like she was losing her mind.

"He promised me a puppy! A puppy! I want my daddy!" she wailed. Nayely's small body was pressed against the front door, where she banged her head into the wood repeatedly.

Shondra ran over immediately once she realized what her daughter was doing. Just as the banging intensified, she was able to pull her away by her arm. The girl flailed onto the ground, wiggling out of her mother's grip until she was free. Careful not to lose her hold on Kai, Shondra stood up exasperated as Nayely cupped her face into the carpet and continued crying.

"Damnit!" She whispered beneath her breath. Damien had done it again. Shondra was glad to know that she wasn't crazy or paranoid to believe that he was returning to his true self over the last few weeks. Even though he proved her right, it pained Shondra to know that Damien's lies had broken the little girl who always smiled through the pain her father caused.

When Kai pressed his wet face against her neck, Shondra shuddered in frustration as she felt the heat from his forehead against her skin.

A fever.

That's why he had been so fussy.

The stress was beginning to be too much for Shondra as she swayed on her feet. Knowing that her kids had no one else, she let out a grunt of frustration, willing herself to not resort to weakness in a moment like this.

"I swear to you, Nayely! Mommy will get you a puppy! Mommy will get you whatever you want, so don't you listen to your daddy anymore! Your daddy has lied to us for the last time!"

Shondra rushed to the kitchen to pick up her phone receiver, redialing the number to Damien's uncle.

Tapping her foot impatiently, she prayed that she would finally get an answer this time. It was nearly 11 o'clock at night she hadn't heard a word from her husband all day. Someone had to know where he was.

"Hello?" Shondra's eyes opened wide when she finally heard the groggy sound of Damien's uncle on the other line.

"Hey, Mr. Clarence, this is Shondra. I've been trying to call you all night."

"Oh sweetie, were you the one who left all those voice mails? I was going to get around to listening to them later but there were just so many-" Clarence began to ramble as he was delighted to hear from the young woman.

"I-I know and I'm sorry to bother you this late at night, but I wanted to ask you if you knew where Damien went after leaving your place today?"

There was a slight pause before Clarence sighed in disappointment.

"I don't know what to tell you honey, your guess would be as good as mine. I haven't seen that knuckle headed boy in God knows how long. He hasn't shown up here in well over a month!" Clarence declared.

"Are-Are you sure? He's left the house every day saying he was working with you, Mr. Clarence! If he hasn't been there, then where is he going all the time?" Shondra became hysterical with rage as she bit her tongue, not wanting to take out her anger on Clarence. He was the only relative of Damien's who gave a damn about her and her kids, which she always appreciated. At 82, he could only do so much.

"No, no, no! That boy is as reliable as my left foot." He said, shaking his cane towards the space beneath his ankle his foot once occupied nearly 50 years ago. "I got me a few good days of work out of him when he showed up. But he started do what he does best-nothing!"

"Mr. Clarence, please tell me you know something about where he's been? Anything!"

"Last I seen him, Damien came knocking down my door like I owed him money! Started demanding me to give him an advance on his pay. Walked up in here with some trifling looking fellow beside him, standing in the corner all quiet like he wanted to jump! Hell! I threw the money at him and told him to come correct the next time he saw me. I just wanted the both of them out of my sight! Had my blood pressure up and everything."

Shondra gripped the phone to her as she bit her lip. If she knew anything, the unknown man that Damien brought into his uncle's house sounded very familiar. If Damien was running the streets with him, then she knew a storm was on its way.

"If you ask me, something was up between the two of them. Damien was acting...funny in front of that man. Like he was a little boy with a crush or something! Something ain't right with him, Shondra, and I know that's my nephew and all, but I gotta call it how I see it."

"Th-Thank you, Mr. Clarence. I'm sorry for calling you so late, but I gotta go now."

"Don't let that boy hurt you and them babies any longer, Shondra! God forgive me for not being able to help you, but I know he don't do right by you or them children! If I could, I'd knock his head off myself."

Shondra shook her head even though she knew he wouldn't be able to see her.

"Don't worry, Mr. Clarence. I'll be sure to bring them by to see you soon once all of this mess gets handled." Saying her goodbyes, Shondra hung up the phone and immediately started dialing all the people she could think of who could tell her where her husband was.

 

Nayely lied on her back, eyes to the tattered ceiling as she listened to her mother speak in hushed whispers over the phone. Looking at the couch, she watched as Kai's small chest expanded in his sleep. A cool wash cloth was draped over his head and as Nayley crawled on her hands and knees to feel it, she noticed that it had lost its temperature. Removing it from her brother's head, she walked to the kitchen with a tear stained face, where she watched as her mother held her head in her hands at the small kitchen table.

Bracing her arms and feet against the front of the kitchen sink, Nayley held on to the edge of the metal basin as she turned on the cold water. Soaking the wash cloth before wringing it out, the girl listened to bits and pieces of her mother's conversation.

"-I promise you tonight is the last time. I can't take this anymore, Damien has done enough. I gotta get my babies out of here." Walking away quietly, Nayely passed by a clock high on the wall. The arms of the clock showed that it was now 2:43 a.m. in the morning, but none of that mattered to the small girl.

She couldn't tell time anyway.

What she could tell was that once again an endless night had fallen on their household. Kneeling before the couch, she returned the washcloth to Kai's head. Lightly tapping her fingers against his belly, Nayely fell asleep.

 

Chapter 2 by ValleyofLight

 

Damien coughed as he rose from the backseat of the black Impala SS. Wiping his hands against his pants, he rid himself of the evidence of the semen he could feel running down his throat.

"Shit...You must want this real bad, huh?" A cloud of cigarette smoke blew in his face as he smiled at the other man. A small bag was tossed his way and in the dark of the night, Damien knew it was the cocaine he worked hard for.

" ‘Preciate it, OT." He said gratefully as he held the drug close. Looking at the man who shared the cramped backseat with him, Damien shook his head bashfully as he gave him a lust filled look.

"I should make you take that shit off my dick." Taking another drag off the cigarette, OT lifted the bag from Damien's hands. "Matter of fact, I think I need a little more from you before I give you this." Shifting to his knees, OT waited for Damien to eagerly climb to his own. Damien had his pants down in no time, looking over his shoulder with a hopeful glint in his eyes. You could say he would do what he had to for the drugs OT provided to him, but he would be a liar if he said he didn't love the other aspects of their relationship. Gritting his teeth, Damien's eyes rolled back as OT took control.

"What you say to me?" OT pulled Damien back by his neck as he ruthlessly slammed into him.

"Thank you, OT." Damien's lips quivered as sweat dripped from his body.

 

"I got a drop tonight, a bunch of white boys. You coming with me." OT turned on the air conditioning as he reversed out of the abandoned lot. The car was still hot from the sex he had with Damien, something that neither of them were new to. This had begun years ago when Damien had crossed paths with the man following his last release from jail. OT had never kept who he was a secret, many people just chose to ignore that even as a gay man, he had become one of the most feared dealer in the city. He did what he wanted with who wanted, no questions asked.

Most people in the streets knew that Damien was his boy in more ways than one, as he was always tagging along with him. When Damien's son had been born, he had chosen to take off with OT as he went out of the city, wanting to lay low from the police who were closing in on him once again. Wanting to take the heat off, OT made the offer to take the hiatus with Damien. There was no moment of hesitation.

"Word." Damien acknowledged OT as he reclined in the seat. The sounds of a rap song played from the radio station as they cruised through the town.

"How's your old lady doing?" OT asked facetiously. He had no feelings towards Damien's wife, knowing that she just happened to get caught in the crosshairs of this life. Yet, he couldn't help but get a kick out of how agitated the slightest mention of her made Damien.

"Man, she's good. She's still the same-be bugging for no damn reason."

"Word?"

Before he could say another word, OT's new Motorola cell phone began to ring. Picking it up, OT said the bare minimum as he listened to the information he was relayed.

"I got you." Was all he said before closing the phone. Gripping the steering wheel, OT looked to Damien.

"You better get your bitch. She's been calling around with my name in her mouth all night."

"What do you mean? Who she been talking to?" Damien shifted in his seat in anger.

"Too many damn people." OT stated. He kept all chatter about his business to a minimum and the last thing he needed to hear was that some woman was out here trying to blow up his spot and bring unnecessary attention to him. "You better get her straight, or I will." OT gave his warning with finality. Damien shook his head in understanding.

"Don't worry about anything, I got her."

 

Damien looked at his watch, and saw that the clock read 2:27 a.m. As he hopped out of OT's car, his eyes traveled up the front of the large house before him. Shaking his head, he fell into line beside OT as he crossed the yard to the front door. Without knocking, he entered the house as if he owned it, with Damien close behind.

When they entered, Damien scoped out the people inside. From the look of their expensive jewelry and lavish fabrics, it came as no surprise when they side stepped the two in fear as they walked through. Their chatter quieted as they passed by, only to return once they thought they were out of ear shot.

"Who the hell are they?"

"Should we call the police?"

"What the hell, are you an idiot? Might as well invite them to come do a couple of lines while you're at it! Just stay out their way."

Damien's lip tugged upwards into a smug smile as he eyed the terrified party goers. They were tough enough to buy the drugs, but not to look their sellers in the eye.

As they stepped into the view of the large living room, all motion stopped as OT called out a name.

"Slade!" Damien watched as a man with platinum blonde hair stood up above the crowd. When he saw OT, he immediately threw his hand up in greeting as he made his way over.

"Thanks for joining us, you find the place okay?" Slade held his arms out in a friendly manner, knowing that there'd be no way he would get a similar gesture back. Cutting to the chase, Slade escorted the two to a private area of the room. As the two walked past the stairs, Damien's eyes caught sight of small fingertips peeking out from the door of the crawl space beneath the staircase. Out of instinct, he found himself picking up his foot to avoid stepping on them. Looking behind him, he wiped at his nose as he shook his head free of the imagined sight.

Once the trio snaked their way through the house, they were brought to a secluded area on the patio. Taking in the sight of the mountains and city lights in the distance, Damien's eyes fell on a young Asian woman's who sat before him. Her arm was laced inside another man's as she seductively crossed her leg over his.

"Special delivery, Jerry!" Slade announced as he pulled out seats for the visitors.  The man wrapped up in the young woman's legs pushed himself out of the seat, reaching out his hand.

"Slade, my man, let's give a proper welcome to our guests." OT pushed pass the hand extended in his direction and took a seat without a word. "Of course this is warm enough!" Jerry cleared his throat, trying to save face as Damien stepped to stand behind OT's chair. He eyed the people present, who were isolated from the drug filled party inside. Damien hadn't missed the obvious sex sounds that were barely masked by the loud music inside.

These people were really getting down.

Tightening his grip on the bag in his hand, Damien watched as OT fell into his role.

"I'm not trying to stay here all night, you know I've got what you want Jerry."

"Are you sure one of these lovely ladies can't accompany you for the night first? It'd be a shame to let any of this go to waste." Jerry threw his arms around the two women at his sides. One was a blonde with breasts so large he could barely fit it all into his hand as he roughly palmed them. Turning to the younger Asian woman at his other side, he pressed his face deep into her hair as she looked away in embarrassment masked with glee.

"As beautiful as they are, I'll have to pass for tonight. Maybe next time." OT drew a deep laugh from Jerry, who knew that day would never come.

"Maybe one day I'll have someone more to your liking available, my good man." Clapping his hands together, Jerry leaned forward in excitement.

"Now, where's the good stuff?"

Jerry dipped his pinky finger into the white powder, lifting it for a quick taste as OT laid out his pickings. Jerry's system jerked from the memories of the sensations OT's product would give him. He'd never had anything finer and always made it his business to hit up his dealer whenever he was in town. Of course, in the past he was able to buy his fill with no worries. Now, with debt looming over him, there was only so much could give for something this good.

Hiding his approval of the cocaine, Jerry placed a scowl on his face as he briefly looked to OT. With a false expression of disappointment, he leaned back in his chair.

"My friend, my friend. We've known each other for a long time, no?"

OT remained silent as he looked to the older man skeptically.

"Is there a problem?" Adjusting his feet, OT stared on menacingly.

"Is there a problem? Well, I would think so! After all these years as a loyal customer, you bring me some bullshit like this?" Tossing the baggie to the table, Jerry foolishly played his game. Looking to the frightened but hopeful young woman Slade had introduced him to that night, he wanted to make a good impression of his prowess to further hide the fact that there was absolutely nothing he could do to push her as the next Hollywood star. Jerry was but a hairsbreadth away from going bust.

 "Let's not get ahead of ourselves, Jerry." OT warned as he narrowed his eyes. The constant mischievous grin he usually held was long gone as his patience was wearing thin. OT could smell a scam a mile away which helped him to prepare for Jerry's antics.

"You know your stuff sweetheart, don't you?" Turning to the young Asian woman, Jerry gripped her by the neck as he brought her closer. "Go ahead and have a try." Turning to OT, he grinned. "She can tell you right off the bat that what you've brought tonight is trash." The young woman was caught between a rock and a hard place as she stared between the men before her.

"EJ, just do it. It's not your first time at the rodeo." Damien turned to stare at the platinum blonde man named Slade as he crossed his arms in irritation.

"I-I can't. I think I'm good for the night. "She declined with a sheepish grin.

"Fuck, EJ! Just do it!"

"I can't Slade!" She protested. As they went back and forth, Damien watched as OT placed his hand at his waistband, knowing that he held on tightly to the gun that rested there. Before he knew it, he watched as Jerry slammed the young woman's head onto the top of the glass table as he calmly measured out a line for her. The other women shrieked, drawing the attention of other party goers as they ran back inside. Damien could barely make out Jerry's next words to the woman.

"Help me, help you." He said.

"Try it out, EJ! That's all you have to do. We must show our friend here that not one, but two customers disapprove of his service tonight."

A slight pain radiated through EJ's face as she was peeled away from the glass. As she tried to hide her shaking hands, she ignored the last shred of sense that told her she had taken in more than she could handle for the night. Anymore and there would be no way she would be coherent enough to prove to Jerry why she deserved to be managed by him. With a hesitant smile, she did as she was told.

Inhaling deeply, EJ finished everything that Jerry had set out for her. Tilting her head back, she waited for her system to accept the drugs before blinking her eyes rapidly. Looking to Jerry, she could see his plead for her to play along with him.

Shaking her head from side to side, she gave her disapproval of the drugs.

A deep sigh came from OT after witnessing the charades. Shifting in his seat, he listened on as Jerry continued to rant.

"If my girl here doesn't like it, then I know what you've brought me is trash! She's got the nose of a bloodhound for this stuff, right?" He confirmed as he looked to Slade. "Her nose is as good as gold, which is a far cry from what you have brought me."

"Jerry, as a longtime customer, you gotta know that I don't play these games. You're insulting me and my integrity by suggesting I've brought you something...subpar. Now, I thought we were cooler than that?" OT cracked the fingers on his right hand as his jaw tightened.

"Well I guess you and I were both let down tonight, OT." Crossing his legs, Jerry tossed back his hand in defiance. "I'm sorry to say I can't pay for something of such low quality. A good businessman will understand the need to give the customer the best he has to offer."

Staring him down, OT watched as Jerry fidgeted beneath his gaze. Reaching forward, Jerry moved the bag of product to his side of the table. "I hope that next time you'll be able to bring me something more to my standards. I know you can do better than this." The cold barrel of a gun pressed against Jerry's head brought him to a halt.

"Pay me my motherfucking money." Damien tensed as did everyone else at the new element brought into the situation.

With nerves shaking his entire being, Jerry took a chance at his luck as he nearly swallowed his tongue.

"I'm not paying you shit for some trash coke!"

EJ's ears rang out from the sound of the six gunshots that stopped the world around her. As the sound slowly returned to her discombobulated thoughts, she watched as bodies flew through the house, trying to escape from the fear of what could follow. As her senses came to her, EJ could feel her heart beating faster and faster. When she reached up to wipe out the obstruction in her eye, it was hard to imagine that she had pulled parts of Jerry's brain matter from her face. Standing to her feet, EJ tripped over her feet as she tried to escape. Behind her, OT riffled through Jerry's pockets, finding a clip of less than $2000 dollars on him, the last of his money. OT moved with ease as chaos broke out around him, completely unbothered by it all.

EJ's head began to spin as it became harder and harder for her to think. Stumbling inside the house, she was pushed out the way by people running in all directions as they exited the house. Naked men and women raced down the stairs in bedsheets as she came close to the small door there. With a bloody hand, EJ reached to the door knob, missing it completely as her nervous system began to shut down.

An overdose.

She knew what was happening but couldn't do anything to stop it.

Clawing at the hidden door she knew housed her son, she willed her body to comply with her just one moment longer.

EJ's body began to convulse violently against the door as her terrified son cried from inside. He had seen his mother's eyes look through the slots and no matter how hard he pushed, he couldn't get the door open to get to her. When the boy had heard the first sound of a nearby firecracker, he was confused by the panic that ensued. MJ became scared only when he heard someone yelling about a gun. He had seen enough movies on television to know that guns were something to be afraid of.

MJ desperately began to push at the door with all his might. He could see the wood opening slightly, but when his mother's body shook against it, it almost became too heavy for him to push.

Crying even more, MJ called out for his mom to open the door. The house became empty within minutes and as MJ held his breath, he pressed his ear closely to the door. EJ took her last breaths in spurts MJ just knew that he had to get out of there no matter what.

Lying on his back, MJ braced his hands against the wall as he pressed the soles of his shoes against the door. He thought about how badly he wanted to be in his mother's arms as he pushed with everything he had.

When he finally saw the door pry open enough for him to see his mother's trembling hand, MJ nearly cried out for her before the sound of footsteps moving across the marbled floor stopped him. A chill took over the boy as he waited for the sounds to disappear. When he felt the coast was clear, he pressed his shoulder against the door, squeezing his small body through the less than generous exit.

MJ stood before his mother, shell shocked as white foam seeped from her lips. It reminded him of the time she filled her mouth with whip cream and chased him through the house until he couldn't take it anymore, and fell in a fit of laughter.

This time was different.

Stepping closer, MJ began to breath faster as he saw the same absent look in his mother's eyes she had whenever she took drugs. Deep inside, there was a look of regret that called out for him.

MJ clenched at his stomach as a pain hit him.

He didn't know what his mother was covered in, the pink gooey splatters against her face were foreign to him. What he did recognize was the splotches of red fresh blood that decorated the yellow dress that had made her look so beautiful.

"Get up..." He whispered. Crouching down beside her, MJ picked up her heavy hand as he placed it into his lap. "Mommy, let's go home now. You have to get up."

MJ tugged on her arm as EJ remained silent.

Bringing her hand to his face, MJ clenched his teeth together as he waited for any sign of life from his mother.

In the large house, MJ's cries echoed until to faint sounds of police sirens arrived.

 

Chapter 3 by ValleyofLight

 

3:18 a.m.

That's what time Shondra had been startled by her husband's sudden appearance as he stormed into the house. She had barely managed to put the kids to sleep in their own room before Damien came charging through. The sound of the front door ricocheting off the wall brought them all to attention.

"Gotta go...he killed him...We-we need to go." Damien rambled to himself in a daze as he moved through the house. Shondra narrowed her eyes as she listened to her husband's words.

"Who killed who, Damien? Where have you been all night?" Her questions startled him, as if he had forgotten that the family he neglected would be there. She had picked up a whimpering Kai as she passed the children's room, hoping to keep his cries from ringing out and waking Nayely as well.

"Don't ask me no dumb shit, right now Shondra." He spouted.

"What's dumb is you once again lying to your damn daughter about getting her a puppy. What's dumb is you not going to work for weeks after telling me that's all you ever do!" She yelled, unable to set aside her anger.

"What's dumb is you running the streets with OT knowing who he is and the shit he brings into your life!" With one strong swing, Damien backhanded Shondra at the mention of OT's name.

"I'm tired of you talking to me however you want. Just because I haven't beat your ass lately doesn't mean I won't do it now." Kai cried out as his head snapped backwards when his mother was knocked off balance, sending her to her knees.

"You gone hit me, Damien? You gone hit me like you're some big bad man when you're just his little bitch?" She spat out blood as her body shook with rage. Everyone knew who OT was and she had always ignored what Damien's "friendship" with him meant.

Before she knew it, a heavy boot connected with her face. Kai rolled from his mother's arms from the impact. Naylely, who crouched in secret rushed from the door of their bedroom, scooping up her brother as she watched her father drag their mother by her hair into the main bedroom, slamming it shut.

"Who did he kill, Damien? What have you done?"

"Shut up!"

Nayely cringed from the sounds of her father's fists laying into Shondra repeatedly. Only gurgled sounds of her cries could be heard on the other side of the door. Nayely held her brother closer as she remembered her mother telling her that if Kai was crying, she had to be strong and comfort him. She had to be a big girl and hold in her cries.

Nayely was too afraid in that moment to cry even if she wanted to.

She was too preoccupied with waiting for the sounds of her mother's beating to stop.

"Stop! My babies!" She heard her mother gasp as Damien took off his belt and held her off the ground by her neck.

Nayely watched Kai's face contort with fear as he cried his little heart out.

"You'll get used to it." She promised as she tried to comfort him the way she had seen her mother do before. Nayely flinched when she heard the sounds of her mother's toes scrapping against the bedroom door as she struggled.

With a loud thud, Shondra's body dropped to the ground as Damien stepped over her, exiting the room. Nayely tried to get to her feet fast enough to run, but she was caught immediately, and had Kai stripped from her arms. Jumping into the air, she pleaded with her father to give her the small boy as he dangled him by his wrist through the house. Shondra, who crawled on the floor gasping for air, opened her bloodied eyes to see why her daughter was begging so earnestly. As she saw Damien walk to the kitchen and open the knife drawer, her heart sank to the ground.

"D-Damien stop. Stop playing, Damien." She scrambled to her feet, ignoring the pain she felt as panic took over her.

"Daddy give him back. I'll make him be good. I promise!" Nayely clawed at his long legs as he pulled out a large butcher knife. Tossing Kai around in his hands, Damien looked to Shondra with crazed eyes as she held out her hands.

"Give me the baby, Damien. Beat me! Do what you want! But give me my baby!"

Nayely jumped high enough to hang from her father's elbow, reaching for Kai with the hopes of getting him away from the sharp knife and strange look in her father's eyes. For only one second, Nayely thought she had Kai before her father tossed her away, sending her flying into the counter behind them.

Shondra cried out at the sickening thud of Nayely's body.

Nayely was dazed as she raised her head slowly, still witnessing her mother plead with everything she had to her father to release Kai.

"I'm sick of you and these damn kids, Shondra!"

"Let me leave with them then, just don't hurt them!"

"Leave? Why would I let you leave, huh?" He screamed as his grip on the knife and baby tightened.

"You don't have to do this, Damien, this isn't you! I know it isn't!"

"What the fuck do you know about me, Shondra? You think you know something about me? About OT?"

"I-I-"

"After tonight, I can't leave behind anything that's going to get in my way." He said with seriousness.

"What happened, Damien? You know you can tell me. Let's just talk about this." Shondra thought that maybe she could take his mind off of the small child wailing in his hold.

"I can tell by the look in your eyes. OT did something, didn't he? Who did he kill, Damien? All we have to do is call the police and you can tell them everything you know! We don't have suffer behind him!"

At the mention of the police, Damien's breathing came to a halt. It felt as if all of the air in the house disappeared as Shondra watched the knife cut away at Kai's chest, drawing blood as the baby boy took in a sharp breath. When Damien tossed his motionless body into the air, Shondra opened her arms to catch her son. With absolute horror coursing through her body, Shondra could barely react to Damien turning his attention to Nayely as she held her hand against her son's chest.

"Daddy, please! Daddy!" She shrieked as his hand lifted to her throat. Nayely's large brown eyes nearly popped out of her head as urine trailed down her legs.

Nayely's eyes moved to her mother, who sat on the ground clenching Kai to her chest, silent as the blade took a deep slash across the young girl's throat. Nayely couldn't feel the pain at first, but she did feel the pain in her heart at the sight of her mother doing nothing to help her.

Why didn't she stop him?

 

It had been three days since Nayely's last conscious moment. As her eyes slowly opened, she could hear the slow beep of medical equipment surrounding her. Off to the side of the shared room, she heard the sounds of Tom and Jerry playing on the small TV. With her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth, Nayely grimaced as she attempted to swallow. Her body felt heavy, almost like it wasn't her own as she tried to lift her arm.

"No sweetie, you're going to have to stay still for now." An older woman with a neatly padded afro stopped any further movements. Looking over, Nayely took in her friendly appearance as she pushed her glasses up her nose.

Who was she? And why was Nayely in the hospital where sick kids go?

Without warning, a stream of urine warmed the sheets beneath her. The older woman's nose scrunched as she realized what was going on. Standing up immediately, she placed a hand to the girl's shoulders as she began to cry.

"Nurse!" She called out. Looking down at the wet sheets, the social worker tried her best to not allow this case to affect her. After receiving background information on the young girl's situation, it was hard to not feel a tug at her heart. This was by far the worst case she ever had to deal with, and knowing that she was responsible for finding the proper care for this girl didn't make this job any easier.

The torment, rage, and loneliness Nayely would face was far too much for a 5 year old girl.

And to think she wasn't the only one in the social worker's care.  Situated by the large hospital window was another child, tragically thrown into a new life the same night as Nayely.

Min Jae Park.

When he had been brought in, he was a sight to be seen. His small body was angular as malnourishment showed. Though he had an extended belly, it was obvious it wasn't from home cooked meals. The older woman was one of few in the area who could handle these two cases. With employment low in her area, she was required to take on multiple cases all the time. Luckily for her, these two children were the only ones on her plate at the moment.

God knows she wouldn't be able to handle anymore with the work ahead.

The small boy had entered the hospital covered in blood and other body fluids after he was pried from his mother's body. He had the thousand-yard stare locked in his eyes- it was as if no one around him truly existed. With an IV hooked to his small arm, he received the nutrients needed to bring him back from his dehydrated malnourished state. The social worker wished in that moment that there was something to restore the innocence that had been ripped from him.

As the nurse moved around Nayely's body, the social worker quickly stepped over to the young boy's side. He laid on top of the covers, completely tuned out to the world surrounding him. None of it mattered to him anyways, and that was clear as day.

Luckily, both children would be released soon. As the social worker was given the official group home assignment for the kids, she felt guilty that there was little she could do to help them truly cope with the cards they were dealt. Of course, there would be the typical evaluations with every child psychologist and doctor to determine the state of their minds and bodies, but there was no specialist for their corrupted souls.

That would be the hardest wound to heal.

Doctors quickly filed into the room as they met at Nayely's bedside. The social worker watched as the attending male doctor who had seen her through the ordeal while she was unconscious, attempted to smile at the young girl as he crouched beside her.

"Hi Nayely, how are you feeling?" He asked softly.

While Nayely's eyes stared at him blankly, her hands gripped the sides of the bed. The sound of Nayely's heart racing beeped throughout the room.

"Everything is okay. I know it can be confusing to wake up here, but don't worry." He tried to offer comfort that the girl was incapable of feeling. There was evidence of strain in the young girl's face as she concentrated on making herself speak. Realizing what she was doing, the doctor nicely shushed her.

"Be careful. Your voice is a little under the weather and needs all the rest it can get. You don't have to speak for now, okay?" Nayely's eyes darted to the social worker, pleading with her.

"I know, honey. Do what the doctor says so that you can feel better as soon as possible."

Hesitantly, the social worker placed her hand on the girl's small foot that trembled like the rest of her body. Nayely continued to put up resistance, determined to say something-anything- until she gave up. Her body lost the slight curve that held her suspended just above the bed, allowing her small body to sink back into the form of her mattress.

Reaching behind him, the doctor called to the nurse who held a tray of bandages and other material. Placing on gloves, he and the nurse worked together to carefully lift the young girl's neck in order to exam her healing wound. The social worker tried to not look away as Nayely's eyes were drawn to her. With her line of work, she had seen everything possible that could be done to a child, but it never got easier to witness the remnants of the pain adults marred their small bodies with.

Swallowing deeply, the social worker gripped her hands together tightly as she watched the bloodied bandages peel away from Nayely's small, bruised neck. The doctor and nurse worked in silence as they cleaned the wound intently, touching the girl's neck as they evaluated the progress of their work. When the doctor felt Nayely flinch from his touch, he nodded to the nurse, and they quickly worked to cover her back up. The deep wound stretched across her neck from the left side down to the middle of her chest. While the emergency surgery revealed that the internal damage was easily fixable, there was nothing they could do to hide the large scar she would be left with as a reminder.

Standing from the ground, the doctor spoke quietly with the team as some members quickly jotted down information on their clipboards.

Turning to the social worker, the doctor spoke in a low voice. "The healing has improved, and we're confident that over time, she'll have her voice back fully functional." Looking back at Nayely, the doctor held an expression of assuredness. "You hear that, Nayely? Let your voice rest. That means try not to talk and eat as much ice cream as possible, okay?" He didn't expect any specific response, but he wanted to make sure that he could ease the coming days as much as possible. Nayely's head swiveled slowly to her right. The adults watched as her eyes widened as MJ stood between their beds. Shocked by his presence, the doctors and nurses looked at each other, lost for words. The boy's hand gripped the cold metal stand that held the IV bag which fed into his small arm.

MJ's light brown eyes hooked onto Nayely. With the simple mention of her name, MJ's thoughts were interrupted for the first time in days.

"Min Jae, honey, are you feeling better?" The nurse asked as she quickly moved to his side. "It's great to see you up, buddy." Her kindness went ignored as MJ and Nayely were caught up in theirsilent reunion.

The nurse attempted to guide MJ back to his bed as the adults were unsure of how to handle the silence. As soon as her hand lightly touched his shoulder, MJ jumped away from her, climbing into Nayely's bed to sit at her side. The adults became tense, afraid that the sudden action could cause an accident, and as they tried to remove MJ, Nayely held his hospital gown tightly in her fist, shaking her head.

"Do-do they know each other?" The doctor asked as he flipped through Nayely's clipboard he searched for clues. Reaching for MJ's charts, the doctor realized they had both entered on the same night.

"Not that I know of..." the social worker looked around the room noting the other children who were active with their parents and families even in their times of need. Nayely and MJ lied in their beds seemingly disconnected from the world for days, yet here they were resistant from separating the moment they laid eyes on each other.

"MJ, honey, let's move you back to your bed." The nurse moved closer, thinking that she should make another attempt. Nayely's vitals began to increase with each step, and the doctor immediately stuck out his arm to stop her. With a quick glance at each other, they agreed to leave the children alone.

"MJ, if we let you stay with Nayely, you have to promise to be gentle with her, okay?" The doctor watched as the boy shook his head slowly all while never taking his eyes off of Nayely's. Rubbing his eyes with the back of his hand, tears formed in the corner of his hazel orbs just as large droplets slid from Nayely's. The children were silent as they sat together, pressing their foreheads against the other's and twisting their fingers together in silence. The doctors and nurses looked at each other in confusion, and the social worker carefully observed their interaction.

There had to be more to this than anyone realized.

The staff gave the social worker a brief breakdown of the next steps for the two children as they looked over their shoulders to see that they had come together in their isolation and created a world of their own. Crossing her arms over her chest, the older woman walked towards the window seat by MJ's bed once the room cleared out and pulled out a notepad. Flipping to the printed information she had for both children, she quickly documented her observations.

 

When the fifth day arrived, Nayely moved slowly to the wheel chair parked near her bed as MJ helped her down. On the back of the chair hung two small bags of items that the social worker managed to gather. Each child had arrived with virtually nothing, but she had made efforts at the local store to purchase something for the children to journey into life with.

The social worker had watched as the two children spent every moment possible together. Though, their closeness was obvious, there had not been a single word spoken between the two. All the feelings they needed to convey could be felt in the way they looked at each other, the way they held hands, and the way they only found solace sleeping with their temples touching.

MJ looked up, silently asking for permission to be in charge of pushing Nayely's chair. Stepping back, the social worker allowed him to do so. There wasn't a smile upon his face, but a look of gratitude showed towards her.

Due to their age, MJ and Nayley would be sent to a group home that housed children under the age of 10. The social worker was more than familiar with the facility, and a part of her worried whether MJ and Nayely would be lost in the sea of family-less children who lived there. As she watched MJ use all his strength to direct the chair between the lines of nurses who wiped their eyes as they watched the children depart, the social worker prayed that they could remain strong because Lord knows what would happen the moment they could no longer be together.

When the three met the van downstairs, they climbed inside and began the long drive to the group home. As the social worker drove, she occasionally glanced at her rearview mirror. MJ and Nayely gripped their hands together as they stared out the car windows and watched the world pass them by in a blur.

To them, the rush of color and objects bleeding into an indescribable image had become their new normal. The only way they were able to feel as though they were not stuck in an endless nightmare was to feel the other's presence.

The silence in the van was interrupted when the social worker cleared her throat.

"Are you guys ready to meet some new friends? There will be plenty of kids there who you'll get to know." Her words fell on deaf ears as there was no desire for new friends.

Nayely lifted her head from MJ's shoulder when he looked down at her. Holding each other's gaze, they each gave a slight nod of understanding.

All they needed was each other.

What no one else knew was that in the late hours of the night, MJ and Nayely had shared their deepest secrets that they knew would never be spoken to anyone else.

 

"I don't want to be here." MJ's voice squeaked as the soft sound of Nayely's monitor beeped in rhythm with the other children's as they laid fast asleep. Nayely shook her head up and down, mirroring his feelings.

"Is your mommy going to come and get you?" He asked with innocence dripping from his eyes. Though MJ didn't understand everything about death, he knew that it would be a very long time until he could ever be with his mother again.

Nayely's lips turned down as the bruised lower flesh began to quiver. When MJ heard the beeping of her machine become faster, he quickly hugged her, making sure not to squeeze her too tight as he soon realized that she too wouldn't be seeing her mother any time soon.

"I won't leave you, if you don't leave me. Promise?" Pulling back, MJ held out his pinky to solidify his pledge to Nayely. She was all he knew from the life before that night, and he was too afraid to discover the unknown world that lied before him alone.

As tears cascaded down Nayely's cheeks, a small smile showed her deep dimples as she raised a shaky hand to his own. Wrapping their pinkies together, MJ held his hand over Nayely's squeezing it with his to make sure the promise stuck.

"Promise." He said for the both of them. Using his sleeve to wipe away the tears at Nayely's cheeks, MJ stared into Nayely's eyes with relief until they both nodded off to sleep.

 

 

Chapter 4 by ValleyofLight

 

The car ride passed in no time, and as the social worker climbed the winding gravel road to the house on a steep hill, MJ and Nayely became noticeably antsy.

"Okay, we're here." Reaching her arm behind the passenger seat, the social worker watched as a look of confusion and dread came over their faces. There was no easy way to put the news, but the social worker knew she would have to tell them.

"Remember how I said you would get to stay with a lot of other kids in a new home? This is it. This is your new home." Though neither child came from a good home, the simple thought of living somewhere without their mothers terrified them. For the first time, both children quickly turned their eyes to the social worker with a plead to take them back to the hospital jumping out.

Moving quickly, the social worker gathered their bags and slid the backdoor open. Picking each child up, she pulled them from the vehicle as they tensed in resistance. When their feet touched the ground, they flinched as if it were the first time they had ever stood on their own. Scrambling for each other, MJ and Nayely linked arms. The social worker stood behind them and guided them towards the front door where three women stood waiting for them.

"Welcome to The Rose House." The stout woman in the middle greeted them softly. The large smile that rested on her chubby red face told of her jovial attitude, but after years of taking in broken children, she knew that there was no need to overwhelm them to distract them from whatever it was they were leaving behind.

Nayely only briefly took her eyes from the ground as she looked around. She saw pretty flowers planted beneath the steps of the house-flowers her mother would have loved to see. Clenching her eyes together, she felt a slight pain at the back of her head as she imagined what her mother's face would have looked like if she were to smell the fresh flowers in the air.

Stumbling as she shook herself free of the thought, Nayely could feel MJ's arm tighten around her own. Before she knew it, MJ was turning them around, jogging towards the van as the women stood stunned, but not surprised.

"Nayely! MJ!" The social worker called after them as she followed closely behind. When they approached the van, MJ tried desperately to open the handle. Running around the vehicle, MJ tried to escape the social worker's hands as she grasped after them. In any other situation, it would be a comical sight to see the woman trip over her skirt as the children ran circles around her.

It was the look of pure terror on their faces that made this a sad scene to witness. Moving slowly and with intent, the other women stood in place as they attempted to keep the children from running.

"It's okay! It's okay. Let's give them a minute to calm down. We shouldn't overwhelm them." One of the women instructed as she pointed to the others to form a large but undetectable circle around the children, giving them their space.

Nayely pulled MJ closer as they backed into the hot metal of the van. Nayely's eyes narrowed at the woman who spoke, immediately untrusting of her. Tucking a strand of blonde hair behind her ear, the woman crouched into a squat, as she fell into her role of a child psychiatrist. She had read over the case file for both MJ and Nayely and so she tried her best to approach them in a calm manner to best meet their delicate state.

"Don't worry. We don't have to rush this, we can take our time. Okay?" With no response, the woman crossed her arms over her knees. "My name is Doctor Ro and I'm really happy to meet you both."

"I know you're in a new place and probably have a lot of questions today, don't you?" Doctor Ro spoke in a friendly tone that could not stir up any interest from the children in what she had to say.

Doctor Ro didn't bother to look at her watch as the group stood in silence, knowing that they had to have been outside for at least 15 minutes with no words exchanged between them. She attempted to make small talk but was unsuccessful in getting a reaction from them. Doctor Ro had slowly gotten closer and closer to the pair who were not ignorant to what she was trying to do. As she was only a few feet away, Doctor Ro pointed to the ground, drawing their eyes to the dirt as she drew a small picture filled with stick figures. Some were big, and some were small, but they all fit to make the picture whole.

"Do you want to know a little secret?" Glancing from beneath her bangs, Doctor Ro continued as the children stood still. "Every day isn't going to be a good day. But the important thing is that you can find something good in each day."

"If you come with us today, we'll be able to discover what good things are in store for us, don't you think?"

Instead of running away, MJ and Nayely allowed themselves to be guided by the women as they finally bounded the stairs into the home. With a sigh of relief, the women thought that they had made it over the hurdle.

Stepping inside, MJ and Nayely showed little interest in the children who peeked around walls and planted their faces against the large windows of their play area as they watched the newcomers pass them by.

There was a familiar feeling being inside the house as dozens of children came from nowhere. It had almost felt like walking down the walls of their elementary school. A group of boys came flying past them, one bumping into MJ and sending him tumbling to the ground with Nayely. MJ looked over his shoulder with his brows slightly furrowed as he stared down the boys who pointed and laughed at them. Doctor Ro moved to Nayely's side, lifting her to her feet as she examined her, to make sure that her healing wound had not been disturbed. Shaking Doctor Ro's hands away, Nayely glared at the boys, delivering a fiery look that brought their laughter to an end.

"Boys! This is unacceptable! I need you to apologize this instant!" The stout woman shouted sternly as the boys flinched from her high-pitched voice.

"Sorry Ms. Garner." They said halfheartedly. Before she could correct them, they had taken off without giving a proper apology to those they had hurt. A soft fit of giggles followed behind them.

"Children, I am so sorry for their behavior. I'll make sure they apologize to you later; do you hear me?" Ms. Garner leaned her palms against her knees as she bent forward. The irritated looks on their faces hadn't disappeared, and as the pair stared down Doctor Ro, it felt as though they scoffed at her earlier declaration without uttering a word.

"There's still a lot of time left in the day to find the good, don't forget that." Doctor Ro smiled as she led the children into an empty room. The social worker followed behind closely, handing off MJ and Nayely's belongings to the women who had accompanied Ms. Garner. The younger woman with a single streak of gray in her hair nodded her head and whispered to the social worker as she moved to place the children's belongings in the proper place.

Clasping her hands together, the social worker placed a comforting smile on her face as she took MJ by the shoulders. Feeling the separation coming, Nayely and MJ gripped each other as tightly as possible.

"There's no need to worry, we're just going to have a chat together, okay?" Doctor Ro attempted to reassure them as she knelt before the children.

They had come to a stop in a hallway lit by the sun outside. Paintings and drawings decorated the corkboards that lined the walls. MJ's chest began to rise and fall quickly as he peered into the two rooms that were side by side. Inside he could see a plastic table set with random toys scattered throughout the room. He recognized the set up immediately.

There had been an occasion or two when he was temporarily separated from his mother where he had to sit in a room just like that as nosy adults asked him questions that he didn't have the answer to.

Or rather... that he declined to share.

His mother had told him what to say in moments like that to make sure he wasn't taken away.

"Just remember what we practiced. If you say the wrong thing, they'll take you away from me for a very long time and that will make mommy sad. You don't want mommy to be sad, do you MJ?"

Those words wrapped around his brain, tightening their hold as no matter how many times he followed her instructions, the one thing she promised would never happen had already passed.

She was gone.

And he was here.

Looking over to the one friend he had managed to connect with, MJ tightened his hold on her hand. He was here with Nayely and just the thought of someone taking her away from him made his stomach turn into one big knot.

Nayely's brown eyes looked to MJ in confusion, unsure of what this all meant. Biting his bottom lip, MJ needed to think quickly. Cupping his hand into her curly hair, he whispered into her ear leaving all the adults wondering what was being said. Curious, they watched as Nayely nodded her head once, as she and MJ spoke through a single glance before finally letting their hands fall away from each other.

As MJ and Nayely were led to their respective rooms, one small head peeped around the corner of a wall from the opposite end of the hall as he watched the two new children take their first steps into the rooms dubbed the safe place.

 

 

It had been 30 minutes since Doctor Ro and MJ had entered their respective room. She had invited him to sit on the multi colored carpet in hopes of making the child more comfortable. From his file, she knew this wasn't his first time speaking with a child specialist as was evident by the way he simply went through the motions of the interview process. He nodded when necessary, picked up a toy car and revved it across the floor for good measure.

Doctor Ro could see in his eyes that he was simply waiting for her to give up and bring the session to an end as he expected. She was always one of the first points of contact for children newly admitted to the facility. Her role was to serve as the person to ease their transition from the lives they had been taken from. She had met with and evaluated children from all backgrounds which meant she had seen every imaginable version of a broken child. Some cried for the entirety of their sessions, while others raged with the emotions they couldn't understand by throwing tantrums. However, with MJ, she had never met a child who looked at her so knowingly. It was as if he had her all figured out before she was even able to break ground with him.

For the first time in 10 years, Doctor Ro felt as though she had lost.

Reaching beside her, Doctor Ro slid a box of building blocks in between her and MJ who sat nicely with his legs crossed. MJ's eyes never wandered to the rattling sound of her pouring some of the toys out.

"I must admit MJ, as someone who loves to talk, you have got me stumped today. I haven't been able to get one word out of you." She smiled. Sorting through the varying sizes, Doctor Ro began to line the blocks up.

"But now! I think I have an idea on how we can become friends. Would you like to know what that is?" Knowing she wouldn't get a response, Doctor Ro lifted a single block between her fingers and showed it to MJ. "Building blocks! These are going to be key to us getting to know each other more." Placing the block down, Doctor Ro tapped it as she scooted it closer to the young boy. With only a slight glance, he shifted in his seat.

"Every relationship needs a foundation. A foundation is what provides support so that what your building can become big and strong. It also helps it to last for a long, long time."

"Let's start by giving a few facts about each other so that the first layer we build together is that of familiarity. This will help us to get to know each other a little more." Tilting her head to the ceiling in a thoughtful manner, Doctor Ro clapped her hands together as her face lit up.

"My first building block is I never learned how to ride a bike. When I was 7, my cousin let me ride on her handle bars one day after school. There was this big hill by our house that seemed like a mountain back then. I remember standing by watching all the older kids fly down the hill screaming and laughing because of how fast they could go on their bikes. Not me though. I was absolutely terrified of doing it. I was always too afraid of what would happen once the rush was over. Except this day, my cousin told me once I went down that hill, I'd never be afraid of it again." Pausing, Doctor Ro looked to see that while he showed little interest, MJ did have his eyes trained on her awaiting the rest of the story. "She promised it would be fun, and so I trusted her. I hopped onto the handle bars and held on tightly as we began to drive down the street. She kept telling me to get ready as we picked up speed. Then, as soon as we got to the top of the hill and I looked down to see all of the other kids cheering us on, I was so excited I actually began to smile instead of clench my teeth from being afraid. When the wheels started to roll down the hill, it felt like I was on a ride at the county fair. I got so excited that I put my hands in the air, waving them as we laughed. But then, there was a pothole in the road that we hadn't noticed until the moment the bike dipped into it. In the blink of an eye, I went flying into the air. I had no idea what was going on, at first I felt like the kid from ET." She smiled.

"But then when I landed somewhere in a neighbor's yard with scrapes on my hands, knees, and arms, I cried like a big baby. I was so loud that my mom could hear me from the house and she came rushing out to help me. She scooped me up and took me home to clean me up. I cried all day long despite how many kisses and hugs she gave me. My mom told me that everything would be alright and that one day I can try again. I told her that would be impossible! How could I ever get back on a bike after what happened? I'd never be able to forget how much it had hurt and I told her I'll never touch a bike again in my life." Doctor Ro's hands helped to animate her story leaving them suspended in the air as she looked to MJ. Bringing them to her lap, she sighed a sound of relief. "I've always been too embarrassed to tell anyone, so I hope you can keep this between you and me."

"Do you know what I know now?" MJ slowly shook his head, acknowledging that while he had listened to her story, he didn't have an answer for her.

"I experienced something so scary, so painful that it left me afraid to ever try again. Yes, I was hurt. Yes, it had happened so suddenly. But you know what else? I got to get back up and walk away from. Though it required some effort to do so, I got to walk away. If only I had enough courage to not just move forward, but conquer that fear long ago, so that now as a grown up I could proudly ride a bike all on my own. Sometimes things happen to us MJ, that we wish hadn't. Those things can be simple, and they can be complicated. Big and small. Easy and hard. Though they may be different, there is one thing that remains the same despite what you've experienced: you must learn to make it through them. And that's what I'm here for, MJ. I'm going to help you make it through this scary, unfamiliar, painful experience in the best way I know how. We're going to get through this so that you can stand up one day and tell the world that you survived."

MJ reached out to the building block, holding in his hand as he inspected it. Looking through his lashes, he squeezed the hard plastic until his knuckles turned white. Pursing his lips at the same time, he allowed for a brief display of emotion to cross his face. In the moment that Doctor Ro was able to catch the look of pain, it was gone. Just then, the sound of a timer began to ring from the other side of the room. Taking a deep breath, MJ looked to Doctor Ro, and or the first and only time during that session, he spoke.

"Can I be with Nayely now?"

 

When they had emerged from the room, it was to find Nayely being escorted from the rest room by the social worker who gave Doctor Ro an exasperated look.

She had no luck with the child either.

When the two children saw each other, they quickly left their guides. Nayely moved the slowest of the two as her small body was still recovering from its ordeal, but she moved just as eagerly as MJ who's feet beat against the tiled floor quickly. Pulling her towards him, he looked at the social worker and Doctor Ro skeptically, as if he needed to shield Nayely from them. When the children looked at each other, they shared a silent stare before MJ gave a slight smile as Nayely nodded, happy from whatever had been conveyed.

Holding the paper folder to her chest, Doctor Ro stared in awe of the way the children had taken to one another. "How did they get to be so close?" She quietly asked the social worker. Shrugging her shoulder with just as much confusion, the woman recounted the time the two had spent together in the same hospital room, and how their sudden friendship had taken everyone there by surprise as well.

"I figure that these two must have needed each other. They've been stuck together like glue as if they've never been apart." The social worker said with wide eyes.

Doctor Ro's intuition told her that there was something more behind their bond than they could see. Hopefully, one day she would be able to peel back the layers of the story surrounding MJ and Nayely.

 

 

December 19, 1995

 

Nayely waited at the end of the gravel driveway for the sounds of the bus to appear down the road. In her hands she gripped a soft cookie that she had managed to save at lunchtime though it was against the rules. After nearly two months of recovery, she had gotten used to the daily routine of waiting for MJ to return from school. To keep up with some sense of normalcy, he was placed into a new elementary school not too long after they had arrived.

It had been torturing to the children at the beginning, as Nayely had not been cleared to return just yet. Not too long ago, she was finally able to remove the bandages that revealed the still pink sinewy wound that led from her neck and down to her chest. As it was winter, she didn't have to worry about anyone seeing it as she could wear as many turtle necks and scarves as she wanted. Once, she had caught a glimpse of the wound while changing which had led to Ms. Garner finding her soiled and unconscious on the ground.

Since then, careful precautions had been taken to hide the evidence of a jagged memory that ripped through her brain at times it shouldn't. Nights were the worst for her. As she drifted off to sleep, her mind traveled to an area where she would forget the comfort of MJ's friendship and his ever waiting hand and smile that he always gave when they were together. When she would slip back into those memories, she was all alone.

The squealing of the bus's breaks could be heard from around the corner. Standing to her feet, Nayely tucked the cookie wrapped in a paper towel into the pocket of her sweater as she pumped her arms, running to where MJ stepped off the bus. The Rose House was the final stop on the route, and as the other kids leapt with joy for the freedom of Christmas Break, MJ walked at a steady pace as Nayely rushed forward.

"I've got something for you." Her soft voice didn't rise above a whisper. Nayely had gone through therapy to ease her way back into using her voice. Her voice lied within her on the cusp of coming back to its full potential, but as the sounds that left scared her and left her confused, Nayely tended to not use the unrecognizable sound. Her comfort zone lied within the delicate whispers that only MJ had no trouble understanding.

Reaching into her pocket, Nayely was stopped by MJ as he shook his head with a small smile. "I've got something for you too. We have to wait until Christmas Eve before we can open it." Nayely hesitated. All she had was a cookie for MJ, while he patted the outline of a box within his book bag. Tilting her head down, she wondered if the cookie's softness would last for that long.

"Nayely! MJ!" Looking up the slight hill, the children could see Ms. Garner waiting for them to join everyone else as they had disappeared into the home. Trudging forward, they followed her voice.

 

"Hey look! It's Nayely on TV!" The children of the Rose House sat on the floor of the entertainment room as The Twelve Days of Christmas played from the new VCR. As Mickey and Minnie Mouse danced across the screen, the children exploded in laughter. MJ and Nayely had a special tormentor who had set his sights on the pair the first day the entered the house. At 9 years old, Mike was one of the oldest children there and was notorious for harassing anyone he could.

"Squeak, squeak!" The older boy bared his teeth as he crawled towards Nayely who cowered away. Her heart began to beat fast against her chest as another round of his bullying was underway. It didn't help that the laughter of the children egged him onto no end. MJ, who laid on his stomach watching as the words to the Christmas songs bounced along, rose immediately as Mike's teasing forced Nayely to her feet.

"Stop it!" He yelled. Pushing the older boy away, MJ scowled as he looked over his shoulder to see Nayely fleeing the room. What he didn't see was the glare Mike gave him as he charged towards MJ. MJ hadn't even realized that his push was strong enough to send the boy tumbling backwards, bruising his pride. MJ was much smaller than him and he couldn't stand looking weak in front of the others.

"I'm going to kill you, punk!" Mike growled as he tackled MJ to the ground. With his weight, Mike was able to pin MJ down as he fought against the barrage of punches being delivered to his face. Some children screamed as they scattered away while those who was a part of Mike's posse cheered him on. Unable to stop him, MJ covered his face with his arms the best he could, despite the stinging pain that traveled through his face.

Nayely had been in the hallway when she heard the commotion behind her. Looking around, she saw that Ms. Garner was nowhere to be found. Turning back on her heels, Nayely raced to the door of the entertainment room and watched in horror as her friend took a beating. Her knees shook as she watched the smile that was on Mike's face as he wouldn't let up. A slight ringing noise sounded throughout her ears as her feet moved on their own. Taking off, Nayely tackled the boy down to the ground. Her hands moved furiously as she scratched at any part of his body that she could reach.

"She's crazy! She's crazy! Get her off of me!"  Mike yelped as Nayely left what would become welts in her wake. Nayely tumbled over Mike, grappling him into submission as she had learned in her Tae Kwon Do classes. When one of the older boys wrapped his arms around her waist to toss her, he was stopped by a boy who was not much older than MJ and Nayely. He had remained silent throughout most of the ordeal, not wanting to upset Mike who had just accepted him into their small group.

"Just stop, or we'll get in trouble!" He said as he yanked Nayely from the other boy's grip. Mike rolled on the ground as he held his face, pulling away a hand with blood dotting his palm. When Mike saw the bright red smear, he immediately burst into tears. All of the other kids stood in awe as they witnessed the unimaginable.

Nayely headbutted the boy who had come to her defense, busting his lip and forcing him to let her go. Everything had happened so quickly, yet so much damaged had been caused. Going to MJ's side, Nayely looked upon his red face with tears in her eyes.

"Get up..." She pleaded as he groaned from the pain. The boy's eye was already showing signs of swelling, making it difficult for him to open it fully. Though he was disoriented, MJ had been able to watch as Nayely exploded like a fire cracker. With a small smile, he winced as he sat up to wipe the tears away from her cheeks.

Just then, hurried feet could be heard entering the room as Ms. Garner emerged from her impromptu bathroom break. She thought that she could sneak for just a couple of minutes as the children were immersed into the movie, but she had been wrong.

When she observed the scene before her, she couldn't believe what she saw.

"What on Earth is going on here?!"

 

 

December 24, 1995

Nayely sat beneath the covers of her bed as silence fell around her. The past few days had been lonesome as she was punished for her part in the kiddie brawl that had taken place not too long ago. Her time had been spent writing a promise to never hurt anyone again over and over. She thought that her hand would fall off after the repetitions she was forced to complete. Needless to say, any urge to fight had definitely been curbed in both her and Mike who stuck to glaring at her whenever they crossed paths. He didn't say one word to the small girl as he had flashbacks of the way she handled him with ease.

Mike was the last person on her mind.

After the fight, MJ had been sent to the hospital for stitches as Mike's attack had unknowingly involved MJ's head falling against the small play table in the room. After being diagnosed with a slight concussion, MJ was made to rest until further notice. Ms. Garner had been horrified by what had transpired and blamed herself heavily for slipping way if even for a brief moment.

As a result, Mike and Nayely had their field trip privileges revoked as plans had been made for the children to see a play and visit a restaurant that specialized in apple cider in celebration of Christmas Eve.

As the evening wore on, Nayely found herself crafting the present she never had privacy to create for MJ in the aftermath of the chaos. With the cap of the blue bottle teetering in her mouth, Nayely placed the final touches on the figure she had crafted from an old milk carton and knick knacks she had collected in secrecy.

Holding the gift in her hands, Nayely smiled with pride at what she had made. Flipping the covers from her head, Nayely listened out for the sounds of the house. One caretaker had stayed behind for MJ, Nayely, and Mike's sake which meant there would be fewer obstacles for Nayely as she snuck her way to MJ.

Reaching beneath her pillow, Nayely pulled out a pair of fuzzy socks, knowing that if she put them on, her feet would make less sounds as she went to MJ.

Moving to the doorway, Nayely peeked to her left, knowing that down the hall was the room where Mike stayed. She could see the lamp shining into the hallway which told her he was still up. Moving softly but quickly, Nayely crept to the room that was only one door away from Mike's.

MJ.

The door was slightly cracked which was the way the caretaker always kept it when she would leave MJ for the night. It was nearing 9 p.m., which would mean that the rest of the group would be home within the hour. The sounds of folding paper in the living room area echoed as the caretaker finished up last minute wrapping.

When Nayely saw a shadow move at Mike's door, she hurriedly rushed into MJ's room and watched from the safety of its darkness as Mike scuttled past to the rest room.

Holding her breath until she heard the sounds of his return to his room, Nayely stuck her head out to see the lights finally go off, and the sound of Mike's door finally closing. Doing the same, Nayely slowly turned around relieved.

"Boo!" MJ surprised her as she turned around. Nayely nearly let out a small yelp, but luckily, MJ's hands moved fast enough to cover her mouth. After a moment's wait, the two determined that no one had heard her surprise.

"You know they'll be back soon. "Pointing his finger at the clock, he noted the time.

"I know, but the big hand isn't on the 10 yet. We still have some time." Holding her hands behind her back, Nayely did little to hide what she had. Looking down with understanding, MJ smiled as he waved at her to follow. Moving her to sit on the floor, MJ rushed to his back pack, mimicking her as he too held his gift in anticipation. Sitting before her, the boy didn't allow the now healing cut on his lip to keep him from grinning ear to ear.

"On the count of three, we'll both show what we have."

"No cheating..." Nayely whispered.

Shaking his head in promise, MJ leaned close as he began the count down.

"Ready? 1...2..." Before he could reach the end, both children whipped out their gift, presenting it to the other with much joy.

Nayely's smile faltered seeing that his gift was housed in a pretty box while hers was bare. Noticing the slight change, MJ glowed in appreciation.

"Wow! Thanks for the Christmas present!" In his brief life, MJ wasn't accustomed to receiving gifts. On the occasion that his mother did remember to give the boy something, it was always late. Christmas didn't have any significance to him, but after being taught that the holidays were a special time to spend with the ones you love, he had gained a new understanding of its importance, and found fun in spending it with Nayely, his best friend.

Reluctantly, Nayely handed the gift over as MJ happily accepted it.

"Go ahead and open it!" MJ encouraged her. Excitedly, Nayely lifted the lid to find a plastic circle hooked to a key chain. Lifting it to her face, she watched as glitter and small stars moved on the inside. There was a jelly like substance that oozed and goozed around. Inside the ball sat a drawing of two faces. Looking closely, Nayely saw that it looked just like her and MJ.

"It's a universe ball. We had to think of something that we liked the most in the whole wide world. I chose us!" MJ leaned over to admire the picture with Nayely. Atop her head were dozens of black ringlets to show the curls she was surrounded by while black bangs hung in MJ's face. They both had the biggest smiles on their faces as glitter floated past.

"Thank you, MJ." Nayely smiled hard enough to show her deep dimples.

"Now I'll look at yours." He promised with large eyes.

Gazing down at the milk carton, MJ admired the detailed design of the construction paper that was cut into a design around the box. Turning it over, MJ saw a small tab with an arrow on it.

"Pull it..." Nayely urged him impatiently.

Doing as he was told, MJ watched as a small paper accordion like book emerged. On it, he could see bits and pieces of an image scattered across its folds.

"If you hold it like this, you can see the picture." Looking to help, Nayely showed MJ how to layer the paper just right so that he could see the hidden image on the inside. Seeing caricatures of him and Nayely holding hands at the beach, MJ quickly looked to Nayely who held his gaze.

Both children exploded into a fit of giggles as they realized they had given each other similar gifts.

Getting themselves together, they listened out to make sure that the coast was still clear.

"I also had this." Reaching into her sleeve, Nayely pulled free the old cookie she had held onto faithfully.

"We made them the last day of school, but you told me to wait before I gave it to you." Taking the cookie with an open hand, MJ unwrapped it.

"Where did you keep this?" He asked astonished. Aside from the rules of not keeping food in secrecy, Ms. Garner had strict cleaning standards as well. The fact that Nayely had managed to keep the cookie without it being discovered for all this time was amazing.

Though a little stiff, MJ had no problem breaking apart the cookie to share with Nayely. Scooting until her back was against his bed, Nayley sat beside him as she tilted her gift back and forth, munching on the sugary delight.

"I've never been to the beach before." MJ admitted as he played around with his own gift.

"Really?" Nayley's eyes widened at the news. Her mother had always made it a point to take Nayely to the beach each year as she had been a California native who had never visited before.

Looking to MJ, she sat in thought as she remembered her mother saying that going to the beach was needed to feel happiness one day. Reaching out her pinky finger, Nayely waited as MJ caught on, wrapping his around hers with no questions asked.

"Let's promise to go to the beach together. I'll take you and show you how to have fun there, okay?"

"Promise?" MJ asked hopefully.

"Promise."

Before they knew it, lights from the hallway flooded the room.

"I thought I heard voices coming from here." Ms. Garner stood with her arms crossed. A small scowl sat on her face before it softened. "I hate to break things up, but it's time to get ready for bed." Scrambling to her feet, Nayely reluctantly followed the older woman out. Waving over her shoulder, she left a smiling MJ behind.

 

Chapter 5 by ValleyofLight

 

January 5, 1996

 

 

Nayely looked to MJ who sat close by on the school bus as it ran over bumps in the road. The younger children were seated towards the front of the bus with name tags decorating their designated places. Nayely looked back to see MJ watching outside of the window as the world passed them by.

"Nayely, face forward!" The stern female bus driver barked at her. It had been the fourth time she had been told to do so since boarding the bus for the first time. Fidgeting in her seat, she was nervous beyond belief of finally returning to school.

In the days leading to this, she had been interviewed by Doctor Ro as she asked for her thoughts on going back to kindergarten. In all honesty, Nayely hated the idea of school. But as she had been told by MJ, she had to make sure she answered all the questions that adults asked in the perfect way.

If she didn't, she may never get to see MJ again.

Pouting slightly, Nayely looked across the aisle to see one of the boys from the Rose House staring her way. Over the last few weeks, she had noticed him hanging around in the background, never speaking, but always watching her and MJ. His brown skin had red undertones that could even be seen in the colder months where the sun shined languidly through the windows on the bus. Around his neck hung a black scarf that he hid behind once he realized she had caught him staring. For a moment, he held his bag tightly to his chest before he began to rummage through it. By the time a hand had reached across the aisle to pass off a small piece of folded notebook paper, Nayely had already turned her attention to MJ. The tap on her arm drew her attention back just as the piece of paper floated into her lap.

I am sorry. I am not a bad person. I promise.

Kahlil.

Slowly, Nayely read the words in her mind. Her mother had taught her to read long before she began school, so understanding the writing came easily. The bus came to a stop with the driver instructing the children off in order. When MJ hopped off the bus, he turned to see Nayley stalling at the top of the stairs. Her head was turned behind her, focused on something else rather than the urging of the bus driver as she clapped her hands.

"Let's go, honey! You need to get off." She sighed.

MJ quickly moved to grab Nayely's hand so that she wouldn't cause any more of a scene as the driver rolled her eyes.

"We have to go." He reminded her. Nayely shuffled her feet as MJ led her towards the many teachers who greeted the children as they filed into the school building. Their smiling faces made Nayely skeptical as she was ushered forward by unwanted hands on her shoulders. A bright red sticker was placed on the front of her jacket. Looking over, Nayely saw that MJ wore the same spot.

"We get to be in the same class. Don't worry." He smiled. The apprehension Nayely held was hard to get rid of as she moved through the familiar motions of the first day of school. With MJ by her side, it encouraged her to put away those scary feelings that bubbled in her stomach.

MJ made everything look easy as he moved with familiarity and confidence, guiding Nayely along the way. He even helped her to the cubbies, getting everything in place for them to start the day.

With her legs crossed beneath her, Nayely found herself mimicking MJ's ease to get through the day.

 

After the first week of school, Nayely sat in the safe place before Doctor Ro, who rested her head in the palm of her hands as she stared at the tight-lipped child in awe.

She imagined that even the best FBI agent couldn't get Nayely to talk.

"My, you must have the best lock and key in the world on those lips of yours." Doctor Ro teased as she opened her notebook. Nayely's eyes followed the words she wrote on the paper, her lips mouthing the words before Doctor Ro's manicured hand covered her notes.

"It's good to know your eyesight is doing well, Nayely."

"You know, your doctors say that your voice is in perfect condition now-it's just a matter of you using it." Bringing her elbows to the table, Doctor Ro watched as Nayely stiffened at what she knew to be true. The girl had held on tight to her vow of silence in every way possible. While at school, she never answered anything out loud, but was one of the first children to complete all the work given to her with no problems. Nayely and MJ led their class in spelling and counting, yet not a peep had been made by the reluctant girl. What Doctor Ro did know was that many observations had been made on her interactions with MJ compared to other children.

In school and in the Rose House, MJ was the only person precious enough to share her voice with. They could be found whispering to each other as they played together out of sight from others. Doctor Ro couldn't help but to think about the day she had watched MJ convince the stubborn girl to actually meet with her. Whatever he said had worked.

To a point.

"Of course, it's okay to speak when you're ready, but I do want to let you know that in here... you can tell me whatever it is you want. Do you understand, Nayely?" Pulling on the ends of her kinky hair that fell on the table, Nayely shook her head yes.

"Now, let's talk about your first week back to school. I'm sure it was exciting to get back to learning and being with new friends, right?" Doctor Ro didn't expect a response, even though the girl's eyes acknowledged her.

"I'd really love to hear more about it. Did you learn anything new? How are your teachers? Is the lunch yummy?" Tapping her pen against the table, Doctor Ro leaned forward. "Do you like being in the same class as MJ?" Nayely pursed her lips together as she scrunched her nose at the mention of MJ. Shaking her head yes, Nayely gave Doctor Ro her very first smile.

"I knew you would like that! MJ enjoys having you at school to, you know?" Shifting from side to side, Nayely began to kick her feet in the air. Liking the change in her mood, Doctor Ro pressed forward.

"I know you like MJ very much. I do too. He's a nice kid, isn't he?" On the table sat two figurines. Picking them up, Nayely walked them towards Doctor Ro, doing her best to make their plastic hands touch.

"Let me guess. Is this you and MJ?" Shaking her head, Nayely pressed their hands together for emphasis.

"Ah! I see! That shows that they are good friends. You know, Nayely, I'm happy to see that you and MJ have grown close since being here."

Vigorously, Nayely shook her head from side to side. The action caused Doctor Ro to pause, raising her eyebrows.

 "Is something wrong?" The stern look on the girl's face deepened as she seemed to war with herself on whether or not to use her words. Suddenly, Doctor Ro could feel small fingertips easing her pen from her own hand as Nayely leaned across the table. Doctor Ro watched intently as the girl tried her best to write a message upside down.

Always my friend.

"Ah, you hope that MJ will always be your friend? I'm sure that will happen-" Another quick shake of Nayely's head cut Doctor Ro's words.

Friends before. Friends now.

After some contemplation, understanding finally hit Doctor Ro. Nayely and MJ knew each other prior to their arrival at The Rose House? Thinking back to how the social worker described the first time they saw each other in the hospital, Doctor Ro realized that it was no longer a situation of random attachment that had been formed by the children, but a desperate reunion between two friends separated by life events no one would be equipped to handle.

It wasn't just that they had found a new friend, they had found something familiar, something trustful that anchored them to who they were before their lives were changed.

"You and MJ have been friends for a long time. Is that right?" Sitting back in her chair, Doctor Ro saw the look of relief on Nayely's face as she finally understood their relationship.

Doctor Ro had so many questions for the child she was unsure could be answered. Just as she prepared to speak, she watched as Nayely hopped from her seat and stood by the table. The sound of the timer rung throughout the room, which made Doctor Ro chuckle to herself. These two were masters at waiting until the last minute possible before allowing the slightest peek into their minds.

"I guess this means our time is up." Holding her hands in the air, Doctor Ro mentally noted the new details she needed to log away for today.

However, Nayely still stood before her, as she opened and closed her mouth slightly.

Doctor Ro sat stunned as timid words fell gingerly from Nayely's lips.

"MJ is my best friend. We have to stay together or else." Nayely's voice was no longer foreign to her ears as she could hear the sounds she was most familiar with fill the air.

"Or else what, Nayely?" Doctor Ro furrowed her brows as the cryptic words.

Looking to her feet, Nayely thoughtfully considered her next words.

"Or else, we fall apart."

 

 

 

 

 

"This was the best you could get?" Holding the digital camera close to his face, MJ studied the film intently. Shaking his wet hair, he stretched on his twin size bed that was much too small for his growing frame. At 17, the once small boy now stood at 6'0 and counting.

"Is that the best? Man, come on! That's top quality right there. What do you expect? It's not like I'm rolling in dough to get the legit stuff. Just wait." Walking past, Kahlil tapped MJ on the shoulder as he plopped beside him on the bed. "One day, that right there will be worth millions and you'll be glad I shot it on that raggedy ass camera."

"Oh, you think this will be worth millions just because you hit play? This will be worth millions because my pretty mug is all up in the screen." MJ shot back as the camera zoomed in on him. It was his last performance of his senior year, and he had given it his all. Laughing with his friend, MJ crossed the room to his desk. Picking up his acceptance letter to Julliard, he waved it in the air. "This right here? This is going to double, triple, my value."

"I'm going to be right there with you man, NYU ain't no joke. They fucked up letting my black ass in there. I'm trying to be on my Singleton shit out here."  The boys jeered each other on as they thought of the next stages of their lives. The two had met while still living at the Rose House. One day, Kahlil had approached the younger kid while playing in the yard to apologize for being unwelcoming on MJ's first day there.

"I was the one who ran into you when you first came. I never got to apologize so here it is. I'm sorry."

At the time, the memory had been faint in MJ's mind, but he accepted the sincere apology. From there, their relationship had bloomed. When Kahlil had been held back in the first grade, they were able to grow even closer as they got to go through school together at the same rate. When they had reached 10 years old, they had aged out of The Rose House. Where they were once allowed to live freely amongst other boys and girls, they were soon separated from the other children who had failed to be given a forever home and were sent out to special group homes that housed kids of the same sex. As hormones changed and puberty took over, the kids were split into a world of boys and girls.

"Hey, there she go!" Kahlil called from the shared window between their beds. Pulling the blinds aside, he looked down to the girl who sat on the fence outside their window.

Nayely. The one girl who refused to be separated by the adults' fears of young adults finding out that cooties weren't real.

Standing over Kahlil's shoulder, MJ grinned from ear to ear as he looked down to see the one person who had always stuck by his side.

"You got me, right?" Giving his hair one last shake, MJ dapped Kahlil's fist as he moved to raise the blinds. Tossing a bag over his shoulder, MJ prepared for his weekly outing.

"You good, bro. Hey, you got those rubbers like I told you?" After all of these years, Kahlil still got a kick out of his insinuations. Despite what MJ and Nayely insisted, he could see the love that existed between the two of them.

It wasn't just a friendship type of love.

They had real love.

Sucking his teeth, MJ bit back his words as he threw his leg out the window, and onto the roof of the house.

"Man, just go get you some so you can stop fantasizing about us, okay?"

"Yeah, whatever. Wrap it up!" Kahlil shouted out the window as MJ dropped to the grass below. The escapee paused, looking around to see if anyone had heard his loud voice from within the house. Nayely waved her hand to him when the coast was clear.

"You're real bold you know?" She whispered as she reached out her hand, pulling him over the fence. When MJ's feet landed, a smile so vibrant lit up the dark night. Nayely's cheeks puckered as her dimples showed just how excited she was to see him.

"Me, bold?" What about you sitting up on the fence like you're humpty dumpty? You're the one who is always coming by to sneak me out like the bad influence you are." A quick jab to his stomach had MJ wincing as he rubbed away the dull pain.

"Are you saying you don't like our nights out?" Raising an eyebrow, MJ could suddenly hear Kahlil's words in his head.

"She's been your girl. Why won't y'all just say it already? And don't tell me y'all are just best friends!"

He wasn't sure when the shape of her lips became so interesting. With the slight shine of lip balm spread against them, MJ wondered how they would taste. Nayely stood proudly in her Team USA t-shirt. MJ's eyes roamed her body appreciatively. Over the years, they had both found their niche-he belonged to the arts while she excelled in sports.

In her NIKE training pants, he couldn't help but notice the way her muscular legs looked, the curves much larger than others she tended to compete against. When puberty hit, Nayely had filled out in an unexpected way, and made people in the track and field world underestimate what she could do. Nayely had become a symbol of positivity throughout the school, even having a fellow senior frame a body positivity project around her. Despite others attempting to undermine her and her talents, Nayely had ran her way straight into the eyes of the top scouts in the country with little to no financial backing.  The majority of what she had came from donations from local churches and organizations willing to help the young athlete get to the same places as her peers with money. When she was contacted at 16 to begin training to one day join Team USA, she had sealed her status as a living legend at school.

"Hello!" Nayely snapped her fingers to get MJ's attention. "Did you hear anything I said?" Knowing that he couldn't lie, MJ gave her a silly look as he shook his head.

"I said you were really good tonight. Julliard should be thanking you for gracing them with your presence this fall." MJ's eyes brightened as he realized she had seen his performance.

"You were there? Why didn't you meet me after the show?"

"You know why." She spoke softly as she referred to the after party that MJ had attended with a bunch of other seniors that night. At the beginning, Nayely had tried to force herself into the social spaces that MJ was undoubtfully drawn to, but she could only take so much. Her energy levels could never match MJ's when around lots of people. He easily had everyone's attention whether he meant to or not. At her most insecure times as she watched people-and girls-flock around him while at school, she became embarrassed that he called someone like her his dearest friend. Nayely was known to be quiet and kept to herself, and she tried her best to not let that show.

She used to be jealous of the way MJ gave his time and attention to others, but guilt would always set in to tell her that she was holding him back. With sports, Nayely learned discipline and focus, yet when it came to MJ, she lost it all. Nayely had her own circle that gave her comfort. When she had recognized the ugly green monster of jealousy making its debut, she knew it was important for her to find ways to become her own person in a way.

With them living in separate homes, Nayely had to find ways to spend her time when she couldn't be with MJ. She knew the moment he knew just how lonely she felt when they were a part, he would drop everything to be with her. She didn't want that. She didn't want him to feel so obligated to her, when there was so much more that was bigger and better waiting for him.

"We have to stay together...or else we fall apart."

Nayely knew her paranoia was to blame, but sometimes she couldn't help but wonder if the nights she could steal MJ away like this were the last threads to their friendship she depended on to survive.

Feeling her heart beat against her chest, she frowned at the thought of what graduation and moving on to college would mean for the two of them.

For her.

"All I'm saying is that you would have had a great time if you just came. I would have been there with you so there would have been no worries." MJ reached his arm around her neck, tucking it into the endless spiral curls that surrounded her head. Pulling on one, he marveled at how it was no bigger than a pencil yet had so much bounce and life.

"Maybe next time." She scrunched her nose as he pinched her cheek.

"There will be only one last next time after graduation. Promise me now that you'll come for at least that."

"Sure..." She said exasperatedly.

Suddenly, Nayely's face was pressed between his larger hands as he peered down at her. At 5'8, she never saw herself as a small girl, but somehow with MJ, she felt as such.

"Promise. Me." He said through gritted teeth. Pressing her face until it became a mangled mash, MJ waited for her to finally give a sincere promise.

"Okay! I said yes! I'll go to the lame ass party."

"See, that wasn't hard was it. Why do you make things so difficult?"

"You ask so much of me, MJ. Please appreciate what I sacrifice here." Nayely knew it was a mistake to look into his eyes as he smiled at her. The light brown eyes she felt she had known her whole life were slowly changing before her into eyes she feared would never shine specially just for her. No, these were eyes she would have to one day share with the world.

"Damn, did you bring a flashlight?" Standing at the bottom of the gravel driveway, MJ and Nayely peered up to the old house they once lived in.

After being defunded by the state, The Rose House had slowly declined as it said goodbye to its last residents three years ago. MJ and Nayely had been a part of the farewell party that had been held, as Ms. Garner gave everything she had to the very end. At 70 years old, she believed that she could run the house on her own for the next 30 years, but the demand of the job and lack of dollars needed for the upkeep of the home had become too much, and she had to admit defeat. The now abandoned home served as MJ and Nayely's refuge in times of need.

Digging around in her bag, Nayley pulled out the large flashlight, guiding their way to the overgrown weeds at the steps of the house. Dust floated from the door as they walked through, closing it behind them.

"Watch out." Pulling her closer, MJ kept Nayely from running into a large spider web that hung in the hallway. Maneuvering her through, MJ took them to the safe place.

They were happy to see that the makeshift lounge area they had created was still intact. They had worked hard to keep the space as clean as possible. They had set mouse traps throughout the area long ago and put down critter ridder to keep away any other little creatures that found their way inside.

"Home sweet home." MJ lightly jogged past Nayely as he slid into the plush palette of blankets they had made. From her bag, Nayely withdrew large battery-operated candles, and placed them strategically around the pair. They had learned the lesson before of using candles with real life flames while at The Rose House. After falling asleep one night, Nayely woke to find a strand of her hair ablaze after she had shifted in her sleep. She was lucky that she had so much hair that she could easily hide the singed piece from being seen.

"Did you find what we needed?" Settling in beside MJ, Nayely looked at the black and white pages he pulled from his backpack.

"You know I got you." Spreading the pages before them, MJ looked at the bits and pieces of the fragmented story that haunted them both for years.

While together, it didn't take long to realize that they had both suffered the unimaginable that fateful night in 1995. As children, they had cast aside the horrors of that time in their lives by being together. They had all but blocked out the mutual loss of the families they had known by replacing the memories with the friendship that was cemented between them. They didn't know where they would be without each other.

However, over the years, curiosity and nightmares had begun to drudge up the need to know more. How had they both ended up together in the same place with the same tears? Nayely knew her story, yet MJ's was still clouded in confusion. He had asked her to help him clear it all away, so that he could finally find some justice for his mother, who seemed to have been forgotten in the media frenzy surrounding her death.

"The articles didn't tell me much other than this guy here was once some bigshot."

Moving to pick up the sheet that MJ's eyes were trained on, Nayely quickly scanned the document.

"Jerry Richie, casting director. Jeez, all they do is talk about how many women he was sleeping with and how many celebrities he put on to the big time."

"This guy was famous for putting some of the best talent into movies. He was literally a legend." Handing MJ another paper, he pointed to the portion he wanted her to focus on.

"October 3, 1995." He read aloud. Furrowing her brows, Nayely recalled what that date meant for the both of them. Looking to MJ, he shook his head in confirmation.

"He died that same night." Over her shoulder, MJ began to read from the article.

"At 3201 North Gally Road, two bodies were found at the scene of the crime. Jerry Richie, famed casting director and an unidentified female were found deceased."

"Is that all it says?" Nayely shook her head at the lack of details.

"The case was still underway, and no one at the party wanted to talk. But look here..." Pointing at the last paragraph, MJ revealed the last bit of information that was most important to him.

"Police also noted that a young boy was discovered alone at the scene, unharmed."

"That was you." Nayely gripped the paper tightly as she looked up to MJ.

"Has to be. I try not to, but I do remember parts of that night." Sitting back, MJ wrapped his arms around his knees as Nayely re read the article.

"I remember walking up to this house that was like a-- a castle with my mom. I remember all the smoke that burned my eyes when we walked in. She told me to do what she says otherwise I'd be in big trouble. I just wanted to go home, so I did what she said."

"And what was that?"

"There was this weird door that lead to this small space by the stairs. She made me go in there because Slade wanted her to get rid of me. It felt like I was going to suffocate in there, and I couldn't do anything about it."

Pausing, Nayely crooked her head to the side." Slade? Who's Slade?" MJ looked to Nayely with just as much confusion at the mention of the name.

"That's right. I forgot all about him." Scratching his head, MJ frowned. "He was like my mom's boyfriend. I didn't see him often, but she was gone with him all the time. He hated my ass." Shaking his head as memories of the intimidating man attempted to come through, MJ could see that Nayely's brain was hard at work.

"What's up?" Pressing one finger to her head, MJ waited as Nayely blinked rapidly.

"A house party. A shooting. Only two people dead." Counting on her fingers, Nayely wondered what it was she was missing. "Why were Jerry and your mom the only ones who didn't make it out?" She asked the question carefully, making sure that it didn't cross the line.

"I-I have no idea." MJ admitted. Seeing his chest rise and fall quickly, Nayely pushed aside the papers he had brought. Scooting to his side, Nayely laid down, pulling MJ with her. In her arms, she comforted him the way that he had done fo+r her many times as children. Pulling him near, Nayely stroked his back as he buried his face into her neck. The soft scent of the lavender oil she dotted her hair with everyday wafted to him. Taking in deep breaths, MJ could feel his breathing regulate, but he made no rush of letting go.

"When I saw her, it was like nothing I had seen before-and I had seen my mom in a lot of ways." Feeling Nayely's warmth against him, MJ felt safe.

"But not like that."

 Feeling the grip of his hand in her hair, Nayely treaded lightly.

"Do you know why you were there in the first place?"

A moment passed between them as their breathing filled the air. Their chests rose in sync as MJ's throat restricted.

"She was like me." His words were barely a whisper.

"Like you?" Craning her neck back, Nayely looked for an explanation.

"My mom dreamed of being an actress. She said she wanted to be the Korean Michelle Pfieffer. Only better." There was a hint of admiration in his voice as he recalled his mother's ambitions.

"When she was home, sometimes she would make me sit up all night and practice lines with her when she had an audition.  Watching how she could change to fit the roles she was playing was amazing. I always knew I'd get to see my mom in some big movie one day, and that everyone would be jealous that I was her son."

"So that's where you get your talent from? MJ, I don't know much about acting and theater and all that stuff, but I know that I've never watched someone capture an entire room-an auditorium-the way that you do." Nayely lifted to her elbow, placing a comforting hand on his shoulder as he did the same.

"I'll never be able to call my mom up and ask if she's seen my latest movie or bring her on stage after I win my tenth Oscar." Nayely rolled her eyes at his wishful thinking. Smirking, MJ continued. "But I know she'll be there right by side me the entire way. Just not the way I would hope."

MJ picked at the edge of the frayed blanket they laid upon, "That's why I need to know what truly happened to her. How can I keep going when she can't even rest in peace?" MJ's hazel eyes shined with tears Nayely knew would never fall. She couldn't help but to reach out, placing her fingertips on his brow as his eyes reddened.

"We're going to figure this out. You know I'll do anything for you."

"You know you're my girl, right?" MJ's words stirred feelings within Nayely that she knew had to be dampened. His words couldn't mean what her heart wanted them to.

Fighting the urge to follow his lips, Nayely sat up abruptly, pulling out a pen as she went through the papers again.

"Thank you, Yely." MJ's words called to her. "I wouldn't want anyone else to be by my side for this." Throwing a smile over her shoulder, Nayely winked at MJ before tossing him a pile of papers.

"Let's get to work."

 

When Nayely stepped from the school bus for the final time, she looked out to the campus to see the giddiness of students so close to their summer break, tousle and yell with their friends. Everyone was relaxed, knowing that today would be a breeze. On her shirt, she wore the University of Southern California image proudly, and as she looked around, she saw that many other seniors touted their chosen schools.

"Hey, Nayely!" From across the way, Nayely watched as MJ and Kahlil emerged from the cafeteria. Kahlil's deep voice got her attention, and she all but laughed at the white mustache left behind from the milk carton he tilted into the air.

"You and your got milk looking self..." She teased. MJ tossed Nayely the breakfast donut that she loved.

"Won't be getting too many more of these. Enjoy." Licking her lips, Nayely pulled a part the plastic, taking a bite out of the sweet dough.

"You think they'll give me what's left over? It's not like they'll be needing them."

"Is that why you brought a bookbag? To steal some stale ass donuts on your last day?" Pulling her bag from her shoulder, Kahlil looked inside to see papers and binders. Rolling his eyes, he shook his head.

"What are you going to learn on the last day? We're done, Nayely! You're probably the only senior who brought a bookbag today."

Without thinking, MJ moved to zip her bookbag up, placing it back in place.

"Mind your business, Kahlil." MJ asked, grabbing the hem of her shirt, he smiled. "She's not Miss USC for nothing." Aside from her athletic accomplishments, Nayely had also dominated academically. Knowing that she would have made it into her dream school no matter what was a fact she was proud of.

The only reason why her smile faltered at the mention of her future home was because of the price it came at.

Nayely would be without MJ.

Not only would they be at different schools, but they'd be on complete opposites sides of the country.

It was still hard for Nayely to digest.

"I still need to clean out my locker, this is just some random stuff."

"Whatever you say." Kahlil waved his hand in dismissal as he focused his camera on his two friends." Say what's up for the camera!"

Nayely laughed with the two boys as MJ shined in front of the camera, carrying on as he naturally went into a monologue with ease. As the trio made their way to their classes, Nayely couldn't help but want to grab MJ's hand and run away so that they never had to be a part.

 

At lunch, Nayely skipped out on being a part of the last day shenanigans as music thumped from the cafeteria. Saying a quick hello to the librarian, she made her way to her favorite table that was bathed in sunlight.

Not only was it the perfect place for natural lighting to work in, it was also a great cover for her to break the ‘no eating' rule.

Pulling out a cold sub from the brown paper bag she nabbed from the cafeteria, Nayely settled into her seat as she emptied the contents of her bag. Rummaging through her things, she pulled out the paper folder that held the information that she needed the most.

Since the last night she and MJ met, Nayely had done her own investigating. She had scrounged dozens of pages on the internet and had flipped through so many newspaper archives in the public library, that she wore band aids to heal the paper cuts she had gained.

The night before, she hadn't had a chance to look through her newest information and had hoped to maybe find something good for MJ before it was too late. They usually kept their special meetings solely at The Rose House, and Nayely figured that he wouldn't want to bring up such a sensitive subject for him while enjoying his last day of school. She could see the toll it took on him to relive the details of that day as they read article after article, trying to decipher anything that had been left out.

Nayely hated to see that look on his face and hoped that if she could get closer to the truth by herself, it would lighten MJ's load and allow him to go on to school and be all that he was destined to be.

As her eyes began to read, she shook her head at the way MJ's mother's death was treated in such a careless way. Nearly none of the news stories delved into who she was or held her death in as high of importance as this Jerry character.

She didn't know what she would do if she had to read another line praising him for what he'd done in the industry. What about the others who suffered that night?

Giving up with the local news, Nayely switched to the back page posts she had found deep on the web. From the pile, she pulled free a snippet of the conspiracy theory website called HollyW3ird. Nayely's good sense told her that it would be pointless to try and follow the ramblings of some guy on the internet who chased after the scandals of the stars. Who knew what he would say?

Ladies and gentlemen, today, I present to you a story that the media has chosen to ignore.

Remember Big Man Jerry?

That's right! The one and only! For my men out there, If you need to jog your memory, just think about all the hot actresses that helped you through those tough times of puberty. Remember now? That's right, each tit you jacked it to on your 13-inch black and white TV is all thanks to Jerry.

"What the hell..." Nayely murmured, almost tempted to toss the article as the writer went into detail of every sex symbol from the 80's and 90's. Just as she prepared to ball the piece of paper up, something caught her eye.

...no one else seemed to care to ask the real questions surrounding Jerry's death. Robbery gone bad? Random act of violence? Nonsense! If you think Jerry was a man who didn't have more than one hit out on his head, then think again. What HollyW3ird doesn't want the public to know is the grimy underbelly that all of your favorite movie stars are drug through before they plop them on the largest billboard in town for all to fawn over. Don't feel jealous for the glamorous lies they sell to us-all that glitters is not gold!

It was no secret that Jerry had his vices. All those actresses who blazed across your screen were once used as Jerry's own pleasures. You heard it here first. Don't believe all the reports saying he was nothing but a loved figure in the industry-if the truth of who he was ever made it to primetime news it would topple the industry from the inside out.

Drugs.

Sex contracts.

You name it.

Jerry was the man who orchestrated more than one downfall of hopeful actors and actresses, and he took no shame in his deeds. It was only a matter of time, before what was done in the dark came to light.

Skeptically, Nayely checked the byline once again.

Mark Rowdy.

Nayely wasn't naive enough to think that the entertainment industry was clean as a whistle, but it was interesting to see someone make such allegations towards Jerry out of all the pieces she had read on him so far. Concern laced her features as her mind began to place two and two together. If MJ's mother was one of these pitiful hopefuls who crossed Jerry's path, would that mean he would never get the answers that he wanted?

Nayely considered whether it was smart to continue reading. This could all be fluff from some disgruntled guy who Jerry screwed over years ago. This could lead her nowhere.

Today I present to you an exclusive interview with one of the survivors of that fateful night. Once you hear what this confidential source has to say, you'll understand why mainstream media never took the time to find the truth behind his death.

Witness? It was then Nayely realized she had never heard anything from those who had been at the party. How was it that nothing has been said after all this time? Not even the slightest comment on what had gone down that night had made it to the public.

With abated breath, Nayely read on.

"It all happened so fast. Jerry was coked up...everyone was that night. I was one of his sweet girls-the ones he liked to have at parties for his image. We were pretty and willing to do anything for our big break. I couldn't tell you how many times we had to have sex in front of him or whatever creep he wanted to impress. In fact, that night, he had us make a video upstairs before we were allowed to actually enjoy the party."

"We were all enjoying the drugs that night. If you stayed around him like we did, it was no secret that Jerry was going broke, but we partied like none of that mattered-he kept things coming all night long with no problem. It wasn't until those guys showed up that he started acting weird."

"They were...terrifying. Trying to make it big, I had to learn really fast how to play the game, so it was hard to intimidate me. But when I saw them, I knew that they were like no one I had ever met before. I thought people in the industry were scary, but they had nothing on these guys. When they came in, I knew that they were there to do a trade. Drugs, you know? They brought some blow, and Jerry tested it out. He said that the stuff was crap, and you could tell the big guy wasn't happy about that. I think his name was PJ? Or OT? Something weird like that. He and the other guy that came with him didn't play any games with Jerry.  Jerry insisted that the OT guy was trying to pull one over on him, and even forced some new Asian chick to test it out. She hadn't been there long, but he had already given her so many drugs and she knew it-we all knew it-but he forced her to do more."

Goosebumps trembled across her skin as her deepest memories became impossible to ignore.

She knew an OT. And he was never a good man.

Fragmented pieces of conversation floated to the forefront of Nayely's mind. She could hear the desperation and sadness in her mother's voice as it cried out.

"You know what they say about Damien and OT, don't you? They call Damien his boyfriend." Shondra's voice cracked as she spoke to her friend on the phone. She had been calling around all night trying to find her husband's whereabouts with no luck. "I know Damien is with that no-good bastard, OT! You can't tell me otherwise..."

The sudden sound of books falling in the distance jerked Nayely from her own thoughts. With her heart pumping fast, she told herself not to go on. It was a lie. She shouldn't read what was there.

"Then things just went left. Jerry refused to pay for the blow and everything got crazy. The other girls ran inside, but I stayed behind in the corner, I was too afraid to move. They pulled out a gun and pointed it at Jerry's head, I prayed like never before that no one would see me in the shadows. When I knew they were going to pull the trigger, I had to close my eyes! I just couldn't watch! The sound of the shots and everyone screaming literally made me piss myself. By the time I looked up, it was like Jerry's face never existed-all you could see was the inside of his head. I could have gone all my life without ever knowing what a human brain looked like splattered everywhere. Once the dealers left, I ran as fast as I could through the house. No one else was there-anyone alive at least. When I ran inside, I saw the Asian chick on the ground, covered in blood and-other stuff. I didn't know what to do, but the police were on their way. I got out of there as fast as I could."

Clasping her hand over her mouth, Nayely could feel the bile burning up her throat.

Her father had been there?

No. Her dad couldn't have been a part of something so horrible.

What about your family, Nayely?  An inner voice prodded her.

The tears streamed faster as she knew what she wanted her father to be was far from the truth. The things he had done to her mother, her brother.

The things he had tried to do to her.

"Hey, what are you doing?" At the sound of MJ's voice, Nayely panicked. Quickly closing the folder, she tried her best to hide the evidence before her.

"You know they were giving out free food for seniors, right?" Kahlil said around a mouth full of fries. Nayely kept her back turned to the two, trying her best to get her emotions in check. As MJ rounded the table, he could see the remnants of tears on her face. Seeing that Kahlil was distracted flipping through the pictures on his camera, he leaned in close to Nayely.

"Were you crying?" His concern was as evident as the tears she lied about.

"No. Just had a sneeze attack. It made my eyes water like crazy." She said with a smile. Frowning, MJ, knew that for Nayely to lie to him meant that whatever was bothering her shouldn't be talked about there. Though reluctant, he held back asking her anything else.

For now.

"So, I heard you're actually going to come to the graduation party tomorrow, is that true?" Kahlil ignored the need for an inside voice inside the library, and when Nayely held up her finger to quiet him, he bugged his eyes. "What? You're literally the only one in here!"

MJ stood to his full height and turned Kahlil towards the doors. "Yes, she's going. I made her promise."

Holding out his hand for Nayely's bag, MJ didn't miss the way she shoved her folders and papers into the bag. There was a moment of hesitation as he waited for her to hand over the bag.

"I'm good. Let's get out of here." Placing her hands against MJ's back, the three formed a train as they made their way towards the door. Saying a final goodbye to the librarian, Nayely swallowed a lump of fear with the new information she had stumbled upon.

 

Chapter 6 by ValleyofLight

 

Nayely's feet pounded the sidewalk as she tried her best to not run in the direction of the house she had spent the entire evening in search of.

It had been years since Mark Rowdy had updated his website, but if the address he had listed for fan mail and other inquiries was accurate, then Nayely had reached his personal home.

Who puts their actual address online? Obviously, someone who isn't afraid to be known.

Looking around, Nayely knew that the neighborhood had seen better days. As she peeked around the corner of a worn fence, her eyes focused on the yard with a large tin contraption built in front of it. If she wasn't mistaken, it looked like a naked Santa made from old soup cans. Seeing the ‘for sale' signs at the homes that sandwiched the peculiar one, something told her that this was indeed where Mark possibly lived.

Rubbing her hands on her pants, Nayely knew that she was cutting things close. She had only an hour until curfew kicked in and it would take at least that long for her to get back to her side of town. There was no way she would be spending the night in the girl's home she never felt she fit into.

Before she could contemplate on what she would do next, she could feel an object jab her in her lower back. Tensing up, Nayely caught the heavy scent of rosemary wafting from the person who held her captive.

"Let's make this easy, kid. Do what I say, and we'll be cool. Everything will be cool."

Nodding her head, Nayely shuffled her feet as her face heated from fear. Not knowing what awaited her, she instantly regretted making the impromptu trip. When she realized that the unknown man was leading her towards the naked Santa, she cursed herself. What made her think this Mark guy would be safe or sane enough to approach by herself?

"L-Look. I don't know what's going on, but I think you've got the wrong person." Nayely stuttered as she tried to find the easiest way out.

"Oh, I know exactly what's going on here. You staking me out?" Giving her a slight push, Nayely had to twist to avoid falling into the yard display. She had her tetanus shot, yet that thing looked like it could get her good.

With a sudden show of athleticism, Nayely was able to put distance between her and the mysterious man. Turning around, she was confused to see Mark wielding a banana in his hand.

With a grin that stretched from ear to ear, Mark pulled the rosemary branch from his mouth, offering it to Nayely.

"Want some?"

Dusting off her hands, she shook her head.

"Nah, I'm good." From head to toe, Mark looked the exact way she imagined he would. A thin middle-aged man dressed as if he was from another dimension.  In the hot California heat, he donned a black trench coat worn over a torn band t-shirt, and long cargo shorts. She watched as he scratched his long hair that was covered by a thick winter beanie that served no purpose where they lived. Sniffing his finger, Mark flinched at whatever assaulted his nose.

Nayely grimaced.

"Suit yourself. This stuff is good for your brain, you know? Gets the blood flowing and thinking juices going! It's good stuff!" Jabbing his thumb over his shoulder, Mark moved closer to share a secret.

"Plus, its free, thanks to mother nature." A high-pitched giggle filled the awkward air. Gripping the straps to her bookbag closer, Nayely shook her head.

"I-I'm sorry maybe I shouldn't have come here."

As she tried to walk past him, Mark pulled her back with a tempting offer.

"As you can see, I don't get many visitors-but when I do-it's because you want to find out some sick shit that no one else has the balls to talk about. Tell me what you want to know."

 

Nayely sat atop an old oil drum in Mark's messy living room. The place looked like someone had dropped a bomb only on his house, yet somehow, Mark moved along the mess with ease.

"Jerry Ritchie, huh? You're the first person to ever come looking for answers for him." Opening an old file cabinet, Mark twirled his fingers in the air as he looked for what he needed. A bright smile filled his face as he dug into the papers, pulling out a large scratch book.

"I do things in style, you see." Mark explained when he saw Nayely's eyebrows raise at the sight of the pink book.

"Is that a baby book?"

"Listen, each of these stories have their own life. Once I get something good, I must raise it into the exposé it was born to be. Sadly, not many of these have survived the first stages of puberty."

Knotting his brows together, Mark frowned when the front cover of the book slid off in his hands. Tossing it to the side, he took his place on an old barstool by Nayely.

Tucking the book close to his stomach, Mark cleared his throat.

"I've got what I got. Now tell me what you got."

Realizing that this wasn't going to be a simple handover of information, Nayely thought of what she had of value.

"I don't have any money." She shrugged.

"Doesn't have to be money." When Mark's eyes traveled to the keychain that dangled from her bag, Nayely quickly hid it.

"Look, I can see you like junk, but this isn't something that you can have." She said with finality.

"Don't worry! I'm not asking for something material." Whipping out a long bendy straw, Mark poked Nayely in the head. "What you got up here is worth much, much more."

"You want information for information?"

"Precisely."

"I don't really follow celebrities that much-"

"Oh no! I'm a pro at doing that. What I want to know is what has pushed you to come find out about ol' Jerry boy here? He's been dead and gone for years. What would you have to do with him?"

Nayely watched as he flipped through the pages temptingly.
"I just need to find some things out. That's all." She tried to assure him.

"Why?"

"Because it's important."

"Why?"

"I'm curious about him."

"Why?"

"Because I need to find out about the woman who died the same night as him! That's why!" Kicking the oil drum in frustration, a dull ringing sound vibrated throughout the room.

"Now, that's more like it." Squinting his eyes in approval, Mark opened the book, looking through the information there. Pushing the book into her face, Nayely stared into the eyes of beautiful woman. The more Nayely stared, the more she realized that her headshot reminded her of MJ.

"I've never been able to put a name to her. She was never listed in any official statement from that night. I had to harass agencies around town before someone could throw me a picture of who she possibly was. I still don't know if this was actually the lady."

Nayely shook her head as she studied the features that were so familiar to her.

"That's her." Pulling the book back, Mark's eyes burned with curiosity.

"How do you know?" He asked suspiciously.

Nayely didn't know she had spoken out loud. Clearing her throat, she shrugged her shoulders." I just do."

"As far as I know, she went by EJ. No one could give me more info than that. Sad to say barely any of the productions she was even a part of didn't even list her name in the credits. It's almost as if this picture is all that she left behind."

She left much more than that.

Nayely bit back her words, making sure she didn't reveal too much.

"C-can I have the picture, please?" Snapping the book shut, Mark wiggled his finger.

"Now why would I do that? Do you know how many years I hyper fixated on this case with barely a bone thrown my way? This picture here was one of my biggest discoveries. I'm very proud of it." Mark stated matter-of-factly.

"Do you know who killed them?" Nayely took a chance. She didn't yet have solid proof, but she knew her father was linked to this tragedy. It seemed that he just couldn't get enough that night.

"What, like you do?" He scoffed.

"Do you think I came here by chance? By accident?" Nayely tried to play her hidden card, seeing the intrigue that warred with Mark's stubbornness play out on his face. She had to get that picture from him.

Mark gritted his teeth in the silence, unable to pass up the chance to hear what Nayely had to say. Opening the book, He flipped to a page that had been dog eared.

"When I spoke to the witness back in the day, I managed to get something even the police didn't have. To them, this turned into a cold case rather fast, but I on the other hand have been keeping it warm all this time."

Nayely's breath hitched in her throat when she saw the faces that stared back at her. There was no mistaking who she was looking at. The pencil smudges had managed to capture her father's face to a T.

"How did you get this?" She asked breathlessly.

"I know a guy who knows a guy and-let's just say I've got my ways. Any who, when the witness gave me her testimony, I was able to convince her to meet with a friend of mine who sketched out the murderers from that night." Pointing the straw to the more intimidating image on the left, Mark spoke again." This here is the OT guy she remembered seeing. When I tried to ask around about him, everyone was tight lipped. They looked at me like they had no idea what I was talking about."

"And what about the other guy?" She asked carefully.

"That's what bugs me the most! I could never get a name for him either. Sometimes I wonder if it had been too long since the incident for the witness to give an accurate description of who was there that night."

Suddenly, it became hard to breathe.

"It's probably better you don't know any more than what you already do." Nayely's voice shook as she closed her eyes, wanting to desperately forget the look of her father's face on that page. She had come for confirmation, and that's exactly what she had gotten.

Only then did she realize she wasn't ready to face it.

To face MJ after this.

"So, you do know? Don't tell me you're trying to pull one over on me."

"I'm not."

"Then spill! Who is the mystery guy?"

"You don't want to know!"

"Uh, yes I do!"

"Just give me the picture. This whole story is over so just put this all away. No one cares anymore!"

"But you do." Mark noted.

Sucking in a breath of air, Nayely let it out in a staggered sigh.

"If I tell you who he is, you'll only want to know more and that's going to get you into trouble." In that moment, Nayely realized that she was truly born of a monster. If it wasn't for the years of beatings her mother endured, this had convinced her.

"I think I can handle myself, kid." Mark laughed. "I've made it this long and have survived countless crazies! This is nothing new."

"I-I just can't tell you. Please just give me that picture. It's important to me."

"Obviously not important enough." Exasperated, Mark stood from his seat, prepared to lock the book away for good. "Look, I think we're done here."

"Please! Having that picture means a lot to me, you don't understand!"

"Oh no, no, no. That much is very clear. What you don't understand is that I need to have that name. It's been over a decade since this case has seen the light of day. Everyone just wrote it off as another Hollywood sob story without finding all of the facts. How could you not get all of the facts?" Mark raised his arms in the air." It's been driving me crazy for years!"

"There are so many other celebrities to get dirt on, go find out those stories!"

"This is the only case I haven't been able to close the book on. I always get to the end of my stories." Pointing his finger at Nayely, Mark breathed heavily. "And you could help me. If you just. Give. Me. The Name."

"If I do, you have to give me the picture."

"What if you give me some bogus name?"

"You can always investigate. If you survive, I lied. If you end up getting killed, then you know it was the truth."

"Hmm, that sounds very eerie. Like 1692 eerie-but I can dig it." Tapping his finger against his chin, Mark reached back to the book, and pulled the picture free from its plastic entrapment. Walking forward, Nayely held her palm close to the edge of the photo. Gulping, she looked to Mark, trying to read him for any possible tricks.

"Don't pull any games, kid." He warned, placing the picture into her palm. With a tip grip still on the edge of the picture, Mark waited in anticipation.

"What's his name?"

For a moment, Nayely wondered if she was betraying her father in some way. What would he do if he found out she had ratted him out?

"You have to promise to not make any mentions as to who I am if you decide to write about this. No descriptions. Nothing. Got it?" She couldn't go through with this if he didn't promise. If need be, Nayely was ready to take off and snatch the photo before he could stop her.

"I'm a man of my word. My work is honest, through and through." For whatever reason, Nayely trusted his declaration.

"Damien. Damien Polite is his name." She spoke the name as if it were a curse. A chill traveled up her spine, which took everything inside Nayely to not shutter. "It was him and OT who were there that night. Do with that what you want, but never forget that I did warn you."

Releasing the picture, Mark chose to believe what the girl had told him.

"You my dear, may have just changed history!" Rubbing his hands across his face, Mark excitedly bounced on his feet.

Palming the picture in her hand, Nayely looked down at the image of MJ's mother.

"Thank you. Thank you for this." Nayely sighed.

"No, thank you!" Mark exclaimed.

Nayely made her way to his front door, not wanting to get wrapped up into whatever was brewing in Mark's brain.

"Hey, wait! How did you know who he was?" He ran after her, catching the closing door just as she walked past the naked Santa.

Turning on her heels, Nayely stopped briefly, looking at the ground.

"Because. I'm someone he hurt, too."

 

 

 

MJ looked across the football field, seeing that Nayely was still nowhere to be found.

"Yo, man. You don't think anything happened to her, right? Even her cell is off." Kahlil snapped his cell phone shut as he tried to reach Nayely once again.

"Is everyone in the correct lines? Make sure you're alphabetical before we leave the tunnel!" The teachers walked between the lines of students, trying their best to organize them in the last moments before the graduation.

"I even asked the girl who lives with her. She said Nayely never came home before curfew." MJ's frustration began to show. That was one thing he hated about the group homes. They touted off every day about wanting to protect the children they housed yet were quick to literally lock the children out until the next day if they were even a minute late for curfew. If Nayely never made it home, then that meant she would have been wondering the streets all night.

MJ silently hoped that she had at least made it to The Rose House. He never liked for her to go by herself, but in this instance, he would have been relieved to find out she had spent the night there at least.

"This isn't some shit Nayely would do, man. Do you think we should tell someone?" Kahlil spoke lowly, as he and MJ eyed the crowd.

"No. No way man. We're still technically not on our own. I don't want to do anything that could get Nayely sent somewhere." Pulling his own phone from his pocket, MJ sighed seeing that he hadn't gotten any responses to his texts.

"Still nothing?" Kahlil asked. MJ shoved the phone back down, finally coming to a decision.

"I'm going to go find her."

"What? You'll miss graduation though."

"I don't care. She's missing graduation." MJ snapped back. Closing his eyes, he calmed himself down. "You just stay here in case she shows up, and text me if she does. If nothing else, you can walk for all three of us." Gripping Kahlil's shoulder, MJ knew that his friend understood why finding Nayely was so important.

"You two are always getting caught up in something crazy." Shaking his head, Kahlil dapped MJ up.

"Kahlil, I know you stayed with us an extra year, but surely you know you're in the wrong line." Called a teacher. Rolling his eyes, Kahlil turned to make his way to his proper spot. MJ waited until the eyes of the adults were trained elsewhere so that he could sneak out from the line.

"15 minutes everyone! Get ready!"

Inching closer to the heavy door that led outside, MJ was surprised to see a familiar face come rushing in.

In a knee length floral dress, Nayely came rushing through. The sandals on her feet made it easy for her to run the four miles to the school after she had finally made it in to the group home. She had gotten chewed out but was still able to make it just in time.

"What the hell!" MJ shouted, bringing attention to them.

Nayely looked more startled than normal as she looked around nervously.

"MJ! Where-where are you going? Graduation is this way." She tried to sound lighthearted, but the deep scowl on MJ's face made it difficult.

"Are you serious right now? Where's your phone at? We've been calling and texting you all morning!"

"What for? I was just a little late, that's all." She tried to explain. Walking past MJ, Nayely wanted to escape his prying eyes. Lifting her gown, Nayely pushed her arms through the sleeve, falling into place with the rest of her classmates.

"Hold on, we gotta talk about this, Yely." Running in front of her, MJ halted any further movement. "You're never late, yet you're suddenly changing up. You were late last night, weren't you?"

"What do you mean?" MJ scrunched up his face in confusion, realizing that his best friend was going to play dumb with him. Since when did they do this kind of stuff?


"What do you mean, what do I mean? I already asked the chick  who stays at the girl's house too. She said that you didn't even make it in for curfew. Where were you to miss curfew?"

"MJ, you're overreacting. I was late to curfew, and a little late this morning, so what? I'm here and I'm alive, so there's no need to worry."

"You didn't answer any of our calls, Yely! Anything could have happened to you and you're acting like everything is cool." Nayely blinked her eyes rapidly, now understanding just how angry MJ was with her. If not answering a few phone calls made him this upset, then what would finding out that her dad-

"Relax, MJ. Soon, we'll be far away from each other, You'll be out living your life and finding new people who will take up your time and then you won't have to worry about where I am or what I'm doing. It won't even cross your mind."

"What are you talking about, Yely?"

"I'm saying one day you won't need me and one day you won't care. So, don't worry so much now. It's pointless, okay?"

"Park and Polite, what are you doing? Get to your places we're walking out right now!"

"What are you talking about?"

Slapping her thigh at the outburst, Nayely turned away. "Nothing! Nothing. Let's just get this over with, can we please do that?"

"No, Nayely, why would you say something like that?" MJ didn't care if he held up the entire graduation. Nayely wasn't making any sense. This all seemed to come from out of the blue, and he needed to know what was going on with her.

Walking away, Nayely left MJ with no choice but to follow behind her. Dodging his hand, she crept to the end of the line as the caboose.

"Park, you're up!" As the first person in line, MJ was pushed by the varsity football coach so that he could take his place. Falling in step, MJ constantly looked over his shoulder, trying to catch a glimpse of the girl who hid herself among the sea of students.

 

 

 

"Bro, are we going or what?" Kahlil checked himself in the mirror for the umpteenth time. After getting a fresh line up for the graduation, he had been feeling himself lately. "Maybe she's having one of her ‘woman' days. Just leave Nayely alone, let her chill, and then maybe she'll finally talk."

"Nayely doesn't have ‘woman' days, Kahlil. Something was up with her and you know it. What if something happened and she's too embarrassed to tell us?"

"Something like what?" When Kahlil read MJ's face, his head rolled to the side. "You think something that bad happened to her? Did she say so?"

"No. She didn't say much of anything other than basically telling me to mind my business." Grabbing the foam basketball that sat on their desk, Kahlil was at a loss for words.

"Well, she said she was going to the party tonight, right?"

"Yeah, but who knows now. She may try to go ghost again."

"Nah, she made a promise with you, right? Those shits are bond between you two-that I know for sure. She'll be there, and when she you see her, see what's up with your girl."

"I don't know man." MJ shook his head in uncertainty.

"Trust her, man! Y'all have been riding for the longest, there's nothing that you can hide from each other. Maybe Nayely just isn't ready to tell you whatever it is that has her acting funny. Give her time." Spritzing cologne, Kahlil rubbed his hands together as he admired himself one final time.

"I say let's get to this party, set it off one final time, and give Nayely some time. She'll come around when she's ready."

 

 

 

MJ sat sandwiched between two girls. One brunette, and the other a red head. He had lost count on how many times they had slapped him in the face with their hair. He was sure they had learned of the trick from some teen magazine, but they must have missed the part about being inconspicuous.

"When do you leave, MJ? I'll be at Brown, which is like, an easy drive when you think about it. We could hang out every once in a while, what do you think?" MJ didn't miss the way her lips journeyed dangerously close to his own. He wondered if it was painful for her to bite her thin bottom lip as she eyed him, waiting for a response. In that moment, his thoughts drifted to Nayely as he remembered the healthy pink color her full lips held all of the time.

"I don't know... who knows what the gas prices are like on the east coast." He deflected. Sitting forward, he was able to slightly free himself from their confines.

Rap music beat throughout the house, so loud he could barely even make out the lyrics. Looking to the large glass doors that led to the bonfire outside, MJ saw Kahlil tonguing some curly haired chick down like there was no tomorrow. He was almost embarrassed to watch his friend grind into the girl like this was their last night on earth.

With the slightest chuckle, he finally rose from his seat. Shaking his red cup, he saw that he had ran low on the sprite he had earlier. Knowing that he had barely managed to snag the soda before it was poured into the enormous bowl of jungle juice that sat in the kitchen, MJ tossed the cup out. If he could avoid going to the restroom for the rest of the night, then he would be good. Thinking of the vomit he had stepped in earlier was enough to deter him.

Rubbing his neck, MJ couldn't keep his mind from wandering back to the strange fight he'd had with Nayely at graduation.

Was fight the right word to use? Maybe, argument or confrontation fit better.

Whatever it was, it had kept MJ from being able to find her once the ceremony was over. She had left as soon as possible, missing out on taking any photos for their memories. Despite what had gone down between them, the last thing he had wanted was for her to avoid him.

Looking at his phone, MJ saw that the party had been going on for hours, and Nayely was still a no show.

"This is bullshit." He mumbled to himself.

"Damn. I forgot how fine she is off the track."

"She finally shows her face at our last party looking like that? She should have come more often."

MJ hadn't paid any attention to the shocked approvals of the random guys at the party as Nayely made her way to the brooding teen. Keeping her eyes on his wide frame, Nayely felt her stomach flutter as she stood just inches away. In a tight pair of jeans and simple halter top, she had caught the eyes of those around her, but none of that mattered. With her hair parted down the middle, her coils fanned out to the side, showing the glow that replaced the misery she had walked around with all day the moment she saw MJ.

"MJ." She called out so softly, she didn't think he would hear her over the sounds of the crowd. Even so, Nayely knew the instant that his shoulders straightened, that he had heard her.

When MJ turned to her with a flushed expression on his face, she saw it quickly replaced with relief and happiness.

How could she have ever doubted if he heard her? MJ had always been the one to hear her quiet calls when no one else could. He had been the only person who truly understood her.

Now she feared that soon, that comfort would be no more. Knowing what she did, Nayely didn't know if she could look him in the eyes without feeling guilty for accepting his love and friendship after all these years. If he only knew-

"I don't like when you're like this." MJ said from the top of her head as he pulled her close to his chest. Naturally, her arms floated up, resting at the small of his back where her hands clasped together tightly, not wanting to ever let him go.

When others began to whisper at the intimae moment, Nayely blocked them out, focusing on the rhythm of his chest against her cheek.

"Have your hugs always felt this good?" She asked into his shirt.

"You're the only person who would know." MJ didn't want to pull away from that moment. "What's wrong, Yely? You've got to give me something. I'm losing my mind trying to figure it all out." Leaning back slightly, MJ could feel her hold tighten around him as she shook her head from side to side.

"No. We have to stay together, remember? I don't want us to fall apart." Nayely all but pleaded as she repeated those words she had trusted in for all these years.

"We'd never fall apart, Yely. I don't know what I'd do without you." Easing her hold, Nayley gave MJ just enough room to look down into her eyes. "Is that what has you acting this way? Are you afraid we'll fall apart once the fall comes?"

To MJ, the fall meant the start of their college courses, but to Nayely, it held a much deeper meaning.

"The fall..."

Looking around, MJ realized that this wasn't the best place talk. Grabbing her hand, he maneuvered between the partygoers until he reached the front door. He had forgotten whose  house they were at exactly, but he was thankful that they were loaded enough to have a gazebo off to the side of the home. Leading Nayely there, he sat her on the wooden seat as he kneeled before her.

"Why haven't you mentioned any of this before? I knew that this would be difficult to deal with, but I didn't think it would happen so soon." Rocking their hands from side to side, MJ gripped hers tightly. "I'm sorry for not thinking more about what this would all mean. For both of us. But you know nothing could break what we have, Yely. Don't you believe that?"

"Nothing we've ever imagined before. But what happens if something wild and unexpected gnaws away at us?" She couldn't stop the words from falling out of her mouth. Wanting to clean up the confusion on his face, Nayely thought fast. "I mean, it's college, right? Things move fast. Time moves fast. We'll be 3300 miles away from each other. That's a long way."

"Yeah, it is." MJ admitted. "But the good thing is you and I can be the first and last mile whenever we want to see each other. Everything else in between doesn't really matter."

"The end and the beginning." Nayely smiled from her heart. The sadness that weighed on her could not go unnoticed.

"MJ-"

"Hey! Nayely! Girl, you've had my man tripping all day long, what's up with you?"

Any courage that she had was gone in an instant. She would be a liar if she said Kahlil and his interruption wasn't perfect timing.

"I'm good, really. I'm just a bit tired from last night. I was just stopping by to make sure everything was cool with us."

It wasn't a complete lie.

Maybe the words that had been left unsaid didn't need to have life breathed into them.

"We're cool." MJ reassured her as he stood to his feet, still grasping her hand.

"Don't tell me you're about to leave already. I just found you. MJ, why didn't you say something when she showed up?"

With a sly grin, MJ shrugged his shoulders. "I don't know I figured the cutie with the booty had you a little preoccupied."

"Hey, man, don't call her the cutie with the booty, alright? She's the shorty with the fat ass!" With a swift slap to the back of his head, Nayely shut Kahlil and his cackling up.

"Yeah, it's time for me to go."

"Come on, Nayely. You haven't even gotten a true feel for the night."

"I think I've gotten enough." Nayely smiled, happy to see that Kahlil wouldn't press the issue too much further. She still remembered him as the kid who had vied for her attention and forgiveness and knew that he understood when she had made her mind up.

"Kahlil, do you have the rubber or what?" From the front door, a voice called out unashamed. With a shit eating grin, Kahlil waved a golden wrapper before his friends.

"I'm about to get me more than enough, if you know what I mean?" He snorted.

Saying his goodbyes, Kahlil jogged back to the house. "Coming, baby girl!"

"Please tell me he didn't save that from the senior prank announcement board?" Nayely shook her head as he ran off.

"Let's hope not. I told him that if it was pinned to the board, he might not want to use it. Let's give it nine months." Sharing a look, Nayely and MJ laughed with one another.

"I know this isn't your thing, but can we meet up afterwards? We haven't really sat down together and soaked this all in. I don't think I'll be here for long."

"Sure, I'll see you at your window?" Thinking for a second, MJ shook his head no.

"How about I meet you at your place this time?"

"MJ it's not that serious-"

"That was rhetorical, Yely." MJ interrupted her before she could weasel out of this. "I'll hit you up beforehand, okay?"

"Whatever you say, boss." Scrunching up her nose, Nayely didn't put up a fight. Mirroring her face, MJ wrapped his arm around her neck.

"Come on, I'll walk you to the bus stop."

 

 

 

 

An hour and one transfer later, Nayely stood on the darkened street corner she visited just the night before. Looking at her phone, she checked to make sure there hadn't been any messages or missed calls from MJ.

Good.

If she was lucky, he would be at the party long enough for her to get this out of her system.

Nayely had spent nearly every waking moment pondering over the information she had learned from Mark Rowdy.

For years, she had managed to pack away detailed memories of everything that took place that night. The pain the laid dormant and the few remnants that managed to break through against her will were already too much to handle. Nayely had learned to keep her recollections and understanding of what had happen short and concise.

Her mother and brother were dead, and she was not.

Sometimes she wondered if she should thank her father or curse him for not finishing what he had started.

As a child, Nayely was shielded from information concerning what followed her family's slaying. She never ventured far enough in the city crime records or the internet to find out more and had resigned herself to living blissfully in ignorance.

When Mark pulled out the scratch book that revealed the beauty that was MJ's mother, she couldn't fight against the intrusive thoughts of her father once again.

The pain and reality of loss was easier to ignore when it came to her-but MJ? MJ wasn't her. MJ was the one person who made it easy to live in the now. Before everything had changed, Nayely had been the one who adopted him as her best friend during their Tae Kwon Do classes. When they met in the hospital, the roles had been quickly reversed. The first one to take a step towards her was MJ.

He had carried her all this way.

Taking in deep breaths, Nayely tried to process everything that had been thrown her way. For some reason, she felt dirtied by the revelation of her father's bloody deeds. If she could, she'd scrub right out of her skin if it meant separating herself from him and his sins.

That wish had brought her to Mark's street once again. If she couldn't get rid of the DNA that bound her to her father, then maybe she could find another way.

As Nayely had read through the account of the sole eyewitness to the night of Jerry and MJ's mother's death, she checked for any inconsistencies. If they were hyped up on drugs that night, then maybe there was something that was missing or exaggerated in the witness's story.

I'm not clearing his name. I'm not.

She promised herself as she began her slow walk towards Mark's. In her mind, she wasn't trying to cape for her father, to absolve him of his evil. That was something she knew could never be explained away. What she needed to know was that she could still look MJ in the eye without feeling responsible for the death of his mother. The more that she thought about it, the more her anxious thoughts told her she had no right to stand by him.

If he knew the truth, what would he do?

All she needed was to get an address, phone number, something from this witness. She had to check to make sure that everything she said was true. At that moment, it felt like her only chance of protecting her bond with the only person who mattered to her.

A hand ghosted to her neck, tracing the smooth scar down to her chest.

Nayely was not going to allow her father's actions to take her from anyone else ever again.

As Nayely walked past the naked Santa in Mark's yard, she felt a force pull her eyes to the bottle caps that served as his own. The vibration of her cellphone could be felt against her hip. Tucking it further down into the pocket, she made sure to silence it. Shifting her eyes up to the porch, she realized the area seemed darker than it did the night before. With no neighbors around and only one lone street light dozens of feet away, Nayely braved herself as she stepped to the door. When she raised her hand to knock, she realized that it was ajar enough for her to see inside the home. Against her better judgement, she pushed her fingertips against the warm wood.

Nayely could feel the thump of her pulse in the base of her ears as she took a step inside. She felt overcome by the sight before her. The further Nayely tried to move inside of the house, she heavier her feet became. Trudging through the madness that laid before her, Nayely covered her mouth as she looked at what remained of Mark Rowdy.

Lodged in his thighs were three pencils that led to his bare groin. Gazing at the man in such a naked and vulnerable stage was the least of Nayely's worries. It was the mesh of flesh, blood, and the unthinkable that spilled from his face that was truly concerning.

Nayely's knees nearly buckled as she could only imagine that she had something to do with this.

The moment that Mark had gained the name of the second assailant in Jerry's murder, he had taken to the streets, intent on gathering as much information as possible. Throughout his years of sleuthing for gossip and inside information, Mark had made his connections in the highest and lowest places throughout the city.

When he went asking about OT, there was no alarm as those who knew him figured Mark was looking for a nice high. It was when his questions continued to get more personal that alarms began to sound off throughout the community OT's reputation held captive. Mark parsed no words when he asked if OT often killed his buyers.

"I'm sure in this line of work, annoying customers can get the best of you! "

As he drafted up his next blog update, feeling invincible to the world he so often dabbled in, Mark was met by visitors more than happy to hear out his questions.

However, the answers they had were far from what he would have ever wanted.

The men that had come into his home demanded to know what had brought Mark putting his nose in business that had nothing to do with him. Under his duress, he was unable to give a name as he had no name of the teen who had shown up in his neighborhood unannounced. Before he could describe Nayely, he had been shot as he cried in a blubbering mess.

The floor was littered with torn paper, as Mark's visitors had emptied out his file cabinets, shredding as much paper as they could. On the work desk Mark had spent countless hours typing away at, she saw that his laptop had a single bullet hole in its black screen.

As Nayely looked around, she realized that she had been in the house longer than necessary. Tears caught in her throat as she backed up, suddenly tumbling into the pile of trash at her feet. The sound of her cell phone ringing dulled in her ears as she was only focused on escaping the house. Attempting to scramble to her feet, Nayely's hand slipped from beneath her, sending her rolling on her back. Catching her breath, Nayely realized that before her was the pink scrapbook that had held all the information for Jerry's case.

Peeking from the edge of the book as the now smudged drawing of OT and her father. Snatching it quickly, Nayely threw herself towards the front door.

 

 

Chapter 7 by ValleyofLight

 

MJ sat at the window sill of the girl's group home, waiting as Nayely's roommate came to the window.

"Hey, is Nayely here?"

The girl pressed her glasses up her nose as she shook her head. "No, I haven't seen her all night."

"Seriously?" MJ thought back to the last moment he had seen her boarding the bus. Could something have happened to her that fast?

"I hope she realizes this will be her second strike in two days if she's late for curfew. Who knows what punishment she'll have this time." The girl shrugged her shoulders as MJ thanked her, climbing his way down from the house. Pulling out his cell phone, he tried calling her, but was sent to voicemail after the first ring.

"Yely, what's up? I came by your room but you're not here. Call me back, please."

MJ checked his phone again, only to be disappointed for the fifth time in a row.

Yo, where u at?

Kahlil had even made it back after his graduation tryst before MJ was able to find Nayely.

Gonna b late. U got me?

Bet. If they ask, u had the runs all nite.

Rolling his eyes, MJ wondered why Kahlil couldn't think of a less embarrassing excuse to help him out. Knowing that he was going to be late for his curfew, MJ would take what he could get at this point. Anything would help if it meant he could focus on finding Nayely.

Making his way up the gravel driveway, MJ felt welcomed in the place he once called home. This was the one place where he and Nayely felt the most secure. It wasn't like her to flake on their plans or even ignore his calls, but the last 24 hours had shown him that something was off with her.

As MJ made his way into the abandoned building, he hoped that he would find her there, safe and sound.

Making a beeline for the safe place, MJ peered into the door, expecting to see her there. When he saw the scattered papers and bookbag on the ground, his hopes were high.

"Yely?" He called out as soon as he opened the door. The room was dark, but he knew his way. Walking to the palette on the ground, he found the flashlight she always made sure to bring.

"I've been calling and texting you all night. Why are you trying to ignore me?" Shining the flashlight around the room, MJ realized that she was nowhere in sight. Looking at each corner of the room, he was puzzled to be alone despite her belongings being there.

Nayely never left her things behind like this.

Shining the light towards his feet, MJ recognized the papers they had gathered for his mini investigation. When he had first asked Nayely for her help, she didn't hesitate to say yes. At one point, he had offered to help her find any answers that she may have had but was immediately shut down as she rejected the idea.

Instead, she had poured her everything into helping MJ, caring about his mother as if she were her own.

Frustrated, MJ pulled out his phone, setting the flashlight down as he attempted to call her again.

Voicemail, again.

Sifting through the chaotic papers, MJ tried to organize everything. He didn't know what was going on, but he was determined to find her. As he filled her bookbag, MJ jerked his hand back quickly as he sliced his finger on the paper.

"Shit..." Dropping what was in his hand, MJ tried to find what had cut him so deeply. As the blood rushed forward to his finger, droplets began to fall. Balling his fist, he tried to stop the bleeding before it got everywhere. Checking the papers, he saw that he hadn't been quick enough.

Wiping at a list of hurried notes, MJ's interest was piqued.

He had never seen these before.

Witness ID'd OT and daddy at the scene. Jerry and MJ's mom only ones killed that night. Contact witness for more info ASAP!!

In the blur that was the words on the page, MJ could barely make out what was written in the strangely sloppy handwriting. Had Nayely found out new information? Flipping the pages to find out more, out the corner of his eye, MJ could see something small and square fluttering to his lap. Reaching down to feel for the item as he continued to decipher Nayely's notes, his fingers stilled over the square as he realized what he held was a picture.

MJ's heart stopped as he gazed into the eyes of the woman he never thought he would see again.

Mom.

"This-how did she get this?" Pulling it closer, MJ inspected it as if he held the most precious finding in the world. In his memories, his mother's face had begun to fade. Sometimes, it felt as though he had to fight to recall her features. Her long, thick, black hair. The eyes which mirrored his own.

Her smile.

The same smile that he was now speechless from as he stared at the picture. It had been captured, forever frozen in time, and he couldn't be happier.

The glamour shot sent MJ back to his childhood, during the painfully short time he had his mother for. He remembered the day that the photo was taken as he gazed at the yellow dress that was her favorite. MJ accompanied his mother to the shoddy office where her photo had been taken for her official portfolio. She had been so happy that day, thinking that she was one step closer to leaving her job at the diner.

The last thread of MJ's strength broke as his sobs filled the room.

 

 

 

Nayely's lungs struggled to keep up with her as she sprinted towards The Rose House. In her sweaty palm, she gripped the sketches that she had to hide. Across the top of the pages, Mark had written Damien Polite and OT, finally giving the mysterious men their names.

She had to make sure that no one else could ever see who they really were. Because she had filled in the blanks for Mark, she had set in motion the events that had led to his premature death.

Speaking her father's name killed Mark.

It was her fault. If she hadn't gone to him, none of this would have ever happened.

The papers felt so hot in her hand, that she was sure they would burn a hole right through them.

Her mind had been so scattered that she was only brought back into reality when she smacked into MJ's solid chest. The impact threw Nayely back towards the ground, her vision blurred as she tried to blink her way through the dizziness and burning sensation running through her nose.

MJ's eyes were raw and red as he had watched Nayely blindly run into the room. When he stood up, he hadn't expected her to slam right into him. Bending over, he picked up papers she was carrying. Undoing the crumbled form, they had taken, MJ's face became red with anger.

"OT-you wrote this in those crazy notes you left behind. Is this a name? Is that what OT means?"

"Give that back!" Nayely shouted as she tried to reach for the sketches. "MJ, I'm not playing."

"Who is OT, Nayely? And-Damien Polite-" MJ's mind raced as he connected the dots.

"Damien Polite is your father." He didn't need to ask for confirmation. MJ had never met anyone else with the last name Polite. He had always thought it was such a fitting name for Nayely, but here he stood realizing that name was no longer pure.

"MJ-Hold on, okay? I just need to take a minute and-"

"No!" He screamed, throwing the papers in her face." You're not the one who needs to know anything. I need to know the truth. I need to know whatever it is you've been trying to hide from me!"

"I'm not hiding anything from you, MJ..."

"Yes, you are! You've been acting crazy all day and I'm tired of it!" MJ's voice billowed throughout the building so loud that Nayely wondered if anyone could hear him.

Tears streamed down her face as she feared the look on his. This was what she had been trying to avoid. The look of anger and confusion that burned into her.

"I-I-" She stammered. There was a sinking filling in the pit of her stomach that weighed her down.

"This isn't something you need to know. MJ please, just-"

"What do they have to do with my mom?" Pushing her photo in front of Nayely, MJ did not want to hear anything if it wasn't an answer.

"I don't know-I mean-I'm not sure."

"You're lying! You wrote about them! You said something about a witness and them being there when my mom was killed. What aren't you telling me, Nayely?" Grabbing her by the shoulders, he pleaded with her to tell him whatever it was she knew." I have the right to know. She's my mom!"

Nayely clenched her teeth at the feeling of his fingers digging into her bare arms as MJ was unaware of his grip. Placing her hand on his wrist, she endured the pain, feeling that she deserved it.

"I can't lose you, MJ." Sucking in a breath of air, Nayely dared to meet his eyes." I thought that if you knew it would only hurt you." Placing her smaller hand over his, she squeezed it until she knew bruises would be left in their place. "Just take it out on me, please. I'll take it all, MJ."

Pushing away, MJ began to feel his head spin as he tripped over his feet. Struggling to keep his balance, he placed as much distance as possible between him and Nayely.

"Where is he? Do you know?" He pleaded in a way that broke Nayely's heart more than she thought anything ever could.

This was it. This would be how they fell apart.

"I swear that I don't know. Please don't ask me anymore about him. It will only bring bad things."

"What more could he do? He murdered my mother! He took her from me!"

"No! You don't understand!"

"Then help me!"

Nayely's uneven breathing made it difficult to get her words out as she thought back to what she had seen in Mark's house.

"I found a site of a guy who writes stuff on celebrities-or at least he used to. He had stuff on the Jerry guy, and I thought he was just bullshitting, but then he posted this witness's story and I didn't want to believe it, but I was still afraid that it was true. I knew OT's name, but they didn't have the name of the other guy that was there. I-I went to this guy's house last night, and he showed me your mom's picture and the sketches and-and-everything began to move too fast. I couldn't think."

The words spilled from Nayely as she could feel the life being sucked from her the moment MJ's hands fell from her arms.

"I wanted to get the picture for you. I thought that you should be the one who had it, but he wouldn't give it unless I gave up some information. When he showed me the sketches-I knew right away. I told him and-and everything was ruined."

MJ's body trembled as he held his head in his hands, the ache from crying becoming unbearable. "No, everything was ruined the moment your dad killed my mom." His voice shook.

"MJ, I know what this means for you, I swear to you! But you can't say anything about this to anyone, please. I don't have the right to ask you for anything, but I need this from you."

Slapping away the hand that raised to his cheek, MJ's eyes burned with betrayal.

"Are-are you trying to protect him? That murderer?" He asked in disbelief.

"No! I'm trying to protect you, MJ!"

"Or what? You'll tell him I know and then have him come and kill me too? "MJ's words were biting, hitting Nayely in the heart as she closed her eyes at the thought.

"I would never do that, MJ. I haven't seen or talked to my father in years, you know that." She said timidly, not wanting to speak of him in any way for fear of who may hear.

"How do I know you're not lying about that either? You know, I've never asked you anything about your past, yet you know everything about mine. You even knew the things that have fucked with my mind since I was 5 years old. The things that gave me the nightmares I always tried to hide." Shaking his head, MJ's voice began to sound hoarse with emotion.

"What do I know about you? You've never talked to me about yourself and I respected that but now I can see why you keep that a secret."

MJ's sense of trust began to fall apart inside. Had Nayely hidden the truth about who she was all this time?

"Don't say that like I have a reason to protect my father. I'm telling you that I didn't know about any of this MJ, how could I? I've been with you since that night, too."

"And why is that?"

"I-I can't MJ-"

"Can't do what, Nayely? Did your parents run off trying to protect his ass and dump you off on the side of the road?"

"It's nothing like that!"

"I'm starting to think it's exactly like that. While my mom has been rotting in the ground, your dad's been living his life like he didn't end hers."

Nayely wanted to scream. None of this was true, but MJ couldn't help but jump to conclusions. She had been hurt too, she just couldn't tell him how. With her silence, she allowed for MJ to believe whatever he wanted, it wasn't like he would be wrong in thinking so little of her. She shared blood with the monster who had changed MJ's life.

Standing to his full height, a ghostly paleness found its place on MJ's face.

"Please just say you were going to tell me everything. If you're telling the truth, you would have told me, right?"

The hesitation in Nayely's response was all he needed.

"Wait-where are you going?" Nayely followed behind him as he walked towards the door.

As he coasted to the door, she tried to pull him back to stop him from leaving.

"No, no, no. MJ, you can't leave like this." She said through a fresh wave of tears. "Please don't leave like this! Hit me! Cuss at me! Do whatever you want, just don't leave." Wrapping her arms around his waist, Nayely cried into his back.

MJ put up no resistance to her hold, slowly glancing down to the hands that clung to him desperately.

"Please don't let him do this to us. He's hurt us both MJ and I don't want it to happen again. I don't want him to be the reason we fall apart. You promised me that would never happen."

Nayely's sobs warmed MJ's back as her face soaked through his shirt.

"You were going to keep lying to me, Nayely. If I didn't come here tonight, who knows if you would have ever told me the truth."

Sniffling, Nayely shook her head." I don't want anything to happen to you. I didn't know what you would have done if you knew. I couldn't see anyone else be hurt because of this." Thinking back to the fate that Mark had been given, Nayely felt it was necessary to keep this from MJ. With him knowing, she couldn't take the chance of him trying to seek revenge on his own.

"I still remember the way she felt...the way she looked before she died. I never thought that anything else in this world could hurt as much as losing her did. I was wrong." Prying Nayely's hands from his waist, MJ's throat tightened as he kept his back turned from her.

"You've got it all wrong. Your dad isn't the one who ruined this. Your dad was the one who brought us together in a sick twisted way." MJ let out a humorless laugh as he thought of their situation. "No. You lied to me, and you were going to keep lying to me no matter what."

As MJ looked over his shoulder, Nayely's heart stopped at the torn sadness she could see within them.

"You're the one who ruined us."

When Nayely lost the strength in her arms to hold him any longer, her body stood deathly still as her inner emotions warred with her will, begging her to chase after him.

As his words hit her over and over again, Nayely could feel her soul take its last breaths.

 

 

"This is the moment we have all been waiting for, ladies and gentlemen. Nayely Polite, the American star will be running to secure her reign as the best female runner in the world. A decorated Olympian and respected all throughout the world of sports, let's see what she can do here at the 2017 World Championships."

Nayely moved in silence as she prepared to take her spot at the starting block in lane 5.

"Let's not forget this is the only female athlete who has managed to come close to the late great Flo-Jo with a 200-meter finish of 21.44 at the 2016 Olympics. All eyes are on Nayely Polite as the world waits to see what she can do here today."

"I'll tell you what, between Polite in lane 5 and Cheyenne Johnson in lane 3, the world will get to witness our very own clash of the titans. While both are members of Team USA, there's no denying the healthy unspoken competition between the two. With Johnson trailing Polite in numbers, it will be interesting to see who comes out on top here in London."

Her mind was focused on the steps she would take to victory. Taking deep breaths, Nayely tuned out all the distractions in the stadium. Glancing to her right, Nayely saw the hardened face of her coach, Terrence. His dark skin shined beneath the sun as he gave her one curt nod. Nayely's nerves calmed as she returned the gesture, following behind the other competitors, Nayely fixed herself into position.

Her heart beat steady against her chest.

"Set."

Lifting herself into the air, Nayely channeled the deepest parts of her spirit that brought her this far. All of the fears that nipped at her heels kept her moving through life, pounding away her feelings with every stride she took.

When the sound of the gun rang throughout the stadium, she was moved by only one word.

Go!

"And there's the gun in the 200! Johnson and Polite are off with Polite having a terrific start. We saw this same prowess in the semifinal round. Polite is storming through with no problems what so ever."

"Cheyenne Johnson and everyone else on this field is responding to the bar that has been set by Polite."

"Polite is holding the lead at the bend, but not without the challenge from Johnson!"

"Look at this! Johnson made up for lost ground but Polite is showing us just how to get to the top! Polite is drawing in to the finish!"

Nayely's feet moved as if she were running on air, the adrenaline in her coursed throughout her body as the end was near.

"My God! With the undefeated world record of 21.34 by Florence Griffith-Joyner standing on its own mountain for nearly 30 years, Nayely Polite is knocking at its door. You saw it here folks, with a time of 21.36, Nayely Polite has done it again! She has shown the world who she is!"

The stadium erupted into cheers as the excitement took over. Nayely didn't know what was happening until she felt herself being lifted into the air.

"That's what the hell I'm talking about!" Terrence held the woman close as the camera crews circled them, capturing the heartfelt embrace by the coach and athlete. The slight push she gave at his shoulders helped to separate her from her coach so that she could have a moment to herself. Nayely held her head in her hands as she attempted to soak in what was happening. Pushing her hands into her hair, she tossed back her signature waist length curls and coils as she waved to the crowd. She could hear the affectionate nickname fans of the sport coined for her long ago.

"Cloud! Cloud! Cloud!"

From the way her hair defied all odds as it surrounded her in a pillow of coils, to the way her legs moved as if she only existed high in the sky walking on clouds, she represented what many people believed to be the best of the best.

In their eyes, you couldn't get any higher than Nayely.

Leading her off, Terrence couldn't get enough of the high he felt from watching one of the best runners in the world, knowing that he was able to be by her side as she knocked down obstacle after obstacle. A look of devotion washed over him as he held back the feelings he knew would blur the line between the coach and athlete.

"Where did that come from, Nayely? You just don't know when to stop, huh?" Terrence had seen it all when it came to Nayely, and his admiration was never ending. After today, he was left speechless as she once again proved what she could do.

With her hands on her hips, all Nayely could do was smile as she moved to the post-race interview.

"Never have. Never will." She called over her shoulder as the camera trained on her face. Stepping to the interviewer, Nayely put on her best smile.

 

"MJ! Look over here! MJ!"

"Danny Rose, MJ! Looking good!"

"Can we get a kiss?" MJ's smile never faltered as the photographers swarmed the couple. Wrapping his arm around her slim waist, he pulled the blonde closer, delivering a lingering kiss to her cheek. Danny's smile widened as she reached around to cup his face. MJ wasn't ignorant to the perfect pose they gave as fans surrounding the walkway cried out. Some giggled as all their fantasies of the two castmates played out right before their eyes while others were not afraid to hide their disappointment in having their personal bubbles burst where they thought they had a fighting chance to capture the heart of one of the stars.

Pulling back slightly, Danny's eyes cut to MJ's. She found herself falling into his hazel orbs and was reminded of the ride to the comic con.

"You still smell like me." Trailing her thumb across her lip, she leaned in so that only he could hear her. "So sweet." With a squeeze to her hip, MJ moved them along to meet the other cast and crew members. When his eyes met those of his greatest skeptic, MJ pulled Danny closer.

"Okay you two, don't give it all away here. We still have the panel to get through." Kahlil's words were terse as they always were when he was forced to witness MJ and Danny together. He wasn't a hater-MJ could do whatever he wanted as he was a grown man. However, Kahlil wasn't particularly fond of the influence the two stars had on each other. The pair had worked on previous projects together, and their names drew crowds. Knowing that he had no choice but to go with studio executives and the pressure they placed on the pick for the female lead in the film they were all there to promote, he couldn't wait for this round of promotional touring to be over.

 

As the most buzzworthy headliner at the convention, there was a media frenzy surrounding the film. Everyone present had to be at the top of their game to keep the momentum going. Throughout the years, Kahlil had grown to be the person in MJ's life who knew him the best, so when he walked past with dilated pupils and his charming smirk, it took everything in him to not push his arm away as it draped across his shoulders. Everyone in the industry and fandom knew of their history and closeness, so showing his complete disdain for MJ's extracurricular interests that remained unknown to the rest of the world would only cause problems none of them needed at a time like this.

The muffled sounds of the convention did little to distract him from the quick swipe Danny took at her nose as she held hands with the second female lead, walking ahead. Pushing his hands into his jeans, Kahlil convinced himself to holdout on the anger and irritation that bubbled.

When it finally came time for the film's panel, MJ was able to take control like a true star. Carrying the energy of the group, he captivated everyone in the room as the host asked him question after question. Even when it showed that there was a slight bias in directing most of the conversation his way, MJ was able to maneuver around this, getting the rest of the cast involved.

Sitting on the ground beside two fawning fans, MJ sat through the official sneak peek trailer that was shown to the crowd. Gasps and screams filled the room at each turn, and when his face showed on the screen, it was as if the sound barrier was being challenged by the screaming fans.

When a capture of his face closing in to Danny's played on the screen, he could feel her eyes on him as the room erupted once again. As the lights began to fill the darkness, everyone's attention was on the stare down between the two actors.

"I guess it's safe to say the critics were right. Can you guys feel the electricity between them, or what?" The host asked the crowd, drawing laughs as Danny shook her head, covering her mouth in embarrassment.

Clapping with the crowd, MJ stood to his feet and made his way back to the stage.

Sitting on the edge of the stage, he dangled his feet in the air.

"What can I say? This film proved to me what it means to have the support and strength of some of the best talent in this industry. The relationship we all have as a team is unlike anything else I've ever experienced. I'm nothing compared to the people on this stage and I just hope that when you see this film, I can measure up in your eyes."

Sounds of encouragement and respect spilled from the crowd as he made his way to stand by the others as they took their bow.

 

"Nayely, we should take a pic for the gram." Looping her thumbs through the straps of her backpack, Nayely leaned towards the younger woman who walked beside her. Over the years, she had shown her lack of interest in the game of social media, but after taking Maya onto her team two years ago, she was all but forced into accepting the lifestyle.

Nayely watched the view finder as her dimpled smile was captured as they made their way through the airport.

"Nice!" Maya exclaimed as she tossed her shoulder length locs to one side. "I don't even need a filter on this, it's so perfect." As she typed out a caption, she turned her eyes up to Nayely who stood 6 inches above her 5'2 stature. "Now, if only you would upload some pics to your own account. 4.6 million followers and only 1 picture after a whole year. Who does that?" She said still astonished that her numbers remained so high.

Playfully rolling her eyes, Nayely took her spot at the carousel next to Terrance as he reached for the last of their luggage. Rolling the bags to the ladies, his eyes connected with Nayely's just as his phone began to ring. Retrieving it from his pocket, his smile faltered as he recognized his wife's name across the screen. Without a second thought, he silenced it before putting it away.

"The rep from Nike reached out to me again. They sent over a PDF for the design session. I only read over it briefly, but I think there was something that mentioned filming a segment to go along with the official release-"

"When did you receive that? I didn't get any word on that." Maya looked to Terrance confused as she typically handled communications for Nayely as her personal assistant.

"Don't worry about it. We go way back, so he must have reached out to me out of habit, I'll forward it to you-"

"Are y'all really talking about work right now? If you didn't realize it, the moment I stepped off that plane I entered chill mode. Can we please discuss this later?" Interrupting the conversation, she looked to the two closest people on her team for their cooperation.

"I feel you girl." Looking at her rose gold watch, Maya cleared her throat." Since I am officially off the clock let me say that I am happy to have this vacation. Cause girl! It's been a ride..." Rubbing her neck, Maya's antics managed to pull a small smile from Nayely.

As they made their way outside, the sun warmed Nayely's face. Before her sat a black SUV with a lithe gentleman smiling upon seeing the trio.

"Ms. Polite." He called out with a nod.

Greeting the man who had driven her on many occasions, Nayely couldn't get over the embarrassed feeling she had knowing that Terrance had called him as her personal driver.

"You didn't think to run this by me?" She asked as she turned to the man who ignored her obvious disapproval. Taking her bags from her, he left no room to contest as he moved to place them in the vehicle.

"What? This is easier than waiting on a cab. You shouldn't have to do that."

"I-"

"Oh! There's my ride." Maya tapped Nayely on the arm as she pulled her in for a hug. Over her shoulder, Nayely watched as Maya's girlfriend walked over. The dark skinned beauty gave a wave to Nayely as they had become acquainted over the years through Maya. Standing on her tip toes, Maya delivered kiss after kiss to her lips as her girlfriend rolled her eyes.

"Oh Maya, you'd think you were away for months with the way you're acting."

"Two weeks was long enough!" She exclaimed. Wrapping her arm around her girlfriend's she gave her last wave to Nayely as they made their way to her car.

"You ready?" Terrance's hand touched the small of Nayely's back, causing her to jump forward out of surprise. Turning her back away from Terrance, she created distance between them as she placed her hands into her sweatpants. She didn't miss the intimate touch he gave her, making it apparent that after all the time they had shared together, he was adamant on not respecting the boundaries she had asked for long ago.

In her memory sat the time when he had thought that their closeness needed to be explored. Instead of parting ways, fearful of a conflict of interest, Nayely figured that keeping him on her team was for the best. She had forgiven him for what he had done and had only requested that he never give her a reason to remember the night she had pushed into the back of her mind. After 8 years together, she had convinced herself to hold on to him despite the hiccup in their relationship.

"Yeah, let's head out."

 

Chapter 8 by ValleyofLight
Author's Notes:

Thanks for waiting! As always, please let me know what you think by dropping a review. They're always appreciated =)

 

Nayely circled her large island as she entered her kitchen. It was week 2 of her break and she was in no rush to do much of anything. Still clothed in her sweaty workout gear from earlier that morning, she searched her fridge for the premade smoothies she always started her day with. Pulling out the green pouch, she tipped it back, downing half with no problem. Leaning back on the island, she looked through her open floor plan house that was bathed in sunlight from the floor to ceiling windows in her living room.

She watched her TV mindlessly as a morning show sounded through her home.

"We welcome you back to Morning Breeze with the hottest name in the entertainment world, MJ Park!" The sudden name caused Nayely to suddenly crush the pouch, shooting the contents onto her shirt as she froze. Moving quickly, she managed to make it to the remote controller before another word could be uttered. Shutting it down, she kept her eyes from meeting the ones she refused to meet even through the screen.

Without realizing it, Nayely's chest fell and rose rapidly as she clenched her teeth. The soft sounds of her breathing helped to center herself as she took off her shirt. With most of her breakfast on the front of her clothes, she figured that this was a good enough excuse to venture out for food that would be more fulfilling.

 

 

Danny licked her lips as she threw her head back. With both feet planted on either side of MJ's body, she rode him to ecstasy.

"Fuck, baby!" She cooed as his grip tightened on her thin waist. Slipping her middle and ring finger into her mouth, Danny sucked and moaned as he filled her over and over. When she brought her hand down to his own mouth, her wrist was captured by MJ before she could. Closing his eyes, he drove himself into her until the tightness in his balls told him he had finally reached his peak. Just as Danny shrieked into the air, MJ gritted his teeth together while his own release washed over him. Slowly, he could feel Danny's body shudder as she dug her face into his chest. Falling to the side, Danny palmed her breast as the sounds of the TV came through.

"Let's just say I have not seen this many smiles in the studio before. Could you have something to do with that?"

"I hope so. I love to bring a smile to beautiful faces." MJ flirted with the older female anchor as he held her hand in his own.

"God, you know just what to do, don't you?" Danny snorted as she watched the interaction on the TV. Standing from the bed, MJ removed the condom from his body as he made his way to bathroom. The smell of a cigarette wafted through the door behind him as he began his shower.

"Danny--" He stepped across the threshold to give her a disapproving look.

"What?" She asked feigning ignorance.

With the raise of his brow, he brooked no argument as she snuffed out the smoke.

"I can't believe that of all things, cigarette smoke bothers you." Scooting to the edge of his bed, Danny's legs drifted open intentionally. Walking towards her, MJ placed her face between his hands. Her blonde brows sat above deep blue eyes that MJ had drowned himself in on more than one occasion.

"You know the rules, so why must you break them?"

"Rules are useless against me. I've already helped to break a few of them. If it wasn't for me, you'd truly be a bore." Laying her hands at his waist, tempting the loose towel there, Danny rolled her eyes when he thwarted her attempt.

She was right. MJ had lived for years on a strict path to get him to where he was.

No relationships with cast mates.

No reckless behavior.

No publicity stunts.

But most importantly?

No drugs.

Within three years he managed to fail at each turn. Looking to his dresser, MJ wasn't proud to see the metal sheet covered in fingerprints from the night before. Most of his memories with Danny were drug induced to enhance the experiences he had with her. When they had met, Danny helped to crack a part of him that he never knew existed. They were both adults, yet somehow Danny's own depravity had fed off the dissonance MJ funneled into his deepest cracks.

"What makes me a woman? Strength, power, confidence." The sound of the voice coming from the TV caused MJ to still. As his hands fell from Danny's, he could feel his heartbeat quicken as his muscles seemed to clench defensively throughout his body. Lowering his eyes, he allowed them to drift to the sound of the television, frozen by what awaited him..

He watched as the camera seemed to caress the taut skin of Nayely's body as she was donned in the latest athleisure wear she had become the face for. With the final shot of her looking over her shoulder towards the camera, MJ felt himself being jolted to the worst time in his life.

"You're the one who ruined us."

"Hello! MJ?" Drawn back to reality, MJ ignored the questioning look on Danny's face as she repeated her question.

"I said, should I join you in the shower? Maybe you need some help." Coasting her fingers over the dark hairs that trailed below his navel, MJ recoiled from her touch.

"Don't bother." Knowing that he had planned to be in and out, he escaped her offer, closing the door behind him.

Jumping in, he allowed the hot water to cascade down his body, washing away the tremors that threatened to shake him to the core.

 

Hopping from his G-Wagon, MJ pulled his cap closer as he watched paparazzi slink along the street, attempting to get the best shot as possible without being too obvious. Scratching at the stubble on his jaw, he crossed the street hoping to get away into the popular brunch spot. As he waited to be seated, he drowned out the sounds of the other patrons as they took notice of who he was.

MJ had foolishly assumed that he had mastered the ability to forget about Nayely. It was nearly impossible to avoid seeing or hearing about the woman who had become such a pillar in the sports world. These days, sports and entertainment crossed over in many ways, so seeing her face on the side of a building, or on TV wasn't abnormal.

Did it make his commitment of purging her that much harder? Of course. He always believed that nothing could break his resolve, but the moment it became inevitable that he would have to face and experience her just as others, he folded.

The young hostess who eyed him couldn't hide her excitement upon seeing MJ. She wasn't ashamed to admit that she quickly bypassed the names of customers who stood outside waiting in order to seat the star as soon as possible.

"Mr. Park! Right this way!" She called out. She stashed away the phone she had used to take photos of his private moment as he stood to follow. Tossing her jet-black hair across her shoulder, she couldn't hold back as she began to speak at the speed of lightning.

"I just want to say that it is so inspirational to see someone like you on TV. I never thought I'd be able to see another Korean as a superstar, yet here you are. I truly love your work. I've acted since I was a kid, and I hope one day I'll be recognized like you." She managed to give her impromptu elevator speech in the time it took to walk him to the table.

Placing his hand on her back, MJ took off his glasses.

"I'm grateful to have people like you watching and cheering me on. It lets me know that what I do means something." Pointing to the cell phone she held in her hand, he asked for permission to take it with a nod of his head.

"Oh! I'm not really allowed to take pictures."

"Don't worry, I'll take it for you." Taking the phone from her warm hands, MJ swiped up to access her camera. Snapping a few for good measure, he handed it over with a smile as he was seated at one of the more secluded spots of the restaurant.

When a fresh cup of black coffee was brought his way, he looked up to see the table across from him. On top was a polished brown hand that gripped the wooden surface as the rest of its owner's body was hidden underneath.

Absentmindedly waiting for the rest of the person to make their appearance, MJ's vision was blocked as a waiter stopped between the tables.

"Good morning! Welcome to Lono's. Is this your first time here?" With eyes drifting up to the waiter's, MJ began to place his order.

"See! I told you that was her! It's Nayely Polite!"

"Bruh, get the fuck out-hey, get your phone before she leaves."

"I knew she was thick but, damn! You think I can get at her?"

"Yeah, alright. I'm not going to save you when your ass ends up embarrassed."

MJ's attention was torn away as he heard the camera going off. Looking to his left, he missed the figure with her head down as she passed through the restaurant on his opposite side. Following their gaze to the table in front of him, he saw that it was now vacant. With his head on a swivel, MJ turned around quickly looking to catch a glimpse of the woman he swore he would never think of again.

What was going on today?

Against the pleas that came from the hidden MJ who had forced himself into living a pain filled life devoid of the person he had sworn off, the MJ who acted on impulse found himself ignoring the waiter as he stood from his seat, retracing his steps towards the door.

"Is everything ok, Mr. Park?" The hostess called out as he ran out the door. MJ's focus rested solely on finding the woman who he had turned his back on years ago. MJ thought he would be released from the hold that the devastation he had felt had on him, but he quickly discovered that he would never feel peace without being numb.

A photographer who had been busy staking out the perfect window to capture close shots of MJ was surprised to find him racing past as he darted into the road. Taking as many pictures as he could, he watched as MJ came close to colliding with the hood of a car, it's owner laying on the horn at his disregard for safety.

MJ followed the woman whose figure was oddly familiar to him. Her tall frame was supported by muscles that had been honed over time into creating arguably one of the best athletes in the world. Nayely moved with swift ease through the parking lot, oblivious to the man who pursued her.

Nayely.

Gaining ground, MJ found himself so close, he was afraid she'd hear his labored breaths. His hand was raised ever so slightly as if he was waiting for the right chance to place it on her shoulder, turning her around so that they could be face to face.

What then? What was he searching for by following her like this?

Thinking quickly, MJ made a beeline for his own car, ducking off just as she made it to hers. In his rear-view mirror, he watched as she sat in the front seat of a simple KIA Optima. When her eyes raised to the windshield, MJ ducked down, not realizing that there was no way she could recognize him. MJ chastised himself in the same breath as he subconsciously started his engine. Reason and sanity were no longer present as he trailed behind Nayely's own vehicle.

As he realized he had merged onto the highway, MJ had a brief moment of clarity.

What the fuck am I doing?

MJ had every opportunity possible to stop where he was, before he got in way over his head. Yet, after a nearly 30-minute drive, he continued to roll behind Nayely at what he hoped was a safe distance as they made it towards what looked like a serene neighborhood. His memory was imprinted with the scenes around him, noting that this couldn't have been a community filled with millionaires. He watched as driveways were filled with people laughing and greeting each other, preparing for summer barbecues as the smell of charcoal filled the air.

Turn after turn, his curiosity only grew as he watched some people wave at the car before him. Their eyes turned suspiciously towards his own car as it stuck out like a sore thumb. Gripping the wheel tighter, MJ slowly began to ease to the side of the road once he noticed Nayely's car finally pulling into the driveway of a one-story home. From what he could tell, the home had had some modifications done to it, but nothing extravagant in nature.

As the garage door began to raise, Nayely's car suddenly stopped. MJ's suspicions told him that she must have seen him lurking nearby as he pulled back further into his seat. With baited breath, he thought of what he would do if she were to get out the car, confirming his fears of being discovered. However, the moment he watched her car move into the garage with the door closing behind, he became filled with relief and common sense as he pulled away from the house.

MJ's skin was flushed with anxiety as he sped away. While he was wrapped up in his thoughts, MJ had almost missed the phone call from his manager. Unknowingly, it was the 15th call he'd received from her in the last hour.

"Where the hell have you been? You've got to stop turning your notifications off when you're alone, MJ!" The urgency in Christina's voice was not lost on MJ. Over the years, he had become accustomed to her high-strung nature. Though he was sure others would be against having a manager who seemed to always be on the verge of a nervous breakdown, he had found that was just the way Christina worked best. The possibility of her new concern taking his attention away was welcomed as he placed his hands to his thumping temples.

"What's up, Christina?"

"A lot-MJ-a lot. If you had your phone on, then you would have known just how much. I've been freaking out trying to figure out how to get around this bullshit while you just seem to be living in bliss!"

The mild curse that came from Christina's mouth told MJ that whatever she had to say was much more serious than he thought as she had always been a straight-laced person for as long as he knew her. He prepared himself for whatever she had to say.

"Calm down, Christina. I can't understand anything when you ramble. What happened?"

"Danny happened!" The shrill volume her voice reached couldn't hide the frustration she had been feeling behind the aforementioned suspect. "Every time I think that we've reached a good point free from drama, she manages to stir something up not just for her, but for us too!"

MJ racked his brain for what could have possibly happened between the time he left Danny in his apartment to see herself out to now.

"Did something happen to her? I was just with her this morning." Picking up his phone, MJ went to his notifications, seeing that he had been flooded with updates from all over. His social media, email, and phone log had been bombarded in his brief absence.

Glancing from the road to his phone, MJ quickly found a place to pull over as the small glimpses he had made through his messages became worse by the minute.

‘Danny Rose Exposes Her Thorns!'

‘Asshole Of The Year Award Goes to Danny Rose!'

The links he had been mentioned in burned with excitement at the latest scandal his girlfriend had managed to find herself in.

"Where are these from? I'm not reading anything from a gossip site, Christina, you know better than that."

"Don't worry about where the articles are coming from, worried about why they were made. Apparently, this morning a bereaved former assistant released a video of Danny. She was even on a radio show hyping it's release up and now it's everywhere." Christina recounted.

"A video? What kind of video could have made this much noise?"

"The kind of video that the current face of Asian actors wouldn't want his lily white girlfriend caught in! I can't say anything more but to see it for yourself." Almost instantly, a new message appeared from Christina of a video with Danny's face clearly in the thumbnail.

"Shit." MJ whispered as the video began to play.

"How many times do I have to fucking tell you to do it right?"

"Ma'am, I'm not sure what you want-"

"I want you to fix what you fucked up! Look at it!" Danny stood from the rolling chair to shove her hand into the face of the older nail technician. The worker inspected the nail that had caused the scene. Shaking her head from side to side, the woman had no idea what she was supposed to discover on the 5th inspection of the nail.

"Nothing's wrong! I've done like you asked many times now!"

"No you haven't, you lying bitch. Open those fucking eyes of yours and look! You think I'm wasting my time here because I want to?" Slapping the woman against the cheek, Danny roughly pushed her to the ground. Just then, a younger man rushed to the side of the technician.

"You've got to go, or we'll call the police!"

"Are you threatening me?"

"You just assaulted her!"

Scoffing in towards the camera person, Danny seemed to almost make eye contact with the camera as she spoke into it.

"They're going to call the police on me? Let's see how that works out when they find a bunch of illegals in the back. Let's see!" She turned shouting towards the workers. Everyone who fell in the range of the camera appeared to be distressed and disturbed by what was going on.

"Go ahead, where's your phone?" Stomping towards the main counter, Danny picked up the wireless phone throwing it at the young man's head. "Call the police right now and I'll tell them that you're running a shitty business! Who do you think they're going to believe, me or a bunch of chin-"

"God, that's like the thousandth time I've had to sit through that. I swear if I could just get my hands on her--!"

"I've got to go." MJ interrupted her as his eyes narrowed at the phone he gripped in his hand.

"Wait, wait, wait! Where are you going? You need to lay low right now because right now they're dragging you right alongside her online. We don't need anything getting out before an official address is made. They've put a gag on Danny for the time being, and I frankly think you should do the same just to be safe. We can't get in front of this so now we have to play it smart. MJ?"

With no response, Christina was surprised by the sudden dial tone as MJ raced home.

 

When Nayely had pulled into her driveway, the small content she had felt from the fullness in her belly turned into an ache as she laid eyes on the red sports car that sat inside her garage. Her body froze with confusion and anger as she tried to figure out where Terrence seemed to pull his disrespect from. Pulling out her phone, she had been sure that she had locked her home.

To her dismay not only did she see the notification showing that she had armed her home before leaving, she also saw that soon after an unwelcomed visitor had undone the system. Easing into the garage, Nayely grabbed her belongings hurriedly as she was overwhelmed with the need to throttle the man inside. She had intentionally changed her security information just before the London trip, as she had been plagued with unwanted visits by Terrence before. This time, she would be sure to speak with the company so that she could get to the bottom of how he managed to slip by this time.

As she made her presence known, Nayely used the short time she had in the hallway to steel herself before facing off with Terrence. He had a knack for drawing whatever reaction he wanted from her, and no matter what, he would smile and laugh things off with amusement. Nayely wasn't sure how she hadn't dropped dead from the stress he had caused her by now.

Rounding the corner into her living room, she clenched her teeth when she saw his feet propped comfortably against her ottoman, flipping through the channels on TV.

"Where have you been this morning? I've been waiting for the last hour."As if nothing was wrong, Terrence tossed his lack of a greeting over his shoulder as Nayely charged forth. With a swift kick, she tossed his legs from her ottoman as she stood in the way of the TV.

"Hello, are you the owner of this house?" Looking around, Nayely narrowed her eyes. "Car in the garage, feet on the furniture... did I miss something?" Placing her hands on her hips, Nayely waited as he dragged his eyes down her form unabashedly. "Terrence!"

"Come on, Nayely. This ain't nothing new!"

"How did you get into my house?"

Reaching around her to turn off the TV, Terrence took his time as he stood to his feet. Standing nearly eye to eye with Nayely, his aura made him seem like a giant. For just a moment, Nayely nearly shrank back, but she stood her ground. She had ignored so much due to the moral guilt that she had been plagued with for nearly 8 years, but this-this was crossing the line.

"You already know the deal. What's yours is mine." The low tone he had taken made Nayely ball her fists together.

"What's mine, is mine." Walking around to the backside of the couch, Nayely waved her hand towards Terrence. "If you lasted two weeks without bothering me, then I'm sure you can take just one more." As she tried to encourage him down the hallway towards the garage, Terrence rooted himself where he was.

"You know, I was going to give you your little time away, but when you ignored my calls, texts, and emails, I had to come through and see what's up."

"When I said no contact, I meant it. Now, please go. Save whatever you have for when it's time." Nayely couldn't deny that she ignored Terrence during her break-it was nothing new. She had no problem disconnecting when she had personal time. Everyone who had gotten to know her knew what it meant to her and adjusted accordingly. Everyone except for Terrence.

"It's always time for money, Nayely. Money can't stop and wait for you to come back to reality."

"I'm not exactly hurting for much, I'll take my time when I want it. That's the way it is." Nayely turned her head when she heard the soft chuckling coming from Terrence.

"See, this is why you need me around. You get a couple mil here and there and then get comfortable. Don't worry though. I got you. I always will." The smile on his face led Nayely to believe that whatever he had to talk about needed little input from her.

"What have you gotten me into?" Since blurring the lines of coach and manager, Terrence's greed born from Nayely's fame had only grown and placed her in complicated situations. Oftentimes it was nearly impossible to find her way out of obligations, but that didn't mean she wouldn't try.

"Opportunity. Exposure. Wealth. That's what I've gotten you into. Don't act brand new." The playful demeanor Terrence had slipped away as business came forth. "Remember the shoe deal I told you about? I'm sure if you had seen my messages you'd know that I've entered us into the contract."

"Us?" Terrence's habit of including them both into situations as if they carried an equal weight was clear.

"You're doing this campaign, Nayely. I'm not trying to hear anything from you about it other than excitement. You're about to have so many people across the country-across the world-thinking they can be as good as you when they lace these sneakers up. Next week, you'll be meeting with designers to brainstorm on the image. They want you apart of this and-"

"Stop right there. If I didn't hear from Maya about this, then-"

"Maya doesn't have anything to do with this. Maya doesn't make the moves. I do." At the raising of Nayely's brow, Terrence corrected himself. "For you, Nayely. All of this is for you."

"I did not ask for this..."

"I owed a favor to my boy. There's nothing wrong with dropping a shoe real quick, making some money, and giving kids dreams. You have a problem with that?"

"I have a problem with you using me as a bargaining chip for you and your boys. You don't make decisions like this for me without me!" Losing her cool, Nayely screamed in frustration.

"When have I ever let an opportunity slip away? If you eat, I eat. That's how it's always been. Don't act like I've done you wrong." With quick steps, Terrence stood before Nayely, gripping her by the arms before she knew it. "If you didn't want this then why are you still here?"

"Stop playing with me, Nayely. If you didn't want to be here, you'd leave."

"I-I can't. Why can't I move?"

The intrusive memory paralyzed Nayely as she felt surrounded by Terrence. With eyes darting around, she looked for something-anything that could help her. When a strong hand was placed on her chin, tearing her away from the terror that lurked behind her eyes, she was finally able to notice where she was.

With a strong shove, she sent Terrence's solid form flying back into the couch. Startled by her sudden move, Terrence caught himself, not wanting to show just how shocked he was.

"Don't ever-ever-touch me. Now, get out. I won't tell you again." The timidity Nayely usually had around him disappeared, causing Terrence to lose interest in the back and forth. Pushing his hands into his pants, he stared at her unwavering eyes before walking away.

"See you next week, Nayely." He said as he made his way to the garage. Moving to the panel by her front door, Nayely watched the camera as it showed his red car backing away before leaving out of view.

Finding her phone, Nayely dialed her security company without missing a beat. When she finally got a hold of a representative, Nayely's anger didn't die down as she had hoped when she heard some of the answers to her questions.

"What do you mean someone made an update to the account?"

"Yes, Ms. Polite. It appears that a request was made this morning to update the passcode to your system."

"By who, exactly? I didn't authorize any changes."

"We have records showing that a Terrence Thompson who is listed as a member of the household requested the change."

"I'm the only member of my household." As the gravity of the situation dawned on the employee. Nayely knew that it was time to cancel her service as soon as possible. No amount of apologies could change her mind as she hit the internet in search of a new way to protect her space.

 

 

Riding the elevator to the floor of his apartment, MJ punched in the code to his door before storming in. Just as he expected, his apartment had been trashed. If he knew anything about Danny, her fits of rage tended to take out anything within her vicinity.

At the moment, his material things paled in comparison to the disrespect he had felt having to watch her racist rant on video. On the ride home, he tried to think of any possible incidents he was too blind to see. MJ had written off her most questionable behavior as having come from an affluent family where her riches were the center of her concern rather than the lives that everyday people had to live.

When he heard a crash in his bedroom, he ran in to find Danny stamping out a pillow as smoke rose from it. The smell of cigarette smoke filled the room and had been the cause of the slight mishap she had made. If only this was the extent of her issues today.

"MJ!" When she laid eyes on him she quickly rushed to his side, wrapping him in her thin arms as she cried on his shoulder. "It's not what you think. I promise you. I don't know how something like this could have happened. If I'd known that bitch was recording me I would have never said anything like that!"

"So, what happens when there isn't a camera around, Danny?" Tossing her backwards, MJ dared for her to touch him again.

"I've been violated, MJ! She illegally taped me and-"

"You're really going to try and talk your way out of this?" MJ asked in disbelief.

"What do you expect? The entire world hates me now. I'm not a bad guy! I didn't do anything to deserve this."

"Smacking an old woman and calling her a chink is deserving of a lot, Danny!" As she attempted to reach out to him again, MJ stepped away.

"It's just a word! I was angry-she wouldn't listen to me and-"

"You've got me fucked up if you think I'm going to sit here and hear you plead your case. You do realize I'm Asian, right? You realize you practically spit in my face when you called her that?"

"No! MJ, that's not how I think about you."

"Just because you fuck me, I'm some exception?"

"I love you, MJ and I would never say anything to hurt you. You know that! I've always treated you normal."

MJ couldn't believe it took something like this for him to see what lied within the woman before him.

"Normal? There's nothing that separates me from that woman you assaulted. You don't pick and choose which Asian is a chink and which isn't. It doesn't work that way, Danny."

"MJ!" Picking up her belongings, MJ began to gather anything that belonged to Danny, piling them in the middle of his floor. Flopping to the floor, she threw herself at his feet, clawing at his ankles as he tried to shake her off.

"You can't do this to me right now! I need you and you're trying to bail out on me. Let's just talk about this, why do we have to ruin everything because of something like this? It was a mistake. I'll apologize-I'll apologize 100 times if it means you'll just stop and talk to me."

"A mistake is forgetting your phone at home. A mistake is not remembering when your call time is. Running around hiding your racism and then crying when you expose yourself is no mistake." Lowering himself so that he was face to face with Danny, MJ's eyes burned into hers.

"I'm the only one who made the mistake of falling so deep into fucking and coke that I missed everything along the way. If you thought I was just some desperate Asian guy who would do anything to keep you, you were dead wrong." Kicking his leg free, MJ was unphased by the death glare Danny held on him as her red eyes no longer produced any tears. Wiping at her cheeks, Danny bared her teeth as she screamed.

"You can't stand there and act like you don't have any shit on you! How many times have I helped whenever you freak out at night? What about when you daze out and ignore me for days? Huh? Do you think your perfect?" Tilting her head to the side drawer, Danny alluded to the drug habit he had picked up along the way.

Disappearing from the room, MJ left Danny to snivel as he searched for a trash bag. When he returned to the room, he packed her things without a word.

"Don't ignore me, MJ! We work together! We have too much riding for us to drop it because of a stupid video! Just give it time to pass. Please, baby." MJ was sure that in Danny's eyes, she saw their relationship as her doing him a favor, helping him gain exposure as an actor. Audiences had already known MJ even prior to their relationship for his skills and resume. With Danny most of her appeal came from being a socialite and having connections in the business catapulted her into stardom. Her name drew more crowds than her skills.

MJ could make do without Danny.

The vibration of an incoming call pulled MJ's attention to his phone. Seeing Christina's name, he answered immediately.

"Have you seen or heard from Danny? She's blowing off her team, and the execs are about to decide whether or not she'll be filming for the talk show next week. This is big, this is supposed to help the box office numbers next weekend but who knows what's going to happen now."

Looking to Danny, MJ pulled the phone away from his mouth.

"Wasting your time crying here isn't going to help you. I suggest you get out and figure out how to save your own ass."

Standing to her feet, Danny jerked away the trash bag from his hands as she shot daggers his way. Not one to leave without incident, she knocked over whatever she had forgotten in her earlier fit on her way out.

"Oh my God, was that her?"

"Never mind that, she's gone now."

"Did she like break into your place or something? Why was she there?"

Kicking his fallen things out of his way, MJ plopped down on his bed, not wanting to divulge information on the last and final night he had spent with Danny.

"There's a lot waiting for us this week, Christina. Let's focus on that and making our next move."

"I wish it was going to be that easy. Do you know how many think pieces they've already written calling you a complacent partner in white supremacy? I mean, how do they get these things up so fast? It makes no sense-"

"Christina. Don't read into any of that. The more you feed into what's said online, the more upsetting it's going to be." Silence filled the line as the inevitable question came MJ's way.

"I hate to ask this-but I have to-just to know."

"Yes, Christina?" MJ gave her time to form her thoughts.

"You and Danny were together for three years. That's a long time to be with someone who you hate because of their race. Who knows what's going to come out of all this-I just have to know." Taking a breath, Christina let it out. " Did you know?"

"Of course not. Being who I am has always been important to me and what I do. Not once have I ever been ashamed of it. If I'd known that this was something Danny would have brought into this relationship, I never would have agreed to be with her. This-this is something I missed." His honesty spoke to Christina who was able to breath a sigh of relief.

Being the child of Filipino immigrants, she too had fought tooth and nail to get to the level of talent management that she had. Oftentimes, potential clients would reject her, thinking that there was no way she could cultivate an image or path through the entertainment world for them. Knowing the traction that MJ had caught early on in his career, she put herself before him, offering the best that she could and promising she wouldn't allow for either of them to fail.

"Okay, okay. I believe you. You know I had to ask because if I have to get out there and defend you I didn't want to be surprised by something damning. I just had to make sure you were still with me on this."

When their call came to an end MJ felt like he had lived an entire year in just one day. When he saw an incoming text from Khalil, MJ tossed the phone.

Well...

He'd had enough drama for now. Opting to entertain his best friend later, MJ began to bring order back to his space.

 

Chapter 9 by ValleyofLight
Author's Notes:

Here's another one for you all! Shoutout to those who keep coming back for more!

As always, let me know what you think !

 

 

As Nayely made her way from the parking garage to the Nike building before her, she willed herself to not mind Terrence who stayed on her heels. Pushing her hands into the pockets of her pants, she looked over her shoulder only to be met by his gaze.

"Just wait. By the end of the day, you're going to see that this was all worth it." Opening the door for Nayely and Maya, Terrence's mouth quirked into a grin as they passed. "There's no better time to do this than now."

Maya looked up to Nayely to see a blank expression on her face as she offered no response to Terrence's words. It had been something she picked up on that morning as the only time Nayely happened to speak was to her assistant. Just as she had returned from a much needed getaway with her girlfriend, Maya had received a call from Terrence telling her that the very last week of their vacation was going to be cut short. Though Nayely protested her returning early after finding out Terrence had contacted Maya, the assistant showed up that morning ready to get to work.

"A specially designed shoe to help fit your foot up one specially designed ass." Maya muttered to herself, drawing a slight sound of amusement from Nayely. Placing her hand on the athlete's elbow, Maya attempted to offer some reassurance.

"I've been looking over all the info-at least all that I've been sent-and I'm ready to jump in wherever you need me to. This is doable, and, in the end, you can still keep this true to you and who you are."

"You know you're my girl, right?" The sound of footsteps quickly approaching tore Nayely's attention away.

"Nayely Polite! It's an honor to have you here." A slight lanky man strolled towards the woman who stood in the middle, offering his hand as he tampered his excitement. "Welcome to the lab, I'm Michael Timmons, head of design."

After reading through her emails, Nayely had become aware of Michael's role in all of this. If it hadn't been for Terrence's manipulation, she would have been able to enter this relationship wholeheartedly as Michael was one of a handful of designers who looked like her. Though she could feel the appeal of his ideas, she moved with restraint as she wanted to avoid being duped any further.

"I'm happy to be here. And thank you for considering me for this campaign." As Michael greeted Maya with a handshake as well, he turned to Terrence with an appreciative look in his eyes.

"Terrence, my guy. I appreciate you helping me out with this." As they leaned in for a slight hug, Nayely began to move forward.

"Will we be upstairs?"

"Oh-uh-yes! The elevator is just right-"

As Nayely reached the elevator, Michael jogged forth, hitting the button out of courtesy seeing as how Nayely was ready to move forward with the day. During the short ride, Michael continued to sing her praises for her most recent victory.

"We're all very aware of what your sport means to you and to all those who have followed your journey." As they walked down the hallway towards a conference room, Michael became animated with his hands as he spoke." That's why we truly want you at the center of all of this. From the beginning to the end, we want this to have your involvement in this design loud and clear."

"I hope that means when it comes to collaborating, I'll be the first to know, right?" A knowing look of embarrassment flitted across Michael's face as he involuntarly looked to Terrence.

"Of-Of course. You're the driving force behind this."

Biting back a correction to Michael's words, Nayely's face lost its softness as they stood before the door to the room." As long as you remember it's me that you need here, I'm sure we can see this through." Nayely wanted to get it across anyway that she could that any decisions from this point on would rightfully fall to her as long as she was involved.

This would be the last time she would ever be left to the whims of someone else. To Terrence.

 

"This product is going to be created with the athlete in mind. From the fit to the form, we want to make sure that we are creating a way for individuals to maximize their performance and set new standards. By having Nayely on board to give us a firsthand account and understanding, we'll be able to revolutionize the market." Piles of papers were scattered across the table as the brainstorming session kept everyone's minds brimming with ideas.

"With the basis of the look down, we'd love to move forward with testing out the prototype for this shoe." Michael held up the rough draft of the shoe that Nayely helped to craft. "We can take some time to check out the materials we have available, make sure that they work for you, and then set up a time to have you try the shoes out as planned."

"I don't think it should just be me who gets to try out the prototype. I'd love to have the three high school runners have a pair as well. This shoe will be made from my likeness, but it is the everyday athlete who will truly benefit from this."

During the meeting, Nayely had made a request to bring on aspiring runners from a local high school to join her in the campaign. After years of living in the area, she had sponsored a handful of events and shown her support to schools across the city. Her suggestion had been well received, and her mind was already brimming with high school stars she hoped would be happy to take part in this opportunity.

"It will help to give a contrast between how the shoe truly performs and with kids helping us out, they'll give us their honest opinions." Pulling together the papers she had studied, Nayely chatted with employees who gave their input to the idea. Across the table, with his arms crossed, Terrence sat uncharacteristically quiet as he had gone ignored for the majority of the meeting. Any attempts he had made to add his thoughts were quickly shut down by Nayely.

"I can contact River Heights and have an answer by the end of this week. My family has given a lot to their track and field program, so I'm sure they can find us their standout students ASAP." Speaking loud enough that his voice commanded attention, Terrence referred to a school located in one of the wealthiest areas of the city. As he came from a long line of career athletes, his family name had become an integral part of sports with a reputation that was known by all in that circle. Calling in favors was nothing for him.

"That won't be necessary." Nayely spoke up just as the others in the room started to respond to his offer.

"Excuse me?"

"Just as I said. It won't be necessary. This was my suggestion, and something tells me you don't have the same vision as I do when it comes to this." Sitting back in her seat, Nayely lifted her eyes to Terrence for the first time that day." I don't want the kids who have access to the best of the best. To them this shoe would mean nothing, they're always going to be able to get the newest and sleekest of anything."

"So you don't want rich kids to be a part of this? I would think you would want the best young runners right beside you."

"Their parents having the most money doesn't mean they have the most talent. You and I both know that."

"So, you want to scoop up some kids from the hood to be the ones associated with this release? That will doom this from the start."

"The hood?" Leaning forward, Nayely narrowed her eyes."I sure didn't come from money, or anything for that matter. If we're looking to push this shoe to only a certain demographic because I'm attached to it, then they shouldn't have a problem if they happen to see the kids I want to be a part of this release. Because when it comes down to it, I've been where they are now. Those will be the kids who follow in my footsteps."

"I have to agree with Nayely. We don't want to push out anyone within our base, especially not the kids who we want to help support and uplift when others can't." Stepping in just as the conversation became intense, Michael drew attention away from Terrence before he could speak. Turning to Nayely, he smiled softly. "I'm trusting you on this. We are here to make sure we incorporate your essence into this project."

Flipping through her planner, Maya cheerfully scribbled down a reminder to narrow down the list of students who would be joining Nayely." Got it! I'll make sure to got over some information and you and I can get together and figure out who will be the best fit." Lifting her eyes to catch the brief frown on Terrence's face, Maya nodded to Nayely in assurance.

Standing to her feet, Nayely began to shake hands with different people around the room, thanking them for their diligence. Bypassing Terrence's burning eyes, Nayely stepped to Michael last.

"I want to thank you once again for joining us on this project."

"I have to be honest, taking this on, I wasn't too sure if this was the right thing to do. I'm sure you understand why." Clearing his throat, Michael looked to Nayely in understanding." But if this is something I must do, I'm going to see it through to the end." A slight disturbance behind them drew the remaining people's attention to Terrence's spinning chair as he disappeared out the door.

"Just know that this thing that you and him managed to pull will never happen again. Hopefully, if this project can end on a good note I'd even be willing to work with you in the future. Of my own will, of course."

Leaving the room with Maya at her side, Nayely looked down the hall to see a fuming Terrence holding the elevator. In no rush, Nayely considered whether or not she wanted to be in the same space as him. A part of her wondered if that was a sign of an attempt on her part to hide away from Terrence after standing up to him in the meeting. Wanting to own up to the new change she promised herself to instill in how she interacted with the man, she proudly walked into the elevator unbothered.

"Hey!"

With her back turned, Nayely did not see the way that Terrence had shoved Maya out the way, preventing her from entering the elevator. At the slight shift in weight, Nayely looked to the reflective walls to see only Terrence joining her on the ride down.

"What do you think you're doing?" Moving to push past him, to keep the doors open, Nayely felt a tight grip on her arm shove her against the wall.

"Who do you think you are to embarrass me in front of all those people?" Terrence's eyes were drawn to the top corner of the elevator, now mindful of the cameras he was sure existed.

"First off, I've already told you once before-don't ever touch me. That's the last time I'll say it." Stepping nose to nose, Nayely felt her anger build from the thought of being manhandled the way he had done. "Secondly, this was a business deal you forced my hand into. If having your ideas rejected in a creative meeting made you feel embarrassed, then maybe you should bow out now."

"That wasn't simple rejection, that was complete disrespect!"

"Don't talk to me about disrespect after what you've done. Listen, Terrence, I have let you get away with so many things over the years and I'm finally able to realize just how tired I am of it. This isn't who I am."

"I have done nothing but help you. If it wasn't for me-"

"I'd still be who I am!" Knowing that his next words would allude to him making her who she is, Nayely immediately stopped him, not wanting to be sent on a downward spiral of questioning if her success is due to her and her alone.

"Would you?" Turning to look her in her eyes, Terrence disagreed with Nayely's claim." After all I've done, after all the people I've helped you to meet, that's what you think? Once again, here I am trying to get you the best of the best, yet you don't appreciate it."

"You want me to drop down and give thanks for you doing what you're paid to do? When have I ever cared about any of that stuff? That's not what made me the person I am-the runner I am. I wish you knew how lost you've become in all of the things that shouldn't matter."

"You've always blown off the importance of making connections. You think it's trivial or unnecessary when all I want to do is get you in with people who matter. You should be thankful for that kind of gesture."

"Did I ever ask for that? You were supposed to be my coach. Be the person I could count on to help push me to become a better athlete, not someone who is only worried about who's magazine I can get in."

"You've got to learn how to want to win on all platforms, not just the track."

"The track is all that matters. I'm sure at some point you were taught that as well." Hinting at his family, she wondered if they were all as fame hungry as he was.

"I was taught to be the best at whatever I do. What I could do on the track, I can do in a meeting room. Now if you would just let up and let me get River Heights in on this project-"

"Isn't your cousin the head coach there?" Interrupting him, Nayely waited as the elevator finally reached the lobby."

"Which is why this will be a perfect opportunity."

"Yes, a perfect opportunity to avoid." Shouldering Terrence on her way out, Nayely looked across the hall to see Maya emerging from the second set of elevators. Her heels sounded towards them with determination as she stood before Terrence.

"You know, I don't appreciate what you did back there-" Before she could give him a good lashing, Terrence walked out the building as if he hadn't heard a thing.

With her mouth wide open, Maya watched as he swung open the glass door and disappeared down the sidewalk.

"He must have been one hell of a coach because I can tell you right now-there would have been no way I would have wanted to be around someone as self-centered as him. You'd have to be a complete fool to-" Grimacing, Maya caught herself as she threw Nayely an apologetic look.

"Well, you're not wrong." Nayely had no reason to argue as her words rang true.

A complete fool.

She had spent all of these years encased by a secret that only she and Terrence had shared, and it was only now that she was ready to break free from it all. With a deep breath, she could only hope that it wasn't too late.

 

As Thursday rolled around, MJ had managed to steel his emotions when it came to the fiasco that Danny had caused. It seemed that everyone who had put in long hours and hard work to make this the best promotional tour the studio had seen couldn't escape the backlash of her racist rant. It had gone as far as countless online groups attempting to organize a boycott of the film to prevent it from being shown in theaters across the country.

At the last minute, the decision had been made to pull Danny from the talk show, as execs hoped to hold out as long as possible and change the tides by pushing her appearance as an opportunity for her to issue an apology. However, as her online antics and attack of fans who criticized her were ongoing in the days following her video, there would be no salvaging of her reputation just yet.

A small knock on the door of his dressing room drew MJ's attention away from his phone. He looked at the contact he had subconsciously hovered over, knowing that with just one call, he would have the perfect solution waiting for him when he returned home.

He had managed to go all week without using, but as anxiety built within him, the temptation was becoming harder to ignore.

"How you holding up?" Kahlil's voice rang throughout the room as he joined his friends in the minutes before they had to report to the stage. Greeting each other with a lax handshake, MJ turned his head to the ceiling.

"Getting through the end of this week is all I want."

"I'd feel the same way, bro. Are you still getting calls and messages?"

MJ had told Kahlil about the countless incidents he was forced to go through that week. One of them being a late-night post by Danny asking her followers to help reach out to him. In some strange attempt to get MJ's attention, she had garnered enough sympathy from those blinded by their desire to be like Danny Rose by convincing them she was fearful for MJ's wellbeing because of what she had caused. After blasting his phone number to her millions of followers, MJ had to immediately change his number.

"Thankfully, no." When MJ looked to his friend, he noticed Kahlil's observant eyes.

"And no, I haven't done what you're thinking."

"Damn, for real? I figured a stressful situation like this would drive you to your crackhead ways." Picking up a water bottle, Kahlil popped one open fully aware that his comment would draw MJ's ire.

"I don't do crack-"

"5 minutes, Mr. Park." A crew member quickly stuck their head into the door just as MJ's face reddened, before disappearing.

Though Kahlil would occasionally make light of MJ's drug use, he always did it in a way where he knew MJ would feel less than proud of the fact.

"Not tonight, Kahlil. I'm not trying to get down on myself right now. Like I said, I just want to finish out this week better than it started."

Throwing his hands up in surrender, Kahlil admitted to his pettiness. "You're right. You know all I got is love for you, MJ. I'm just trying to make sure my boy is straight. I know I said I wouldn't say I told you so-"

"So don't."

"But I will tell you that I hope you understand from now on that I'm only ever going to speak up when I feel that something isn't right. We promised each other to have the other's back when we entered this game. That's still true till this day. You're my family. From here on out, no more joking when I feel like something needs be said. I'm going to say what I need to, even if it's going to piss you off."

"I appreciate that." With a sincere hug, MJ patted Kahlil on his shoulder. "Just don't hold your breath waiting for the next time I fuck up. I think I've had enough of that to last a lifetime." As they left the dressing room, Kahlil continued to make snide remarks, bringing laughter to MJ's face for the first time that week. As he listened to the host announce their arrival, he held onto the feeling of peace he felt, hoping that it would carry him through the interview.

 

The audience laughed as the host made his way through a stack of cards, finishing up a game that managed to get the crew relaxed.

"Here on the show, you know we are no strangers to reading through online comments many viewers post-yes we see you basement4lyfe-please stop asking us what we are wearing. We're literally on TV, buddy."

As the audience's voices quieted down, the host pointed towards the crew.

"As guests, we welcome you to join us as we read some of the questions and comments viewers have sent through our special hashtag tonight." Pointing towards a monitor, the host directed everyone's attention to the real time stream of mentions that floated across the screen.

MJ could feel the eyes of his castmates on him as the same worry was shared amongst the group. They hadn't been cleared on this being a part of their segment and with the news that had preceded their visit, trouble was bound to happen. Shifting in his seat, MJ looked out to the audience who cheered on the host as he moved to the large monitor, prepared to read off the posts.

A sneaky grin crossed his face as he began to scroll through the feed.

"I've got to say, I don't think we've ever had this much activity in a single night. Nearly 85 thousand tweets in the last hour! I should bring you guys on more often."

The crowd called to the host to select the comments that were most alluring to them. Entertaining their shouts, the host put on a pensive look as the posts were randomized, and the first one of the night was displayed.

"Let's see what we've got here. Oh! This looks great. Yamsfordays says, ‘Can someone please tell MJ to take his foot off my neck? He knows he has to give us a warning when he's going to show up looking as sexy as he does tonight.' "

Shaking his head in appreciation, MJ went along with the hooting and hollering in the studio.

"I'm sure that's not the first time you've heard that! Hey, Yammy, I didn't spend the last month in the gym to go unnoticed." Flexing his arms for the camera, the host continued.

"What else do we have out there? Here we go, our friend scifi231 asks, ‘how much preparation went into this role for the cast members?'" As the question was directed towards Kahlil, he took the lead.

"As this genre is one that allows for a lot of room for experimentation, we also knew that we had to stay true to the story and what it means for fans. The cast definitely dived all the way in when it came to immersing themselves into this world, and I think that's something you can see and appreciate in their performance."

"I can tell you now that leading up to tonight, we have gotten messages from fans across the world who've expressed how much this film means to them. You've got some hardcore supporters out there who I know are losing their minds waiting for tomorrow's premiere."

"I think we've got time for one more post, what do you say?" Involving the audience, the host watched as the system flipped through the posts before landing on one he had hoped for. His grin grew as he turned towards the cameras.

"Looks like we've got some hardcore haters amongst us as well? It comes with the territory, right? To show you that we do not discriminate here at the show, let's see if the cast is ready to take on some of their harshest critics tonight."

Looking between themselves, the cast shifted in their seats as the host began to read the message.

"Let's see what our friend sli00 has to say, ‘What I really want to know is when are we going to stop awarding these celebrities by paying money to see their movies when it's obvious they don't deserve to be in the spotlight? Danny Rose sprouts off racial slurs when she's not hanging with her wannabe boyfriend, yet people are still hyping up her movie? No way no one knew this is her true self! I bet MJ Park got off on her dirty talk in bed. Losers."

The audience began to chatter, adding to the tense atmosphere of the studio as the host did nothing to alleviate his guests' discomfort.

"Now, I know this has been a tough week for you guys when this should have been the best time of your lives. Fans haven't heard much from you all regarding this situation, and I'm sure it would ease many of their fears to hear your thoughts." Leaning past the other members to seek out MJ, the host raised his hand towards him, drawing the cameras to MJ's hardened face.

Gripping the arm of the chair, MJ fought his first instinct which was to walk off the set. How did this come to fall all on his shoulders? Just from hearing the post, he was reminded of all the messages he had received from people blasting him for dating Danny, as if he was the root of all of this.

"Look, what happened this week-" With a hand on Kahlil's shoulder, MJ stopped him from stepping up when it his distress had become noticeable.

"I think what the online post is truly saying is that the situation that occurred this week should not be overlooked. What happened was serious, by all accounts. As a Korean American, I know just how hurtful and discouraging it was to hear a racist rant coming from someone who has influence. Many people in this country deal with this harsh reality on a daily basis, yet we all look to entertainment as a way to view ourselves and the possibilities before us despite what ignorant people may say. And that's exactly what this boils down to. An ignorant and hateful person was exposed, and they happened to be linked to a movie that people were looking forward to breaking boundaries that have long existed in this industry."

Taking a breath, MJ continued." I believe that as we sit here tonight, we want to assure our fans out there that the story we've told through this film is one of defiance, pride, and perseverance. Those are all things we can relate to, especially anyone of color who is able to see themselves on the screen this weekend. I want everyone to know that the promise that was put forth to make this film a story for those who have never had one before still stands. Know that the characters that you can connect to in this movie don't exist only in a fictional universe but are a reflection of the very real world and individuals that help to push us to become better."

At the sound of applause, MJ looked to see the audience look on with calmness for the first time that night. When his eyes met the host, he could see slight disappointment as his intended sabotage fell short.

When the host began to deliver his final remarks, MJ all but moved through the motions as he waited for the moment he could leave the stage. Slipping away before anyone could notice, MJ pulled out his phone. As he scrolled through his contacts list, he no longer worried about regretting the decision he was about to make.

 

Nayely stretched out her limbs as she pushed away from the kitchen table. After working together all day, she and Maya had managed to secure great representatives from high schools that Nayely had become acquainted with. They had hit their goal of finding three students by the end of the week and had pushed this news along to the design team.

"I told you this would work out."

"I'm just so happy we were able to get this all through by the end of the week. As soon as arrangements are made, we can get these kids in so that they show the world who they are." As it was officially time to clock out, Maya pulled out her phone, snapping a picture of her work area.

Photobombing with a peace sign, Nayely ducked off to her refrigerator as Maya laughed.

"You know, for someone who hates posting pics, you sure love getting all up in mine." Pursing her lips together, Maya watched as Nayely searched her cabinets for wine glasses. Whenever they working late into the evening, they typically topped it off with a drink between friends, but tonight, Maya was hoping that she could convince the recluse that stood before her to venture out.

"Since the championships, we have not had a chance to celebrate."

"I think it's a little too late for that." Nayely searched for her wine opener as Maya quickly pulled up an invitation on her phone.

"Girl, it's never too late for that! Just look! You got this invitation a while ago for a premiere tonight. I know how you get about these things so I ignored it, but now I think it would be a great chance for you to go out and have some fun!" Maya held the phone close to Nayely's face as if she could push the idea into her head.

"No thanks, I'm good right here."

"You never go out to events like this. If you like, we can just attend the afterparty instead. It's going to be as low key as it can get."

Ending her search, Nayely braced herself against her island. "What is this even for? Why would I be invited?"

"It for a new movie that they've been talking up all year. Its supposed to be a big thing and it even has some up and coming guy heading it."

"So you want me to got to an event for something neither of us know anything about?" She laughed.

"Oh, whoever knows what they're doing? We're just going to have fun, that's it!" Shrugging her shoulders, Maya was unable to hide her excitement at attending. As Nayely had been formally invited, she was hoping to be her plus one for the night. Seeing the look on Maya's face, Nayely weighed the pros and cons of going.

If she went, she could possibly have some sort of excitement for the first time in months that didn't involve her training. Also, seeing as how Maya was still fresh enough to be enamored with special access to the high life, she thought it wouldn't hurt to indulge her every once in a while.

On the other hand, going would more than likely mean she'd have to deal with the hassle of being in the presence of other celebrities. Though, Nayely considered herself far from that.

"So, am I going to be helping you pick out an outfit, or will I be enjoying another weekend filled with watching lame movies with my girlfriend?"

After a thoughtful moment, Nayely rolled her eyes.

"If I go, you have to promise to make me look cute."

Breaking out into a shimmy, Maya moved to place the wine glasses back into the cabinet.

"Oh you don't have to tell me, I was going to do that anyways." Pushing Nayely towards her bedroom, she began to make plans on just how she would fix her up.

 

Nayely looked into the long mirror of Maya's living room, appreciating the outfit she had chosen for her. After deciding it would be best to dress and leave from Maya's, the two had made their way to her apartment so that she would have a chance to dress. Now she stood in a shimmering set of bell bottom pants that rose to expose just enough of her midriff beneath her see through shirt. The black and gold danced off the mirror, setting off every slight movement she made. Nayely couldn't help but to smile at the look of her red lips that accentuated her dimples.

As sounds of R&B dance tracks played throughout the small space, Nayely was ready to check the time just as Maya came strutting from her bedroom.

"You ready to go?" Maya called as she checked her hair one last time.

"Am I ready? Girl, you better come on." Maya smiled as she moved to shut down her home before following Nayely outside.

"I'm sorry, but I don't think that's going to work for tonight." As Nayely pointed her keys to unlock or KIA, Maya sneered her nose up.

"What do you mean? You know I'm going to be the DD tonight." As Nayely never drank outside the comfort of her own home, tonight was a chance for Maya to enjoy her outing to the fullest.

"Yes, I know. You can be the DD in my car though."

"You drive a Tesla!"

"And? You drive a car that has little hamsters rolling around in the commercials!" Shuffling to the passenger seat, Maya tossed Nayely her keys.

"No that's not-" Sighing, Nayely giggled as she let Maya have this round while she hopped in and pulled away.

 

 

Kahlil mingled with some of the party goers as the night went on. It was well past late, and yet it seemed like everyone was just getting started. Looking around, he realized that he had yet to see MJ. After the previous debacle on the talk show, he had all but gone ghost just before it was time to hit the carpet for the premiere. Whenever he managed, MJ slipped away before Kahlil could get a chance to speak with him. He thought that things would be okay following the response to the host's impromptu grilling. It hadn't been lost on the crew members just what the talk show veteran intended on doing, and their concerns had been addressed.

The problem still remained that Kahlil wasn't able to connect with his friend in order to make sure everything was still good.

"Who are you looking for? Your fine ass wife?" When deep brown arms laced around his waist, Kahlil's worries were stifled ass his wife pressed her body against his.

"Baby girl, baby girl. Now you know you can't be pushing up on me in public." Turning in her arms, he reached down to place a kiss to the cheek of the woman who had become his world." Or else we're going to have to turn things private."

Ronnie looked up to her husband who still reminded her of the young boy she had hooked up with in high school. Neither of them had any idea that one lustful night of graduation bliss would lead to a broken condom, baby, and now 5 years of marriage. When Ronnie had gone through her pregnancy with their son, she had tracked down Kahlil as fast as she could to alert him of the new addition to their lives. As a young college student, he had absolutely nothing to offer but the couple of hundred dollars he managed to save every month to send to the young mother.

It had eaten away at him during his college days that he wasn't able to be there for Ronnie in the way that he should have. She had doubts that he would even take their situation serious as he always seemed to be mischievous in their youth. Though he had not lost all of his ways, after years of struggling to land his first big job, Kahlil's breakout film finally put him in a position to seriously take in Ronnie and their child, creating a family he held onto dearly.

Even with his jokes, Ronnie was able to sense that something weighed heavy on Kahlil's mind.

"I haven't seen him either. Maybe he decided to sit tonight out." Knowing that he was looking for MJ, Ronnie had kept an eye out for the mysterious man to no avail.

Placing his hands on her cheeks, he admired the way that she had taken to caring about his friend as well. After all, as the godfather of their son, MJ being a part of the family wasn't just a declaration Kahlil had made, but one that they all accepted.

"Let's just enjoy tonight. I'll hit him up later, but for now, I'm trying to see if you still move the way you used to." Leading her to the dance floor, Kahlil enjoyed the night with his wife. After three straight songs of dancing, a strange feeling came over Kahlil. Looking up, this feeling he had told him that someone unexpected was near, and it wasn't MJ.

With the lights low, he had to quint just to focus on the faces throughout the crowd. When he saw a small woman with locs making her way through the crowd, he was surprised by a hand on his shoulder just as he noticed the hand of the person the unknown woman toted with her.

"MJ! You know you had this man worried sick about where you were." Ronnie moved past her husband to hug the man of the hour. A bright smile shined on MJ's face as he repeatedly moved his hair from his face.

"I forgot how he can get, Ronnie. I hope he didn't hurt himself too much thinking about me." MJ teased as he pulled Ronnie close. Bobbing his head to the music, MJ greeted many people who came his way.

Watching him closely, Kahlil's face fell as his suspicions had been proven right.

"Hey, you good man?" Kahlil asked, placing the back of his hand against MJ's chest to get his attention.

"Never been better. Didn't I tell you I was going to finish this week out on a high note?" MJ's grin widened as he realized the faux pas he had made. Squeezing Ronnie tight as he laughed, Kahlil loosened his grip as Ronnie began to read the situation.

"Oh, old boy is on one tonight..." she muttered under her breath. "Was it funny, MJ?" She asked sarcastically as she whispered into her husband's ear, promising to check on them later.

As his wife walked away, Kahlil couldn't come close to joining MJ in on the laugh.

"I mean, it's funny because I know that you know that I know what you know right now." MJ leaned his head onto Kahlil's shoulder as he continued.

"Alright, alright. How about we get you somewhere and sit you down?"

"What? Why? I don't need to be sitting on my ass tonight. I'm trying to enjoy myself, lighten up."

"You told me you were good."

The seriousness in Kahlil's voice got MJ to stop his fit of laughter as he ran his fingers through his hair once again.

"And I am. Look, everything that happened this week-happened. There's nothing I can do about it but keep moving on."

"The girl you've been caught up in for the last three years fucked up in the worst way possible, and you're okay? I've seen you before, and this isn't okay."

"Damn, Kahlil." MJ huffed. "Danny is irrelevant. I've come to peace with the fact that she was trash and hid it so very well." He emphasized. "I've had people I don't care about coming at my neck all week like I did all of this, so please, I don't want to have to deal with judgement from you too."

"I'm not judging you. I just know this shit ain't right."

"Judgement." MJ reiterated.

"No, I just want to make sure you're doing what you need to do. I told you so many times to keep away from that chick and now here you are."

"Mmm..." MJ closed his eyes, shaking his head up and down before winking at Kahlil. "Judgement." As MJ backed away, he became swept up into the crowd before Kahlil could call him back.

Scratching his head, Kahlil drifted away.

 

"I don't want to hear it! I know I can't hold my liquor, but I refuse to let that stop me tonight."

"Girl give it up. That's the second time I've had to rush with you to the bathroom tonight. Is it really worth it?" Nayely helped to guide Maya to the first empty seat she could find. On teetering legs, Maya didn't fight the relief as she plopped down.

"At least tell me that you've had some fun?" Maya asked as she fanned herself with her purse. Nayely smiled at the thoughtfulness that was there as she pushed a small cup meant for mouthwash towards her friend. Throwing back the water like a shot, Nayely could see that Maya was still in the mood for more despite her current state.

"Yes. Making small talk with people I don't know, keeping you from grinding on strangers, and hogging the bathroom with you as you throw up any and everything has truly made my night."

"Oh no, this has been a horrible night..." Nayely thought nothing of her words until she heard a low whining sound coming from Maya.

"Wait! No! You don't have to cry! I was saying all of that to be funny, Maya." Pulling the woman in for a quick hug, she shook her from side to side as tears streamed down her cheeks. This was the other side of Drunk Maya she had forgotten about.

"No! You're going to hate me once tonight is over! I'm so damn embarrassing." Throwing up her hands, Maya unknowingly hit the man that sat near them.

Clenching her teeth, waiting for a response, Nayely quickly excused her friend's accident despite the man's lack of reaction.

"I'll never make you come out again! I promise."

"Don't say that because you know you can't keep it." Nayely teased.

"You're right! I'm a liar!" Maya began to sob again. Regretting what she said, Nayely continued to console her friend. Luckily, no one seemed to take notice of the scene, which she knew would send Maya into a coma the moment her soberness kicked in only for her to realize what she had done.

Bit by bit, the crowd began to shift as something managed to garner people's attention.

In the middle of her crying, Maya suddenly made a gagging noise.

Stepping back to hold her at arm's length, Nayely froze as she watched Maya with wide eyes. As Maya's enlarged cheeks soon deflated, they both breathed a sigh of relief.

"False alarm."

"Thank God."

"Wait, you wouldn't happen to have some gum, would you?" Nayely turned her nose up as Maya made a face that told her something unpleasant had hit her taste buds. Shaking her head no, Maya began to whine again.

"Damn, Nayely. I thought you would be on it by now."

"Just. Don't. Breathe."

Covering her mouth, Maya looked over Nayely's shoulder to see the man she had hit stand from his seat, looking at the pair with a bewildered expression.

"Um, can we help you?" Maya asked, her drunk haze fading as she watched the way his eyes bulged when looking at Nayely. Unaware of the man, Nayely felt herself being pulled forward as Maya moved her away.

"What's wrong with you, weirdo?" She asked as the man continued to ignore her.

"Nayely? Nayely Polite?"

At the sound of her name from a familiar voice, Nayely's heart began to beat fast. Her teeth became locked together as she crushed her jaws shut. Her eyes slowly travelled to the matured face of a boy she never thought she would stand before again.

"Kahlil." There was no question in her voice as she realized what this could mean.

"Do you know him?" Maya took a closer look, not liking the vibe she was sensing from Nayely. There was a sense of hesitancy in the way she stood that put Maya on alert. Before she could answer, a woman quickly approached the man before them, tugging away at his arm.

"What are you doing? Danny just showed up and they're going at it!You need to get MJ out of here, quick!" Ronnie moved her husband into action, but not before he could take one last glance at the face he knew couldn't be here tonight.

If MJ knew...

"That's right! Danny Rose was in this movie. You know they got her on video beating down an old Asian lady? They snatched her up with a quickness once that got out." Hopping down with curiosity, Maya moved with the crowd towards the scene before Nayely stopped her.

"It's time to go."

"Come on, I'm trying to see what's going on."

"Nope. I'm calling your girlfriend. You're not well. I'll drop you off at home and she can take care of you." Rerouting her movements, Nayely retreated to the door as she could hear raised voices traveling through the room. The faster they could get out of there, the better.

 

 

"Fuck you, MJ!" Danny threw another glass at his head, just before he could duck the blow.

"You need to stop!" MJ tried to fight his way through her barrage as she swung her arms carelessly. Dozens of phones were already pulled out, capturing the fight between the ex lovers.

"You've been ignoring me all fucking week. Did I mean nothing to you?" When he finally got a hold of her arms, he held them close to her body.

"Don't! I don't need to tell you why things are the way they are right now, Danny."

"I fuck up one time and you just throw me out like I'm nothing!" She spat. Wiping his face, MJ's anger threatened to boil over.

"You're just digging yourself into a deeper hole here. Do you really want another video of you being passed around?" MJ's eyes burned from the growing number of bright lights.

"A hole you had no problem helping me make for the last three years." She shouted. Looking over her shoulder, Danny locked eyes with the hired paparazzi as they trained their camera on her.

"At least I can admit to when I've fucked up, MJ!"

"What are you talking about?"

"Don't act like you don't know. You and I are the same, and you know it. The only difference is someone caught me doing my dirt. But you! You act like you have never done anything wrong when you and I both know that's far from the truth."

MJ began to get a bad feeling from Danny's sudden performance. She screamed loud enough so that everyone could hear their conversation, completely ignoring MJ's pleads for her to calm down.

"Are you really going to do this now?" To the side, MJ could see Kahlil appear, taking in the sight that drew the crowd.

"Of course, I'm going to do this now! I don't have shit to lose!" Kahlil sensed where things were headed and began to attempt to block people's phones from capturing anything else.

"You want to act like you're above the lows of this life, but you know like I do how good you felt every time we did coke together. You know, MJ! Stop hiding it!"

"Danny!" MJ shouted as the crowd gasped at the burning reveal.

"How many times were we strung out together, huh? How many times did I have to help you when you couldn't handle things? I always helped you! I found the perfect way for you to get over your fucked-up emotions, but when I needed you, you just labeled me a racist and left. You didn't even try to work through this with me! So, fuck you!" Delivering a stinging slap to his face, Danny pushed past the late security team who had been sent to apprehend her. Unbothered by the countless cameras that followed her, she walked out with her head held high, knowing the damaged she had caused.

She knew how important MJ's broken resolve had been to him and she knew what it would mean to now have the entire world in on his little secret. She had felt betrayed to not have the support of her boyfriend to help prove to the world that she wasn't the racist she foolishly assumed they had painted her out to be.

By the time Kahlil had reached MJ in the wake of Danny's scene, he could see a distant look cast over his eyes.

"MJ."

Putting a physical distance between his arm and Kahlil's comforting hand, MJ shoved his palms into his eyes, pushing in to the sockets until he felt pain.

"Look, man, let's get you out of here and-"

"I can handle myself."

"MJ!"

"I said I've got it!" He rejected Kahlil's offer, pushing past the faces that gawked at him in disbelief at the drug revelation. Many never would have thought that MJ Park would be caught up in this part of the life. As posts were sent out with a sense of urgency, soon, many more would come to know his truth.

When he made it to his car, he peeled away just as Kahlil and Ronnie emerged from the building. They watched as his large SUV weaved in and out of traffic, feeling completely helpless.

"Maybe we should call the cops, let them know that he's-"

"No!"

"But Kahlil, he could hurt himself. Or even worse, someone else."

"If we call the cops, do you think they're just going to give him a nice ride home? He's high out his mind right now, Ronnie. He'll be in jail before the night's over." Moving quickly, Kahlil felt for his keys in his pockets with determination.

"I'm going to find his ass before anything can happen."

Rushing to the parked cars, Kahlil was followed by a slightly reluctant Ronnie.

"Well if you're not going to take my advice, don't even think about going by yourself! I'm coming with you." Once their doors were closed, Kahlil moved with a quickness as he followed the path MJ had taken, hoping that he could catch up with him.

 

 

MJ's head spun endlessly as he sat back in his seat. He didn't know where he had gone, but he was relieved to have stopped so that he could take in another hit of the only comfort he had.

Pinching his nose together, MJ could feel his head lull to the side as the objects in his hands fell to the ground.

The sharp taps against his window took MJ out of his daze. Startled, he fidgeted with the window, slowly letting it down as a man with a suspicious look peered in through the window.

"Can I help you my man?" The man asked. Shining his phone's flashlight onto MJ's face, he took notice of the confused look on MJ's face.

"What-" Looking around, MJ realized that he was not in a place where he should be at all.

"I saw you out here in this same spot the other day, but I'm sure you don't live here."

MJ's eyes skirted quickly to the front of Nayely's house.

How had he ended up here?

"If you don't get out of here, I'm going to call the police." The man warned.

"No! Uh-there's no need really. I'm just here visiting."

"Oh yeah? Well there's not much visiting you can do sitting in your car for the past 20 minutes."

"I'm here to see a friend. I-I just had to do somethings first." Reaching for his car keys, MJ made his way out the car, as he felt the sweat that broke upon his forehead.

The man backed away, never taking his light off of MJ as he slowly made his way up to Nayely's front door. Looking over his shoulder, he saw that while the man had retreated, his eyes were still trained on him.

Rapping lightly against the door, MJ's chest ached as his heart beat faster with each passing moment. Bracing his arm against the frame, he grimaced at the strange sensation that coursed through his body. If only he could last long enough for the man to finally decide to go back into his home. Fear took hold of MJ, and told him to not be naïve enough to believe that a concerned neighbor wouldn't have already taken down a description of his car, ready for the moment they needed to call the police.

Trying to calm down the shaking of his shoulders, MJ's body worked against him.

 

Nayely just finished removing the last of her makeup after returning home on a sour note. After dropping off Maya to her waiting partner, she had made her way back home, disappointed to find that she was unable to enjoy the remnants of the night she had with Maya.

The look of Kahlil's surprise still burned in her head and had only become worse at the mention of MJ's name.

If she had any idea that the after party would have led her so close to ruining her years of dedication to avoiding the one person she could never face again, she never would have agreed to go.

At the sound of her phone, Nayely mindlessly answered, only to find one of her neighbors on the other line.

"I was just calling to let you know that my husband and I happen to notice a man sitting outside your house. Would you happen to know of any one who would do such a thing?"

"A man?"

"Yes, I'm pretty sure he was at your house just a few days ago as well."

Concern struck as Nayely's instincts led her to believe that Terrence had once again shown up at her home. Clenching her fist, she wondered why he would be sitting outside with no warning. Had her new alarm system prevented him from making his way in as he pleased?

"Is it a red sports car?" Nayely asked just to be safe.

"No, nothing like that. I'm sorry but my husband knows cars, all I can tell is that it's some large truck SUV thing just parked out front. It's been here for awhile and we were getting ready to phone the police, but I just wanted to make sure this wasn't someone you may know or want at your house."

"I wasn't expecting any visitors, but I'll make sure to check this out. Thank you for calling, I appreciate it."

"Of course, dear. If you need anything, don't be afraid to ring us!"

Ending the call, Nayely moved about her house, pondering whether or not it was necessary to grab her hidden golf club. Before she could find it, she could hear the faint sound of soft knocks against her front door.

This was definitely not Terrence. Knowing him, he would have made sure to have his presence known. These knocks were so soft, it seemed as though the person on the other side hadn't intended for her to hear them.

Having her phone ready to call for help if needed, Nayely moved to check her monitor, knowing that her cameras would tell her all she needed to know.

When she brought up the display, the only thing that could be heard in the house was the sound of her phone dropping to the ground.

The man curled up against her front door looked to be in pain as he struggled to stand up. When his head tilted up, every suspicion Nayely had on the figure she could never forget was proven true.

MJ.

Shock went through her body as she was prepared to ignore his sudden arrival. Yet, as she watched him squirm in the monitor, her heart told her that ignoring him would cause more trouble than she realized. With feet that felt trapped in stone, she made her way to the door, slowly unlocking it. She could sense the weight of his body against the door as she hesitated in the final moments before pulling it open.

When his taller frame had tumbled in, she saw a quick flash of recognition in his eyes before they began to turn back. On the ground, MJ convulsed in Nayely's arms as she fought to make sense of what was going on.

As the seizure persisted, Nayely's memory crackled as a time came when she witnessed her mother treating her father during an overdose. She had remembered his body shivering so much, that she had brought a blanket to help keep him warm. At the time she had no idea what a seizure was and the amount of danger her father's life had been in at the time.

Gently moving MJ onto his side, Nayely was able to avoid panicking as she placed her hand between his head and the ground.

"My phone." Knowing she had to call 911, Nayely looked for her phone so that she could get help as soon as possible.

Seeing the phone tucked away into a shadow far from her reach, Nayely felt around in MJ's pockets. Surely, he had to have his phone on him. If she waited any longer, who knew what could happen.

At the feel of his device against his leg, Nayely pulled it out, instantly accessing the emergency keypad.

Caressing his head in the palm of her hands, Nayely didn't fight the tears that streamed down her face." Oh, God." She whimpered.

"911, what's your emergency?"

 

Chapter 10 by ValleyofLight

 

Nayely's legs shook against the ground as she waited impatiently for the doctor to return. She had lost track of time the moment MJ's body came tumbling into her home.

"Make sure to stabilize him."

"Tighten that strap.We need to move him."

Nayely's eye's switched between the EMTs as they worked quickly. The front door of her home had turned into a mini emergency room as everyone moved to get MJ to better conditions.

She hadn't realized that the object she nearly crushed in her hand was MJ's vibrating phone. Her mind had been preoccupied with this life or death situation to the point that she couldn't even answer the calls coming through.

"Is he going to be okay?" Pushing her fingers into the roots of her hair, Nayely felt caught up in the chaos. She knew she probably didn't deserve to be concerned with MJ's life, but the thought of losing his presence in anyway was devastating. She had done what he asked for all these years, surely making sure he stayed alive wouldn't upset him.

The sound of his body shaking against the restraints made her go numb. It was the third seizure he'd gone through since their arrival. A loud squealing sound filled Nayely's mind as she watched the professionals handle the situation in ways that she couldn't. In that moment, she could still feel the heaviness of his head in her hand as she had held him earlier. With her eyes drawn on his convulsing body, Nayely took a step forward, reaching out a hand before she was stopped.

"Ma'am. Did you hear me?" A gentleman stood in front of Nayely as he brought her out of her daze.

"We'll be taking him to Regional Heights." With her mouth slack, Nayely blinked rapidly as she shook her head in understanding.

"My keys..." She spoke to herself as she looked around. Securing her purse, she dug around as the EMTs began to make their way to the ambulance.

"My keys!" She gritted her teeth as she continued to search. The wait was hard to bare but it didn't stop her from running to her car. Rushing to the garage, Nayely waited for the door to rise as she felt time slip away. It became harder for her to focus as she watched the backdoors of the ambulance close in her driveway. At the sound of the siren, her eyes followed the lights as they sped away.

"Wait! Damnit." Stomping her feet, Nayely turned her purse upside down, sending its contents flying across the roof of her car. As the last object fell out, she cursed when she finally saw her keys. With shaky hands, she picked them up, but before she could open her car door a voice called out.

"Nayely, is everything okay? Was that the young man who was waiting outside?" Hearing the voice of her older neighbor calling from across the street, Nayely raised a hand once she saw they intended to cross. She had absolutely no time for talk and didn't need to be delayed anymore than she already had.

The husband and wife stopped in their tracks as Nayely's car sped down the driveway, bouncing on it's reliable suspension system as Nayely whipped it without care. With the sounds of the ambulance slowly fading away, Nayely raced to the hospital.

When Nayely had arrived, she had tracked down an employee to ask for MJ's whereabouts. When they had questioned her relation to him, she hesitated on her instinctual answer.

His friend.

After explaining the situation, the best that she could, she was directed to wait before anyone could inform her of his status. Now, she sat, waiting for a hopeful update that would allow her to rest assured that MJ would make it through. Even in that moment, she wasn't sure what had caused his seizures. Was he sick? From what she knew, he couldn't afford to be halted when he had finally achieved his dream. She could still recall all of the time she spent being MJ's audience as he practiced for audition after audition for school productions. A small grin broke through her tense expression, as she covered her mouth with her hand.

Pinching the bridge of her nose willing herself to not get emotional, Nayely was given a break from her memories as MJ's phone began to vibrate in her hand.

Slowly turning it over, she read the name that shined across its screen.

Biting her lip, Nayely wondered what the possible outcome could be if she were to answer Kahlil's call. After their surprise run in that night, she would be defeating the purpose of dipping out of the party to avoid him if she were to answer now. She didn't have the strength to answer any questions that he may have had. After all, she had lost contact with Kahlil as well and a part of her feared that MJ had confided in him the tragedy her blood had brought into his life. For all she knew, being MJ's friend, Kahlil could have made the decision to stay by his side out of disgust for Nayely's father.

What Nayely wanted to do and what she needed to do were two different things. She could dwell on the unknown later when she was alone, but right now, she had to prioritize making sure someone who MJ wouldn't mind waiting for him once he awoke was there.

"I know you'd rather I leave you alone right now, but you can't just up and leave the way you did. You couldn't just pick up the phone to let me know you were good?" The moment Kahlil heard the call being answered, he wasted no time in expressing how he felt. "We're boys, you can't just do shit like that."

A beat passed with no response, which Kahlil took the opportunity to calm down.

"MJ." He called out, deciding to take a less abrasive approach to reaching out to his friend. He knew that what happened tonight would leave him in a vulnerable state, and if he could avoid making it worse, then he would reel in his anger for now.

"This isn't MJ." The quiet sound of the female voice on the other line finally spoke up. "You should come to Regional Heights. I don't know what's going on, but MJ is going to need you."

"Who is this?" Kahlil asked knowingly. This was the same voice he had heard at the party when he had been lost in his thoughts. His suspicions were confirmed once the woman answered.

"It's Nayely."

"How-I mean why-"

"Listen. Whatever you're about to ask, I don't have an answer for. I'm actually pretty confused about all of this myself. But-but I think you should just get down here to see about him. I don't know how things are going to turn out, so you should be prepared for anything. Remember, Regional Heights." Nayely ended the call when she heard the door to the restricted area open. Seeing an older doctor emerge, she immediately stood as he came to her.

"Are you Min Jae Park's guardian?" Hearing the question being directed towards her felt wrong. She wondered if she should let the doctor know that a more appropriate person would be there soon, but the need to know what she would be walking away from was stronger.

"Is he okay?"

"Thankfully, we've managed to get him in the clear. When he arrived, he did enter cardiac arrest, but after getting him to a stable condition, we were able to determine that this is all do to a drug overdose. We've administered Valium and are going to continue to monitor his state."

Nayely's body stilled as the doctor's words washed over her.

"Is he-?"

"We'll be moving him shortly and will be sure to send someone out to let you know." With a nod of his head, the doctor returned through the sliding doors leaving a bewildered Nayely to take in all that had been thrown at her.

Her head began to ache as the severity of the night weighed on her. To make sure she didn't end up in the hospital for fainting from shock, she fell back into the seat, wishing that Kahlil could get here as soon as possible.

 

Standing before the private room, Nayely held her breath as she moved across the threshold. The sterile feeling of the hospital made what she saw even worse. In the center of the room lied an unconscious MJ, as the tranquilizers used to relax him worked their magic.

Though she knew he was out, she still worried that her footsteps could possibly draw him out of his much-needed sleep. Across the room was a nurse who tended to the machines that surrounded the man. When Nayely's presence was known, she caught a glimpse of the nurse sliding a cell phone into her pocket. Turning on her heel, she gave a terse smile before gathering her clipboard and exiting the room.

Following her with her eyes, Nayely got a sense of trouble from the young woman. When the sounds of MJ's heartbeat sounded in her ears, she was brought back to why she had entered the room in the first place.

Nayely's heart shattered as MJ coldly turned his back on her. The look of betrayal on his face brought her to her knees. How could this have happened? All she wanted to do was protect him.

Closing her eyes, Nayely suppressed the memory of the last time she had been this close to the one person she thought she would always have. With each step she took, she closed the space between them, wanting to take advantage of the chance to see him up close. She believed he would feel angered to know that the person he demanded to stay out of his life now stood above him with complete disregard for his wishes.

But as Nayely was faced with the paleness of his face, she knew she would have to ask for his forgiveness later as for this one moment, she couldn't honor his wishes. Her tears fell to his hand as she couldn't hold back anymore.

"How did this happen?" She asked through her cries. Drugs? That wasn't like MJ. The MJ she knew had never been the type to even experiment as kids. The thought of him finding himself into a position where this became his solution to whatever he struggled with broke her heart. She knew she had no right, but she wanted to shake him out of his sleep and ask what the hell he could have been thinking to begin using.

They both had to grow up with parents who chose a quick fix over the lives they were to build and protect for their children. Nayely thought the hurt that they both understood would have managed to shield them from ever mirroring the worst habits of their parents.

Using her fingers to wipe away the droplets that slid along his hand, Nayely felt herself lingering more than she should have. Gliding her fingers over the dips of his knuckles, she brought her fingertips to his own. Softly lifting his hand from the bed, she welcomed the wait of his skin against hers as she balanced the sensitive tips with her own.

"Nayely." Lost in the moment, it was unclear when Kahlil had entered the room or how much he had witnessed. Wiping her face before pulling away, she avoided meeting his eyes as he peered around.

"I can't believe its really you." Looking from the bed and back to her face, Kahlil placed a hand against her shoulder." Thank you for being here for him."

"No. It's not what you think I just-here." Remembering that she held onto MJ's phone, she pushed it to Kahlil ridding herself of the responsibility.

"Hold up, Nayely." Kahlil protested, blocking her from leaving." You don't have to leave right now."

"Yes, I do. I shouldn't be here, and you know it."

"Look, I know its been a long time since we've seen each other, but do you really think this is a time to run away?"

"Run away?" Nayely asked in disbelief as for a moment she could feel Kahlil challenging her. Was he really that stupid to think that things could be normal after all this time?

"This is just like back then. You two just up and quit and-"

"This is nothing like that!" She hissed at the accusation.

"Isn't it? Do you know how many times I asked MJ what went down between the two of you? I just figured you were having a little fight and would get over things. But both of you just ignored me, keeping me out."

"I wasn't ignoring you." Nayely had fallen into a deep depression during that time. It had consumed her so much that she had almost forfeited attending college, intent on slipping away so that no one could find her. She could still remember travelling by foot to the overpass that stood above the busy highway one night. Her hands had gripped the railing as she wondered how soon things could come to an end if she just took the leap. However, after concerned bystanders put in numerous calls of a suspicious person, she was soon met by police officers who helped talk her away from the edge.

From then on, she realized that if she couldn't be with MJ, all she needed was to exist in the same world as him.

"You know you can stay, Nayely." He said filling the silence her thoughts had left. "At least stay to see that he's really okay."

"You can take it from here. In your mind, me being here might be helpful, but I think he would feel differently. He doesn't need any more stress right now."

Shifting past Kahlil's taller frame, Nayely's feet moved towards the door despite the invisible string of regret that pulled at her ankle, begging her to stay just a bit longer. She knew what would be best.

"Wait-can you at least tell me how you found him?"

Her hand gripped the handle of the door as she contemplated her response.

"I didn't find him." Nayely thought about the irony of the situation. She had told herself that staying away was what she had to do and saw to it that she swallowed any moments of weakness that would force her to violate MJ's command. Yet, it was he who broke the agreement she was compelled to follow.

"He found me."

 

 

The hallways of the hospital began to feel as though they were caving in on her as she weaved in and out of the bustling hospital. Even during the early hours of the morning, the doctors and nurses worked hard to save those in their time of need.

Up ahead, Nayely's eyes landed on a familiar face. Just before they passed, she couldn't ignore the wide-eyed look in the nurse's eyes as she picked up speed to pass.

When a tight grip on her arm pulled her back, the nurse's nerves began to work against her.

"Is-Is there something you need?" She feigned ignorance as Nayely's face was devoid of a pleasant smile.

"Your phone." Holding out her hand, she watched the woman react by looking around before pulling away.

"I'm sorry. If you need to make a call you can go to the front desk and someone can assist you there."

"Is that picture really worth being barred from ever working again?"

"I don't know what you're talking about."

The woman went on the defensive as she narrowed her brows.

"If you don't, then I'm sure HIPAA can better explain why you need to give me your damn phone."

The woman's face turned red as she reluctantly pulled her device out, unlocking it. Other nurses and doctors looked on curiously as embarrassment rolled over the guilty nurse. When one of her colleagues approached to see if things were okay, Nayely went through her phone, deleting the pictures that had been taken. Hitting her nametag with the tip of her phone, Nayely looked into her eyes.

"Ma'am is everything okay here?" The nurse who was ignorant to what was going on was prepared to get defensive as she watched her co-worker cower.

"If I hear anything about a picture of that patient being leaked, be ready to lose it all. I never forget a name or face. You'll be the first one I come for." Looking the nurses up and down, Nayely tilted her head as she waited for a response.

"I apologize." The nurse said breathlessly as she stumbled away. Her colleague began to piece things together and quickly followed her, as she began to feel secondhand embarrassment.

Shaking her head, Nayely wondered what else could possibly be in store for her.

 

 

"Mommy. You have to get up. I want to go home." MJ's small hands kneaded at his mother's back as she gave no resistance to his insistent pleads. Breath had left her body long ago, and all that the child was left with was the residual heat he could still feel from her skin. Lying down beside her, MJ buried his head into her hair as he cried. He didn't care about the gross stuff that covered her and he didn't care about the strong hands that tried to pry him away from her body.

He held on with all that he had left.

MJ's heavy lids fluttered open as he came to. The lethargic feeling throughout his limbs told him not to rush getting out of bed. He wondered if he had slept through his alarm once again after the night he had. The stale taste in his mouth made him grimace as he thought about getting to his bathroom so that he could brush his teeth.

Throat dry, MJ made an effort to lift himself up but was quickly stopped.

"Woah, you ain't going nowhere anytime soon." Kahlil's voice spoke out.

"MJ, are you okay?"

Christina?

MJ was confused as to why the two of them were in his apartment so early. Thinking back to the fiasco with Danny, he realized they must have come to check on him after he stormed off.

"I'll let them know he's awake." Christina's voice spoke softly to Kahlil as she made good on her words.

"What are you two doing here?" Blinking away the drowsiness, MJ's senses finally began to come back to him. The constant beep at his side ringed in his ears, and the feeling of tubes and wires stuck into his stiff body were unfamiliar.

"You overdosed, MJ." Sitting back as he watched his friend come to terms with what was surrounding him, Kahlil wasted no time in filling him in.

"I don't know how, and I don't know why, but luckily you ended up at Nayely's place just before things went left. If it hadn't been for her..."

Nayely.

MJ's eyes fluttered once again as he could see the horrified look on her face through a grainy memory in his mind.

"I don't understand."

"You and me both."

The two were interrupted as a doctor entered the room, followed by a nurse and frantic Christina.

"It's good to see you up and alert, Mr. Park."

The older man reached out a hand to MJ as the nurse slowly raised his bed to a sitting position.

"Dr. Feinstein. I want to walk you through some things I'm sure you'll be glad to know." As the doctor explained the ups and downs of MJ's visit, he became lost in the terminology as one singular fact ate away at him.

He had used so much that he nearly killed himself.

The thought bulldozed him over as what had almost happened made him feel sick to his stomach.

"We suggest moving you to a rehabilitation center to ensure some privacy while you recover. Your body took a major hit, and right now you need to be as careful as possible. You fought hard, so let's not let this victory go to waste." Dr. Feinstein waited for MJ to process the news.

"Thank you. For what you've done." MJ was lost for words, but he was present enough to know that he needed to show his gratitude for the work that kept him here.

"Of course, Mr. Park. If it hadn't been for the young woman who accompanied you here, things could have been a lot worse for you." Referring to Nayely, Dr. Feinstein conducted his last observations before leaving the room.

Once the three were alone, MJ raised his hand to his face.

"What woman was he talking about?" Christina looked to Kahlil for an answer he was reluctant to give.

"Where is she?" MJ couldn't stop his lips from moving.

"Nayely left hours ago. I tried to get her to stay, but it was pointless." Kahlil revealed, still causing Christina to be confused.

"Who is this Nayely person? Do you know where I can find her? I don't think this has gotten out yet, but I'll make sure to keep her quiet until we can make our next move-"

"Don't worry about it, Christina."

"I have to MJ. A video just so happened to be sent in last night after the fight. I know Danny's people are behind it. If this woman could possibly talk, I need to get to her before she can even think of doing it. People will hop on a story like this like a pack of dogs."

Luckily, Nayely's unknown intervention with the nurse helped to lift this worry from MJ's life.

"She's nobody, Christina." MJ insisted to Kahlil's surprise. Judging from his little journey the night before, that was a bold-faced lie. When he cleared his throat, MJ corrected himself.

"By that I mean she's no one you need to worry about. She-she wouldn't do something like that." Dropping his gaze to his hands, a ghost like feeling sent a tingling sensation through the tips of his fingers. Curling his hand into a fist, he allowed his back to fall against the pillows that supported him.

"You're going to be out for a while." Christina huffed as she crossed her arms. " I need to check up on a few things. I'll swing by later to bring you a bag." Reaching to clasp his hand in hers, Christina's eyes looked on with care.

"Please, get some rest. You're going to see this through. I just know it." With that, Christina left.

A stilled silence drifted between Kahlil and MJ as he took a seat, releasing a stress filled breath as he turned his head to the ceiling.

"Ronnie stayed up all night calling to check on you. We were both flipping out after what happened." Sitting up, Kahlil rested his elbows against his thighs as he looked to MJ. "Then to call your phone just to have Nayely answer?  I'm still trying to catch up here."

"I didn't mean for any of this to go down."

"Don't worry about-this-this getting fixed." Waving his hands at the treatments, Kahlil was much more concerned over an ongoing issue that had never been addressed.

"But what I know for damn sure is the thing that's kept you from seeing Nayely has to be the same thing that sent you to her house last night." There was no need to beat around the bush. Kahlil had seen the change in MJ firsthand, so he knew that the hardness he had built up when it came to the topic of Nayely was all superficial. Once upon a time, just the sheer mention of her name would send MJ into a rage, but eventually it simply became untouched territory. Kahlil had been pissed long ago when it felt like the two people he was closest two had frozen him out, but when he saw the way MJ changed for the worst, he stuck it out, not wanting to leave him on his own.

He knew that one day the time would come when they'd have no choice but to face what pushed them apart. He had to be a witness to it.

"I've sat back and watched you not be yourself for so long. I kept my thoughts to myself because I knew how you felt-but now you can't tell me that even you're not tired of the bullshit." Shrugging his shoulders, Kahlil begged for some explanation. "Otherwise, how did we get here?"

"I wasn't thinking straight last night. All I can remember is waking up in front of her place, and going to her door. After that-I'm not sure what happened."

"Have you two been talking again?"

"No. We haven't."

"Then how did you-"

"It just happened." Why had he done it? All MJ had wanted last night was to be alone. He had every intention of locking himself into his apartment so that he could allow the anger he felt to fall away, yet he had ended up far from home.

The sound of his increasing heartrate told Kahlil that this was not a conversation that should be held there. Backing away, he opted to not cause anymore stress as it was now clear and undeniable that something within MJ had stirred him to seek out Nayely.

"I have a favor to ask." Kahlil listened intently, willing to do whatever he needed to help his friend.

"What's up?"

"I need some help getting my car. I kind of left it there."

"At Nayely's? Where does she stay?"

"I'm not sure." He admitted. When Kahlil's eyebrow quirked up, he sighed before turning to look away. "Like I said it kind of just happened."

 

 

 

Nayely circled around MJ's car, trying to decide if this was something she should report in. With a quick call, she was sure she could have someone come and tow it away but thinking of the added headache it would create to his situation, she hadn't yet followed through with the plan. Placing her hand against the handle of the driver's side door. She pulled until she heard the clicking sound that showed the vehicle had not been locked.

Looking inside, Nayely was taken aback by the sight of the drug paraphernalia that lied scattered in the driver's seat. Had he been using while he drove here? With her hand braced against the seat, she could feel a dusty substance beneath her palm. Realizing what it must have been, Nayely quickly pulled away, wiping her hands off.

Leaning her head against the doorframe, she accepted the hard truths of her lost friend. Deep down, a feeling of disappointment began to rise, though it would ultimately mean nothing. She had been out of his life for far too long, so pushing away the need to help him had to be done. That was simply not her place anymore.

Closing the door, Nayely turned to the sound of an approaching car. Her body tensed when she was able to see Kahlil's face staring back at her.

"You too?" She asked incredulously as Kahlil hopped out of his car. Walking around the front, he was greeted be an exasperated Nayely who couldn't understand how her house had become so easy to find.

"I don't mean any harm." Holding his hands up in innocence, Kahlil carefully approached his old friend. A small smile was offered as he hoped the girl he once knew was still there, but all he was met with was a skeptical expression as she was wary to get involved any more than she was now.

"I thought you'd like to know that MJ is awake and he's doing okay. They're going to watch him for a little while longer and then move him to a rehab facility. It's going to be awhile before he's back to his old self."

Shuffling her feet, Nayely took in Kahlil's words, knowing that the last sentence was something only he would know about.

"If you'd like, I can let you know what happens from here on out. If you give me your number, I can just-"

"You don't need to do that. Really. This is his personal life, I know I'm the last person he'd want you letting in to that."

Realizing her feelings were going to continue to hold up this façade, Kahlil looked around the street.

"This is a nice area. It makes sense." He offered as he tried to ease her in to speaking with him. It almost felt like he was standing before someone he had never met before as her coldness warded him off. "I can see you've been doing good."

"I'm great. Now, are you waiting for someone else to come help you? How did you expect to get his car moved when you already have your own?" Icing him out, Nayely redirected the conversation. She hadn't meant to sound so detached, but it couldn't be helped.

"I was hoping you could help me out with that."

"Kahlil!" The sound of her annoyance as she said his name brought Kahlil closer to the times they had once spent together. He was always up to something that was sure to irritate a young Nayely, but no matter what, most of his antics always drew laughter from her.

Feeling more comfortable, Kahlil's shoulders relaxed.

"I'm saying! You follow me back to his place, we drop the car off, and I'll give you a ride back here."

"I'm not trying to run around town doing this. I've got things to do. I can help you find a tow truck to take the car but I'm just not doing it."

"Who knows how long that could take? They may not be able to send someone out for another hour, and it's pretty hot outside, I'd probably need to come in and sit down with you. You know, chill out and talk so I can know what you've been up to." The ultimatum was one he knew she'd hate even more. Kahlil was proven right as he watched Nayely fight the urge to roll her eyes.

"Come on, Nayely. One and done. You do this for me, and I'll leave you alone. For now, at least." He teased. Lifting MJ's keys towards her, Nayely snatched them away.

"For good." Pulling out her phone, she quickly locked her house, not bothering to go back in for her license. God forbid something would happen where she would need it.

"I appreciate this." Kahlil called out as she pulled herself into MJ's car, but not before gathering the things he had left behind and running to toss them into her trashcan.

If he wanted to, he could add this to the list of reasons to hate her for later.

 

Chapter 11 by ValleyofLight
Author's Notes:

With a new job I think I've finally worked out the kinks to get these updates going again.

Enjoy!

 

 

MJ had found himself sitting in isolation as he stared out the window from his private room. The move to the rehabilitation center went without a hitch. Being in the dark for the last few weeks had helped to keep his mind off of the media frenzy that had followed his overdose. The box office numbers for the opening week of the film had taken less of a hit than everyone had expected as fans went out in droves to counter protests for Danny's actions. Many wanted to show that with or without her, the story was one they had waited for years to be told. It also helped that those intrigued by the drama took it upon themselves to check to see what all the fuss was about so that they couldn't be left out of the conversations that were to be had.

 It had been five weeks since MJ was admitted to the rehab center. Due to his stubbornness, no one was able to visit him during his stay as the staff had not felt MJ had proven himself ready to have visitors. In this moment, Christina was not just his manager, but someone who cared for his wellbeing. She had seen the after effects of his detox just before he was released from the hospital and it was something she would never forget. The first seven days were spent with MJ writhing in agony and gritting his teeth to suppress the pain he felt mentally and physically from the withdrawals. She fought like a warrior fending off any negativity in the media that attempted to show itself in the wake of MJ's sudden absence. As life continued, she had to make sure that she did everything she could so that MJ could rise above this.

Raising his hand to his chest, he still found it hard to fathom how close to death he had come. Mentally, it had been hard to cope with everything that had happened, after all, the pain was still fresh. He had no idea how quickly the toll of Danny's reveal would bring him down. He had even thought he managed to wash his hands of her the moment he kicked her out of his apartment, but now he saw that he had only managed to internalize everything. The moment Danny decided to expose MJ in the worst way possible, he had been driven into a corner, unable to fight his way out. Instead, it was as if he had sat down and allowed himself to be engulfed by the craziness.

In his last-ditch effort to save himself, he went to her.

It made no sense.

The first time he allowed himself to work against his better judgement by following Nayely from the restaurant, he'd beaten himself up for caring about someone who reminded him of the life he had been stripped of. He was reminded of the lies she had told in an attempt to keep him in the dark.

He had never felt a pain that could rival what Nayely had done to him.

So why, at his lowest of lows, did he run to her?

He had dug around in his brain, trying to find a way to understand his decision to take himself to where she was. The truth that he couldn't speak was right on the cusp but went ignored. He had sought refuge with the person who he knew could understand his fears the most. She too had lived through them, and somewhere inside, he hoped that she would catch him before he fell.

He cursed himself when the pathetic actions began to settle in.  

Thinking of his phone, MJ felt the urge to call a certain someone for the thousandth time told him to call just to clear up the misunderstanding he had caused. He saw himself calling Nayely, telling her that what had happened was a mistake and would never happen again. He didn't need her, and he wanted to make sure she knew, but he stopped in his tracks as he had no way to call. After weeks with no electronics, he was happy to know there was no way for him to dig himself into a deeper hole.  Besides, if it didn't matter so much, why speak to her in the first place? He was only going to be setting himself up for failure as it was obvious he was breaking through the hard-set boundaries he had enforced. A phantom pain shot through his chest as he gripped his top in his hands. Catching his breath, he desperately waited for the emotions he felt to simmer back down.

"Mr. Park? It's time for your session." An attendant knocked against the door, allowing herself into the emotionally charged space. Torn away from his thoughts, MJ masked what he had truly been feeling and followed the routine, thankful for an excuse to drift away for now.

Just one more week.

If he could last that long, he would soon be out of his six-week stint in the facility. MJ had to make sure he could prove that he had taken to the treatment that had been given. From one on one therapy to attending group lectures detailing how to avoid and overcome relapsing, he had his fill.

As he followed the young woman down the halls of the building, he couldn't help but remember the time he had spent in the Rose House as a child. Knowing that once again he had landed in a place filled with people coping with the unique history that trailed behind them as they learned to maneuver through their new lives felt like a cruel twist of fate. It was for that very reason he had so much trouble during the beginning of his stay acclimating to his new environment. The patients were told to view the facility as a community where they were not alone in this journey.

Just as he had resisted the prying nature of Doctor Ro as a child, MJ had made slow progress in the counseling he had been receiving during his stay. Initially, he was intentionally non-receptive to the prodding of the staff to help him face the reason why he had nearly died. The more he resisted, he pushed himself closer to receiving an extended stay recommendation from the doctors there. When it had been made clear that by rejecting the treatment, he would be getting nowhere, MJ had to mentally change everything he knew up until then just to make it through.

It hadn't been easy but here he was moving towards the conversation that would confirm whether or not he would be receiving his final evaluation. When the young woman came to a stop before an office, MJ took a deep breath, knowing just how crucial this session was.

When the white door opened to expose the quaint and simple office inside, MJ wiped his palms against the side of his pants.

"Chelsea! Thanks for bringing Mr. Park by!" The cheerful voice of Doctor Smith came from around the door as he emerged with a hot cup of coffee at his lips. Wincing from the heat, he gave a wave of thanks to the young woman as she left the two men on their own. With a wide smile, Doctor Smith greeted MJ.

"Long time no see! Why don't you go ahead and take a seat?" Speaking fast, Doctor Smith strolled to his desk, picking up the notepad MJ had come to recognize during his visits.

"Not too talkative today, are we?" After five weeks, the older man was well aware of MJ's affinity to remain silent whenever he arrived.

When MJ sat in the chair opposite of the doctor's, he quirked up the side of his mouth forcing a smile he knew would help his case. "I'm sure there will be plenty of time for that today."

"You are certainly correct." Taking his seat, the doctor threw one of his long legs over the other, settling in for what would be hopefully be their final meeting. "I know mums the word with you, but today I assure you I have quite a bit I'd like to share as well. But of course, not before I hear how you have been doing since our last visit."

Shrugging his shoulders, MJ offered some conversation. "Early morning yoga, group discussions, and meditation have kept me pretty busy. I have to say I wish I had appreciated it all sooner." Implying his desire to have this be his final week, MJ recounted some of the extracurricular activities he had taken part in.

"So much to do in so little time, huh? Many don't realize just how fast time can pass during their stay. It changes from one person to another, especially when you consider all of the factors that go into being here."

"Six weeks to figure out why we've fucked up our lives can seem impossible to some."

Nodding his head, Doctor Smith took a sip of his drink. " You're right. For some, their entire lives have been steeped in major event after major event and naturally, it takes a lot of energy and effort and time to learn how to handle things such as that."

"Asking someone to find the answer to a problem that has strangled them their entire lives is pretty risky. Who wouldn't go crazy trying to figure that out?"

"Well, I do believe that at the crux of human nature, no matter what an individual has been through, they would do anything to preserve their lives, no?"

MJ's jaw hardened at the question as he knew just how true it was. A flashing memory of Nayely's wide eyes just before he had lost consciousness all those weeks ago hit him.

"So, where are we Mr. Park?" Doctor smith waited as MJ raised his brow.

"I'm guessing, your office, isn't the answer you're looking for?"

"Yes, well, though that is a possible answer, it is not the correct answer in this case." Doctor Smith chuckled in acknowledgement. "When you were first brought in, you were met with a number of new and unfamiliar things. Treatment can be viewed as unpredictable on the patient side as there isn't a clear indication of what to expect when you first arrive. The biggest and sometimes only expectation many may hold is that treatment should lead to recovery. Yet, the steps that are taken to get there aren't always as cut and dry as some would hope. Do you remember your first day with us, Mr. Park?" Doctor Smith placed his notepad aside as he waited for an answer.

"It was a blur." He offered. Shifting in his seat, MJ cleared his throat." I couldn't see where life began or ended. It just-it felt like things were taking on a new shape, but I had no control."

"Now that we have arrived at week six, are you still feeling that way? As if you have no control?"

"To be honest with you, doctor, I still don't know when I lost control or if I ever even had it."

"Oftentimes, we can confuse ourselves with what it is that we control. In some cases, you have no control over the situation you have been placed in, but the perspective with which you view it. From meeting and speaking with you since your arrival, I believe this can be said of you."

Gripping the arm of the chair, MJ's eyes did not avoid the doctor's.

"Think of it this way, Mr. Park. At the beginning, I could barely get a word out of you. You were insistent on riding this experience out by avoiding all of the necessary actions to do so. From where you stand, that could have been easily misinterpreted as having control over your situation." Bringing his body closer to the edge of his seat, Doctor Smith dug deeper into the conversation.

"When you walked through those doors, you saw this as a quick and easy way to resolve your temporary fix to a long-term issue."

"Long-term?" MJ said skeptically." I fucked around and got caught up in some things I shouldn't have. I'd say that the drugs were always a temporary fix to a temporary issue."

"Now, did that temporary issue ever go away? Can you say with confidence that you are absolutely free from what's dragged you to this point in your life?" When met with silence, Doctor Smith clasped his hands together.

"The issue at hand wasn't necessarily just your drug use, Mr. Park. When you sought out an answer through drugs, it was because of the deep roots that have sprouted and lead to parts of you that haven't been discovered just yet. Or maybe parts of you that you have buried and do not wish to find again. This certainly goes beyond just drugs."

There was no way for MJ to refute the doctor's statements at all. He had plenty of time to think of the turn his life had taken and was able to admit that Danny wasn't the root cause for the turmoil he suffered from. When Danny had entered his life, he was already haunted by his mother's death and the connection it had to Nayely.

The two greatest losses in MJ's life had left him unable to understand just what was inching its way to the surface from the darkest parts of his spirit before it was too late. Everything he had repressed nearly claimed his life.

"For that reason, I believe that it is best you continue your treatment so as to keep pace with reaching the point when you are able to identify and seek understanding of the conflicts you suffer from." Flipping through his notebook, Doctor Smith began to look through the papers at hand.

MJ's eyes widened at the implication of the doctor's words. Sinking back in his chair, he tightened his jaw as he realized he had blown his chance to leave rehab. Just how long would they keep him here?

"This here is a comprehensive treatment plan specially made for your post rehabilitation journey. I do have a few recommendations for outside offices that could best fit your needs and help you reach your goals, but the key to success when you walk out of these doors will be your own commitment to getting better. Remember, we can not neglect our mental health, Mr. Park. When that's in order, only then can we truly nurture our overall wellness."

When Doctor Smith slid a thick packet across the table, his face softened as he saw MJ go pale with relief.

"Like we have discussed before, the treatment team here have always been here to support you no matter what. I know it may be hard, but its just as important to find people on the outside who can have a role in your life that is just as fulfilling. You must allow them to do so, of course."

"You say that as if its simple."

"It's only as hard as you make it out to be. I know for a fact that you may distance yourself from the idea of needing anyone, but that's a far cry from what you've shown me in your time here."

Lifting the packet to his lap, MJ took a deep breath. If he was going to make it through, this would become his bible to live by.

 

Nayely's feet glided across the fast-moving belt as she steadied her breaths. This was her last stretch in her workout for the day, yet she could already feel a sense of emptiness as she knew it would soon come to an end. It was an addiction she had built long ago-the need to go faster and farther each time she stepped into her realm. Running had become the most consistent part of her life. The power and strength she felt as she fought against space and time excited her beyond words. Once upon a time, running was symbolic of her leaving behind all of the ills that had hurt her in her life.

But now? It stood for her moving closer to the new life she deserved. Nayely had become determined to make it so. Her intuition told her that she would need to be quick on her feet for the mystery that was waiting ahead for her. What it was, she had no idea, but she knew it was inevitable.

As she felt the belt of the machine gradually slow down, Nayely matched it's speed, feeling the cool air that had beat against her skin become replaced with the heat that rose throughout her body.

"That's right let's bring it on down." Terrence watched over the display as he recorded his observations for the day. Satisfied with her work he clapped his hands as she took her final strides.

"You're looking good, Nayely. You're staying light on your feet just like I told you. Do you feel the difference?" Nayely answered Terrence as she moved to cool down, getting in position to begin her stretches so that her muscles could stay nice and lean post workout.

"The strain is definitely gone." Placing her hands on her hips, Nayely flexed her right leg forward, noting the disappearance of the tenderness she had felt just weeks before. During her training, she had become too distracted and doubled over in pain as she strained the muscle. She was always so careful with her body, but she knew she wasn't immune to mistakes either.

It just bothered her why she had made the mistake.

Since her chance meeting with MJ, it seemed as though her life was prepared to be flipped upside down. Revisiting a past she never wanted to suppress proved to be more difficult than she had first thought. She had created a routine, a consciousness that had helped her survive all of these years of loneliness. No matter the achievements she made or the people she met, she was always lacking, and she knew it.

Nayely had to be honest with herself-she never thought she would have been strong enough to keep on going yet here she was.

She had endured it all with as much fortitude as she could muster up.

The more that Terrence rattled off, Nayely listened closely, providing her thoughts to his observations and suggestions. When they talked running, things were good. There had been no bad blood between the two for the last few weeks which was always appreciated. When they could both do their jobs successfully, everyone got to walk away happy.

After her run in with MJ, Nayely had done her best to mask anything that may have hinted to something being up with her when she saw Terrence. Afterall, they had to continue to work alongside each other as the shoe project carried on. They were close to giving the final tweaks for the filming that went along with the campaign.

The sound of vibrating metal caught both of their attention as Nayely's phone rang inside her bag. As she stretched her lower back, Nayely glanced from her place on the ground as Terrence retrieved her phone. She did not miss the sneaky glance he took as he turned the screen over in his hands, leaning down to hand it to her.

"Who would be blowing you up when you're still in training?" He scoffed as he failed to hide his wonder at the unrecognizable number that displayed on the phone. The messages however offered him fodder for his imagination.

Dropping her feet to the ground, Nayely viewed the messages from the number she had ignored for weeks.

Khalil.

Though she hadn't saved his number, she had memorized it after his weekly check ins were never-ending. Though she never responded to one of them, he never failed to send one just to remind her of his existence.

Your ignore game is strong. I know you see this. Your read receipts are on.

Yeah, she couldn't lie. She had no problem doing a quick sweep of his messages every once in awhile.

MJ gets released this week. I feel like you deserve to know. Hit me back when you get this, I'd hate for you to miss out on anything.

Sitting up, Nayely fought off the wave of dizziness that hit her from the sudden movement. Without thinking, she opened her keyboard with her fingers posed to text back. It was only when she could feel the presence of Terrence walking past that she stopped to realize that she was about to break down the wall she had built.

It's-it's not my business.

She reminded herself.

Rising from the ground, Nayely moved to grab her bag in need of a nice shower and solitude.

As she moved through the gym, she didn't pay any mind to the eyes that followed her. Terrence had seen the mention of a name he had never seen before. As he stayed behind, he racked his brain for any memory that could tell him who the hell MJ was.

Nayely rarely found herself caught up in relationships-something Terrence always made sure to stay on top of-so the thought of there being a man she could possibly be involved with hit a jealousy chord within the married man. Somewhere in his mind, he had convinced himself that Nayely would never have another man in her life.

"Don't talk to them again. Or else rumors may get out that they pass you around in the village."

"What are you talking about? Why would anyone think-"

Grabbing Nayely by the elbow, Terrence ignored the way she flinched at his touch. It stroked his ego to see her eyes widen and her stubbornness fall to him. It was just like the night of his engagement party. It had taken so long to break her, and with a little more push, she'd be right where he wanted her. He'd had his taste and plotted the day he would get another.

"Just do what I say."

Nah.

He could never let that happen.

 

When Nayely made her way into the special dining hall that catered to the athletes who frequented the training center, she allowed her nose to lead her down the buffet style lines to get her fill. This was one of her favorite parts about the sport-the recovery. Deciding that she had more than enough food to last her for the first round, Nayely found herself at a booth tucked away in the corner. With her headphones in and fork to her mouth, she joined in on the comfortable silence that could be heard as other's settled in.

When Nayely managed to get to the bottom of her plate, she was finally able to take in the sounds of light conversations that shifted throughout the room. Only a brief moment of regret filled her when the last piece of veggie pizza no longer looked appetizing. She had imagined it piled high with meat but now as the illusion wore off, her stomach protested another bite.

"You know you're allowed to get seconds, right?" A shadow cast over the table as a familiar face spotted Nayely from across the room and decided to join her.

"I bet you know all about seconds, don't you?" Leaning on her elbows, Nayely stared down the woman who took a step back from the table in surprise. After a moment of flexing, she broke her façade with a smile as Cheyenne Johnson put on her best offended face.

"You're wrong for that, you know?"

"Now you know I never got my chance to celebrate in your face, girl."

"I'm glad! It would have only been worse in the moment when you would have really been feeling yourself!" Pulling Nayely from the booth, Cheyenne wrapped her arms around her shoulders as they embraced each other.

Rubbing her hands across her back in a warm greeting, Nayely felt happy to see a friend. She could still remember the first time they had met years ago when Cheyenne was still an aspiring middle school runner. Stepping back to admire the bright and wide tooth gap that she showed off confidently, Nayely was happy to know that two great competitors could share genuine moments like this. They both still kept an old polaroid that had been taken after Nayely's return from her victorious Olympics debut where Cheyenne had promised to work hard enough to one day beat her idol.

"What have you been up to? I feel like I haven't seen you around as much." Holding her hand, Nayely led Cheyenne to sit across from her.

"Well, I had to take some time off that I wasn't expecting. You know my mama isn't getting much better. Sometimes I'll call home and Daddy answers the phone sounding all tore up. I made some time and went back to Houston to be with them a little while."

The topic of her mother's battle with Lupus was one Cheyenne had only shared with Nayely. In their world, she tried to keep her most troubling issues at bay so that she would be able to focus on her training. In the midst of knowing how much her mother's life had changed and the fact that she was far away, Cheyenne had trusted the woman who had become her mentor once she had joined the team early on. Nayely had even become close with Cheyenne's parents and little siblings, having visited during holidays and other special occasions many times throughout the years. She had become and integral part of Cheyenne's life.

"I've got to get out there to see her again. I know the last time I visited you could see it was taking a toll, but she refused to show it."

"Who are you telling? As soon as I walked in the house, she hopped up and started moving around like nothing was wrong. "Shaking her head, Cheyenne pulled her hat closer to her short pixie cut. "I just wish I could be there. If you're coming for Thanksgiving this year, we need to take some pictures. I want to bring some back whenever I can."

Nodding her head in agreement, Nayely listened on as Cheyenne cracked jokes and spoke of many things that had been missed over the last few weeks.

"You know what, while I'm thinking about it, since when did your man spend so much time mentoring?" Cheyenne sipped from her water bottle as Nayely froze, giving her a confused look.

"Who's man?"

"Your man!"

Shaking her head from side to side, Nayely waved her hand. "You better not be talking about who I think you are."

"I sure am! You know he walks around like he has a wifey, girlfriend, and mistress." Nayely shuddered from the insinuation, as they both shared the same repulsion towards Terrence.

"And who exactly has he been mentoring?"

"Well-take a look for yourself." Pulling up a quick search, Cheyenne pushed her phone towards Nayely. Noticing the Instagram page laced with track and field pictures, Nayely's attention was held by one image in particular. She studied the photo collage noting the article headlines celebrating the high school star alongside an image of the teen smiling proudly at the camera.

"Oh-Oh wow."

"Right?"

Squinting her eyes, Nayely had to confirm that what she was seeing was real. If she didn't know any better, she would have thought that she was staring at an old picture of herself. Of course the girl was much thinner than she was at her age, there was no mistaking the similarities. From the softness of her full features to the flowing hair that trailed behind her, Nayely was staring at her mini me.

"This is flipping me out. I just-"

"I only started working with the girls at River Heights these last few months. One of the girls sent this article in our group chat and well I got curious and went to hard on my Instagram searches." Pulling the phone back, Cheyenne began scrolling intently.

"What does that have to do with Terrence?" Nayely was aware of the connection his family had to the prestigious high school but was still in awe of how much the young girl she had been shown mirrored her.

Flipping her phone back in Nayely's direction, Cheyenne spoke in a low tone.

"You tell me..."

A knot formed in the pit of her stomach as Nayely tried to understand the picture before her. The young runner's face was at the forefront of the selfie as she puckered her lips for the camera. The large black t-shirt she wore was hidden behind a broad shoulder that obscured the last letters of the word ‘coach' written across the breast.

The girl's free hand curled affectionately against the neck of the topless man resting against her chest.

The profile of a man Nayely had seen for the last 8 years. One she could never miss.

"That's..."

"Terrence." Cheyenne finished.

Dropping the phone to the table, Nayely stared wide eyed as the weight of the picture made it hard to breathe.

 

Chapter 12 by ValleyofLight
Author's Notes:

Enjoy this next chapter! It's snowing where I live so I'm all snuggled up for the day.

 

Nayely's finger's flitted across her keyboard as she sat at her kitchen table. Her bottom lip was pulled between her teeth as she typed into the search bar, hoping to find the right answer to her problem. She had found herself debating on how to go about reporting Terrence's misconduct, wanting to make sure she did things the right way. On the way home from seeing Cheyenne, she guided herself to the closest police station, ready to burst in and scream out Terrence's dirty deed. However, as she sat in the parking lot, she was stilled into hesitancy as the fear of having to bear this news alone clamped down on her. Before she had left Cheyenne, she had rejected her offer to join her in reporting what they suspected to be a relationship between Terrence and the high school athlete.

Nayely stared in confusion as a bitter taste was left in her mouth. When Cheyenne took back her phone, she shuddered thinking of the photo she had revealed to her friend.

"Now, come on. Tell me that isn't Terrence for sure."

"I-I don't know." Nayely shook her head as her thoughts became jumbled up. "I mean... it looked a lot like him but-"

"Of course, that was him! There's no way a little teenage boy is walking around looking like that. Right?"

"Have you shown this to anyone else?" Nayely asked. From what she saw, the photo was months old. Had anyone else seen the disgusting proof of Terrence's ways? Nayely couldn't place the anxious feeling that rose as her own mind travelled back to when she was younger and her own experience with the older man.

The initial shock she had felt began to wear off as anger replaced it. Nayely could only imagine how a young girl would have gotten caught up with a man who knew his away around impressionable students. Nayely saw red as she remembered just how lost she felt when facing the inappropriate turn Terrence took their relationship long ago. At a fresh 20 years old, Nayely had thought that she would burst from keeping the crush she had on Terrence a secret during their first year of working together. Most of her formative years were spent more than fulfilled with what the relationship she had with MJ gave her.

Peace, love, and serenity. She had all that she needed in him. However, once high school was over and the divide between the two became too wide to bridge, she had stumbled around in forming relationships with others. Nayely had tunnel vision as she simply focused on her track career, knocking expectations out the park each and every competition. When she had made herself known, Terrence found his way to her as he could never turn away the potential fame. At first, she was more than astounded at the fact that a member of one of the leading families in their field had studied her close enough to keep up with her races.

She could still remember being called in by her coach to meet a special friend who had shown great interest in her talents. He had promised to take her far, supporting her in a way that no one else would be capable of. Nayely never would have predicted that a once in a lifetime meeting filled with awe and gratefulness for Terrence's desire to work with her would have locked her into years of confinement that blinded her.

"I personally haven't. I don't know if anyone else has seen this or what, but I just thought I should let you know just in case anything pops off. You never know with these things." Pulling her arms close to her chest, Cheyenne shook her head. "I never liked Terrence, but this? This is something I never would have imagined."

Cheyenne's intuitive nature couldn't help but sense the shift in Nayely's demeanor. She watched as she licked her lips, swallowing hard as if she had become parched. Nayely's eyes blinked rapidly as she looked tempted to crawl out of her own skin.

"Hey, are you good?" Cheyenne lowered her voice as she placed her hand on Nayely's. The simple touch seemed to do the job of bringing the startled woman back to the present.

Thinking that she had made her upset, Cheyenne moved quickly to remedy the situation.

"You know what? Maybe I'm just tripping. That's probably what I get for snooping through her photos. There's no way that can be Terrence. If it was that'd make him a-"

"Pedophile. If that's him half naked with a sixteen-year-old girl-he's a pedophile and he's my coach."

"Nayely, this has nothing to do with you. Don't even do that to yourself. We don't even know for sure if that's really him."

A moment passed as Nayely's head slowly fell towards her chest. She had to do something. How could she not? What kind of woman would she be if she were to let something this serious stay hidden?

"The closest police station is 15 minutes away. If you're down, then we can hop in my car and-"

"Cheyenne." Nayely interrupted her. In the younger woman's eyes, she could see that she had read her mind and committed herself to helping Nayely out with whatever she did.

"Someone has to say something, Nayely. This picture was posted only 4 months ago-that means this shit could be still going on! Did that look like the first time they've been together?"

"Please. The last thing I want to think about is a kid and a grown ass man being together. Like that isn't-" Nayely choked on the final word as it was something she hadn't spoken in 8 years.

"Rape? Yeah, that's exactly what this is no matter how they try to spin it. Terrence is a sick fuck! It's official!" Digging around in her bag, Cheyenne searched for her keys as she ranted on. "As soon as we show them this picture, give them Terrence's name, it's all set! They should pick his ass up as fast as possible. He's a danger to children."

"And you know what!" Cheyenne suddenly remembered how the girls she looked after had gotten into a conversation about their zodiac signs and birthdays during one of their breaks. "I promise you this girl only turned sixteen two months ago. Isn't the age of consent eighteen?" She slammed her hands down on the table looking for clarification.

"I-I'm not sure, Cheyenne."

"Well, it doesn't even matter because he's all around wrong for this. Is he still here? Let's go before he pops up." Before Cheyenne could stand, Nayely's hand gripped her forearm stopping her.

Pulling her back to the seat, Nayely looked around as she spoke low. "Is this enough?" Looking down to the picture, she began to question if this was all they needed to seal away Terrence's fate. Something she had learned throughout the years was that he always found a way out of nothing. She had to know that if she turned him in, he couldn't slip through the cracks.

Cheyenne's lips moved but offered no sound as she considered the question. "How could it not be? It's him! You knew it was him the moment you saw it! If we screenshot this and get this to the police as soon as possible, they'd know just what this means."

"You can't even see his face."

"But you can!"

Pulling the phone from her hand, Nayely turned it around to show Cheyenne once again. "It's only his profile. We could take this to a police station, tell them it's without a doubt Terrence, and still get turned away because there's no way they could just match this up easily. Then what?"

"Well then we could-I mean it shouldn't be that hard to get him-" Cheyenne fell silent as she realized the possibility of Nayely's words. "We can't just let this go."

"I can't. But you will."

"What do you mean? I'm right there with you, girl!"

"No. I don't want you to get involved with this. Who knows what could happen once this gets out?"

"Wait, don't tell me you're thinking of not saying anything?"

"You should know me better than that by now." Nayely took slight offense to the suggestion she would turn a blind eye to this matter. It had to be handled, but if she could avoid entangling Cheyenne into this mess, then by all means she would.

"I feel responsible." Nayely admitted. Holding her forehead in her hands, she could feel tears form in an instant. When Cheyenne saw this, she shook her head vigorously.
"No! What did I tell you? This isn't your cross to bear!"

"I-I should have gotten rid of him a long time ago, but I used to be so afraid I could never get anywhere without him. He made me believe that for so long." Her words trailed off as the memories of the past that flooded her." For that reason, I am responsible. He's the man I took on as my coach and even as my manager."

"This is his sin to carry all the way to hell."

"If that's going to happen, I should be the one to cut him at his knees."

Sliding from the booth, Nayely angrily gathered her things. "I have to go." Before she could move to leave, she was quickly met by Cheyenne.

"I'm sorry. I should have thought about this before I showed you. I didn't think this would really be happening." Hearing the regret in her voice, Nayely slowed down as she turned to her friend.

"There's nothing to be sorry for. I think this was something I needed to see. I-I think it's time I make a change in my life. I have to clean some shit up." Giving her a reassuring hug, Nayely connected with the worried woman's eyes, saying a silent goodbye as she made her way to the exit.

She thought this would be easier than it turned out to be. It felt like the longer she waited, the more time Terrence would have to wreak havoc on the lives he entered. For hours, she had imagined just what the young girl must have been thinking while receiving Terrence's attention. All she could remember was the smile on the child's face as she seemed to proudly showoff adult who should have known better. Cheyenne had messaged her a screenshot and link to the girl's page just in case. Nayely felt the need to swipe her phone of all content once she was able to use the photo, as she felt sullied by its existence.

At one point, she had considered direct messaging the girl to ask for a clear answer, but something told her that may have the opposite effect of having the girl open up to her and be wiling to file a report on her own and instead lead to Nayely losing the key and only piece of evidence she had. If the girl's experience with Terrence was anything like hers when they first met, then it would probably be nearly impossible to convince her to see that what he was doing was wrong.

Dry eyes looked to the corner of her screen to see that it was already 5:34 am. This had kept Nayely up all night, despite the day she had waiting for her. Today was supposed to be filled with shooting her solo scenes for the campaign. She was glad that things were drawing to a close, with her finally being able to meet the students she handpicked at the end of the week. Thinking of the kids she would meet for the first time, she felt disgusted at the thought of Terrence going so low as to manipulate a child the way he had. Knowing that he'd be there in their presence, her stomach turned.

In just two hours, the station would finally be open and she would have her chance to do what she failed to do the day before. Deciding that she couldn't let anymore time slip away, Nayely made her way to the bathroom, ready to start her day off right.

 

"Have a seat here. Officer Sharpe will be with you shortly." Tucking her ID into her wallet, Nayely sat stiffly in the wooden chair as she watched the officers and employees move about the room. She had arrived as soon as their doors were opened and yet it already seemed as though they had many things going on at once. Nayely had fought against the exhaustion she felt from pulling an all nighter, even though she knew it would have been best to arrive bright eyed and bushy tailed to her filming for the day.

The more she thought of her purpose that morning, the less afraid she felt. There would be no more going back and forth with what she should do-now was the time. As she thought of all the things she needed to say, Nayely was approached by a fit officer who stood before her confidently. His close cut gave him the authoritative look those in his position went for. Nayely had never thought much of the police before, as she remembered how often they failed in settling the disputes between her parents. She had figured them useless in many aspects, but for today she wanted to trust that this would be a reason for them to do their jobs.

"Ms. Polite?" The man asked, lending his hand to her. When Nayely returned his gesture, he gave a curt nod. "Officer Sharpe. Why don't you come on back?"

Nayely remained silent as she followed the officer down the hall, to the special room used for conducting interviews for reports. For a moment, Nayely thought back to all of the police shows she had watched in her lifetime. The feeling was so nerve wrecking that she could hear the dramatic suspense filled music that would be heard in a scene like this.

"Go ahead and have a seat right there, I'll be back in just a moment." She hadn't even realized that Officer Sharpe had been standing with the door open, waiting for her to come back to the moment. Following his directions, she squeezed past him into the small bare room, taking a seat at the table.

When she was left alone, she found herself annoyed at the extended wait. She closed her eyes as she counted backwards from one hundred, hoping that would help to clear her mind of the jitteriness she felt. She had to get this right the first time.

At the sound of the door closing softly and a small bottle of water being placed on the table before her, Nayely opened her eyes to see the officer had returned.

"I figured an Olympian like yourself would want to stay hydrated." He spoke as he took his seat, opening a manila folder he had brought with him. Flipping through the papers, he began to set himself up as Nayely cringed at the fact he was able to already bring up who she was so easily. Sometimes she forgot that there were people out there who would know her. She figured the many commercials and ads she was a part of helped to keep her fresh in their brains.

"Thank you." Was all she could offer. Twisting the cap off, she nearly downed the small bottle in two gulps, waiting for this to move along.

"There's no need to be nervous, Ms. Polite. I don't know what's brought you here today, but I can assure you this is the right step to take. This will be a general interview process where I'll need to find out the who, what, where and when." Removing a pen from his shirt, he clicked it for good measure as he braced himself on his forearms, intent on staring her down.

"So, tell me, what brings you in today?"

"I'd like to report an inappropriate relationship." She quickly stated, drawing a raised eyebrow from Officer Sharpe." It's between a minor and an adult." She clarified.

"Understood. Do you happen to have the names of these individuals?"

"Yes, I do. The minor is a young girl-a high schooler." Licking her lips, she could already feel her throat becoming dry. "Her name is Brittany Stewart."

Nayely caught the brief pause that Officer Sharpe had taken at the mention of the girl's name.

"And I must ask, Ms. Polite, what is your relationship with Ms. Stewart?"

"Well that's the thing. I don't have a relationship with her. I don't know the girl at all."

"And you're filing a report involving her?"

"Only because the adult is someone I know." Scratching her nail along the side of the plastic bottle, Nayely took a breath. "Terrence Thompson." Nayely felt like she was getting closer to lifting the weight that sat on her chest.

"Relationship?" Within a matter of moments, a shift could be felt in the room that Nayely could not quite place.

"He's my coach. Has been for years."

Leaning back in his chair, Officer Sharpe spread his legs, losing the attentive posture he held before.

"Terrence Thompson?" The sound of skepticism in his voice alarmed Nayely.

"Yes. Terrence Thompson. I have a picture as proof! This isn't explicit but it's clear what is going on between these two. I'll just-"

"Stop!" The officer's command cut through the air sharply, stilling Nayely's hand as she slid her phone across the table. "You just wait until I ask you the questions I need to." Wishing she could sink back further in her seat, Nayely watched the man carefully as his demeanor changed.

"What makes you think there's something going on between these two? Were you there?" The officer waved his hands in the air, looking for a reason to continue the conversation.

"N-No I wasn't there. But I have a photo that clearly shows-"

"Was this recent?"

"Recent?" Nayely's eyebrows knitted together in confusion. "Does four months count? With something like this who knows how long or often it's happening. That's why I was hoping that after today-"

"Ms. Polite, let's not get ahead of ourselves. I need to determine just what is going on."

"I'm trying to tell you!" Nayely exclaimed as she tapped on her phone screen. "Terrence Thompson is having a relationship with this girl. She's only sixteen! Terrence is a married thirty-eight-year-old man with kids. He's been using this girl, and no one has done anything about it!"

"I need you to calm down!"

"I am calm! I-"

"Quiet!" As Officer Sharpe's hand cut through the air, Nayely could feel her blood boiling. What was going on? "Are you the victim, Ms. Polite?"

"No, but I know the perpetrator. He's sleeping with a child! He has to be stopped as soon as possible."

"That's a very big claim to make. You do understand you can be charged with a misdemeanor for filing a false report?" Officer Sharpe narrowed his eyes, making it evident he was set on only one outcome for the day. Nayely's heart beat against her chest as the situation turned for the worst.

"Officer, I assure this is not false information! I have a picture of the two of them clearly being intimate with one another. Can't you at least investigate this before you say no?" Nayely began to feel desperation seep through her words as she sat bewildered by what was happening.

He hadn't taken a note in so long, she wondered if he would even keep record of her report. "Can't you just look at the photo, and check in on this? What if something happens before this can be handled."

Sighing loudly, Officer Sharpe cut her off. "Listen, what I can do for you today is act as if none of this ever happened. It's in your best interest to get up, walk out this station, and keep your nose out of things that don't concern you. I'm sure there are plenty of things to occupy you in your spare time, don't you think so?"

"Sir!" The scraping of the hair against the ground told her he had made a final decision. Walking towards the door, he opened it wide.

"Have a good day, Ms. Polite."

Nayely's eyes widened in disbelief, as she felt a wave of helplessness fall over her. How? How could this have gone so badly? Bringing her phone to her chest, she was prepared to make one last plea before seeing the daring look in the Officer's eyes as he sensed the next attempt.

On quick feet, Nayely rushed out, burning with rage.

 

The week had passed by painstakingly slow as Nayely was left with the disappointment of her visit to the police station. Today would be the first day that she would have to face Terrence since learning of his activities outside of work.

Nayely clutched her phone as she entered the track and field stadium where the final shoot for the shoe campaign would be held. On this day, she would finally film with the high school students chosen to represent their schools. As the crew below came into better view, Nayely's steps slowed as she could see the outline of Terrence standing at a distance, speaking to a staff member. His sunglasses reflected in the sky as he instantly turned to her. When he raised a hand in greeting, Nayely's dark mood deteriorated even faster. Her hand strangled the backpack strap at her shoulder as she reached the last of the steps.

Standing off on their own, it was hard to not notice the nervous bunch of students who couldn't seem to stand still. The two girls and two boys talked amongst themselves, dressed in the sportswear that had been provided by the company for the shoot. Seeing that Nayely was making a beeline for the students, Terrence was just about to cut his conversation short before a single hand stopped him from coming over. Nayely bypassed catching up with the staff to introduce herself to the students on her own.

A girl with relaxed hair sitting high in a ponytail looked over her shoulder only to whip her head around quickly as she was the first to see Nayely closing in. Her lips spread as she watched the girl poke each of the other students, shaking her head sharply whenever they tried to take a peek for themselves.

"Excuse me..." walking around to face them, Nayely waited for them to have enough courage to face her, making her even more determined to get them comfortable around her. She knew some athletes who reveled in being gawked at or having admirers openly distraught because of their presence, but after all of these years, she had yet to see the enjoyment in that. The support and love she received from those who looked up to her was more than enough.

"Oh my God. Oh my God!" The girl with the ponytail covered her mouth as she tried to calm herself down from the excitement that bubbles over.

"Latisha!" One of the boys whispered as he kept his cool. Nayely pegged him as the youngest of the group as he was a good heads length shorter than the others. His red hair and freckles against his dark skin gave him a unique look, as well as brightened the childish glimmer in his eyes.

"I'm sorry! I just- I didn't think- I mean you're actually going to be here while they film us? I thought they were just going to edit it all together at the end!" Latisha rambled as she bounced from foot to foot. Nayely tried to follow her words as she rattled them off at top speed. Swirling her head in circles trying to catch up, she realized it would be impossible. Taking the girl's shaking hands into her own, she patted them as Latisha's mouth fell open.

"Of course, I'm going to be here! I picked you guys because I'm so excited to meet you. I've kept up with you all since last season so it's great to finally meet you. I'm Nayely."

The kids burst into laughter at the idea of Nayely introducing herself to them. In their minds, it should be a given that she needed no introduction.

"Uh, yeah you're Nayely! Nayely Polite aka Cloud. We should be the ones introducing ourselves." The second girl stepped forward, taking a chance and pulling Nayely into a hug. The embrace was returned with just as much enthusiasm.

"I'm Candice." She said cheerfully before stepping back for the others.

"Jacques." The red headed boy said, stepping in for a half hug.

"My name's Shamel, but you can call me Mel." The second and older boy looked to her with confidence. Nayely knew him to be the oldest of the group, as he was in his senior year and already moving forward to making his big decision. "You can follow me on Instagram at- "

"Uh uh!" Latisha pushes past his elevator speech attempt, causing him to stumble as he put his phone back into his pocket. Mel sucked his teeth at the girl as she thwarted his plans.

"And I'm Latisha! It's so nice to meet you."

Clapping her hands together as she shook with laughter, Nayely was already enjoying the group.

"If y'all are already hyped this early in the morning, then we are going to have a good day I just wanted to come and say thank you for agreeing to join me in this. I wanted to make sure that I had your opinion on these shoes and what we're trying to do here."

"When my coach hit me up and told me who had called and asked about me I almost fainted." Candice admitted. They had all been taken aback when their respective coaches had brought them in to their offices. When the announcements had been made, they were met with much praise from their teammates. Nayely was sure that the swag bags she had planned for them would make them happy- not to mention the news of shoes for each member of the team they would return with.

"Well I hope you weren't too surprised by all of this. You have more than earned this chance and hopefully we can keep shout outs like this going for the kids coming up." Nayely had gotten so lost in conversation with the teens that she hadn't noticed Terrence's appearance until the moment a shiver was cast over her skin. Turning sharply, she began to wonder if she was imagining the way he looked the female students from head to toe.

I'm not imagining that.

She couldn't stop the frown from forming as he interrupted them. As he spoke, it was clear he had no intention of acknowledging the students. The bitterness of being denied his own choices was still fresh all these weeks later.

"Let's go. We need to get things running so we can stay on schedule."

"Sorry! He's right- we've been talking to you when you probably need to be in hair and make up or something like that." Latisha shrugged her shoulders as she imagined the things that went into preparing an athlete like Nayely.

"No, don't say sorry. I am the schedule." Nayely felt herself acting out of character but did not cringe when those words left her mouth. She had purposely arrived nearly an hour before the time she was expected to. With Terrence attempting to find the control he had slowly began to lose over her, she would not tuck her tail and run when he said so.

The teens all shook their head, letting out a low ‘ooh' as she laid it out.

"Nayely."

"Since we're worried about each other's schedules and where we should be, don't you think you need to be on your way?" Turning to face him, Nayely walked towards Terrence, pushing them both a few feet away so that the students could not hear what she said.

"Wherever I'm at is where I'm supposed to be." He retorted.

"Let me be the one to tell you that right here?" She pointed her finger angrily towards the ground," Isn't it." She couldn't stand for him to even be in the presence of the younger girls, suddenly hyper aware of the short clothing they had been gifted with. On any other day she wouldn't have given the attire a second thought as it had become a normal part of her life as an athlete. Yet, with memories still fresh in her mind of how Terrence was wrapped around another young female athlete who was no different from then, she was appalled.

"What's up with you? You have me thinking you and I need to have a long talk." Terrence's words seemed light, but there was an underlying tone that picked at Nayely.

"You're right." She bit her tongue from letting out the first thing on her mind. "When it's time I'll be the one to let you know, so until then? Do what you get paid to do. For now."

Deciding then to take the students to the wardrobe area, Nayely ushered them past a silent Terrence.  There was no need to see his glare from behind his glasses, the daggers could be felt as she walked away.

 

The cameras moved quickly as the five athletes raced towards them. Just before they reached the finish line, they looked to each other with a smile of determination, giving the best ending shot as the director yelled cut.

"Perfect, you guys!" The crew clapped as the runners slowly came to a stop. They caught their breath as they walked together towards the monitors to watch the playback for the final shot. They were handed water as they stood around, admiring the way they looked on camera.

"Oh man, is this how it feels to see yourself in HD?" Jacques asked as he squeezed in to the front.

"To be honest, I don't really watch myself if I happen to be on." Shaking her head as she wiped at the sweat on her forehead, Nayely shivered. "Too weird for me."

"Dang, my start looks clean." Mel smiled as he admired himself on camera. Nayely could see him as the face of many brands should he ever get the chance to be sponsored. Laughing to herself, she could only imagine how that would play out. From the brief time spent together that day, she could tell that Mel was no stranger to a mirror.

It was a good thing his talents could rival his looks.

"Um, I didn't want to be the one to ask but-" Latisha tugged at the sleeve of her tank top" if we sweated in these, can we keep them?" She asked hopefully.

"You didn't think I'd only send you off only with the clothes you got your stank all over, did you?"

"Hey! I was just trying to make sure I can get the hook up with some gear before this is all over." Latisha turned on her heels as she smiled at Candice with glee.

"Don't worry. I've got stuff for each of you as well as for your teams. I hope you'll be able to enjoy it all." As the kids whispered excitedly and shouted their thanks, Nayely flagged down a staff member who could point them in the direction of their things. Unfortunately, she would not be able to go with them and watch them accept the gifts.  The hairs on her arms still stood tall as she knew Terrence had remained at the shoot, staring her down with evil intent in his eyes.

As the students walked away, Nayely's face dropped into a solemn expression, folding her arms across her stomach, she thought back to the horrible police visit.

She didn't want to believe it, but there was no doubt that the moment she revealed the names of the individuals she came to report, a iron curtain had fallen before her, barring her from going any further. The officer's aggressiveness left no room for Nayely to get her case across. If a simple officer like him was such a staunch gatekeeper, who else could she talk to?

"Busy day, huh?" Terrence's words brushed across the shell of her ear as he leaned in close from behind. Pivoting on her feet, Nayely glared at him for getting so close.

"That's what you get when working a big campaign like this. "

Nayely stared into his eyes, trying her best to decipher his aim. Terrence's eyes were hardened towards her as he didn't back down. The swift switch to his usually charming sparkle happened so fast that Nayely held her breath as she waited to hear what he would say next.

"You have been working hard, Nayely. Really hard." Pulling out his sunglasses, Terrence slid them back on, leaving his only wide smile shining in her face. "Make sure you're taking care of yourself while you're being a busy body. We don't want anything happening to you, do we?"

"You don't have to worry about that. I'm sure I can handle whatever comes my way."

"Alone? I know working by yourself-particularly without me-has been your new motto lately." Reaching a hand out, Terrence's fingers gripped into the skin of her shoulder, leaving indentions that she had to force herself not to shy away from. "Just remember there's only so much one person can take before they break. And when it happens to you, you'll be begging me to step in. Won't you?"

Roughly releasing her, Terrence shoved his hands into his pants as he walked away, eyes never leaving Nayely's. Once his back was to her, she could see his shoulders shaking with what she could only guess to be a chuckle of confidence in the secret he knew.

Terrence was more than informed on where Nayely had been that morning. It helped that the father of Brittany Stewart was a well-known judge who had once been the go to attorney for the Thompson family years ago. When he had received a heads up from Officer Sharpe, he had found himself enraged at Nayely's attempt to report him. When he had heard that she was there because of a picture, he had called Brittany's school, pulling her from class to demand that she remove not only the picture, but her entire account. The extent of the safety net that surrounded Terrence was one Nayely couldn't even begin to imagine.

She should have known better by now.

 

MJ opened the door of the facility for the last time as he emerged outside. The sun shined down brightly, welcoming jim back into the world free of supervision. As he squinted, he rolled back his shoulders, feeling as though he had just woken from a deep slumber. Looking around, he realized that while he had been released, he had no way to get home.

Powering on his cell phone, he saw that he only had ten percent left of his battery which meant he needed to figure out arrangements as soon as possible. He knew Christina wasn't available as she had been called out of town last minute. When he approached the curb of the sidewalk, he scrolled through his phone looking for Kahlil's number.

Within seconds, a black SUV swooped in to his side, pushing him back from the curb.

"They freed my boy, MJ!  They done fucked up now! Let's go!" Kahlil called out from inside the car, with his phone pointed at MJ, as he took a welcome home video.

"Yeah! You back, baby!" MJ couldn't help but join in with his laughter. Opening the back door, he tossed in his bag just as Kahlil rounded the car, drawing him into a tight bear hug.

"Damn, you're looking a little scrawny. They didn't feed you in there?"

"I've never had so much quinoa and kale before in my life." MJ admitted, as he clasped hands with his friend. "I feel like I lost 15 pounds."

"You look like it!" Kahlil joked. As they sobered up, Kahlil's face looked on with content.

"I'm proud of you, bruh. You went through some shit there and look at you now."

"I appreciate that. And this." MJ motioned to his car." I didn't think to even ask for someone to pick me up."

"There was no need to. You know I got you. Even if Christina could have come I was still going to show up. This is like your rebirth, MJ. I'd never miss that."

As they climbed into the car, Kahlil replayed the video he had taken, smiling as he sent it off in a message.

"Don't tell me you posted that?" MJ looked over just as Kahlil closed out his screen.

"Nah, I wouldn't do that to you. I'm just keeping it for memories." Putting the car in drive, Kahlil cruised down the street, as music filled the car. "I just sent it to Nayely so she can see it too."

"Nayely? You've been talking to her?" MJ's voice was high pitched on the last word, causing Kahlil to burst out laughing.

"Damn, you're curious, huh?"

"No, I'm just surprised." MJ sat back, hoping he could reclaim the cool he had lost at the mention of Nayely's name. He had spent six weeks fighting with his need to speak to her, know whatever he could since he was away. Had she and Kahlil really communicated while he was gone?

"Keep playing if you want to." Looking over, Kahlil gave him a knowing look."You're not wrong, though. I've been doing most of the talking. Ever since she helped me drive your car back to your place, I kind of finessed her number out of her so that I could text her updates on you. I figured you and her would have both wanted that even if you won't admit it."

"She went to my house?" MJ's selective hearing missed the important part of what Kahlil was saying.

"Relax. We didn't go inside, just dropped it off." He assured him. "You better take it easy, I don't know if your heart can handle you flipping out just so soon." Pointing to his chest, Kahlil was amused by the reaction, but still concerned for his friend's health. He had no idea what MJ could or couldn't do for now and wanted to make sure that he kept himself in check until things were in the all clear.

"She hasn't responded to any of my messages, but I know she's read them. I was trying to get her to come with me so that she could be here when you got out." Kahlil shook his head, sad that he wasn't able to convince her. "At least she can see the video. Know that you're straight now."

A silence fell in the car as MJ hid the interest he felt. "You shouldn't do that." His voice wasn't as convincing as he had hoped.

"I had to."

"No, no you didn't. She doesn't need to be involved in any of this more than she already has been."

"MJ, you almost died on her doorstep. I think the fact that she is still reading my messages means she cares. Even ten years later, she has to care." Coming to a stoplight, he nodded his head towards MJ. "And so do you."

"It doesn't even matter. This thing is all over."

"Is it? I know for damn sure that this wasn't a coincidence. Quit trying to fight it. You two need to bury the beef and get back on good terms."

"Kahlil, none of that is as easy as you make it sound."

"Does it have to be hard?"

"Even if I wanted to, it's not possible."

"So you want to? Then make it happen!"

Kahlil caught his slip up and latched on."You know, from where I'm standing I should be pissed off at both of you. How fucked up is it that you two just decided on your own to dead our friendship without telling me? I have no idea what went down, but that never changed the fact that I'd still call both of you my closest and only real friends. We've known each other for damn twenty years but I can't even know what happened?"

Kahlil's true feelings just couldn't take a backseat on this day. If neither of them wanted to make the moves, then he would. He was tired of it all. After almost losing MJ and being brought back together with Nayely, although briefly, it was time to grow up and act like they cared for one another.

They had all the proof they needed to understand that tomorrow isn't promised.

"We can't lose another year away from each other, MJ. It's time to cut that shit out."

"Some things just aren't meant to be."

"You mean like trying to force yourselves apart?"

"Nayely and I have too much pain between us. I don't think it can be resolved at all. It's best for both of us to keep going on with life the way we have."

"What could she have done for you to push her away like this? It'd help if I knew so maybe I could at least try to understand you. I probably won't agree, but maybe I could understand."

"Nayely found out a secret I spent my entire life searching for, and she hid it from me. She thought that she could keep it to herself and try to lie to me." Looking out the window, his jaw became tense as he remembered the unfairness he had felt that night. "I just couldn't do it. I couldn't stay her friend knowing what I did after that."

Kahlil always knew that there was something special between MJ and Nayely since the day they arrived at The Rose House together. They had known each other far longer than any other kid did and shared in a story that only they knew. Kahlil had never prodded too much into MJ's past, knowing that they all shared something that was better left alone. Whenever he did try to feel out MJ's story, he was adamant in changing the subject, making it clear that it was to remain untouched.

Kahlil could respect that.

It seemed the only person who could come close to approaching the subject with MJ was Nayely herself. Having to see the masked pain MJ had maneuvered through nearly tear him apart only made Kahlil want to find a way for MJ to deal with the issues he ignored. If he couldn't be the person for that, he'd be more than happy to bring the only one who could back into MJ's life.

"You never know how much something means to you until it's gone. I know you have your reasons and you've been running from what you had with Nayely all this time, but has anything gotten better because of it?"

MJ sighed, not having an answer for his question.

"Seeing you change the way you have hasn't been the hard part in all of this, I could deal with that." Kahlil spoke." It's remembering who you used to be."

"This is the way it has been and the way it's going to be. You just can't force a bond that was cracked from the start."

MJ wondered if their friendship ever stood a chance. From the beginning, their fates had been tied to one another. To MJ, he had been the one to suffer the most. His mother was taken away from him while Nayely's father lived on. This thought had crowded his mind for years, as it became embedded in his reason to hate her.

With each day came the realization that the hate he had been holding on to was weakening faster than he could rebuild it to protect himself. He had left an opening in his life which he invited Nayely back into, and now he knew it would be hard as hell to kick her back out.

 

 

When MJ unlocked the door to his apartment, it was to find it the same way as he had left it. Even though his home was tidied up, he couldn't help but see remnants of the day he kicked Danny out in his memory as he looked around.

Needing a hot shower, MJ kept his eyes on the bathroom as he went to his room to strip down.

He wasn't sure how long he had stayed in there, but it was enough time to clear out his mind. Lying back on his bed, MJ's body cooled as the fan above his bed dried the remaining water droplets on him.

His eyes began to flutter shut as sleep tempted him. Being in his bed after so long was more than comforting. But before he could drift off, the sound of his phone ringing tore him away. Rolling over on his side, he reached for the sounding intrusion, reading Christina's name across the screen.

"I'm so glad you answered. Kahlil just texted me to let me know you got back alright." She spoke the moment she heard the phone being picked up.

"Everything's good, Christina. I've been back home for a while now."

"And no one is hanging out around the building?"

"Not that I know of." Getting up to pull the curtain from his window, MJ looked down to watch life pass by outside." Should I be concerned?"

"It's just that some paps were camping out while you were gone. I told security there to keep an eye out and let me know if anything suspicious happens, but hopefully they've finally gave up. The only ones who know about you being back are me, Kahlil and the rehab center. And if they leaked any information then--!"

"Christina. Don't worry. You've done more than enough during all of this." MJ was more than appreciative for her loyalty to not only her job but him. He felt it whenever she panicked and knew that it came from a genuine place." I want to apologize for putting you through all of this. It's not fair for you to have gotten wrapped up in the shit storm I caused. I'm sorry."

"We almost lost you, MJ. There is absolutely nothing for you to apologize for. Not to me, not to anyone. You just need to focus on getting better. Take your time, you have plenty of it." Christina's words were true for the most part. She didn't know that MJ did owe at least one apology to someone.

Nayely.

The only problem was he didn't know how or when it would be given.

"Besides, this is my job. It's about time you added a little excitement to my life." Christina was able to joke comfortably with him after hearing that he sounded better. "But I'd rather not have something like this happen again. Let's tone it down a bit for next time, maybe?"

"I'll try to keep that in mind, but I can't make any promises."

"I can accept that." The sound of a voice calling out to Christina could be heard in the background. "Well, I've got to go. I won't be back in town until next week so if you need anything don't hesitate to call me. I'll be there as soon as I can."

"Focus on what you've got going on, Christina. I know you've been working nonstop, so I think it won't hurt for you to take some time to yourself when you come back. I owe you that."

"Thanks boss, I won't forget you said that!"

Saying their goodbyes, MJ threw on the first thing he could pull out of his drawers. Drawing the curtains in, he darkened his room before climbing into the bed. He emptied his mind as he finally gave in to his tiredness.

Only when he was finally under were the thoughts of Nayely and memories of her matured face allowed to resurface, guiding him into unconsciousness.

 

End Notes:

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Chapter 13 by ValleyofLight

 

Maya walked up the driveway to Nayely's house. It was Friday night, and time for their usual girl time. With her own girlfriend away for work, she had more than enough free time to spend with Nayely. She had noticed that while she had handled business outside of the shoe campaign during that week, she hadn't spoken to Nayely in what felt like forever.

The lights to her home appeared to be off, giving the outside a gloomy feeling.

"She better not be asleep." Maya knocked on the door, hoping that she hadn't forgotten their plans. She held a bag filled with greasy wings and beer that she couldn't wait to dig into. She knew that she would be the only one drinking, and was even prepared to crash at her place if need be.

Knocking again, Maya looked at her phone, wondering if she needed to call Nayely to open the door. Just then, a soft whirring sound could be heard as the electric lock undid itself. The next thing she knew, Nayely's eye peaked from the crack of the door.

"Maya?" She asked with a hoarse voice.

"Yeah, girl, it's me. Were you sleeping?" Peering around her, she saw that the entire house was cloaked in darkness. Lifting the food before her, she reminded Nayely why she was there.

Opening the door wider, Nayely tried her best to put on a smile. "Sorry, I kind of forgot you were coming. I wasn't asleep I was just-up."

Shutting the door behind her, Nayely made sure to have the lock on as Maya rummaged in the kitchen.

"How did things go today? I didn't get to reach out but I figured you'd be more than busy. I met up with all of the schools and have them set up to receive the special gear you're sending their way." Pulling out clean plates, Maya paused for a moment before putting them back. Tonight, they would go straight in and get their fingers dirty. "They're really excited to hand things out." Walking to the table, Maya popped open the Styrofoam boxes as she basked in the burning sensation that ran through her nose as she sniffed the extra hot sauce drenching the wings.

"That's good to hear. The kids were honestly the best. I wish I could make it out to each school when they make the announcement." Nayely had gone into her bathroom hoping to wake herself up as she wiped her face with a cool rag.

As Maya took her seat at the table, she saw that Nayely's computer was still up. Wanting as much room as possible, she went to move it to the counter and out of the way. Her eyes scanned the screen without thinking, and was surprised by what she saw.

"She's getting rid of Terrence?" Reading through the blurbs on the screen, Maya could see that Nayely seemed to have been drafting up a speech of some sort.

"Oh, I'll move that out the way." When Nayely emerged from her room, she moved quickly to take the computer from Maya's hands, closing it shut as she rushed it back to her room.

"What's going on?" Maya still stood frozen in her spot when she returned. Confusion laced her face as she watched the other woman move as if nothing had happened.

"It's nothing." Nayely insisted as she pulled out a handful of napkins from the bag. Shoving a wing into her mouth, she hoped that Maya would sit soon, forgetting what she was sure she saw, but it was no use.

"Hold up, hold up." Picking the box of wings up, Maya held them above her head, keeping them from Nayely's reaching hand. "Something's up and I have got to know. Spill it."

"There's going to be some changes. That's all. It's only natural."

"Where is this coming from? I leave you two alone for one week and next thing I know you're about to have Terrence sitting up in the unemployment office? You have to give me more than that." Seeing that Nayely was considering telling her the truth, Maya took a seat, ready to indulge herself. She couldn't help but to wait eagerly. Working alongside Nayely had been great, but the roadblock that was Terrence always managed to test her patience. He treated her as if she was intruding on their lives once Nayely brought her on, as he and Nayely handled everything on their own for years.

Whenever she tried to do her job, she was met with some kind of contempt from Terrence, so she had no problem with him getting the boot.

"Terrence and I just don't see eye to eye anymore. We haven't for awhile now." Tangling her hands into the roots of her kinky hair, Nayely slumped in her chair. "I was going to give him a call and set up a time for us to meet next week."

"Next week? So, he's fired fired?" Maya's eyes widened with glee.

Closing her eyes, Nayely shook her head yes.

"I'm sorry but I'm kind of living for this right now!" Popping open two beers, she pushed one towards Nayely for a celebratory swig. "We gotta take one back for this. Come on, girl." Nayely accepted the drink with much less excitement than Maya. She wished she could share in this with her, but knowing the reason why she was finally doing what she had always wanted to made it hard.

"So what finally made you do it?  After all this time, you're finally letting his ass go." Digging into the food, Maya chewed away." Did he steal some money from you?"

"No, nothing like that."

"Shit, I don't think you really need much more reason to get rid of his ass other than the fact he just fucking sucks."

"That's definitely true, but something even worse than that has happened and I just can't keep him on any longer." Nayely saw that she had caught Maya's attention with that statement. The joking subsided as Maya prepared herself for what could have been the icing on the shit filled cake.

"Legal or illegal?"

"Illegal in every way possible." Nayely's heart beat fast as she found the words to say.

Both women whipped their heads towards the loud knocks at Nayely's front door.

"Oh, shit! You think that's him? Maybe he could feel us talking about him." Maya put her hand on her chest as the shock got to her.

Going to her security panel, Nayely saw that the person who stood on the other side of her door was not someone she recognized.

"It's not him." Feeling Maya's chin on her shoulder as she stood beside her, Nayely watched as the man looked over her shoulder to two cars parked in front of her home.

"Who's that?" Maya asked as the man's fist beat against the door once again." He's knocking like he's the police." They both looked to each other as he seemed to be persistent in having the door answered.

Moving to the door, Nayely felt drawn to open it despite her brain telling her not to.

"Wait, you're going to answer it?" Maya asked as her hand went to the door knob. "Do you know this guy?" Reaching for her keys, Maya was prepared to use the secret pepper spray she took everywhere with her.

Nayely had never seen the mysterious man before, but somehow knew that ignoring him tonight would not rid herself of him.

When the door opened, a breeze passed by her though the night was warm. When she opened her eyes, she realized that no one stood before her anymore.

"Excuse me, sir, what do you think you're doing?" Maya stood at her defense as the man invited himself into the house. She took notice of his aged and hardened face that lied behind sleek glasses. The weight he held in his stomach was barely contained by his designer clothes and was only emphasized when he placed his hands on his waist.

"I'm going to have to ask you to leave immediately. I have some important business with Ms. Polite." His loud gruff voice filled the room, making it feel like the inside of a pipe.

"Intruders don't make demands." Taking the safety off her pepper spray, pointing in his face.

"Yes, but a man of the law can. Now I suggest you get that thing out of my face and leave with my friend here. I believe that will be in your best interest." A man in a black polo filled the door way, crossing his arms over his chest.

Nayely noted the similar haircut he had to Officer Sharpe.

"If you think I'm going to leave you-a stranger-here alone with her, then you're wrong. If you don't leave in the next three seconds I'm calling the police!" Maya stood her ground, standing beside Nayely to prevent the men from making it any further into the house.

"They're already here, sweetheart." The older man's face brimmed with dominance as the other showed the badge at his hip.

"Let's go." The younger man stepped into the house, pulling Maya with him. When the sounds of her resisting became louder, Nayely finally snapped out of her daze. Grabbing onto her waist, she was strong enough to halt the officer's retreat with the small screaming woman.

"What do you think you're doing? You have no right to do this."  Nayely's muscles tensed as she stared down the man who looked ready for a fight.

"Take your hands off of her." She warned.

"Easy now." The older man stepped forward, nodding to the officer, silently instructing him to let go of Maya. "All she has to do is take her belongings, get in her car, and drive away from here and everything will be just fine."

"Absolutely not!"

"Nayely Polite. You have certainly gotten yourself into more than enough trouble for one day. Would you like to inconvenience your friend as well?"

That was all she needed to know that this was as she suspected.

"Go ahead and go home. I'll call you as soon as I can, okay?"

"What? No! I don't like how these two look. I'm not going to leave you here by yourself."

"It's okay, I promise." Looking over her shoulder at the man she would soon discover to be Judge Stewart, Nayely straightened her shoulders. "We just have some things to discuss."

"I don't feel good about this." Maya's senses told her she needed to stay, but Nayely's need to protect her would have to take precedence.

"Go. I'll be fine." Moving to grab her purse, Nayely brought it to her, pushing it into her hands. "I promise to call within the hour."

"You promise?"

"Yes. I do." Maya stood a moment longer, making it clear that she didn't care about the man's agitation over her still standing before them. Grabbing Nayely's hand in her own, she gave her a reassuring squeeze before swatting away the officer's attempt to grab her elbow again.

"Hands. Off!" She commanded, strutting past. Nayely didn't close the door until she saw Maya drive away down the street. Across the way, she noticed the light on at her neighbor's home.

Of all nights to be nosy, this was definitely one she needed them to remain where they were.

With the officer turning his back on her, she realized he had every intention to stand guard while the Judge visited. Closing the door, she slowly turned to face the threat ahead.

"I take it you're here because of the report." There was no need to waste time with this man.

"I see you wish to handle this quickly as well."

"If you're here to tell me not to make the report, you should know your man at the station made sure I couldn't."

"I'm just here for assurance, Ms. Polite. To make sure we have a clear understanding on what to expect after you're failed attempt to meddle in business that does not pertain to you."

"And exactly what does this have to do with you?" Still unsure of who he was, Nayely wanted him to say what he needed, and go.

"You're sense of civic duty came close to causing quite a commotion for my family, Ms. Polite. I am Judge Stewart, the father of the girl you sought to help today."

Nayely searched his face for understanding. Brittany Stewart's father? If that were true, why would he show up as if she had done something wrong? With a slight tilt of her head, she wondered if she had misread his demeanor. Maybe there was an upside to his arrival.

"You're Brittany's father? I had no idea." She allowed some of her tenseness to fade away, prepared to tell Judge Stewart anything he wanted to help his daughter. If a man like him had to come to her for help, then Terrence was worse than she could have ever imagined.

"It seems your ignorance doesn't just stop there. Let me ask you this, do you value your life here?" He said pacing the floor.

"I'm not sure I understand your question?"

"A woman of your stature living in a place like this is beyond my understanding. There must be something about this place that you value. Is it the security? Familiarity?" Nayely did not move to answer him as the mood intensified.

"How would you like it if someone tried to take that all away without your permission? You're a celebrity in your own right, I'm sure you understand the importance of keeping your personal business private."

Stepping closer, Nayely watched as his extended belly came close to touching her as he glared down.

"I can tell you right now, it's not the most enjoyable news to receive. Whatever you think you know regarding my daughter and Terrence must be dropped immediately."

"Sir-"

"Judge Stewart."

"Judge Stewart, sir." She said tersely as she was corrected in how to address him." Terrence is a danger to your daughter. They're in a relationship that I thought needed to be investigated."

"You thought wrong. The relationship between he and my daughter is absolutely none of your business. Understood?"

A queasiness disrupted her stomach as she finally heard just what he was saying.

"Do you know what's going on between them?" She asked in disbelief. Surely he couldn't be here demanding she stay away while knowing the truth.

"I know that the relationship between my daughter and her mentor has absolutely nothing to do with you."

"He's sleeping with your daughter! It's more than obvious, Judge Stewart. Don't you understand what that means?" Stepping away, repelled by his sudden laughter, Nayely waited for him to calm back down.

"It means she's getting the same treatment as you and look how far you've come." The judge's implication made Nayely's blood run cold.

"I have never slept with my coach-"

"That's not what Terrence has told me."

Nayely smoothed back her hair that she fought to put into an elegant bun. She was still coming down from the high of her first Olympic victory and had even been invited to a party hosted by Terrence , her new coach and trainer, soon after their return home.

Nayley just knew that the tax bracket of this neighborhood was one she could never come close to. She smiled at the memory of Terrence asking just what she had planned during their break on the plane ride back. It took everything in her to not blush when the handsome older man extended the offer.

He had told her to wear something nice, and that she did. The knee length dress gripped her curves that she rarely showed off. After turning 20, she wanted to finally start treating herself like the budding woman she was. That's why as she walked through the door of the mansion, she took stares and friendly hellos to mean she fit in with the more elegant crowd. The home was decorated with glimmering crystals and expensive décor only the rich enjoyed.

Looking around, she was amazed by the sheer size of the room.

When a hand on the small of her back caught her off guard, Nayely jumped forward.

"Well, look at you." Terrence's deep voice brought goosebumps to her arms.

"Hi, Terrence. This place is amazing."

"My parent's taste is to go above and beyond for everything. Even tonight." The Thompson legacy was well known to all, and she was more than grateful to have been giving the chance to attend an event hosted by them.

"I can't believe you actually invited me. If I haven't told you thank you then-"

"Oh, don't worry, you'll have plenty of opportunities to show me how thankful you are." Nayely's face burned as her heart beat against her chest. Chastising herself to not give in to the thoughts she had, she centered herself so as to not give away what she was thinking. It was too late as Terrence smiled, fully aware of the crush and effect he had on the young woman.

"There are some guests I must greet, so hang around and have a good time." Reaching out to a server who stood nearby, Terrence offered a cocktail to Nayely.

"Oh! I uh-I'm not twenty-one yet."

Lifting the rim of the glass to her lips, Terrence watched as she dribbled the liquid into her mouth, wanting to avoid it from falling on her dress. She was only able to pry the glass away from him once the last drop had passed her lips.

"You're in good hands, don't worry about any of that." Nayely wiped at her lips, careful to not smudge the lipstick she spent twenty minutes trying to apply.

"Okay." She said with a sweet smile. When Terrence's finger tapped the deep dimple on her cheek, she watched as he swaggered away back into the crowd of people.

 

The night was filled with Nayely being pulled into many directions as others became curious of just who she was. When she did see Terrence, he would step up and give all the praises to her, making the other guests seem genuinely interested in what he had to say. He had handed her drink after drink which she gladly accepted, enjoying the first and only time she had really taken part in alcohol.  She found herself laughing much more often throughout the night to jokes she was sure were not that funny.

As she swayed into the main room, she picked over the hors d'oeuvres that were put on display. She had no idea what she was pushing into her mouth, but it was good enough for her to steal four from the table.

"Ladies and gentlemen! Can I please have your attention?" The sound of a woman's voice travelled down from the long spiral staircase. Following the voice, Nayely looked to the older woman who stood above the rest of the crowd.

"First I would like to welcome you all for joining us for such a special occasion and thank the Thompson family for hosting us in their beautiful home . Tonight, we are all here to celebrate the joining of the Thompsons and Wilhelms!" Nayely nodded with the older blonde woman as the crowd applauded the announcement. Looking around, she wondered who from Terrence's family was getting married.

Placing her empty glass on a near by tray, she stepped further into the crowd, wanting to see the happy couple who seemed to hold everyone's attention.

"Allison, dear, won't you come on up here with my future son-in-law?" The older woman called down from the stairs towards her daughter. Nayely smiled as the spitting image of the proud mother turned to wave at the crowd who cheered her on. Her green eyes shined with happiness as she flipped her long blonde hair over her shoulder. Nayely clapped along as she could tell Allison was reaching for the hand of her fiancé just beside her. As the woman began to climb the stairs, with a man trailing close by, Nayely's smile faltered at the sight before her. Allison's mother wrapped her arms around Terrence's shoulders as he stood alongside the two women.

"That can't be..." Nayely mumbled to herself as she looked around the room. Surely the wrong man was standing up there? Nayely had never heard anything about a girlfriend during the time she had spent with Terrence. As her coach and trainer, they spent plenty of time together and had naturally grown close. That's what helped to give way to the deepening of her crush. She had always told herself it could be nothing more than just that, but the more blatant Terrence had become in his actions, the less cautious the young athlete had become.

A tear rolled down her face as she made eye contact with Terrence.

What had she been thinking? She should have known better than to think anything could have come of this.

Beyond embarrassed, Nayely felt her knees shake beneath her, unsure if it was because of her attempt to escape in high heels, or all of the alcohol she had gladly accepted. Minutes felt like hours as the dense crowd made it nearly difficult for her to sneak out. Not wanting anyone to see her tears and suspect the reason for them, she swiped them away, waiting out the moment for the first opening she had to dip out. When the three descended from the stairs, the crowd began to disperse.

Moving past the strangers surrounding her, Nayely felt strong hands wrap around her waist, guiding her in a different direction. Turning around in surprise, Nayely caught a glimpse of Allison being whisked away by friends, unaware of her fiancé's departure.

"Terrence, what are you doing?"

"Shh." He whispered into her ear." Just come with me."

Nayely was led to the back of the house where guests had not frequented. As he opened a door far down the hallway, she realized that this was a second staircase leading upstairs.

"Where are we going?"

"Just somewhere to talk."

"To talk? Honestly, I think I should just leave. I'd rather just go."

"Not just yet, Nayely." He dismissed her wishes as his hands went to her waist, wrapping around to the front where he squeezed the taut skin there. Nayely jumped in surprise as the once pleasurable feeling she had felt with his hands on her turned sour. When she placed her hands atop his, he mistook her attempt to remove them for encouragement, and brought her body backwards into his own. Nayely's neck tingled from the prickly sensation of Terrence's mustache as he delivered sloppy kisses to the exposed skin.

"Wait...Wait!" She protested as he pushed her into an empty room, closing the door behind them. Nayely steadied herself at the sudden change, feeling her ankle roll in the heels. Before she could get to her feet, she was sent twirling, as Terrence spun her to capture her lips. He moved faster than she could think as he reached down and instantly rolled up her dress.

"Stop! What are you doing? Terrence!" She called out.

"What are you complaining for?" He asked in between roughly sucking at her neck. Nayely  tried her best to block his access, not wanting there to be any evidence of what he was doing. All she could hear was the sound of his lips suctioned on to her skin.

"Isn't this what you've been wanting?" When Terrence's hand violently pulled her leg to his hip, Nayely yelped as his hands dove for her underwear.

"No! Please stop!" The initial shock she was experiencing was finally over as she brought her heel down on his foot.

"Shit!" Terrence hopped away, trying to find his composure before he gave away their secret hiding place. Looking at his watch, Terrence wondered just how long it would be before Nayely was overcome by the lethargy that was promised when he slipped the liquid X into her drinks. When he saw the way she had to catch her footing, he knew it was only a matter of time. He couldn't give up now just because she wanted to get fussy.

"I'm-I'm sorry I didn't mean to hurt you, I just think I should go." Nayely listened to the sounds that came from her mouth. The words sounded slow as she fought to get them out. Blinking her eyes, she tried to clear her mind.

"What for? I'm trying to help us both out here." Stepping forward with a slight limp, Terrence grabbed the front of her dress, dragging Nayely to him. Working down the zipper in the back, he ignored her resistance." Did you think I didn't know how you felt about me? The looks you'd give? Don't you like me? Don't you want this?" He said as he forced one of her hands down to the bulge in his pants.

"No, I didn't want this to happen. I-"

"Did I imagine it all this time then? You watch me all the time in practice. I see the way you shiver whenever I touch you just right. Tell me I'm wrong."

"You are!"

"Don't lie to me!" Terrence nearly growled as he pulled her closer.

"It-it was just a crush. I had no idea that you had a girlfriend-or a fiancée." Nayely shook her head as she couldn't find the strength she needed in a moment like this.

"Don't play dumb."

"I'm not! I swear. Please, just let me go. I won't say anything." Nayely begged.

"Oh, Nayely. I'm so disappointed in you." Pushing her back towards the bed, Terrence covered her body before she could get up." You walk around twisting in front of me, showing me those dimples of yours, and now that you got what you want, you're going to deny me?"

"I wasn't trying anything. I wasn't doing any of that on purpose. I did like you but-it wasn't that serious. I just-I've never liked anyone before. I'm sorry."

"You did like me?" Terrence hung on to the tense of her admission, taking a hit to his ego as she suddenly lost the innocent attraction she once had. "You don't like me anymore?" He asked with anger.

"I-" Nayely's jaws were forced open as his fingers dug into the sides of her mouth. Clawing at his wrist, she grimaced as the pain shot down her neck.

"Stop playing with me, Nayely. If you didn't want to be here, you'd leave."

"I-I can't move." Nayely's words came out gargled as he held her down by her throat. The last thing she could see before her eyes went slack was Terrence's sweating face from above as he forced himself on her.

Tears streamed down her cheeks as Judge Stewart stared on with no remorse.

"You remember, don't you?" He probed. Side stepping the imposing man, Nayely went for her door, but was unable to open it as his much larger hand kept it shut.

"Let me tell you one thing, Ms. Polite. All I am is a father who wants the best for my child. My daughter, my heart. She has been more than willing to follow the directive of Terrence so that she can reach her own goals in life, what's so bad about that?" Leaning in closer to her face, Nayely recoiled from the stale smell that invaded her nose.

"What makes you different from her? Sleeping around a little never hurt anyone, or your pockets." Judge Stewart held no interest in the moral police who may disagree with how he chose to run his own household.

His family followed in the paths that he chose for them. When he saw that Brittany had a chance to become a star athlete, he was first opposed at the idea as he had already had his mind set on turning her into a lawyer like himself. The judge had married much later in life, taking in a wife who was barely out of her teens herself when she gave birth to their daughter, Brittany. As the oldest child of three, she was supposed to set the precedent. However, after years of working as the attorney for Terrence's father, helping him skate past countless sexual assault claims and accusations, he found that there could be a lucrative side to the sports industry. Whatever a Thompson touched turned to gold, so when Terrence suggested that he take Brittany under his wing, Judge Stewart gladly agreed.

The first time the young girl had returned home from a training session with Terrence, eyes red from the crying she had done after being violated, her father had sat her down, ignoring the soreness she showed as her mother cried in the next room.

"Toughen up, Brittany. You're a woman now." He stared into the eyes of his fourteen year old daughter who had just entered her first year of high school.

"But daddy! I don't want to do this anymore."

"You can and you will."

Within just a couple of months, she had quickly forgotten her wish to leave the sport and Terrence behind. Once she began to win, she had become enticed by the feelings that immeasurable praise could give. For two years it had been drilled her head that she could become the best, even greater than Nayely, by Terrence.

Nayely's heart sank as she realized just how ruthless the man before her was. Her stomach lurched as she wished to forget everything she had learned in that week.

"She's just a girl. Nothing is worth forsaking her. Nothing." Nayely's voice shook as Judge Stewart all but rolled his eyes in her direction. Pinching the bridge of his nose, as he sighed.

"Not my daughter. I've raised her to be responsible for herself. She knows exactly what she's doing. Some children can't waste their time waiting for adulthood like others. She's taken on the role of the woman I'm determined to turn her into."

Shaking her head from side to side, Nayely cried for Brittany.

"Let this be the last time I have to come by for a visit, Ms. Polite. For the next you see me, it won't bode well for you." Nayely faltered as she could see the promise that lied in his eyes. When her front door was forced open, she was pushed out of the way as Judge Stewart took his leave. With her door wide open, Nayely collapsed to her knees as she watched the two men get into their respective cars and drive away. She didn't know how long she sat there, crying silently as the night passed by, but the moment she saw the door of her neighbors home open, she carefully reached forward, pushing the door shut with the strength that remained in her arms.

Once she was alone, she crawled into a ball, crying in anger at the helplessness that fell upon her.

 

 

"In breaking news, ESPN has received word that as of today, Nayely Polite will be parting ways with her long-time coach Terrence Thompson. According to our sources, this may come as a surprise to the Olympic star as a statement was released on Terrence Thompson's personal site just this morning..."

Terrence hit the dial of his radio as he smiled to himself. His business sense told him that soon enough, Nayely would have attempted to axe him following the fiasco she had come close to causing. Just days before, he had been told by Judge Stewart that the visit to Nayely's home had been a success. He wasn't ashamed to admit that he just couldn't let up there.

He had done more than enough damage to keep the woman down, but something about letting her get by without reminding her just who he was did not sit right with Terrence. Before his resignation, he had made many calls to the men who kept a tight hold on the industry from the shadows.

It had been difficult to convince some to give into his requests but knowing the troubles they would have to face without the Thompson seal of approval, they reluctantly agreed to essentially blackball Nayely. As long as he had his way, another coach wouldn't dare touch her.

She would have to learn to live without him the hard way. He'd make sure of it.

That's what today was all about. He planned on hitting Nayely from all sides. There was no holding back.

Pulling into the valet lane, Terrence tossed his keys at the young attendant as he strolled into the restaurant where an important appointment awaited him. Judge Stewart had managed to pull strings that helped Terrence reveal information that he was always curious about.

Nayely's past seemed to be airtight, but he learned within a few days that he had never tried hard enough to find out more. He couldn't believe the truth that she managed to hide for so long. He knew that if he had been her, he too wouldn't have wanted to be known as the child of a murderer.

When he entered the restaurant, he searched for the connect he was there to meet. He had no idea who this guy was, and nearly cursed realizing he should have gotten some kind of explanation as to who he was. When he scanned the room, he saw that a young man had his eyes trained on him. The man at a table alone, with his arm thrown over the back of his chair as he stared Terrence down.

Walking towards him with uncertainty, Terrence's eyes gazed upward as the younger man stood to tower over him.

"Terrence Thompson?" He asked smoothly, never breaking eye contact with the shorter man. Terrence shifted uncomfortably as the grip of his handshake spoke volumes to the kind of man he was. Looking him up and down, Terrence could see that he was out of his league. Wanting to assert dominance, Terrence held on for longer than needed.

The side of the younger man's mouth quirked, but not into a recognizable smile.

"Are you the guy?" Terrence asked, adding a flare of roughness to his voice intentionally.

Taking his hand back, the taller man took his seat first." Am I the guy? Why don't you take a seat and find out?"

Terrence couldn't remember being warned about the journalist's smug attitude.

"Here." Terrence abruptly slammed down a red folder with the bent edges of papers poking out. The young man raised an eyebrow as he ignored the display.

"So where did you get that move from? Not very covert, don't you think?" He chuffed at the dramatics. Drawing Terrence's ire.

"You want this job or what? Didn't they tell you what I am willing to pay? I've already offered up a portion of the money and if you follow this through you'll be looking at even more when this is all over." Touting around the $100,000 price tag he attached to this request, Terrence had expected more respect than this.

"Listen T, I'm not the one willing to pay 100 grand just to trash someone who... hurt my feelings. I have to say I'm not the desperate one at this table."

"It's Terrence." He gritted out.

"Yeah." Reaching for his water, he took a long sip." Whatever."

Terrence had enough of his flippant attitude. Standing up abruptly from the table, he winced at the pain he felt as his legs collided with the table, shaking it. "You think I'm going to sit here and take this?"

"Looks like you're not, but here-" Picking up the red folder, the journalist shoved it into Terrence's chest." Take this." Without flinching, the younger man waited patiently as he knew the desire to ruin the life of the person who had driven Terrence to him was much stronger than his pride in that moment. Terrence slammed himself back down into the seat, turning sideways, as if he didn't want to full on acknowledge who he was with.

"In there is everything you need. I expect the best of the best. Of course, without revealing where it came from."

"Otherwise you'd do this on your own instead of hiding behind me, right?" Flipping open the folder with one finger, the journalist ignored the heated stare Terrence held for him.

"Listen, if it hadn't been for the recommendations, I would have taken care of that smart ass mouth of yours, kid."

"Ace."

"Excuse me?"

"Well if you're going to threaten me, the least you could do is say my name." The feeling he felt was reminiscent of how he felt towards Nayely sometimes. For the first time, he really took a moment to commit Ace's face to memory.

"Are you going to do it, or what? Ace?" He said the name with disdain. Taking a moment to finally look at what Terrence had brought, Ace's eye's brightened when he read the name on the file.

"Nayely Polite is who you're after? What'd she do? Dumped you for someone with a little more hair up top?" when he saw the blurred black and white copy of an old newspaper clipping, Ace stopped dead in his tracks as he took in the title.

Police Announce Connection Between Recent Murders

"I want you to write this thing as damning as possible. I've invested way too much time into this ungrateful bitch for her to think she has the right to air out other people's business. I'm going to show her that two can play that game. She's not going to get away with what she tried to do to me." The vitriol Terrence spoke with spoke of a long-time hatred of the person he once used to get what he wanted.

"Which is?"

"She-" Showing some constraint, Terrence cleared his throat." That's not important for you to know. Just do your damn job and see this through." He slammed his palm against the table, bringing the attention of other guests to them.

"Simmer down, Mr. T." Ace reminded him, coolly sliding the folder back to his side. "What makes you think digging up an old murder case will hurt her?"

"The top runner in the country who is swimming in million-dollar endorsements-thanks to me-being the daughter of a convicted murder who has been on the run for the last two decades is sure to get a buzz going. Who knows if she's been siphoning off money to keep him out of the news all this time."

Sitting back in the chair, Terrence shook his head. "Eight years...eight years I wasted on her and she never spoke up once about her family or her past. All that does is tell me there's something she doesn't want revealed. I don't care how it gets done, but I'm going to knock her from the little pedestal she's gotten comfortable on."

Ace watched as the other man seethed as thoughts of the woman who had slighted him ran wild. One thing that many didn't know about Terrence and his standing within his family was that out of all of the Thompsons, he sat alone at the bottom of the rungs. Just before he took on Nayely as his athlete, he was dealing with controversies that had been kept quiet with the help of his father and Judge Stewart. His early departure from the world of sports as an athlete was sold as being the result of an injury that would keep him from running again.

When the truth was he had been accused by multiple female sports trainers of attempted assault and bribery. Nothing about Terrence's actions were new to those high enough to cover them up. It didn't take long for him to be known as truly being his father's son in that regard.

Building his wealth behind Nayely's brand was the only thing that had kept him relevant.

Standing from the table, left the folder on the table as he made his way to leave.

"Hey! What do you think you're doing?" Chasing after him, Terrence made sure to bring the folder with him." So are you walking out on the job?" He asked exasperated.

"I'll do it." Ace answered sharply."You can keep that. I'll go with my own plan." Nodding to the information that was brought before him, Ace knew it wouldn't be necessary.

"What do you mean? If you don't take this, there's no way you're going to remember what to write!"

Tapping a finger to his temple, Ace put his confidence in his memory. "I've got it all up here. Now, don't call me and I probably won't call you." With a single head nod, Ace left the restaurant. He wasn't the type to be micromanaged during his work and something told him that's exactly what Terrence would do if they exchanged contact information. He could hear the shouts of demands following him as he walked down the street.

For someone who didn't want to be identified when this article dropped, Terrence sure wasn't being discrete.

Discrete was the only way any of this would work.

Moving along, Ace left a bewildered Terrence behind.

 

Chapter 14 by ValleyofLight

 

When Ace made it to his car, his attention was drawn to the vibration against his thigh. Pulling out his phone as he tossed his bag in, he silenced the event reminder he had programmed in for today. Looking at the time, he saw that the meeting with Terrance had ran longer than he intended. Whipping his car through the streets, he hurried to the luncheon being held by an Olympic Committee that focused on volunteering for sports associations throughout the world. By having an official training center in the city, the local association tended to have plenty of star power to help bolster the work they took on.

This was one of many end-of-year events Ace was given a press pass to attend and after learning the guest list and speakers for today, there was no way he would miss out on being there. Pulling out a brush from his bag, Ace carefully eyed himself in his rearview mirror as he freshened up. Weaving in and out of traffic, he smiled to himself as he realized there was one thing he and Terrance shared.

An obsession with any and everything Nayely Polite.

When Terrance walked into the restaurant, Ace was able to play his unsuspecting role well, as if he didn't know exactly who the inquiring man was. It wasn't Terrance's own history as an athlete that drew Ace to him, but his relation to Nayely. In all honesty, Ace couldn't careless about the sports world. He was never drawn to it even as a kid. He couldn't keep count of how many teams his parents had forced him to join only to find out that their son was selective in what he gave his energy to. If something couldn't capture his heart, he had no problem detaching himself from it. After spending thousands of dollars coaxing the young boy into finding something to commit to, it took a single life changing discovery in his father's office to finally see their child embrace his first true interest.

Ace's mother and father foolishly believed that he was inspired to write after finally understanding and appreciating the work they had done as published psychology professors. They couldn't have fathomed the spark that began the slow burning fire he kept hidden inside.

The faster he drove, the more he could feel the heat from the flames licking at his face.

 

"Press? Right this way." Ace followed in behind the group of journalists who filed into the extravagant banquet hall. Music befitting of the season created background noise as attendees gathered to greet each other. As he walked past, he could hear conversations between old friends and future business partners stir up, none of which interested him. It was until he heard the whispering of his peers, who tended to shy away from him as he remained a mystery among them, that he took a moment to truly listen in.

"No one's got eyes on her just yet. Who knows if she'll even show up."

"I would want to save face after that announcement too. I honestly believe they're just trying to make a big show out of this whole thing. Why not keep it under wraps and change out management that way?"

"If Nayely sits this out, then she would only be digging herself a hole. People are going to get suspicious and then we'll have to do the dirty work." Ace pivoted towards the smiling journalists as they kept to themselves. His hands would be the only ones to touch any story covering Nayely. If they knew what he had been propositioned with, then they'd know just how filthy they already were.

The closer he got, the stiffer the two became. Taking a once over of the man and woman who stood before them, Ace noticed the way they tried to hide behind their large fashionable glasses, ignoring his overwhelming presence to the best of their abilities. Though they were his seniors in the field, there was an intimidation factor that came with meeting Ace, that even put some lifelong veterans on edge.

"Don't bet on there being something to dig up. Nayely will be here, just as normal. Besides, for someone like her, I'm sure articles on her ditching the event of the year she's become a poster child for would hurt much more than gossip on why there's a change of management in her team. Let's make sure we put out work that counts for something."

"You sound so sure of yourself. How do you know she's even going to be here? My sources say had it not been for Terrance, she'd just be known as a famous recluse. There's no telling how much we'll even see of her now that he's jumped ship." The male reporter squared his shoulders to show that he wouldn't back down from the new kid on the block, despite how good he was.

"Your sources?" Just then, a familiar feeling overcame Ace as his eyes slowly moved to the entrance." Your sources may want to reevaluate their facts." The redness that settled on the other journalists' faces disappeared from Ace's sight as they quickly turned to get as far away from him as possible.

Looking to the designated spaces for the press, he watched as they began to snap photos of the athletes as they arrived with Nayely leading the pack. Ace pushed his hands into his pockets as he watched her walk in his direction. She graciously greeted those who called out her name, and even waved down familiar faces she found in the crowd. After all of the years he had spent analyzing her every move, he could tell that this was an intentional effort to keep both feet on the ground. Nayely's personality was never one that would place her as the initiator during public appearances. The only time he had seen her take such charge in socializing during events was when she worked with children.

At times like that, she flourished and could be herself. It was obvious to Ace that at this moment, Nayely was attempting to harness that same energy to make it through today. A normal bystander would easily be fooled into thinking that the smiling and conversations she engaged in came with no difficulty. Ace's suspicions were proven even more when Nayely came to stand face to face with him for the first time ever. Ace paid no mind to the fact he blocked the way as he stood smack dab in the middle of the room.

Her eyes studied his face, anticipating that he too would demand for the energy she struggled to maintain. However, when he remained silent, drawing the eyes of others around them, Nayely's happy façade began to falter. For a brief moment, Ace watched as her eyes lost the ingenuine shine she entered the room with. If he wasn't mistaken, he could see her release a breath he was sure accounted for the way her fists balled at her side. He didn't know if that quick slip was due to relaxation, or preparation for what would follow. When she made to move around him, Ace's legs involuntarily moved in the same direction, blocking her.

He just needed one more moment to take in what Nayely looked like up close and personal. He had only seen her from a protected distance or in the film of pictures he kept organized in his closet. He hadn't realized that his neutral face that was always presented to the world changed the longer he stared. He offered Nayely a glance into a side of him no one ever saw. The knitted brows and unreadable expression on his face concerned the woman at Nayely's side.

"Just keep going." He heard her encourage Nayely who had also become fixated on the man before her.

"Do I know you?" Nayely couldn't help but to ask even as Mya's hand pulled at her elbow.

"Nayely, he's the press. I'm sure he's been around before." She noted, pointing to the badge around his neck.

"No-it's not that. Have we met before?" Nayely shook the suggestion away as deep down she knew this wasn't a simple case of running into a familiar face. As she measured him up, she tried to place him in her memory, as an off-putting feeling nipped at her.

Ace offered her nothing as he tilted her his head with hers when she became deep in thought. Nayely didn't know when her pulse had picked up, but she suddenly found herself breathing heavily as she began to understand what this man made her feel.

Fear? That didn't make sense.

An eerie feeling told Nayely that she had once stood before a person with the same presence as this man. The only memories she had of anything similar were locked away in a place she never spoke of.

"I'm sorry, I must have mistaken you for someone else. Excuse me." She finally found her voice again, as well as the masked smile she had lost. Looking to Mya, she assured her that she was okay and carefully took her leave to become lost within the growing crowd. There were rounds to make, she couldn't waste anymore time. The sooner she could get through this, the sooner she could begin picking up the mess that had been made.

Ace could feel the curious eyes that looked to him from all corners of the room. As things seemed to resume, he made his way to his seat, biding his time as the event began. He had caught the look of confusion on Nayely's face which only served to anger him. It wasn't the look he had wanted from her.

Have we met before?

How could she not realize who he was? Event after event, appearance after appearance, race after race, he had always been there for the last ten years-- how could she ask him such a question? Surprising anger fanned the flames of his inner fire as he realized that Nayely had no idea who he was, that he even existed.  After all the work he had spent learning and watching her, Ace deserved to be recognized.

 

 

"Are you sure about this, man?" Khalil placed his hands on his hips as he watched MJ thank the moving men as they down the last box in his new loft aparment.

His return home had gotten off to a rough start. While he was supposed to spend his time resting and recovering, he was hounded day in and day out by the paparazzi as they refused to give him space. He knew that by him living in his old community, he would inconvenience the other residents as seedy characters hung around the building, hoping to catch a glimpse of the man.

"I had to do this, Kahlil. I couldn't stay there anymore. Too much has happened for me to live there without losing my mind. I'd rather not end up committed somewhere else for the time being." He said sarcastically.

"Hey, we had to do what we had to do. You know I'm all for the change-I'm just not understanding why you chose this place?" Kahlil took in the apartment that was now MJ's. It was far from any gated community that celebrities chose to live in, which meant there was far less privacy and space.

"What? There's nothing wrong here." Turning around in the space, MJ admired what he saw. The setting sun poured into the living room, highlighting the spiraling staircase that led to the upper level of his new home. "Yeah, it's a lot smaller than the last place, but that's to be expected."

"The space isn't what concerns me. You moved to get away from all the bullshit, but what makes you think they won't find you here? You're just going to hide in plain sight?" Taking a seat on the leather couch, Kahlil tapped his hand on the back. "That may be harder than it seems, MJ."

"The only ones who know where I am are you and Christina. Besides, this isn't an area anyone is really looking for. It's too far from the center of everything. I think this is exactly where I need to be."

"So, you're trying to live an everyday life? I can respect that." Kahlil laughed as he slipped in a thought he couldn't let go of. "You must have liked the set up Nayely had."

"What are you talking about?"

"I'm talking about the fact that Nayely's place is less than 15 minutes away from here. Are you going to sit here and tell me that is just a pure coincidence?"

MJ froze as the realization hit him. He hadn't even known that he was subconsciously choosing this apartment with her in mind. As soon as Kahlil mentioned her name, he immediately perked up at the thought of being closer.

"Chill. It's nothing like that." MJ kept his face turned, knowing that the redness that crept along his neck and ears would give him away. "I already told you what the deal was with that."

"With that? You mean Nayely? The girl you iced out of your life for years? The same Nayely then stepped in and saved said life? Your Nayely?"

"Kahlil, chill!" MJ shouted, tired of the prodding." She's not, mine. Why would you even say that?"

"Sorry! Wrong tense! She was yours. Could have still been yours but, hey, you decided a long time ago that wasn't my business." Kahlil would never let up on reminded MJ how alienating it was to have been kept in the dark until he finally gave in. Especially now that things had been set in motion to where a resolution could be on its way.

"I-You-" MJ fumbled with his words, giving up on a comeback." You're about to have the honor of being the first person I kick out."

"You're just saying that, so you can creep down the block and stalk Nayely."

"Man..."

"You know you can call first. No need to hide out."

"Don't you have somewhere to be?"

"Nah, I'm straight." Kahlil made himself more comfortable on the couch as he closed his eyes. Before MJ could give another complaint, he was saved by the alarm for Kahlil's son's basketball game.

"Dang, time to go see Junior ball like his pops, don't want to miss that." Opening the door, MJ waited as Kahlil grunted, making his way to the door.

"You're lucky I've got the confidence of a lion, otherwise we'd have to fight for you low key calling my son trash. He's got time. Practice makes perfect."

"He's finally got the jump ball down pact! That's progress!" MJ called out before shutting the door in Kahlil's face as he prepared a retort. Hearing his friend's laughter on the other side, MJ was ready to enjoy his space alone. Looking around the loft, he wondered if he would be able to make this place his home. He thought about all the energy he lived with these last few years, and how the last thing he wanted was to taint this place.

He had to make this work.

As of now, he was on an indefinite hiatus as projects he was in talks for ending up falling through. If he were to survive this fall from grace, he would need his mind ass clear as possible. Christina was going above and beyond to clean the mess he had made. Guilt still riddled him on how hard she tried to uphold his place.

When he had insisted to get back on the ball and rub noses with as many people as possible, she made it clear she would refuse to work if that was the case. His peace of mind was much more important and whatever she could do without disturbing that was their only option.

"The world can wait, MJ." He had to admit that somewhere in his heart, he was relieved to hear those words. Fear of losing the momentum he had built during this point of his career strangled him some nights. He knew that in the blink of an eye, he could disappear from the public's eye during this break.

MJ popped open a bottle of water he pulled from his fridge as he flicked on the TV he and Kahlil managed to mount to the wall. The activities he usually used to clear his mind would be off limits for a long time. In fact, he may have to let most of them go anyway.

Partying, weekends away for binges-all of that no longer had a place in his life. He could only afford one near death experience in his life.

Cocking his legs to the side, he sipped from his bottle as he watched channels flip past his eyes as he searched for something to capture his attention. Just before he gave up the search, the flash of Nayely's official headshot splayed across the screen.

MJ's thumb hesitated over the off button as he allowed himself to listen to the reporting.

"One thing is for sure, nothing can stop the 12-time Olympic gold medalist, Nayely Polite, not even the sudden departure of her longtime coach, Terrance Thompson." MJ turned the remote in his hand as he listened further.

"The world was first made aware of the split between the famed coach and athlete through Thompson's own website, stating that due to a sudden change in personalities and objectives, their relationship could no longer continue amicably. This has raised the question among many, as the mystery surrounding Nayely Polite in the public eye has always distanced her from her fans."

Nayely with personality issues? MJ's thoughts came to her defense as he could read the implication of the report. His suspicions were proven right as social media posts from random people on the internet began to flood the screen. His chest tightened as he read comments calling her a ‘diva' and ‘full of herself' were displayed for all to see. If these hadn't been seen before, he was sure having them broadcasted on national TV would have them seen. A pang of familiarity hit MJ as he was still recovering from the onslaught of public opinion that were being thrown his way. Eyes fluttering shut, MJ realized that the tightness would only go away if he were to call her. To comfort her.

Moving to his feet, MJ searched for his keys, determined to get away.

"-despite recent events, we can still look forward to seeing Nayely Polite as the host of the upcoming holiday parade. She'll be joined by the likes of fellow Olympians and sports groups from around the state as they kick off the celebrations for the holidays."

MJ didn't realize that as the dates and times for the Christmas parade flashed against the screen, he was committing the event to memory. In seven days, she would be putting herself before the public, hoping that by that time the focus would shift from her personal turmoil that everyone wanted to pry into. Slamming the door behind him, MJ left the loft, intent on exploring his new world.

 

"-and so, I ask you all to join us in the celebration of the many students who have dedicated themselves to their sport and community, by always putting their best foot forward, and leading with the heart of an Olympian." Nayely's blood thumped in her ears as she took her final stand at the podium. The crowd stood to their feet, clapping in unison as the event came to an end. With the closing remarks, Nayely was able to finally breathe a sigh of relief as the room filled with chatter once again.

Shaking the hands of committee members and volunteers, Nayely made her way down from the stage, sensitive to the brown eyes that never left her throughout the day. Even in a crowd this large, she was able to make a sharp turn to catch the mysterious man staring her down. He was the only to remain in his seat at the press table, as everyone else swarmed around. This was beginning to feel unsettling. For a moment, Nayely thought back to Judge Stewart's visit to her home.

Was he connected to him?

Her anxiety levels were high as she suspected anyone new around her. She couldn't afford to be caught slipping.

"Hey, where are you going?" Mya caught Nayely's arm as she saw her seek out a path towards the man who had irked her nerves. Looking around her taller frame, Mya saw that he stared on with no expression, which was very telling based off the information she was able to get on him. As far as the other members of the press were concerned, the relatively newcomer in the journalist circle was named Ace and was known to drudge up insecurities and fears that his peers hid deep down. No one had a nice word to say about the young guy, and Mya had no intentions of letting Nayely near him.

His sudden approach earlier just didn't sit right with her.

"Huh?" Nayely turned, broken from the spell she was under. The small smile on Mya's face brought one to her own. "Oh, yes. There are a few more people to meet with, right?"

"Right. We haven't had a chance to speak with Davis's team. There's definitely some hope in getting hooked up with someone who can pick up where you-know-who left off." Though it was still early in the transition process, both women had found it frustrating that many of the emails and calls that had been made in the wake of Terrence's stunt had gone unanswered. To say there wasn't a sense of urgency in getting a response would be a lie, as even during the luncheon there was a standoffish nature with many of the people who could help Nayely in her situation. All the smiles and handshakes were just for show.

She could feel their apprehension to dwell on conversation that dared to venture past niceties appropriate for the occasion. Nayely was no fool.

If she couldn't get their digital response, she would have to get it face to face.

If she were to be blacklisted, then it'd be better to know up front. They owed her that much.

 

It's not over, girl. We got this! I'm going to stay on their ass until someone steps up and stops being a bitch for the Thompsons.

Tossing her phone aside, Nayely had reached her limit. She knew that Mya meant well, but for now, she couldn't stand to think of the way she was shunned by individuals she had once respected. She could still see the sweat that trickled down one's forehead as she made mention of being on the market for a new trainer.

"Unbelievable." Nayely muttered as she opened her refrigerator. She didn't know if the comment was about all the ass kissing she had to endure, or the fact that her kitchen was nearly bare of food.

With her heels in hand, she made work to remove the dress that hugged her curves. If she couldn't solve her trainer issue, then she could at least get some food for her to gorge on while she had the chance.

 

"Excuse me." MJ shifted his cart down the aisle of the nearby grocery store. When he had first entered, he had kept on his dark sunglasses even as the sun outside began to disappear. As he looked around to the faces of everyday people who seemed content and much more relaxed than he was used to, he felt more comfortable in showing his face. After a while, he was happy to find that having his face exposed wouldn't be to his own detriment as he blended in with the families and singles who browsed the aisles.

The woman who carried a heavy hand basket stepped to the side at the sound of MJ's voice. She moved without thinking, stumbling into another overfilled cart as all her items splayed out on the ground.

"Shit." He could hear the small mutter of pain as she picked her foot up from the ground. Turning around to help pick up the pieces, MJ's hands gathered up as much as he could.

"Are you okay?" As MJ handed over a box of tea, he was surprised to see the woman drop everything she had and walk away. He hadn't had the chance to catch a look at the woman's face and swiveled his head around in confusion with the other shoppers. Settling everything back into the basket, MJ jogged to the end of the aisle, hoping to give the woman's things back.

"Hey!" He shouted as a figure moving quicker than all others stuck out to him. At the sound of his voice, the woman's head jerked around out of instinct. Her head was nestled in a cloud of dark coils and kinks as they floated away, showing just enough of her face to stop MJ's breath. Nayely's hand went to her bangs, as if to keep them from revealing much more of her face.

While her feet were quick, MJ's were quicker in that moment. He thanked the long lines at the registers from blocking her exit.

Nayely's feet moved in place, as she realized running away was drawing eyes to her. She had been shocked to see MJ crouching before her and knew that she had to leave before his eyes could connect with hers.

Taking a breath, it was clear that was all for naught as he not only saw her but decided it would be a good idea to follow.

MJ watched as she clenched her fists, back going rigid the closer he got. He swore he could feel the heat radiating off her body as he was drawn into her orbit. He stopped himself from reaching for her shoulder as he could feel the emotion behind the words her lips couldn't form.

Don't.

From the side, Nayely's eyes moved from MJ's feet, stopping just before they reached his eyes as she subconsciously nodded her head.

The question she refrained from asking after all this time was answered.

He's okay.

When Nayely reached for the basket she recognized as hers, she was annoyed to feel the resistance to give it up as MJ simply stood there.

"Could you-" She spoke softly, not wanting to offer much more. Tugging the basket, she nearly made everything fall out again. "Please! Please let go." Her voice cracked more than she had wished, sending a sharp slap to MJ as his grip loosened.

"I thought you would need this." MJ offered. His hazel eyes widened when she finally looked to him, a dark look took his breath away.

"Twice." She bit the inside of her cheek as her confusion of his presence nagged at her. "Twice you've shown up where you shouldn't be."

"I know." MJ's words left him immediately, not wanting to miss out on this opportunity he didn't know he needed. He could almost feel the ground shake from the walls that fell around Nayely as her mind began to race. He could see the next words forming on the tip of her tongue before she could even get them out.

"I was just on a grocery run. This-this is the closest one to me." MJ felt anxious as the look on her face deepened.

"How is this the closest one to you? I don't-I don't understand." The apprehension in her words could not be missed.

Clearing his throat, MJ's eyes fell from her knitted brow to the deep dimples that showed only because of her pursed lips.

"Actually," he took a deep breath," I live nearby now. Just moved in this afternoon. I was looking for something new and-"

"What? You need me gone so you can live in peace?" Her words cut him as he knew the bitterness was well deserving. The accusatory tone couldn't be contained as anger built in Nayely, threatening to burn her from the inside out. She couldn't take anymore. Having one man trying to cut her at the knees was enough-she didn't need MJ showing up and forcing her to start her life over again in some new place so that he could be happy.

"No, Nayely. Look I can understand how you feel right now."

"No, you can't!" Nayely stepped close, as her hands shook with rage. "I've lived my life doing exactly what you told me to. I stayed away. I stayed away." She reiterated as peeping eyes passed by."What  happened? Did you get bored and decide to come find me to harass me? Drive me away with guilt?"

"That's not what this is. I just happened to find a place in the area. I needed a change after everything that's happened lately."

"You're a damn lie." Nayely wasn't wanting to hear what he had to say. "You didn't just happen here. Just like you didn't just happen to find my home the last time you stopped by." Nayely's eyes shook as she down played the most recent unexpected visit she had received from MJ. Only she knew just how concerned she had been all this time, unsure of how she could find out what was truly becoming of his recovery. A recovery she had hoped for in her quietest moments.

"I thought that you would have gotten everything you wanted by now. That's what I hoped for at least-whether you want to believe me or not." Nayely found herself admitting. MJ watched as she worried her bottom lip as she mentally reminded herself of a fact that had proven to be true. " Believing in what I say isn't something you're willing to do." She spoke almost to herself.

"Nayely..." Closing her eyes tightly, she had to snuff out the parts of her that wanted to trust in the sincerity she felt when he spoke her name.

"I made out my own little corner in this world so that you could have all that you wanted. I-I've done well. I've learned how to survive in this on my own, but now you keep showing up and it feels like I'm going to have to let go of everything again. "Looking to her feet, Nayely realized that she didn't want to let go of what she had. Not even for MJ. " Can't I have this? Please. If I can't have anything else, I don't care. " Her eyes pleaded with him as it felt like he had swallowed a 50-pound boulder. His stomach fell as he remembered the last time she had stood before him with tears in her eyes years ago. MJ was confused as to why she would ask his permission for such a thing. He had no say-

She was your girl.

Kahlil's words rang throughout his head. In those days, MJ and Nayely did any and everything for each other, as no one else could understand their hearts. Shame filled MJ as he saw that walking away from Nayely hadn't broken the bond he denied. She had continued to hold on to it, fulfilling his demands that he hoped would bring her pain. Now seeing that it had done just that, he felt sick to his stomach.

The hand basket was shoved into MJ's stomach as Nayely no longer had any interest in shopping.

"I've given you all that I can up until now." Shaking her head, Nayely stilled her face. "Just this one last time, can't you give me something in return?"

One last time? The finality of her words caused MJ's mind to race. All the thoughts he had about Nayely merged together, creating a mass of confusion as he felt the need to stop her from leaving him. He had been the one to set the fate of their relationship and had stood by his decision. He had justified it with the death of his mother, using who her father was as the most important reason to keep her form his life. Now here he stood trying to find a way to get her to stay.

"An apology!" MJ stopped Nayely in her tracks as she took his silence as an opening to leave.

She misinterpreted his words, thinking he was asking for her to give the words of remorse.

"An apology? From me? What do I owe you an apology for?" Moving closer, Nayely's eyes shined with tears. "For not hiding myself enough? For living a life I'm actually proud of? For helping you when-"

Her heightened voice became muffled as MJ pulled her into his chest. His head sunk into her hair as he panted against her neck.

She was your girl.

"Forgive me, Nayely." The looks they received as customers and employees maneuvered around the intimate embrace couldn't stop MJ. Feeling the warmth of her body against his brought a pain to his chest that he welcomed, as having Nayely close was what his heart needed this entire time. MJ's arms tightened even more around her shoulders, tucking her head into his neck as their heights matched perfectly. MJ didn't miss the way her lips pressed into his skin.

Craning her head back, Nayely's shock was evident as being in his arms caused her to freeze.

"I don't want you to hide anymore." His hand folded over the warm skin of her neck as her hair tangled around his fingers. "I demanded something of you that I never should have."

"How is that any different from now?" She finally managed to speak up. Pushing away, Nayely could see MJ's face pale from her rejection.

"Don't look at me like that." She warned as a flash of hurt dared to cross his face." I haven't done anything wrong!"

"Forgive you? That's what you want me to do?" Phones began to emerge from the other customers as some began to recognize the couple causing a scene. MJ's senses told him that this wasn't good. The last thing he wanted was for Nayely to be captured and posted online while in the middle of a grocery store, yelling with tears rolling down her face. Tears he had caused. The comfortable cushion Nayely had nestled into was being torn apart now because of him. He did what he knew best.

Grabbing her gently by the arm, MJ guided her through the doors, dropping her basket on a nearby conveyor belt just as the manager of the store began to approach them.

"What do you think you're doing."

"Just come with me, Nayely."

Shuffling past incoming shoppers, MJ wasn't surprised by the strength she found to jerk away from him. He didn't have enough time to see the incoming slap as her hand made contact with his cheek. His head turned violently as his vision was temporarily blurred.

Shaking his head, MJ could feel the built-up tension her slap helped for her to release. When the next hit came, he was able to withstand the hit, keeping his head as steady as possible. Nayely stood astonished by his lack of anger. He stood there with an apologetic look in his eyes, taking the punishment with not a spark of rage. She needed to see that from him... she needed to make sure that after tonight, he would go back to never wanting to see her again.

As her arm cocked back for the third blow, she hesitated as he braced himself. She had yet to feel any satisfaction from the stinging in her palm. His reddened cheek glowed before her as if to taunt her.

"I can't believe you." She spat." You're just going to stand there and make me look crazy? You're the one who wants to switch things up out of nowhere! Are you trying to make me out to be the bad guy again?"

"You've been holding on to a lot, haven't you? You've been trying so hard all of this time."

"Trying?" She scoffed. "I've been doing. Day after day. Year after year." Her voice broke.

"I broke our promise, Nayely." MJ's memories of their first day at the Rose House came forth. He still remembered whispering into her ear, telling her they had to stay together no matter what, only to go on and ignore his own words." I know I'm the reason we couldn't stay together. I lied to myself and to you about what I've wanted all this time. I know that everything that's happened since then can't be undone. But-"

Taking a deep breath, MJ continued as Nayely's puffy eyes waited attentively. "I thought I knew what I needed to get what I wanted. I thought that meant not having you in my life. But-that never changed anything. I thought I'd be happy. I tricked myself into thinking that I was, but it was never true."

 A step closer to Nayely caused her to slide her foot against the gravel, but in the last second, she stopped her retreat.

"I didn't even know until then. Until I came to you." MJ watched as Nayely swayed in her spot.

"You never had to open that door. You never had to call for help-or stay with me until Terrence showed up." He revealed that he had known of her staying by his side while in the hospital. This reveal caused her to turn away, not wanting to acknowledge it. "But you did. If it weren't for you, I wouldn't have this chance now, to see and speak with you the way that I am. This isn't how I would have wanted it, but this is all because of me."

"You're the one who's had a second chance at life. Don't forget I'm the one who still has to carry everything you dumped in your first time around."

"I'll do whatever I can, so you don't have to bear it all on your own." As Nayely searched his face for a lie, she was almost disappointed to find none. She needed a reason to end the feud of acceptance and rejection that tugged in her heart the more she spoke to MJ.

Pressing her hand to her temple, Nayely looked to sooth the ache that pounded there.

"You'll have to forgive me. I'm just finding it hard to be the girl who would blindly follow any and everything you'd say. I mean-can you blame me? Look where it's gotten me."

"I never want you hurt in that way again. I don't want you to blindly trust in me-I want to earn whatever I can. I want to do this the right way."

The night fell around them, both forgetting the real reason they had made the trip out in the first place. All they had needed was an answer to a base need, but the moment they crossed paths, a much more innate need took over.

The need for each other.

 

Chapter 15 by ValleyofLight
Author's Notes:

Thank you to everyone who has been holding on and looking forward to an update! I'm happy to begin working on this adventure again. Please let me know what you think!

 

Ace rubbed at his face as he sat back in his office chair. The morning sounds outside of his bedroom window found their way through the cracks of his home. Blinking his eyes, he readjusted them to the lamp light that was now flooded by the incoming sunlight.  This was the third night in a row that he had spent going over his favorite subject.

Nayely Polite.

In his two-bedroom apartment, he had built what some may consider a shrine to the track star. Looking around the smaller bedroom he had converted into his work space, Ace took in the detailed notes and postings that surrounded him. His eyes glanced over the countless photos that decorated the walls and rolling white board that stood in the center of the room. Looking from the handwritten list in his hand to the picture of a trashcan and two people captured in an embrace, Ace stood to place them all together.

Ace stared thoughtfully at the face of MJ Park, an actor he never would have predicted would become a part of his study of Nayely. He had a brief understanding of the man's latest headlines, knowing that his stint in rehab was closely related to the drugs Ace discovered tossed away in Nayely's trashcans.

He was taken back to that day, when he spotted her talking with a man who seemed rather familiar with her. Ace had taken many pictures that day, capturing the license plate of the SUV Nayely reluctantly drove away in after some coaxing from the man visiting her. He had never seen the car before, and when he ran its information, it didn't take much to find its owner.

Running his fingers over the edges of papers neatly stacked in a file container, Ace had found himself stumped with their relation as she was never known for flings-and if she had any-they were kept under wraps that even he couldn't pry apart.

That was until last week.

When Ace had followed Nayely home, he had almost considered calling it a night seeing her heading for her local grocery store. As he sat in his car, peering through the windows of the store from a safe distance, he slunk into his car as a heated conversation unfolded before him between Nayely and MJ. His interest was piqued.

He had quickly pulled out his camera the moment he saw the dark-haired man dragging her out the store. Wanting to capture every moment that he could, Ace only faltered when MJ drew her into a tight embrace.

What was that about?

Sighing, Ace moved through his apartment, ignoring the new text messages from a persistent Terrence.

Update me. ASAP!

This needs to be done. No games.

Ace wondered if this man had anything else to occupy his time. He could tell if he hadn't been clear on the no contact aspect of this project, or if Terrence was stubborn enough to ignore him. He knew they were beyond the best time to strike while the iron was hot and what Terrence had wanted to use as his ammo against the woman would be useless.

Ace had already found all that he could surrounding Nayely's father long before Terrence came into the picture. It was a story he never intended on giving to the man, as it had been a part of his own personal quest.

He had hit a dead end long ago. A fact that frustrated him beyond understanding.

To bring an end to the constant messages and calls, Ace concocted a story he was sure would satisfy Terrence. He didn't know just how the new pieces of the puzzle surrounding Nayely would fit, but after last night, he knew he could put out a great gossip piece to cause trouble for Nayely. If Terrence was serious on bringing her career to its knees, he'd realize that linking her with Hollywood's fallen star, MJ Park, fresh after his stint in rehab would do a lot more damage than revealing her tragic childhood.

This wasn't like Ace-he never tended to give in to the drudges of front page hot topics. Knowing that he was in need of a shower, he picked up his phone, making his decision as he messaged Terrence.

Patience.

Before he could get his day started, he immediately received a call.

"Don't play with me, kid!" Terrence panted into his phone as he completed his morning workout routine. Ace could hear the whirring of the treadmill and the way his feet beat heavily against the machine."I've been patient long enough. When are you going to give up the details on what you've found?

"Listen, this took longer than expected, but I'm sure you're going to get your money's worth. You want to ruin her, right?"

"That's what I paid you for! I'm going to expose all the shit she's tried to hide. It'll make that bitch think twice before stepping to me again." Terrence nearly cheered as Ace held the phone away from his ear.

Looking at his computer, Ace hovered his cursor over the publish button. As his eyes caught sight of the date in the corner of his computer, Ace decided to relay his intentions to the eager man.

"It will be posted later today. You seem like a man who likes to keep his alerts on, just be patient and wait for the update."

"Wait! It's finished? You didn't tell me what you found-"

"You wanted this done as soon as possible, right? I told you to let me do my job, and I'll get you what you want."

"Alright, kid. You've got a lot of shit to say-so why not post it already? What are you waiting for?"

Not bothering to hide his sigh of irritation, Ace all but rubbed his temples as he begged for Terrence to put two and two together.

"The right moment. Today is the parade the committee has put on to honor all the accomplishments they've had this year, right? What better way to embarrass a beloved star than to blast the news of her secret trysts with a bad boy druggie while she tosses out gifts to needy children?" He decided to give Terrence a taste test of the article in terms he was sure would make him happy.

The harsh sounds of Terrence's breathing and his feet squeaking against the treadmill could be heard as he processed what he heard. Anger and jealousy flared in his chest as the idea of Nayely hooking up with someone he wasn't aware of angered him.

"Wait, she's been fucking someone on the low? Who?"

"Hm, not exactly what I said, but when I post the story, you'll learn more. Until then-"

Hanging up the phone, Ace silenced the device as he disappeared into his bathroom. In no time, Nayely would be preparing to meet and greet families from all around, wishing them a happy holiday, completely unaware of the blow that would be dealt.

 

"Here, let me help you." Nayely turned in the driver seat of her car as she allowed Maya to make subtle touches to her face. Focusing on her brows, she shaped the naturally thick arches with light strokes.

"You've got the lip gloss?"

"No, but I've got chapstick." Sucking her teeth, Maya dug in her makeup bag, lightly dusting Nayely's lips with a shimmering color that allowed the natural hues of the plump skin to shine through.

"There, all done. Of course I wish you would have let me put on a full face-"

"No, this is perfect, Maya." Looking into the overhead mirror, Nayley studied her face. Tugging a headband over her ears, she felt herself warm up from her hair that was pressed closely to her face. She felt that it allowed the swelling she experienced from stress to be less noticeable.

"Once we can get a replacement for Terrence, our next goal will be to get you a hair and makeup team. I can hook you up, but how great would it be to have someone there day after day to cut out this stress of looking good?"

"You got hair and makeup team money?" Nayely joked. Looking around her car, there was nothing fancy about her arrival.

"You're so damn cheap." Scrunching up her nose, Maya followed Nayely out of the car as they joined the visitors who swarmed the streets. Some eyes sparkled as they recognized her, while others whispered to their friends and families as she walked past. Nodding politely, Nayely kept her eyes forward as a strange sense crept down her back.

"This is going to be good. The kids from the shoe campaign are going to be here. It will be good to see them again."

"Last I heard, they were trying to figure out who gets to stand where for when the camera crews come out." Nayely recalled the last time she had spoken to the teens after they were offered an opportunity to participate in the parade. They had been more than honored, and for the first time in a while, she found herself happy to be out.

"There! That's where the event director said to meet." Leading the two of them into a secured area, Nayely was aware of the looks she received from staff members.

"This is ridiculous. They're still looking at you like you're the crazy one." Maya was much more comfortable expressing her dislike of the treatment Nayely had begun to receive. "After all of these years of being the best you can be, it takes one little ass rat to flip the script on you."

"The more thought we give to their bullshit, the more power he has. You already know the deal." Placing a reassuring hand on her bicep, Nayely looked down to Maya. "We do what we got to do to get to where we want. Period."

I've got this.

Nayely spoke the words for the thousandth time, hoping that they would feel even more true.

"Nayely!" The duo were surprised to see the event director rushing towards them. The older woman moved quickly in her workout clothes as a member of the committee followed suit. The sound of her name was devoid of a warm welcoming.

If she wasn't crazy, Nayely could hear dread in her voice.

"Katherine." She responded tersely. The way the woman's eyes skittered around the room made her uneasy.

"Yes-hello. I'm glad you're finally here."

"I'm sorry, were we late?" Looking around, Nayely saw that she was one of only a few athletes who were a part of the event. She knew for a fact that she had arrived even earlier than the suggested time.

"No-thank God for that." Katherine folded her arms before her as the recent news she was shown made her anxiety skyrocket as she feared the destruction of the long-awaited parade due to Nayely's present.

"Excuse me?" Maya asked confusedly as she looked to Nayely.

"Is there something to discuss? Last minute changes?" Nayely looked to Katherine and the committee member.

"Indeed, there is, Ms. Polite. Please, come this way." The committee member, Mr. Castillo, turned on his heels, not bothering to wait as he sliced through the growing crowd within the private trailer.

"What's going on?" Maya whispered to Nayely as they stood baffled by their behavior.

Shaking her head, Nayely couldn't imagine a good reason for the way she was being treated. It had been a week since the mess Terrence had caused. While she couldn't get not one trainer to take her calls, she didn't expect there to be a conflict with her obligations that had been set in stone with or without Terrence.

When they were moved into a more secluded room, Nayely watched with suspicion as Katherine closed the door behind them as soon as they stepped foot into the space. Her scowl deepened as Katherine stared her down.

"What seems to be the problem here?"

"Please, have a seat." Mr. Castillo took one on his own, but Nayely did not accept the offer.

"I'm good. Hopefully this won't take too long so we can all get back out there and get things going."

"Actually, that's something we'd like to talk about. There have been some unexpected changes in the last hour." It was obvious to Nayely that whatever they had to say wasn't as simple as which floats she would be on or anything else related to the actual parade activities.

When Nayely remained silent, she waited for the evasiveness to end.

Katherine turned to the committee member and exchanged a nod of their heads. Pulling out her phone, she quickly thrust it towards Nayely and Maya. Scanning their faces, Nayely tried to read them before she saw what was on the screen. The way their eyes avoided her was more than telling.

Taking the phone, Nayely brought it close enough to read with Maya. As Nayely tried to wrap her brain around what she was saw, Maya gasped in horror as she pulled out her own phone.

Pulling up her own browser, Maya confirmed that what they were being shown had become a trending topic across multiple sites in no time.

Snorting Around Town: Is Nayely Polite All That MJ Park Needs in This Life of Sin?

"Would you mind explaining this?" Mr. Castillo looked on sternly as Nayely was at a loss for words.

"I-this is just-" Nayely had no idea how she was to explain way something she had no idea about.

"Complete slander!" Maya finished for her." Sir, there seems to be a misunderstanding here. I don't know who would take the time to write such lies, but this has absolutely nothing to do with Nayely."

"Look, I couldn't care less about any flings of yours, but when an Olympic athlete is being accused of using drugs, I can't simply turn a blind eye. Especially when the parents of the children you're to interact with tonight bombard me with something like this! Do you know how much I had to endure to calm them down?"

"I understand their concerns, but I assure you this is a bogus lie that has nothing to do with me and the work I've done so far. I would never do anything to taint my work. Ever." Nayely held her hands in the air, trying to gauge what Mr. Castillo wanted from her. A confession? That could never happen as there was nothing to confess to.

"I know you, Nayely. The kids love you. The public? They have no idea what to make of you outside of being a world champ. You've had a nearly perfect top star mold cracked in a matter of days. When the question of drugs gets thrown into the mix, I can't ignore their legitimate concern of you representing the committee. If they associate you with cocaine, you think they won't start questioning other drugs as well?"

Nayely shed her stunned and confused daze at the implication of his words. "If your suggesting what I think you are, it would be best for you to abandon that thought right now." The committee member's brow furrowed as he adjusted his shirt. Nayely would not allow even the mention of doping-the greatest taboo in the sports world-to leave his lips.

"Don't be surprised when headlines start accusing you of doping. Once those start to roll in, there will be no end to it and-"

Nayely gripped her fist in the air as she wanted to stop the man from speaking.

"Okay, enough!" She shut him down. Looking to Katherine, Nayely crossed her arms over her chest. "It's obvious the two of you have come to an agreement on how tonight's event will be handled based on these absolute lies. Even if that is the case, I believe I've earned more than enough respect to hear what it is you truly want to say to me."

"You have to understand! We can't have this night shrouded in a scandal-"

"Then be clear about your intentions!" Nayely raised her voice, not knowing that those outside the room who were being filled in on the news were shuffling around quietly, hoping to catch a word of their private meeting.

"You will not host tonight's event, Nayely. I'm sorry to have to tell you this." Mr. Castillo stood before her with a stern look that was met by Nayely's unwavering glare. He had already endured phone calls from more senior members putting a stop on her appearance. Her face would be one of the main ones broadcasted to countless viewers-the last thing they wanted was out roar from the community following tonight.

"This is what you want, sir?" Nayely knew the moment she didn't show her face tonight, it would only fuel the rumors and give people reason to believe them to be true.

"It's not what I want, it's what's been decided to be best for our organization." Maya pressed her palm to her forehead as she took a step back from the group.

"I can't believe this. After the commitment Nayely has put forth to get fundraising, sponsors, and schools to join this event, you're going to push her aside because of this?" Maya stepped forward.

"The most important principle that we ask everyone to abide by is that of integrity. When a case like this is presented where there has been a clear violation, then the committee reserves the right to act as they see fit."

"Integrity? The committee is making a split-second decision based off the rumblings of the online gossip world. How could that make any possible sense?" Maya continued to challenge, now as one of Nayely's closest allies and representatives. The anger that built in her at the unfairness of her sudden dismissal stemmed from her loyalty as Nayely's assistant, as well as one of her good friends. She expressed the anger that Nayely reeled in.

"Maya."

"Since when are rash decisions made in response to unfounded rumors? This is some straight-"

"Maya!" Nayely grabbed her by the shoulder as she reigned her back in. Looking to each other, a quiet moment was shared as another instance of defeat was placed before them." I have teammates out there who have worked just as hard for this parade to come true. I don't have to be here for this to be a success." Turning to Katherine and Mr. Castillo, Nayely took a deep breath.

"This was all supposed to be a celebration for the kids across this state who have worked their asses off this year. This was always about them and I'm not going to allow allegations like this to change that. This is their night." The pain in her chest told Nayely that this turn of events hurt more than she could have imagined.

"I'm glad you understand our position on this." Katherine spoke with relief as she pressed her fingers to her temple. Nayely did a double take at the woman as she tried to decide if responding to her tone was worth it.

"Please, make no mistake. The position the committee has taken is one I reject entirely. If me leaving means that those kids still get a chance to enjoy their night after everything they've accomplished, then so be it." Nayely watched as Katherine's neck blazed red. The woman pursed her thin lips together as a mix of satisfaction and impatience filled her face.

"If you'd like, I can provide you with an escort to avoid any unwanted attention." The committee member offered, finally giving Nayely a reason to exit as she led Maya to the door.

With her hand on the door knob, Nayely fought the urge to let her chin fall to her chest.

"I think I've been insulted enough for one night." Without offering a goodbye, Nayely opened the door and walked away. The heavy stares she felt made it harder for her to move through the crowd. When she heard a familiar voice call out, she closed her eyes, not wanting to show how weak she felt in front of Cheyenne as she came her way.

"Is everything good?" Cheyenne craned her neck around to Nayely's face just before she could plaster a semi comforting smile to keep her friend from worrying. They had spent recent phone calls together catching up after Terrence's departure. Cheyenne was all too aware of the toll things were taking on not only Nayely's emotions, but her career as well. It didn't take long until theories on what Terrance planned to make of her began to travel around their most inner circles.

"Yes. I won't be able to join everyone tonight so-"

"Do not tell me they kicked you out because of some shit they done read on the internet?" Nayely could feel Cheyenne's emotions riling up much like Maya's earlier. Shaking her head from side to side, she let her know it wasn't necessary. She didn't want anyone else to shoulder her problems.

"Don't even worry about it. You just need to get out there, give those kids a good time, and have fun. Do it for me."

With a tight squeeze, Cheyenne acknowledged her request. Pulling Nayely in for a tight hug, she made sure to show everyone else how silly it was to stand off to the sides as if she were a pariah, avoiding Nayely at all costs. She could care less about what anyone else would think. She'd be there anyway she could for the woman she admired.

"I should warn you, though..." Cheyenne said as she pulled away.

"Paparazzi?" Maya asked as she shifted a frown towards the exit trying to see if she could spot the flashing cameras.

"Yes and no. They'll always be nearby, but who gives a damn about them?" Cheyenne's eyes softened as she tipped her head to the door. "A bunch of the kids are gathered outside. I guess they found out too and some of the parents were talking about how they got you kicked out for tonight. They tried to ask me questions when I came in, but I honestly had no idea what was going on."

Nayely's eyes welled at the thought of kids lining up to check to see if she was still here." Thanks, girl." She did feel grateful to have gotten a heads-up as she wasn't sure how she would have reacted to seeing them with no warning.

"I'd rather have the chance to tell them goodbye than to just disappear into thin air."

"We shouldn't even be in this situation, Nayely." Maya sighed.

"But now we have to face it." With a small wave to Cheyenne, Nayely took the long steps to leave the trailer.

The crowd outside had grown in the short amount of time they were there. Attendance was in the thousands, and other than a few cameras pointed her way, Nayely was sure she could slip away easily.

"Nayely!" A chorus of concerned voices could be heard behind the VIP barrier just past the entrance. Seeing all the worried young faces of the athletes she had connected with in preparation for the parade, Nayely made her way towards them. She watched as some were pulled away from their parents while others fought off the forced desertion.

"My mom said you're leaving already. Didn't you just get here?"

"This is messed up, why can't you stay?"

"It's just one night! This isn't fair!" The kids were not afraid to voice their opinions on the situation. There was no way in hiding what she knew they had already read online. If nothing else, she just wanted to be able to see them off despite what was being thrown her way.

"I'm sorry I won't be able to get out there with everyone. I hope you can forgive me for missing out." Putting on a brave face, she hoped that she didn't show her own anger towards the situation.

"It's not your fault." Nayely turned to a face that stepped forward, bypassing the younger kids.

"Candice." The older girl was flanked by the kids who had joined her in the shoe campaign with Nayely. While the others had an anxious look on their face, the older teens looked on with understanding.

"I didn't think we'd get another chance to hang with you like this, and now they've taken that away." Jacquees's red her was covered by a hat he drew closer to his face as he showed his disappointment. Looking to Latisha and Michael, she could see they were all saddened by the sudden change.

"Look, this isn't something any of us here wanted." Nayely ignored the mummers of lurking parents." But I want all of you to bask in tonight. All of this is for you. I wish I could stay, but at least I can get home and watch you on TV."

Silence fell over the group as they came to see that what they hoped to be false was indeed true.

"Well, who's going to take your place?"

"I'm sure there is someone more than capable of stepping up getting ready as we speak. In fact, I think that's something you all should be doing too." Nayely had noticed the cameras being pointed in their direction and didn't want to have children caught up in the photos.

When Candice realized she was trying to make an exit, she quickly grabbed Nayely's arm.

"Well, if you have to go, at least take a picture with us. I could photoshop you into a few but my skills aren't all that great." She smiled. Nayely did not decline the picture as she turned around, facing Maya who took the role of photographer as she grabbed Candice's phone. She waited as everyone got in frame, counting down the picture as they all smiled despite the occasion.

"If y'all don't let me go, I'll never get home in time to watch the parade live! I didn't exactly set my DVR for this..." Nayely groaned playfully as they all wrapped her in a group hug. Saying her goodbyes, Nayely encouraged them to go, not leaving until she was sure they had left the area. Once they were all gone, Nayely remembered what she needed to do.

"Let's get the hell out of here." She whispered.

"You don't have to tell me twice."

 

 

MJ sat in his car as he was able to squeeze into an impromptu parking spot as people passed him by, excited by the festivities ahead.

"What am I doing?" He asked to no one as he took in his surroundings. Holiday lights decorated the streets and guided the crowd towards the parade that was being held. Gripping his lengthier hair, MJ fought with himself as he weighed his options.

He could go in just like everyone else looking to enjoy the event, just to remind himself what it was like to lead a regular life.

Or he could turn around, go home, and forget his not so discreet plan to find a way to run into Nayely once again.

With his hand on the door handle, MJ took a deep breath as he went to make his decision.

As he followed the crowd, he was greeted by the smells of fried food and offers of specialty items from the vendors who sold gifts along the way. Pushing his hands into his pockets, he dipped his face into his collar to protect him from the cool air, as well as avoid being recognized.

The sound of Eartha Kitt's voice brought him to a crowd which happened to hold a few hidden fans of his own. With the few stares he received, MJ tried his best to change his route, but their eyes were sharper than everyone else's. If one were to speak his name, he feared that others would begin to sniff him out.

Ducking behind one of the stalls, MJ gave a friendly nod to the older woman selling ornament accessories as he managed to avoid the cameras.

"Excuse me, do you know where this leads to?" He asked nicely. Even though he was a surprise, the woman returned his smile with one of her own.

"I believe that takes you towards the athlete's area. I heard they're offering free photos and autographs. If you hurry, you may be able to catch them before everything begins."

"In that case, I better hurry." MJ's hazel eyes sparkled as he looked at the items she had on display. Quickly choosing a handful of gifts, he counted out cash to hand over, slipping in a little extra for her help.

"Have a happy holiday." He took the small black bag from her, leaving her waving in the distance as he moved away from the crowds.

As he approached multiple mobile units, MJ patiently waited for the right moment to appear from between the trailers. The bass of music could be felt in the ground as he made sure no one could see him slip through.  When he made it in safely, he spotted a sign stating ‘authorized personnel only' in front of one of the trailers.

From the looks of the toned bodies that filed into the trailer, MJ figured that must be where the professional athletes were housed.

Subconsciously, he stretched his neck to see if he could spot a particular head of curls. His steps slowed a good distance away from the trailer as he took interest in one of the informational stands across the way as a cover. Picking up a leaflet, he looked at the smiling faces of children which decorated it. When he opened it further, he was staring into the warm brown face of Nayely who graced an inner fold with her teammates. Though she was one of many in the picture, she was the only one to draw him in.

"Hi! We have plenty of swag to give away tonight! If you're interested in supporting the local boys and girls club, this here will tell you all you need to know." A lively woman handed MJ a new brochure while pushing a bag filled with magnets, pens, and a signed photo into his hands.

"Thanks. I'll be sure to check it out." He accepted the offering only to find her smile fade ever so slightly as she stared him down.

"I don't mean to be rude, but are you that MJ Park guy?" She asked quizzically. When MJ raised his brow, a hostile look fell on his face.

"Oh my gosh! I wasn't saying that because your Asian too! I mean I just that you looked similar...not that you do! But you definitely look like that actor guy!" The woman fumbled over her words as her face glowed in a deep red color. "It's just that a bunch of people and parents have been mentioning his name to me tonight. Apparently, he's dating one of the athletes here."

"He is?" MJ's interest was piqued as a fresh rumor about him came to light.

"Yeah!" Leaning closer, she showed him her twitter feed. "Nayely Polite." The woman whispered her name like a dirty secret." It's all over the place. They're talking about the two of them going on drug binges together and everything. I never would have thought she was that type of girl, but I guess this is just proof to not have any expectations for famous people. It's really crazy because I saw her come in tonight."

MJ tried to follow the screen as the woman pulled it back to her side of the table.

"Sorry for mistaking you! Sometimes you can run into anybody here, but I'm sure that's not someone you want to be mistaken for." When another patron approached the stall, the woman waved goodbye as she diverted her attention.

He was only able to catch a glimpse of the hashtag dedicated to him and Nayely, but it was more than enough for him to bring out his own phone. Long ago, he had deleted all social media apps from his phone, so he didn't have to worry about constant alerts coming his way.

He saw that just by searching his name, he could see all that he needed to.

Watching the page update automatically, MJ could see that within the last hour, dozens of articles had been written about him and thousands of posts had been made calling his name.

When he found the article with the most views, he knew this had to be the original source of the gossip that had been started. When he read the title, his stomach tightened in anger as it seemed that not only was he being thrust back into the spotlight, but he had somehow gotten Nayely involved as well.

His eyes narrowed at the sight of pictures from the grocery store showed on the page. MJ's fist clenched around the leaflet he held, crumbling it into a ball as he read the stinging words of the author.

The secret life of Nayely Polite seems to be peeling away day after day. After the sudden split of her longtime manager, Terrence Thompson last week, it has now been revealed that her love life is also filled with strife! Could the return from a recent stint in a drug rehab of rumored lover, MJ Park, be a cause for Thompson's desertion?

"Fuck." MJ nearly threw his phone to the ground in anger as he refused to finish the piece. Feeling his heart beat irregularly against his chest, MJ tried to calm himself down. His body would be in recovery for a long time, but it seemed the world refused to let him rest.

When his eyes went to the athletes' trailer, it was to his surprise that Nayely stepped through the door. A group of kids called out to her, drawing her towards them with worried looks. MJ watched as they shot out question after question to a seemingly calm Nayely. Even from this distance, he was able to see the fallen look she tried to hide as he traced the lines of her profile.

There was no doubt she was made aware of the rumors. A feeling of responsibility beat inside of MJ as he knew drugs and athletes couldn't mix. With his life in Hollywood, it came as no surprise that he would have a drug crisis at least once in his life-and dealing with that had been hard enough.

The last time he had spoken to Nayely, he had promised to earn her forgiveness while not impeding on her life. All he wanted was to have a chance to be a part of it again. But not like this.  

While MJ was lost in his thoughts, Nayely had begun to move in his direction. Holding his breath as she passed just a few feet away, he saw that her dark eyes held a sullen look as she tuned out everything around her. With MJ tucked beside the stall, he wasn't in the line of sight of the cameras that followed her which were stopped as large men blocked their way.

"Nope. Designated areas only." He could hear them say, thankful that they couldn't follow her any further. Taking his chances, MJ left unnoticed. Keeping his eye on the back of her head, he wanted to call out her name. He needed to talk to her, to let her know that he had no idea how something like this could happen, and how he was prepared to do whatever he needed to make things right.

 

"It's going to be a long ride back; do you have to use the restroom?" Maya fished in her purse for the car keys, handing them to Nayely. Looking to the crowded parking lot, there were still many people coming in and she knew leaving even at a time like this would be a hassle.

"I think I'm good. But I suggest you go ahead. I'll try to bring the car around." Maya excused herself as she headed towards the restroom area. Nayely weaved in and out of the line of cars circling the parking lot, waiting for a space. She could feel them creeping behind her in the hopes of snagging her spot. In no rush, Nayely walked casually, not worried about being courteous.

One car swerved around her, speeding past her as they figured it was useless to follow for her parking space. Looking down the row, she could see her car in the distance, counting the steps she had left until she could sink into the driver's seat.

"Hmph." Nayely scoffed as she gripped her keys in her hand. Her eyes followed the beams of the car lights that shined around her. She could see the shadows of people walking past, but a silhouette that moved faster than the others caught her attention. When she recognized the sound of feet beating against the pavement, Nayely turned around.

Nayely's muscles tensed as she could feel unfamiliar hands tighten around her arms as MJ nearly took them both to the ground. Her keys fell from her hands as she tried to catch her balance.

Nayely stumbled through the parking lot as she was led deep between the lines of empty cars. Strong hands on her arms led her to an SUV tucked in an insolated corner of the lot. Her senses weren't clear enough to understand what was going on, but her nose recognized a scent she had only encountered recently before. Her eyes fluttered as she knew who had whisked her away.

When her back met the cold door of the SUV, she found herself face to face with hazel eyes illuminated by the moon. The glow of MJ's skin made his features clear even in the night, which made it hard for her to look away. Cautious eyes shifted around them, to ensure they were alone before falling back to Nayely who cursed the irregular beat of her heart in that moment. She hoped that he couldn't hear the hitch in her breath, but the softening of his eyes told her that he was all too aware. 

Nayely's body gave away the feelings at her core just has they had during their last encounter. When MJ had held her in an embrace, he could feel the pulse that she tried her best to suppress.

Shooting her hands to his biceps, Nayely hesitated briefly as she could feel the warm muscles beneath her fingers. She wasn't sure if she dug her digits into his skin to test their depth, or to encourage him to release her.

"What do you think you're doing?" The words were much too breathless for her liking as it didn't do the irritation she felt any justice.

"I know this isn't ideal, but I was afraid I wouldn't get a chance like this again." His deep voice soothed Nayely into listening to whatever it was he had to say. " There are a lot of things going on that I was hoping we could talk about." The mention of recent events jarred Nayely's memory as she quickly flared out her arms, pushing him away.

"There's nothing to talk about, in fact, us talking is the reason why we're here in the first place." Before she could make her exit, Nayely was tugged back from her escape as MJ reached out to her again. His hold was in no way intimidating, in fact, she could feel the gentle plead for her to give him this moment alone with her.

"Please." She asked as evenly as she could, looking to where their hands met. With a slight squeeze, MJ's hand loosened as he hovered close to her sleeve, afraid she would disappear in an instant.

"That's what I wanted to talk to you about, Nayely." MJ was taken aback by how easily her name fell from his lips now. "I know I have to be the last person you want to speak to, but I wanted to make sure that you heard this from me and no one else. I am so very sorry for the way things have turned out. I brought my problems into your world without thinking and now I've gotten you caught in the middle of it all. I never wanted anything like this to fall on you. You don't deserve any of this." With her back turned to him, MJ was unable to see her expression, but the slight rise and fall of her shoulders as she sighed told him that she was listening.

"No one deserves this." Nayely thought back to not only the accusations that had been made against her, but the disparaging remarks that had been made of MJ's recent brush with death. The gossip piece did well in poking fun at another's misfortune-which was something Nayely couldn't ignore as she remembered all too well the night she had spent trying to save MJ.

"When you've fucked up the way I have, things like this end up sticking with you. I guess it's the least they can do." MJ's hand froze in his hair as Nayely turned around suddenly.

"How could you say that?" MJ was thrown by the sudden emotion Nayely showed. If he wasn't mistaken, it almost looked as though she had taken offense to his self-deprecating dig. "You're sitting here acting like this is nothing-just another normal day."

"It's definitely become my new normal. I've gotten used to having eyes on me, but having you involved-"

"Shouldn't be the only reason you care about this. Whether or not I had been included, this asshole is mocking the fact that you almost died!" Nayely's face moved closer as her brows cinched together. "And you're just going to let that shit ride?" Narrowing her eyes, Nayely shook her head in disbelief. "The way I see it, your life isn't just yours-its mine too." The possessive look in her eyes caused MJ to blink in surprise. For some reason, her words seemed to ring as the ultimate truth in his ears.

Nayely couldn't fathom making light of his second chance at life. Especially when her stomach still tangled in knots whenever she thought of his body convulsing on the floor of her living room. It was still hard to not envision that night at times, but even harder to imagine how he could seem so nonchalant about protecting it now.

When she realized this need to defend and protect MJ even from himself, Nayely's eyes fluttered in confusion as a look she didn't want to see from him made her want to walk away.

"You're right." MJ spoke softly as he took in her declaration.

"No. I didn't mean to say it like that. I was just saying I worked hard to make sure you could even stand before me right now and I would just think you wouldn't be okay with someone trashing you this way considering what you've gone through." Quickly recovering from her slip up, Nayely folded her arms before her.

MJ saw her guard build itself back up after the brief glance into her true feelings. The light of their past quickly succumbed to the darkness that had taken its place.

"That's something I think about every moment of every day."  With a small smile, MJ drew on memories of the past." This wouldn't be the first time you've saved me." Remembering the time Nayely had put her amateur Tae Kwon Do skills to use to defend MJ against the older foster home boys after taking their first steps into their lives as parentless children, they both locked eyes.

Somehow, they continued to be drawn together during each new season of their lives.

Nayely felt herself softening to her dismay. She had too much to prepare for to handle the new blow her life had taken to be standing there and allowing herself to be lulled back into MJ's orbit. She knew she needed to find the right words that would lay down the line between them. MJ had been the one to set the fate of their future in motion when he banished her from his life, and now he was getting the chance to rewrite it all from scratch.

Nayely knew that anyone else in her position would have shown MJ that he couldn't do as he wished this time around-that there were consequences he needed to feel. The pettiness she wished she could bring forth fell short as the desire to hurt MJ was nonexistent.

"Listen-" Nayely began before being hushed before she could conjure up her thoughts. MJ's face moved past her own as the hairs on his arms stood tall from the feeling of being watched. When his eyes settled in the darkness of the night, he could see the dark figure of a man standing not too far away. He moved in a way that told MJ he didn't want to be seen. At his side, he could make out the clear outline of a camera as the man moved away swiftly.

Reaching for the car door, MJ pushed Nayely into the passenger side before rounding the vehicle and hopping in the driver's seat.

"What are you doing?" Nayely asked moving her hand to the door handle before she was stopped.

"Someone was out there." Twirling in her seat, Nayely tried her best to peer out the windows.

"Well, it is a holiday parade. There are a lot of people out there." She said sarcastically as his hand crossed her body, drawing her seatbelt to a safe position.

"That's not what I mean." MJ said with seriousness. If someone was snooping around for weeks to get the story for the biggest gossip piece of the night, there's no telling what lurked in the shadows around them now.

"Woah, is this necessary?" Nayely held her hands up as she watched MJ put the SUV in reverse." I came with someone, I can't just leave." Patting her body, Nayely realized she was emptyhanded. She couldn't leave like this.

"My keys! I dropped them. And my phone-I don't even have that on me."

Pushing his way through the parking lot, MJ looked into his rearview mirror as he caught glimpses of a dark car following behind. The car seemed to creep from behind as their lights remained dimmed. Following his eyes, Nayely turned in her seat.

The tint on the windows made it impossible to make out the driver behind them. As they began to merge into traffic, bright lights suddenly shined in her eyes, causing her to face forward, trying to regain her vision.

"Who the hell is that?" She spoke under her breath as she blinked away her confusion. "Did you see who it was?"

MJ squinted as the high beams shined in his mirror. Tightening his hand around the steering wheel, MJ slowly pressed on the gas pedal as he gained enough speed to move through the streets.

"My guess is they have something to do with the pictures that were published of us."

"You think we're being followed?" Nayely was beginning to feel skeptical of the situation. This had to be some joke.

"How else do you think pictures of us at the grocery store and of the inside of your trashcan got around?" Looking to the passenger seat, MJ could see that his words were not computing.

"Why the hell would someone be following us around?" The idea that she would be the object of someone's obsession was foreign to Nayely. Her life as a public figure had allowed her to preserve some semblance of normalcy. She got to do her own thing without being too aware of the world needing to know her every move. Her entire image had been based around the fact that she was the most normal and unknown "celebrity" there could be.

"I see you're not too familiar with the paparazzi." MJ was able to see that while they existed in the same realm, their experiences were completely opposite of each other. The pure look of disbelief on her face that someone could possibly be following them around simply for a story was refreshing to MJ. He had become used to carefully choreographing his every move in public, as he was always fully aware of the eyes that were on him, which he had unwittingly found himself caring about over time. There were many times where simply stepping outside had to be well planned to provide the best shots of him and-

With a deep breath, MJ pulled himself away from drudging up the thought of Danny.

With the recent change in his life, he hoped he could be as unbothered by exposure as Nayely had seemed to be. Just the thought of how he may have ruined Nayely's privacy made him even more determined to protect her.

MJ looked up to see that the pursuing car had fallen back, allowing another vehicle to put space between them. Looking up, he saw that he was seconds away from missing his chance at breaking away as the traffic light was seconds away from changing from yellow to red.

"You think you're going to make that?" Nayely questioned as she saw MJ had no intention of slowing down."Hey-MJ!" She shouted just as the SUV flew through the newly red light. Nayely's hand had gone to MJ's free wrist, gripping it tightly as she looked around, amazed that they had just barely made the light.

"Do you get off on cutting it close? If we get pulled over-" Nayely's words froze as she felt MJ's fingers link with hers.


"I'm sorry for doing that. I just wanted to make sure we could get through without being followed." With a slight squeeze, MJ made a promise. "It's okay. I've got us."

Letting her hand linger, Nayely knew it was best to pull herself away.

Clearing her throat, she brought her hand to her lap, looking down to the impression MJ's fingers left behind as her blood rushed through her palm.

"You can let me off up here."

"Sorry, that's not going to happen."

"Excuse me?" Nayely looked to MJ whose eyes were already on her.

"No phone, no ride-I can't just leave you anywhere."

"And who's fault is that?"

"That's fair." MJ shrugged." Which is even more reason to let me get you home safe." A pensive look crossed MJ's face as he thought about leaving her alone." Or maybe not."

"No, you were right the first time, so, you know-home, James." Nayely brought her hand to her temples, feeling the growing pain in her head." I think I've had enough for one night."

"All the more reason to make sure you get somewhere safe." MJ knew that there was only one place they could go that had managed to remain unmarred.

"Which is where?" Nayely waited for him to give her an answer that made more sense than her own home.

"My place."

 

Chapter 16 by ValleyofLight
Author's Notes:

If you saw that first upload, erase it from your mind =)

 

Maya walked through the night, holding her phone to her ear as she listened to the line ring endlessly. When she got Nayely's voicemail for the fifth time, she looked at her phone in confusion. Standing by Nayely's car, she didn't see any sign of her around which was driving her anxiety closer to the surface.  

Could she had gone to the bathroom at the last minute, too? After setting down her things on Nayely's trunk, she paced the aisle for what felt like forever before it was apparent that Nayely was nowhere to be found. 

"Where is she?" Maya spoke aloud, now getting antsy from the unknown. She knew that emotions were high tonight, there had been so many things going on around Nayely that anyone in her position would want to get away to blow off some steam. 

But Maya knew it wasn't like her to go off without letting her know.  

It was then that Maya remembered the night she and Nayely were rudely interrupted by a strange older man that forced her from her friend's house. She could never shake the knowing yet nervous look on Nayely's face when the stranger and his henchman showed up. She never had a chance to bring the subject up afterwards, but in this moment, her mind immediately went to the possibility of her getting another visit. 

Everything about the exchange was sketchy, but as she was dismissed before she could find anything out, Maya was left with her imagination running wild as she wondered if Nayely's sudden disappearance had anything to do with the men. 

Getting back to dialing Nayely's number, Maya quickly moved back towards the crowd, hoping to run into her. As her feet picked up speed, she stumbled as she stepped on an object in the road. Keeping her balance, Maya looked down to see Nayely's phone screen alight with fresh cracks from her shoe. 

Her heartbeat drummed in her ears as she bent down to pick up the phone with shaky hands. 

"Okay. Okay..." Keeping her cool, Maya tried to remain rational as she attempted to understand what she had found. Just a couple of feet away, Maya saw the glint of the car key she knew belonged to Nayely. Scrambling to collect her things, Maya ran back towards the crowd, desperate to find her friend. 

 

"Please! I just need to see the parking lot cameras to find her. That's all I'm asking for." 

"Ma'am, I can't just let you in." 

"This is an emergency!" The security guard looked on, unmoved by her frantic pleas. 

The young man all but rolled his eyes as he placed his hand on the door handle leading to the security office. He had already told Maya that there was no way she could access the room. Afterall, it wasn't like she was looking for a missing child. 

"Listen, she's an adult, right? Maybe she saw someone she knew and just...dropped her things." 

"Dropped her things? Who leaves behind the two most important things in life?" Shaking Nayely's phone and keys in his face, Maya was beginning to feel that she was getting nowhere. 

"I've got a job to do. Go to the police! Look around some more! I don't know!" The security guard threw his hands up. "Just relax and I'm sure she'll come around. Good luck!" Patting her shoulder, the man walked away despite her cries for him to come back. Maya didn't want to cause a stir by mentioning just who was missing, so trying to at least access the security cameras seemed like her best bet. 

When she exited the building, she looked over to find a post of officers near the events of the night as life continued on. Crossing her arms, she took a step forward, ready to ask for their help before she noticed a gas station across the street. Eyeing its distance, Maya felt a ray of hope as she moved towards its lights. 

When the bell rang announcing her entrance, she saw that the young man at the register was leaned over, kissing a smiling girl his age as the store was mostly empty. 

Going to the counter, Maya looked over its edge to see a screen that showed the movements of those inside the store, as well as outside. 

"Can I help you?" Maya hadn't noticed the two lovebirds focusing their eyes on her as she nearly scaled the counter in her attempt to peek at the screen. 

"My bad." She straightened herself up before pointing towards the film. "The cameras. You think they'll show you the parking lot across the street?" 

Glancing over his shoulder, the young man shrugged." I mean... maybe." 

"Are they recording? Let's say I needed to see if something-or someone-happened to be seen on the camera about an hour ago, could you pull that up?" 

Getting the hint, the cashier rubbed the back of his head as he stood up. "If I needed to, I guess I could." When Maya's smile widened gratefully, the cashier cut her hope short. " But I don't think I can." 

"Please. I just need to see something really quick. I promise."  

"But my boss-" 

"I'll be fast. I promise. I'm just trying to find my friend." The young woman who stood beside Maya sympathized with Maya's obvious nervousness. 

"Just let her look." She bargained on Maya's behalf. She wasn't sure what was promised in the silent exchange of smiles between the two, but she was thankful when the cashier waved her around the counter. 

"Alright." Looking around the store, the young man made sure that no one needed any assistance before leading her into the back. Maya saw an old computer monitor with tangled plugs running to the ground. "You've got to make it quick. Sometimes my boss shows up during this shift." 

Grateful for the access, Maya moved to crouch before the screen. 

"Can you take it back like...an hour?" Maya's eyes darted across the screen anxiously as the employee clicked through various folders. 

"Here, the camera from one of the pumps is the only one that shows the other side of the street." Reading through the time stamps, the boy looked to Maya."But! It just barely shows the entrance and exit into the parking lot. It may be cut off." 

"Anything is better than nothing." She assured him. Biting her thumbnail, Maya watched as traffic steadily flowed across the screen. Nothing seemed to be out of the ordinary, which worried her even more.  

"It looks like things have been pretty normal. I mean...do you know what kind of car this person could have been in? Maybe that will help-" 

"Wait! Wait! Can you rewind it back?" Poking the screen, Maya watched everything in reverse until what had caught her eye the first time reappeared. "Okay! There." Squinting, it was almost impossible to make out anything from the black and white images. They watched as an SUV haphazardly turned out of the parking lot, barely missing other cars on the road as a dark car followed closely behind. 

"Damn it." The angles didn't allow for Maya to see into the windows of the vehicle as they whizzed out of frame. She rewound the video again and again to no prevail. 

"I don't think there's anything else I can show. Maybe if we zoom in there'd be more." Just before the employee bent to help, his attention went to his buzzing phone as a text alert from his girlfriend warned that his boss had just pulled into the lot. 

"Shit! My boss is here, you gotta go back out, I'm sorry I couldn't help you more but I can't lose this job." Pulling Maya to her feet, the boy ushered her out of the room just in time. She tried to collect herself as she moved to the door. She could hear the nagging of the boss as the door slowly closed behind her. With a single nod to the cashier, she thanked him one last time. 

Looking back to the festivities, Maya took a deep breath as she followed the flashing blue and red lights to the police. This was the last thing she wanted to do, but at this point she felt she had no choice. 

 

 

"Can I see your phone?" As Nayely and MJ walked down the hall towards his loft, she knew it would be best to let Maya know where she was. The last thing she needed was to leave her friend in the dark about tonight. More and more it seemed that lately Maya found herself caught in the whirlwind of men in Nayely's life. 

"1095." When Nayely lifted her eyes, confused by his words, he nodded to the phone. "The passcode is 1095." As her thumbs hovered thoughtfully over the digits, Nayely began dialing in a phone number. The first time she called, she was sent to voicemail as Maya ignored the unknown number. Calling a second time, Nayely could only imagine what she could have been doing in that moment. Just when she thought she would be sent to voicemail once again; she heard the rushed voice of her friend on the other line. 

"This is Maya?" Her voice came through skeptically, as she waited to tell her unknown caller that she couldn't speak. 

"You can call off the search party, Maya. I'm okay." Nayely pulled her head away from the speaker as her name was screamed through the phone. She was bombarded with curse words of relief as Maya yelled. 

"Girl! What the hell happened? How the hell did your big ass get snatched up? Are you sure you're okay?" 

Nayely winced as Maya's barrage of questions brought on a high-pitched ringing in her ears. 

"I ran into someone, nobody snatched me, and yes I'm sure." In the background, she could hear Maya speaking to the officers she had just approached, letting them know that everything had worked itself out. "You went to the police?" Her words drew MJ's attention. 

"I've gone to the police; I've checked security cameras-you've had me running around like I'm crazy trying to find you. Tell me where you're at and I'll come get you." No matter how you looked at the situation, Maya's suggestion made the most sense. She had no reason to be holed up with MJ in his home now that she'd made contact with Maya. Whoever it was that followed them from the parade couldn't be less of a threat just because she was with MJ in his own space.  

As Nayely battled with herself over her answer, her eyes connected with MJ's. Gently prying the phone from her hand, he looked to her for silent confirmation as he took over the call. 

"Hello, Maya?" 

"And you are?" The woman's defenses were up as MJ sought to introduce himself. 

"MJ." He responded. " Nayely and I go way back...and we're just catching up. Look, I know I've probably caused a bit of trouble tonight, but I promise you she's in good hands-" 

"MJ? As in little crackhead MJ Park? The reason why tonight has gone to hell?" Maya's short laugh held no humor as she began to lay into him. "Listen, I don't know what it is you're trying to do, but you need to leave Nayely out of it. Whether it's for relevancy or just being messy, you can take your dramatics elsewhere. Tell me your address, so that I can come and pick Nayely up, otherwise I will be getting the police involved. Trust me!" 

MJ pursed his lips, feeling the heat from her anger. His eyes shifted to Nayely who leaned towards him, straining her ears to hear the other end of the conversation.  

"Look, I understand how you feel-rightfully so." 

"How I feel? I don't know you; you don't know me. But I can tell you one thing-I've never heard Nayely speak of you. Ever! Do you have something to do with that bastard who barged in to her place like he owned it the other day? You do, don't you?" Maya accused him. Nayely was keeping too many secrets from her as strange men were coming in and out of her life. Maya tried her best to leave the issue alone, as it was obvious Nayely wanted to remain tight lipped, but after this stunt she didn't know how much more she could turn a blind eye to. 

An inkling of fear began to set in that Nayely no longer trusted her. 

"I don't know what kind of game you're running, who you're in bed with, but just know that I'm not going to let any of this slide. If you're a part of anything that could hurt Nayely, I'll be the one to put an end to it. Period!" 

MJ raised a brow at the mention of this unknown man. From the sound of her voice, she spoke with venom, a tell all sign that whoever this was, she was less than a fan. The feeling of Nayely's hair against his cheek brought him out of his thoughts just as the phone was jerked away. With her brows furrowed, she tried to face away from MJ after catching Maya's question. 

She already knew she was crazy to come to his home, but there was no way she'd let him know that much of her business. 

"Maya, I'll call you tomorrow." 

"How? I have your phone!" 

"Maya!" Nayely let out. Drawing in a breath she calmed down." I swear to you I am okay. I wouldn't say it if I didn't mean it." 

The next moment was filled with a broken voice. " I just need to know that you're okay. Not on some work shit, but on some real shit. You're my friend, Nayely. I don't know how you dealt with things before we met, but you're my girl which means you don't have to do this stuff alone." 

The irony wasn't lost on her that the only person she thought could care about her so deeply was who Maya was trying to defend her from. She wondered what was wrong with her to make Maya feel this way. How had she missed the stress she must have been under? 

Nayely softened as she rubbed her neck. "I know, Maya. I promise that once I'm done here, I won't play any games with you. We'll talk soon, okay?" Nayely has never been the best with her words, but she hoped this was enough to let her rest easy. 

"Nayely..." 

"I promise."  

"At least send me his location. Just in case." Nayely knew that despite the innocent request, Maya was bound to ride by to scope out his place. Just imagining the smaller woman leaning out her window as she cased the neighborhood brought a smile to her lips. 

"Good night, Maya." 

"Fine. Not like I can't do some internet digging anyway." Before Nayely could protest Maya caught herself. "Which I won't! Some of us do respect the privacy of others." Saying their goodbyes, Nayely turned back to MJ who now stood in front of an open door. Wringing her hands, the warm air that wafted from his home welcomed her as she took the first step. 

"She won't be blowing you up tonight, don't worry." Handing the phone back, Nayely kicked off her shoes out of respect. 

"It would really be no problem if she wanted to check up on you. Seriously." MJ caught Nayely's coat as it slid down her back. She found herself gripping it, wanting to reject the courtesy before allowing him to take it from her. 

"Trust me, if you value your sanity you don't want her calling. Especially since she thinks I'm being held hostage. Maya doesn't play." Nayely let out a deep breath that didn't seem to help relax her nerves. She could still feel a tingling sensation running through her when her body and mind fought against each other. Whenever she was put into a hard place, she was constantly thinking of how she would free herself. Her fight or flight took control. 

"I'm happy you have someone like that in your corner." MJ admitted. Silence fell over them as Nayely took in the loft. It was sparsely decorated, with an immaculate shine to the floors and counters that told of MJ's cleanliness. Despite its near empty appearance, there was just enough furniture around to let you know that someone actually lived here. 

"Still settling in?" Nayely offered up small talk. 

Walking past her, MJ took out two glasses and poured water into each of them. 

"You could say that." His eyes followed her movements as she cautiously moved about his space. He didn't miss the way she walked around his home gingerly, careful not to disrupt anything.  "Apparently, living mess free can keep me drug free." MJ caught the slight jump Nayely made as he approached her from behind, reaching around to hand her the glass of water. A quiet thanks left her lips as she stepped aside. 

"Are you...?" She left her question hanging, not sure of what she should ask.  

Was he doing better?  

Was he ever tempted?  

Looking at his face, he no longer sported the gaunt look he had the night he stumbled to her front door. She thought the thin face he once had was a part of his sex appeal as an actor. Knowing that it was nothing more than a side effect of his demons, she could only wonder how no one else saw the warning signs before things went downhill. Nayely watched as he rubbed a hand down his fuller face that now held a healthy glow. 

"Almost 8 weeks sober." MJ looked to his feet bashfully as he was happy to mark another week that he had gone drug free. Sometimes he wondered if he was getting ahead of himself-it was still fairly early to say he was completely in the clear. Relapses could happen. He may not be as strong as he-- 

"I'm proud of you." Nayely placed her hand beneath his chin, raising his head to invoke the confidence she felt he was worthy of showing as she spoke from her heart. "That's something you should say with your head held high." MJ swallowed the knot in his throat as her words touched him, straightening his shoulders as he met her head on. Curling her hands back into a loose fist after realizing how gentle and natural her touch was, Nayely looked away. 

MJ's phone began to vibrate with a call. Looking to see Christina's name, he could already make out the back and forth that was bound to happen. He chose to silence the call, knowing that while tonight wouldn't be spent reminiscing together with Nayely, he wanted to give her all the attention he could, he wanted to leave room for them to digest everything without the frantic calls and directions from his manager. 

"My manager." He answered the questioning look in her eyes. "She's away on business, but of course news travels fast." 

"I just don't know how things could have gone so wrong." Taking a seat on his couch, Nayely closed her eyes as she recounted the night. She could feel the dip of the seat as MJ took a spot near her. He was close enough that she could feel the heat from his body radiating through his winter wear.  

"I want to say I'm sorry again for everything that's happened. If it weren't for me, you wouldn't be involved in any of this." Nayely cut her eyes at him through the fingers that covered her face. "What? It's the truth. I don't mean that in some self-deprecating way-just trying to be straight up." 

"It won't do us any good to juggle the blame between each other. As far as I'm concerned, the only person at fault for anything is the stalker that's latched on to the both of us." Shaking her head, Nayely couldn't imagine how someone could build their career around invading the lives of others. The cocoon she had managed to make for herself left her ignorant to the troubles of being a public figure.  

This gave MJ even more reason to protect her. 

In his head, he could hear the weary question Maya had asked-or rather accused him of earlier. 

"Do you have something to do with that bastard who barged in to her place like he owned it the other day? You do, don't you?" 

"Did this guy come to your place? Did he threaten you?" 

Nayely's eyes went wide as she was confronted with Judge Stewart's visit. There were so many things swirling around her that she felt herself getting lost in the chaos. Where did she even begin to fix things? 

"Why would you ask that?"  

"Maya. She mentioned something about me being involved with some man showing up at your house. With the way she said it, it sounded it like she'd kill me the moment she had a chance to." 

"That's not important right now." Nayely didn't want any more entanglement surrounding her life. She needed to keep things as separate as possible, so she deflected. 

"Listen, if this guy has anything to do with that story then I have to know. He's taking pictures, following you around-if he's coming to your doorstep, then you have to tell me, Nayely." MJ's hand wrapped around Nayely's fingers, pulling her attention to him. He spoke like he truly saw himself as her protector. A vein ran the side of his neck, pulsating as his jaw tightened. Nayely watched as his hazel eyes darkened, waiting for her to confirm his fears. 

Pulling her hand from his grip, she shook her head, careful not to fall into the trap he was setting. He wanted her to trust him, as if he could be the one she confided in. There was no way she would take his words to heart. Once upon a time, his words would have meant something, would have stitched the hole in her chest, but not now.  

She had grown since they last knew each other. 

She had survived all this way without him. 

"He has nothing to do with any of this and it's honestly none of your business." Her defenses were up, and the light air she once had was beginning to dissipate. MJ's chest tightened as she began to shift, obviously looking for a way out. 

"I'm just trying to look out for you--" 

"No one asked you to do that." Standing to her feet, Nayely stepped away from MJ. "Just like no one asked you to swoop in and save me tonight." 

"I don't need to be asked to make sure you're okay." 

"Yes! Yes you do! How did you even know where to find me?" Nayely held her hands up, confusion on her face as she thought back to how she was whisked away by MJ earlier that night. " You're talking about him following me, but what about you? How are you any different right now?" 

"I--" 

"This is the third time MJ. How many times are you going to show up to places you shouldn't be?" Nayely echoed her words from their grocery store run in weeks ago.  "You said you wanted to earn my trust, didn't you? How can you do that when you're stressing me the fuck out just like everyone else?"   

Nayely's mind spiraled as she became overwhelmed with her growing anger wrapped in suspicions. Her head ached as all her problems morphed into a dark blob. 

Judge Stewart. 

Terrence. 

The reporter. 

Did she have to add MJ to the infamous list too? 

She was beginning to wonder if the men who kept tripping into her life would ever take their foot off her neck. 

There was so much to protect. She had to protect her career, stand up for Brittany Stewart, and what about Maya? Would any of this blow back on her? And MJ-this reporter obviously had it out for the two of them. What if the stress of everything gets to him and he --? 

Steady hands wrapped around Nayely's waist. She was pacing through the apartment, knocking into furniture as the panic she held back for so long overcame her. Her staggered breaths escaped her so loudly that she couldn't hear MJ's voice calling out to her. Her limbs numbed as she moved with no aim. 

Each step she took weighed down her body. It would have been easier to walk through wet cement with how sluggish she felt. Where was her strength?  

MJ's body followed Nayely's to the ground as she buckled in his foyer, never letting go of the hold he had on her. There was no denying the panic attack he seemed to have caused. Her lips moved as she mumbled the worries he knew she kept to herself. If he could barely understand the rush of broken thoughts, he could only imagine what went on inside her head. Her hand clutched the sleeve of his shirt as he pulled her in close to his chest. He wondered if she wasn't disoriented, if she would have recoiled from his touch.  

Nayely pressed her face into his shirt, forgetting her earlier rejection of him.  

"It's okay, Nayely. I got you. I promise I got you." MJ repeated into her ear over and over, rubbing his hand over her coily hair, until her eyes closed.  

The further she drifted into unconsciousness, the tighter he held on, never faltering in his embrace. 

 

 

Nayely's eyes followed the movements of sunrays against the ceiling before her. She didn't know when she had fallen asleep, but the languid feeling in her bones told her that her body had craved the chance to relax. Reaching to the thin sheet covering her body, she wondered what had kept her from wrapping herself in her plush duvet during the night. The only time she felt safe at night was when she was covered from head to toe in the cocoon of her sheets. 

An unfamiliar weight lied across her chest, a weight that didn't cause any discomfort. Furrowing her brow, she raised her hand to the arm that grazed her skin. 

It felt so close, she had to look down to see she no longer wore her sweatshirt from the night before.  

MJ. 

She came to MJ's apartment last night. 

When she began to squirm beneath his arm, he instinctively drew her in closer. Moving her from her side of the bed, he was met with no resistance as her body fit into the mold of his own, his face tucking into her neck as her heart raced. 

She could feel the firmness of his bare chest against her back. Her eyes blinked rapidly as she felt the tickling of his breath against her pulse. 

Panic ensued as she tried to figure out what in the hell was going on.  

"You were sweating all night." He spoke into the crook of her neck, sending a chill down her spine. Reaching above her head, he pulled her discarded sweatshirt from the pillows. "You took it off on your own. Do you remember?" 

MJ's voice drifted in a low timber, special to the early morning hours.  

Memories of her cursing as she sat up half dazed during the night came back to her in pieces.  

"Hot. It's too hot." Nayely pulled her top over her head, struggling as it caught on her hair. 

"Help." MJ watched from where he stood at the side of the bed. With care, he maneuvered her out of the offending top. Before he could take a step back, he felt a tug at the hem of his own clothes. 

"Too hot." Nayely's hands worked fast pulling MJ's clothes as high as she could go from her sitting position on the bed. In her stupor, she figured that if she was this hot, then he had to have been too.  

"Nayely-"  MJ looked to see her eyes were barely open as she attempted to relieve him of his shirt. Each time he pulled her hands away, they were back on him intent on finishing her mission to free him. MJ willed himself to not react to the feel of her hands on his stomach as they roamed innocently closer and closer to his waistband. He knew she wasn't aware of her effect or even what she was doing, but before he could berate himself for enjoying her touch, he was thrown down to the bed. 

His body laid haphazardly across Nayely as she finally got the top over his head. Stuffing it behind her with her own, she sighed as her mission was accomplished. MJ had been on his way to the living room, wanting to give her the space she needed in his bed. 

But now as he tried to lift himself off of her, not wanting there to be a misunderstanding when she came to, he was tugged back down like it was nothing. 

"Strong as hell..." he all but laughed to himself as Nayely thwarted his attempts even in her half sleep state. He weighed the possibility of this turning out horribly once she woke up in the morning. Her feelings towards him seemed to run hot and cold, but lingered towards pushing him away. 

The complete opposite of this moment.  

Kicking off his comforter, he pulled the thinner sheet across them. He figured he could at least shift to the other side of the bed if she wouldn't let him leave. Moving carefully, he managed to get to the empty space, but not without her grip keeping his arm in place. At the end of his stretched arm, he could feel the soft curve of her shoulder in his hand. His eyes locked on to where their skin met as Nayely's breathing settled back down. Running his thumb across her cheek, he moved the strands of hair that ran along her face. She didn't flinch at the gesture, falling deeper into tranquility. 

Nayely sat up fast, ignoring the spinning of her head from the sudden movement. MJ's arm rested in her lap. 

At least she had kept her pants on. 

"My bad. I didn't realize-"  

"It's no problem, Nayely." MJ assured her. Sitting up beside her, he watched as she fumbled with her clothes, kicking the bedsheet from her body as she stood up. 

"The lock in is over, right?" Pushing her head through her top, she rubbed her hands against her pants. "Can I borrow your phone? I'll go ahead and call Maya. Or maybe an Uber..." she thought it would probably be easier to not rile her up again by bringing her to MJ's. It'd be best to just call her once she got home. 

"It's 6:02 in the morning." MJ read the time from her phone. Surely her assistant would be asleep at this time. 

"That late already?" She asked genuinely surprised. MJ raised his brows as the athlete easily brought a smile to his lips.  

"I guess that for champs the day is already halfway over."  

Nayely stuttered as she took in his joke. 

"You're right. An Uber will definitely be better." 

"Or you can save your money and let me take you home." 

"You?" Nayely's brow raised at the suggestion.  

"Yeah." Stepping out of the bed, he stood before Nayely. "Plus, it's only fair I take you back. I did bring you here." 

"No- that's not - that's not necessary."  

"Seriously, Nayely." 

"No I can just-" Nayely's words were halted by the feel of MJ's hands at her arms. He held a solid expression that told her to not deny the ride again. She didn't know why she didn't push, but her common sense knocked at her brain telling her to stop acting a fool. 

"Well... it's not like you don't know where I live."  

"You're not wrong." MJ shrugged his shoulders as he thought back to just how that all came to be. MJ watched as Nayely looked at him through her lashes. When his cheek dimpled, her face softened. 

"So, you're good with me taking you back?" 

"I guess it's my only choice."  

MJ shook his head. "Not the only choice-just the smart choice."  

 

After arguing over whether to leave immediately, or wait a while longer to let the rest of the world wake up, Nayely sat in MJ's passenger seat as they pulled into her driveway. Putting the car in park, MJ watched in silence as Nayely's eyes did a sweep of their surroundings.  

"I'm coming in with you, just to be safe." MJ assured her. Before she could protest the suggestion, MJ had already climbed out of his seat and rounded the vehicle. Her door opened, with a hand reached towards her to help her out. Nayely raised her hand briefly as she considered placing it in MJ's. At the last moment, she dropped it to the door, replacing the hold he had as she moved past him. 

Clearing her throat, she walked to the front door with MJ in tow. Just as she approached the keypad, she could hear the shuffling of feet making their way towards her. With both of their backs turned, neither could see that it was Nayely's old and reliably nosy neighbor coming over to investigate their arrival together. MJ's body tensed at the sound, and immediately blocked Nayely from their sudden guest. 

Looking over her shoulder, Nayely leaned to the side to see past MJ whose hand went to her waist. She was beginning to see that he had no problem touching her in the slightest of ways. 

"Nayely, honey!" Her neighbor called. The older woman placed her hands on her hips as she caught her breath. Looking MJ up and down, her eyes landed on the spot he guarded Nayely. "So, you do know this young man?" She waved her hand at them as she waited for an explanation. MJ's hold loosened as he realized she wasn't a threat. 

"It's nice to see you actually being invited into the home this time around." She crossed her arms as she recalled the previous sightings she'd had of MJ. Always skeptical, she took it upon herself to look out for the young woman who lived across the street. She knew her to keep to herself, and was an overall sweetheart. 

"How are you doing this morning?" Nayely interjected with a smile. Her neighbor answered with one of her own as she rubbed Nayely's hand.  

"God got me up, so there's nothing to complain about. So, you spent the night out somewhere?" Looking to the car they arrived in, the neighbor knew it didn't belong to Nayely. "Did something happen to your car? If you need anything in the meanwhile then you know we can give you one of our spare vehicles. I know my husband wouldn't mind at all! We have an old Lexus we could--" 

"No! That won't be necessary. Everything is good with my car, but thank you so much." Nayely insisted as she saw the woman preparing to make arrangements for her whether she needed it or not. When she crossed her hands in front of her stomach, she was happy to see her back down. 

"Well, okay then, but know if you need it, we're just one call away." Nayely's keypad sounded as she quickly punched in the code. Her alarm welcomed her in as she cracked the door open. 

"Of course! I'll be sure to remember that." Elbowing MJ, she motioned for him to enter the house as she talked the neighbor down. MJ looked on as Nayely continued to smile and share niceties with the neighbor all while slowly closing the door. 

"Yes, ma'am. Of course--" he heard her repeat. Nayely waved as she finally was able to close the door. 

She let out a big sigh as she turned around, glad to be in her own home. 

Counting down from ten, she went to her front window, peeling back the curtain to see the neighbor cross the street and safely enter her home. "This expensive ass security system is nothing compared to her." Nayely mumbled to herself. Taking a breath, she turned to see MJ scanning her home. 

"Does your system send you phone alerts? Is there a motion detector? Camera?" 

"Don't worry Mr. CPI Security..." She thought back to the extent she went to ensure that the system she used protected her in every way possible after Terrence. "I've got it handled." 

"I can help you, Nayely." 

"Worry about helping yourself, MJ." Nayely threw back. 

"Myself?" He pressed his hands into his chest, confused by her words."I don't have much to protect. I'm starting from scratch here. What's important to me now is making sure I stay sober enough to look out for you." 

"Look out for me for what? You realize I don't need that, don't you?" Nayely looked at MJ as if she was breaking sensitive news to a child. How could he be so confused by their current standing with one another?  

"Despite our last few encounters- as dramatic as they have been- nothing has to change. Things can remain as they have been, MJ. Trying to use this renewed sense of purpose you have after surviving death on me is wasteful. Save that for yourself." Nayely stepped around a silent MJ. She didn't get far as his hand captured her elbow in passing. She was drawn close to his side, as his hazel eyes held an even tighter grip on her.  

"I'm trying to follow the roots, Nayely." MJ thought back to his exit session with Dr.Smith as he finished his rehab stint just a couple of weeks ago. He had already made visits to the outside centers that were to become a part of his regular routine. He could never rid himself of the image Dr. Smith had made for him when he told MJ to dig for those vines that led the way to his truth.  

"The roots?"  

Pulling her close, MJ's hands warmed her arms through her sleeves. Nayely's tension melted away as she listened to him, watching his Adam's apple bobbed up and down. 

"There's a lot of twisted shit inside of me. Something that you and I both know. Roots are supposed to be the strongest part of a tree, right? Hear me out." He added as he saw Nayely's eyebrow quirk.  

"Life-- life is a tree." MJ cringed as he listened to himself repeat the words he'd heard in rehab. "It has branches, and it has roots. I've been so focused on making sure my branches looked better than anyone else's, that I ignored the work I needed to put into making sure I have healthy and strong roots.I'm in there...you're in there... and so," 

"You're following them." Nayely finished for him. 

"I just want to get to where I'm supposed to be." 

"I hope you do, MJ. But--" Removing his hand from her body, Nayely stepped away as her eyes swept the ground. "Leave me out of it." When her eyes met his, she watched the way his eyelids fluttered as he cleared his throat. 

"Nayely." 

"I need you to go, okay? I-I haven't had a chance to work out in a while, and I think I really need the release today." Walking towards her front door, Nayely opened it, waiting for the slow steps of MJ behind her as he silently answered her request for him to leave. When he made it past her threshold, he called out to her just as she went to close the door. 

"Promise me you'll call if something else happens." MJ didn't think he would be acknowledged, but just before the door shut him out, Nayely's eyes flashed a stifled invitation into her life. An invitation she was intent on keeping tucked away for as long as she could.  

She watched from her security camera as MJ's labored steps took him back to his car, and he finally pulled out of her drive way. When she saw the car disappear up the street, she quickly fled to her bedroom, throwing on the first workout clothes she could get her hands on. 

As Nayely prepared to head to her garage and hop in her car, she realized that she was empty handed as soon as she opened the door. 

"Damn it." She rubbed her face as the very empty garage swallowed her up.  

No car. 

No keys. 

No phone.  

Nayely laughed to herself as she realized how badly she wished that Maya had been camped out in front of her home as soon as she arrived. Just as she mentally mapped out her neighborhood, and wondered how far she could go to satisfy her need to release her pent-up energy, the creak of her garage door opening made her jump backwards, as her KIA optima returned home.  

With her brows raised high, Nayely held up her hand in a wave, as Maya's small frame stared at her from behind the windshield. She could see her lips moving fast as she nodded her head, telling Nayely all she needed to know about the shit talking that was going on behind closed doors. 

"--Then have the nerve to stand there and wave at me like ain't shit going on." She heard as Maya finally emerged. 

"No hey, hi, how are you, or kiss my ass?" Nayely called out as the younger woman stormed past her into her home. 

"Respectfully, boss lady, you can kiss both cheeks." Maya pushed the shattered phone into Nayely's' hands all the while dragging her in behind her. 

"I need to hear it all, no bullshit. How do you know MJ Park? Why are you getting posted on every gossip sight and insta page with him? Why have I never heard about you and him knowing each other from way back?" Maya repeated his words to her from the previous night. "You've never been full of surprises, Nayely, but last night you had my ass all kinds of twisted around trying to figure out what was going on." 

"Remind me to slip you a little something something on your next check." Nayely cringed as she realized how much Maya had been thinking of. She hadn't even gotten on her signature playful smiles or jokes since she showed up. A look of fear and uncertainty covered her features as she crossed her arms. 

"How can I fix anything, if I'm blindsided by everything?" 

Leading Maya to the kitchen, Nayely sat her down at the table, in the usual spot she took whenever she visited. 

"We kind of knew each other as kids. He happened to be there last night and wanted to meet up. I wasn't thinking straight and should have told you." 

"You only knew each other as kids, huh?" Maya tapped her nails against the table as she listened to her words. "When we went to his premiere party, you acted like you didn't know anything about him." 

"I mean, I do but I don't." Nayely tried to explain the best way she knew how. 

"But you knew him enough to literally drop everything and leave with him last night?" The more Maya threw out her questions, the more Nayely felt she needed to be evasive. 

"I--" 

"I saw the pictures, Nayely." Maya stood up, unable to remain seated any longer. She rounded the corner, hoping that she'd get better answers if she was up close and personal with Nayely. "You guys were at the grocery store. What's that about?" 

"Maya, a couple of pictures doesn't tell you the whole story." 

"So, there is a story to tell?" 

"No--" 

"Nayely!" Maya threw her head down on the counter, exasperated. "Just be real with me. Please." 

"Be real? Maya, there's just a lot of shit being thrown at me right now, and I'm running out of ways to juggle it." Nayely spoke fast as she searched for the right words. "We grew up together as kids. Life moved us in different directions, and MJ happened to find me." 

"He absolutely cannot be around you, Nayely. He's a freaking druggie and now you're getting caught up in his bullshit." 

"He's not on drugs." 

"You say that like you know for sure he hasn't gone back to his crackhead tendencies. He was all over the news for ODing not too long ago." 

"That was then!" Nayely's voice raised as her memories ate at her patience with Maya. If only she knew just who saved MJ that night... 

Taken aback by her defensiveness, Maya took a step back, squaring her shoulders with Nayely. 

"There's to be absolutely no contact with MJ Park. If you want to maintain the life you have, and keep these bastards off your back, then that's the way it's got to be. I don't care if you were homies back in the day or what-keeping him as far away as possible is our only option." Stepping away, Maya picked up her purse, slinging it on her shoulder. 

Nayely watched as Maya typed away on her phone, a sense of determination rolled off of her in waves as she took control. 

"Like you said, there's a lot of things going on here. You may not want to let me in on everything, but I'll make sure that the world champion record breaking Olympian, Nayely Polite, isn't thrown into the same damn hole as these Hollywood heffas out here.  I didn't work myself to the bone and chap these luscious lips kissing industry ass to not do my job. This is what you pay me for."  

Clicking her heels to the front door, Maya left a speechless Nayely in her wake. 

"Crackheads are strong, but me? I'm nothing to play with." Opening the front door, Maya made her way out, with her locs swinging behind her. At the door, Nayely could see a rideshare vehicle roll up. 

"He's not a crackhead, Maya!" She called out after her. The smaller woman poked her head out of the window with a skeptical look. 

"If you say so!" Her voice carried down the street as she was driven away. 

Covering her face with her hands, Nayely knew that going to the gym now would be the best way to keep her head on straight. She could get off her game. 

Not now. 

 

THE LIGHT SHINES AGAIN by ValleyofLight

Hello everyone! My goodness...I don't even know where to begin. Sicne the last update I have graduated from college...moved across country...started another degree...and all the other little life happenings in between. 

 

I am rededicating myself to all of the projects I have had scattered across different writing sites. There are so many! I need to pay respects to. I can't say when a new update will be posted, but just know that I am currently rereading the story to get back in the groove and pick up where I left off. For anyone who has stuck around and peeked in every once in a while...Thanks! (I also tend to get locked out of my accounts =( hopefully I can avoid that this time around)

 

See y'all soon!

This story archived at http://https://www.valentchamber.com/viewstory.php?sid=3738