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The darkness had never been more your friend than in the moment you had to contemplate leaving it to step inside Tony’s well-lit home. Darkness hid your face and your feelings and your nerves: your stupid hair that you’d half-tried to make nice before giving up and going back to normal, your stupid trying-too-hard clothes, your stupid fists shaking at your sides. You could still get out of this. You could still go home. If Tony refused to drive you, you could walk. You’d done so a thousand times before and even several miles in these shoes seemed more appealing than whatever was waiting for you past Tony’s expectant face and the now-open door.

Days of planning, of lying to your parents, of alternately bursting with joy and trying not to vomit could not be ignored. The deep breath you sucked in did not come out, leaving your shoulders hunched ludicrously around your ears—but step inside you did. As nervous as you were, your ears were playing tricks on you; you heard Tony sigh with some relief as he followed you in to shut the door.

“Welcome home, Mr. Stark.”

Again you jumped, and felt Tony’s hand reach out to steady you. “It’s just—”

“I know,” you said, surprised to find your voice so normal. “Just JARVIS.”

Even with the odd angle of Tony’s face above yours and your head twisted up toward it, it appeared to you that Tony was trying to assess your panic. His eyes narrowed slightly, anyway. It was easier to interpret that as worried rather than disgusted by the way your hair looked. Suddenly you could remember the hairstyle of every girl he’d ever dated when you'd been growing up. Turning pink, you lifted a hand to pick at your own just as Tony released you to turn toward the doors to your right.

“Right,” he said without looking at you, “I’m going to check on the pizza. Make yourself at home.”

“Welcome home, Miss [L Name],” said JARVIS.

“Not what I meant, Jar!”

“I know, sir.”

You peered after Tony long after his footsteps had faded down the hall. Make yourself at home. Right. Like that was possible. Your mouth half-opened to ask JARVIS where you ought to direct yourself—until you realized how stupid that would make you sound. As often as you’d been around Tony’s house lately, you could at least find your way to the living room and Tony’s garage. A few tentative steps took you in that direction, but soon you realized you were frozen to the spot still in the entryway. What if the garage wasn’t where Tony wanted you to go? If you wound up somewhere you weren’t supposed to be—well, you’d had more than your fill of Stark family secrets over the years. Looking nervously up as though JARVIS was about to demand to know where you were going, you began to inch backward toward the hallway Tony had exited through. Only once you’d gotten that far without any questioning did you turn to trot the rest of the way to whatever room it really was that Tony had left for.

It turned out to be, just as Tony had implied, the kitchen. The room was much larger and spacious than you had expected; your footsteps seemed to echo against the floors and high ceiling. Maybe that was just your hyper-self-awareness kicking your imagination into overdrive, though. Clearly, the kitchen was made to fit a team of cooks, but it looked so clean and new that you doubted that much of anyone used it. Only Tony was there right now, and he was only standing at the counter near the oven, staring straight at you. Maybe the footsteps hadn’t been your imagination after all.

“Thought I said you could make yourself at home,” he said, breaking off eye contact to cut slices into the pizza, much to your relief. Not being watched for signs of whatever it was you were so afraid of made you brave enough to close the gap between the two of you. Your obvious silence, however, soon had him looking up again.

“You left the house with the oven running?” you said to avoid answering him outright. Tony rolled his eyes.

“JARVIS was here. I’ve left much worse running in my absence, you know.”

“Jarvis knows, too.”

“He’s not the same Jarvis.” Tony lifted a stern finger. “And you’re not the one who’s supposed to open up the uncomfortable proceedings. That’s my job.”

Tony meant it in jest. You knew he meant it in jest. Unfortunately, that didn’t stop you from ducking your head to stare at your interlocked fingers. “Thought it be nice, for a chance of pace,” came out only as a mumble. Another few seconds of following silence made you peek up just in time to see Tony roll his eyes again and lift two plates laden with pizza slices into the air.

“Would you lighten up?” he demanded as he began to stride back the way he’d come. “It’s a date. Do you normally act like you’re being led off to the gallows on a first date with a guy? Grab us some Cokes out of that freezer there.”

Though you frowned, you still bent to do as directed. It beat reminding Tony that you had not been out on a lot of first dates. You licked your lips as you straightened with one glass bottle in each hand. “Coke?” you asked with a quirked eyebrow. “Not a pizza and beer kind of guy anymore?”

“Alcohol and I have a sordid past. We’re trying to see other people.” He gestured toward the hall with his head. “Another great topic of conversation, by the way. I don’t suppose you have any substance abuse issues I could relate to?”

“Afraid not.”

“Damn.” Apparently assuming you were perfectly content to follow in his wake, Tony turned to lead the way toward the living room. Fortunately for him, he was right. You still weren’t sure if your willingness to follow was fortunate for you. “Well, then we had better find something else to talk about, then.”

“You have rules about first date topics of conversation?”

“Don’t you?” He paused long enough to give you a contemplative look before heading down the stairs to his garage. “Rule #1: No talking about how much the house costs. Rule #2: No talking about histories of substance abuse. Rule #3: No talking about how I pee in the suit.”

That last bit had you pausing yourself. “Why would anyone ask you how you pee in your armor?”

While waiting for the garage door to unlock, Tony turned to look at you, eyebrows raised. “You’d be surprised how attractive some women find it, until I actually do the deed.” He waited only long enough to see you through the door himself before he collapsed on one of the nearby couches someone (probably him, seeing as he didn’t seem likely to ask Pepper to do so) had dragged downstairs. “I hope you’re not expecting your own personal demonstration.”

Again, you thought to yourself that you could leave. No one at home would be watching for your return. Your father had a big dinner planned with some business associates; conjointly, your mother had a big night planned with whoever she was seeing this particular week. Even if either of them were home, they’d be in no condition to harass you over where you’d been all night—if the security staff even bothered telling them you’d been out. Of course, this also meant that Tony could easily murder you and avoid scrutiny. Somehow, winding up dead was the least of your worries.

“Could you please just sit down?” Tony said, head lolling towards you on his shoulders. “You’re making me nervous.”

The smile you cracked felt as brittle as ice, but you sat down on the chair pulled up next to the couch he’d dragged down there. “I’m making you nervous?” At least this time you managed a little more decorum than when you’d freaked out over ruining his latest Iron Man project. Once you settled, Tony handed over one of the plates of pizza and waited until you filled his empty hand with a Coke. Without so much as thank you, he cracked the top open and gulped nearly half the bottle down.

“Nervous enough that you’re making wish I had some beer hidden somewhere around here right about now,” he said, then picked up the top slice of his pizza and bit in like being fresh out of the four-hundred degree oven was nothing. Who knew? Maybe he’d developed superpowers in the past few years, too—heat resistance or something. Enough had changed that you wouldn’t have been surprised. You glanced at the first slice of pizza sitting atop a piece of wax paper on your plate and shifted it away from you as casually as you could. Suddenly you weren’t sure that you could stomach eating. Tony was occupied with doing so for several more minutes. Your dress shoes tapping out a few nervous seconds had him distracted soon enough, however.

“What’s up?” he asked. “If you don’t like pizza, you probably should have said so before we left the kitchen.”

“Pizza is fine. My mouth isn’t super-human like yours, that’s all.”

He smirked at that, and you felt your heart flip in response. All you could do to hide it was frown as Tony said, “Well, that might be up for debate. Depends on who you ask. Obviously I couldn’t say since I haven’t had the opportunity to check myself, but if you’d like a second—”

“What’s next?” You had to interrupt. You had to. You could already feel your muscles tensing. Tonight was one night that you didn’t want to be thinking about Tony kissing you. Him going on about it wasn’t about to help further your objective. He looked flummoxed for all of ten seconds, then:

“Right.” He put the plate down, licking his lips. “I forget you haven’t done a lot of this.”

Your muscles tensed further. Last time you had visited, you hadn’t felt the usual tenseness that came along with crashing in Tony’s garage, but you felt it now. There was an insult hidden in his casual statement. “Haven’t done a lot of what?” you asked suspiciously.

“Dating,” was the expected reply.

“Excuse me?” Your voice sounded stupidly high. Unfortunately, that didn’t change much when you added, “Need I remind you that I have a boyfriend?”

Tony’s only answer to that was an exaggerated eye roll. “Yeah, I bet that one’s real romantic,” he said as he grabbed for the glass soda bottle on the low table in front of him. “What Justin Hammer wouldn’t do for you. Let’s see, what’s a romantic evening at home like for the two of you? Do you two cuddle and look deep into each other’s eyes? Or does he take you to bed and have his way with you until he’s had enough?”

What you did with Justin—What you did in bed with anyone for that matter—was not any business of Tony’s. You were well aware of this, but you still found yourself looking away to glare at the wall opposite him to answer, “You have no idea what we do.”

“I can make a pretty good guess,” Tony said. “Remember, darling, I was stuck in the car while he said his little goodbye to you. I’ve known enough men in my day to know what kind of man your beau is, and—”

“I’m not asking about your opinion on my love life, Tony,” you snapped, forcing yourself to look at him even though doing so made your arms tremble at your sides. “I’m asking what we’re going to do. You told me you’d show me a good time.”

“Did I?” Tony asked. “And are you not having one? I, for one, am having quite the pleasant evening.”

Your deadpan stare made sure you didn’t not have to actually say whether or not you were having a good time. You didn’t dare bring up any of Tony’s old exes, and for all you could tell, Pepper Potts was a lovely woman. It would be hard to turn the tables and make him miserable about his dating history. Tony sighed and waved his bottle at the ceiling.

“We watch a movie,” he said, “or…”

“Or…”

“Or we could talk.”

“Talk,” you repeated. He nodded. Because that was going so great right now. “About what?”

Tony took another swig of Coke. “You. Me. Us. The air-speed velocity of unladen swallows. I’m not fussed about it.”

“Is that all you’ve been doing lately? Watching old movies?”

“And working on the Mk. VII. And pestering you. We all have our own ways of getting over getting dumped.”

“Yours just had to involve sending me to an early grave.” You fell against the back of your chair to stare at the projector screen in front of you. You had only been at Tony’s for maybe thirty minutes, but already you felt like you needed to sleep for a month and a half to make up the lost energy. Then again, when didn’t you feel like that these days? “Guess I shouldn’t be surprised.”

“I could say something here,” Tony said around yet another mouthful of food. You wondered if he treated his girlfriends to such behavior—but then, you weren’t a girlfriend. Just a friend, if that. Swallowing, he went on, “but I don’t want to be a jackass.”

That you had to laugh at, but at least laughing cleared your throat enough to let you dig into your own plate of food. “You? A jackass? Perish the thought.”

“I thought you liked jackasses, honey.” His grin flashed again at you through the garage’s dim lighting. Fighting yet another blush down, you stared at your plate to pick up a second slice. Now that you were eating, you found the process a welcome distraction from staring at Tony. Too much of that and he would probably notice. This was a fine idea, until Tony had to ruin it by speaking up again: “Otherwise, how do you explain Justin—or my dad, for that matter?”

The pizza slipped right from between your trembling fingers. A strange sort of buzzing had started up in your head, which meant that you surprised yourself when you were able to wrench your gaze up to meet Tony’s. He didn’t look upset, but he didn’t look cheerful anymore either.

“What?” you asked, voice scratchy. Why did you always have to look like such an idiot? Oh, right: because you were an idiot.

“You don’t have to pretend. Everyone was pretty crazy about my old man. Wasn’t really much of a surprise to find out you were obsessed with him, too.”

You knew you were crazy still, because there was no other reason that you would hear what you think you were hearing from Tony. Your hands squeezed at your knees. “I didn’t know that you noticed.”

Tony snorted. “Who wouldn’t notice? Following him around like a puppy, hanging on his words, kept—”

“What do you think I was doing with your father?”

“Doing?” Tony paused; you could almost see the gears churning in his brain. Finally, he shrugged. “Nothing. But that doesn’t mean you didn’t want to be doing something, and it’s not like he’d have had any qualms taking advantage of someone like you.”

“He was married!”

“That wouldn’t stop him.”

That was it. Why were you bothering with this charade? But you had already lost so much in throwing tantrums and storming away. Someone like you said pretty clearly what Tony thought: that you were some weak-willed, soppy little thing obsessed with attention. The worst part was knowing he was right—though you wanted to prove him wrong all the same. A deep breath attempted to steady the feeling of burning in your lungs. “I never slept with your father.”

“Glad to hear it,” Tony said. “What did he talk to you about?”

“That’s none of your business.”

“I meant when he died. He asked to talk to you. What’d he say?”

The hospital room came back to as clearly as the day you stepped into it. You hadn’t talked to Tony Stark in years, hadn’t seen Howard Stark except from across the room at certain fancy dinners your dad dragged you to. Out of the blue, there’d come a phone call from the hospital, saying Howard Stark needed to talk to [F Name] [L Name], and he wasn’t going to last much longer, how soon could she get there? You’d run off without really thinking about it until you’d rode home later shaking to pieces. There in the here and now you heard yourself saying, “It wasn’t me he wanted to talk to.”

This piece of information was not willingly given. It was your last real secret. For years people had speculated what you had to do with Tony’s father, what you had been doing in that hospital room, what he had thought it had been so important to say. You had kept your head up high and ignored it, and now here you were, just giving it to the most ungrateful person you knew.

Tony slowly put his last slice of pizza down. “What do you mean, he didn’t want to talk to you?”

“He wanted to talk to you,” you said, spitting the words out as you met his eye. You had endured the shame this long, and it was his fault. Really, everything was. “He wanted to talk to you and you didn’t answer so he asked me to come because he thought I could make you see reason.”

Tony’s hands were white and stiff around his grease-stained plate. His brown eyes, however, fixed on you with an intensity that made you want to go hide in your bed all over again. “What did he want me to see reason about?” You shook your head. “[Name].”

It was the softness that did it. “I don’t know.”

“You don’t—You don’t know? Did he not tell you anything? Because you said—”

“I didn’t understand it,” you snapped. This cost you quite a bit to admit, too: that you had wasted Howard Stark’s dying breath.

“Was it about you?”

“No.”

But that split second of hesitation before your answer was enough. “You’re lying,” Tony said. Yes, even Tony knew what a bad liar you were now. But no, the things Howard Stark had said about you were understandable, and not at all anything you wanted to share with Tony.

“HYDRA!” you burst out.

Tony paused. Too late, you realized you’d given him exactly what he wanted trying to avoid telling him what you didn’t want to. “Huh?”

“I-I don’t know. He said they were inside. That they’d done it, and you had to warn them.”

“Warn who?”

“You mean…you don’t know?”

“I’ve heard of HYDRA,” Tony said. “They were pretty big in WWII, but that’s also when they stopped existing. Dad spent years trying to find the guy that did it. That was some wreck Dad had. He was probably delirious.”

“He seemed sane to me. It was so important to him. I wanted to tell you, but you wouldn’t answer my calls. And then at the funeral—” Just then, you realized you were shaking. Your plate was rattling against your knees. Again. It was happening again. Something had set you off, so you were going to embarrass yourself by bursting into tears right front of someone you very much admired, no matter how much you tried not to.

And that someone knew. Tony’s expression became unreadable just before he rose, set his plate on the cushion next to his, and went to perch on the side of your chair. “Hey,” he said, sounding slightly less alarmed than last time. “Hey, uh…” His hand hovered above your shoulder for a few seconds before finally coming down and squeezing. For once, you didn’t flinch away. “Hey, it’s okay.”

“It’s not,” you said into your hands. “I promised him I would tell you and I didn’t! I promised!”

“[Name], it was my fault.” You shook your head with your face still buried in your fingers. “Let’s be honest here, Dad probably knew I’d pitch a fit as soon as I saw you. Come on. You don’t gotta cry about it. Alright? Promise me.”

“I’m not any good at promises.”

“Right. Forgot what we were talking about. Bad choice of words. [Name],” Tony said again, seriously, “Dad’s long gone. And whatever he was saying probably didn’t have anything to do with me, and it definitely didn’t have anything to do with you. Even if it did, I mean, no one’s died over it, have they?”

“Your parents did.”

The hand on your shoulder contracted and froze. “What was that?”

“Your parents did! That’s what your dad said, that HYDRA got in and they knew he knew, and they had to wipe him out. He told me to be careful, and to make sure you were careful, too, once I told you.”

There were a few moments of silence during which you could only hear Tony breathing next to you. “And were you?” he finally asked.

“Was I what?”

“Careful.”

You thought about it. After Tony had shouted you out of the funeral, and Rhodey had tried to comfort you outside, and your father had come up and dragged you away, had you really changed anything? You’d gone home and destroyed most of the evidence that you had ever been somewhat friendly with Tony Stark at all—but that had been because of your feelings, not because of any danger seen or imagined by Howard. “N-No,” you stammered, because this was only further proof of faithlessness on your part to the one adult that had ever had a kind word for you growing up.

“Then there wasn’t anything to worry about, was there?” Tony said, clapping you on the back. When you did not suddenly rise to your feet with joy, the hand returned to rub slow circles there. “You know, this is usually the part where I start kissing the pretty girl to calm her down a bit.”

A burbled sort of laugh erupted from your chest. “Nice try,” you said, now rubbing at your eyes. You had never really started crying in earnest, but there was still a bit of moisture there that you wanted to be rid of before Tony got much closer. When you finally looked over at him, you realized it was far too late to be worried about that.

“I’m serious,” he said, and he looked like it. You swallowed.

“You think I’m pretty?” The words came out before you could stop them; you almost wanted to bury your face in your hands again. Somehow, you resisted, and you were glad that you did since Tony’s reaction was a simple blink.

“Well. Yeah,” he said as though this were the most obvious thing in the world. “But in my opinion, it’s always nicer to show someone I think they’re pretty then to just tell them. With my lips. And other applicable body parts.”

That sounded like Tony. Saying you were pretty much less so. You smiled and rubbed at the skin right below your eye, just in case you had cried and hadn’t noticed. Thankfully, everything was still dry—and Tony was still close. Too close. It was at that moment that you realized with a thrill that rang through your limbs that he was serious. Your body stiffened without you telling it to. Really, though, that was the proper reaction.

“Thought you said you just asked me out because you were bored.”

“I am. Have you ever actually had sex? That ain’t boring, princess.”

“I have a boyfriend. And you don’t like me.”

“Who ever said I didn’t like you?” he demanded.

“You did. Years ago. That’s why we never talked. Not even before your dad died.”

Tony nodded. For once, he looked a little defeated. This only lasted half a second, before he looked back at you. “Why does that have to matter?”

What?”

“Why does either one have to matter? Who cares if you have a boyfriend? You’re a grown woman. Are the two of you exclusive? Because the amount of times I have walked in to some room during a convention and found Justin in a provocative position with some reporter or another would indicate no.”

Your stomach dropped at this information. For once, though, Tony was right: What did it matter? Justin sleeping with newswomen and reporters and convention heads wasn’t new information, really. You’d seen plenty of them leaving the place when you went to visit him, and there were a couple of child support checks you knew went out once a month. Why did Justin have to get all the fun? Well, if what he was doing was really “fun.”

“As for that last bit, about not liking you,” Tony was saying, “that’s completely untrue, but I can understand why you’d think it. Even if was true, though, it still wouldn’t matter. People who absolutely hate each other can still have a good time having sex, so long as they follow the rules.”

“What rules?”

“Like making sure the person you hate is actually into the hate sex. For instance, I’m not kissing you now because if you actually hate me, I’d rather not have to sport a black eye for the next couple of weeks.” He must have been able to tell that he wasn’t exactly convincing you with all this. Not that there was much convincing to do, since sleeping with Tony Stark…well, thinking about how much you’d used to want to do that was unnecessary. But you were still dating Justin. And Tony had still made it pretty clear how much he hated you back then. Tony took a deep breath. “Look,” he began, “I was a stupid kid, you were a stupid kid, Justin was a stupid kid. Something I realized recently is that I didn’t have to grow up into a stupid adult.”

“Meaning?” you asked.

“Meaning let’s throw caution to the wind. Let me kiss you. Just once. I won’t do it anymore. We’ll just see how we like it. No strings attached.”

There was something magical about the words no strings attached. Your breath caught. “Justin doesn’t have to know?”

I’m definitely not going to tell him.”

“And my parents won’t find out?”

“I don’t see why they have to know what we’re doing. We’re consenting adults.”

You bit your lip, but in this was just to make sure that you didn’t come across as overeager. This was stupid—just one more thing in your long line of stupid lately. It would come back to bite you in the butt one day. That was for sure. But you didn’t care. It felt good your stupid, and there was a very large part of you convinced that kissing Tony would only make it feel better.

“S-Sure.” That didn’t sound nearly as confident as you had thought you had felt. Maybe this wasn’t a good idea. Maybe you should stop Tony before this started. You still had time. His lips still weren’t on you. The words didn’t come, though. The damage was done.

The kiss started slow, slower than you would ever have imagined possible. His brown eyes fixed on yours as he drew closer and closer. Your chest strained around the tremulous breath you were trying so hard to contain. 'It’s just a kiss. Just a kiss.' His gaze shifted to your lips. Oh God. Your fingers gripped the edges of your seat with a ferocity you did not know you had. Were you holding back? Clinging to the only sound structure available? You couldn’t say. Not until Tony’s lips finally reached yours.

It felt very Harlequin Romance to say, but you melted against him. Tony obviously hadn’t meant to go any further than a closed-mouthed starter kiss, but as soon as you felt his mouth on yours, something inside you just gave up—only this time it was in the best way possible. Your lips parted almost immediately; there was no struggle from your end. Being an experienced kisser, Tony didn’t hesitate to use this to his advantage. His soft tongue flicked at the edge of your mouth, and when you did not back away or scream, entered entirely, moving in and out as you forced yourself not to squirm.

That was supposed to be the end of it.

The kiss should have been the end of it. Your innocent teenage thoughts hadn’t ever allowed themselves to go further. By all counts, Tony’s tongue entering your mouth—however briefly—should have been enough to sate your high school dreams’ lingering influence. And yet, it wasn’t, and high off of this success and the reminder that your boyfriend was off sticking his tongue down any willing throat in Queens, you ignored the screaming in your head telling you to stop. Tony backed away. Tony watched you carefully. You looked up at him, rose, wrapped your arms around his neck, and put your lips right back where they had been.

Tony StarkxReader: Brightest [Ch. 11]
Chapter 11 of 25 of Brightest.

This is the first thing I've ever written that I've had to cut off for posting on other sites! Wow! Yeah, I wrote a lemon for this story, and I cut the chapter off here. It's still decently long, I think, and the lemon is more for flavoring than uh...actual story-use. Kinda stupid, BUT I really wanted to try my hand at writing one. Now I've done it, I'm not sure I'll ever write one again. Maybe it's just because I'm ace, but I just don't understand the appeal.

Previous Chapter: 10. It's a Classic
Current Chapter: 11. Wicked Schemes, Wicked Dreams
Next Chapter. TBA (hopefully it won't take a year and a half this time!)
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The snacks disappeared, and Natasha’s note along with them. At least the latter turned up a little later on a second secret visit to your desk, hidden but not crushed in one of your drawers along with a couple photographs of you with Natasha, and even a couple of the two of you with Clint (and one with the trio plus Bobbi, looking cool as always. What a memorable double date that had been). That was heartening. You hadn’t give up on her entirely. The trouble lay in what else Natasha could do to prove that she wasn’t giving up either.

For a while, she struggled with the idea of asking Clint. Whatever she said about him, he seemed to know what you liked, and she doubted your moving here meant that you had stopped contacting him regularly. If anyone really knew what your feelings on the present situation were, it was him. And Wanda, of course, but Natasha didn’t like the idea of Wanda looking into your head much, and she liked the idea of requesting her to do so even less. Then again, she also loathed the idea of getting Clint in on the fight. She would have to handle things on her own. That was okay. Natasha sometimes preferred handling things on her own, and times she could do that were growing few and far between.

Your anniversary was coming up. Natasha was under no delusion that you had plans to see her. Much as she would have liked to throw something big together in an attempt to make things up, she knew that wasn’t the right way to go. She needed something small, but something that still made a big statement. Something you’d notice, but that wouldn’t make you feel bad about what—if anything—you got her in return.

And Natasha knew exactly what.

Thank heavens that the New Avengers headquarters came stocked with so many generic office supplies. Sure, there were relics of old SHIELD prototypes and pieces of junk and old scientific research hidden in the nooks and crannies, but so too did Natasha find just what she was looking for: old birthday streamers and tablecloths, napkins and flyer papers from way back when—all in just the right color: your favorite. Since no one here was really about celebrating these days (unless Tony popped by for some big shindig just to annoy Steve), she figured no one would miss them. They didn’t. Not until the day Natasha put her plan into action.

“I wondered where all that construction paper went,” came Steve’s voice from the door.

In the mood that Natasha had been in lately, she might have tried to look innocent. Steve already knew she wasn’t, however, and Natasha was too busy to worry about getting fired over something like taking old party supplies. If they’d been dangerous, Howard Stark would have left them in the garage for any common thief to steal. These had been hidden in various unlocked cabinets. There was nothing common around here about stealing things from unlocked cabinets.

“I’ll return what’s left of it,” was all she had time to tell him, “if you want.”

Steve only continued to watch as Natasha cut, taped, folded, and stapled what remained of whoever’s birthday party decades ago. She did her best to ignore him, but that was the thing about Steve: he was kind of difficult to ignore.

“Okay,” he said finally. “This is weird. Even for you.”

“Shut it, Rogers. Desperate times call for desperate measures.”

“Desperate?” Steve looked around, perhaps for an alarm or a flashing light. Obviously, this early before work even started, there was no such thing going off. “What exactly do we have to be desperate about?”

“Not we. Me.”

“Care to enlighten me?”

Natasha rolled her eyes. Poor, sweet Steve. So worried over his childhood friend that of course he hadn’t noticed that though he had gone the extra mile of hiring her girlfriend, Natasha hadn’t exactly spent any time with her since that disaster of a dinner date. Probably he’d just been relieved that Natasha had quit sitting around her favorite wall and moping. After all, her attempts to make up with you had reenergized her a bit. “It’s my anniversary,” she said. “That’s all.”

“Oh. Well, happy anniversary. Do you and [Name] need the day off for something?”

“No, Steve,” Natasha sighed. “She’s not talking to me.”

“She’s not?” He turned around like he could spot you giving her the cold shoulder at your desk that you weren’t supposed to be at for another forty-five minutes. “How long has that been going on?”

She shook her head. “If this works, it’ll stop soon. Besides, I deserved it.”

“Deserved what?”

The clock hanging on the wall behind Steve clicked another minute closer to 8:00. Now was not the time for this conversation. Natasha needed every single one of these colored objects in place well before you walked in the door to spot her work. Instead of answering Steve, she just gathered up what she had and headed toward the base's entrance. “I’ll explain later, Steve. I don’t have the time right now. And if that’s a problem, remember that if you hadn’t hired her, I never would have had to make up with her.”

Natasha pulled to a stop at the door. Steve stood there still, looking bewildered. Quick as a flash, she planted a kiss on her cheek. She was rewarded with Steve’s usual blush. “What was that for?”

“Because if you hadn’t hired her, I never would have had to make up with her.”

She didn’t stay to listen to Steve’s stammering. Not this time. Your shift would be starting soon, and she wanted to be far, far away when you came in to see what she had done. It would be much more fun to hear about your reaction through Wanda later on—or from a text message from you. Either way, Natasha wouldn’t be complaining.

Natasha RomanoffxReader: Just a Myth [Ch. 20]
Part 20 of 34 of my Just a Myth collection.

All prompts come from the "A Perfect Love..." challenge by Raicho Kurubi on Lunaesence Archives.

Previous Chapter: 19. Leave her her favorite snack.
Current Chapter: 20. Remember her favorite color.
Next Chapter: TBA
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Your life, it seemed, was doomed to play itself out as one series of embarrassments after another. First, you embarrassed yourself assuming your husband of nearly a year was joking about wanting to pursue an actual sexual relationship with you. Second, you had spent the last week completely oblivious to the fact that your period was supposed to have started three weeks ago, you’d been complaining about breast soreness for days, and had gone through not one, not two, but three bags of chocolate popcorn while Bruce had been at Tony’s. Thirdly, when Bruce noticed these symptoms and pointed them out to you, you had gone and made an appointment with your gynecologist…without Bruce.

Bruce’s suggestion hadn’t exactly been along the lines of "[Name], I think you’re pregnant." If he really believed that, you were sure he’d have been a lot more worried. You had promised to make a doctor’s appointment, laughed off his concern, and Bruce—being caught up in some new project of Tony’s—swallowed your bald-faced attempts at pretending you were fine and went on with his day. You, on the other hand, had been a quivering mess of nerves ever since. You had even put a stop to the quite frequent love-making sessions. That Bruce had noticed, but at least believed you when you told him that you were just feeling under the weather.

You hated lying to Bruce. That made you feel sicker even than the thought of being pregnant. Cajole yourself as you might with the rationalization that you probably were just sick, your feelings changed not at all. But why shouldn’t they? Bruce wanted a family. He had told you as much before. Unfortunately, he’d also said he could never have one. Not with the Hulk around. Not after what happened to his cousin. Not after what he’d done to Natasha during their brief relationship.

One of the other women in the waiting threw you a questioning look, and only then did you realize you had been fidgeting and sighing along with your thoughts. You shot her a sheepish smile you’d learned from Bruce. Rather than return your smile, she looked back at her magazine. Hopefully she was there to look into better news than you were.

A buzzing in your purse caused you to jump. Lord, you were acting like a criminal. Even when you figured out the noise had been nothing more than your phone, you were shaking. Seeing that the message wasn’t from Pepper or Natasha didn’t help matters. Actually, who the message was from made matters worse.

‘Home early. Where are you?’ read the message with Bruce’s name in bold above it. You gulped and looked around, as though you were going to spot Bruce peeking out from behind one of the potted plants in the waiting room. This was stupid. He had no idea where you were. Only one of Bruce’s friends was psychic, and you hadn’t been around her recently enough for her to know what you had been plotting. Even if Wanda had somehow picked up your thoughts from the several blocks between your apartment and the Avengers Tower, she couldn’t have known what you were going to the doctor for. You had been doing a fine job of mentally squelching that down, in your opinion. Or perhaps Bruce was just too distracted to keep up his usual focus on your mood swings.

Wincing, you answered, ‘On errands. Be home soon.’

‘How long?’ came the immediate reply.

‘Probably an hour.’

‘I’ll start dinner. See you soon. xoxox’

God, what were you doing? Bruce should have been there with you. He wasn’t a violent man; you weren’t afraid of him hurting you, even if he did go green over the revelation that you might be pregnant with his child. What you were afraid of was his fear. If you were pregnant, it was just a baby. Nothing to be afraid of. But Bruce would worry anyway, for you and the baby and everyone else. That was just the way he dealt with things. That was the last thing you needed right this very minute. You were worried enough without Bruce's worries riding along.

“Mrs. Banner?” someone called from the front of the room. You looked up to see a nurse waiting for you to get up from your chair. Scurrying over to the door, you did your best to forget Bruce’s probable reaction—at least until you found out for sure there was a reason for your anxiety. Perhaps there was a perfectly natural reason beyond all these symptoms. Just because you had been sleeping with your husband regularly for the past few weeks did not mean that you were pregnant. For all you knew, you were merely getting along in years. All women stopped having periods eventually.

You did your best to smile and nod and answer truthfully as the nurse ran through the usual pre-appointment routine. If she realized how distant you were from your present situation, she didn’t anything after you’d explained your (physical) problems to her other than, “the doctor will be into see you shortly.” You wouldn’t say that twenty minutes was shortly, exactly, but it did give you plenty of time to continue wondering what in the world you were going to say to Bruce when you got home. Obviously, you would have to tell him the truth. This “errand” of yours was taking far longer than usual.

That, of course, was exactly when Dr. Warner entered the room. “Mrs. Banner, it’s good to see you," she said as she stepped over to her stool. "Not time for your annual, I don’t think? What seems to be the problem?”

You took a deep breath and launched into your explanation. The idea that you were having cravings or doing things like skipping periods had seemed ridiculous when coming out of your husband’s mouth, but now that you were here and they were coming out of yours, they seemed downright sinister. By the time you finished with your list, your knuckles were latched white around the paper-covered bed you were sitting on, and you could feel how much paler you were than when you had started.

Dr. Warner, however, looked completely normal. In fact, all she did when you finished this speech was turn back to the computer that the nurse had been using earlier, then turn again to you and say, “I have to admit I’m a bit surprised. Last time you were in, you said that you and your husband both were not sexually active.”

You understood immediately what she was getting at. “It’s Bruce," you said quickly. "I didn’t…sleep with someone else. We weren’t sexually active up until a few weeks ago.”

Her eyebrows lifted. And why shouldn’t they? It wasn’t like your surname of Banner left anyone in any doubt as to which Bruce Banner you were married to. Thankfully, your gynecologist was a professional, and any fear that she might press how you had managed to become sexually active with someone so “volatile” seemed foolish when she smoothly went on:

“And this decision was sudden?”

“Sort of. Yes,” you added at her look. Bruce thinking about it without bringing it up for a few months didn’t count as planned, you supposed.

“So sudden that you did not have access to birth control?”

You colored right up to your hairline before you shook your head. “We’d talked about our sexual histories before,” mostly during your earlier relationship, when you were more willing to pressure Bruce for something he never gave into, “so we knew we were both safe, and we’re married, so…”

She nodded and made another note on the computer screen. “Are the two of you trying to get pregnant?”

“No!” you burst out, and had to laugh at how your vehemence made her blink. “No, believe me. Bruce and I are both a little past our prime. I guess the idea that we could get pregnant just never occurred to us.” At all, ever. Because the whole sex thing had been happening pretty often since you’d discovered it was possible without being ripped apart from the inside out.

“Well, then I think there’s your answer,” she said. “You’re experiencing multiple pregnancy symptoms, including breast tenderness, late period, and cravings.”

This was what you had expected her to tell you, of course. Otherwise, why make the appointment? Still your mind raced as you tried to think of any reason why such symptoms would be happening that did not involved a tiny person growing inside you. “I don’t have any morning sickness.”

“Not all women do. But it sounds to me like it’s a possibility, at least. Men don’t have the same sort of biological clock as women do, and you haven’t reached menopause yet. If you and your husband have been actively pursuing a sex life lately and neither of you have worried about protection, it’s downright likely.”

“But…” you trailed away, fingers tightening around your kneecaps.

“We can take a urine test, if you’d like,” the doctor said, checking through several screens on her computer before returning her attention to you. “We could also take some blood tests. Those results will take a few days to get back to you, but if the pregnancy is recent, they'll be more accurate. There could be chance that I’m wrong. I don’t think you’re very far along quite yet if you are pregnant—but I do believe you are.”

She was the doctor here. Bruce wasn’t that kind of doctor, and even he was, he couldn’t will the possibility away. Mutely, you nodded. Maybe, just maybe she was wrong. You would still have to confess this trip and the chance of pregnancy to Bruce tonight over dinner, but then at least there would be some hope a nurse would call next week and dispel the notion and what was sure to be a very miserable week following the announcement.

“Good.” After giving your wrist a reassuring squeeze, she got up to open the door. “I’ll get those labs ordered for you,” she said as you followed on stiff legs. “Once that’s done, just make sure to make a follow up appointment so we can do the ultrasound if the results come back positive. If they don’t, you can cancel.”

You nodded vaguely until she handed over a paper to give to the lab technicians down the hall. You didn’t make it to the lab right away, unfortunately. No sooner had Dr. Warner disappeared into another patient’s room than did your stomach give a sudden swooping motion. Oh, God. Thank goodness the bathroom was so close. You darted in, and immediately began to vomit into the waiting toilet. Was it morning sickness at last? Please no. For now, you would allow yourself to believe it was merely the thought of the stricken husband you would finding waiting for you back home.

Bruce BannerxReader: Where Gods Do Fear [Ch. 2]
Part 2 of 9/2 of 4 of Where Gods Do Fear to Tread.

All prompts come from the "9 Months" challenge by crackleviolet on Lunaescence Archives.

Rated for safety! I mean, given that this is a generic pregnancy story and what you have to do to get pregnant, I think the sexual themes are a given, but just in case dA does not agree, there you are. 

Still not happy with my closing paragraph. When am I ever? One day, I will be. Just gotta keep working.

I might not be able to update much in the future. I have a job interview Monday for a job that would necessitate me moving out and five hours away, and I have to do it in like...two weeks. If I get the job or decide to take it. So if I sort of disappear after today, I will come back eventually, I hope.

Previous Chapter: 1. How It Happened
Current Chapter: 2. Finding Out
Next Chapter: TBA
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Rule #44: You’re sexy when you’re shaving, fixing things, wearing a white t-shirt and jeans, driving, eating a peach, holding a baby...just about all the time.

Q could not shake the feeling that he was being watched—not just watched, but watched closely and incessantly. The morning had begun innocuously enough: He had woken up at six o’ clock, as was usual for his Saturdays, and went straight to the bathroom to complete his morning routine. It might have been the weekend and his day off, but you had a long to do list and he wanted to make sure he could get his things done before your things started. The shower went fine. Dressing went fine. It was while he was carefully ridding his cheeks of that fuzz you had found so strangely attractive that Q started to feel quite a bit odd.

There was absolutely no reason for you to be up so early. You didn’t climb out of bed until close to noon even on weekdays. The eyes he felt could not have been yours, then. He could have ignored the creeping feeling, but being a member of England’s secret service meant that Q could not just dismiss the thought that he was being spied on. He looked carefully around the bathroom, even opened the blinds to peer out the window. Nothing. No one.

Perhaps he was just being paranoid.

He moved on to the kitchen, poured himself a bowl of cornflakes (minus the milk; you had forgotten that during your many recent grocery trips), and sat down in his office to take apart a grenade launcher. Out of deference to your sleep schedule—or rather, out of deference to his own desire to have as much time as possible for his own activities—Q kept the light off. This required him to squint closely at the wiring, but he didn’t mind. At least, he didn't mind until Q felt eyes on him again. He turned to the open door. Nothing. He even stepped out into the hallway to check. Still nothing and no one.

Maybe he should have considered going back to bed.

An hour later, he discovered the laundry room downstairs was closed. Most of Q’s clothing was dry-clean only, of course, but he did have enough foresight to own some nice clothing he could wash himself. The clothes that he planned to wear on weekends when on errands with you, for instance. Now there was that plan shot. Feeling more rankled by the minute, Q returned to the flat to pull on what remained of his clothes: a white t-shirt and a pair of jeans. There were the eyes again. This time, Q didn’t even bother to look. He trudged back out to the kitchen and found, as usual, no one watching him.

If they would just go ahead and off him, perhaps Q would not have to deal with the rest of what was shaping up to be a very bad day.

To further his chagrin, you errands required a good jaunt out of London to one of the outlying townships. There were supplies there that you wanted to pick up. When asked if you could not have just ordered them to be delivered, you responded with not wanting to pay shipping—which only meant that you wanted to see some scenery and get out of the apartment for a few hours. Plans were plans, however, and as Q had promised to take you on errands that day, he had no choice but to get into his borrowed company car and head to the pickup sight. All along the way, he felt an intense prickling sensation, like a pair of eyes that refused to leave his face.

You were the only person in the car, however, and were fast asleep whenever he peeked over at you. He was beginning to suspect some sort of device was watching him, rather than a person. How was beyond him. Q was quite sure he’d picked over the entire car before he’d left the flat.

Of course, this entire venture turned out to be a poor excuse to visit your sister, the one that was not a pushy attorney. Not that Elizabeth was much better, or liked you more than Susan did. It was clear to Q that every inch of your sister was screaming for you to leave, and it drove him wild. You could, perhaps, be a little flighty, but absolutely never with your nieces and nephews. When at last the snide attitude of your relatives became too much, Q made some excuse to hole himself up in the kitchen with a snack. The peach did little to soothe his disquiet. Not only did he feel frustrated that he had to watch this sort of treatment toward you without saying anything, he could feel someone watching him again. He checked the living room. You were nowhere to be seen. Hm.

No need to worry, he supposed, when you popped up ten minutes later to compliment your sister on the color scheme of her bathroom. Elizabeth seemed no more thrilled about this than about your insistence that she take you on a tour of the rest of the home. Her husband hovering nervously in the doorway, Q could only helplessly stammer as you pushed your new niece into his arms. And there Q stood, terrified, trying not to kill a helpless infant while her parents and aunt were out traipsing through the garden.

The creeping feeling came upon Q again. This time, he did not react. The last thing he wanted was to injure the tiny being in his arms. All he did was carefully look up—just in time to see you watching him through the screen door. Your head whipped away just as quickly, but Q knew he had you. Actually, it was something of a relief. No one sinister was watching his every move. Just someone rather annoying.

But Q played along, long enough to hand the baby to her mother and get to the car and pick up your art supplies. It was only on the way back to London while you hummed along with the movie soundtrack on the CD you’d brought that Q decided to bring it up at all:

“[Name]. You’ve been watching me all day, haven’t you?”

He saw you peeking bashfully up at him through your hair. That was answer enough, but he had to admit that he got some enjoyment out of glancing at you every so often, waiting silently for an answer. When it did, it was careful: “Why would you ask that?”

“I work for a spy agency. I think I can tell when someone is spying on me. You’ve been watching me since I got up this morning.”

Your lips mashed together into a thin, pale line. Q expected you to lie. It seemed you were in that sort of mood, but then: “Well, how am I supposed to help it?” you burst out. “You’re really attractive, Alton! Do you even know when the last time I got laid was?”

“Are you kidding me?” Q spluttered. All of this, his entire day of paranoia, was because of your libido acting out of sorts. Of course. How had he gotten himself in this sort of situation again? Some disastrous date several years ago now. If only he could go back in time and warn his younger self of the danger lurking in his future.

“Two months ago, if you aren’t counting,” you informed him, with absolutely no trace of the mortification he so sharply felt himself, “and no, I’m not kidding.”

Q groaned. Had he not been driving and worried enough already of twisting the vehicle around a tree, he might have pressed his head to the steering wheel. Thinking back on it, he knew that you weren’t wrong, but really, who kept track of these sorts of things other than his girlfriend?

Apparently reading his mind, you first blew your cheeks out at him again, then proceeded to scowl. “If you’d just do me every few weeks, then I wouldn’t have to resort to staring at you when you’re doing something sexy and letting my imagination do the rest!”

Quite frankly, that was too much information. “What have I done today that’s supposed to be sexy?” he protested.

“Everything!”

So it was to be one of those kinds of days. Q checked the dashboard clock. There was still some time before the two of you would reach the city, and he preferred to spend the rest of the ride thinking quietly than having you continue to stare at him while he drove along. He took a deep breath. “If I agree to sleep with you tonight, will you quit stalking me?”

Much to Q’s relief, you smiled. “Deal.”

And that was that, thankfully. Only a few minutes later, he heard your soft snores start up. Probably you were simply resting up for the night he had promised you—but Q couldn’t stop himself wishing, just a little, that you would let him carry you up to the flat and then spend the rest of the evening asleep. It had been a long, stressful, embarrassing day.

QxReader: Logical Fallacy [Ch. 44]
Part 44 of 102 of Logical Fallacy.

All prompts come from the "102 Things a Guy Should Know About Girls" challenge.

Uggggh I know everyone's going to be annoyed that out of the like five almost ready updates I have, this one is what I chose to update. But really, it was pretty much completely done. I haven't had time to sit down and work on Brightest because things kept popping up that I needed to take care of, including something for several hours this evening. I really, really hope I can finish Brightest's next chapter, and I totally can provided I don't wind up sleeping for three hours in the afternoon again. Which I probably will. ):

But anyway: Here's a thing!

Previous Chapter: 43. Fashion 101
Current Chapter: 44. Drive Me Wild
Next Chapter: TBA
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Ezekiel fell backwards onto the soft cushion of fallen leaves below, and your body collided with his shortly after. That wasn’t what you wanted. No, you wanted to beat every inch of his damn fucking smug face black and fucking blue. Up went your one working arm, and down again in a swing at his face. Your knuckles met soil. “You!” You swung again. “Fucking!” Again. “Bastard!” Again, again, again. “Think you can show up here and talk to me like we’re friends? I’ll fucking murder you, you—”

He laughed, damn him. Not a one of your punches met their mark. He laughed underneath your tumult, and when your fist finally looked like it would hit his nose, Ezekiel lifted one hand up to casually catch it. You let out a snarl and swung at him with your goddamn stump. This was even easier to catch, and try as you might to get yourself free, Ezekiel’s grip didn’t loosen, not even as his laughter shook your limbs.

“Still got that same old temper on you, eh, darling?” he asked with a wide grin. Goddammit fuck, fuck, fuck. You wanted to chip those perfect teeth, yank them out one by one. You tried to stand up; of fucking course, he just pulled you right back down. Your fist tightened so much that your fingernails dug painfully into your palm. Once upon a time, this face had spelled death to lesser men—lesser men, but never Ezekiel.

“Let me go,” you snarled.

This had all the effect you had grown used to during your time at Jackson: Ezekiel smiled. “And let you go off when I’m so curious as to what you’re still doing here?”

“Let me go.”

“No.”

“Ezekiel!”

He only laughed again. It made you sick to feel how your face burned. There was no affection in your body for this man, but he was holding you to his chest like a long-lost lover. You could no more frighten him off than you could Joel or Maria or even fucking Ellie. How the mighty had fallen. “Is that anyway to act in front of that little friend of yours?” he whispered in your ear. “Why, I’d be ashamed if any of my kids caught me acting like you are right now.”

“You don’t have any kids,” you spat, trying and failing to yank yourself up again.

“No,” he agreed evenly. “And there was a time when you’d have rather died than let yourself around one.”

Still smiling, Ezekiel pushed himself up with you cradled against him. The rest of his followers, none of which looked even slightly familiar to you, watched with a cold disdain. He looked for those kinds of people, you remembered. People just like you: Broken and willing to do anything to survive, to avoid the damnation waiting at the end of this godforsaken ride. You wondered how long these four would last. Depended on how much Ezekiel liked them in the end; it always did, unless one of those ladies had the bad sense to get knocked up, or try to get there with Ezekiel. And why the hell should they? There were easier ways of ending up buried in the ground.

“What’s your name, dollface?” Ezekiel called up to Ellie. Her green eyes were narrowed with dislike and set firmly on his features rather than your discomfort. You made a noise of discontent and shoved at his chest. Your weak arms did nothing yet again; Ezekiel just clenched you there harder. When Ellie didn’t answer, he only smiled. “It’s Ellie, right?”

You threw an open-mouthed look at Ezekiel, which he caught, though he did not deign to acknowledge it. Ellie was a much more important, interesting target. “How do you know who I am?” she asked, looking at you with undisguised suspicion. Oh, sure. Yeah, you were friends with this asshole. That was why you had attempted to beat him to a bloody pulp: friendship.

“Why, who ‘round these parts hasn’t heard of ol’ Ellie and Joel?” Ezekiel asked. Finally he released you to turn, arms open, to the crowd behind. You turned, too, as you rubbed at the spot on your arm he had clamped down, to see them all nodding, murmuring. A slow chill spread down your spine. Surely Ezekiel wouldn’t have invited them along, but then again, he always had liked attention and adoration. It never had mattered much who it came from. The plan had been to get away, but if they’d swear allegiance to him now, Ezekiel wouldn’t care one fucking bit. You ought to have considered yourself lucky getting out while the getting was good, apparently.

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” you asked.

“It means Joel and I murdered someone of theirs sometime,” Ellie answered for Ezekiel. He showed his teeth once more, then shook his head.

“I wouldn’t say they were one of mine.” Done with this part of his show, he strode over to Ellie and her horse. Ellie watched him distrustfully, but the only thing Ezekiel did when he got there was to look up at her with frank geniality. “I’m Ezekiel. Nice to meet you, beautiful.”

Ellie had gone very white; she even sucked in a long, high breath. But when she spoke again, her voice was calm and the hand clutched tightly around her knife didn’t quaver. “You know, I murdered the last fucker who called me that.”

“I am well acquainted with that fact, doll,” Ezekiel said as he examined his fingernails. “Thought about sending you a thank you note, actually. We don’t need scum like David still walking the earth. Got enough of that without his sort of people.”

He lifted out his hand toward her. Ellie looked pointedly at it, pointedly at him, and shimmied Callus Two backwards toward the trees. That was your fucking girl. The tiniest of creases furrowed Ezekiel’s brown, but then he was covering it up quick as could be. His eyebrows lifted, his hand arced up and back to rub at his shoulders.

“Where’s Joel?” Ellie demanded.

“What’s that?”

“Where’s Joel? You said you saw him. What’d you do to him?”

A few of Ezekiel’s gang tittered, and as much as you hated to admit it, the sound caused a fresh shudder to make its way up your goddamn spine. Every single show of weakness you could muster was there on display for this man, but Ellie must have felt the same way, because she sat up straighter in her saddle, eyes flashing. No one that knew her would expect that this was a girl fresh from a wave of food poisoning.

“Where’s Joel?” she shouted. The laughter grew. Ellie looked suddenly exactly what she was: a pale, sick little girl. Her knuckles went parchment white around Callus Two’s reigns. Ezekiel just grinned.

“Why would I do anything to him, darlin’? I want to shake his hand, same as with you.”

His teeth might have been straight and his cheeks clean, but you knew Ezekiel was a liar, through and through. This hellscape had always been full of them, but Ezekiel was most certainly the worst of the lot. “Where’s Joel?” you asked yourself, and Ezekiel’s grey eyes slid toward you. His hand fell to his side. Yes, he was definitely lying—and he didn’t have the gall to try lying to you again, not when you knew him so well after traveling with him all those years.

“He’s back there.” Ezekiel jerked his head back the direction he and his crew had come from.

“Doing what?”

“I don’t have to tell you that.”

“How do you figure?”

“You’re not one of mine anymore. No, [Name]. Looks like you’ve fallen in and become one of them.”

“Them?” you repeated, hackles raised. “There is no them. There is no fucking us!”

Ezekiel opened his mouth to reply, but a distinct masculine shout from behind interrupted him. Ellie sat up ridged on her horse. Then she was gone, bounding away from you through the trees without so much as a fucking goodbye. You were alone—with Ezekiel. You swallowed. He had no reason to keep you around anymore, and what was more, you didn’t want him around either. But you sure as hell didn’t want dead. You lifted your chin as he beamed down at you.

“You got a soft spot for the kiddos, don’t you?” Ezekiel asked cheerfully. “I wonder if you’ll take as good a care of this one as the last. You gonna bring her fresh meat, too?”

Your breath caught painfully in your chest. Ezekiel’s words were like a knife jammed between your ribs: you couldn’t get enough air and the world spun backward until you found yourself fucking there again: spattered with cooling blood, the bits and pieces of two perfectly human campers spread between you and the grinning man coming for you through the trees.

“They’re not for me. They’re not for me. They’re not for me,” you had said, terrified even as you heard the nearby chains rattling loud enough to make this obvious.

“Oh, darling,” the strange man said. “I don’t care who they’re for. Just if you can do it again.”

The same numbness that had spread through you then spread through you now. If you had a knife on you, Ezekiel would be in as many fucking bloodied bits scattered across the woodland floor, too. Him and his new gang of merry misfits. But you didn’t—and what was worse was that you were all alone. Callus Two’s hoof beats faded through the trees, and there you sat still on the forest floor. Abandoned. Again.

“Looks like you were right,” Ezekiel observed. “There really is no ‘us.’”

“She’ll come back.”

“I think she’ll be a little too busy for that, dollface.”

For whatever reason, the implication in those words made your blood run cold. Suddenly you shivered, despite the fact that it was full-on summer and so hot you felt like you were wrapped in several goddamn Christmas sweaters. “What did you do?” you demanded.

“What do you care?” he asked as he picked a bit of dirt out from underneath a fingernail. “There’s no us. There’s no them.”

That was true. It should have been true, at any rate. Your mind’s eye disagreed. It saw Ellie, racing through the trees, galloping at full tilt only to tumble off Callus Two and break her neck, or get surrounded by Clickers, or arrive only to find Joel dealing with a Bloater.

“What,” you asked again, “did you do?”

Ezekiel cocked his head to one side, his smile slowly fading. “Always so suspicious. You know, I liked you better when you wished you were dead.”

Your upper lip twisted with hatred, but you didn’t tell him what you were thinking: That you’d liked you better when you wished you were dead, too. Being dead inside made being alive outside a hell of a lot fucking easier. No conscience to torment you. Just days of daze as you went about the business of survival. Back then, you had only had nightmares during the night.

He saw the venom in your eyes. As usual, this only amused him. “Tell me. Does Jackson make you feel alive?”

You bristled. The implication that that place had done anything to bring you back to life—had Ezekiel forgotten the hand print emblazoned on his goddamn cheek before that last fight in the woods? Could he recall waking up and finding you standing above him, trying to figure out where you could stab the bastard to get rid of him the fastest? His stupid fucking typical smirk told you that he did—and that he didn’t care. You had stayed with him there, like a lost little puppy. He had every confidence that you were going to do so again. What hope did you have of striking out alone? Even less than in those first hours after leaving those two, tiny bodies in the dirt—

Ezekiel’s sharp eyes lifted toward the tree line. He was listening. Listening for Joel and Ellie. But nothing came. Who in the fuck knew why, but this bolstered you. Those two were more than a match for a swarm of clickers. It might have worked for the two of you before, but not on them. Not on Joel. Not on Jackson.

“Whatever you’re wanting out of those two,” you said with savage pleasure, “it’s not going to work.”

There was a darkness in Ezekiel’s face as he returned his attention to you. It was a darkness familiar to you. It was a darkness that leeched out of him and into everyone that came into contact with him. How fortunate for you that you had met him with that same darkness in yourself. He couldn’t do anything to you. There wasn’t any taint in him that you didn’t already have yourself.

“I’ll tell you what the plan is,” Ezekiel said, crouching so that his smile was only inches above your face, “if you agree to stick around this time.”

No. Fucking no. Take your goddamn bitch face out of here and leave me alone. The words raged in your head at deafening volume. They were not the words that came out. No, the words that managed to slip out of your mouth were quiet, docile: “I—I wouldn’t be of any use to you.”

You weren’t of any use to anyone. Never had been. Couldn’t get your mom to stay. Couldn’t protect your dad. Couldn’t handle the kids. Couldn’t keep your brother alive. Couldn’t keep your brother half alive. Now you were down a limb, and your accomplishments certainly hadn't grown since. What good was staying in Jackson day after day, spending hot afternoons planting corn and cold evenings watching from the dam walls? Might as well find the nearest spore pit and breathe in deep. No more Ezekiel. No more Jackson. No more Joel and Ellie.

Ezekiel reached a soft hand out to touch the crown of your head. Scowling, you swatted it away as you scrambled backward in the dirt. Fuck. This was your place now, wasn’t it? But he just bared his teeth again. “You’re special. You know that. I’m sure we could find you something easy to do, if you could help us out. Then you could stay there. With us.”

“Something easy. Sure. Why the fuck not?”

A low rumble of a chuckle exited his throat as Ezekiel knelt. He kept his fucking space this time, thank god, but the look on his face only made you want to hit him more and harder. “That’s right. You’ve got it pretty easy down there in Jackson, don’t you? All you’ve gotta do is not murder anyone. But you’re not happy, are you? You and I both know what you really are. We both know that you’d rather be out there purging the place, huh?”

He didn’t understand you. For fuck’s sake, Ezekiel had never understood you. There had been a time in your life when you had wished that he had. You’d even played along for your own sake, and for the sake of the slowly bloating baggage you'd carried with you. But he hadn’t then—and he wouldn’t now, either.

“People aren’t any good anymore, [Name],” Ezekiel had the balls to continue. “Once upon a time, we agreed on that. We agreed on more. Remember the last time you decided to be around people? Remember David? Remember Brycen?”

Your good hand dug deep into the mud beneath you. A boiling rage started up in your chest. How dare he? How fucking dare he? To bring up David—and then to bring up Brycen—to act like you didn’t know, like you were still the naïve little girl he tricked years ago. And then you were up again and barreling back down at Ezekiel until once more you had him in the dirt.

“That was you!” you screamed, the words scrambling out of throat with wicked sharp claws that matched those that you bore at Ezekiel’s face. “You’re the goddamn son of a bitch that did it! It wasn’t those fucking people out there! You fucking lied to me and you have the fucking nerve to—He died because of you! David and you—Don’t you fucking tell me it was me, you goddamn—”

A collection of cold, quiet clicks interrupted your tirade. Breathing heavily, you returned to yourself to see what you had done, the collection of bleeding gashes across Ezekiel’s face, and the several guns now surrounding where you stood only a few inches still from the dirtied bastard.

And then he smiled again.

“But it was you. It was you the first time. Not our fault you picked an Infected boy over those others—over us. It was better that way. We gave him mercy, [Name]. What were you giving him, keeping him alive like that?”

This was it: the fucking end. You would die here, with Ezekiel’s mockery ringing in your ears, where you had no doubt that it would stay for all eternity. A fitting punishment. Less, really, than you deserved. The heated feeling deep inside you wormed its way up your throat and out your mouth in a sob. You needed to look up. You wouldn’t die with your head bowed. You wouldn’t—

“Now!” shouted a voice from the undergrowth. Ezekiel twisted, and in his distraction, you kicked him as hard as you could. Maybe your arms were useless, but you still had the legs you’d been famous for at seventeen. With a grunt, he fell over—but that left the rest of his group staring you down. Or it would have, had someone not tossed a smoke bomb into the middle of the circle that very moment. There was no time to react. There was a warning or two shouted, but not in time. The bomb exploded, filling the clearing with thick white powder. You took your chance, shoving past your nearest captor with such force that you heard them fall behind you. Where had that strength been only a few minutes ago? It didn’t matter. What mattered now was that it was taking you out and away. You didn’t much give a damn as to where.

The sound of hooves sounded behind you, and you picked up the pace. It had been months since you had run this fast or this far, but you couldn’t stop. That was Ezekiel barring down upon you, you just knew it, and then the horse was there, and so was an enormous hand that reached down to anchor itself around your good arm and wrench it upward. Coughing, you stumbled across the roots snaking across the ground with nothing but the iron-grip around your upper arm to hold you up. Had it not been there, you would have fallen under the crashing hooves beside you long ago. The burning in your lungs prevented you from swearing, at least—until the hand yanked you up with such force that it felt like your remaining arm was being pulled from its socket. “Would y’ quit screaming? Kinda defeating the purpose of a goddamn smoke bomb!”

This was the only way your situation could turn out worse. The horse was Callus Two, and the hand belonged to Joel. Ellie had the reins, and—and there wasn’t room on a fucking horse for three fucking people, two of which were grown adults! Joel had you in his arms, flush against his wide chest, and you found yourself panting and sobbing into it like a goddamn baby. The tears had stopped, but the fear was still wild in your brain. No, this wasn’t better. No, this wasn’t alright. No, no, no, no. You should have died. Maybe then you could apologize to Brycen for everything. Except you already knew he hadn't gone where you were going.

“You gonna be okay?” Joel asked in his deep voice. God, how you wanted to snap at him. How you wanted to rend him limb from limb for seeing you in such a state. That very state prevented any of this. Instead you just swallowed and nodded. Back to Jackson, then. Back to the dam. Away from Ezekiel, which had been at least the direction you had wanted to head in your escape. Joel heaved a sigh, pulling you a little closer as he did. “Next time something makes you that sad, tell someone,” he told you. “Before it becomes a problem.”

“Jackass,” you whispered. You meant it still. You did. Joel knew that; that was just the way things fucking were. Just as well, you knew that his pulling you so close was only to keep you steady on the horse as Ellie raced him back home. That was fine. It gave you an excuse to—just this once—huddle closer to the rough fabric of his shirt and take comfort in his closeness. You could grow up when Jackson came into view. For now, you were just that same broken girl again, more alone than you'd ever been in your entire life.

JoelxReader: (Don't) Hold Your Breath [Ch. 15]
Part 15 of 32 of (Don't) Hold Your Breath, my The Last of Us fan fiction.

All prompts come from the "#32 in His Rulebook" challenge by Charred Heart on Lunaescence Archives.

Look at me, writing things. I actually didn't mean to update this until after Brightest and Adventures in a Realm Without Divorce Court, but I realized a few nights ago that really the chapter was already finished, I just needed to sit down and connect all the bits and pieces that I had so it was one whole scene. I'm pretty much to that stage in Brightest, but I don't know if I'll have the chance to finish that one tonight like I had planned. .~. Hopefully this week, maybe? And then Adventures already has over 3000 words, so that shouldn't be too far behind. Woo.

The Last of Us does not belong to me.

Previous Chapter: Survival Rule #14: If we get ambushed doing YOUR thing, it's YOUR fault.
Current Chapter: Survival Rule #15: If something makes you that sad, tell someone.
Next Chapter: TBA
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  • Mood: Stumped
  • Reading: Party Princess
  • Watching: Daredevil
  • Playing: The Last of Us
Not that I have that many FAQs on this site, but I just updated the one I have on Quotev, so I might as well put this here. I have had a few of these questions asked here, anyway.

Q1: Where are your other accounts?
A: 
Lunaescence Archives (Straw), Ghosts of the Vanguard (Straw), Quotev (Straw/Strawchan), and Tumblr (mostlyieatburritos).

If you ever see anything of mine under any other names or any other sites, please report it and then let me know. They are stealing my work.

Q2:  What are you currently working on?
A: My "About Me" section always has current information on what I'm working on, and how far along in it I am.

Q3: When are you going to update x?
A: I attempted to go in a certain order, but as I got stuck on chapter 11 of Brightest for several months, I've decided to go back to just updating whenever I feel a chapter coming on. Stories ((Don't) Hold Your Breath, Brightest, Adventures in a Realm Without Divorce Court, and Tastes a Little like Freedom, a Little like Fear) I intend to keep a sort of rotating schedule on. Tastes gets two updates per round because the chapters are short, and it's suppose to have 100 of them. You can always check out the "Fic Progress" link at the top of my Tumblr to see how many words I currently have for anything upcoming. 

Q4: What are you planning on writing?
A: My "About Me" section always has a list of fics I am considering writing once I am done with present ten projects I am currently doing. You can find them below the current projects section. Sometimes I will also discuss plans and put excerpts up on Tumblr, under the tag "fan fic" or "WIP."

Q5: I think the things in your Avengers collection are too short. Can I take them and rewrite them?
A:​ While I am flattered--especially since I've been writing longer one shots lately--I would prefer that you did not. Credited or not, if I do find you posting nothing more than rewrites of my things, I will report you. Thank you for understanding.  

Q6: I think your reader-insert clip is great for my OC. Can I put it in my story and replace the reader with my character?
A: Please do not. Credited or not, these are my words not yours. If I find you doing so, I will report you. Thank you for understanding.

Q7: Your story has inspired me! Could I write something based off my idea?
A: Absolutely! I can't really say no, since I'm writing fan fiction, too. All I ask is that you put a link to whichever thing of mine inspired you in one author's note, if it's particularly close to my idea. Example: if you want to write something that goes directly off Trigger Warning, please link your readers to that in the first chapter. If it's barely related and just made you think of a story somewhat similar, you need not credit me. 

Q8: Are you going to continue this thing that you have finished?
A: 
No, I never plan to add on to something marked "completed." Sometimes, I will add sequels to drabbles or one shots in my Happily Ever After collection, but this happens more and rarely. If the book is marked "completed" or "discontinued," I would appreciate you not asking me for a continuation. Thank you.

Q9: Update this!! (Or any number of ruder or politer ways of phrasing this.)
A: 
mostlyieatburritos.tumblr.com/pos...

Q10: Do you roleplay?
A: I used to, but not anymore! Sorry to disappoint. Nowadays all I do is some StevexBucky with one specific person.

Q11: I think I have a neat idea for a fan fiction. Would you like to collaborate?
A: No, thank you. The thing about all this is that I have very high standards. Half the time I drive myself crazy trying to perfect my stuff (which, of course, I never manage to do). I do not want to suck all the fun out of this website for you. Besides, I'm so busy and bad at updating these days that you would end up doing most of the work, which hardly seems fair to you.

Q13: Can I repost your fan fiction on another site?
A: No. I don't care if this is another website or even a website I'm already on (like Quotev) in one of those collections of favorites people make. If you like my stuff, then you should link it to people you want to share it with. Since I'm the writer, it is only fair that I am the one that gets any of the feedback you might otherwise receive. Collections where the fic still is on my account is fine. Collections where you put under yours are not.

Q14: Do you take requests?
A: I do have a reader-insert request booklet. You can post a request on that collection, entitled The Space Between Stars. Please note that you may only request characters for the reader to be paired with, and you can suggest a scenario. 

Q15: I want something more specific/with my OC. Will you do a special request for that?
A: No. However, you may commission me. I realize that a lot of people on this site are young and have limited amounts of money. If you want to discuss me writing something more specific, then you can leave me a comment and I will contact you so we can discuss prices, and we'll see if we can come up with something that will work for both of us.

Q16: I think the pairing in this story would be better as something else.
A: Then you will need to go find another story to read, or write it yourself. With the exception of stories where people vote for the end pairing (something I have only ever done with But Uh-Oh Those Summer Nights), I never start something without knowing exactly where the relationship is headed. I have at least some idea of what I'm doing with every chapter, so I cannot change what I'm doing five chapters in.

Q17: I do not like the way you portray me/the reader in this story.
A: Sorry, but I do not ascribe to the idea that reader inserts are to have no real established personality outside of the generic "lol I am a so randumb Hetalia-loving high school student." Generally speaking, I write the characters as adults, and since I plot my story, I need to know who the character is as a person. I fully understand that you, as a real person, might not be a doormat, a recovering addict, a professor at a school in New England, or a bitter ex-athlete who suddenly lost their arms. But that's the character I need to tell the story. My writing is more geared toward "virtual reality": letting you step into the shoes of someone different. If this is not how you like your reader inserts, that's perfectly fine. But you will need to find somewhere else to get it.

Q18: Read this story!
A: 
I don't read other fan fictions, unless it is specifically for a fandom I know of, but don't have much interest in, and is really, really short. As I said above, my standards are high, so when I read stuff about, say, Tony Stark beating his Avatar daughter into unconsciousness, it upsets me. I am aware, however, this isn't a cool attitude to have, as when I was 13, I also wrote a lot of garbage (and still frequently do). So I stay away, and let everyone have their fun. If you are posting this on one of my stories, though: Get off, and quit wasting my time. That's uncool, too.

Do you have further questions, or wish for clarification, or still just want to talk to me? Feel free to leave a comment or contact me on Tumblr.

This question and answer series is subject to revision and updating whenever the author wishes.

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TehStraw's Profile Picture
TehStraw
Straw
Artist | Student | Literature
United States
(ID made on Doll Divine's Hipster Doll Maker)
(So was my icon, obviously)

About

Hello there. Nice to meet you. Please make yourself at home.

I'm Straw. I've been writing fan fiction for nearly eleven years now, which makes me twenty-four. I have a bachelor's degree in English and Creative Writing, and a master's degree in English--not that you can tell, due to my ludicrous inability to find typos. I'm better at improving the works of others than I am at writing my own, but I absolutely adore writing and am constantly reading books and attending conventions to improve my craft. I have a full time, Monday through Friday job in a call center at a local doctors' office; I also frequently fall ill, the combination of which results in my spending more time daydreaming about updating than actually doing it.

I'm vegetarian, Christian, feminist, and presently identify as aromantic and asexual. I keep goldfish (Ken, Chikusa, Loki, and Clint) and a pleco (Groot), all of which occupy much of my time due to their collective attempts to die every few months. I also have a cat named Seymour, who thankfully does not frequently attempt to die, but does get urinary tract infections often.

I tend to find one fandom to hunker down in it for several years, writing and learning about it in my spare time until the story gets to the point of disappointing me. Presently my main fandom is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. My sub-fandoms are The Last of Us, Star Trek (Original Series and Reboot movies), and the Daniel Craig James Bond movies.

I'm terribly shy, which is why you don't see me interacting with any of the writing communities I'm on much. Please do not let that keep you from contacting me. You can e-mail me with the link above, or message me via Tumblr at my blog, mostlyieatburritos.tumblr.com.

Presently Attempting To:
- Write more scenes instead of sequels
- Incorporate sex scenes
- Write middles that are cohesive and entertaining
- Make the characters less melodramatic unless the character is, in fact, melodramatic
- Actually write something

I also post my fan fictions to Quotev (as Straw/Strawchan), Ghosts of the Vanguard (as Straw), and Lunaescence Archives (as Straw). If you ever see my stuff on any other website, that's not me. Please report them for stealing, and let me know so that I may as well.

Current Projects:

(Don't) Hold Your Breath
Fandom: The Last of Us
Pairings: Joel/Reader; Maria/Tommy
Main Song: We Fall Apart by We As Human
Challenge: #32 in His Rulebook
14/32

Adventures in a Realm Without Divorce Court
Fandom: Thor; Avengers
Pairings: Thor/Jane; Thor/Reader; Clint/Darcy
Main Song: Waking Up in Vegas by Katy Perry
Challenge: A Twist on "I Do"
7/20

Brightest
Fandom: Iron Man 2
Pairings: Justin Hammer/Reader; Tony Stark/Reader; Happy/Pepper
Main Song: Head on Collision by Hawk Nelson
Challenge: N/A
10/25

Just a Myth
Fandom: Avengers; Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Pairings: Natasha Romanoff/Reader; implied Clint Barton/Bobbi Morse
Main Song: I Am Not a Robot by Marina and the Diamonds
Challenge: A Perfect Love...
18/34

Logical Fallacy
Fandom: James Bond; Skyfall
Pairings: Q/Reader; Bond/Moneypenny
Main Song: A Thousand Years by Christina Perri
Challenge: 102 Things a Guy Should Know About Girls
43/102

Natasha Romanoff's Matchmaking Service
Fandom: Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Pairings: Steve Rogers/Reader; past Brock Rumlow/Reader
Main Song: N/A
Fic Trade Prompt: Late-night Bonfire
2/3

One Small Step
Fandom: Marvel Cinematic Universe
Pairings: Various/Reader
Main Song: N/A
Challenge: 120 Bits of Random
36/120

The Space Between Stars
Fandom: Request
Pairings: Request
Main Song: N/A
Challenge: 160 Collective Drabbles
22/160

Tastes a Little like Freedom, a Little like Fear
Fandom: Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Pairings: Winter Soldier/Reader
Main Song: Honey and the Bee by Owl City
Challenge: 100 Drabble Adventure
15/100

Where Gods Do Fear to Tread
Fandom: Marvel Cinematic Universe
Pairing: Currently Bruce/Reader
Main Song: N/A
Challenge: 9 Months
1/9
2/4

Coming Eventually
(If I can ever actually finish any of the above stories.)

Headhunting
Fandom: Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Pairings: OC/Reader; Brock Rumlow/Reader
Main Song: TBA
Challenge: 20 Every Day Questions

To That Distant Future
Fandom: (Pre-)Captain America: The First Avenger
Pairings: Steve Rogers/Reader; Bucky Barnes/Reader
Main Song: TBA
Challenge: Childhood Memories

A Stab in the Dark
Fandom: Guardians of the Galaxy
Pairing: Nebula/Reader
Main Song: TBA
Challenge: NA/TBA

All That Glitters
Fandom: Agent Carter
Pairing: Polyamorous Peggy/Reader/Angie
Main Song: TBA
Challenge: Yuri For Every Occasion

Fandom: Avengers
Pairing: Steve Rogers/Reader
Main Song: TBA
Challenge: Dont'd Tooch My Mommy!

To Win an Agent in 14 Days
Fandom: Avengers
Pairing: Clint/Reader; Tony/Natasha
Main Song: TBA
Challenge: To Win a Girl in ____ Days!
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:iconfrozencrystalrose:
FrozenCrystalRose Featured By Owner Jun 6, 2015  Hobbyist Writer
Welcome to ReadersInc! We hope you enjoy the group!
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:iconlokiavengerfangirl:
LokiAvengerFangirl Featured By Owner May 26, 2015
Happy Birthday! :D
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:icontehstraw:
TehStraw Featured By Owner May 27, 2015  Student Writer
Why thank you!
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:iconlokiavengerfangirl:
LokiAvengerFangirl Featured By Owner May 28, 2015
You're welcome :) Hope it was good
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:iconamzimme:
amzimme Featured By Owner Jan 27, 2015  Hobbyist General Artist
Thank you for the favorite, Straw! :D
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:iconmyinqi:
myINQI Featured By Owner Aug 16, 2014  Hobbyist Photographer
:iconbedanker: on Knoblauchsland by myINQI :iconcip33:
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:iconhypermagical:
hypermagical Featured By Owner Jun 8, 2014
Thank you for the recent fave! :la: 
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:iconkillstein:
killstein Featured By Owner May 26, 2014
HAPPY BIRTHDAY STRAW!!
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:icontehstraw:
TehStraw Featured By Owner May 26, 2014  Student Writer
Aw, thanks.
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:iconkillstein:
killstein Featured By Owner May 26, 2014
Welcome~ < 333
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