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Push and Pull of Me and You

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On the list of people that Sarah searched for some company, he was actually the fourth. And it was deliberate. Cleo came first because she was about to go on a trip to the Caribbean and her enthusiasm and free spirit were what Sarah needed the most at the moment.

“Why don’t you come to the Caribbean with me?” Cleo suggests when they leave the water, one hand covering her eyes from the sun. She did not disappoint when it came to keeping Sarah busy. From very entertaining ships stories to draining their limbs in the sea, she’s had a pretty great day hanging out with her friend. And they were yet to finish it with a good old fire, the Bahamian announced earlier. “I bet it would do you some good.”

Once they dried themselves, the girls laid their towels on the sand and sat facing the back and forth of the waves. It’s not like Sarah hadn’t thought about it. It was very appealing to dodge reality and just be a tourist in a stunning, adventurous island. But it also felt fake. She didn’t wanna run away to not deal with John B’s absence. She’d live through it and, eventually - well, that was the plan - overcome it.

“Thanks, but I’ll pass.” she looked at her friend with a appreciative thin smile. “There’s nowhere else I wanna be right now.”

It was true, as painful as the nostalgia was. 3 months in since his trip to an undisclosed location with his dad and they still hadn’t heard from him. None of them. It was ridiculous that he was going to meet him alone in the first place, but not telling the destination to anybody - the Pogues, his family - that was selfish.

And she told him that. They survived greedy parents, crazy relatives, and 56 days with little to no resources in a island. Survived each other’s outburst and insecurities. They got JJ three years sober now. Kie is out in the world right now doing what she loves: exploring nature. After all they’ve been through, Sarah thought she knew him better than that. But she could understand the part of him that wanted to be with his dad, for whatever reason it was, just the two of them, trying to regain some sense of fatherhood. She knows this feeling. And she wouldn’t hold that against him, just like he couldn’t hold it against her the fact that she no longer would sacrifice her sanity worrying about his whereabouts.

But it was easier said than done, and some days are harder than others.

The second person was Topper, and by midday Sarah was more than done. Physical activity to channel her inner struggles was not it for her. He made up for it by taking her to get ice cream though.

They were incredibly better off as friends. There was no pressure from both parts, and they could just be with each other. He stepped out of his mother’s wings and got himself an athletic scholarship at Chapel Hill, shinning in the institution’s on the soccer team. She couldn’t be prouder and happier for him.

Now, Sarah didn’t know if her offer to drive Pope to the airport and pick up Cleo counted officially as her third attempt to be distracted, but then again, she offered really hard.

He did most of the talking, as usual, and she didn’t mind one bit, as usual. The aftermath of the gold chase gave each one of them a pretty generous amount of money, which was how he was able to pay for his college after his scholarship fell through because of the missed interview.

The pride seeping through his voice while talking about subjects that to Sarah seemed to be in a whole other language never ceased to amuse her.

While Cleo being back and Kiara finally landing in a place with an stable internet connection made things a lot easier, she didn’t feel like pushing too much on her girls. On their video calls Kie would constantly say something between ‘you can always talk to me’ and ‘I’m never too busy for you, you know that’, but she just didn’t feel like bringing the whole missing-her-ex-boyfriend-who’s-nowhere-to-be-found thing over and over again. It was time to let it fade. So she went to the person that reminded her of him the most. Her fourth attempt.

JJ.

Four years of coexisting can give you quite a handful of useful and disposable information about a person, and Sarah knew from day one that JJ was a lover and not a fighter.

But it wasn’t like he had a choice on this one. His borderline messed up relationship with his dad - who to this day never set foot again on the island - put him through all kinds of unimaginable things, and the fact that he’s still in Outer Banks, monthly pimping his best friend board, giving Heyward a hand whenever he can and riding his bike by her house every week - not as subtly as he thinks he’s being - is more than enough proof that he’s the most loyal of them all.

And that includes to himself too.

Which is why he was alone right now, surrounded by a bunch of wood and the skeletons of a boat trying to come to life.

He and Kiara were insanely happy, travelled around the world twice and even built a cute little cabin for themselves in a woodsy area that was only 10 minutes away from the beach. But while it was all JJ could possibly want for himself, Kie wanted to dive deeper around the globe, see all the things they haven’t managed to get to during their trips. He was satisfied. She wasn’t. And he’d never put her in a position where she’d wonder what things would’ve been like, so he told her to go, even though it shattered his heart. And Kiara did, even though it broke her to pieces, because she, too, knew that he deserved better than her resentment if she couldn’t handle staying.

That was eight months ago, and JJ was doing fine.

Well, as fine as he could manage.

The board at the entrance of his place displaying his more than 1000 days sober was his greatest support, and he had full intention on keeping the numbers growing. The Pogues would stop by every other day and if he kept his focus solely on the extraordinary waves before them, it would be like nothing’s happened, and there was no hole in his heart.

But then John B left too, and he lost his pace. He couldn’t help the feeling of betrayal that crept in every once in a while when he thought about the fact that his best friend for life was out there going through God-knows-what and he didn’t want any back up. That just wasn’t how it was supposed to go.

A crack of a stick made him look up and his eyes met brown ones looking as equally drained as he felt.

When Kiara left, she always made a genuine effort to check in on JJ to make sure he was okay. He knew that Sarah knew he had come a long way and things don’t make him snap like it did before, which only made him appreciate more her gestures, whether it was her bringing her surfboard for some fixing, stopping by with more fruits other than coconut for him - which was all he would eat if the could - or simply showing up every once in a while.

But then it was her boyfriend who left and he figured she was the one who lost some of her balance as well.

He did try to show up for her like she did for him, but at first it just wouldn’t go well. They were both furious and who knows what that combination could combust into. So he took baby steps. He asked Pope to keep an eye on her more often and keep him updated and even stopped by Topper’s house during his college break for more insight of how she was doing. Then he progressed and started riding by her house to take a look on her himself.

It’s what John B would’ve done for him and it’s what Sarah deserves. She’s his friend and a Pogue too. And just like him, Sarah stood her ground and did what was best for both sides of her relationship.

“Is that a duck?” he asks, toothpick going up and down between his lips. It’s the next thing he notices, something yellow wrapped in what JJ believes it’s her jacket.

Chapter Text

It was, in fact, a duck. A baby duck.

“I found this little one on my way here, just around the corner.” JJ stands up and pats his hands on his jeans while Sarah moves the animal from her arms, but as she hands it to to him the duck winces, and they exchange a look.

Both of them have been at the vet only once in their lives.

When he was 11, on his way back from school, he saw this big cat lying down by the sidewalk, breathing very heavily. As he passed by, the cat seemed to meow harder, like it was asking for his attention. Getting closer, he noticed some movement around the animal's belly and it clicked.

She was pregnant.

JJ checked her neck to see if there was a necklace, looked around searching for owners, but no indication that she belonged to someone came up. So he took her to the vet. His arms were a bit sore after carrying her for fifteen minutes straight, but he made it.

"Good job, kid." the veterinarian smiled, messing his freshly cut golden hair. JJ's lips were curved to the side, a proud grin of his own. "You might have saved this mom and her kittens."

Sarah was even younger on her turn. And her story a tiny bit wilder.

6 year-old Cameron played on her parents' backyard when a limbless reptile approached her legs. Since her only contact with snakes had been through watching cartoons, and the ones she watched had snakes with cute eyes and a smile, it never occurred to her to be in any danger. And theoretically, she never was. That's why she made Ward promise her to not kill the animal, and proceeded to accompany him to the vet to make sure it would get there alive.

Their second time had 2.2 pounds of pure duckling cuteness and five weeks of life. The wincing happened because of a cut on his right foot, most likely caused by a piece of glass, the vet explained. He treated the wound and told them the little man would be just fine.

"Will you keep him?"

"Yeah," JJ spoke first, certainty filling the room. Neither of them had the experience, or the environment to take care of a duck, really, but no other answer would do for Sarah as well. "She found him, so he's one of us now. Poguie." he wore a cheesy smile as he caressed the duck's feathers, definitely satisfied with himself for coming up with name. Then looked at her and nodded, assuming she was on board with it. She nodded back.

-

"So..." Pope said suspiciously, eyes going from Poguie sleeping in his arms, to JJ, to Sarah, then back to the duck. "You guys got a duck."

"It'll be fine. The doc gave us a list of things we need to do and buy for him." she explained, more to ease her worries than his.

"We got this." JJ added.

"You know this is a living creature, right?" Pope spoke in true Pope style whenever they did something without thinking it through, concern and apprehension filling his voice. "He needs care, and attention, you can't just leave him around."

"We're not ten, man."

"I don't think he's worried about me." Sarah teased, knowing it was true.

“I mean, remember Tina?”

JJ looks up to the sky, his tongue clicking in annoyance.

“She ran away. Your turtle ran away.”

“You know what?” JJ grabs the duck from his friend’s embrace gently. “You guys can stay here and chitchat all day while this responsible parent goes take care of this feathered mister.”

He starts walking towards the car and before Sarah follows him she takes the veterinarian’s list off her pocket and waves it at Pope.

“Do you think he misses his siblings?”

Sarah looks down at Poguie and ponders a little. Then, looking out the window she breathes out a reply, “Maybe. I know I miss mine.”

She means Whezzie, who alongside Rose have been considered missing abroad ever since the hangar with Ward and Rafe inside exploded. She knew they weren’t there with them, but nobody had any ideia of where they could be either. She means Wheezie, but the humanity in her still thinks about the older brother who taught her how to ride a bike and rollerblade. The boy who used his half his allowance to gift her with her very first pair of sunglasses on Christmas of 2010.

Not a day goes by that she doesn’t wonder what happened to that Rafe.

“I second that.” she turns her head to his direction and watches him check the road through the wing mirror.

A funny image of JJ and John B as two little ducks siblings pops into her head and she smiles. A playful smile at first, but it transforms into a sympathetic one, lips covering her teeth. 

-
Mothering, Sarah discovers, is the most all-embracing function in the world. And she’s been doing it for only about 4 days.

It started off great. Their first day was a success, Poguie slept the entire night, but that seemed to be a result of his exhaustive and eventful day. JJ stopped by on day two and they took him for a little walk at the lake, the part that was safe from predators. He had a blast, his limping almost gone now.

Her new house has a very limited backyard and the duck pen they ordered hasn’t arrived yet. On top of that, she can’t let him wander alone for large periods of time because the place is too big and he’s still too small. So now Poguie is stressed – and expressing it, by the way. Yesterday he decided he was ready to start making some breathy noises. And she’s stressed too. She ran out of ideas and needed back up.

“ ‘Sup.” he answers on the third ring.

“Hey, I think Poguie’s stressed.”

“What did you do to him?” JJ says with a surprisingly refined dad-voice.

“Nothing.” she defends herself. “But it think that’s part of the problem. Are you home? You have a better yard.”

“No, I’m at the beach house.”

“Beach house?” her forehead furrows. “Don’t you mean the cabin?”

“I uh…” Sarah can picture him scracthing the back of his head. “I sold the cabin last month. Exchanged, actually. The owner of this place wanted something more woodsy, and I’m literally looking at the sea right now. Everybody’s happy.”

She wasn’t sure the last part was exactly true, but all she was able to say was, “Oh.”

“I’ll text you the adress., it’s pretty close to your house.” JJ’s tone changed a little. “You know, it´s a good thing you’re coming over ‘cause I have a surprise for him.”

It took her ten minutes to arrive at the location he sent to her. An one-level wooden house with fairly less land and vegetation than his and Kiara’s previous property, but it screamed JJ. It was practical. One bedroom, one bathroom and a great deal of space outside now with both sand and grass decorating the surface.

She sees him in the back and puts Poguie down. He reaches JJ’s legs faster. Sarah loves the immediate freedoom that the duck feels in nature, but even with the fences, she can’t help but fear sneaky invasors during the night. All these worries vanish when she gets to the back of the house and there’s a whole duck pen waiting for them.

It’s the cutest thing in the world, really. A little hut made of wood with an external section attached to the side. The run enclosure is big enough for three Poguies, but Sarah’s definitely not complaining. JJ even built a fence around the whole thing for extra protection. This duck’s so spoiled.

“JJ, this is amazing.” she complimented him, eyes still admiring the work.

“I also made another hut for your place, that way we just need to detach enclosure whenever he’s there. I was about to order one online, then it hit me,” he meets her halfway, duckling in his arms, “I already have everything to build one myself, so I did.”

She recognizes the wood from the boat he was working on a few days ago. The boat is actually here too now.

“This looks great.” she glances around the area. “This whole place does.”

“I know, right?”

When he speaks, she can’t actually find any hints of sadness on his voice, and wether he’s masking it or not, JJ does look genuinely happy. Fresh air. Always a good thing.

“Now, we’re not the ones responsible for approving it.” He opens a little door on the side of the fence and gets inside, putting Poguie on the grass.

Expectative eyes look at the animal waititng for a reaction and he doesn’t disappoint. He begins to walk around all curious, enters the hut, then goes to the enclosure, walks some more and starts making raspy sounds. They assume he approved the new installment, especially JJ, who hadn’t heard him create sounds before.

“I just made coffee, it’s in the kitchen if you want it.”

She takes a minute to dwell on this offer, because it’s five p.m on a Friday and JJ is offering her coffee. Not beer, or whatever the hell he put in that old hip flask. It’s an easy yes for her, but she knows it didn’t come as easy for him. Kitchen’s nice. Cabinets are painted in blue-gray, which contrast with the white frigde and stove. The table is outside to give room for the couch and TV. She serves two cups and emerges back, finding him sitting on the stairs.

The acidity of the beverage makes the bitterness hits her tongue first. Strong. Way too strong.

“You know, you could always ditch the water and just eat the coffee beans.” she gives him a look as she sits, handing him a cup.

His lips turn downwards and he actually has the audacity to consider it. “Not a bad idea.”

“Does Pope know about this place?” she asks after a while, her focus on the back and forth of the waves.

“Yeah, he made sure the guy wasn’t pulling a fast one on me. College degrees are handy from time to time.” he jokes and Sarah chuckles, shaking her head. “Do you think he’ll be back soon?” now it’s JJ turn to ask, and she knows he’s not talking about Pope anymore.

Sarah brings her lower lip into her mouth and thinks about the answer. It doesn’t take long because, honestly, there’s only one. “I don’t know, JJ.” She takes a deep breath and allows the air to fill her lungs, clear her mind. “I really don’t.”

“You did the right thing.” she looks at him expecting more explanation. “ Not going with him.” There’s a long enough moment of silence and she thinks he’s done talking. “I’ve known John B almost my whole life. I literally have more years of knowing him than not knowing him. But something changed when his dad disappeared. He wasn’t the same and I mean, how could he? The guy was nowhere to be found.” he positioned his hat backwards, blonde hair reaching the middle of his forehead. “But then it got better, and crazier when he fell for you.” JJ looks at her and smiles. There’s a grin playing on her lips as well. The memories were mostly welcome. They were young and in love, it was enough. “Head over heels, married you with that thing and all that.” She feels another but coming. “When we finally found Routledge dad, I thought: Alright, closed chapter. But some things seemed far too gone on his mind, things that to this day I still can’t figure out. So if anything, I hope this trip helps him deal with whatever shit he needs to deal with. I want my brother back.”

There’s a lot on his speech that she needs to absorb, so she redirects the question for now, “Is that how you feel about Kiara? That you did the right thing?”

He exhales through his nose and takes the hat off, running his fingers through his hair. His jaw clenches a little right before he speaks.

“I love Kie. Always will, either way. We were happy as hell for a very long time, but there was this time surfing in Mexico once, monster waves coming our way and all I could think about was how I couldn’t wait to come back and tell all that stuff to you guys. Believe me, I was surprised.” he snorts and tilts his head a little. “I thought that if I ever had the chance I’d leave this place in a heartbeat. But things were different, better. I was better. The look in her eyes said she wanted to go deeper. Travel more, do more, and I’ll never be the one who stands in her way.”

JJ was gesturing a lot with his hand now, which indicated some feelings were reaching up to the surface.

“John B took me out of my bubble and for that I’m forever thankful.” she began. “He made me feel more, see more and live more than I ever thought possible. That’s why I almost tried to convince him to take me with them.” she let out a humorless laugh, knowing that just wouldn’t work out. “Then I realized that I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want another adventurous, possibly life-threatening trip to who-knows where. I’ve been through too much shit the first time and I’m done with it. It took me three months to sleep through the night when we got back, JJ.” he glanced at her given the reveal of this information. “No matter how much I love him, or how much I wanted to help, it was me that I had to sacrifice. And I’ve already lost a lot of people that I love.”

Although neither of them couldn’t see it, there was an enormous relief in their chests. The weight off bottled up feelings was finally crashing down, and it felt great. Still hurting, still sore, but there was some comfort about not being alone with their own pain anymore. That would do for now.

-

About 18 days later, the calendar on her phone lights the screen up with a reminder and the ding wakes her up. She checks the time first, 8:17, then reads the notification.

JJ’s birthday.

Sarah makes a quick stop at the bakery, buys a few cupcakes and a box of candles, heading to the beach house after. She doesn't spot him working on the boat, much to her surprise. She walks a little more and sees him hand-feeding Poguie, his back to her. The skin on the back of his neck is a little irritated and that along with the fact he's not wearing his hat is a sign he just got a hair trim. He's been wearing it shorter for about a year now.

"Hey, happy birthday!" she approaches him with one of the cupcakes. JJ looks puzzled.

He uses his fingers to do some math and a huge grin goes her way once realization hits. "What do ya know, it’s my birthday!"

“Wow, JJ.” she stares at him, although it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise that he didn’t know what day it was. If it wasn’t for the reminder, she probably wouldn’t know it either. “So, what do you wanna do today?”

"I appreciate it Cams, really, but you don’t have to worry about that. Got my day all planned already." There he goes, back at it with the boat.

"JJ, you’re 21. I used to think you’d barely make it to 18. We’re celebrating that.”

"I’m celebrating by chilling and continuing to work on the boat.” he sat down by the tools, then rotated his torso back to point at something. “Can you get my hat on that chair, please?”

"You’re literally one pinky away from accomplishing to get all of your fingers splintered. That’s your definition of chill?"

He grimaced, staring down at the bandages around his fingers. Her sharpness had finally cut through him.

"What do you have in mind?"

"I don’t know,” her arms went up then back to her sides. “something fun and spontaneous. Outside the water, for once."

"Fun and spontaneous, huh?"

Every passing second that JJ takes to suggest something fills her body with more dread. She just gave him a golden ticket for disaster. Eventually, blue eyes look up at her and not even the fact that they’re squinted because of the sunlight keeps them from shinning bright with excitement.

"Let’s get a tattoo."

See? That’s why everybody picks ‘truth’ with him when they’re playing truth or dare, which says a lot about the type of dares he comes up with.

"Why do I have to get one? It’s your birthday."

"You’re the one who came up with the whole celebration thing. Besides, we could always stay here and-“

“-if you say chill again I’m definitely making sure a splinter gets your skin.” there’s a beat of silence, and Sarah’s sure her brain is not functioning properly. “Fine. But you’re paying. And if it’s too much pain I’m out."

“It’s not that terrible. I gave myself this one a few years ago, see?” he points at the P4L right above his ankle. “You’ll be just fine.” that’s not really comforting, but he’s inside the house to change clothes before she gets to reconsider her answer.

They’re almost at the tattoo parlor - JJ driving Sarah’s car because now she’s too tense to do it - when his phone rings. He takes it from his pocket, sees Pope’s name showing up on the screen and hands it to her. Putting on speaker, she lifts it closer to him.

"Good morning to the birthday boy! Happy birthday J."

"Thanks bro. Hey, Sarah’s here, say hi to her."

"‘Sup, Sarah."

"Hi Pope." she greets him back.

"Guess where we’re going right now." there’s no need, but he still leans his head so his mouth is near the device.

"No idea, but judging by your excitement it’s definitely somewhere crazy."

Sarah snorts in amusement.

"Danny’s."

"Wait, you’re getting a tattoo for your 21st? At least this time there’ll be a professional involved.”

"Sarah was all like, ‘it’s your birthday, let’s have some fun’ so now we’re getting tats, baby!" JJ just about yells the last part and the amusement is gone.

"You’re getting one too?" Pope questioned her, sounding more surprised than confused.

"Hell yeah she is."

Sarah sighs, shaking her head. “I just regret getting out of bed today."

"Let’s get dinner together, all of us.” Pope suggests. “I definitely want to see this in person."

"Alright, I'll call you later, we just arrived at the studio."

"Danny, my man!"

"JJ!” Danny’s just finished hugging him when he spots someone else. “Oh-Sarah, hey! Long time no see. To what do I owe the pleasure?"

"It came to my attention that it’s my birthday today, so we’re gonna need your services."

"You’re both getting tattooed?"

JJ nodded, as ready as ever. Sarah simply exhaled an unenthusiastic ‘yeah’.

She could see the beginning of a question forming on the tattooer’s lips, confused as to why she was getting a design on her as well, but he had the good heart to keep it to himself. He turned to JJ instead, gesturing for him to sit down.

“So, what do you want, where do you want it… Tell me everything.”

“I want you to tattoo a cute little duckling right here on my shoulder, and right below it you’re gonna write ‘Poguie for Life’, can you do that? Poguie’s my duck.”

Our duck, she corrects him, mentally. If getting tattoos together, but not together is enough of a fuss, imagine telling people they’re raising a duck.

Speaking of ducks, his tattoo idea was actually pretty great and she wishes she thought about it first.

Since JJ opted for just shading and no coloring and the art Danny made only had about 3 inches, he was good to go about an hour later. It was actually quite interesting watching the way the needles worked through his skin, so fast you couldn’t even tell them apart. JJ’s pain tolerance is quite big, - for all the wrong reasons - but he didn’t mask his discomfort during the process, which she appreciated deeply. A few scrunched nose and eyes and a hiss, but that was it. It seemed minimally bearable.

“See, princess? Piece of cake.” he winks at her and twists his neck to the right, checking the final product on his skin and the reflex on the mirror. “Have you thought about yours?”

“A butterfly.” she said simply. ”One landed on my arm on our way here.”

“Where?” Danny asked as he sterilized his equipment.

“My neck?” a nervous laugh escaped her lips. JJ looked equally hyped and apprehensive for her.

“You’ll be alright.” the artist gave her a reassuring smile.

It did hurt, but it was more annoying than anything else. Once she felt the impact of the first line and kinda knew now what to expect, the tension diminished. Danny placed the drawning centered on the left side of her neck, and everytime he reached the top or the bottom it burned the most, but her tattoo took half the time JJ’s did. Nonetheless, Sarah was pretty proud and satisfied with the result.

Pope said they all would go back to make more on his birthday, but a single cute butterfly was more than enough for her. Cleo was on board, and JJ had a new tattoo idea every five minutes.

"Can we eat this?" he also asked her that every five minutes, lifting up plates that only one time checked with the instructions Danny had given them.


"Shit JJ, will you even be alive by morning?" but there’s no bite, because they’re all having a great time, and even if there’s two missing, things don’t feel so heavy anymore.

Sarah’s not actually sure JJ will remember the right stuff and shows up at his place the next day as early as she manages, puts lists of post tattoo “Do & Dont’s” all over the house, and from that day on she starts stopping by everyday. JJ picks up on that and there’s always fresh coffee and breakfast waiting for her now.

-

By the third month since Sarah arrived at his doorstep, JJ already worked his way through cutting the final panel joints for the boat. He hears the sound of her car’s engine behind him, door shutting and then the alarm activates.

“You won’t mind if I say hi to those pancakes first, right?” she shouts, and judging by the way the sound moves towards the entrance she’s clearly serious.

“They’re all yours.” he chuckles and replies without looking. Then he remembers the honey jar is empty. “Bottom cabinet has more honey.”

This morning, as he was going halfway a piece, his hand slipped and it brought the half-cutted wood harshly to his face, closer to the nose, but away from his left eye. It dig into the flesh a litlle, gifting him with a pretty bad laceration.

It wasn’t his cup of tea, but these things happen, ya know? He was glad it wasn’t the hand that held the circular saw.

However, Sarah looked back at him and the sight of seeing his face harmed again disturbed her deeper than she could’ve anticipated. She barely witnessed the ugly part of his injuries, but that never stopped her from worrying about his well being. It had been too long, and she was glad about that.

He’d cleaned up his face before she got here, but it still proceeded to get a little swollen. Also, JJ’s skin is a bit sensitive, so there was definitely some redness spread on his face.

His chest constricted when he saw her food-driven smile falter, a grimace forming on his features as realization hit. She walked towards him to see the injury better, hand stopping a second before touching his face and retreating, as if scared that she might hurt him. He counted the crinkles of concern between her eyebrows. Three. Didn’t like that look on her.

"Does it hurt much?"

He shook his head and shrugged. “Had it worse.”

He immediately regretted the brush off because her face changed into a distasteful expression that told him she did remember that.
“It stings more than it hurts, and there’s a little throbbing, but that’s it.” he tried again and now there was only one crinkle left.

Still, Sarah ushered him inside with a hand on his shoulder and told him to sit down on the kitchen table.

“Do you have any cotton or something that resembles a roller gauze for me to put on your face?” she asks while opening and closing drawers and the cabinet’s doors.

“There’s a first-aid kit in the bathroom.”

“You have a first-aid kit?”

“Yeah, on the top of the cabinet.” she heads to his bathroom, gets on her tiptoes and reaches up with her hand. There it was, just like he said. “It’s important.” he adds and Sarah scoffs.

“No shit, Sherlock. Where was this when you cut that coconut and the knife almost sliced your hand?”

Or during the countless of other times JJ wounded himself building this boat. If it didn’t look decent enough by now she’d seriously doubt he even knew what he was doing.

“It wasn’t necessary.”

“It wasn’t necessary.” she echoes sarcastically. Sarah gets closer and takes a proper look at his cheek. “You’re lucky. Half a breath deeper and this would need stitches.”

“No, I’m good.” he backs away a little and gulps. “No stitches for me.”

“Wait, are you scared of them?”

“What? No, I just never got to the point of needing them.” Yes. “Not gonna start now.” Yes he is scared of stitches.

“It looks clean, but I know you so I’m covering it.”

She positions the gauze with one hand, keeps it steady but not firm, and proceeds to put two pieces of bandage over.

They fall into a comfort silence, and JJ’s eyes tell her he values the act. All of them. He’s grateful that she’s there, not just for helping him out with an injury, but there, as in her company. The feeling is mutual. -

They're headed back to the beach house after a morning swim, droplets of salty water running down their skin and leaving marks on the sand. It's such a beautiful day, sky all blue with summer in full force.

“I ain’t just a pretty face, Sarah Cameron. There’s a very sharp machine in here.” he gestures to his head and winks. She had a visibly impressed look on her face after JJ said something full of wisdom, her lips downwards and brows raised, one hand covering her eyes from the sun.

“Yeah? Could’ve fooled me.” she snorts, eyes now paying attention on the sand and roots so she doesn’t trip.

“Wait, so you admit that I’m good looking?”

Her left foot stops mid-air, and she needs a second to consider her previous words. Trying to recollect any memory of him catching her staring while he surfed, because she definitely was, relief washed over her when she found none.

“That’s not what I said.“

“Yeah, but it kinda was implied.“ he presses and leans closer, one side of his lips tilted to the side.

“JJ, are you that desperate for a compliment you’re putting words in my mouth?” she looks up to find him gobsmacked. Good. When he doesn’t answer she adds something else, tempering it with a hint of mischief, “That’s not very attractive, you know?”

JJ raises up his hand in defeat.

“Alright, I’m dropping it.” very reluctantly, by the way. “But I know what I heard.” he shot a look at her and waved his index finger in a way that said he wasn’t fooled.

“Of course, sharp machine and all.”

No matter how hard Sarah tried to play it cool, the shit-eating grin on her face just kept spreading wider. He enjoys it.

Wait. Wait, something in the back of JJ’s mind flashes red, and his smirk is gone.

Weeks of snarky comments and teasing turned into flirting, so tangled up they were completely unaware of that change. Until it smacked him in the face.

There was just a never-ending list of reasons why he couldn't let this keep going on.
It starts with John B, who he knows since they were nine. Who's been by his side through thick and thin, being the brother he never had, the only constant for a very long part of his life, and the one who showed him what family was supposed to be like. John B, who loves Sarah, have always loved her, and might still love her when he gets back. Then there’s Kie, and things get even more complicated. Because not only he loves her and definitely doesn’t want to hurt her, Sarah loves her too. They’re all friends, family, and family comes first, so this has to stop.

But as he tries to create some distance JJ realizes it's freaking hard, among other things, and it only makes him feel worse. The first excuse he finds that is believable enough is that he found a scorpion on the land - he didn't, never have - and to protect Poguie he's gonna get things fumigated. Says it'll take a few days so it's better if she's not around. It works, and he has 96 hours to come up with more ways for them to set their rhythm a few beats more appropriate.

But then it rains and their pet gets completely soaked with mud, unable to remove it by himself. They do rock-paper-scissors to see who's in charge of the task and JJ loses. Nevertheless, Sarah joins him halfway mindlessly rapping some tracks playing on her car. The next song begins and he knows the chorus, however it's not until she flashes him a pleased smile that he realizes he's been singing and vibing to it too. Poguie is decently clean now, yet the satisfaction only lasts a few seconds prior to another wave of oblivious evolutions, if you could call it like that.

She stands up first and he's hit with the image of this same scenario occurring last month, post pet's bath, but he's the one who gets up first, helping her after by offering his hand. This time, Sarah props herself with her hand on the intersection of his neck and shoulder, delicate fingers sliding out once she's good.

And that's alright, unlike what happens next. He's just back on his feet when hers trip on the hose behind them and she loses balance, so he instinctively grabs her by the waist - not the shoulder, or the arm, even the elbow would've been okay - keeping her from falling. He's too wired and waits for her to notice their proximity and back away, but that never comes and Sarah simply squeezes the hand that holds her, lets out a breathy 'thanks', and proceeds to release herself.

They're so touchy now it makes his stomach turns. The temperature drop leads them to an old movies marathon, but they make waffles rather than popcorn and JJ mentally hits himself when he uses his thumb to wipe the excess of whipped cream he offered her off her lips. His stress is through the roof and it's a good thing they're watching horror so he can use that card to disguise his restless behavior, but maybe now that they're quiet and focused on the story this push and pull will decrease so he can rest a little. As if. Whenever the volume is too loud or too low, Sarah picks up the remote and adjusts the sound, her hand always landing on his thigh as she reaches the coffee table.

And it’s taking all of his self-control to not think about the fact that for every step he takes away from he, she takes two on his direction.

-

September's just here when Sarah spots Topper putting pumpkin after pumpkin on the back of his truck. The scene's got his mom written all over it. She's just back from a job interview that went amazing, which has her on a very happy mood, and she just has to tease him.

"Fall's a little early over here, huh?" she says after parking behind him.

He turns his head to her and shots her an annoyed look. “How about you give me a hand?"

"Sure." There are nine pumpkins total, five already good to go. They systemized in a way that Topper picks them up from the floor and hands them to her.

"So, I haven't seen you in a while. Where have you been?"

"What are you talking about? I'm always around." she shrugs and receives another one.

"Yeah, after six. Did you get a job or something?"

She’s about to answer when a lemon-scented something hits her nostrils, and Sarah glances around to discover where it's coming from.

An old man is just crossing the street with a food cart, all kinds of pies displaying deliciously on top of it.

"Hey, can you give me a sec?" she gives the last one back to him and starts walking.

"Hi." she says to the elder.

"Hello, dear." he smiles and opens the cabinet so she can have a better look of the baked goodness. The blueberry one made her mouth water. It’s been her number one choice ever since she was allowed to eat pies. He seemed to have picked up on that and gestured with his hand, "I see this one is your favorite. Would you like to buy a slice?"

"Actually, I'd like to take the whole thing. The lemon one too, please. It's for a friend."

"Right away." He wraps them neatly in aluminum foil and then in two cute little boxes that each said the flavor of the pie.

Sarah walks back to Topper with his back leaned on his car's door and lifts up the food, offering him.

"I'm good, thanks." he shakes his head. His eyebrows furrow when something catches his eye and he looks back at her confused. "Lemon pie? Since when?"

"Oh, it's not for me." excitement pulls her lips upwards in anticipation, mind picturing his eyes shinning with joy once he sees the pie. "It's for JJ."

"Yeah, right. JJ." Topper really did try to mask of his surprise, but the stuttered words got the best of him. She also realizes she went after the lemon pie first Sarah knows this found routine between them it’s unusual for an outsider’s eyes. But she can’t bring herself to care, or dig deeper into this narrative because all that matters is that she hasn’t been this light in so, so long and ruining this dynamic it’s the last thing she wants.

-

"J, what do you think of these earrings?" She was second guessing her dress too. It was the hottest night of the month but it was also mid fall, the thing is that you never really know if the tide is gonna act accordingly. A jacket could solve it though.

It was girl's night for her and Cleo. They've just heard back from their jobs' applications, great news, and decided to celebrate together.

"To-mayto, to-mahto, you’re always stunning, Sar." JJ's answer comes as easy as breathing, his focus never even leaving the TV. Sarah is a second too slow and her brain short-circuits, can't help but glance at his reflex on the mirror. He pauses the movie and turns his head to look at her, almost catching her staring. "But uh…"

Of course he doesn't just look at the earrings and decides if they’re nice or not. Rather, his eyes run from her hair all the way to the heels and linger a few beats on her legs on the way back up, until he reminds himself he's staring and hastily goes to the accessories. Sarah fights a smile and a flush on the cheeks, all while JJ's brain betrays him again when he moves his attention to the black butterfly on her skin and thinks it's a wonderful contrast to her white dress. His jaw clenches and she has some view of how the back of his neck starts to redden as well. Amused, she raises her eyebrows and suddenly there's all the time in the world to wait for an reply. "Keep' em." he manages and barely finishes nodding before unpausing the movie.

 

She does a stellar job keeping this... event deep inside her head through the majority of the night. But it´s mostly to her friend's credit. They go to dinner first and Cleo tells her how Pope erased her competition at the job interview by unintentionally triggering a fragance sensitivity on the other guy with his new perfume.

Sarah immediataly calls him, "I hear you're intimidating people into dropping out of interviews, does that check?" His groan was perfectly audible in spite of the fact she hadn't put him on speaker yet.

"I knew she was gonna tell you." muffled voice says he was running a hand down his face, just like she pictured him.

"And here I was thinking you were the best of us."

"I apologized like, a hundred times. Even offered him a job with my dad."

"Oh, so after you ruined his interview you tried to bribe him too? Nice." She hears JJ's big laugh through the phone and the sound echoes through her body, buzzing her senses.

"Goodnight, Sarah." his annoyed tone gives room to a softer one before hanging up. "Bye C."

About five minutes later, her phone vibrates and the screen lights up with a message. It's a short video of Pope cuddling with Poguie on the couch, JJ seems to be recording from across him. Caption read: Seriously Cams, the type of people you let into my duck's life. Very disappointed.

So he's only our duck when it's convient for you? she quickly texts back and puts the device away again. Dark brown eyes look at her with the finest poker face you've ever seen, but they have been friends for too long, and Sarah can feel the curiosity and bits of concern radiating off of her, rightfully so.

"I know you have questions about this." she digs her teeth inside her mouth, not really sure about where to begin because she doesn't know what this is herself. She´s not dating JJ, but they are somewhat involved beyond platonic now, and she can't say that she's opposed. Then again, that´s a line she´s not sure either of them would cross. There’s just too much at risk.

Soft, compassionate hands cover hers and bring her back to reality.

"Listen, I’m on your team. Whatever makes you happy makes me happy too. I know for a fact that you went to JJ looking for a friend. For what it’s worth, anything that follows after that is about you two, not the people you dated."

"We didn't date strangers."

Cleo smiled at her sympathetically. “I know.”

Talking about her relationship with John B in past tense felt strange, but what caused hot blood to speed up through her veins was the realization that it was actually appropriate.

Was she over him?

Chapter Text

"Do you miss her?" 

Sarah digs her fingers in the sand, allows the warmth to embrace her skin for a while then slowly lifts them up. She repeats this twice before looking down at him.

“Sometimes.” JJ’s eyes don’t leave the sea just yet. “The feeling changes from time to time.” he adjusts his posture and uses his arm to keep his head up, cheeks resting on his fist. “There are days that I just want her to come back and there are other days that I’d settle with just an explanation.”

“If she showed up at your door tomorrow...”

His eyes meet hers halfway and the answer comes easier than he imagined. But it’s his mom, so he’s not that surprised. “I’d be happy to see her.”

Sarah’s smile is one of the sweetest he’s ever seen her offer him. Lips tilted on both sides, her eyes shinning with something he can only describe as affection, can't help but reciprocate it.

She’s about to say that he definitely looks like her, – there’s a picture of them framed on the living room - but maybe that’s not something he’d be thrilled to hear. The group knew the story about his mother leaving in the middle of the night, he told them once. She also recalled that it happened back in 2015, meaning he hasn’t seen her in almost a decade. No phone calls, letters, nothing since then. Obviously, no parent abandons a twelve year-old kid for no reason and JJ had a look on his face that told Sarah that he was understanding of whatever that might have motivated her to do it, but Sarah was defensive on behalf of him and didn’t consider it all that simple. Nothing in this world would be considered plausible enough for her. Not only his mother's absence must've been gut-wrenching, he had to deal with his dad's resentment - to say the least - every passing day after that. Sarah's heard rumours about how Luke treated JJ that she genuinely wished to be untrue. At the end of the day, though, he was the one carrying that pain, and the fact that he was willing to leave it all behind them given the chance only demonstrated the kind heart JJ has.

So she says something different, making sure he’s looking and listening to her as she does it. “You’re the most selfless person I know. Always volunteering to take the hit for everyone. Literally, sometimes.” she adds, but there’s no bite in her tone. “And every time I remember that this is something you acquired in spite of what you’ve been through it just...“  

Her speech fades away. There are multiple words for the multitude of feelings she has on this subject and they wouldn't leave this beach anytime soon if she started to name them.  

JJ breaks eye contact and examines the sand, fingertips caressing the texture. “Now, I don’t know if I deserve this title, but can’t take all the credit for it. I mean, it sucked that I had Luke raising me the way he did, but I also had Routlegde dad and Heyward giving me a hand, helping me clean up some of the mess I used to make. It gave me a glimpse of how things should’ve looked like for me.”

He wondered if his dad was okay. Alive. Hoped for the best. 

“I can see why my dad didn’t make it to this list.” Sarah jokes and he chuckles, blue eyes back to her face. 

“He did, but I kicked him out after… ya know.”

She turns her neck to glance at him. “After he went insane?” 

“It seemed only reasonable.”  JJ lifted up his shoulders in agreement.

A chilly wind reaches Sarah's skin and it reminds her that it's mid-October and they probably shouldn't have spent the entire day in the water. Probably, but the flutter in her chest and stomach says otherwise. There's this never-ending, irresistible serenity when it's just the two of them and she intends to keep savoring it. He sees the way her body shivers and hands her the shirt she was wearing before the swim. His shirt, he realized. He never brings anything but his surfboard to the beach anyway so she can have them all if she wants. 

“You deserve closure, no matter how long it’s been.”  

“And you deserve your sister back."   "I know you’re always talking to the cops and detectives, but we could always try to find them by ourselves too. Just tell me where and when.”

It was no surprise that he was willing to leave the quietness of his beach house to help her find her family - she was just talking about how he's relentlessly loyal - but some feelings were getting out of her control lately. Feelings about him. And she couldn't stop her mind from wondering if the softness in his irises meant more than meets the eye.

“Did you really use to think I’d hardly get to 18?” he asks after a beat of silence. 

The softness in her eyes is inevitable now, and entirely deliberate. 

“I’m glad that I was wrong. Really glad.”

 

-

Sarah's been working for two weeks now and this is the first weekend that she's able to visit the boys. She worked last Saturday and was too tired to move a single muscle the next day, so she's happy to be able to visit them feeling energized this time.

It surprises her a lot that they're not outside, but the gardening equipment on the ground indicates JJ is up to something. 

“Good…morning?” 

"Inside." 

He's emerging from his room when she enters the house, Poguie right behind him. She also notices multiple spots with dirt around the house. Footprints, a cup, doorknob. 

"Had to change my shirt."

Oh yeah, there's a white cotton shirt hung on the kitchen table chair completely dirty too. Thing was, JJ is a selectively organized type of person. Some days this place is spotless, some days it's a disaster.

He's chosen disaster today, it seems.

"Gardening wearing a white shirt. I mean, it’s always good idea, right Poguie?" she pets her little guy on the head and that's when they both inhale the smell of fresh waffles. Now the duck starts following her. 

"You know, this sarcasm of yours might actually kill me one day." 

Sarah puts a piece of baked goodness in her mouth and turns around to look at him. He's crouched in front of the lower cabinets, searching for something.

"It’s too late for that, you’re probably immune." she replies and even though JJ can't see her face he knows she's smiling. "Why are you gardening, anyway? Got bored?"

"Somethin’ like that."

She's about to tease him again when his neck turns to the other side and she sees a bruise across his skin, right as his hairline ends. 

"Ouch. Is your barber mad at you?"

"What?" he looks over his shoulder and touches the back of his neck instinctively. "Oh, no, that’s on me. I uh… I slept on the chair."

"You’re not helping your case here." 

He walks towards her and motions to the food with the pruner he just found, 

"I bet these waffles taste really good, right? I'd say my case is just fine." 

He winks at her and starts moving again, she takes the opportunity to adjust the colar of his shirt, as well as a few rebel strands of hair sticking out, even though she knows the wind will undo everything as soon as he walks out the door. Once she finishes eating, Sarah gets Poguie and heads outside. 

The organized side of JJ seems to be outdoors this morning, because his garden is looking incredible. It's not big, given the fact that the vegetation isn't much vaste. However, everything is neatly positioned and tagged for a better management. She puts Poguie down and approachs the field, careful not to step on anything she shouldn't. 

"Onions, pepper… You should buy a farm next year." a little bit further from the vegetables "section" she sees a hole on the ground and a plastic tag before it. Doesn't recognize what he's written. "What does bb stand for?" she looks back at him. 

"Blueberries."

Oh.

He continues, a mix of concentration and excitement coloring his voice as he worked his way through cutting a few branches, "For you and your pies. I’ll pick up the bush tomorrow at the shop." 

"You're planting it for me?" he literally just said that, but her brain started functioning in slow motion the moment she stared back at the tag and it matched. BB, as in blueberries.

"Yeah, you're crazy about them, Sar. I got this one year-old bush that might not take too long to bear fruit. About another year or two and you'll be in charge of making your own pies." 

This is- okay. He's talking in future tense, whereas she just lost the little, unsteady grasp she had about the present. 

"Yeah, but why did you-" a nervous laugh escapes her mouth. "Why did you do this? It's a big commitment."

He stops pruning and there's no way in hell it didn't click for him that this means more than just countless future pies for her.

It means more of harmless teasing and fresh breakfasts, means that he might come around and finally let her trim his hair at some point, or that maybe she will give in and let him teach her how to ride his motorcycle. Means they get to talk and talk until their voices crack, swim and surf together until their muscles can't take it anymore and learn more about the other in the in between. And Sarah wants it all. She wants to be here when it's time to harvest the blueberries.  

"I'm not in a hurry and I'm not going anywhere either." JJ slowly raises his eyes to look at her and there's so much he's trying to convey and restrain at the same time that makes it hard for her to make anything concrete out of it. The ferocious hammer it provokes on her heart doesn't make it any easier. "Are you?"

-

JJ was supposed to teach Sarah how to make crispy onion rings when she leaves work today. She never got the texture right and decided it was time to change that. He had a very limited time to do it because he's giving Heyward a hand with some last-minute deliveries, but he could have made it. 

Leaving home a little early to stop by the garden shop and check out some new seeds, his plans got sidetracked when he saw Topper struggling with his motorcycle on the road. He decided to postpone the shop and texted Sarah saying he might be a little late. A minor migraine and about fifty minutes later, JJ had to call her to cancel their thing too. 

“Hey, I just got out of work. Are you at my house already? There’s an open window in the back if you want to wait inside.”

“Alright, first, that’s not how you pick up a call at all, Sarah." his said genuinely concerned and in disbelief. Who does that? "What if I was a criminal or some shit? Hello, you say hello. Repeat after me, H-E- -”

“- -I’m sorry, Dad.”

“And I'm actually on my way to Heyward's right now. I'm sorry about that, Topper's bike took longer than we thought to get fixed.”

“It’s okay, I’ll meet you there later then." he's about to hang up when she adds. "Isn’t it nice, you and Topper hanging out? A long way from pointed-guns at the beach if you ask me.”

He shakes his head and smiles, headache now fading away. “People change." Sarah waits for the punchline and it's very surprise when it doesn't come. 

"He’s a decent human now.” her small laugh reach his ears. Too soon. 

She gets home, puts away the groceries she bought for tonight and after a long, relaxing shower, she makes a quick stop at the bakery then heads to the docks knowing JJ is probably loading the boat by now.   

He just placed the first box inside when she arrives and she's sure that she wouldn't be able to count all the times he's used that grey shirt combined with the dark blue jean shorts not matter how hard she tried. And the red hat. It's just an observation though because he manages to look even better everytime. 

"Hey." she greets him and sits on the floor, wasting no time to get her cannolis inside the package. Every other time when he gets back on the dock she lifts her hand for him to  lean closer and grab a bite and they stay in peaceful silence. 

As the evening comes, small stars begin to contrast with the faded blue sky, the change from the orange, warm scenario suddenly making Sarah realize that the view around her was the last thing she was paying attention. Her focus rested on the flexing and stretching of JJ's biceps whenever he grabs and releases a box, the way he makes sure no delivery is being damaged as he puts them down, how the abscence of the sun didn't make the tips of his golden hair any less bright and she wishes he'd take off the hat. There's also a little bit of vanilla filling on his chin that she's just waiting for an opportunity to clean up. 

"I know I call you princess a lot but I didn’t think it’d get into your head like that. Didn't even raise a finger to help me." he shakes his head and grabs the last box. She checked the packages when she arrived and knew they weren't too heavy for him. 

"I’m good here, just admiring."

Shit. 

"Your hard work, I mean." 

It's a poor attempt and she knows it. It's no help that her smile seemed to have developed a will of its own and wouldn't go away. 

JJ continues to carry the box and puts it on top of the previous one. Turns his hat backwards and unhurriedly walks towards the dock, bending down in front of her with every intention of doing so. Her eyes study his movements with sharp awareness because she accidentally placed the ball in his court now and anticipation and interest ran wildy through her veins. Sarah watched him place his hands on the edge of the dock, glancing at the water beneath them and it seemed like he was about to ease the boat away but he didn't. 

Like they had all the time in the world, he lifted his chin and ocean eyes met hers, so recklessly unguarded it made her breath become erratic. She was leaning back on her arms and that created some - safe? nothing was really safe between them anymore - distance, but there was no telling if JJ wouldn't have kissed her had she been closer. 

"What else could it be?" 

It definitely feels like he's gonna throw everything up in the air and touch their lips here right here, right now, making her fingers twitch at the thought, but he pushes himself against the wood and backs away with the boat.

Her smile was long gone now because Sarah realized she's been asking herself the wrong question all along, and quite honestly, there was no need to even bother questioning anymore, she knew the answer. 

She's in love with JJ. 

-

On her 21st birthday, all Sarah wants is to hang out with her friends and eat good food at the comfort of her house. JJ goes surfing with Pope so she asks him to pass on the message, but he had other plans, just like she had other plans for him. At five p.m he lies to her saying that Poguie had an accident and he was at the vet, which gave Pope and Cleo about fifty minutes to set up birthday decorations at her backyard.  

They come back and she’s greeted with smiles and cheers from people that love and care about her. Topper was there, Heyward, and even the Carreras stopped by too.  


“Thank you.” she exhales on his neck while they hug, feels the ends of a goose bump under her touch and that tells her that’s she’s not imagining things. The shift in their relationship has never been more raw.

"You think that's it?" she wouldn't have minded one bit if it was."I saved the best for last."

She could feel the vibration of his voice against her body and combining that with the adorable mistery seeping through his voice was deeply intoxicating. 

"So, you won't let me teach you how to ride my bike, right?" he starts walking backwards towards the entrance of her house, looking back every once in a while to check his path. 

"Please, tell me you didn't-"

He interrupts her gently, grinning hard. " It's better." 

They get close to her porch and he moves to stay behind her and cover her eyes. Is he able to feel her pulse beating out of control on her neck? 

"I figured maybe you'd like a vehicle that you already know how to deal with."  

Sarah opens her eyes, slowly because she's enjoying every second of this day and doesn't want stop, and she certainly wasn't ready. 

 

The boat. He was giving her the boat. 

 

The one he's spent months working on and almost lost a bunch limbs because of it. The one it took her over two hours to paint and JJ massaged her shoulders for solid 25 minutes - without being asked - because they were awfully sore after. And when a splinter of wood sneakily cut through her skin once and the pain caused her to flinch, JJ’s hands were over hers faster than she could process, and he was oh-so careful not to cause any more discomfort that she couldn't help allowing her mind to break down the walls a little and just feel the skilled, tender touch of his fingers on hers and be enamored by this expressive line of concern that marks his forehead when he looked up to her, a thumb caressing the bruised spot, asking if it felt better. She wants to cry, because while she wasn't looking JJ cleaned up a mess that didn't belong to him, without requesting anything in return. 

She notices that he even wrote Princess on the side.

There's a lump in her throat so she's not sure if she can thank him again without letting it all out. She tries glancing at him instead and he's looking back at her with this precious softness shinning in his eyes and she knows that he reciprocates her feelings on some level because he proceeds to stare down to her lips and it lingers. It's just as much about her smile as it is about her lips for him now, and when JJ move his attention back up his loose grin has turned into a charged sigh that escapes his nose, making Sarah wonder which one of them was closer to slam shut the door of overthinking and kiss the other with no restraint. 

 

-

 

 

Chapter Text

The kitchen timer dings under her hand and Sarah heads to the kitchen. She takes a look at her work of art inside the oven and smiles, pride filling her bones as the smell hits her nostrils. Opening the oven door she reaches the pizza baking pan with both hands and that's when a jolt of hot, sharp and immediate pain overwhelms her skin and she jerks back. 

"Shit!

Three shadows appear next to her on the floor, JJ being the first one to approach her. She's breathing through her gritted teeth, fervently shaking her hands and it doesn't take long for everybody to figure things out. Cleo then grabs the gloves on the counter and heads to the oven, taking the pizza out. 

"Here." JJ reaches for the kitchen tap behind her and gently guides her hands into the cool water. Sarah's epidermis is red already and the prickling makes her want to rip it off. The water is more than welcome, as well as his fingertips caressing the back of her hands. Only when she deeply releases air out of her nose and her features soften to a less pained expression he turns off the faucet.  

"I uh.." she blinks, trying to organize her thoughts. "I have some antibiotic cream and a first-aid kit inside the top cabinet, could get them for me, Pope? The one on the left." 

"Right." JJ corrects her without looking at him, focused on removing her rings and bracelets in case her skin gets swollen. Pope nods, putting everything on the table after. 

"Let me see it." 

Cleo gestures for her to come closer and Sarah puts out her hands for her. Mindful not to cause her any more pain, her friend lifts up her wrists and examining eyes roam over the injury. "It's not deep so we don't need to take you to a hospital," she explains, voice carrying a weight at the end that said that she wasn't done yet. "but I'm afraid someone else is gonna have to serve us your pizza." 

Sarah's shoulders slumped in defeat, although she wasn't surprised. Even the light brush of wind contributed in some level to the pain.  

"I got it." Pope took the gloves from Cleo and wore them. He looks at Sarah and his lips lift up with a sweet smile, which she reciprocates. Cleo follows him outside with the pizza cutter.

JJ sits on the table and pulls out a chair for her. Opening the cream's lid, he glances up at her as she sits down. "Do you wanna do it yourself or..." she shakes her head in response and places her hands on the wooden surface. 

He puts a generous amount of product on her skin, fingers moving back and forth tenderly to prevent much friction, but it's too fresh and she hisses two or three times during the process. 

Attempting to distract herself she looks out the window, Cleo is serving pizza slices on their plates. After that she moves JJ's jacket from the chair next to Sarah's and hangs it on the one that she was previously sitting. Sarah doesn't understand the action and her eyebrows get closer. However, as if sensing her confusion, Cleo looks back at her, picks up a fork and a knife and makes a movement of cutting food, then it all comes together. She's hardly gonna be able to serve herself, but her friend's gesture becomes profoundly more considerate once she realizes that asking JJ to help her - which is exactly what she was gonna do as soon as things got difficult - would be crossing a line when they haven't even addressed the line itself. Not that JJ couldn't feed her, but there were way too many unnamed emotions orbiting around them as it is. She makes a mental note to thank Cleo later.

A conversation between her and JJ was ridiculously overdue.

"Hey." his voice brings her back to reality and there's concern pooling in his eyes. "You're a little off today. Is everything alright?"

She is a little off today, and it was probably what led her to burn her hands in the first place. 

This morning she woke up to her phone ringing and it was a video call from Kiara. Boy, how she's missed her. It was a belated happy birthday call and Sarah took the chance to tell her about the new job. Kiara also had news and said that she might be home for the Fourth of July next year, which was an incredible thing to hear. It kicked off her morning just the right way. But then it hit her that things weren't the same way as when she left. And it was crystal clear now that she certainly needs to know where each one of them stand, because not only she owed her friend the decency of being honest, this messy in between was on the verge of blowing up on their faces. 

Right now there was pizza waiting for them in her backyard so talking would have to wait, but tonight was it. 

"It will be." she smiled at him reassuringly, trying to convince herself of her words as well.

"Sorry, I just couldn't wait." Pope says when they return, half his food gone. "This is so good, Sarah. Best pizza I've ever had." 

"Really?" she sits down, his excitement numbing her anxiousness for now. 

Sarah's eyes move to JJ's on instinct and he has no right to be looking so satisfied with her joy. 

"Let's see." Cleo puts a piece in Sarah's mouth first, repeating the gesture for herself afterwards. "Wow. This is really great, girl. You should be proud." she bumps her shoulder with hers. 

"I agree." JJ weighs in. "It's perfect." 

About two hours later when the couple leaves, Sarah's hands are no longer itching with pain, although they're still a bit warm and tingling from time to time. She's about to reach for the spoon and do the dishes when JJ snatches the object from her and begin washing them himself instead. 

"You're off duty today." he says when she stares at him, soapy hand lifting up hers and placing a light kiss on her knuckles. It's simple and short, yet unbearably loaded and it's all she can take. 

She opens her mouth once, twice and it's only on her third try that her voice comes out, barely above a whisper. "JJ." the seriousness gets his attention. "We can't keep ignoring this."

He holds her gaze for a very long time and she sees the moment they flicker in realization that there's no going back from this.

"You hurt your hand today, don't you think maybe we should talk about this some other time?" his voice comes out so small and so defeated that she actually scoffs at his courage rather than his audacity. 

"No." 

"It's also pretty late." another lame excuse. There was no such thing as being too late - or too early, for that matter - for them. "Poguie might miss me."

"Poguie is just fine." she argues dismissively. "We left him sleeping and he's probably gonna be in the exact same position when you get back."

"Did you notice that he's been like-"

Sarah released a great amount of air through her nose and pressed her lips tight.

"You're dodging the question."

"Since when have you become such an expert on me?" he shot back, but it backfired. 

"Isn't that the point, JJ?"

The urge on her voice did the trick, his body visibly retreating. It was useless to keep trying to avoid the subject, but it was a thousand times more awfully unfair too and Sarah didn't deserve that. 

"I'm sorry." she finally felt like they were headed to some progress. He scratches the back of his head, blue eyes shinning with more than just the room's light. "I'm sorry, this isn't right. It's just that... I need-" another scratch and he runs a hand down his face. "I need some walls up. They keep me in place, keep you... they keep you in place." 

She licks her lower lip in distress. The attraction between them is nothing but a ticking bomb now and he can't possibly be that oblivious about the fact that they're past the point of controlling their behavior. "Really? How do you think that's been working out?"

Sarah raises up the hand he just kissed, dry detergent making her skin glow. 

"Don't you get it?" his voice falter at the end, pain and a hint of desperation echoing in the room. "You're Sarah. Sarah Cameron. Pogue, great girl, John B's ex-girlfriend." 

She does. The suffocating guilt and what-ifs were to swallow her whole anytime, there was so much at risk and it's not like they were careless, but they were certainly helpless now. She doesn't miss the way he emphasizes the last part, the mention of John B probably intended to make her back away, but there was one thing she needed to hear from him, heartbreak or not. She fills her lungs with courage and takes the risk.

"And without the walls, what am I?" 

Expecting a humourless laugh or something that indicated JJ thought she'd lost her mind, Sarah felt the air rush out of her body when he actually got closer. She allowed herself to really look at him. Clenched jaw, an irregular pulse popping out his neck, the redness around his irises only growing stronger. However, as he stared right back at her, into her, his breathing started to regain a slower rhythm, chest rising and falling more correctly each time. 

"You're more. Shit, Sarah, you're so much more."

She feels more. The heat curled on her stomach increased, expanding all over her body and she almost smiled. She feels the culmination of long days at the beach, co-parenting a duck, fresh breakfasts every morning and an endless display of affection demonstrated through teasing, lingering looks and little touches reach every single cell of her body and embrace them, filling each one with unique fondness. JJ lifts up his hand but brings it back a second later, and Sarah thinks he was probably going to touch her face but decided against it, which is actually a good thing because there's only so much self-control one can sustain and neither of them know if they have any left.

"So what do we do now?"   

Funny how one can convey so much with just a look. And she's been so experienced in terms of reading JJ that Sarah can see it all displaying on his face. One thing is certain, his eyes are definitely the window to his soul and never fail to show his emotions as clear as day, gaze locking with hers every other time because he doesn't have an answer and maybe, maybe she could figure something out. His lips are slightly parted and she's almost capable to see the weight on his shoulders.  

In other words, JJ is absolutely torn, and that's entirely justified, in the same way that she doesn't have an answer. 

Sarah does not know how, but she takes on the responsibility and there's not enough time to prevent her heart from shattering before she even starts speaking. "We can't, right? It's not that simple." 

There's a tear threatening to fall from her left eye and he's staring at it, fearing that any words coming out of his mouth might make it drop. "It's not that simple." he simply repeats.    

They stay in silence until the thickness in the room feels like it's about to suffocate them both. She puts the distance back - literally, but it's figuratively too - and gestures with her hand to the door, swallowing hard. "I'm sorry, but I think you should go, JJ."

"I'm sorry too."

He moves quietly towards the door and she doesn't even hear him closing it. Her hand is burning again, reaching all the way to her core.

The entire situation is too similar to a break up, which is so cruelly unfair because they weren't even together to begin with.

-

Sarah sees Pope first, jeans rolled up yet, completely soaked. He’s almost knee-deep in the water that invaded the sand, carrying two chairs with his hands. Anna and Mike are not too far from him, also looking for anything that could be salvageable, while Cleo and Heyward are closer to the restaurants, dragging out the water with push brooms. 

It looks like things aren’t as bad as it probably was right after the thunderstorm, but it’s still ugly. Most tables and chairs were pretty much destroyed by the wind and she sees two trees knocked down and few overturned boats. 

“JJ!”

She finally spots him, walking towards a dumpster at the side of Heyward’s restaurant, arms full with broken wood. 

He drops the wood inside the container and twists his neck to the sound of her voice, body moving towards her before he can’t even process it. 

“Sarah, you alright?” concern and the strong wind make his voice come out a bit higher. JJ's right hand reaches her arm instinctively, not leaving until he's completely satisfied of searching for potential wounds. He takes it back when his brain catches up, arm falling back to his body anything but subtly. He's also three feet away from her now and sadness twists her heart vigorously. The bond they've been building over this months is far too valuable and she's not going to let it be an addition to their already costly decision. 

"Yeah, I…" she almost forgot he asked her a question. "I was on my way back from work when I heard the alert on the radio, then I stayed home until the rain stopped." she looks back to the beach, glancing up to the grey sky. "The other side of town has no power."

"The whole thing lasted about 40 minutes." JJ sees a damaged plant on the floor and takes it to the dumpster, Sarah follows behind. "Wind dragged a lot of stuff to the shore. Poguie’s safe, by the way. I left him with a buddy of mine." 

The mention of their pet makes her look at him again. It did cross her mind that Poguie must've been terrified, - hell, they all were - but there was no doubt that JJ would make sure he was alright. Her eyes catch the moment his white shirt stick to his shoulder's skin and the texture becomes red.

"You’re bleeding." 

He looks down and pulls the shirt collar to the side using his index and middle fingers, looking inside. "It's fine. Just wood." he shrugs. 

She glances around in hopes to find a clean towel and fortunately there's one inside Heyward's restaurant on the counter. When Sarah gets back he cooperates without protesting and takes half his shirt off. It's indeed a small cut, but she’s still careful to not press her hand too hard or touch too close to it. The tenderness makes JJ’s mind slow down and he closes his eyes, grounding himself for a moment. It’s low and he knows it, but they’ve just witnessed a raging thunderstorm, so Sarah lets it slide and doesn't resist the urge to take his hair away from his eyebrows. 

This is on a whole other level of torment, really. 

His eyelids open slowly at her, pupils dilating because she’s the first thing he sees and there are things one simply can't control, the mess around them briefly overwhelmed by the pang of longing given how natural it felt being so close to each other again. 

Sarah takes a step back because that's what they've agreed on and directs her eyes somewhere else. "How can I help?" 

When JJ gets to the beach house that night he feels his chest filling with something fluttery as he sees Sarah's boat intact where he left it, but the sensation shifts into a cold shiver down his spine once he realizes that the vehicle and its owner are two different cases. In the same way he struggled so hard to prevent himself from falling in love with Sarah and still failed, he was also struggling to keep his choice of being just friends. It was like she was this magnetic force that his poor heart couldn't stand a chance against not being drawn to. He was holding on for dear life on the narrative that this was the best option for everyone and their friendship, but JJ is a lover and not a fighter and he so intensely wishes to act that way. 

-

Thanksgiving is here and JJ doesn't know how he's gonna spend at least three hours successfully coexisting with Sarah, but he'd make sure to be on his best behavior. Whatever that would be. Things have been tense and weird as shit between them, but he was determined to fix it. They're friends, have been friends for years, it'll be alright. 

Right?

He was in charge of mashed potatoes this year and he knew she would take cornbread because she was practicing at his place just a little over a month ago. He wondered how many times she tried the recipe by herself after that. At least once, since he saw her buying a few ingredients last week. It's not like JJ was stalking, or avoiding her, but there was this understanding that they should spend less time together, and if he had stopped by to say hi, chances are they'd be back in her kitchen - literally and figuratively. So, he didn't. 

At Pope's for dinner, he was so invested on setting up the table and keeping himself busy, it was almost like nothing happened and tonight was all about homemade meals and sweet feelings. It wasn't until Sarah arrived that he remembered the bitter taste of unvisited possibilities that had settled on his tongue ever since that night. How could he not, though? When she's looking like sunshine, her perfume's fragance overwhelming his brain and squeezing his heart with memories and yearning. 

"Hey, Sar, happy thanksgiving." JJ gently takes her dish and puts his plan in motion.  

It works, of course. She sees right through him and things pick up an easy rhythm, filled with conversations that for once are not forced, blended personal space and - truly, there's not another word for it - unmistakable chemistry. Like when they just finished eating dessert and JJ goes to the kitchen, bringing back a couple of food containers. Her containers, which she never mentioned, but he knows she brought them because she's a sucker for sweets and will happily take leftovers with her. A little after that, he cracks a joke and his laugh fades into a small grimace towards the end. Sarah has seen this double-blink a few times now, and it translates to 'I need to see an ophtalmologist, but I'm stubborn as hell'. 

"J."

The sound lands on his heart and the affection flowing from her lips inundates all his being, like a warm bath washing his soul. JJ twists his neck to glance at her, bringing the arm that was resting on her chair back to his thigh. It wasn't on purpose, but she missed it's heat all the same. "I have Advil in my purse."

His grateful smile outweighs some of her exasperation, though she doesn't miss the opportunity to provoke him when he gets up. "There's an eye doctor card in there too, just in case you still enjoy seeing." 

"Has anyone ever tell you how hilarious you are? I bet not."

His phone rings before he gets to the other room and he stops below the dining room's arch . "'Sup, Mark." there's a sharp change in his tone, concern all over it.  "Alright, I’ll be right there, thanks for letting me know."

Pope asks when he finishes the call. "Did something happen? You look worried." 

"That was my neighbor, uh..." JJ scratches the back of his neck, "He heard some noises coming from my house, then Poguie showed up at his door very scared. He thinks that some animal must've gotten through his pen and attacked him."

"What? Is he hurt?" Sarah's eyebrow shift down, eyes mirroring his unease.

"Mark said he wasn't bleeding or anything, but he lost a few feathers." 

"Did your neighbor see the attacker?" Cleo asks. "‘Cause there’s a possibility of it not being an animal, you know? Could be a robber."

That was an alternative that Sarah did not need to think about, and for the sake of her blood pressure, she wouldn't go there for now.

"It was probably too dark to see anything." JJ heads to the sideboard instead and grabs his keys. "I’m going there right now."

Pope promptly stands up, the girls right behind him. "Wait, you're not going alone."

Helmet in hand, JJ holds Sarah's gaze when she looks at him before entering her car, and one can't tell who's trying to comfort who.

"Don't go into the house alone." she advised him knowing he'd get there first, voice soft and solid so he would listen.

JJ winks at her, which efficiently soothes her worries.

 

When he makes the last turn to the beach house, Mark is waiting for him outside, Poguie laying down beside his feet.

"I came as fast as I could." he says parking the motorcycle. 

"I checked him again and he's definitely not injured or anything like that." Mark puts Poguie in his arms. "Stayed beside me and the boys the whole time."

JJ glances inside his neighbor's front window and sees Mark's kids looking at them, two pair of green eyes shining bright with curiosity and genuine concern. 

"You good, P?" he caresses the pet's feathers with his fingers. Poguie replies by pressing his head against JJ's hand in approval. "Wanna tell me what happened?"

"Goodnight, Mr. Harris."

A voice comes up from behind them, then long, golden locks get mixed with the duck's plumage. JJ feels her relieved breath on his arm. 

He emerges from the house after a few minutes of searching. "Everything looks exactly the way I left it." 

"That's good news." Cleo notes. 

As soon as he's standing before the pen's door, it hits him. He never locked it before going to Pope's.

The saying ‘you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone' is a half-truth, JJ discovered. He didn't need the last four weeks of readapting his routine to be acutely aware of what was missing, although, yes, the depth of Sarah’s absence still caught him off guard. In the big things and little things as well. Which got him even more distracted than usual. Messing up pancakes and waffles recipes, constantly finishing his to-do list before 5 and now, Poguie got hurt because he forgot his pen unlocked. 

“I’m sleeping outside tonight, maybe I can catch it.” he says, and hopefully the wind masqueraded the lump in his throat as guilt settled on the base of his stomach.

“You're not sleeping outside." the other three retort in unison. 

“My dad just bought a new camera for the restaurant, you can borrow the old one until we find out what happened, I’ll get it for you.” Pope looks back to the sidewalk. “Can I use your bike to get there faster?"

”Yeah, sure, thanks man.”

Sarah approaches him as Pope and Cleo head to the entrance and if his averted eyes weren't enough proof that something was off, all three of his awkward steps back did the trick. 

"He should stay with you tonight. He's too wired to even go outside."

"Sure." 

They get inside and JJ makes coffee. The aroma is a sucker punch, because Sarah's smelled this same beverage many times over the last month, but this one is like going home. Being home.

He places a cup next to her on the couch, but keeps walking and rests his back against the wall.   

"This is so wrong." she says abruptly, dry laugh filling the room. JJ raises his eyes to her like she's about to drop a bomb in front of them. "So wrong."

"I left the door open." hands deep in his pockets, he gestures towards the back of the house with his shoulders. "His door, that's why an animal got in."

"It wasn't your fault, JJ."

You see, that's the thing: It felt every bit like his fault. The door, his inability to get his feelings together, the pained look on Sarah's face. 

"Last week, I forgot the stove burner on twice after making coffee, and I can't even remember the last time I caught a decent wave." 

She stops him there. "No, JJ, I can't have a round two of our conversation at my kitchen. It's not like I forgot how the first one went down."

 "This is..." Sarah inhales, weary hand moving in the air. “It's not how we do things, you and me.” her words get entangled inside her throat, because it’s not. This is so far from the consistency they have and it makes her feel helpless. “Look, I get it, there's John B, and Kiara, and we don't wanna ruin things for the group, but-“ 

"-That's not the problem here, Sarah." he tries, but she's already standing up and cutting him off again.

"Well, then tell me what it is! We were laughing and having fun together during dinner, now you're standing five feet away. What the hell is this? Can't you at least seat on the couch?"

"Yeah, that's exactly it, I can't!" JJ increases his voice, no longer leaning against the wall. "And I can't ask you to give me some time to get over it either, because I don't wanna get over it!"

It was useless. Completely useless to keep going with this. All this fighting, and he still got knocked out. 

"I love you, Sarah. And I hate feeling that I’m committing some sort of crime. I’ve never felt more conflicted in my entire life." he shakes his head, sounding as powerless as she feels. "I also don’t think that being with you should cost our friendships. I mean, it goes both ways, right? I love John B, he's my brother, and I’d never do anything to hurt Kie. We’ve saved each other’s asses a bunch of times, this shit means something. It has to, because my gut is telling me that if I let you walk away I’m gonna regret it.”

Had this gone any differently, his first three words would haunt her in her sleep, all the way to her core. Had this gone any differently, forget sleeping. How could she, when he's saying exactly what she wanted to hear and her heart, her mind, her entire body is craving for more.   

“JJ.” She doesn’t really know what else to say.

Except, I love you too. I want you too. I want to be yours too- and shit, if they burn the bridge for good tonight instead of crossing it...  

“Is your gut enough reason for you to take the risk?”

There’s no predicting how they friends will react to their involvement and it’s important that they’re both perfectly aware of that. Taking two steps forward with a boldness that’s terribly superficial, she holds eye contact with him. Holds her heart in her hand too, but what else is new? 

Turns out that love isn't blind. It has blue eyes and it's looking right back into her soul.

Smooth as usual, his words don’t even stutter. “You’re enough reason.”

And she's already leaning closer, eyes shutting and hands on the way up to find his neck. His lips are warm against hers, incredibly soft and... Still. JJ hasn't started to reciprocate the kiss yet, and Sarah can't help the panic creeping up that maybe he's changed his mind. One, two, three seconds passed, but there was no way she read him wrong-

She misses number four and by the fifth second strong, secure arms slide around her back. His fingers press the other side of her waist and JJ pulls her closer, opening his lips. She breathes him in and proceeds to exhale a 'finally' into his mouth, unable to tell if the hot, melting fire that's reaching her skin is hers or his, because he's suddenly warm under her fingertips as well. They're kissing at last and it's exactly when Pope might come back and barge in on them. Sarah wanted to take her sweet time to move her hands from his biceps to his shoulders, caressing all the curves and dips she could find, then take them back to his neck where her fingers would play lazily with the ends of his hair. But maybe they don't have all that time right now, and she tries to speed up the kiss, not wanting to feel like she didn't enjoy this enough - which was hardly possible considering that from the moment their lips touched he was all she could feel. JJ surges forward firmly but in a gentle manner, placing a hand on the back of her head as his tongue travels deeper in her mouth for a moment, conquering the upper hand and resetting the rhythm to a slower beat. He had other plans, it seems and an exasperate sound from the back of Sarah's throat escapes her lips. However, it doesn't take long for her to realize that not only he read her mind, he's also right about it, because she actually savours the kiss better like this. It's  another - fantastic - confirmation of how well he knows her and how great they work together so she smiles. Her hot, unsteady breath hits his skin and it overpower his senses, causing little shivers to run down his body. Sarah catches that and it only makes her smile harder, their lips almost breaking contact. He makes her feel so many things, it’s beyond amusing to see the way he reacts to her. 

There's no red flag waving in their heads. No red sign. Only glowing, bright green lights. 

-

Their second kiss happens less than 24 hours later, because why the hell not? 

JJ makes it so much more tempting because he's throwing out the trash just when she arrives. 

A fire ignites inside her almost immediately because him initiating the kiss is something else. His mouth taste like black coffee, a little bit of honey and irresistible affection, and she takes everything in, bringing him closer with her hands on his neck. Sarah can't tell if it is just the sun's warmth embracing her or maybe it's the fact that she's finally back here, with no rush or lame excuses to leave that's making her feel so light. She's finally back here simply to love him, to eat whatever he's cooking for them and hear every single one of the terrible duck puns he'll come up with throughout the day. Back to stay, because he loves her too. 

"I want coffee." she whispers against his lips, lips turned upwards with a dizzy smile. 

"My coffee? The one you put a mountain of cream on and still scrunches up your nose every time you drink it?" JJ uses his index finger to put a strand of her hair behind her ear and there was this other thing he was gonna say to tease her some more, but she's so close that makes it difficult to hold any coherent thinking for too long. 

She nods. "Hell yes."

-

There's a lot going on New Year's Eve. They're combining the traditional festivities with a surprise graduation party for Pope, who graduates in ten days. Sarah offered to buy the extra decorations since she would be the one he'd be the least suspicious of. It was naturally a very busy day and everyone was dedicated to get the beach ready for the parties, so it was somewhat a safe bet that her absence would go by unnoticed. Besides, one heads up text from Cleo and she'd be just fine. 

She was standing up with one hand on her hip, hair in a bun and boxes and boxes of old pictures of her friend in front of her. She had the job to choose the ones she'd find to be the cutest among them.  - which was terribly hard to do, by the way. Baby Pope and kid Pope were freaking adorable.

"Well, look who we have here." she's startled by the sudden company, but this voice and perfume are unmistakable, relaxing just a beat later. 

He walks over, chin tilting curiously towards the boxes before he gets to her and buries his face on her neck, lips lightly touching her skin. "You smell nice." JJ's voice come out muffled and her grin stretches. 

"Thanks," she turns to look at him. "it's old pictures dust."     

He chuckles and Sarah admires every bit of that sound. Then he sees the picture she's holding - Pope's wearing the classic cap and gown combo for his kindergarten graduation, smiling to the camera with two front teeth missing - and a huge grin takes over his face. "This is so adorable. Let me take a pic for future purposes." JJ winks at her and grabs his phone inside his jeans pocket that's when she realizes his other hand is busy holding a small gift box. 

"What's this?"

"Uh," he looks at the box for a second, then goes back to the phone. "just a lil' something for our graduate." 

A welcome warmth fills her chest as her lips draw back with a genuine smile. Talk about cuteness. 

"That's very sweet of you." she caresses his ear lobe with her fingers. "What'd you get him?"

"A tie. He's not a real lawyer if he doesn't have one." And the moment is gone. 

Shaking her head, Sarah asks another thing, "Hey, what are you wearing tonight?"

He puts the phone back on his pocket and looks down. "How about this in different colors?" 

This was an old, faded emerald sleeveless t-shirt with black shorts that had holes in it. This definitely had to be a joke. It's not like what he wore mattered, but he has a bunch of brand new clothes on his wardrobe and doesn't even look at their direction. 

"Over my dead body." she raises her eyebrows for emphasis and JJ laughs, getting closer. 

"I'm just messing with you. I'll wear something nice, alright?" he opens the gift box and holds the tie above his neck. "Want me to borrow the tie? I could borrow the tie."

She holds out her hand, there's an attempt to keep her expression neutral, but it's still accompanied by some mischievousness glowing in her eyes. "May I?"

He silently gives her the piece of cloth, equally puzzled and intrigued. 

It's a very beautiful tie, admittedly. Sarah casually puts it around his neck and ends the distance between them, lips touching his and JJ is oh-so glad to borrow the tie that he needs a few seconds to control his smile. She leads her hands to his face, then his hair as he deepens the kiss, one hand on her cheek. JJ sucked her lower lip smoothly, causing her pulse to lose the little pace it still had and waves of delight ran down her spine. Slowly and purposefully, they kissed and kissed until every bit of air evaporated from their lungs. 

Opening her eyes and finding his still closed brought a smiled to her face that was full with all the things he made her feel, things that caused her heart to become three times bigger inside her ribcage. He leaned in to press his forehead against hers and placed a kiss on the tip of her nose, heavy breaths hitting her chin. "Do you need-" he had to clear his throat to ease the raggedness of his voice. "Do you need help with these pics?"

The mention of the pictures reset her system and she pulled back to glance at the boxes. Not only she didn't need assistance, that'd also be the last thing he'd offer her. 

"You should go." shaking her head, she slides her hands to his shoulders and squeezes it. "Pope can't notice the two of us missing." 

"I'll put this on his bed." he places the tie back in the box, but Sarah holds his elbow as he starts leaving. 

"I can do it." 

There's a little urgency on her voice which makes JJ furrow his eyebrows in confusion. The thing is, if he made a quick stop for a goodbye kiss on his way back, and he would, Sarah's not sure she'd let him go, so it's better to not take any chances. It's a good thing he doesn't ask anything because he surely wouldn't let she live this one down. 

Almost the entire town reunites by the pier to watch the fireworks. JJ had his hands full all day. First, he helped Heyward with a few deliveries during the morning, then Mike called saying he'd broken a foot plus a few of his employees were down with the flu so The Wreck, being of of the powerhouse of Outer Banks, needed all hands on deck. 

Sarah stopped by to help after lunch, everything regarding Pope's surprise had been dutifully organized. JJ would wink at her whenever their paths crossed and she'd make sure he drank a glass of water every time she had a jar in hands. The sun was out and shinning today and he’s always with a task to accomplish so someone needed to remind him to slow down a little bit. 

The day went by in a blink of a eye, which was no surprise given the occasion. You could count every particle of sand, but you couldn’t count the tourists.

Joining everybody down the beach, she stared at the many stars and all that colorful combustion that followed the infamous countdown. Whezzie used to hate this kind of thing. Ever since forever, she usually avoided celebrations with fireworks. What Sarah wouldn’t do hear her sister’s complaints right now. Of how her ears would start bleeding at any time and how the whole thing was hardly entertaining. She missed her so much. She prayed to God that it was only a matter of time until her little girl was back on her side. 

In the midst of bittersweet memories, she almost missed the outlier amongst the pyrotechnics. It was pretty hard to get any decent shape out of the poorly timed explosions, but she saw that just fine. Very high in the dark sky, a culmination of golden dots approaching each other to form the shape of the a crown, then fading away.  A crown, as in royalty. As in princess. Three times. Sarah’s heart skipped a beat and proceeded to pulse faster than she could keep up. The corner of her lips turned upwards so greatly that her vision got a little compromised. She just couldn’t look away. 

Once the show was over, she tilted her head to the side, guiding her eyes towards the area where they usually managed the fireworks. It wasn’t hard to spot JJ, and he even made it easier by already having his eyes on her. No wonder he was so interested in being there. A loose, satisfied smirk that said ‘mission accomplished’ found its way on his face, which stretched the fluttery sensation on Sarah’s stomach. Boy, she loved him. So much so, that it took everything in her to stay put on the sand and not walk towards him to empty both their lungs with a kiss. 


Responsibility sobered her up, though. Keeping their relationship a secret has been incredibly challenging because every other second JJ has the audacity to maker her love him more, but it’s unquestionably the best option. There’s no worse scenario than John B and Kiara finding out about their relationship through someone else and that just cannot happen. However, she’s one hundred percent sure that Cleo and Pope know and are simply waiting for her and JJ to verbally tell them. 

"Hey, J!"

"'Sup?"  JJ’s not looking at him because he’s grabbing a bottle of champagne inside the fridge, so Pope takes advantage of that and wears his graduation gift before his friend closes the door. 

"I found this on my bed. I'm not sure if I should say thank you or if you were just messing with me."

JJ glances back to find Pope wearing the tie, eyebrows a little furrowed because he's genuinely conflicted.

"Now, that's what I'm talking about! Looking like a lawyer already." he gives Pope a side hug, then lowers his tone. "Jokes aside man, I'm super happy for you. Making all of us proud going after your dreams and shit."

Pope repeats the gesture by putting his arm around JJ's shoulder and uses the proximity to reassure his friend of something. "I want you to be happy too, I hope you know that."

And JJ knows that he means a thousand other things as well, but he’s being sensitive not mentioning them because it could bring some mixed-feelings to a night that only calls for celebration. For that, JJ can only feel grateful. 

"Thanks, bro."

There’s a comfortable moment of silence, then Pope adds, "You're crazy if you think I'm not gonna use this." 

"Damn straight you are, that's why I bought it. Be looking fly as hell."

They’re laughing and everything feels simple in a refreshing way. 

When the clock hit 3 a.m., JJ offered to finish cleaning for Mike and Anna given how exhausted they were with his injury and understaffing. They had to be back at 6 to open the restaurant again.

The look of pure relief that crossed the couples’ eyes demonstrated the complete 180 on their relationship with the young man. There was a lot of hard work involved from both parts, but at some point during the three years he dated Kiara, resentment shifted into respect. 

There was little left to do now, but they had to be back at 6 to open the restaurant again, so every extra minute of rest was deeply appreciated. Sarah did the remaining dishes, then she and JJ cleaned the kitchen floor together. 

He was finishing mopping the entrance when she headed outside, cold breeze hitting her face as brown eyes observed the big, heavy waves hanging over the beach. Resting her arms on the dock structure, this past year' resolutions began to flood her mind, which brought a funny little smile to her lips. She got a duck, a tattoo, a job, all undoubtedly wonderful achievements. Then there's JJ, who has a whole category of his own. It feels like she's been in love with him for so much longer - but honestly, all that matters now is that she surely doesn't wanna stop.   

He mirrors her position a while later, glancing at the waves. If rain wasn't on its way, he'd definitely get his board for some new year surfing. 

"I was talking to Pope earlier and he gave me this look, like 'I know what's up' look." 

Sarah smirks at him. "A look, huh? Did he do anything else?" 

"He said he wants me to be happy." 

"Are you?" 

She turned her head to give him undivided attention, knowing this is an honest question just as much as it is a loaded one. JJ moves his mandible from side to side as blue eyes navigate all over her features, memorising and being mesmerized by every detail. It's not like he needed to think, though; it's an yes, faster than a heartbeat. He's happy like he hasn't been in a very long time, happy because the woman next to him loves him with the same intensity he loves her, happy to be in a good place with himself to do things right for himself and for his people, happy that there are 365 brand new days ahead and he gets to share them all with Sarah. He takes his thumb to her lower lip, caressing it with no rush, and after that a finger slides down to trace the line of her jaw. One side of his lips tilts to the side because it's such a beautiful path, so delicate and freaking perfect, which he finishes by putting his hand over her tattoo. 

"I thought the fireworks spoke for themselves, but-" 

His little joke reminds her that she needs to breathe - which she wasn't - and a droplet of rain hitting her forehead reminds her that they're about to have some company - which she couldn't care less. Sarah gets closer and puts her arms around his waist, smiling. "-That was amazing, I loved it." but her words still feel insufficient and only one thing fills the gap. "I love you, JJ." 

"Yeah, I’m happy."

Raspy voice because it’s late and they’re very tired, but his eyes remain looking at her like she’s the most breathtaking thing he’s even seen. The drizzle gains force and JJ heads inside, not to grab their things and end the night as she first assumed, but to close the windows and turn up the radio volume a little. When he comes back, one of his hands lift her own while the other sneakily spins her by the waist. 

Pulling her close, he looks up. "You don't mind the water, do ya?"

"The only thing bothering me right now is the fact that you haven't kissed me yet." his gaze dropped to her mouth and her heart was racing already. 

"Oh," he does another twist and a chuckle escapes her lips. "Well, your wish is my command, princess."

JJ lowers his head slowly, but the second Sarah closes her eyes, expecting a soft touch, he crashes their mouths together and she has to put a hand on his biceps to steady herself. A laugh trespasses her chest and reaches his, and if that wasn't enough indication of her approval, she wraps both arms around his neck, hugging him as tightly as she manages.

If there's a better way to kick-off their year, they're not aware. 

JJ starts walking backwards - four messy steps and then one of his hands leave her back. Sarah's too busy to discover what he's up to, but suddenly, warm water is colliding against her skin and in a much faster rhythm. It's the beach shower, she learns, just as the water's temperature begin to change and decrease. 

She definitely doesn't mind it. Doesn’t mind that she’s ten seconds away from being completely soaked. And the heat contrast between her cold body and his hot mouth is certainly welcome. Everything coming from him is welcome. From fresh meals and fruits that he offers her to the soul-buzzing kisses - just like this one he's giving her right now -  that make her question the whole concept of gravity, because she's flying high and falling harder for him every passing second. 

From his doorstep to this moment, JJ's never wavered in catching her.