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Gold.

In this one, JJ takes care of Pope.

Pope’s dad hasn’t ever hurt him, not like JJ’s dad has hurt him. Not even the way Big John hurts John B every time he disappears for weeks or screams at John B to stop distracting him with all that noise. Not even the way Kie’s kook parents hurt her when they tell her that the people she loves the most are trash.

Usually, his pogues are coming to him when they’re hurt, or all piling into the chateau on the nights Big John isn’t there, which are more often than not.

But tonight, late in the summer when they’re all sixteen, Pope got off work late. He’s working a second job, because his dad has impressed in him that college won’t happen if he doesn’t start hustling his ass yesterday, and he’s way too far on figure eight to be safe after nightfall. And tonight, he got off too late to make it home before kooks are drunk and spoiling for a fight.

The light of the sun is still gold at the edge of the water, the last rays disappearing, when the kooks find him outside his dad’s truck.

He isn’t even sure which asshole rich kids are backing up Topper, and it doesn’t matter. He fights, because he’s Pope, because his dad didn’t raise a quitter, because he’s a pogue. But six to one odds aren’t great, and when they’re done with him he’s got a fresh black eye and blood streaming from a gash in his cheek and a maybe-broken nose. His ribs ache, too.

So.

So he doesn’t go home.

More accurately, he doesn’t stay there long enough for them to see him.

He parks the truck in front of his parent’s house, like the dutiful son that he is, places the car keys on their hook, and then slips out the back door without waking either of them.

They’d fuss too much. His mom would worry and baby him, his dad would swear and yell and lecture him about being safe at night, even though it just meant that he cared, that he was scared it would be worse next time.

Pope’s hand hesitates on his phone. He could call John B or Kie. Kie would come drive him, John B too. But Kie would rage and want to call the cops, because she still holds onto a very naïve belief that there are some cops who would be fair, and John B is really going through it because Big John has been gone six weeks this time, the longest he’s ever been absent.

So he calls JJ.

JJ answers after one ring. “Pope,” he says cheerfully. There’s noise in the background of the call, the sound of a motor and the clank of machinery. “What’s up, my boy?”

“Where are you?” Pope asks faintly. He pinches the bridge of the nose, but the bleeding hasn’t stopped, and he pinched his nose all the way home, just like he was supposed to. He did everything he was supposed to, followed all the rules, worked his ass off, and the blood won’t stop and it’s not fucking fair—

“Where are you?” JJ’s voice is suddenly uncharacteristically quiet, serious in a way that sends a shiver down Pope’s spine. “I’m coming to get you.”

“I’m—what?” Pope says. “I’m at home. Well, leaving. I’m walking your way.”

“Not at home,” JJ says. “Working at the mechanic’s off of eighth street? You know, the guys who also sell weed on the side? Pay’s good. But he’ll let me off. I fixed some kook truck he didn’t know what to do with, so he owes me.” There’s a brief pause, and then a man’s voice grumbling, and JJ’s yelling back, and then a small clatter, and JJ’s back. “Like I said,” JJ continues. “He’s fine with it.”

Fine by the JJ Maybank definition is certainly different than anyone else’s, but Pope isn’t in the position to argue.

“You got a car?” he asks faintly.

“You can ride on the back of my bike,” JJ says. “Stay on the phone with me, okay? You got a piece? Or a knife? Or something?”

Pope hasn’t said that he’s hurt, hasn’t said anything about why he called, but JJ can just feel that shit. It’s annoying, the way he always knows Pope in a way Pope isn’t even sure he knows himself. It’s like JJ soaks up what they’re feeling just by loving them. He’s like that with all the pogues, dumbass though he may be.

Pope’s injured cheek flares in pain with the smile tugging at his mouth.

“I’m okay,” Pope says. “M’back on the cut. I’ll be fine.”

“Kooks,” JJ says.

There’s murder in his voice.

“I’m okay,” Pope repeats.

“Don’t lie to a Maybank, Pope,” JJ says cheerfully. “We are the best liars there is, and we know one when we hear it.”

JJ isn’t a liar, though. Not in the way that matters.

The only time he’s a liar is when he’s freshly bruised and pretending he’s okay, or when yet another teacher or friend’s parent or cop or other grownup looks at him and calls him trash, and he pretends like he can laugh it off. Pretends like it doesn’t matter to him, like he doesn’t care what they say or what they think of him, pretends like he doesn’t think it’s true. That’s when he’s a liar.

That’s the only time.

He’s honest, all the other times. In all the ways that matters. He’s honest about how much he loves them all, about who he is, about what he wants and about what brings him joy. He has the most honest joy of anyone Pope’s ever known.

“Pope,” JJ says sharply. “Pope, you went silent on me. You with me, Dr. Spock?”

“I’m with you,” Pope says.

The roar of JJ’s bike cuts off any other conversation, but it’s a comfortable sound, loud in a way that dulls the rest of it, and JJ is there within ten minutes.

He kicks out the kickstand in his bike and leaps off so fast he almost trips. His eyes are dangerous beneath the flickering, dull gold light of the streetlamp. “Bro,” he says softly. “Who.”

Pope shakes his head. “Doesn’t matter,” he says quietly. “Can we—can we go?”

JJ nods once, and then offers Pope a hand onto his bike. “John B’s working another overnight to make rent,” he says quietly. “We can go to the chateau.”

They arrive at the chateau less than ten minutes later, because JJ fears neither god nor man and he drives like it, and then JJ is pulling him inside.

“Sit,” JJ says, uncharacteristically firm, and Pope does.

JJ has the first aid kit in hand a moment later, like this is a routine he is used to, and Pope’s chest aches with how often JJ and John B are here patching each other up. How those two have so little, how they have had to learn to care for themselves because their dads are shit and the cops and teachers are shit, and it’s not fair. It’s never been fucking fair.

“Hey,” JJ says softly. “Look at me. I gotta see that pretty face of yours, Pope.”

Pope lifts his head, ignoring the strange twist in his stomach at the word pretty. “Nose,” he says vaguely. “Do you think it’s broken?”

JJ takes Pope’s jaw in one gentle hand, his thumb ring cool where it touches Pope’s skin. JJ tilts Pope’s head to the side for a moment. “Not broken,” he says a moment later.

JJ would know. His has been broken at least four separate times, though maybe more, when he was little, before Pope and John B and Kie knew him. Those are the empty years, the ones he says he can’t remember anything about, and Pope thinks that might be true, too.

That JJ’s brain is protecting him from some things he shouldn’t have to remember. He hopes it’s true. Hopes JJ doesn’t know where all those early scars came from.

“Keep your hand on your nose, okay?” JJ says gently. “Sometimes it just takes some time for it to stop. Give it another ten minutes, alright? I’m gonna clean the blood off your face.”

JJ’s hands are always moving, always busy, twirling the rings he wears or fiddling with one of John B’s bandanas, or running through his own hair, or tossing a beer can at one of them, or rolling a joint. But now he moves slowly, like he knows that Pope is still jumpy, like he has experience being too fragile for touch.

He has a washcloth and warm water, and he dabs the blood from Pope’s lip first, and then the curve of his jaw, and then his brow. “That okay, bro?” he asks.

Pope has to bite back the confession he always feels like making when he’s this fragile, that thing beneath his rib cage that is going to say stop calling me bro and kiss me one of these days. He’s going to ruin their friendship with it one of these days, chase JJ away and destroy this thing they have, but it won’t be today. It won’t. Pope holds on tight to the thought instead, and just nods yes at JJ.

JJ takes Pope’s face in one hand again, his touch steady and sure. “The nose still bleeding?”

Pope removes his fingers slowly.

JJ dabs at the blood beneath his nose, his face inches from Pope as he examines it. “Okay,” he says. “Be careful with it, alright? Sometimes if you move too fast after a bad one it starts up again. You might wake up tomorrow with some blood on the pillow, but don’t let it freak you out, okay? Bloody noses ain’t hard to heal from.”

He says it so casually, passes on this knowledge that he has from experience, and it jabs Pope’s heart all the same.

He hates how well-versed JJ is at this. Hates how accustomed JJ is to pain.

Is in awe of how JJ takes all that pain and uses it to make Pope feel better.

“Jayje,” Pope says.

It’s there again, at the tip of his tongue, the feral thing in his chest that wants to say kiss me.

JJ pauses, his eyes roving over Pope’s face.

“Thanks.” That’s all Pope gets out before his throat closes up.

“Yea, bro,” JJ says brightly. He grins down at Pope, who is sitting on the couch in John B’s living room. “Of course. Alright. Now. Ice pack for that eye. You’ve got yourself quite a shiner, Popey boy.”

He disappears into the kitchen and reappears with two, one small one wrapped in a towel, which he presses over Pope’s eye, and a larger one.

“Hold that there,” he orders.

“What’s that for?” Pope gestures to the longer ice pack in JJ’s hands.

“Ribs,” JJ answers without looking up. He’s unwinding some cloth bandage wrap, his fingers sure and practiced.

“How did—no,” Pope says. “Those are fine.”

“Sure are,” JJ says. “And you’ll be right as rain in no time. But you took a couple o’ kicks to them, bro. Anyone can see that.”

That’s patently false, but JJ doesn’t know that, hasn’t realized yet that not everyone is so used to patching up ribs with fucking footprints on them. John B would know, and JJ would know, and, again, it’s because they’re part of the Shitty Dads Club.

Pope wants to scream. Pope is going to get better at fighting so he can beat the shit out of Luke Maybank. Pope is going to tell JJ he loves him.

“Shirt on or off?” JJ asks, holding up the bandages.

Pope’s face heats. “Off, I guess,” he says finally.

JJ mmms in approval. “Better that way,” he says, and then the side of his brain that makes everything dirty catches up with him, and he beams so brightly at Pope it’s like the whole room is suddenly bright sunlit gold. “I’ll get you out of your clothes one way or another.”

“Shut up,” Pope grumbles at him, discarding his shirt next to the couch.

JJ’s eyes sober immediately, his eyes flicking up and down Pope’s bare chest. “Pope,” he says. “Was it Topper?”

Pope hesitates, and that’s answer enough.

“Okay,” JJ says quietly.

There’s a weight to the way he says it, not his usual impulsive fire, and somehow that scares Pope more. Like JJ has decided on something in that sharp, unshakable way he gets, when nothing, not hurricanes or laws or gods or even Kiara Carrera can stop him.

“Arms up,” JJ says, and then he wraps Pope’s ribs securely, his hands gentle but sure, leaving the ice pack over the worst of the bruising. “You think you can sleep like that, bro? I’ll get you a blanket.”

Pope nods gratefully, settles back on the couch. He’s tired now, half asleep by the time JJ reappears with a sheet and a fleece blanket and tucks them over Pope.

JJ flicks off the light and then pauses.

Pope can feel him there in the dark, feel the warmth of him, and he thinks for one wild moment that maybe JJ already knows what Pope is always on the brink of saying. Because JJ knows him. Because JJ knows when he’s manic about a test or when he’s going to have a breakdown if he doesn’t get on the HMS Pogue and go fishing. Because JJ knew Pope was hurt just from the sound of his voice over the phone.

JJ places a hand on Pope’s forehead, so gentle his hand is just brushing Pope’s hair. “I’ll be back in a bit, bro,” he says softly. “Text me if you need anything. There’s Tylenol on the table, and water. I’ll be back soon.”

Pope doesn’t have the energy to ask him where he’s going, though he does have the presence-of-mind not to beg him to stay.

He’s asleep when JJ comes back at three am, and he never finds out, later, that John B got an SOS text at work and left in the middle of his shift, that JJ and John B together took the van and Big John’s baseball bat and wrecked some kook’s cars and a few kook faces, one by one by one.

But he must know, somewhere deep in his subconscious, when JJ returns, John B in tow, because he settles deeper into sleep, resting at last.

They clean each other up, John B and JJ, their voices low in the bathroom as they wipe away blood and press ice packs to bruises and bandage each other the way they always have.

John B takes the bed, and JJ hesitates and then settles on the pullout next to Pope, pulling Pope against his chest, slowly so that Pope won’t wake and won’t hurt and won’t panic.

Pope wakes first the next morning, the sun slanting its gold rays across JJ’s face. His blond hair is messy and there’s a bruise on his jaw that Pope didn’t notice last night, and Pope thinks in that devastatingly hopeful way, that maybe, maybe

This is how JJ says I love you, too.