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Noise.

Pope isn’t like the rest of the pogues. They’re always on, always ready to choose adventure at the drop of a hat. They can flick chaos on as easily as a light switch.

Pope needs a notice of 5-7 business days if they’re going to do something dangerous, so he can make a pro-con list, a thorough spreadsheet, and a mental catalogue of everything that could possibly go wrong. He needs more than that if they’re crossing the line from “dangerous” to “legal grey area.” Don’t get him started on the pogue ideas that are in the category labeled definitely illegal, they have whole laws about this sort of thing guys, JJ where did you get that dynamite—

Anyway.

Sometimes it’s all too much for him.

And sometimes it’s just the noise coming at him from all sides, the way he’s pulled in all directions. He thinks that Kie, she comes closest to getting it, because her parents have their mansion and their expectations.

Except Kie doesn’t feel that pull. She just sets it aside and parties hard with the rest of them, goes along with every wild John B idea and most off JJ’s, too. It’s easier for her, somehow, to drown out all the noise and just roll a joint and join the family she chose.

But Pope?

Pope loves in all directions, and it’s drowning him. He loves his parents. He really, really fucking does. Most kids his age are embarrassed about their parents, or fighting their parents (Kie), or, let’s be honest, have some pretty shitty parents (John B and JJ are the co-founders of the Shit Dad Club). But Pope fucking loves them, and it’s going to destroy him if he disappoints them. They’ve sacrificed so much, and they’ve done it for him.

But then there’s the pogues. They’re Pope’s freaking heartbeat. He doesn’t know who he would be without John B’s wide-eyed, hare-brained ideas and relentless optimism, even when shit is bad. Or without Kie’s strength, the ferocity she brings to everything, the way she cares, the way she sees the world, and not just their little world, but the way she cares about things that are larger than them, everything from turtle habitats to Jerry, the one homeless vagrant who she always smuggles a plate from the Wreck. Or Sarah, their newest addition, who brings the best roasts of John B he’s ever heard, a laugh that makes their grimmest moments lighter, and an uncanny ability to get away with just about anything.

And JJ. JJ’s vivid aliveness. The way his eyes brighten when he realizes Pope is coming along with their stupid idea, even without that 5-7 business day notice he would really, really like.

He would be nothing without them.

And yet there’s constant expectation from all of them, and constant need from all of them, and on nights like tonight—with both his parents on his ass about the next scholarship opportunity, and John B giving disappointed puppy-dog eyes because he really needs someone to help with the memorial being planned for his dad, and Kie still floundering and fighting with her parents and needing someone to talk to late at night, and—

It’s all too much.

He loves them desperately, and it’s all too much.

So that’s how he ends up slamming his laptop shut, climbing through his window (because going out through his house would involve passing both his parents, which would involve questions, which Pope cannot do right now), and nearly breaking his ankle as he does.

He has no idea, truly, how JJ makes this look so easy, especially considering that JJ usually climbs through his window right after he’s had the shit beat out of him by Luke or some kooks or whoever is currently using JJ as their personal punching bag.

Pope swears under his breath, both at the thought of someone putting hands on JJ and at the shooting pain in his ankle. He can’t imagine talking to anyone, not even most of the pogues, when his brain is buzzing like this, but he imagines he could talk to JJ.

How do you make it look easy? He would ask, and it wouldn’t just be about that splendid little leap JJ does down from Pope’s window.

JJ would tip back his head and laugh, eyes bright but knowing. It’s all that time running from cops, he’d probably joke, or maybe quote dodgeball and say aim for the bushes, even though Pope has never personally watched dodgeball, there are no bushes under his window, and the reference has never really made any sense to him anyway.

John B and JJ quote it all the time, though, to each other and to everyone else.

Tonight, Pope doesn’t really have a plan to go and look for JJ. Doesn’t have a plan, period, because his head is too loud and his future is too hazy and he should have it all sorted out by now but he doesn’t, and he should know what he wants, he should have a five year plan and a failsafe, and a failsafe for that, but all he can think of, the only thing that seems steady is—

JJ.

So that’s how Pope finds himself walking—slowly, because of that damn ankle—towards the mechanic shop where JJ is working late tonight. Saving for a new surf board, or maybe a new bike, Pope isn’t sure which. Maybe both.

It’s strange, that JJ is the constant here. JJ, who won’t be tied down by things like plans or college or school or, you know, laws. But when Pope thinks five years into the future, he sees JJ here, JJ happy.

JJ on the outer banks, sitting in the hot tub with John B, fixing boats, maybe even having his own shop someday. JJ surfing every day after work. JJ with his own place, somewhere small and a little messy but his.

The thought makes Pope’s throat swell shut a little. The thought of JJ happy and free and here and home.

Pope isn’t sure what home is supposed to be, or where he’s supposed to make it, and he’s suddenly vividly, stupidly jealous that JJ knows what his future will look like. Of imagining that future and imagining himself not in it, because Pope picked college, and whatever comes after, and that’s so far from JJ, so far from home

“Pope?” JJ’s all the way at the end of the block, the glow of the shop lights illuminating him from behind, his hair a golden halo around his head. “That you, man?”

Pope limps forward a little faster. The buzzing isn’t quite so loud, now.

It’s a different, warmer sort of noise here—the rumble of engines and the hum of voices and the occasional clank of a wrench. Perhaps Pope only associates those noises with safety because he associates them with JJ.

JJ cocks his head at Pope. “What’s up, bro? You okay?”

“Um,” Pope says. “Yea? Sure. I’m great. Just needed a walk.”

The look on JJ’s face is warm and affectionate and knowing. “Sure, bro,” he says. “I’m just finishing up on the Jupiter. Give me a hand?”

Pope does, JJ nudging him in the right direction when Pope isn’t sure exactly what he should be doing, because JJ can look at any motor and read it like a book. Pope hasn’t ever been able to do that so innately.

They’re done in about twenty minutes, and JJ wipes a bit of motor oil off his hands with a rag and tosses it aside. “I’m out, Mirez,” he calls over his shoulder.

The boss, a short, squat man who has said all of two words in the time Pope’s known him, tips his chin at JJ.

Pope loves seeing him here, in this place where people treat him as an equal, as someone with skills to respect and value. That’s thin on the ground in other places, especially on figure eight, but even on the cut, sometimes. Here, being a Maybank is something useful—especially since JJ has to be the first in a long line of Maybank men who hasn’t showed up hungover to his job. It’s a job he cares about, maybe for the first time in his life.

“JJ,” Pope says as they set off down the block, JJ matching him stride for stride. “I don’t want to go home.”

“Course not, bro,” JJ says easily. He’s looking straight ahead, his face cast in the half-light of the flickering streetlights. “We’re going fishin.”

“We are?”

“We are,” JJ confirms cheerfully. “Don’t you know? Kie says Mercury is in retro-something, so that means all the fish are biting.”

“I…I don’t think that the two are related,” Pope says faintly, but then shakes his head. “You know what? We’re not the astrology bitches.”

“Right.” JJ slings an arm across Pope’s shoulders. “And who are we to question the stars when they tell us it’s time to go fishing?”

They take a rickety old fishing boat that Luke used back in his smuggling days, and JJ swears it still runs, but honestly, tonight? Pope doesn’t care if they get stranded out in the marsh somewhere where it’s quiet.

They don’t get stranded, exactly, but JJ does kill the engine and set his pole gently aside and flop down on the deck. He pats the boat next to him, and Pope joins him, resting his head back on his arms.

“Stars said we had to go fishing, huh?” Pope chances a glance over at him.

“Yea, bro,” JJ says. His voice is soft, a more subdued version of itself. “You seemed like you were in your head,” he adds finally. “This usually clears it.”

Pope lets out a long breath.

Listens to all the silence around them.

There’s no scholarship applications out here. No one needs anything from him. No one wants him to be something. No one is asking him who he is, or what he wants, or who he’s going to be.

There’s just the whisper of the waves against the fishing boat, and the soft sound of JJ’s inhale and exhale, and the occasional distant croak of a spring peeper.

Pope scoots over so he’s closer to JJ, and JJ moves his arm so that Pope’s head can rest on his shoulder.

“JJ,” he says finally. “How did you know?”

“Shit, man,” JJ says, laughter behind his voice. “You came stomping down the street like you had a whole nest of hornets after you. ‘Cept you’re smart enough not to piss off a whole nest of hornets, so I figured the buzzing was coming from inside the house, so to speak.”

Laughter bubbles up from Pope’s chest, and he can feel it in JJ’s body, too, so he leans into it.

Because despite the chaos that is JJ Maybank, he is also, somehow, Pope’s steadiness. He is also, somehow, the one that can see when Pope’s about to fly off the handle and bring him back down to earth.

“Yea,” Pope says when they’re settled again.

JJ’s fingers, always busy, toy with Pope’s hair, wrapping a curl around his pinky. “You gonna be okay?” he asks.

“When I go to the mainland for school,” Pope says. “You won’t forget me.”

JJ starts to laugh, but when Pope doesn’t, he goes still and then props himself up on his elbow, looks down at Pope. “You’re serious?” he shakes his head once. “Pope Heyward, for being the smartest man I ever met, you’re a dumbass.”

“So you won’t,” Pope pushes.

JJ shoves him playfully. “No,” he says. The word doesn’t come out playful, though. It comes out soft and serious. “I’ll never forget you as long as I live.”

Pope sucks in a breath. “You promise?”

“Yea,” JJ says. “I promise.”

Silence hangs for a moment, and then JJ looks down at him again.

They’re so close they’re almost touching.

“Besides,” JJ says, and he sounds so confident now that Pope wants to cling to that assurance. “After school is done? You’ll come back to us. You’ll come back home.”

“Yea,” Pope says, letting his head fall back on JJ’s shoulder again.

Somehow, when JJ said it, everything clicks into place for Pope. Or at least the important things do. He doesn’t know what the next five years, or the next 5-7 business days, or whatever the fuck else will bring. Doesn’t know how far the path will take him.

But he does know that JJ’s right, knows it in his bones.

No matter what—

At the end of it, he’ll always come back home to JJ.