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     JJ can still remember the day he met Pope Heyward. They weren’t anything back then, not even friends, just strangers-- acquaintances , at most. Two youthful, innocent 6-year-olds, introduced by their mutual best friend, John B. They’d been in recess, JJ in a competition of who could swing the highest on the swingset with some other nameless first-graders and Pope sitting at a bench, reading a book that was probably much too advanced for his age. A lightbulb had flickered to life over John B’s head, and he had scrambled away to drag Pope away from his book and towards the swingset.

“JJ, come here!” He’d called, reaching a grubby little hand out to grasp onto one of the chains of JJ’s swing. JJ had nearly toppled over and into the sand below, but he’d managed to steady himself.

“What! I was winning, John B!” He had cried, pouting with his sunburnt arms crossed over his chest. Pope’s gaze had been flicking from one boy to another, appropriately puzzled.

“This is Pope! Pope, this is JJ!” John B had stuck a hand onto both boys’ shoulders and pushed them closer together.

“Hi.”

“Hi, Poop.”

“It 's Pope.”

“What?”

“It 's Pope .”

JJ had grinned, all boyish and playful, and Pope hadn’t found it in himself to be angry at him.

“I know, I was just messin’ with you. Wanna swing with me?”



~~~~~



     “Up you go, c’mon,” Pope murmured with a strained grunt, tugging on JJ’s arm, who groaned into the pillow in response.

“No.”

“JJ, if we keep skipping we’re gonna get in trouble. More trouble we’re already in.” JJ yanked his arm back, taking the opportunity to weasel back under the covers. Pope ripped them off the couch entirely, letting them slide onto the floor. JJ gaped up at him.

“How could you,” he muttered in a voice rough from sleep. Pope rolled his eyes and grabbed JJ by the shoulders, pulling him into a sitting position.

“Quit being a drama queen, Kie and John B are waiting in the car.” JJ looked devastated. “We have Pop-Tarts.” Nevermind.

To no one’s surprise, JJ fell asleep again on their way to school, head lolling back and forth against the window and torso twisted to the side in what seemed to be an incredibly uncomfortable position. This kid could fall asleep absolutely anywhere.

Pope was sitting beside him, checking his backpack for the fourth time to make sure he’d grabbed everything. 

JJ was a bold man, it was something he’d inherited from both his father and mother, but good lord was he boldest when, option one; drunk, or option two; sleepy.

Barely conscious, he shifted and turned to lay against Pope’s shoulder, head nuzzling into the crook of his neck. Pope awkwardly patted the top of his head.

“JJ.”

“Hmm?”

“Are you drooling?”

The response came in an indecipherable mutter, and Pope smiled.

“Sorry, what? I couldn’t catch that.” JJ frowned into Pope’s neck, wrapping both arms around Pope’s right one.

“Shut.”

“We’ve moved onto one-word sentences. That’s progress.” Their very captivating conversation was interrupted by John B in the driver’s seat as the van came to a halt.

“We’re here. Hurry up, we’re already late as it is.”

JJ groaned as Pope peeled himself from the former’s arms and zipped his backpack closed. JJ, unsurprisingly, fell a boneless heap into the now empty seats. Kie, from where she stood outside the van, poked his cheek a couple of times.

Up , JJ-- I’m not being any later because of you.” Seeing him begin to sit up, Kie turned and made a bee-line towards the building alongside Pope.

“Rude.” 

And as JJ forced himself up and out of the comfortable, worn-down seat, he noticed Pope reach for Kie’s hand, fingers interlocking.

There was a dull prickle deep in his chest.



~~~~~



     It started out as just that, a prickle. Nothing more than a mildly annoying, barely-there sharpness somewhere in his chest. He didn’t think much of it, given it rarely ever appeared and wasn’t painful enough to be something serious.

Sometimes it was accompanied by a quick, shallow cough. But nothing more. He could live with this. He simply figured it was all the alcohol and weed paired with his shitty, prone-to-lung-cancer genetics finally catching up to him.

Was he alarmed that it was happening so soon? No . But JJ had never been the brightest, anyway.

“JJ. Bonfire tonight?” John B asked as he made his way to the kitchen, probably to scavenge the fridge for any mozzarella sticks. JJ tossed his vape up into the air before catching it again and repeating the motion. 

“Yeah, sure. Kie and JJ going?”

“Yep.” John B swung the freezer open, pulling out a nearly empty bag. JJ perked up, tossing the vape onto the couch and getting to his feet.

“Can I have some?”

“No.”

“I hate you.”



~~~~~



     Spoiler alert, the bonfire sucked royal ass. Not only had Pope taken Kie as his date instead of JJ, (like they always did), but that little prickle in his chest had grown into a constant burning. Well, not literally. But it stung like hell and breathing only made it worse, so Kie convinced him not to drink anything other than a couple of Capri-Sun ’s he’d found at the bottom of one of the portable freezers. 

“Hey, JJ-- Uh, you don’t look so hot there, dude,” Pope said, beer-filled red cup in hand. JJ gazed up at him from where he sat on the floor against a wall. Pope was clad in a pink and white button-up, (JJ’s favorite), and some dark shorts. a bandana was wrapped around his forehead, and JJ somehow swooned even further at the concerned, caring look in his eye.

“Are you saying I’m hot?” Pope snorted, sitting in front of him, legs crossed.

“No, not really.”

JJ knew, he fucking knew Pope was just messing with him. That his words were just empty, meaningless teases. But still, it made his chest flare with pain, and he doubled over to cough harshly into his elbow, chest feeling as if it were on fire. Pope’s playful smile vanished in a heartbeat, setting his cup down to reach out to the blond.

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” JJ muttered, eyes teary.

“Are you sure ? That sounded bad. Have you seen a doc-?”

“Pope, bro, I’m fine.” Pope held JJ’s steady gaze for a long moment, eyebrows pinched slightly, a frown finding his face. Guilt engulfed JJ.

“I’m fine,” he repeated, waving the taller boy off. “Just need some cough drops. You go, have fun with Kie.”

It only took about ten minutes of convincing before Pope actually did leave, dragging his feet slightly across the sand-covered concrete ground. Wordlessly, JJ watched him go, still recovering from the coughing fit. He rubbed circles into his sternum, gaze following Pope as he walked up to Kie, who stood up onto her tip-toes to kiss his cheek.

This time, JJ felt it coming.

This time, though, he had to get up and leave , because his coughing and heaving were starting to make people stare in annoyance and mild disgust.

He stumbled, one hand steadying him against a tree. The beat of the distant music made the ground underfoot shudder slightly. His knees buckled, and he went down, still choking on his own coughs. He gagged once, but he didn’t throw up. Instead, a fucking petal slipped out of his mouth and drifted into the grass. JJ sat on his knees, panting. A trembling hand reached down and picked it up.

It looked like a rose petal, but he couldn’t be sure. It was definitely shaped like one, a sort of circle with the top curled outwards. Tiny dots and smears of blood covered it front and back, but not enough to hide the soft lavender color of the petal.

What the fuck.



~~~~~



     JJ went home early that night, long before any of the Pogues did. ‘Home’ being John B’s, of course. Immediately he took Pope’s computer that had been charging on the couch and got to Googling. Shaky fingers swiftly typed in desperate questions and descriptions, but nothing about coughing out flower petals came up, unfortunately. He must’ve been there for an hour or two, taking a few breaks in between to get some water from the kitchen or clear his scratchy throat.

Right when the van could be heard parking outside, and a while after he’d found himself somewhere on the internet that was probably the darkest of the dark web, he found something. An article titled “COUGHING/VOMITING FLOWERS? A GUIDE TO HANAHAKI DISEASE”

“Bingo.”

He clicked on it and waited a few agonizingly long moments before it loaded. The navy blue background was a stark contrast to the bright, bold yellow lettering over it. A few low-quality pictures of bloody flower petals were attached at the bottom of the page, along with an x-ray of a chest cavity with dark, vaguely flower-shaped objects filling both lungs. 

The door swung open, and JJ slammed the laptop shut, eyes flicking to Kie who stood at the door beside John B and Pope.

“Hey, guys.” He grinned, pushing the laptop off of his lap. Kie quirked an eyebrow but didn’t say anything as she headed into the kitchen.

“What were you doing with my laptop?” Pope asked, yanking the slightly sweaty bandana from his forehead. JJ’s mouth fell open, considering how believable the responses he was considering would be. It’s not like he could just tell them his small, harmless cough had turned painful as hell and he was suddenly coughing up bloody flower petals. They would all have synchronized heart attacks, and JJ figured stressing them out for what was probably something small was dumb. He was already enough of a burden to them.

“Porn,” he blurted out without a second thought. His lips grew thin in a poorly disguised grimace. Well, it was too late to say something else now, he had no choice but to go all out. “I was watching porn.” An unreadable look of something like disgust crossed Pope’s face, and he tossed the bandana into JJ’s face.

“Gross. At least make sure to close the tab and delete the search history, don’t want my parents finding that.”

“JJ, you’re not supposed to just admit that stuff,” Kie cried out from the kitchen in a voice dripping with distaste. JJ grinned bashfully as John B held back his cackles, fist pressed over his mouth. “You’re supposed to lie and say… Like, literally anything else, Christ …” A smug, playful look crossed JJ’s features, and he wiggled his eyebrows.

“How would you know what to do in that situation, huh?” Kie did not turn to face him from where she stood on her tip-toes, reaching for a chip bag on the highest shelf, she simply flipped him off. And JJ pushed through the sting in his throat to laugh along with the other two.



~~~~~



     JJ had been expecting cancer or something. Maybe some super rare, unheard-of disease no one else had ever had and he’d get to name, but no. Somehow, it was worse.

Hanahaki disease, they called it. ‘They’ as in unreliable strangers on the internet, but that’s not the point. The descriptions were too accurate for it to be fake or a misunderstanding with another illness. It was apparently caused by unrequited love, which, upon reading, immediately made JJ’s blood go cold.

Because, did they mean unrequited as in un-confessed? Or unrequited as in ‘I-only-see-you-as-my-best-friend-and-not-anything-else’ sort of way? In other words, were there still chances of Pope loving JJ back? Or was his unprofessional, unofficial diagnosis simply confirming he’d die unloved by the love of his life?

Ok, that might be a stretch; JJ knew Pope loved him, he knew Pope’s love for him was whole and unconditional, but, did he in the way JJ loved him? 

There were only two ‘cures’ , per say. Option one: surgically removing the fucking flowers growing inside his lungs. He’d considered it for a second before remembering, oh right, that shit’s expensive as hell and he didn’t have healthcare. Also, after reading about it for a while longer, he discovered it also rid you of your love towards whatever person was the indirect cause of this horseshit.

In other words, no .

Second option, much cheaper but possibly much more emotionally damaging, confessing your love. In the rare case that the person returned your feelings, you’d be saved. Just like that. If they didn’t, though… You better start planning your funeral.

So, yeah. That sucked .

But, there was a chance, right? If he just did it, confessed his undying love to his best friend, there’d be a fifty-fifty percent chance of survival, ( plus , a cute boyfriend). Well, those statistics were probably completely incorrect, and if Pope himself were hearing his thoughts he’d be repulsed by his mathematical ignorance, but whatever.

It was at around three A.M. on a Thursday that he decided to confess. Yeah, turns out that barely being able to breathe through the flowers in your lungs didn’t help you sleep; what a shocker. 

He knew Pope was staying over that night, and that he was just a few feet away, sleeping soundly on the worn-down couch. But JJ figured waking him up at three in the morning on a school night for whatever reason would not end well. So he waited. He muffled his chest-rattling coughing into the duvet that came away speckled with red when he pulled it from his mouth and threw up a couple of times until the sun had risen past the horizon and Pope’s first alarm went off.



~~~~~



     School was an ass, as usual. It’s not like he put any effort into any class whatsoever, but why should he? There was a pretty high chance that he’d die in the next couple of days, given he’d read that most people take two to four weeks before they succumb to the flora blossoming in their chest. It still hadn’t fully settled in, the possibility of death , when he sat down beside Pope at the end of the day. The building had emptied rather quickly, and they found themselves situated on the steps that led to the front doors, Pope occasionally glancing at him with curious eyes.

“Ok,” JJ started. He’d decided not to tell Pope about the whole Hanahaki situation, not unless his feelings were returned. No need to burden him with guilt if he didn’t feel the same. “I dunno how to say this, but, like.” He paused. Was this even a good idea? What if it went horribly wrong and Pope was freaked out by him and JJ lived out his last days without him? His chest hurt. And through the constant sting of the flowers, he effortlessly recognized the anxiety sitting within them.

“C’mon, man, just spit it out,” Pope prompted, lightly shoving his shoulder against JJ’s, who chuckled tensely.

“I, uh. Like-- oh, God , please don’t hate me-”

“Shut up and say it--”

“I love you,” JJ spat out, eyebrows drawing and shoulders hunching as if by instinct, afraid-- terrified of rejection. Of an explosion of rage and disgust and disappointment-- he’d experienced enough in his life, and he’d grown rather used to it when it came from his dad. But from Pope, kind, smart, beautiful Pope, the mere thought made him feel sick. Pope simply smiled.

“I love you, too, man.”

“No-- that’s-- well, yes , I love you, but I also love you… Not like that . Y’know?” His hands found each other, mindlessly fidgeting with his rings and picking at his cuticles. 

“Wh-?... Oh .”

“Yeah. Oh.”

Pope’s face shifted through pretty much every expression humanly possible before settling on an understanding, yet pitiful smile. JJ hated it, and he braced himself for what he knew was coming.

“I… Well, like, I’m flattered, man, but, I don’t… Um--”

“No, don’t even worry about it, man, it’s fine, I shouldn’t have even-- it’s--” JJ got to his feet, the rambling slipping past his cracked lips not even fully registering in his own mind. There was a lump in his throat he couldn’t quite swallow, and he wasn’t sure if the hot pressure in his temples was from the sickness or from just wanting to cry. Pope frowned, mirroring JJ.

“Hey, hey, it’s fine, really, I don’t hate you-- I’m sorry--”

“I know, I know, I dunno why I--” JJ’s breath caught in his throat, and through the blur in his vision he noticed Pope’s hand reaching for his.

They did it all the time; hold hands. It had grown into something far more casual than what others would think, but now, at this very moment, the idea of holding his hand was oddly… Nauseating?

Maybe it was just the blood and bile creeping up his throat.

“JJ, I’m so sorry, I don’t--”

“Stop,” JJ snapped. Pope froze. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have,” his voice wavered and cracked and he hated the amount of vulnerability he was showing, but his head was spinning and he felt like passing out, so he didn’t do anything about it. “I shouldn’t have said that, I’m sorry, forget it.”

“Are you okay? You’re really pale…”

“I’m fine, just a little…” He tried to take a deep breath to steady the world that seemed to be tilting on its axis, but it was interrupted by a harsh, painful coughing fit. His eyes watered even more, and by the time he squeezed his eyes shut, there were tears freely streaming down his cheeks and meeting at his chin.

He turned and ran . Ran as fast as his unsteady legs could carry him, forcing down the vomit inching up his throat and the tears building in his eyes again. Distantly, he heard Pope calling after him, and hurried footsteps indicated he was following him, but after making a few sharp turns around trees and alleyways, JJ lost him.

The very second he stopped running, he retched. Given that his appetite had been slimmed significantly over the past several days, (or weeks, he wasn’t sure), he only vomited blood, a couple of petals, and some water he’d forced down during lunch. 

His legs gave out, and he collapsed, thankfully avoiding the puddle of sick in the sandy grass. His breaths came as uneven, pained wheezes that felt like they were sawing in and out of him. Sweat ran rivulets down his forehead and temples, and distantly, he wondered if he was burning up.

He’d experienced pain before, he’d been beaten countless times in his life. The feeling of punches and the steady throbbing they were always accompanied by were about as common as seeing a stray dog wandering outside. He’d suffered from cracked and bruised ribs a couple of times, even had his wrist broken once when he was thirteen.

But the agony that came with the next coughing fit was like nothing he’d ever felt before in his life . It was somehow everything at once. It was a deep, strong throbbing in his head, it was an ever-present ache in his muscles, and mostly, it was a sting. Everything stung. His lungs and his throat and his tongue and his chest. It was hot and debilitating and it quite literally felt like his throat and lungs were being ripped to shreds .

Something stiff came out first. It wasn’t a petal, like usual, it was thick and slightly flexible and covered in thorns. And when he decided he’d gone through enough pain and ripped it out of his mouth it dawned on him.

It was a stem. He’d coughed up an entire flower .

It was completely drenched in blood, and the sight made him nauseous again, but at least it was out, and his chest felt strangely emptier than usual. Relief engulfed him for a moment, and he soaked in the feeling of being able to somewhat breathe again.



~~~~~



     He didn’t remember getting up. Nor did he remember stumbling to the beach near John B’s house, which was empty probably due to the dark rain clouds blanketing the sky.

He did remember laying down in the sand, though. His blinks were growing slower; more sluggish. His breathing had steadied slightly, and all the sleepless nights he’d gone through were really starting to catch up to him now that he was relaxed for the first time in who knows how long.

The blood covering his chin had dried, he could feel it every time he parted his lips to take a deep, rattling breath in.

God , he was so tired.

So confessing hadn’t worked for shit , in the end. All he’d done was fuck up his friendship with Pope, and now he’d never look at JJ the same. How could he? JJ wouldn’t blame him in the slightest if Pope cut off all contact. Jesus, what the hell was wrong with him, putting Pope in that situation?

He exhaled a shaky breath. If more tears ran rivers down his temples and into his hairline, he didn’t do anything to stop them.

At some point, he must’ve closed his eyes, because the next thing he could recall was snapping them open at the feeling of hands grasping onto his shoulders.

“JJ?! Holy shit, JJ, what the fuck happened to you?”

“Pope,” JJ murmured softly. Pope’s eyes, usually so playful and beautiful but now wide with horror, flicked to meet his.

“JJ, what happened? Did a Kook do this? Where are you hurt--?”

“Stop,” JJ whispered, voice hoarse and barely there. Pope’s hand found his, and JJ welcomed it this time, fingers locking.

He’d be ok, if he went like this.

A drop landed on the side of his nose, and for a second he thought it was a tear, but it was cold and small, so he figured it had started drizzling.

“JJ, hey, look at me.” JJ did. And then, softly, brokenly, Pope repeated: “What happened?”

“Sick,” was all JJ could croak out. Pope’s eyebrows drew closer together, clearly confused.

“You’re sick?” JJ nodded tiredly, head lolling so he could gaze down at their joined hands. Pope gently grabbed JJ’s jaw and brought his head back so their gazes could meet again.

“Stop lying, JJ,” he whispered.

“I’m not.”

“You said this was a cold.” Pope’s voice wavered as he tried fruitlessly to wipe the dried blood off of JJ’s chin. Guilt settled in JJ’s gut, heavy and persistent.

“Hanahaki.”

“What?”

“Look it up.”

“JJ--”

“I’m sorry.” His words came out without a second thought. “I’m sorry, should’ve told you. Didn’t want y’all to worry. I love you guys, I’m sorry.”

Pope’s face fell and his eyes grew glossy, flicking back and forth from the blood on JJ’s shirt and chin to his eyes. “This sounds too much like a goodbye, JJ…”

JJ’s eyebrows tilted upward, bottom lip trembling involuntarily. “Does it?”

It was drizzling more steadily now, but JJ still felt the exact place where Pope’s first tear landed. He was shaking his head, eyes growing panicky, hands beginning to shake where they laid. JJ shook his head.

“No, no, no, none of that, Poop.” Pope let out a watery, almost hysterical laugh.

“You still remember that?” JJ beamed weakly.

“Of course I ‘member my greatest joke t’ this day.” They both could tell the way his words were slurring together into a mumbled, barely understandable mess, but neither pointed it out. JJ’s chest ached for all that would be lost.

“It wasn’t that funny,” Pope admitted, smiling softly, the hand that had been resting on JJ’s shoulder moving to cup his cheek. “You know I love you, too, right? And I’m so, so fucking sorry I can’t love you in the way you want me to but I swear I love you. So much, JJ.” JJ was crying now, too, gathering the last of his strength to give Pope’s hand a gentle squeeze. “Just promise me you won’t die on me, ok? That you’ll hold on until John B or Kie get here, ok?” JJ’s eyes fluttered, and it took herculean strength to open them fully again, but he did it. For Pope. Always for Pope.

But he couldn’t keep lying. 

“I can’t,” he whispered. His throat was starting to sting again, and he wanted nothing more than a cup of water to soothe it, but he trudged through nonetheless. “I’m s’rry.” More tears cascaded down Pope’s nose.

“Please, JJ, I can’t-- you can’t die. I can’t lose you.” JJ shook his head, unable to fight the heaviness in his eyelids any longer.

“I’m s’rry.”

No , no, JJ, hey, come on, please, pl- oh, my God,” Pope’s voice came out loud and broken, words interrupted by sobs with every breath. He was growing frantic, desperate , and soon the begging ebbed into apologies accompanied by a few ‘I love you’ s. 

JJ was cold. Maybe it was the rain, or the chilly afternoon breeze, or because of Death herself, but either way, he was cold. He’d been cold since he first laid down in the sand, but when Pope pressed a kiss to his forehead, he was warm.

He fell asleep warm.