Poo shifted in bed and opened his eyes. The desk lamp was still on. It was keeping them up. It always did, but Poo was far too nice to say anything because they didn’t want Jeff to feel bad— Poo was well aware by now that Jeff felt bad enough on his own without anyone else helping him in that endeavor. Besides, every time Jeff left the light on all night he came out of it with a new weapon, and if it made the team stronger, who was Poo to dispute something as petty as a few hours of sleep? He could meditate during the day to get some additional rest if he needed to, and he could make it through on less sleep. He had before. Jeff was sitting at the desk working, hunched over something. Poo could hear the sounds of his tinkering, grumbling to himself. Poo wondered if he was saying anything nice to himself and turned so they could get a better look. Jeff pushed back his chair and stood up, holding his screwdriver in his mouth. He tapped his toe on the ground and fumbled with his glasses. Poo could feel the stress radiating off of him like heat from the sun.
“Not working out for you?” Poo asked, and Jeff jumped and dropped the screwdriver. Poo chuckled. He forgot that Jeff wasn’t psychic and couldn’t feel that Poo was awake. “Sorry.”
“You scared me,” Jeff whispered, laughing at himself and picking up the screwdriver, tucking it into the front pocket of his shirt. Poo realized he was still wearing his street clothes, dirty and singed from battle. Poo wondered if he had even eaten dinner. He knew Ness had brought some to him. Peering in the dark, Poo noted that sure enough, there on the desk was a hamburger, completely untouched. “Also,” he looked at the contraption on the table, then back at Poo, scratched the back of his neck. “No, it isn’t.”
“I’m sorry. I’m sure you’ll figure it out.”
Jeff shrugged. “Mm. It’s just, I’m-!!” he made a broad motion to his head and Poo made a face.
Jeff shrugged again and rubbed his forehead. “I’m being dumb tonight. I’m- I’m so stupid.” he laughed like it was a joke, but Poo didn’t laugh. They knew it wasn’t one.
“You’re building a-? What is it again?”
“It’s a- it’s sort of a- laser beam kind of a situation,” Jeff said, shrugging and cracking his knuckles. Poo noticed he looked at his feet. Maybe he didn’t want to brag. Poo saw no problem with bragging, especially when someone was doing something amazing.
“You’re building a laser beam out of a harmonica,” Poo said, crossing their arms and sitting up in bed. “You aren’t stupid.”
Jeff just chuckled uncomfortably and shifted his weight from one foot to the other. Poo watched him clench and open his fists, which Poo had learned was one of Jeff’s tells— he was anxious.
“Why don’t you go to sleep?” Poo suggested gently. Jeff was chewing on the end of his pencil and looking at the— the whatever it was. Laser beam, apparently. “It has to be nearly three now, you need sleep,” Poo added. For a moment, Jeff just stood there with his pencil in his mouth. The light from the desk lamp made the dark circles under his eyes seem exaggerated and almost grotesque. He looked like a skeleton, they were so deep and purple. Poo’s stomach ached for him. “Please.”
“Soon,” Jeff said shortly and sat back down.
“Have you eaten tonight?” Poo asked, even though they knew the answer, of course.
“Yes,” Jeff said over his shoulder.
“You’re lying,” Poo mumbled.
Jeff didn’t say anything.
“You should eat. And get out of those clothes.”
Jeff still didn’t respond.
Poo settled back into the pillows and quietly watched him work. Poo fiddled with the collar of the sleeping shirt Paula had let him borrow. It smelled like sunscreen and crayons. It was comforting and strange. For a moment they just closed their eyes and sat in the scent. They liked it, certainly. It smelled like Paula for sure. When they had asked to borrow something to sleep in, Paula had handed it over, no questions asked. And then when she saw the shorts he wanted to wear them with she gave him a pair that “matched a little better.” The shorts were comfy, but Poo didn’t like that they had words on the butt. He was glad the shirt was long. Butt words felt very undignified. He couldn’t believe she would just give him her clothes. She was like that. They all were. Poo was used to getting their way— absolutely!— but usually out of obligation, not because the other person liked them. Generosity out of friendship was a new phenomenon in Poo’s life. They liked it.
Jeff groaned and Poo opened their eyes. Jeff was leaning back in his chair, pulling his hands down his face like he wanted to rip it off. “Fuck, fuck, fuck,” he hissed, and Poo nearly jumped. Poo barely stopped himself from scolding Jeff for his language like a parent. Poo often had to remind themselves that they were a friend, not a father. He didn’t know Jeff even knew curse words. He seemed too small. Poo knew that was mostly appearance and not age— certainly not mental age— but nonetheless. Jeff ran his hands through his hair and then held them in front of him, clenching them into fists and opening them over and over again, bouncing his legs.
“Jeff,” Poo whispered and got out of bed. “Hey. Hey.” He crouched by Jeff’s chair. Jeff didn’t look at him. He just put his face in his hands and groaned. “Jeff. Hey.” Poo rested their hand on Jeff’s knee. He stopped bouncing his legs. “Hey, take a break. Change into some clean clothes.”
“I don’t want to take a break.”
“You need to take a break.”
“I don’t want to go to bed,” Jeff mumbled.
Poo opened their mouth, closed it, and then glanced at the untouched hamburger on the desk. “That’s okay. Let’s go get something to eat.”
Jeff just grumbled vaguely.
Poo looked at him for a moment, then nodded and stood up, walking to Jeff’s bag and pulling out a t-shirt and shorts. Everything in his bag was crumpled up and shoved in, nothing like Poo’s neat and organized bag. He tossed the outfit onto the desk and Jeff slouched in his chair. “All that’s open right now is fast food.”
“Mm-hm,” Poo hummed, pulling out a pair of socks and throwing them at him. “Catch.”
Jeff did not catch them, but not for lack of trying. “You don’t even eat fast food.”
“I’ll get a water. I could use some water.”
“Ness is asleep. It’s not like I have money.”
“Jeff, I’m a prince. Do you honestly think Ness is the only one with cash?”
Jeff opened his mouth and closed it. Poo quirked his eyebrow. Jeff rested his cheek in his hand. “You’re such a smart aleck.”
Jeff nodded toward the laser. “I— I need to— to get this done, I—“
“You can go to bed or you can get something to eat but I’m not letting you work on that… thing.”
“It’s a laser.”
“It’s stressing you out.”
Jeff paused for a long time. He pushed his glasses up his nose and looked over at the laser beam, sighed heavily, then mumbled, “Fine. Gimme a second.” Jeff tucked the clothes under his arm and walked to the bathroom. Poo, relishing the feeling of getting what he wanted, sat on the bed and pulled on his shoes. He felt the atmosphere in the room change. Paula was awake.
What are you doing? Paula’s voice, multi-layered the way it always was in his head, echoing and whispering.
Poo looked over at her. She hadn’t moved. She must be barely awake. We’re getting a very, very late dinner. Jeff hasn’t eaten since lunch.
Gosh, was all she said.
Do you want to come?
No, she answered. Too sleepy. Also Ness is asleep on my arm, so not much of a choice now.
Poo chuckled, paused, and then added, We need to take it slower. At least for a few days.
We have things to do.
We have to take care of ourselves, Poo responded. Jeff is exhausted. Ness has cried every night this week. I’m tired. I know you are.
Paula didn’t reply for a moment.
Ness will agree with me, Poo added.
Jeff will agree with me, Paula responded curtly.
I’m sure, but we all know how healthy Jeff’s work ethic is. Perhaps not the best argument. When she didn’t say anything, he went on, We have to take care of ourselves. We can take it slow for a few days. I can feel how tired you are. You know I can.
I know. I’m sorry. You’re right, she answered. I think I’m run down, too. I’m sorry. I’m just scared.
Me too. It’s okay.
“Poo,” Jeff whispered, and they turned. He was standing in the doorway to the bathroom, pulling on his raincoat. “Are you guys talking about me? I’m fine.”
“You’re sitting totally still and nodding to yourself. Also your head is glowing. I’m fine.”
Poo thought that a person who was actually fine would never insist that much that they were fine, but he decided against saying so. Poo shook the halo away and rose from the bed, sweeping his braid over his shoulder. “No. I was asking Paula if she wanted to come.”
“Oh.” Jeff nodded and pulled on his jacket. “G-good.”
“Y’all be careful,” Paula whispered.
“We will,” Jeff replied, tucking his gun into the waistband of his shorts underneath his raincoat.
Walking down the street under the bluish light of the street lamps, Jeff looked truly sickly. He had never looked so small. His raincoat hung off of him. Poo wondered how someone could even be so small. Poo was tall and strong and athletic. He always had been big for his age, thick with muscle and a layer of fat he had never been able to shake. It amazed him that Jeff could be so little and so tough. How could he willingly go into battle with arms and legs the width of Poo’s palms? Poo always got nervous about Jeff. He knew he shouldn’t. Jeff could hold his own. He had saved Poo’s life multiple times by now. In battle Poo didn’t think about it so much. Jeff looked different in battle. But now, without a giant gun on his shoulder he looked so small. Without a layer of dirt on his face, Poo realized how much of a baby face he really had. He looked so young.
A taxi drove down the street and Jeff’s hand gravitated toward his gun.
“It’s a regular taxi,” Poo said, but when Jeff jumped and glanced up at him he realized he must not have said it out loud at all. “Sorry,” he added, this time making sure he was speaking aloud.
“It’s okay,” Jeff laughed, covering his face with one hand. “And, and, yeah… I’m just tired. I just got… I just got… anyway.”
They kept walking. Poo caught another whiff of Paula’s sleeping shirt. He thought of earlier that day, when the other three had hugged him when he came to in the hospital. She smelled like sunscreen then, too. He remembered Jeff leaping out of his own hospital bed to crawl into Poo’s and hug him. He remembered the sound of Ness yelling his name when that final blow had hit him- because he was afraid for him. Afraid for him. That was new. That was nice and new.
“I’m sorry,” Jeff sighed, tucking his hands into his pockets, and Poo was pulled from their reverie, looking down at him. “I just… I need you to tell me again that you and Paula weren’t talking about me.”
“We weren’t,” Poo said, and Jeff ran his tongue across his teeth.
“Well, not really,” Poo added as they turned into the burger shop. Jeff looked at him with big eyes, so Poo added quickly, “We were talking about all of us needing a rest.”
“I’m fine,” Jeff said defensively.
“Well,” Poo muttered. “The rest of us aren’t. It’s okay if you aren’t fine.”
Jeff just looked at his shoes and screwed up his mouth but didn’t have a chance to respond as they reached the counter. Poo ordered for him out of habit. He knew he didn’t want to talk to the lady at the counter. Poo was reserved, but Jeff was shy. Poo didn’t care about talking to strangers. They got their number and took a seat by the window. As they sat down, Jeff fidgeted with his collar.
“I think everyone needs a day or two to recover. We’ve had a hard week and a half. We’ve been non-stop this whole time,” Poo said.
Jeff sighed and rolled his eyes. “Poo. We have things to do.”
“That’s what Paula said.”
Jeff paused, then shook his head and slid down in his seat. “You don’t have to pretend like you mean everyone when you just mean me,” he mumbled in a quiet, surly voice.
“I don’t know what you mean,” Poo said, and he didn’t.
Jeff opened his mouth and closed it. He opened and clenched his palms. “I know that- that I’m. I’m not as strong as you or Ness and not as powerful as, as, as Paula, but I’m not going to, to slow you guys down, I’m not, okay?”
“Jeff,” Poo said, but Jeff plowed ahead, ignoring them.
“I’m, I’m fine, okay?” his voice cracked and he cleared his throat. He stared down at the table, avoiding eye contact. “I’m fine, and you don’t have to take care of me, and, and, and I know, okay? I know that I’m, I’m the weak link.”
“What?” Poo nearly laughed with incredulity. “Jeff, what?”
“Are you really going to make me say it again?” he hissed, and for a moment made eye contact so intense it burned. Poo stopped laughing. Jeff quickly looked away, looking just past Poo’s shoulder. Poo ducked his head to try to put himself in Jeff’s line of sight.
“The weak link? Is that what you think?”
“That’s why I have to build this laser, okay, I’ve got to keep up, Poo, I can’t fall behind, it’s all I can do, I gotta do it now, I don’t want to slow you guys down, I—I—I—“
“Jeff,” Poo interrupted, and Jeff just groaned and leaned his head back. “Listen, you—“
“Poo, I’m not stupid!”
“I don’t think you’re stupid!”
“I know I’m just—“
“You aren’t listening to me, you’re—“
The waitress came to their table and they both sat back in their seats and quickly shut their mouths, trying to appear casual. She gave Jeff his food and Poo his glass of water and they both quietly thanked her. As she walked away, Jeff immediately dug in. He must be hungry, Poo thought.
Poo took the opportunity to talk. “Listen. You aren’t the weak link. There isn’t one. We’re all strong and weak in our own ways. You are essential to this team, Jeff.” Jeff rolled his eyes but his mouth was full. Poo wondered how long he had thought this. “You are amazing. I don’t know what you think is going on here, but I know that we’d all be dead without you.” he took a sip of his water. “I’m gonna tell Ness you said this.” Jeff shook his head but Poo nodded and insisted, “I am. No, I am, Jeff! And he’s going to lose his mind. You are so powerful, I don’t know what your problem is. Honestly.”
Jeff swallowed and wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. Poo handed him a napkin. “I don’t have PSI.”
“Jeff, you build weapons. That’s amazing. I can barely work a pay phone.”
“I just feel like,” Jeff sighed and crumpled. When Poo didn’t think he could look smaller, he did. “I dunno. Because I’m not psychic. I need to. You know. I need to make up for it. I’ve gotta, I’ve gotta put in the extra time, I’ve gotta…” he trailed off and sighed.
“You don’t need to put in extra time when you’re exhausted already, Jeff,” Poo said, and Jeff started to argue, but Poo motioned to his plate. “Please eat.”
Jeff took a bite of his burger and went on, holding his hand in front of his full mouth, “I just feel like. I dunno. Ness is a freaking tank, you know. He could go all day. And he’s, you know. He takes care of all of us. And Paula’s, like, she’s so powerful it blows my mind. And you’re. You know.”
Poo quirked an eyebrow. “I don’t think I do.”
Jeff swallowed and rolled his eyes. “Poo, you’re so responsible and brave and I’m, like, shaking in my shorts and I forget to eat and drop all my bottle rockets.”
Poo shook his head and leaned forward, putting his hands on his chest. “I’m scared too.” he chuckled and added, “And I don’t think I’m as responsible as you think.”
“Whatever.” Jeff shrugged him off.
“Listen.” Poo reached across the table and took one of Jeff’s hands in his. His palms were sweaty, but Poo didn’t care. “You are a key part of this team, Jeff. You aren’t holding us back. You couldn’t. I meant it when I said we’d all be dead without you.” Jeff looked across the table at him. His face got very red and he looked down at his food. Poo squeezed his hand and then took their hand back, crossing their arms. “But you need a rest. I know you do. We all do.”
“You don’t seem tired.”
“I’m exhausted,” Poo said, and they meant it. For the last week they had woken up every morning feeling like someone had hit them with a car. They just wanted to go home and curl up in their giant bed by themselves and not speak to anyone all day.
“Please don’t discount me when I say I’m tired, too. I am,” Poo snapped, and was surprised by the acrid defensiveness in his voice. Jeff looked at him over his glasses. Poo looked down at their drink, embarrassed by their outburst.
Jeff sighed and screwed up his mouth. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. I know. Just because you’re better at going on doesn’t mean… you know.”
They were quiet for a moment. Jeff ate his burger and Poo watched him.
Poo, you’re so responsible and brave, he had said. Poo folded his hands in his lap and looked down at the wood of the table. They knew most of what they thought, what they felt, boiled in their stomach and never broke the surface of their face. But how could Jeff think they weren’t afraid? They were afraid all the time. They thought of the previous day, when they were the only one left conscious in the middle of a cave system. They had been so afraid. They had just sat in one of the cleared caves and cried into their hands until their lungs hurt and their throat burned and their eyes were swollen. They didn’t know why they hadn’t said anything to anyone once they were all awake again. They had just pretended like it hadn’t happened. They didn’t know why they couldn’t ask for help.
They couldn’t ask for help. They couldn’t. They knew that was something they needed to change. They knew that. But it was so hard. It was so hard to be vulnerable, as if by admitting that they didn’t know everything they were breaking some kind of veneer, some kind of outer shell that made other people call them brave and responsible.
Poo hesitated, then said, “Jeff, can I tell you something I haven’t told anyone?”
Jeff raised his eyebrows and nodded.
Poo opened their mouth, closed it, hesitated, and then said, chuckling nervously, “I don’t know how to wash my clothing. I haven’t washed my clothes this whole time. I know you and Paula and Ness are cleaning your clothes but I don't know how. I’ve never had to wash my clothes. And, and I don’t know how to ask.”
The corners of Jeff’s mouth quirked. “Poo. It’s not a big deal. I can show you how to do laundry.”
“I know that it isn't a big deal, I know that.” Poo sighed and rested their chin in their hands. They hesitated, then forced themselves to go on, looking down at the table. “But everything is like that for me, I guess, is what I’m trying to explain to you. I don’t know how to ask you or Ness or Paula for, for help. I don’t know how to tell you I’m afraid or confused.” he sighed and chuckled nervously. “You talk about being responsible or brave but… I can’t do the brave or responsible thing a lot of the time. You three are all so… vulnerable with each other. And I’m not. Well, until… literally right now. And if I can’t trust you three, I don’t know. Maybe I’m the weak link.”
“Poo, you don’t have to be cool or, or, or brave or, or dignified when you’re with us,” Jeff said, his eyes wide behind his glasses. “You know that.”
“I do, I do,” Poo said, waving their hands.
“You are definitely not the weak link.”
“You’re so strong in battle.”
“That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about… being a team. About trusting people.”
Jeff paused for a long moment. Poo could see him turning it over and over in his head, thinking it through, the wheels turning in his mind. He was so intelligent. He pushed his glasses up his nose. “Well, I trust you.” he cleared his throat. “Ness trusts you. Paula trusts you. And it’s okay if you have trouble trusting us. I know how you feel, I—I do. But, I dunno. I guess all I can tell you is that we all trust you. And if you can try to come around to trusting us, I dunno. That’s all you can do. Is try.” Poo just nodded. Jeff hesitated, then added with a grin, “We can’t all be as honest and emotionally accessible as Ness.” Poo laughed. “That’s okay. I’m not either. Paula… definitely isn’t. You don’t have to be. But, you know. We’re all still gonna think well of you. If, if you tell us things.”
Poo nodded and sat back in their chair, breathing out slowly. They felt better. Uneasy, but better. “I know. Thank you.”
“What are you thanking me for?”
Jeff snorted. “God, as much time as you spend listening to me whine… you’re practically my therapist, Poo.” Poo laughed and shook their head. “You can talk to me about… you know…. shit.” Poo felt himself react but tried to keep a straight face. Jeff looked at them over his glasses and pointed at them, snorting. “You’re blushing!”
Poo put their hands on their cheeks. “What?”
“You’re blushing. Is it because I cussed?”
Poo laughed. “Oh. Probably!”
Jeff laughed at Poo and Poo laughed at himself.
They sat at the window and talked until Jeff finished his burger. When they walked back to the hotel, Jeff still looked tired in the harsh streetlights, but not quite so sickly. Poo slept deeply that night with Jeff curled up against his side and didn’t wake up until well into the afternoon, when Ness jumped on him and dragged him to the window to see a UFO flying over the city.
All they did that day was play cards, laugh at each other’s jokes, and show Poo how to use the laundry machine. It was easier than he thought, and they really didn’t make a big deal out of it. He knew they wouldn’t. He knew that on some level. It was a good day. An easy day. They would have to fight again soon, but for that day, they were just kids in a hotel. Even Poo, who was still learning how to be a kid. As he curled up with his friends for a mid-afternoon nap, Paula’s legs across his, Jeff’s head on his hip, and Ness’s arm slung over his side, he felt… different. Different, different— and good.