Pope is a logic guy.
He likes facts and figures. He likes putting things into neat boxes so he can easily categorize them in his mind.He likes to read about anything and everything. He memorizes facts on as many topics as he can so he can always have a plan ready to go when confronted with something new.
Pope likes having plans. He’s in charge of making plans.
Then John B. dies, and Pope doesn’t have a plan for this.
There’s no manual for what to do when your best friend is chased into a tropical storm by the SBI. No 5-step-guide for how to handle someone you love being swallowed whole by the sea.
This wasn’t part of the plan. This was never part of the plan.
JJ’s yelling at the cops, Kiara’s crying, and Pope’s….
Pope doesn’t know what to do.
He feels himself being pulled into a hug by his mom, and it feels like the thread that was holding him upright before has been cut. He sags into her hold as he feels his dad’s arms close around them. He doesn’t realize how incomplete the hug had felt before until his dad reaches out and pulls JJ in too.
Then suddenly Kie is in front of him, wrapping herself around him like he’s sturdy enough to hold them both up. He wants to scream at her that he’s not. He doesn’t know what to do. He was always the guy who came up with the plan, but he can’t think his way out of this . He doesn’t think he can fix it this time.
But there’s something about the feeling he gets when he’s holding Kiara, when he knows she’s safe because she’s right here and she’s a solid weight against his chest. It’s the same feeling he gets when he turns to look at JJ standing right behind him, looking like he’s about to collapse but still safe. Still alive .
Pope comes up with a plan.
How To Save Your
Remaining Friends: A Guide by Pope Heyward
Step 1: Keep them close.
Once they’ve cried themselves numb and been cleared to leave by the police, the three of them agree to stay together for the night.
Well, Kiara and Pope agree. She hugs him tight and whispers in his ear that she’ll be at his house in an hour before turning and heading home with her parents. Pope doesn’t think her parents are going to just let her leave, but Kiara doesn’t break promises, so he lets her go for now. JJ doesn’t say a word, but he doesn’t put up a fight when Pope’s dad puts a hand on both of their backs and guides them to the car.
Pope’s laying on his bed, staring at the ceiling, when he hears a tap on his window. He goes to open it and lets Kiara crawl inside. She doesn’t break promises.
JJ’s sitting silently on the floor, his back pressed against the foot of Pope’s bed. He’s peeled off his rain soaked clothes and changed into one of Pope’s old tee shirts-
Note: Don’t think about how seeing him in your shirt makes you feel.
And he’s vacantly staring at the carpet in front of him. He hasn’t said a word since he got done screaming at the cops. He’s unnaturally still, like someone took the real JJ and replaced him with a statue when Pope wasn’t looking.
Pope would wage wars just to hear JJ make a single noise right now.
He doesn’t realize he’s been staring at the JJ statue on his floor till Kiara slips her hand in his and pulls him from his daze. When he turns to look at her, really look at her, he sees the red under her eyes. He sees her still damp hair hanging loosely down her back.
He sees the sweatshirt that she stole from John B. a few weeks ago.
She walks forward and settles onto the ground next to JJ, gently pulling on Pope’s hand till he’s sitting on the floor on her other side. Kiara reaches out and grabs JJ’s hand.
There they sit. The mighty Pogues. Linked together by bony fingers and cracked hands. Silently waiting for their leader to return from sea. Knowing he never will.
Pope glances over and looks at JJ. He’s avoided looking at him straight on since they got home, that way he can continue pretending the tears constantly running down JJ’s cheeks are just rain drops falling from his still-wet hair.
JJ keeps staring at the ground.
Pope knows he’s supposed to say something. Give some big speech and rally the troops. He knows he’s supposed to fix this, but a rock has settled into his throat and he can’t seem to push the words past it.
So Kie does it for him
“We’re ok,” she whispers, voice quiet and scratchy.
She squeezes both of their hands.
“We’re gonna be ok.”
Pope can’t find it in him to agree with her, but Kiara doesn’t lie so she must be right.
They fall back into silence for what feels like ages, and Pope takes the time to study the two people next to him. These are his best friends. He’s memorized the way Kiara laughs, the way JJ’s eyes light up right before he says some stupid joke, the way they make his chest burn whenever he looks at them. He knows these people. And yet, the silent, empty bodies in front of him feel so foreign.
He wants to hate John B. for leaving. He wants to hate him for blowing up their lives and leaving Pope scrambling to pick up the pieces. He wants to hate him for dying.
Except he could never hate him. Not for anything.
Pope slips his hand out of Kie’s and stands up. He looks down at the two people on the floor, the two most important people in his life, and forces himself to swallow the lump in his throat.
Kiara looks up at him, still holding JJ’s hand. JJ moves for the first time since he collapsed on the floor an hour and a half ago and glances up at Pope with watery eyes.
“We’re gonna be ok,” he says, echoing Kiara’s statement from earlier
His voice shakes when he says it, which probably doesn’t make it seem too convincing, but he bites the inside of his cheek and forces himself to not start crying again.
They look at each other for a moment. Kiara nods and Pope can see her arm flex as she squeezes JJ’s hand.
JJ looks at him. Pope studies the muscles of his jaw moving slightly like he’s about to say something.
But then his face crumbles and a loud sob rips from his throat instead.
Kiara’s on him in an instant, pulling his face into her neck and wrapping herself around him like her small frame is enough to shield him from the world. JJ’s hand shakes as it comes up to twist in her... John B’s…. the sweatshirt.
Pope sits down on JJ’s other side and thanks god or whoever that his arms are long enough to circle around JJ and Kiara at the same time.
Pope decides maybe between him and Kie they can hold JJ together if they just squeeze tight enough.
They hold each other tightly, the only noise in the room JJ’s sobs and the quiet sniffles Kiara and Pope are both trying to pretend aren’t coming from them.
The moment feels too much like that night in the hot tub, but Pope refuses to let his mind go there. He can only handle one bad thing at a time.
Pope’s butt has gone numb from sitting on the floor long before he feels JJ’s back stop shaking and the sound of his crying fades into soft hiccups instead.
He glances at Kie over JJ’s head and she’s already staring back at him. They look at each other, mirror images of two broken kids trying to live through their worst nightmare.
“We need to sleep,” Pope murmurs.
Kiara stares. JJ sniffles.
Pope figures that’s the best he’s gonna get.
He stands up, even though the mere thought of letting go of them right now rips his heart in two.
But if he’s gonna get them through this, the first thing he needs to do is get them off the floor.
So Pope stands and hooks one arm around JJ’s middle to pull him up too. He pushes JJ onto the bed. He goes without a fight, and Pope never thought he’d say this but fuck he wishes JJ still had some fight left in him.
Kiara’s already slipping into bed and pulling the comforter over herself and JJ whose eyes shut the second his head hit the pillow. Pope figures having multiple breakdowns in one night is a reasonable cause for exhaustion.
Pope flicks the light off and falls into his bed. The second he’s horizontal on the mattress his body finally lets go of the adrenaline it had been running on all night. He gets why JJ had knocked out so quick now.
With one final ounce of energy, Pope reaches out and grabs Kiara's hands. JJ has an arm draped over Kie, and she’s resting her and Pope’s hand on JJ’s hip. Pope presses his chest to JJ’s back a little closer than would typically be considered platonic, but he figures they’ve earned this after tonight.
His eyelids start winning the battle he was fighting against them, and the last thing he sees before he slips into unconsciousness is his two best friends safe and asleep in front of him.
Note: Keep them in your arms. It’s the safest place in the world.
Step 2: Fix their problems.
The thing about being the plans guy is everyone expects you to be able to fix things. You’re the one they turn to when things go wrong, because you're supposed to have plans B-Z stored in your back pocket.
Pope used to be that guy, but he doesn’t feel like he’s living up to his job description anymore. Everything spiraled out of control and he did nothing to stop it. Now he’s left with this mess, and he doesn’t know how to fix it.
Before, he could fix his friends' problems.
When Kiara first started hanging out with them, he could fix it when she would start getting sad about her old friends betraying her. He could distract her by starting up conversations on income inequality or sexism in the workplace. Most of the time he would just get her started and she would run off on her own tangents, but he was perfectly content to watch her talk. Watching Kiara talk about something she’s passionate about is like watching a fireworks show, captivating explosions of energy that make your heart rattle in your chest.
He could fix it when JJ would show up on his doorstep with bruised knuckles and a split lip. He could wipe blood from his knees while JJ sat on his kitchen counter pressing a bag of frozen peas to his jaw. He could put a bottle of water into JJ’s hand when he smelled alcohol on his breath and let him pretend that whatever he was drinking and starting fights to try and forget wouldn’t still haunt him the second he walked out of Pope’s house again. He might not be able to fix JJ’s demons for good, but he could let him crash on his couch and keep him safe for one night.
But this? Pope doesn’t have a fix for this. At least, he can’t fix it all in one go.
1 is a small number, but 1+1 is slightly larger. Pope figures if he adds up enough 1’s he’ll have a big number soon enough. So he racks up level 1 fixes every chance he can.
He snags an extra banana on his way out the door to meet Kiara cause he knows sometimes she forgets to eat breakfast. He helps JJ with his summer reading project even though he knows JJ did not read the book.
He crawls into Kiara’s bedroom through her window when she calls in the middle of the night crying. He pushes his fingers through her hair and lets her cry into his neck until she wears herself out and falls asleep again.
He lets JJ borrow his jacket when he sees him shivering out on the dock one night. Wraps it around his shoulders and guides him back to the house while acting like he didn’t notice the vacant look in JJ’s eyes.
Later, after JJ falls asleep in Pope’s bed clutching the jacket around him like a blanket, Pope sits in his desk chair and watches JJ’s chest rise and fall until sunlight starts bleeding into the dark sky.
Reminder: Stop thinking about it.
And maybe he’s not solving their greatest problems, but he’s making each day easier. Isn’t that enough? Don’t they deserve easy after everything they’ve been through?
He doesn’t notice they’re doing it too at first.
JJ will wake up early on mornings after Pope has one of his nightmares about storms and sunken boats to make waffles. He’s surprisingly good at it considering his diet typically consists of things that can be microwaved.
Kiara starts texting him links to scholarship applications. She stays up till 2 am one night sitting in his room and proofreading 12 different essays that he’s written for them.
Pope notices the soft smile JJ gets when he thanks him for breakfast and the way Kiara’s shoulders seem less tense every time he hits submit.
They start this routine, the three of them. They’ll each do little things to make the others’ day better. A nagging thought at the back of Pope’s brain says that focusing on each other forces them to not think about that night, but he pushes it away. If it makes Kiara’s hands stop shaking and brings some life back into JJ’s eyes then so be it. Repressed motives be damned.
JJ will pick a movie he knows Pope will like. Pope will make kettle corn because he knows it’s Kiara’s favorite. Kiara will cover them in the weighted blanket that JJ loves.
There’s a pressure in his chest that builds a little when he sees them take care of each other. A warmth that grows under his rib cage when he watches JJ braid Kiara’s hair for her. A twist in his stomach when she doesn’t comment on JJ tugging a little too hard cause she knows it's good for him to have something to do with his hands.
Reminder: Don’t. Think. About. It.
They don’t talk about it, but Pope knows they all understand what’s happening. They’re taking it day by day, minute by minute. They focus on making each moment the easiest it can be so they don’t feel so exhausted at the end of the day from carrying around the new ever-present weight on all of their shoulders.
There’s something nice about this unspoken pact they’ve taken up. Losing John B. was like losing a limb, and they had to learn how to adapt to living without him. It was a struggle- is still a struggle, but they are dragging each other through it. One problem at a time.
Note: Let them fix your problems too.
Step 3: Be there on the bad days.
Despite his best efforts, little fixes still can’t stop the weight of what they’ve lost from crashing down on them sometimes. There are days when one of them will wake up and the pit in their stomach will feel just slightly deeper, the ache in their chest just slightly stronger.
Pope has had to accept that there’s nothing he can do to stop those days from coming. At first, they felt like failures. He blamed himself when JJ would storm out of the house or Kiara couldn’t bring herself to talk. He hated himself when he would wake up with a storm in his head and a tremor in his hands that he couldn’t still. How was he supposed to protect his friends when he couldn’t even hold himself together?
There have been enough bad days at this point for him to realize there is no stopping them. They’re just a wave you have to ride out. Though maybe a wave is a bad analogy considering none of them have touched the water since that night.
Pope has accepted that he can’t stop the bad days from coming, but he’s still the plans guy. He’s still cataloguing new information in his mind to save for later, putting everything into neat boxes that he can organize with ease.
He starts to take note of the warning signs. He notices how JJ starts to pull away the day before it gets bad. He’s gotten more tactile since everything happened, like he has to be touching Pope or Kiara at all times to make sure they’re really there. Before the bad days, he’ll start leaving a wider gap when he sits next to Pope on the couch. He’ll walk far enough from Kiara that their arms won’t brush together. When he stops seeking out their touch, the next morning is always bad.
JJ sleeps at Pope’s house more nights than not these days. Pope’s parents haven’t said anything yet. Pope thinks they like him being under their roof almost as much as Pope does.
Most days they roll out of bed around noon and head downstairs to get food. Pope’s dad hasn’t made him go back to work yet, so they have all day to waste. Kiara would come over if she wasn’t there already, and they’d pretend everything was fine until they went to sleep and repeated the cycle the next day.
On bad days, Pope wakes up to JJ staring blankly at the ceiling. He asks him if he’s ok, even though he already knows the answer. JJ shrugs and rolls over to face the wall. Pope asks him if he wants breakfast, JJ says he’s not hungry with more bite than is entirely necessary.
After enough bad days, Pope learns to let him be. JJ’s bad days are when the anger that’s always simmering under his skin pours out. It’s when he hates the world for all it has put him through, and Pope can’t really blame him for that. So he goes downstairs and lets JJ stew in bed for however long he needs.
Sometimes JJ will come down just to pick a fight, like he wants Pope to get mad right back and finally realize he’s as unloveable as he seems to think he is. Of course Pope doesn’t feed into it. It’s step one on his guide for JJ’s bad days: don’t take anything he says to heart. He lets him get his shouting out, and when Pope doesn’t shout back, he gets frustrated and slams the front door on his way out.
Pope doesn’t know where he goes. Truthfully, he’s too afraid to ask. But he always comes back with the fire that raged in his eyes that morning completely burned out. He’ll apologize and let himself cry onto Pope’s shoulder because he’s too exhausted to care. He’ll let Kie wrap wrap around him from the other side and tell him he’s ok. Kiara stays over as often as she can, but she always without fail sleeps over on those nights. They’ll all fall into Pope’s bed, much like they did on the night that started all of this, and curl around each other a little tighter than they probably should. Pope will stay awake long after the other two have gone to sleep and just watch them breathe. When JJ’s face scrunches up with the telltale sign of a nightmare, Pope will let himself reach over and smooth out the creases in his forehead. He’ll whisper reassurances till JJ relaxes back into the pillow.
If Pope is dead tired the next morning, well then only he needs to know why.
Kie’s bad days are quieter. Pope knows when one is coming on when she’ll come over wearing one of John B.’s shirts and grasping at the hem that falls almost to her knees. They’re normally days after she sees the therapist her parents are making her go to. Pope thinks they should all be in therapy, but he can’t ask his parents for that kind of money and JJ’s dad is one of the reasons he should be in therapy so fuck knows he would be no help in that department. Kiara always complains about the sessions. Says the therapist- Dr. Wagner, Kiara always says her name with an eye roll- talks to her like she’s about to have a breakdown and she hates being treated with kid gloves. He told her she should tell her parents to find her a new therapist if this one wasn’t working. Kiara told him to go fuck himself, so he left it alone after that.
One night, when they couldn’t sleep and they had to whisper to each other to not wake up JJ, Kiara told him she didn’t actually hate Dr. Wagner, she just hated having to talk about what happened to somebody who didn’t believe her. She couldn’t defend John B.’s innocence, because all the adults around them had already made up their minds about what happened. She had to lie so her therapist wouldn’t report back to her parents that she was still in denial about her friend being a murderer.
“What good is talking about it gonna do if I can’t actually say how I feel?” She whispered.
“I get it,” Pope had sighed. “But you can talk to me. To us.”
“I know,” she leaned over and pressed a kiss to his cheek. “I know.”
On bad days, she’ll wake up with a blank look on her face and she won’t be able to muster up the energy to talk. Pope learned quickly that acknowledging her bad days only makes it worse, so instead he pretends it’s his choice to have a lazy day. He’ll complain about being tired and send JJ downstairs to stock up on snacks while he pulls out his laptop and starts up a rewatch of Schitt’s Creek. He acts like he picks it for himself and not because it's one of Kiara’s favorites. She’ll tuck her head into Pope’s shoulder and pull JJ against her other side and the three of them will stay bundled up together all day. They don’t acknowledge it when silent tears roll down her cheeks, but Pope will squeeze her hand a little tighter to let her know he’s there, and JJ will make some stupid joke about whatever is happening on screen that forces a watery smile onto her face.
They turn in early on those nights too, except with Kiara in the middle of the cuddle pile. She’ll bury her face in Pope’s chest and hold JJ’s arm around her.
Pope feels his heart squeeze when he looks at them.
Maybe it is time he let himself think about it.
The point is he knows how to handle their bad days. He’s learned how to make them easier so that they can live through them and wake up the next morning with a fresh start. Pope isn’t going to let that damn storm drag anyone else he loves under. He’ll be the lifeboat his friends need if he has to.
The thing about lifeboats, though, is they can sink too. Learning to let JJ and Kiara prop him up when he starts to drown has been a new challenge entirely. Accepting the little fixes is one thing, because then he can at least convince himself he’s doing it to humor them. Allowing them to comfort him on his bad days is something else entirely.
The whole point of this is that he’s supposed to be the one protecting them. He’s the one with the plan to hold them all together.
But sometimes he wakes up and it’s like his brain is made of fog. His thoughts won’t connect and he can’t seem to find the energy to even move. It frustrates him so much he wants to cry. He’s the brains of this operation. What good is he if his brain won’t even work?
He had tried to hide it the first time it happened. He attempted to act like nothing was wrong, but unfortunately his friends are too perceptive for their own good and they caught on pretty fast.
Now they know how to handle his bad days. They know to drag him out of bed even when he begs them to let him stay under the covers. They know that fresh air and drinking lots of water seem to help the most, so Kiara will throw some water bottles in a cooler and JJ will bodily drag Pope down the stairs and the three of them will walk around the island until Pope’s head starts to clear up. Kiara will hold his hand and JJ will bump his shoulder into Pope’s every so often in an act of “accidental” contact. When Pope starts to feel better they head home and let him put on whatever documentary he wants and they don’t even complain about it.
Those nights they sleep with Kiara latched onto his back, her nose buried in his neck, and JJ gripping his wrist, face so close Pope can feel his breath on his nose.
He’d never admit it, but Pope thinks he likes those nights the best.
Note: You can still find the good in the bad days.
Step 4: Love them with all you have.
Kissing Kiara is like coming home. It’s something he’s known he’s wanted for so long, and he still can’t quite believe he gets to do it now. Her lips fit so easily against his. He could spend his life kissing her and be perfectly content.
Except he notices how JJ looks at them when he kisses her. He sees the way he bites the inside of his cheek and shoots his eyes away when he notices Pope looking at him.
Pope tells himself it's because JJ likes Kiara. That’s it.
He doesn’t know if he actually believes that or not.
Sometimes, after they’ve both been at his house for a few days in a row, Pope will come out of the bathroom after brushing his teeth for the night and find JJ and Kiara both sitting in his bed wearing his clothes.
One night he finds them already curled up with each other in front of Pope’s laptop looking for something to watch on Netflix. His sweatshirt swallows Kiara whole, but she still manages to look perfect in it anyway. JJ is wearing his sweatpants and some tee shirt he got at a county fair that he went to with his cousins a few years ago. The print on the front has long since worn down, but the blue fabric of the shirt makes JJ’s eyes shine.
Since when did he start thinking about JJ’s eyes?
He slides into bed next to Kie and they wind up pressing play on some new movie that Pope can’t even tell you the name of now. He pretends to focus on the screen, but his brain is far more focused on the way Kiara is holding his hand and JJ’s at the same time.
When the movie ends and they all start to drift off, he leans over to kiss Kiara goodnight. When he lays back down after, he realizes that maybe he’s not perfectly content. Maybe something is missing. He can practically hear the gears turning in Kiara’s head next to him, and he thinks maybe she feels it too.
Reminder: Don’t think abo-
The first time he kisses JJ is the last night of summer.
They have to go back to school tomorrow. It’ll be the longest they’ve been apart since…
Pope can’t even think about it. Imagining how he’ll have to sit in a class without JJ by his side, with Kiara miles away in a different school, makes his stomach twist in knots. He has to push the thought away. That’s a problem for Tomorrow Pope.
Today Pope is sitting on the beach, watching the pink and orange hues of the sunset begin to fade into the dark navy of night. He’s in between his girlfriend and his...
Best friend isn’t quite the right word. Not anymore.
They’re all holding hands. There’s a tension in the air that makes the hairs on Pope’s arms stand up. Pope can feel JJ buzzing with nervous energy next to him, and he squeezes his hand when the tide starts inching closer to their feet.
This is the closest they’ve gotten to the ocean in weeks.
Kiara had managed to swipe a couple beers from her parents so he’s feeling a little lighter than usual. There’s a sort of soft fuzzy feeling in his head, and distantly he wonders if he’d be able to sit this close to the water without the help of the empty bottles sitting next to him in the sand.
He’s not drunk, but he’s close enough that his anxiety doesn’t stop him when he says, “Are we gonna talk about this?”
Kiara and JJ turn to look at him, both clearly startled by the sudden break in the silence.
“About what?” Kiara tilts her head.
Pope huffs, tipping his head up to the sky.
“About this,” he says, lifting their joined hands into the air before letting them fall back into the sand.
He feels JJ get nervous and try to pull his hand away. Pope grips it tighter.
“I like you,” Pope says to Kiara.
He turns to look at JJ. His head is still spinning a little from the motion when he says, “And I know you like her too.”
JJ’s mouth drops open and closes a few times. “Pope, dude, I don’t-”
“No let me finish,” Pope sighs.
“I like Kie. You like Kie. And you-,” he looks at Kiara, “you keep letting me kiss you, so I assume you like me.”
Kiara laughs. It’s the greatest sound in the world.
“Of course I do, you dork.”
“Great. You like JJ too.”
Her eyes widen a bit, but she doesn’t say anything.
“Which is great, “ Pope sucks in a deep breath. “Because so do I.”
He hears JJ gasp behind him. Kiara just smiles. He loves making her smile.
“So that’s what we got,” Pope says, turning back to the ocean. “I’m a bit tipsy.”
“Yeah, a bit,” Kiara laughs softly. She leans forward to peer over at JJ who still hasn’t moved since Pope just blurted his feelings out like that.
Maybe this was a mistake. But JJ hasn’t let go of his hand yet. So. There’s that.
“What are you thinking over there?” she asks.
JJ doesn’t say anything for a while. He’s uncharacteristically thinking before he speaks, and Pope wishes he would knock it off cause the wait just might kill him.
Pope chances a look at him, and suddenly JJ’s lips are on his. He tastes like cheap beer and salty air, and something just clicks into place.
JJ pulls back far too soon
“I am- I’m so sorry,” he whispers, blue eyes impossibly wide.
“Don’t be,” Kiara says.
And Pope kisses him again.
Later, when Pope’s laying in his bed with his two favorite people in the world curled against his chest, he lets himself remember that there’s still an empty space in their little group. Still a John B. shaped hole in all of their lives.
There always would be.
But he feels Kiara lean forward to kiss JJ before tilting her chin up to press a kiss to Pope’s jaw, and he leans down to press his lips to the top of JJ’s head, and he thinks that maybe they’re gonna be able to get through this. Maybe they can keep living despite it all.
He wraps his arms around them a little tighter. He’s just drifting off to sleep when he hears Kiara repeat the same thing she told them weeks ago.
“We’re gonna be ok,” she whispers.
Yeah , Pope thinks. Yeah, we are.