"Jeff! You're... you came home."
Somehow home sounded better coming out of Tony's mouth than his own, thought Jeff as he stood in the doorway. He'd worried for a moment that it might have seemed disloyal to sprint away to Snow Wood so soon after emerging from Stonehenge, let alone calling his boarding school... well, the H-word. But Dr. A- his father had barely even noticed, and Ness had just waved him off. He hadn't stopped feeling guilty and started feeling properly grateful until halfway across the plains, but now the guilt was gone, and he was back in his room. Back home.
He stepped inside, and Tony scurried out of his way. It wasn't his imagination, then; as hard as Tony was trying to smile, something in his face just wasn't right. It was difficult to quantify, really, but there was a definite tightness there, and he seemed to be trying too hard to hold eye contact, as if one glance away from Jeff would bring monsters out of hiding.
"It's so great to see you," continued Tony, in the voice of someone who didn't exactly know how to stop talking. "I didn't expect you to come back here! How are you doing? How are your friends? How's Dr. Andonuts?"
"We're all okay," said Jeff, sitting down heavily on his bed. "The Instant Revitalizing Device helped, and Dad's... he's pretty resilient." That was putting it politely, but now wasn't the time to talk about that. Jeff paused, trying to force himself to just say the question that was lurking in his mind. "... Really, though. How are you?"
There was a long pause.
Tony slumped onto his bed, biting his lip hard. "I - I'm all right. I'm home now, and I took a shower... and I tried to take a nap." It didn't take a genius to tell that "tried" was the operative word there, and something on Jeff's face must have given it away, because Tony winced. "I promise I tried!"
"It's okay." Jeff stood up, stepping across to sit down next to Tony. "Well, actually, it's not okay, but it's also not your fault. What's happening?"
"I just - every time I close my eyes, I see him again. I see him staring at me with those mean little eyes of his..."
Jeff's stomach sank. When he thought about mean little eyes, only one person came to mind, and the thought of him anywhere near Tony made his blood run cold. "Who do you mean, Tony? Was he blond and, um, heavyset?"
"He was. How'd you know? Are you getting psychic powers like your friends?"
"Nothing that interesting, I'm afraid, but I've met the boy before. His name's Pokey Minch, and he's some sort of old friend of my friend Ness, but he's gone over to the wrong side. He had our friend Paula kidnapped - at least, I'm pretty sure it was his idea - and I think he did it just to get us angry. He's rotten, and I'm sorry you had to meet him."
There was another pause, and slowly, Tony nodded, as if to himself. "I," he began, then paused again as something in his face began to waver. "I think it was the same way with this. He was always mumbling about Master Gee... um, how do you say that again?"
"Right, like that - Master Giygas." Tony pronounced it as if it were a blasphemy, and Jeff wasn't sure he was wrong. "About how he was strong but he was stupid, and he didn't know anything about how to really get to people at all. How the easiest way to draw you to the base was to get me and Dr. Andonuts, because of course you'd come and get us, and you'd be so scared you'd make mistakes, and so would your friends... and then he started laughing. Even in the tube, through all that gooey stuff, I could tell how wrong his laugh was."
He'd laughed. Tony had been struggling for breath, trapped in a tube full of God-knows-what alien substance, and Pokey had laughed. The whole thing had been his idea, too; maybe the Stonehenge Base had needed human captives for some other reason, but it had been Pokey who'd made sure that his father and Tony were on the list. And all of it just to hurt him? Just to rile him up? Bile began to rise in his throat, and Jeff considered that Pokey might be unpleasantly surprised by what a good job he'd done. If he ever saw him again, he'd show Pokey just how angry he could get, and just how much someone could hurt.
This wasn't the time to be angry, though. Pokey was gone, wherever he'd gotten to after he'd crashed that helicopter, and Tony was here and needed him. "I'm so sorry," said Jeff, and he shifted near-reflexively closer to Tony. "I don't know what to say, but I promise we'll stop him, and I'll keep you safe. I'll never let any of them hurt you again." It was almost too easy a promise to make; with the Stonehenge Base empty and the cat out of the bag in Summers, Jeff sincerely doubted that Giygas's forces would ever return to Foggyland, let alone Winters. Sometimes you needed to make promises, though, didn't you? Even the really obvious ones.
"T-thanks," said Tony, and when his eyes met Jeff's this time, it seemed more of an intentional gesture and less of a nervous tic. "I knew it was going to be okay when I saw you there. You've never let me down, Jeff, not ever, and I know you won't do it now." He breathed in deeply, and suddenly Jeff knew exactly what was coming. "Look, there's something I have to say. Jeff, I -"
"Please don't? Please?" It hurt Jeff to cut him off, but he knew it would hurt less than letting him finish. Being away from Tony was already enough of a stone in his heart; knowing for sure what he'd always only suspected would mean a lot more sleepless nights. Besides, what if Giygas still had eyes here, waiting for another opening? Tony'd nearly been killed just for being Jeff's best friend. What would Giygas do - what would Pokey do - if he were more than that?
Tony's lip was quivering, though, and Jeff knew that an explanation was in order. "... Um," he began. "I'm not upset, okay? I'm - it's just that I'm pretty sure I know what you're going to tell me, and it's not that I don't like it, but... not right now, please? Not while I'm still fighting?"
"Okay." Tony blinked quickly, and Jeff pretended not to notice the dampness in his eyes. "I was being silly, wasn't I? Just carried away. You'll have to leave again soon." It was a question bravely trying to be a statement, and Jeff could only nod in reply.
"Not until tomorrow, though. My friends are going to be spending the night at Dad's lab to make sure nothing else happens, and I thought I'd spend the night here. Um. If that's okay?"
"Of course it's okay," said Tony, with a smile that looked genuine at last. "... Hey, are you hungry? The dining hall's still open, and it's Breakfast For Dinner Night."
Oh, huh; it would be, wouldn't it? It was the second Thursday of the month, after all. It was funny, thought Jeff, how everyday routines were never quite forgotten, even at a time like this. "I could eat," he admitted. "Let's go?" He stood up, offering Tony a hand to help steady him. Tony took it and squeezed hard; Jeff could still see fear in his eyes, but there was a brightness there, too, that spoke of hope.
He'd missed that about Tony: the eternal faith in him. Jeff knew Tony'd been holding those hopes for a long time, and when this was over, he intended to make it all worth his while. For now, though, Jeff just needed a normal night - dining-hall scrambled eggs drenched in ketchup, bad jokes about classwork, and reassurance that real life'd be waiting here for him whenever he was ready.
Jeff had never imagined it would be so hard to fall asleep in his own bed. Maybe it was the bedding, shockingly comfortable after weeks of sleeping on couches or floors; maybe it was the crisp, cool Winters air that seeped in even with the windows securely closed. Maybe he'd just gotten used to the sound of three other people's breathing as he nodded off, and only having one was strange now.
He'd been awake ten minutes, staring at the shadowed, blurry ceiling above him, when the whimpering started. It was soft at first, almost a wheezing, and close enough to regular sleeping noises that Jeff barely noticed. Within a few minutes, though, the wheezing had changed to little animalistic sobs, and then there were mumbles disconcertingly like words. Was Tony fighting against imagined captors? Against remembered ones? Against the visions of Pokey laughing in his face?
Jeff bit his lip, closing his eyes and hoping the sounds would pass, but the long minutes ticked by without Tony's struggle even weakening. He couldn't let this go on. He'd said he'd protect him, after all, even if that meant protecting him against memories.
As quietly as he could, Jeff slid out of bed and crossed the few feet that separated his side of the room from Tony's, trying to disregard the parts of his brain telling him it was a bad idea. Maybe it wasn't his greatest, but it was the only one he had, and the alternative - lying there all night as his best friend, maybe more than his best friend, cried himself into oblivion - was unthinkable. Tony was on his side, hands clenched in a death-grip on one side of his comforter; carefully, Jeff lifted the free side and eased himself into the bed.
Given how small the Snow Wood beds were for even one person, sharing one was a recipe for claustrophobia, but Jeff put that out of his mind. After all, the only way his plan would work was if he stayed close, so what did the narrow space matter? Now, he just had to get closer - slowly, he thought, and with utmost care, as if he were soldering a circuit board. He could do this.
Jeff eased an arm under Tony's waist, resting the other on top before he tried to pull him closer. To Jeff's pleasant surprise, Tony relaxed near-immediately, arms going slack as he released the comforter. He made a small, surprised whining noise, softer now, and then a few smaller whimpers before they trailed off entirely; soon, he'd fallen silent, breathing deeply in what Jeff had to assume was finally restful sleep.
It was something, at least, thought Jeff as he at last let his own eyes close. He'd have to leave again in the morning and return to the fight - to the cities, to the caves, to the dark parts of the world where the spectre of Giygas was never more than a thought away. He couldn't even guarantee to Tony that he'd come home at all, let alone when. As much as he knew he'd understand, it still felt like abandonment, but he had no choice.
Tonight, though, he could help Tony sleep, and he could keep him safe until morning. It wasn't much, but it was something: a consolation prize, and a promise of something more one day.
At last, lulled by the warmth of Tony in his arms and the rhythm of his breathing, Jeff let himself sleep.