As is often the case with me and video games, the way the battle went here is pretty much how it actually went when I played it. And boy, was that enough to knock me out of my Level 68 overconfidence. I didn't actually have the Shield Killer. I missed it somewhere along the way.

Of all my EarthBound fics, this one turned out to be the hardest I've ever written. I don't know why - maybe because I had to juggle so many characters at once, when before my fics have focused pretty much exclusively on two or three at a time. So there are bits here that I'm not really happy with, but I hope you enjoy all the same.


Things had gotten desperate. It had been a long time since things had gotten desperate for the four children, and Jeff was remembering just why he'd preferred it that way.

With the sight of the people trapped and choking and suffering, suspended in alien green liquid, they all four piled into the room beyond to face the one responsible. Or, at the least, they went to face the one that they could also get at. There and then, Jeff would have stood against Giygas itself with the one measly Multi Bottle Rocket he had shoved into the bottom of his bag, but this Starman Deluxe would have to do.

All the same, they weren't at their best, after the long trek through the dark, dank, claustrophobically narrow hallways of Stonehenge Base. Ness had fared the worse – so long down in the dark, fighting through endless hoards of foes, had taken their toll. He'd tried hard to keep them from seeing it, but Jeff had, and he knew Paula and Poo had as well. They'd seen that Ness was desperately, madly homesick, and it had affected his focus and his fighting more than once against weaker foes than this one.

Paula and Poo had burned through all their psychic power three times over, if Jeff was any judge. If it weren't for the Mooks wandering the halls with diamond-bright eyes and toothy smiles, they might have had only their fists and their frying pans to help save the captives. As it was, they'd survived by leeching power from their enemies, but it wasn't a method they could have kept up forever.

They all wanted to be gone from this place – that, coupled with their desperate desire to take the captives safely with them, made three of the four children almost mad.

That was the only explanation Jeff could think of for how things went so terribly, catastrophically wrong from that point on.

The Starman Deluxe was waiting for them. It must have known long ago that they were here. "You're much stronger than our intelligence indicated," it said, an unearthly, unnatural series of whirrs and clicks undercutting its voice. "We were not prepared for that eventuality. The Prophecy from the apple of Enlightenment may be true…but you must not underestimate us!"

Jeff went for his bag, and the spyglass in its special pocket. Ness raised his bat, but he didn't advance, even as the Starman moved out from behind its desk to ready itself. This was because he would have only gotten in the way – Paula and Poo had already stepped forward, shoulder to shoulder, raising their arms and lifting their voices.

"PSI Freeze Omega!"

"PSI Starstorm Alpha!"

Their strongest powers manifested at their command, and the two psychics – their satisfied smiles illuminated by the light – directed that power at their foe.

Later, Jeff would tell himself that it was an understandable mistake. They were all tired. They were all afraid. They all wanted it to be over. Why not open with the strongest power they had left? If Ness hadn't been such a homesick mess, he might have joined them with a PSI Rockin'.

If he had, he would have shared Paula and Poo's fate. As it was, in that moment, by the time Jeff realized what was about to happen, it was already happening. "Paula! Poo!" he screamed, dropping his spyglass from nerveless fingers and staring in horror at the scene. "Don't!"

But, it was too late. The Starman didn't even bother to dodge. It didn't have to. It stood, tall and proud before them, as twin beams of ice and light sped towards it.

With a sound inappropriately like "boing", the spells hit the Starman's shield and rebounded, straight back towards their casters.

Ness realized what was happening, then, just as Jeff managed to will his nerveless legs to move. They both charged for their friends from opposite directions, Ness reaching out for Paula and Jeff reaching out for Poo. There was nothing they could do, certainly nothing Jeff could do, to stop what was going to happen, but not to try was unthinkable.

Paula and Poo knew that. And that was why they each gave identical shoves, pushing Ness and Jeff safely out of the blast, using their last few seconds to save their friends from their fate. Jeff stumbled back again. Ness stumbled back again.

And a blaze of light and cold shot between them both, enveloping Paula and Poo, sending them flying through the air to painfully strike the back wall of the chamber, only to slide down limply and lay still and cold upon the floor.

"No!" Ness screamed, and Jeff had never heard him sound like that before – so angry, and yet so afraid. His eyes were wide and wild, almost mad, as he stared at the unmoving forms of his friends. It had taken all of a few seconds for the scene to play out to its inevitable conclusion, but Jeff knew that it would play out like an eternity in his nightmares. If he ever lived to have nightmares again, of course.

That seemed dreadfully unlikely, in the face of the completely unscathed Starman Deluxe. It unfolded its arms and stepped forward, its visor narrowing in menace. "A predictable attack," it whirred. "With predictable consequences, for any proper warrior. I am prepared for your power…with power of my own!"

Ness whirled around to face it, the light of vengeance in his eyes and his knuckles white where he was gripping his bat. Jeff saw angry tears in his eyes, saw his lips move in the first few syllables of the incantation for PSI Rockin'. He wasn't thinking anymore.

"Ness, stop!" Jeff cried, praying that his words would reach his friend. At the same moment, however, he turned and rushed for his bag. Psychic power might not be able to crack the Starman's shield, but they still weren't helpless.

Ness realized that in time. Out of the corner of his eye, Jeff saw him give a little shake of his head. He saw him steady his stance. And then he saw him charge.

Even Ness, if all he had was his bat, wouldn't be enough to defeat the Starman Deluxe. Jeff searched desperately through his bag, as the sounds of desperate battle raged over his head. He tossed aside this, that, finding nothing that would help them, digging for the Multi Bottle Rocket that had gotten shuffled to the very bottom.

"Jeff, move!"

Jeff didn't hesitate. When Ness told him to move, he knew to move, and so he threw himself sideways with all his remaining strength. Only then did he look up, and see what he'd just dodged.

The sight made his blood feel like it had frozen in his veins and his heart stop beating. The Starman was neatly ducking Ness' wild bat blows, at the same time carving symbols in the air that both Jeff and Ness knew by sight by now.

Even Ness couldn't last against a PSI Starstorm to the face. And the Starman Deluxe was nearly done with its incantation.

Jeff threw himself back towards his bag – maybe he could catch it with the bottle rocket while it was recovering from the casting, maybe Ness would dodge, maybe they weren't as doomed as they seemed – and, as he did so, he realized that he was holding something in his hands.

He looked at it. He made a very quick decision. And then, his body moving almost as though of its own accord, he raised the Counter PSI Unit and pushed the button.

A bright flash of white light filled the chamber, eliciting identical cries of shock and pain from Ness and the Starman. Jeff, however, had long ago treated the lenses of his glasses to resist the light, and retained some of his vision where they were both temporarily blinded. At the least, he could see enough to see the tips of the bottle rockets sticking out over the top of his bag.

The Starman turned around to retaliate, and tried to finish its casting of the lethal PSI Starstorm. But it was disoriented and dizzy, and the psychic spell fizzled at its fingertips. Behind it, Jeff saw Ness, furiously rubbing at his eyes with one hand and swinging the bat wildly with the other. Neither of them was in any fit state to utilize their psychic powers, and wouldn't be for a while yet.

That had never been a problem for Jeff. He waited just long enough to be sure of his target. Then he aimed.

Then he fired, and the crackle of a dozen huge rockets firing to life filled the room. They left the launcher, speeding towards their target, and hit home before the Starman could recover or even move.

The noise of it was enough to daze Jeff. It left his ears ringing as he waited for the light to fade and the smell of smoke to dissipate. But no retaliatory attack came. No enemies came charging at him in a vengeful fury.

Someone was running, but after Jeff nearly had a heart attack, he realized that it was the sound of sneakers, not the sound of space boots. And, indeed, that was Ness' voice, crying out: "Paula! Poo! Jeff!"

"Over here, Ness!" he called, waving through the smoke and the fading light. As it finally became possible to see, he saw the charred remains of the Starman on the ground where the bottle rocket had caught it. Jeff swallowed at the sight of it, disquieted at the visceral damage and death, but relieved at the same time that they had triumphed in the end. It was with a very great effort that he turned away to look for his friends.

And the sight that met his gaze then was a brutal reminder that winning the battle wasn't always the most important thing.

"PSI Healing! PSI Healing! P-Paula, please! Please, w-wake up!"

If Jeff never saw Ness in tears again, it would be too soon. But there he was, the strongest of all four of them, their leader, their guide, the one who had brought them all together and the one who Giygas feared the most. Tears falling from his eyes, his bat laying discarded and forgotten beside him, he knelt over Paula's unmoving body. His shaking hands went through the motions again and again for PSI Healing Alpha. Under normal circumstances, it would have been enough to at least give the spark of life back after one of them got hurt and collapsed.

But the Counter PSI Unit didn't discriminate. Even if it did, Ness had been in no fit state to use his powers from the start.

"Ness," said Jeff, drawing nearer hesitantly. "I…the Counter PSI Unit wasn't finished, yet. I couldn't figure out a way for it to only work on enemies. You, um…you won't be able to use your PSI, for a little while."

"W-What do you mean?" Ness stared up at Jeff, so helpless and lost and scared that it hurt to see. "I-I have to! They're hurt…I left the Lifenoodles with Tracy…how else are we going to wake them up?!"

Jeff had to take a deep breath, to steady himself, before he ventured tentatively on. "If we can just get them back to…to Doctor Andonut's lab, he has a machine there. Remember? We used it before we came down here."

"That's right…that's right!" With one of those surges of energy that always seemed to find him when he needed it most, Ness surged to his feet, fists clenched, eyes overbright. "We just need to take them there, right? And then you can work it and, and they'll be okay, right?"

"That's right. And we'll be okay, getting out. At least…if the Exit Mouse hasn't run off."

Ness yanked his bag off his shoulder and rummaged frantically around. After a few tense seconds, with a cry of "a-ha!" he pulled the stunned mouse free. Jeff let himself smile in relief at the sight of it blinking dazedly, right up until the point the floor began to shake, an unexpected and frightening and sudden enough event to knock him right off his feet.

At first, he thought Ness had fallen, too. Then, as the world steadied again, he realized that Ness had just thrown himself across Paula and Poo in an effort to protect them from…whatever was happening.

What had happened?

"Jeff! It sounded like it came from the other room! Where all the kidnapped people were!"

It had, actually. Which could have been a very good thing…or a very, very bad thing. Jeff pushed himself unsteadily to his feet, and started forward to go and see. Then he remembered, and looked back.

Ness waved him on. "Go and see! I'll take care of Paula and Poo!"

Jeff didn't see how he could – he sure as hell didn't want to stay down here as long as it took for Ness to regain the use of his powers. But he was worried about the trapped people, about Tony. And so he nodded, turned away, and dashed through the door.

To his great relief, the sight that met his eyes was a good one. The awful capsules where everyone had been held prisoner had all opened, the sickly green liquid spilled out onto the floor. Everyone was awake, and moving, and alive! Apple Kid, Sebastian, his father…

"Tony!"

Slipping and sliding over the ooze, Jeff ran over to his friend.

He had never seen Tony look so tired, not even during exams. And he had never seen Tony look so battered, not even after a run in their P.E. class. Jeff had never seen Tony look so awful and exhausted and hurt, and it brought a lump to his throat to see.

And despite all of that, Tony looked up at the sound of his voice, and he smiled to see him. Jeff wanted to cry. Tony shouldn't be smiling. Tony should be angry. Tony should hate Jeff for ever getting him involved in this, for ever bringing him anywhere near Giygas. But he wasn't. Tony just…wasn't like that.

"Jeff!" Tony reached out a hand. All of his normal shyness and hesitation forgotten, Jeff took it, and held it tightly. It was cold and clammy and slimy with ooze, but he didn't care. "Jeff, buddy!"

But even calling out Jeff's name was apparently too much. Tony was suddenly seized by a coughing fit that left him nearly doubled over, shaking with the force of it. Jeff let out a little cry of distress in a voice he barely recognized as his own, unable to do anything to help but moving closer all the same, resting a hand on Tony's back in the way Tony had sometimes done for him when Jeff had a bad cold.

As he did so, he felt Tony shaking, felt the ridges of his spine beneath his skin. Tony was thinner than he had been when Jeff had left. These things probably hadn't even fed him.

Jeff had faced monsters of all shapes and sizes, traveled to places he'd never dreamed of, allied with a boy he'd met in a cave against a creature of utter evil that could destroy them all. And yet, in the midst of all their hardship, food had never been a concern. Ness had seen to that. The boy in the baseball cap took a genuine pleasure in seeing his friends well fed and looked after.

To think that Tony could have suffered any hardship that Jeff was spared…Jeff couldn't help it. Tears started to trickle down his face, hot and stinging.

"Oh me, oh my…" Tony finally managed to look up at Jeff again, still smiling in the face of all odds. "You…came to rescue me!"

He said it with such wonder and awe that Jeff didn't know whether to be touched or insulted. He found himself feeling a strange mix of both.

"Of course I came to rescue you! We all came straight here as soon as Maxwell said you were gone." Of course, they'd only been in the area because they'd been searching for Apple Kid, and Ness had wanted to try out the Eraser Eraser. But Apple Kid had just been someone in trouble. Tony was…important. Jeff couldn't have worried more over Ness or Paula or Poo. "It's all going to be okay now, Tony." Jeff thought he was scared enough for both of them. "I'm…I mean, we're all going to make sure you're okay now."

He thought it was additional reassurance. After all, it must make Tony feel better, to know that there were other, truly strong people here to keep him safe and see him home. People besides Jeff, who had left Snow Wood with an air gun, an old hat, some school supplies, a boiled egg, and some cookies to his name. Especially when those others were as strong as his new friends…even if two of his new friends weren't in the greatest shape right now.

"…all?"

But Tony frowned, giving Jeff a strange look that he couldn't understand but made a heavy, unpleasant feeling of unease settle into the pit of his stomach.

Almost on cue, Jeff heard Ness' voice. "Hey, everyone!"

Everyone looked up, Jeff included.

He knew the sight that met his gaze would be burned into his mind forever.

Jeff had always admired Ness, from the very first day he'd known him. More than once, he'd aspired to be Ness, even if only a little. Ness was powerful, cheerful, kind, and even a bit fussy and nurturing in a way that had always reminded Jeff of Tony. Even if he was only a kid like they were, Ness was their leader, and Jeff would follow him anywhere. He had followed him anywhere, so far. Sometimes, he'd felt like his heart would burst from the sheer pride of knowing Ness.

Pride and awe didn't even begin to describe what he felt, then and there.

Because there stood Ness, a boy of thirteen. In his arms, he carried Paula. On his back, he carried Poo. Two respectably sized kids in their own right, and yet Ness carried them like it was the easiest thing in the world. He was slumped with tiredness, evidently weary, but he was carrying his two wounded friends like it was the most expected thing in the world.

Jeff found himself temporarily speechless at the sight of him like that. Even Tony stared. Ness, for his part, didn't notice. He just walked forward, and then Jeff started at the sound of a "squeak" in their midst. Looking down in alarm, however, he saw that it was only the Exit Mouse, bright eyed and attentive and awaiting the order to go.

"This is our Exit Mouse," said Ness, addressing the assembled throng. "He can lead us back to the surface. From there, we'll take you to Doctor Andonut's lab. He has a caveman there with some sandwiches, and from there we can figure out how to take you all home." He smiled reassuringly at them all, and even Jeff felt some of the tension leave his shoulders. "Okay?"

There was a mumble of general consensus. Ness, seeming satisfied, gave the Exit Mouse a gentle nudge with his toe. "Off you go."

The Exit Mouse looked back at Ness, saluted, and then started off at a trot across the floor and towards the opposite door. Ness, still carrying Paula and Poo, followed after it at an easy walk. Jeff gave himself a little shake as Ness passed by him and then, taking Tony's hand, hurried to catch up with him. He heard the rest of the rescued people falling in behind, at their own ragged, unsteady paces.

"Ness," Jeff ventured, hesitantly, as he and Tony drew level with the other boy. "Are you okay like that? Can you really carry them all this way?"

"Yeah," said Ness, without any hesitation whatsoever. "They're not that heavy. Poo doesn't eat much."

He seemed to have passed right through his earlier panic and distress, coming out the other side into a frankly eery sort of calmness and optimism.

"Oh," piped up Tony, from Jeff's other side. Really, that was the only reasonable response Jeff could come up with to that, but Tony wasn't actually done. "Ness?" he asked, as though for clarification. When Ness nodded at him, Tony continued in a slightly stronger tone of voice. "I'm Tony."

"Hey, Tony. Nice to meet you."

"I'm Jeff's best friend." Jeff actually cringed at how…petulant Tony sounded. How confrontational, now of all times. Ness, however, didn't seem to notice.

"That's cool. I kind of figured, though. I mean, you did call us that one time. And Jeff talks about you."

Jeff immediately stared at the floor, feeling a blush creeping up. It only got worse when he felt Tony's gaze return to him. Jeff thought he could imagine the other boy's expression, even without looking up. Especially when Tony's hand tightened its hold on him, just a bit.

"I've known him for the longest time," he murmured, in a voice that was far more subdued. And Jeff hated himself that he couldn't muster up any reply to that – it had been a very long day. He wasn't even sure how many days it had been, actually, just that he wanted to lay down in a proper bed and sleep until he felt well enough to deal with his two friends from his two different lives.

At least Ness seemed to have calmed Tony down from his…jealousy. That was the only word Jeff could think of to explain it, jealousy, and he didn't like it.

Tony didn't press him any further, though, and Ness, well, Ness just plodded on after the mouse with a seemingly tireless energy and an almost inhuman focus that Jeff both envied and feared. Behind them marched the ragged band of former captives. If the base had still been filled with monsters, as it had been on their trip down, it might have been rough going. But there was nothing and no one there, as though all the Starmen and Mooks and robots had melted into thin air with the demise of the Starman Deluxe.

Who knew? Maybe they had.

But it made for a creepy sort of journey, with their echoing footsteps and ragged breathing, with only the occasional hushed whisper. Jeff felt rather like he had back in the Pyramid over in Scaraab, hushed and subdued and awed by the sheer size and mystery of the world around him. The space swallowed up their voices and dwarfed them with its size, mere architecture that somehow managed to make him feel insignificant and small as nothing else in his life ever had. It was slow going, too, waiting for everyone to climb up or down the ladders, keeping track of everyone, shuffling single file down the many narrow hallways.

Just as Jeff thought it might never end, just as he was ready to scream with the fear that they'd all die down here, alone and safe from monsters but trapped all the same…the ground beneath their feet became dirt instead of metal, and they entered a circular hole in the ground where a single ladder stretched up into daylight.

As one, he and Ness paused and took a deep, long breath. Even down here, they could taste the sweetness of the outside air, and it was the best taste in the worl.

Most of the former prisoners were all right to climb up and out on their own, despite the great height of the ladder. They stayed at the top to help up the rest. Jeff stayed at the bottom to give those who needed it a boost. Ness would have done so, but he was still proving loathe to let go of Paula and Poo. Instead, with a truly impressive display of balance and focus, and with Jeff's reassurance that he was okay to help people up on his own, Ness clambered up the ladder still carrying their two unconscious friends.

Tony was the last to go up, besides Jeff himself. The boy looked dead on his feet, but something – maybe pride, maybe simple lack of focus – had kept him from sitting down or falling over. Jeff might have been impressed with his old friend. In fact, he was, he was absolutely stunned at how well Tony had held up on the long trek out, and in the face of all the hurt he'd suffered at the hands of the Starmen.

However, that admiration was overshadowed by the worry he felt as he looked into Tony's eyes and Tony looked right through him, his gaze empty and exhausted, the familiar brightness extinguished.

Jeff was afraid he'd have to carry Tony up the ladder, too, and wondering if he was strong enough to do so after everything. Fortunately, when he guided Tony towards the ladder, the other boy reached out and grabbed it of his own volition, even if his hands were shaking. Jeff followed after him, just a few rungs below, consoling himself that if Tony fell, the least Jeff could do was cushion the impact.

The first thing Jeff saw as he emerged, blinking muzzily in the wan grey light of Stonehenge, was that Ness was still waiting for them, even though the others had started off in a frightened little huddle across the short patch of clear ground between Stonehenge and his father's lab. Ness kept casting glances over his shoulder at the group, an anxious expression on his face as he scanned the area between him and them for cavemen or bears getting any funny ideas.

But he was waiting for Jeff, and he smiled in relief as Jeff finally clambered out and into the open air. It was a smile Jeff returned, even as he marveled and worried over this first sign of definitive emotion Ness had shown since walking out of the cavern.

All the same, he shared in Ness' relief. Although it had been a hard road to get this far, here and now, it fully sank in that they'd succeeded, that everyone was safe and yet another of Giygas' plans had been foiled.

All they had to do now was pray that Apple Kid could remember where he'd left the book they needed, and they'd be back on their way.

This thought made something squirming and ugly coil up in his stomach, and Jeff found himself glancing almost guiltily at Tony. His old friend just stared back blankly, looking lost and unsure and afraid to even take a step.

Jeff stepped up next to him, and drew one of Tony's arms carefully around his shoulders. It was like flicking a switch and, with a sigh, Tony slumped against him. Ness nodded, and only then did he turn away and start plodding across the open space towards the lab himself, where the last of the survivors were only just filing through the door. Jeff and Tony were just a few steps behind him.

The lab was full of light, and noise, and his father scurrying around trying to stop anyone from touching anything. Ness walked through it like a knife cutting its way through butter, heedless of anything except Jeff and Tony, and making a beeline for the restoration machine against the far wall.

In what Jeff hoped was nothing more than a reflex, his father scurried over to stop Ness touching that, too. Jeff felt humiliated on both their behalf's, and was already opening his mouth to protest, when Ness turned his head to look at Doctor Andonuts.

Jeff was still a few paces behind him, helping Tony along, and so he didn't get a proper look at the look on Ness' face. But his father did, and it was enough to make his eyes bug out and send him scrambling back and away to deal with other people.

Jeff couldn't really blame Ness, really. It had been a long however many days it had been.

Instead, he just settled Tony gently in a reasonably unoccupied corner before going to assist Ness with the machine. Jeff had always found it very simple, but he'd come to realize that other people didn't find things simple the same way he did. Ness mostly helped him manhandled Paula into place and get her secured, and then he hung back frowning in worry and helpless confusion while Jeff operated the controls.

He smiled as the machine whirred to life with its by now familiar litany of gentle whirrs, clicks, and beeps. After only a few seconds, the beeping became one long, high note, alerting them that the process was done, before the noise died away. Ness was by Jeff's side again in a flash, arms out to catch Paula as Jeff opened the doors and she slumped forward.

"Ness…" Paula murmured, her voice sleepy. After a few second's unsteadiness, however, she actually managed to balance on her own two feet and blink dazedly at the boys. "Where are we?"

"Back at Jeff's Dad's lab!" Ness said, beaming fit to burst as he helped walk Paula over to the staircase, which was the only bare space besides the floor left to sit on. "Don't worry, Paula! It's all okay now. We won, and everyone's safe."

The process went just as smoothly and just as quickly for Poo. "But mother, I don't want to go to training today…" the prince mumbled as he stumbled woozily to the steps to slump down next to Paula.

"Great!" Ness declared, clapping his hands together and smiling like the happiest kid in the world. "But we should all probably eat something. That was a long time with just some stale beef jerky. Here!"

He scampered over to talk to Doctor Andonut's pet caveman, and came back balancing a miniature tower of three picnic baskets.

"Thank you, Ness," said Paula, accepting hers' with a grateful smile. "But what about you?"

"Yeah," said Jeff, taking his. "You were stuck with stale beef jerky, too."

"Don't worry about me, guys. I'll eat in a little bit," said Ness, waving away their concerns. "I've just got to make a quick call. Jeff, is it okay if I use your phone?"

"What? Oh, sure." Jeff gestured up the stairs. "It's right up there."

"Great!" And Ness actually jumped over their heads, landed with some flailing and pinwheeling of his arms to steady himself a few steps above, and then all but dashed upstairs, leaving the other three to eat, talk, and recover.

These things they did. The food finished the job that the machine had begun for Paula and brought a bit of color back into Tony's face, and even if Jeff hadn't been beaten quite so badly, he was still hungry and exhausted.

All the same, he was quiet for a few minutes to eat, before settling in to fill Paula and Poo in on what they'd missed.

"Great job, Jeff!" Paula declared, when he was done. "I guess it's really a good thing you saved that last Multi Bottle Rocket. I don't know what would have happened to us if you hadn't."

"And I should apologize, for my skepticism about your projects," said Poo, looking abashed. "Shutting down the psychic powers of the Starmen would be a great assist to our quest."

"Well, I've still got some refining to do," Jeff muttered, embarrassed at their praise. Paula in particular had always been able to make him blush, and he and Poo had had a friendly rivalry going on between technology and psychic powers since they day he'd crash landed on the beach. "Ness got hit with the blast, too – that's why we had to carry you both back here to fix you up."

"Well, it doesn't look like we'll be moving on right away," said Paula, obviously trying to cheer him up some more. "We still have to make sure everyone gets home okay. Maybe you can stay here and work on it some more."

"It is easier to teleport with fewer people along, in any case," added Poo. "I believe refining your projects would be a very worthy use of our free time."

Jeff opened his mouth to agree – having some time in the daylight to work would make a nice change, and it wasn't as though he found teleporting particularly enjoyable. But then he felt Tony shift next to him, and Jeff fell silent instead, looking worriedly at the boy in the hat.

Tony had kept his head down eating for most of the talking, except to dart the occasional curious, nervous glance at Jeff or Paula or Poo. He had his head down when Jeff looked over at him, but Jeff nevertheless couldn't shake the sense that Tony had been looking back at him a scant second before.

Ness or Poo could surely take Tony home in a flash. It would be safest, and easiest that way. It was a long way back to Snow Wood, a long path full of dangerous creatures.

And yet…

"No," said Jeff, in a voice that sounded strange even to his ears. "I think I've got something else I need to do."

Tony didn't look up, but Jeff thought he saw him smile. That decided him, there and then.

He stood up, drawing surprised looks from the other three children. "Ness has been gone a long time," he said. "I'm going to let him know what the plan is. Okay, guys?" Of the four of them, he wasn't that badly off. A quick trip through the restoration machine would see him fit to travel, and he could maybe get Tony to the lakeside before dark.

Three nods and expressions in varying degrees of worry and puzzlement were his reply, and that was enough for Jeff. He turned away and hurried up the staircase after Ness.

Just as he emerged onto the second floor, Jeff heard the sound of a familiar voice in tears. It brought him up short, which thankfully prevented Ness from seeing him intruding.

Horrified fascination kept Jeff from retreating, though. Instead, he eased forward a few steps, leaning to the left just a bit until Ness came into view on the other side of the piled high table.

"…a-and then I kept trying to wake them up, but I c-couldn't use my power. So I had to carry them, all the way out, and it was dark and there were all these people I had to protect and now I'm so tired…"

Ness was clearly trying to get himself under control even as he confessed all the worries and fears and pain he'd kept hidden from them to his mother. It wasn't the first time he'd gotten homesick, but before this, he'd been happy to call her at the local convenience store with Paula listening in right next to him. He'd never felt the need to hide it before…but he'd never broken down like this before, either. Except for that moment, back in the cave, trying to bring back Paula and Poo without the use of his powers.

Jeff wondered what else Ness might have been hiding from them. He also envied Ness, for always having someone waiting on the other end of the line.

But in the end, he left Ness to compose himself in his own way, in his own time. It was the least he owed their leader, after all this time.

When Ness finally came down to join them a little while later, he looked like he'd never been crying at all.

"Okay!" he said, sitting himself down between Paula and Poo, and taking the picnic basket that Poo passed him. "Hey, thanks! This smells great. But, anyway, has anyone talked to Apple Kid yet?"

Paula nodded. "He remembers the book, Ness! And he said that he took it back to the Onett library before the Starmen took him. It might still be there!"

"Awesome."

"But before we continue with our quest, I believe we should see all these people safely home," said Poo. "The doctor says that he does not have the resources out here to look after them for very long."

"Yeah, I kinda figured. Well, hey…" Ness reached out and patted Poo companionably on the shoulder. "We can have them home in a flash. Or a teleport. You up for that, Poo?"

"I am. All of the names of their homes were familiar to me, and I am feeling much better now."

"What about me?" asked Paula, sounding almost eager for a girl that had been unconscious less than an hour ago. "I know I can't teleport, but can I do something to help, Ness?"

"I was thinking I could drop you off at the Onett library. The librarian's pretty on the ball, but it sounds like Apple Kid dropped the book off a while ago so it's probably back on the shelves by now."

"Okay, Ness!" Paula beamed, looking thrilled to have a way to contribute, even if she probably knew as well as Ness did that it was busy work to keep her from feeling left out. "I'll have it back by the time you're done!"

"I know you will," said Ness happily, leaning over just enough to give Paula a light shoulder bump. "So hey, Jeff, while we're doing that, do you want to hang here? You said that some of your gadgets weren't done, and this is probably a better place to work than anywhere else. Maybe you could catch up with your Dad."

"Actually, Ness…" It seemed like such a stupid idea, now that he was at the point of saying it out loud. But Jeff took a deep breath, looked to where Tony was sleeping beside him, and used the sight of his old friend to steady himself enough to say it anyway.

"I was thinking…maybe I could take Tony home by myself. And Sebastian, too, of course."

Just as he'd anticipated, no one looked very in favor of this plan. In fact, they looked downright nervous at the idea.

Ness looked to Paula and Poo, realized they were looking to him, and sighed. "Jeff, it's a pretty long way back to Snow Wood. And some of the monsters that have moved in are really nasty. Don't you think it would be too dangerous, all by yourself?"

"Of course it would be dangerous," said Jeff, insisting as best as he could. "But I know the way better than any of you do. I probably know the way even better than they do! And it's not the first time I've made it alone, surrounded by dangerous monsters. Maybe they're stronger, now…but I think I am, too."

It was more than a matter of practicality. It was more than just making sure that everyone got home as quickly as possible. Jeff knew that…and he thought, looking at the other three children, that they did, too.

Another look was exchanged. Then, almost as one, Ness, Paula, and Poo nodded at one another, and looked back at him.

"…okay," said Ness. He still looked uncertain, but Jeff couldn't blame him. He knew it was a silly thing that he was proposing, even as he also knew that it was important. "I guess it makes sense. You do know the way, and Snow Wood is kind of a pain to teleport from. But, Jeff, I know you've got bazookas and guns and all, but…be careful, okay?"

"I will," said Jeff, feeling nearly dizzy with relief. "Don't worry about me, guys."

"Of course we're going to worry about you, Jeff," said Paula with a wan, worried smile. "That's what friends do. But we know you'll be okay, because friends have faith in each other."

"Just give us a call when you get there," added Ness. "Poo or I will come and get you. Okay?"

"Okay. And, um…"

His three new friends were all smiling at him, their faith in him clear on their faces. His oldest friend was safely sleeping beside him. Everyone was okay, and Jeff had helped make sure they were safe.

There and then, sitting on the steps with them and a pile of empty picnic baskets between them, Jeff felt like he was on top of the world.

"…thanks, guys."


I headcanon that Jeff and Tony have a nice long talk on the way back while they dodge Mooks, and Jeff gets Tony all caught up on what he's been doing. I also headcanon that Jeff stayed the night at Snow Wood after they got there to make sure Tony was really okay, and it was Ness who came to pick him up the next day. Before he did Jeff asked him to stop by somewhere and pick up some delicious chocolate chip cookies. He left the cookies on Tony's bedside table along with a nice note, to make up for the cookies Tony gave him to eat when Jeff first set out.

I just couldn't really find a way to work all that into the story. Maybe it will be a side fic one day.