The power went out in the middle of the Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy marathon. Now, I'm so bored! Normally, I would go visit SpongeBob or Squidward when I'm bored, but it's raining really, really hard. It's dark and scary and the sky's making all kinds of loud noises and it's super windy! At least the emergency lights are working. I thought Sandy was being paranoid when she insisted I had some installed, but I guess there was a method to her manners. Or, however that saying goes.

I glance at my watch. Almost midnight. Wow, I was so into the Mermaid Man marathon, not to mention all the cheesy popcorn I ate, that I hadn't realized how late it was! I hope SpongeBob got home before the storm started. He was visiting his cousin today, and I hate to think of him walking home in this weather.

Still sitting on my couch, I yawn. I should get ready for bed. That would require getting up, though. Maybe I should just sleep on the couch again. This fabric-y one is certainly more comfortable than my old one, which was made entirely of sand. Investing in real furniture was the smartest thing I ever did.

Knock knock knock!

What? Is someone at my rock? Nah, no one's gonna be out in this weather. If I'm smart enough to stay in, there's no way anyone would-

The knocking's getting louder, faster. Is someone actually here? I force myself off the couch, my tenth empty popcorn bowl falling on the sand below. I walk up the sandy incline and lift my rock slightly, immediately dropping it when the freezing cold wind and rain slam into me. I shiver, wishing I was wearing more than just my plaid pajama pants. Nope. No way. Whoever you are, you're on your own.

Knock knock knock!


Knock knock knock!

No! It's too cold!

But...I shouldn't just leave some poor soul out there in this weather. Besides, they could be a nice person. My mind made up, I brace myself for the cold and lift up my rock. I flinch back, almost dropping my rock again. I squint against the downpour and see a pair of muddy sneakers. I look up, finding more dirty clothes: blue jeans and a purple, gray, and black striped hoodie. The person's arms are wrapped tightly around their square body, and-

Even squinting, I'd recognize that shape anywhere. SpongeBob SquarePants, my childhood best friend, is standing before me, shaking so hard I don't know how he's still standing. And, his face; that kind of raw fear and desperation should never be on such a naturally cheerful person's face.

To think, I was gonna leave him out there!

"SpongeBob?" I say once the shock wears off. "What- What are you- Get in here! You're gonna get the suds!"

I lift my rock higher, and he tries to walk inside. To my alarm, instead of walking, he stumbles down the incline and collapses on the floor. I want to help him up, but I can't move. Now that I can see him in better light, it's clear that catching the suds is the last thing he should worry about. He's more blue than yellow, he's shivering so hard that he almost looks like he's having a seizure (I hope that's not what's really going on, because I don't know the number for 9-1-1), and, worst of all, there's a patch of what I'm hoping is ketchup on one of the corners of his head.

Wait, it's getting bigger.

Not ketchup! That is not ketchup!

I kneel down beside him and turn him on to his back, careful not to hurt him any worse. I try to keep my voice from revealing my panic. "SpongeBob? Buddy, what happened?"

His blue eyes look glassy and half-focused. I can barely hear him when he says, "C-c-c-cold…"

Cold? What does he mean- Oh. Oh, yeah, he's probably freezing! I help him to his feet. He's trying to walk, but I'm mostly dragging him to the couch. I brush the crumbs off - can't do anything about the soda stain - and ease him on to the least dirty cushion. Assuring him I'll be right back, I run to go find my first-aid kit and my Mr. Heaty blanket. It runs on batteries, but I'm not sure if those work without power. Well, it's still a blanket.

I find my supplies and head back to the living room. SpongeBob is in a fetal position, his bloody head resting against his knees, and I can hear his teeth chattering from over here. Willing myself to be the smartest I've ever been for him, I gently sit him upright and drape the blanket over him. I turn it on, thankfully the batteries are working, and set it to "Extra Cozy." After a moment, the blanket does it's job and SpongeBob lets out a content sigh, muttering a quiet, "Thank you."

Now that his color's starting to return, aside from a few bluish-green spots, I can focus on his head wound. I open the first-aid kit, trying to remember what comes first. There's a bottle of peroxide. Should I start with that? Or, was it soap and water? Was it both?

I toss the kit aside and run to the bathroom, deciding to start with soap and water. Then, I head back to SpongeBob, soapy towel in hand, and start to clean his wound. He flinches a little at the touch, and I wonder if I'm making things worse. But, I have to clean away the blood to see the injury. I remember that much of Sandy's first-aid lessons. The cut doesn't look as bad as all the blood made it seem, but I think I'll use the peroxide too for good measure. I pick up the bottle of peroxide. Unsure of exactly how much to use, I pour some on a clean part of the towel and wipe the cut. They say less is more, right? Although, I'm not entirely sure what that means.

When SpongeBob flinches harder and hisses in pain, I jerk back. "I'm sorry! I-I don't know what I'm doing!" Don't start crying now, Pat! Your buddy needs you!

"It's fine." His voice sounds stronger. Surely, that's a good sign. "It's supposed to hurt. You're doing great, Pat."

Causing him more pain means I'm doing it right? That...does not make sense. But, SpongeBob usually knows what he's talking about. I continue dabbing at the wound, trying to ignore my pal's obvious discomfort, and shiver. It's starting to get cold in here. I better turn up the heat- Oh, right. No power.

As I start to unwrap some gauze and wrap up SpongeBob's corner, I have one of those thought-thingies. SpongeBob's clothes are soaking wet. Wet clothes are never fun, especially when you're already cold to begin with. Maybe he would be more comfortable in dry clothes.

Proud of my smart-sounding idea, I finish patching up SpongeBob and retreat to my bedroom. I lost my sweater last spring, and I don't have any other long-sleeved shirts. Instead, I throw on a Jellyfish Convention t-shirt and grab SpongeBob the warmest clothes I can find - a dark blue t-shirt and pair of gray sweatpants - and hurry back, making a mental note to get some warmer clothes. Winter is right around the corner, after all.

When I return, the sight before me breaks my heart. SpongeBob has his face buried in the blanket, and he's crying quietly. He cries pretty easily, but this seems different. In fact, everything about him since he got here has been different. Normally when something's wrong, he's either panicking or determined to fix the problem. And, when it's the former, a quick pep talk always leads to the latter.

But this scene right here, not to mention his injuries, including what I'm starting to realize aren't cold spots but bruises… Whatever brought him here tonight must be horrible. I swallow my own tears. It's sick, but I almost wish he'd started crying right when he got here. At least I know how to handle that.

What in Neptune's name do I do about this?

I walk up to him and, fighting the urge to give him the biggest hug my arms can manage, I hold out the clothes. "Uh," his head jerks up and he sniffles and quickly wipes his eyes and nose, "I brought you some...some dry clothes."

"Oh. You didn't- Y-y-you didn't have to-" He sniffs and wipes his eyes again.

What happened to you, buddy? "I'm sorry I don't have anything warmer. But, you're pretty short, so these'll probably be like wearing blankets." I force out a little laugh, knowing that he can never resist laughing along with someone.

He doesn't laugh, but his mouth quirks up in a little smile. Given the circumstances, I don't why I expected anything more. I'll gladly take what I can get. We smile at each other for a moment, then he looks away shyly. "Patrick, could I get some privacy, please?"

"Oh! Uh, yeah, okay."

I hand him the clothes and step into the kitchen, wondering what else I can do. (All this thinking is starting to hurt my head, but SpongeBob is worth over-working my brain for.) Let's see. What's something I can do to make him feel better? Food usually helps me. Oh, better idea! I think I still have some of that mint hot cocoa he likes. Nothing beats a nice mug of hot cocoa on a cold, rainy day.

It's not until I try to heat a mug of water in the microwave that I remember there's still no power. Grunting in defeat, I decide that SpongeBob's probably dressed by now anyway and return to the living room empty-handed.

I almost turn around again when I see him still in his underwear, but I can't stop staring at him. His whole body is covered in bruises. As if that wasn't bad enough, he's crouched down on the floor, clutching my shirt as if his life depends on it, visibly shaking as near-silent tears run down his face.

Work, brain, work! There's got to be something I can do! Should I hold him? Should I ask him what's wrong? Should I take him to the hospital? Maybe not that one; the hospital's kind of far away and it's still storming and I don't have a car. Maybe I should go get Squidward? He's smart, and he lives right next door. But, I can't just leave SpongeBob like this!

Maybe...maybe I should ask SpongeBob.

"Uh, Sponge?"

He gasps, and his head shoots up. He stares at me with wet, terrified eyes that break my heart even more. He throws on the shirt, though it really is more of a blanket on him. "I-I don't think I can wear the pants, but-but thank you."

"Yeah, I figured." I take a tentative step towards him. "Sponge, what do you need? I...I want to help you and...and… Neptune, I don't know how to help you!" Darn it, I can't stop the tears from dripping down my face. It's too much. Seeing my happy-go-lucky best friend, the man who's been my brother since we were kids, in so much pain. It's just too much! "Please, SpongeBob." I kneel in front of him, trying to regain my composure. "Tell me how to help you. I don't care what it is. I'll do it!"

We stare at each other for a while, long enough that I've pretty much gotten myself under control when he suddenly leaps at me and wraps his small arms around me. I hug him back as he shakes and buries his face into my shirt. Is this his answer? Does he just need a hug? He's always been an affectionate person, and he's always loved receiving it as much as giving it.

I don't know how long we stay in this position, but I'll be filleted if I let go first.

Finally, he speaks up, though his voice is muffled by my shirt. "I did something bad."

Is he gonna tell me what happened? "Whatever it was, I'm sure it's nothing we can't fix."

He shakes his head against me. He doesn't say anything for a while, but I can feel him bunch up my shirt in his fists as he begins to shake again. I start to rub his back. He doesn't usually think before he speaks, so I want to give him all the time he needs. This is obviously very important.

"You…" he starts. "You know I was visiting my cousin."

"Did something happen to him?" I ask when he doesn't continue.

His grip relaxes. "Um, yes and no."

"Which is it?"

He pulls back but doesn't look at me. "Well, you've probably heard of BlackJack? The criminal?"

Everyone in Bikini Bottom has heard of BlackJack and his legendary temper, constantly picking fights and pulling horrible revenge stunts.

Wait… Oh, I hate where this is going. "Is that why you're all beat up? Did he hurt you and your cousin?" Because, if he did-

"Not quite." He wrings his hands and bites his lip. "There's...something I never told you." He looks up at me. I don't think I've ever seen him this nervous. "You have to promise not to tell anyone. This has to stay between us."

"Of course."

He nods then lowers his gaze. "Well, the truth is the man everyone else knows as BlackJack, I know as Cousin Jackie." BlackJack's real name is Cousin Jackie? That's a weird name. "BlackJack is my cousin, Patrick. The one I was visiting."

Huh? Oh! Oh… "You're related to a dangerous criminal?"

He sighs. "I don't like to tell people." He looks up at me in a way that reminds me of a kicked baby worm. "I'm not ashamed or anything. It's just that people look at you differently if they know you're related to someone like that."

I place a comforting hand on his shoulder. "You can't help who your family is, SpongeBob."

"I know, I know. But, not everyone sees it that way. He was a bully even when we were kids, but I got the worst of it. All the kids in school were so afraid of Jackie that the friends I did make didn't stick around long."

I can't believe what I'm hearing. How could anyone not want to be friends with SpongeBob SquarePants? "But, you're the nicest guy in the ocean!"

He gives me a sad smile. "Well, to everyone else, I was Jackson SquarePants's cousin and favorite punching bag. To be honest, I don't think I ever had a real friend until you came along."

My brain has never gotten this much of a work-out. First I had to figure how to nurse SpongeBob back to health, now I have to wrap my head around the idea of the friendliest person I know having no friends? What's next?

And, we didn't even live in the same town back then. SpongeBob didn't move to Bikini Bottom until he was an adult. We'd met at summer camp and stayed in contact through letters and phone calls. I wonder how different things would have been if we went to the same schools the whole time. Or, if I hadn't had to repeat so many grades, so we could have at least been in the same school at some point. Maybe then he wouldn't have been so alone. Did he have any friends in any grade? How long did he and BlackJack go to the same school?

"I know I should have told someone," SpongeBob continues, "but I-I was scared. Scared of what Jackie would do if I tattled."

Now, it's not tears I have to reign in; now, I'm furious. "So, you just sat there and took it?"

"You don't know him, Patrick! He's always had a temper, but it just kept getting worse as we got older! This is gonna sound mean, but I was miserable until he moved when I was twelve. I thought I was finally safe." He pauses then sighs. "I mean, it's not like I never saw him again after that. He was arrested a couple years ago for," he swallows and stares down at his clenched fists in his lap, "assaulting a police officer. I visited him sometimes."

"You willingly went to see the guy who made you miserable?" And, people think I do stupid stuff.

SpongeBob shrugs. I wish he would look at me again. "He's family. I know I should, but I just can't turn my back on him."

"You're too nice, SpongeBob. That's your problem."

His shoulders shake in a silent laugh. Seems like progress to me. "Anyway, we talked a lot during my visits, and it was...nice. Maybe it was the glass barrier between us, but we were more civil than we'd ever been. I think he was lonely. Sure, he mentioned making friends while incarcerated, but I think he really just wanted to see his family. To know that someone on the outside was thinking about him." SpongeBob looks up at me then, and the smile on his face almost makes him seem like his old self. "After a few visits, he really seemed happy to see me. Oh, you should have seen the way his eyes would light up whenever I was there. After all these years, we were finally connecting!"

I want to ask what this has to do with him getting hurt or why he was so sad before, but I stop myself at the last minute. He's so happy right now, like he was never upset to begin with, and I can't risk ruining that.

He continues in a blissful daze. "And, wouldn't you know? He was just released from prison this morning! That's why I was visiting him. I was gonna help him figure out what to do next. Where to stay and all that. Of course, he'd have to make the money to afford that first." Then, his face falls. I wish he would go back to smiling! "And, um, you know how we sprung for the fancy gold friendship rings?"

I nod, but I'm still not sure where he's going with this.

"Well, I was wearing it, and he asked about it. I...might have mentioned how expensive it was." He draws in a shaky breath. "He wanted to-to see what it was worth. I'd do anything for my family, but I have to draw the line s-somewhere." I pull him close. He grips my shirt, and I realize with dismay that he's crying. "We argued, and-and- He was so angry! I just- I just- I just-"

I rub his back and gently shush him. "Buddy, you don't have to keep going."

He inhales sharply. "I have to tell you the truth." His breathing becomes even more uneven as he fights to control his sobs. "I gave it to him, Pat! I gave him our friendship ring!"

Then, he lets go, sobbing harder than I've seen him do in a long time, muttering garbled apologies about what a coward and a bad friend he is. Meanwhile, my mind is elsewhere.

SpongeBob was always the more emotional one between us. Typically, this is shown through his constant smiles and laughter and can-do attitude, a bubbly innocence that even I can't help but envy. Unfortunately, he's also the type of person who feels things to the extreme. When he's happy, he's bouncing around the room, dizzy with glee. When he's angry, which is rare but not unheard of, he's not afraid to give you an earful. When he's sad, he sobs his heart out.

But, the worst is when he feels guilty. A guilty SpongeBob is a SpongeBob who obsesses over what-ifs, berates himself for not being better, assumes people hate him for what happened, even outright hates himself. Losing his friendship ring isn't the end of the world to me. Neptune knows I've lost my own enough times. It's not that I don't care about it, it's just that those rings are more like formalities to me. In fact, it was SpongeBob who suggested joining the Best Friends Forever Club. He did it because of the sentimentality; I did it because it sounded like fun. He's always put more stock into trinkets because of the memories he associates with them. Not that I don't do that too. He just does it more than me.

From the sound of it, it's BlackJack's fault that the ring is gone, but SpongeBob doesn't see it that way. SpongeBob thinks that he wasn't brave enough, strong enough to keep it. And, I don't tolerate anyone hurting my friends, especially this friend. I've never met BlackJack, but I hate him. I hate that the sweetest guy in the sea is forced to call him his cousin. I hate that I don't know if he genuinely likes SpongeBob or was just taking advantage of his loyalty. I hate that BlackJack isn't here so I can punch him and kick him and force-feed him broccoli and-


A tiny voice snaps me out of my fury. SpongeBob is staring up at me, his hands pulled up to his chest like he'd jerked them back. The amount of raw terror in his eyes makes me wonder what my own face looked like when I was thinking about that rotten, no good, double-crossing-

SpongeBob shrinks back further and shakes harder. "Patrick?"

Tartar sauce! I've got to learn to control my face better. I take a deep breath, trying to keep my temper from rising any further. "Did you at least fight back? You know karate. Did you make sure to give him a few good karate chops?"

His eyes well up again, and he shakes his head. "He...he's family, Pat. I couldn't- I could ne-ever-" He sniffs. "I'm sorry-"

"I'm not mad at you, SpongeBob. I'm mad at BlackJack."

SpongeBob's already big eyes get bigger. "But, I'm the one who-"

"The one who what?" I say firmly, sick of watching him spiral. "Did you tell BlackJack to hurt you? Did you want to give him our ring?"

"I just wanted him to stop hurting me." A tear slides down his face. I wipe it away, and he grabs my wrist. He lowers my hand and holds it in both of his, staring down at it and absent-mindedly brushing his thumbs over it. "I'm weak, Pat. I can't even go to the police, because I'm too afraid of what would happen if...if he finds out. It's nothing new. I've always been too afraid of him to say anything." His voice sounds distant, like he's here physically but his mind is somewhere I can't follow. "My family thought I was just a klutz as a child. My parents might have suspected something, but-but they never pushed. And, my teachers knew Jackie was troubled, but I don't think they knew how bad it was." He shakes his head. His voice is barely above a whisper. "I thought it was over. Why isn't it over?"

It takes three tries to swallow the lump in my throat. Never, in all the years we've been friends, have I ever seen SpongeBob like this. He's been sad before, he's hit low points before, but this? This is a side of SpongeBob I never imagined existed. It hits me then that maybe this isn't really about losing his friendship ring. Maybe he just needs a hand to hold. Well, he's already holding one of my hands, but I've still got one more. I just need to figure out what to do with it.

SpongeBob sighs and runs his hand over his face. "I'm sorry to go off on you like this." He releases my hand. "I know it's late-" He freezes and stares up at me, a different kind of fear on his face. "Pat, what time is it?"

Wondering why that's suddenly so important, I look at my watch. "A little after one."

"Barnacles! I told Gary I'd be home by ten! Oh, he's probably worried sick!" He shoots to his feet, only to collapse on top of me, his face twisted in agony. "I gotta get home, Pat."

"No way."

"But, Gary-"

I hold him by the shoulders and glare at him. "SpongeBob, you are in no condition to go out there." As if trying to prove it, a loud crash of thunder echoes from outside. "You're gonna stay here tonight."

But, it looks like SpongeBob is channeling his serious face, too. "Patrick Star, my snail is all alone and was expecting me home hours ago. I don't care if there's a zombie apocalypse outside. My Gare-Bare needs his PapaBob."

He lost me at "zombie apple lips," but I know better than to argue with SpongeBob where his snail is concerned. I run to grab my raincoat - I only have one, and SpongeBob's gonna wear it whether he wants to or not - and my umbrella. After going back and forth with SpongeBob for a while, I finally cave and wear the raincoat. He discards my shirt and changes back into his own, warmer clothes. They're still wet, but at least he's better protected. When he's ready, I hand him the umbrella, and lift up my rock. We both shrink at the sudden blast of rain and frigid air. I think it's raining harder than before.

SpongeBob opens the umbrella with some difficulty, and I help him out of my rock, letting it drop back down with a thud. Seeing my pal's legs shake, I pick him up and start to carry him to his house.

"Patrick," he says, struggling to keep the umbrella from blowing away, "this really isn't necessary."

"Yes, it is," I protest.

We're in front of Squidward's house, when he says, "I do appreciate this, Pat. All of it. I know I don't usually act like this, and-"

"I love you, SpongeBob," I say, just in case he's about to berate himself again. "I don't care about the time or the ring or whatever. I'm just glad you're okay."

He doesn't say anything at first. Then, he sighs and snuggles closer to me. I can barely hear him over the wind and thunder. "I'm so glad you're my friend."

Suddenly, the umbrella flies away, and we're soaked in seconds. I realize with an odd mix of calm and alarm that SpongeBob has fallen asleep. I hurry the rest of the way to his house and, relieved to find his keys in his pocket, let us inside.

Almost the second we're safely indoors - SpongeBob has emergency lights too, thank Neptune - a frantic Gary slithers our way, faster than I've ever seen him move (which isn't saying much). He meows too loud, and I shush him. SpongeBob twitches in my arms but doesn't wake up.

I carry him upstairs to his room and lay him on his bed. I then find him a set of pajamas and wonder how I can change his clothes without waking him. I try to take off his shirt, but his eyes flutter open.

"Sorry," I say. "I was trying to," I hold up the pajamas, "put you in something dry." It's then that I notice the wet spot on his comforter. Maybe I should have dried him off before I put him on the bed.

SpongeBob grunts and slowly sits up. "I can do it. You've done enough for me. More than I can repay you for." He takes the pajamas. "Turn around, please."

I do as I'm told. "Why do you have to repay me? This is what friends are for."

"It's just that you're always taking care of me."

"You take care of me, too. It balances out." Is that the right phrase? "And, even if it didn't, you're still my best friend, SpongeBob. Seeing you sad makes me sad, so I think I'm actually being selfish."

The minute I stop talking, I can't help but question whether or not that was the right thing to say. Then, once he's fully clothed, he tells me to turn back around. I do so and he leaps at me and wraps me in a hug. "You're not selfish, Patrick. If anything, tonight proves the opposite." His voice tightens. "I love you so much, buddy."

My heart soars as I return his embrace, basking in the fact that I managed to scrounge up enough brain cells to help the most important person in my life. When Gary eventually makes his way in here and SpongeBob doesn't react, I realize that my pal's fallen asleep again. That's the second time tonight. Either he's really tired or my flab is really comfy. Could be both.

As I lift SpongeBob up on his bed, trying to avoid the wet part, Gary gives me a concerned, questioning look. I just shake my head. It's SpongeBob's story to tell, not mine. Gary seems to get the message. He meows, quieter this time, and slithers up on the bed, curling up next to his owner. I tuck my pal in and, deciding that I've probably done all I can do, make my way down the stairs. I grab a blanket from the closet, head for the living room, and lay down on the couch. I try to go to sleep, but I can't stop thinking. It's a strange feeling.

One thing's for sure; if I ever meet BlackJack, I'll grind him into chum. SpongeBob is sweet, compassionate, always eager to lend a hand, always finding ways to make you smile. Anyone who would willingly hurt someone like that is the worst person in the sea.

SpongeBob. I hope he feels better once he gets some sleep. I hope he doesn't have any nightmares because of this. Something else occurs to me. He has to go to work tomorrow. Wait, no he doesn't, because I'm going to make him take time off. I don't care what he says. I don't care if I don't get a Krabby Patty. I don't care if I have to sit on him. There is no way I am letting him leave this house until he is one hundred percent recovered.

He is my best friend, my brother. He's always being selfless and helping other people. This time I'm going to help him.

I don't consider Kamp Koral to be canon, but I like the idea of SpongeBob and Patrick meeting at summer camp. And, yes, I took some creative liberties with BlackJack. He was only in one episode, and SpongeBob did seem pretty terrified of him, after all.