Gohan Had Been On Namek
"Mom… he can't breathe…"
Chichi paused for a moment, the washcloth trembling in her hand.
Goku wasn't struggling anymore – he was lying limply, chest rising and falling laboriously, each inhale and exhale followed by a weak moan – he had been far from lucid when Piccolo had brought him home, but at least he was talking –
She moved his bangs out of the way, frowning at the way his skin was radiating heat and she pressed the cloth on his forehead again.
"It's… it's this fever. It's too high," she said and she glanced over at the clock on the nightstand. "Your grandfather should have been here already, along with the doctor… where are they?"
Without warning, Goku whimpered and twisted himself in a way that was frighteningly unnatural.
Gohan had been on Namek; he was there – he was there when the planet cracked in half and started to swallow itself whole and the heat from the lava made the air thick and unbreathable and impenetrable. He was there when Krillin died at the hands of Freeza in the most brutal way a mind could possibly conceive; he was there when the Saiyans killed his dad's friends one by one by one – when they killed Piccolo; Gohan was only four years old when he had found himself away from his mommy and his daddy, in the middle of nowhere, just trying to stay alive and he was there and he was four when a huge guy who claimed to be his uncle came from nowhere and changed his world forever.
Nothing, however, had prepared Gohan to stand there, at the side his parents' bed, when his dad had looked at him with scared, lost eyes and had simply – not recognized him.
And nothing, nothing had prepared him to stand and watch as his dad tilted his head back on the pillow, his teeth gritted in agony – and turned blue.
His mother's voice held a broken terror, a wary tension he had never heard before. She usually screamed a lot; ranted even more – so the thin whisper that left Chichi's throat was something Gohan was not prepared for either and, when his dad's only answer was a ragged, strangled gasp for air, Gohan backed away from the bed on a reflex, on legs that felt like stone – staring with wide eyes.
Chichi grabbed Goku's shoulders, shaking him, shaking him as hard as she could – but he wasn't there. His eyes were shut tight and he had gone rigid, stiff as a board – every muscle in his body contracted as if trying to resist an invisible force or an unbearable pain – his hair so drenched in perspiration it was sticking to his face.
"Goku, what is it?" she called, shaking him again. "Can you hear me?"
A moment of silence passed – a few seconds that stretched to infinity in Chichi and Gohan's perception – an unequivocal moment of silence that told them that Goku, their Goku, was not drawing any breath at all.
Gohan felt his heart slip through his knees.
Chichi's hands squeezed the fabric of Goku's shirt on their own accord – she thought she was going to die from the freezing terror that pierced through her chest.
Then there was a wretched gasp – a violent spasm coursed through Goku's body and he twisted on the mattress with a jerk – but he was breathing. He was breathing – in fast, harsh wheezes, but he was breathing and to Chichi and Gohan's ears it was the most beautiful sound in the universe.
Chichi hurried to ease Goku on his back – but he was shaking violently, tossing back and forth, his limbs flailing – she didn't know how to keep him from hurting himself –
Gohan jumped a little when his mother shouted for him. Stunned, he looked up at her; he blinked and, in doing so, the forlorn tears pooled in the corners of his eyes trickled quietly down his cheeks. Yes, he had been on Namek. And yes, he had seen more things than any other kid his age. But he had never heard his father sobbing convulsively like a child stuck in a nightmare. Like whatever had him in its grasp wanted him all for itself – as far as Gohan was concerned,that was the nightmare and he was stuck.
He had never seen his dad that sick; come to think of it, he couldn't recall seeing him sick at all, ever – and he was just talking to him, anyway! He was going to get senzu beans from Korin and then home and then – he was struggling to get a breath? That couldn't be happening. It was his dad, it just… couldn't…
Gohan stopped thinking. He jumped from his spot near the wall and run to the bedside – he clutched his father's hands, grasping, squeezing them; he tried to keep the tossing and turning to a minimum, giving Chichi the opportunity to dip the washcloth in the basin.
"Dad, dad," Gohan said, tightening his hold on Goku's hands, hoping to elicit some kind of answer or at least to give some comfort. His voice trembled only slightly. "It's okay. I'm here… you saved me, see? I'm alright."
"Here," Chichi said urgently, as she returned to his side and started to bathe Goku's face and neck. "What was he doing with Piccolo?" she all but hissed, while she worked to bring the fever down. "And in this rain?"
Gohan bit on his lower lip. His dad's face was utterly colorless and he was shivering so bad – it was terrifying. Gohan had thought he had seen it all and that nothing could scare him anymore – but holding his father's hand, listening to his harsh breathing while nothing they did or said seemed to be of any help at all – that was terrifying, it was a tingling fear starting deep in the pit of his stomach and spreading inexorably.
"I don't know, mom," he said at last. He didn't think what was happening had anything to do with Piccolo, or with the skirmish – yeah, right – with Vegeta for that matter. So, he figured, if he knew a thing or two about his mother, shutting up about that was probably going to help his father more than talking about it. "Really, I don't know," he said once again, as an answer to his mother's skeptical stare. Chichi shook her head.
"He was fine this morning…" she muttered and she was about to get up to wet the cloth again when Goku's eyes blinked open. Clouded and unfocused, they were looking around without seeing – his breathing was coming in gasps that were getting shorter and shorter.
Gohan tried to smile, but he felt his stomach twist icily. "Daddy?"
Goku weakly raised his head, only to let it fall on the pillow a moment later. He was straining, trying to talk – he couldn't stop panting long enough to form a full sentence.
He arched his back. "I need to – train… please… " he gasped. "Let me – let me go out –
Gohan and Chichi exchanged a nervous look.
"We'll go tomorrow, dad, promise," Gohan said, trying to keep the panic out of his voice. "Try to get some rest now, please…"
Goku was trashing restlessly, moaning – he clutched his chest, he tugged at the fabric of his blue undershirt, pulling frantically, maniacally. "It hurts!" he choked out in between heavy panting. "It – hurts –
Chichi's eyes widened. She felt all the blood drain from her face, but she forced herself to act anyway – she shook her head and quickly rearranged the wet cloth on Goku's burning forehead, as futile as it was, it gave her the impression she was doing something –
"Goku, sst…" she tried to soothe. "Calm down..."
"Where is she…" Goku sobbed, blindly tossing and turning. His voice got lost in a violent spasm. "Where – is she –
Chichi frowned, then Gohan looked up, seemingly snapping out of the horror in which he had fallen down.
"It's grandpa!" he shouted and almost simultaneously the front door downstairs slammed open and the Ox King's booming voice echoed throughout the house.
"Chichi! Chichi, we're here!"
Chichi felt herself going weak with relief – she had never been happier to hear her father's voice.
"Oh… thank Kami…" she murmured. Gohan didn't lose any more time – his heart hammering in his chest, he dashed down the stairs to meet the doctor and a moment later he was practically dragging the man inside the room where Goku was losing his mind and himself to an invisible enemy.
He didn't know how he found himself in the kitchen with his grandpa while the doctor and his mother were inside – he just knew that he was. He felt numb – like the zombies from that book he'd been reading –
"Gohan, my boy," the Ox King said. "It's going to be alright, you know. Your father is young, and strong."
Gohan looked up. He wanted to ask – did you see, grandpa, when he didn't know I was there? He couldn't breathe – I saw his lips turning blue – did you see, grandpa, when his lips turned blue?
"He's the strongest in the universe, you know that better than me, right?"
Gohan nodded. A fractured, faltering nod – and his jaw started to quiver silently, silently, silently – until his face twisted in despair and he started to cry – loudly, desolately. Wailing.
He stumbled into his grandfather's embrace and wept – because he was eight years old and yes, he was the son of the strongest of the universe and yes, he had been on Namek among other things – but never before he had felt hopelessness deep within his gut when looking at his father.
Goku doesn't know how or why, but he's walking down the street leading to the Tenkaichi Budokai stadium.
He hurries his pace, because it's raining, it's a particular rainy day – and because he's impatient, he's excited - the thrill of an upcoming challenge rushes through him so he runs and runs and it's funny, he remembers the street to be much shorter, and much less steep – but he's almost there and he doesn't stop running.
And he's almost there when with the corner of his eye he spots a bunny-shaped, yellow balloon floating up towards the sky – he thinks that it shouldn't matter to him but somehow it does.
It was the feeling of something too warm weighing down on his arm that brought Goku back, making him lose the threads of the rainy dream.
The first thing he thought was that it was hot and that it was uncomfortable – and that he was tired and that his chest was sore and that a dull pain was pounding everywhere, in every muscle, in every bone. He thought that maybe Piccolo had hit him too hard one time too many during their training; he could hear the namekian's gruff voice in his head telling him it was 'about time someone punched a Super Saiyan'.
Goku would have laughed, really, he would have – if only he weren't so… spent. Emptied. His brain felt like mush and had it always been so difficult to open his eyes? He couldn't remember… his eyelids weighed a ton each right now, that was the only sure thing.
Sluggishly, he thought that his arm felt weird and tingly – he wasn't that sure it was still actually attached to his body and if it wasn't, well, that wasn't good – sometimes he really envied Piccolo and his ability to grow limbs out of nowhere… it was so cool… and green... and… bizarre… but maybe it was better to check the situation out.
He forced his eyes open with great, great effort – at first, he couldn't see a thing; he blinked and slowly, slowly his vision became slightly clearer, but still blurred at the edges, like in a dreamscape – maybe it was all a dream. He was dreaming of being a short-sighted namekian, that was it… the image of Piccolo wearing dark-rimmed glasses danced before him and Goku chuckled softly then he winced when the small laugh turned into a painful cough.
Probably a bad call.
With a groan, Goku turned his head toward his missing arm and found out that it wasn't missing after all – a black, thick mop of something, of hair, was resting on the top of it and it weighed and it was too hot and it was uncomfortable and the bespectacled Namek dream was ten times better but –
It was Gohan.
Goku blinked and he was sure – he was in his bed and Gohan was sitting at his side, slumped and asleep on his arm. Goku frowned – why… what on earth was going on?
Keeping his eyes open was a really demanding task for some reason, so Goku let them flutter close and he huffed hard through his nose as he tried to remember – there was a lot, a lot of rain and… he was running? No, that couldn't be right – why run when you can fly – he remembered Piccolo, vaguely – and Vegeta. Vegeta and… and her.
He had to get up.
Goku moaned – he tried to sit up, but it was beyond difficult. He tried to shift a little then, but it was so very hard; his whole body felt like it was made out of lead. Squirming, he tried to free his arm without disturbing Gohan but –
"…Uh? Dad? Dad, what is it? MOM!"
Goku winced as Gohan's shout reverberated throughout his skull. He grimaced and forcibly peeled his eyes open again.
He wasn't expecting his voice to come out that low and croaky – but apparently even that was enough to make Gohan jump. The kid looked down in surprise and, for a reason Goku couldn't fathom, his eyes lit up in pure, crystalline joy.
"D-dad? You – you're awake!" he said loudly and Goku scrunched his eyes shut against the increasing pounding in his head. Gohan immediately switched from joy to panic. "What's wrong?"
Goku swallowed. The more he woke up, the more the ache in his chest arose, assaulting his lungs as well as his heart – even his ribcage was hurting. Great… why couldn't it just leave him alone? He tried to clear his voice a little. "Nothing, just… my arm's asleep."
"What?" Gohan said, then he sat up a little straighter and moved away from his father's arm. "Oh, oh, sorry! Hehehe!" he smiled shyly and brought a hand behind his head. "Mom told me I could sit with you only if I kept up with my homework, but I guess I fell asleep. I… it's so good to see you like this."
Goku frowned. "Why… wha-what happened…?"
Gohan bit on his lower lip. Goku couldn't see very well, but it looked like Gohan was trying and failing to hold back tears. A soft sniffle escaped the boy – and then another and then another and a teary-eyed smile made his appearance on his face.
Goku opened his mouth, but before he could inquire any further, Chichi's shrill voice pierced through the fog in his brain and a moment later she came running into the room.
"Gohan! What's wrong, is he – " she stopped short and she screeched to a halt beside Gohan when she saw that Goku was awake and staring at her with a slightly alarmed gaze. "GOKU! Oh, thank goodness! How are you feeling? Do you know where you are? No, don't try to talk! Are in pain? Are you thirsty?"
Goku blinked frantically at the impressive speed at which Chichi was talking and at the threatening tone she managed to sneak in even when she sounded mostly worried – his head was spinning. He didn't know what was the safest route to take until he realized that yes, he was, in fact, thirsty. In fact, he was parched. In fact in fact, he would have given anything for a drop of water.
He gulped. "Hem… yes to… thirsty?"
When Chichi's stern face melted into a small smile, Goku rejoiced a little because at least he had given the right answer – he would have patted himself on the back, but now his hands were heavy and stiff like pieces of wood, impossible to lift. Maybe later.
"Of course," Chichi said and she turned to the bedside table where she filled a cup with cool water. She brought it to Goku's lips and tilted it only slightly. "Here, slowly."
Goku raised his head a little, eager to drain the whole cup with one huge swallow, no matter what Chichi thought – but it didn't happen. After two small sips he was full and the relief the water brought him was soon forgotten, because the effort of keeping his head up was all-consuming. The dull ache in his chest wasn't letting up; he couldn't remember ever feeling so weak – maybe after his very first fight with Vegeta, but at least at the time he had the excuse of having been crushed by a giant ape, you know –
Completely spent, he dropped his head on the pillow and closed his eyes, trying to steady himself by breathing hard through his nose.
"Thank you, Chichi," he said when he felt like he could talk. He groggily opened his eyes and saw that Chichi was sporting the same teary-eyed, strained smile as Gohan. He blinked. Actual tears were streaming down Chichi's face. Confusion didn't even begin to explain what he was feeling.
"Why… why is everybody crying…?"
Chichi shook her head and hastily wiped her cheeks with the back of her hand.
"Goku, you've been so sick!" she exclaimed.
"Sick?" Goku echoed, uttering the word as though it was an idiom from a foreign language altogether.
Chichi nodded. "You've been out for the past three days. You…" she trailed off and sighed. A second later, her usual scowl was back. "Anyway, you're doing much better now. Maybe next time you'll think twice before going running around during the storm of the century."
There was a small crease on Goku's forehead when he turned his head on the pillow to better look at Chichi. He wanted to say something – something meaningful. But every time he focused on her – it hurt. And that made him sad beyond words; it was getting harder to breathe, so he said the only thing he could think of, in a thick whisper.
She held his gaze, squinting – then she blinked and a lonely tear that was still clinging on her bottom eyelash trickled down and lined her left cheek. She lowered her head so much that her eyes disappeared behind her bangs – Goku could barely see her face, but he made to speak again – Chichi didn't give him the chance. She straightened and turned to put the glass back on the bedside table, severing the tenuous line of communication that had been there for a few instants – their world went back to be what it always had been. Full of gaps and empty spaces.
"So how are you feeling, dad?" Gohan said.
Goku sighed. He felt hot, very hot – he realized in that moment that a thick layer of sweat was clinging to his skin – there was very little air in the room as far as he was concerned.
"Fine… can you – can you open the window, please?" he asked, fidgeting as a restless feeling washed all over him. He would have given anything to be able to make a run for the woods, free and without restraint. Before Gohan could say anything, Chichi turned again, her hands on her hips.
"Don't be silly," she all but snapped. "You want to spike a fever again?"
It took Goku all he had not to roll his eyes – he needed the air. He pushed himself on his elbows and did his best to ignore the black and yellow spots swimming in his vision. He gritted his teeth and braced himself for the next part, the most difficult – this was getting ridiculous, he thought, as he drew a shaky breath and sat up – but a hand on his chest pushed him back down with ease. What the…?
"Don't get up, I'll do it." Gohan's voice said. 'Don't get up'? Goku thought in disbelief – he wanted to protest, but he couldn't find the breath to do so. A moment later, a gust of fresh air entered the room.
"Here. Is it better?"
"Yeah," Goku said, with a hasty nod against the pillow. "Thank you."
Chichi shook her head. "You're impossible," she said. Then her scowl softened a little bit. "That's a good sign I guess. The doctor wants to see you again anyway, he said he would like another blood sample."
Goku's eyes shot open at that.
"A-another what?" Goku stuttered. "As-as-as in needles?! Needles in my arms?"
Chichi rolled her eyes. "Why, yes, Goku."
"But... but it's my blood! Mine!"
Gohan couldn't help but let out a giggle – it had been so painful and disconcerting when his dad had not so much as flinched when the doctor had given him all those injections the first night; seeing him react 'normally', albeit weakly to that… well, Gohan wanted to jump for joy. He would never ever again think of his dad's phobia as embarrassing. Right now, it was the best thing in the world, along with his mom's usual short temper.
"Don't be such a baby, it's decided already!" Chichi said. "The doctor said this looks like a really bad pneumonia, but he wants to get to the bottom of it. In the meantime, you need to rest, mister! No training, no nonsense until this is sorted out! Is that clear?"
"Is that clear?"
Goku gulped and shrank under the blankets. "Yes, ma'am."
Chichi nodded. "Good. Now stay put while I get your medicine and something for you to eat."
When he was sure she was gone, Goku sighed and, with some effort, he draped an arm over his face.
"Oh, man…" he all but whined. The whole situation sucked in so many ways it wasn't even funny. And it wasn't like he hadn't been trying to gather his energy and get out of bed the whole time – he had, he just… couldn't find any. He didn't have any. He wanted to go to Bulma and do whatever it took to make her take back the 'I really hate you' he could not forget… even if it meant hunting Vegeta down and dragging him back by the ears. Even that, anything, anything for her… but how was he supposed to do that if he couldn't even lift his head. And how was he supposed to keep it together for Gohan if he felt like everything was out of his control like never before – and Chichi… that was the worst –
Gohan gave him a contrite smile.
Goku huffed and let the arm fall at his side. The dull ache in his chest was slowly becoming a full-fledged searing pain. He gritted his teeth. "For a moment there I thought she was going to yell at me about homework too."
Gohan giggled softly. He had never seen his dad in sulking mode. "Well, that's not too bad..." he said gently and waved the small notebook on which he had been working before falling asleep. "See, this is the paper I was working on. It's about what I would like to be when I grow up… I don't know that for sure, so I'm writing about being an astronaut! It's great, I'm using all the details of the trip to Namek with Krillin and Bulma! Before it got crazy, of course."
Goku smiled wearily. "That sounds fun."
"Yeah, it is. Don't tell mom I still think about that or she'll flip."
"I won't," Goku said and when the pang hit, and did so hard, he scrunched his eyes tight and tried to breathe through it. He didn't want to give in – he wasn't going to give in, there was something he had to say first – he couldn't remember what it was. It was too hot to remember. No, wait, now he could but he couldn't remember why. He gasped softly.
"You… you…" Goku swallowed hard, painfully. He flicked his tongue round his lips."…always think with your head, Gohan, promise that… ah!"
He lost his breath after that – and any sense of the here and now. The ugly vicious hand squeezing his heart didn't like to be ignored –
Gohan stood up.
The nagging feeling in his stomach was back – spreading to his throat, making it swell and Gohan knew what it was – foreboding. But it wasn't like he could allow those thoughts to take shape. He focused on the present, trying to not think about the unthinkable.
He took one of his dad's hands in his and squeezed lightly. "I… I promise."
And his dad seemed to have heard – he opened his eyes and smiled a little.
Gohan smiled back. "Are you okay?" he asked, hoping his voice wasn't trembling as much as his legs.
Goku squeezed back with his hand and closed his eyes, still straining to smile – something was dragging him down, though, something powerful.
He did his best to nod. "Mh-mh."
A couple of long minutes went by – Gohan watched, transfixed, every single rise and fall of his dad's chest. It looked like it was a very exhausting process, but the hand Gohan was holding was warm and still strong. It was nothing like the other night, so Gohan focused on the present.
"Sleep, daddy," he said. "You'll feel better."
Gohan's reassuring words in his mind, Goku slipped into a deep, heavy slumber almost immediately. He was sure Gohan was right – he was smarter than him and better than him –
He didn't even stir when Chichi brought a tray carrying food that smelled real good – he was swimming in a dream that tasted of melting marshmallows and salty water. The wind carried faraway voices overlapping onto each other and he was sure that the glittering sea before him was the very first he had ever seen.
"Look, look, we're really here! It's huge and blue and beautiful! The sea…"
"Isn't it beautiful?"
He was underwater – deep and clear, closing the distance to Bulma's mouth, wishing to kiss her endlessly, no need to breathe down there.
Gohan saw his dad smiling in his sleep and relaxed a little, allowing himself to believe his own words.
In her dreams, Bulma can see him clearly.
She can see him holding the baby in the crook of his arm, and with his other arm he's holding her. They are walking down the lakeshore, the three of them, and it's blue and sunny and peaceful and she wishes they could do that forever.
It was the rising wail of a crying baby that brought Bulma back, making her lose the threads of the deep blue dream. She jolted on the mattress in surprise, blinking owlishly at the ceiling.
She took a moment to regain her bearings, then she groaned.
Everything was overwhelming at night, it didn't take much to demoralize her, to make her feel inadequate.
She slowly sat up and the movement forced her to glance at the empty side of her bed. It had been empty for a while, but maybe nobody had really filled that place, ever. She had always been on her own. And she had been a fool to believe that Vegeta's presence would have done any good to her; sometimes, despite everything that had happened that cursed day of march, she couldn't help but wonder where he was – and how he was trying to defeat Goku's haunting, intoxicating presence.
But he had left and she knew she had been a fool. A fool to believe that Vegeta's presence would have done any good to Trunks.
A name following the tradition of her family, a name that told everybody that that tiny person with deep blue eyes was hers and hers alone. She had even gotten rid of the tail; an effort – an effort to feel even a small connection with her son – because it was so hard. So so very hard.
Trunks was a month old and Bulma knew the drill. She could wash him and feed him, change him and get him to sleep. All the other things – she didn't know. It was as though she was suspended, going through the motions, waiting for Kami-knew-what.
She did everything she was supposed to do, but the motions were almost devoid of any deep meaning – she was like a very good nanny, taking good care of the baby but always waiting for the moment in which she was supposed to hand it back to the real parents.
Trunks cried louder for a moment and Bulma hurried to the crib and picked him up.
"I know, I know," she whispered and it was true, she did know. She wanted to wail and scream and kick as well.
Trunks quieted quickly as she held him to her chest, rocking him back and forth while she paced in a daze, up and down before the window.
"I know," she repeated.
And then it came, as always. The feeling of something in the back of her neck, something holding her from behind. It was Goku, Goku's hands. She knew that touch and she knew that warmth, she knew his breath, but she couldn't turn around.
She wondered if he could sense her as well as she could sense him. But of course he could; if nothing else, he had that annoying ability to detect ki. She hated him so much, his eyes and his arms and his scent and his stupid simplicity.
She thought about the way he brought an arm behind his head and how he scratched his head while he laughed.
Bulma squeezed her eyes shut and hold Trunks a little tighter.
"I miss you…" she whispered to the empty room. Putting everything in that thick whisper, every wish, every emotion, good or bad, she had ever felt.
Trunks resumed his wailing and Bulma cursed herself and her too loud whisper.
"Come on, Trunks," she said impatiently, rocking him a little more forcefully. When he showed no intention of winding down anytime soon, Bulma stopped near the window and settled him back into his crib.
She sat down numbly on the edge of the bed. Let him cry, she thought, gripping the sheets between her clenched fists –
She realized what she was doing only several minutes later. She snapped out of it almost with a jump, a leap out of the abyss.
She sprung to her feet and quickly picked up her son.
"I'm sorry," she all but sobbed and Trunks sobbed louder than ever, maybe sensing her fear and her distress. "Sst…"
She lay back in the middle of her huge bed. She raised her arms and kept Trunks there, hovering above her head. He stopped squirming and crying after a few moments, only a few hiccups and then he was peaceful, looking down with those big blue eyes.
Bulma cracked a smile.
"You like to fly, huh?" she said. Her smile widened a bit. "You'll learn."
For the past hour, the only thing Goku had been able to think about had been Mr. Popo's voice for some reason. It sure was weird how his mind wandered about lately – but maybe it wasn't completely random.
He had been sitting on that uncomfortable chair with one leg crossed over the other, and his dangling foot had been going crazy, moving up and down on its own accord – when he had suddenly remembered when he was a kid sitting on the floor of Kami's lookout.
"You must be like a stone."
"Calm and still, so the rain and wind cannot move you. You see?"
Goku chuckled – he remembered thinking that being a stone was harder than it looked and boy, wasn't that true. He tried to stop the frantic movement of his leg, but to no avail.
"You must be more tranquil than the sky yet quicker than lightning."
Goku's face stretched into a wistful smile at the memory. Mr. Popo would have surely hit him on the head with his stick if he'd seen him now - try as he might, Goku couldn't focus on what was happening, until what was happening hit him in the face with all its enormity, with all its weight.
"Do you understand what I'm saying?"
Goku blinked slowly.
"I'm calm as the sky and still as a stone."
His heart slowed down for real and he breezily thought that Mr. Popo would have been proud of him now – he didn't realize that his smile had melted into something wary.
He stared for a long moment before finally answering the question with another question.
"Is this some kind of joke?"