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“My driver is here, can I call you when I’m in my apartment?”

As he speaks, Karl pushes his satchel behind his hip so it won’t embarrass him by falling forwards while he tugs the handle of the car door open. He switches languages to greet his driver with a cheerful, “Ciao!” before continuing in Greek to bid his friend Sapnap goodbye and end the call.

His driver meets his eyes in the rearview mirror, accent thick as he returns Karl’s greeting in casual Italian, “Evening! Did you get everything you needed?”

Karl lets out an airy sigh, holding his bag up in one hand’s loose grip as he fastens his seatbeat. “Unfortunately not, the shipment from Japan was delayed for some reason so I couldn’t pick up the paints I ordered,” he laments, placing his satchel at his feet, “but everything else, yes. I’ll have to go back tomorrow afternoon to collect it.”

The chauffeur makes an agreeing noise as the car begins to move, merging onto the road and towards Karl’s home. “You got it, give me a call when you’d like to leave.”

It’s been a long day, walking all over town from early morning under the raging sun that’s now smouldering just below the horizon. “Thanks, Juliano,” Karl smiles up from his phone, his attention moving away from the email he had sent to his father’s business email that morning. “My dad hasn’t answered my email - he hasn’t called either. Do you know if he might have called my apartment phone?”

At the responding head shake, Karl locks his phone and looks out the window into the approaching darkness with all the dignity he can muster, trying to hide the dejected feeling tugging at his gut. He can’t hold back the mutter of, “I messaged his business email too, just to get his attention,” but Juliano acts like he didn’t hear anything regardless.

The car jolts forward with a sudden burst of speed, Karl’s gaze immediately shooting up to the rearview mirror, seeking out eye contact with his driver for an explanation.

Juliano is purposefully staring forward, as if refusing to meet the reflection of his eyes, as Karl’s back presses into his seat as the speedometer creeps higher and higher. “Why are you driving so fast?” Karl demands, twisting in place to look through the window behind him. The headlights of the car behind them make him squint in the harsh glare, then the car swings out from behind and climbs the lane beside them, coming up quickly on Karl’s side of the car.

“Sit down!” Juliano yells, voice harsher than Karl has ever heard in his time of knowing the chauffeur. When Karl was preparing to move from Greece to Italy a year ago, his parents had hired the driver for him; in all those months, Karl is certain the man has never once raised his voice to him.

Perhaps that’s why his body reacts seemingly before his mind processes it, sliding down in his seat until he’s concealed. He hears the window beside him rolling down, sparking confusion in his mind and dread in his stomach as Juliano turns to look out the window, their car swerving as he raises a handgun and fires off several shots at the car pursuing them.

With his hands clamped over his ears, Karl can’t be sure - but he’s pretty certain he screams when the chasing car collides with his side of the vehicle and sends him sprawling, landing on his hands and knees on the spacious floor of the car. He can hear Juliano shouting at him, warning him to brace himself, but he can’t react fast enough before the other vehicle slams into their own again and he crashes headfirst into the door on the opposite side of the car.

“Fuck,” he swears, hand thrown over his eyes as if it’ll do anything for his blurred vision. He shouts the curse word again, vaguely registering that it slips out in English this time as Juliano yanks the steering wheel hard and Karl is sliding backwards on the floor again. He blinks the fuzziness from his eyes as he pushes himself back into his seat, raising a hand when he realises the feeling of something wet below his eyebrow. His hand comes away stained, blood dark in the glow of the street lights lining the dusk-dusted streets and the glaring headlights of the vehicle still giving chase.

“Karl, are you listening?” his driver is shouting at him again, repeating his name loudly until he answers. “I need you to make a call. Do you have your phone?”

It takes several long seconds, thuds of Karl’s panicked heartbeat that feel like millennia in each moment that passes, for him to grasp around blindly on the floor of the car until his phone is in his hands. Juliano relays a phone number to him, voice strong and steady as he speeds down a narrow street Karl has never noticed before. “This is an American number,” Karl yells over the roar of the engine, raising his phone to his ear as the dial tone drones twice. When there’s still no response from his driver, he questions, “Who am I calling?”

The dial tone cuts off as the call is answered suddenly. “Juliano, what’s wrong?” The words come through the phone in Italian as the call is answered almost immediately. Karl had no idea his father could speak the language, but it’s unmistakably his voice.

“Dad, it’s me,” he manages, raising his voice so he’ll be heard. “We’re being chased by another car, Juliano told me to call this number.”

The chauffeur shouts a warning that Karl just has time to react to before Juliano floors it through a wooden fence, breaking through it like it’s nothing. “Tell him I’m taking you to the location,” Juliano orders, cut off when the rearview window erupts into shards under a hail of gunfire.

“Did you hear that? He’s taking me to the location,” Karl repeats, shouting over the gunfire, throwing himself flat onto the seats and trying to avoid the pieces of glass that litter the back of the car. “Dad, they’re shooting at us!” His words sound pleading, begging in English for his father’s assistance, yet he doesn’t have a clue what his father could do from five thousand miles away.

The answer comes over the phone in Italian and, after it all, Karl will wonder why his father persisted in a foreign language instead of talking to his only son in English. “There’s a helicopter waiting for you there, it’ll take you home. You just have to get there.”

There, the call ends.

Karl stares at his phone in horror, his eyes burning with the onset of tears. Their car is still under attack from the onslaught of bullets and his father has no idea where they are, yet he ended the call.

“We’re fucked,” he spits, throwing the phone towards the front of the car as he leans forwards and grabs Juliano’s handgun from the passenger seat. “We’re so- we’re screwed.”

He’s never fired a gun before, but he can almost pretend to be a professional as he pulls the slide back like he’s watched movie protagonists do, and aims the pistol out where the rearview window used to be. Karl turns his head away and closes his eyes before he desperately pulls the trigger, the gun jerking in his weak hands as it fires in the general direction of the chasing car.

“Turning!” Juliano calls, and Karl grips a loose seatbelt to hold himself in place while the car swerves around a sharp corner. “Just continue doing that, got it? Keep your damn head down and shoot at them, it doesn’t matter if you miss or hit them. We’re three minutes out.”

“You told me you do crosswords for fun!” Karl yells accusingly, squeezing the trigger again until the pistol fires, flinching with recoil. “But you know how to shoot a gun and you’re like a getaway driver- What the fuck, Juliano?”

He thinks Juliano laughs, but Karl’s ears are ringing as he shoots three times in quick succession, aftershocks making his hands tremble slightly. “This is what your parents hired me for, Karl. I’ll explain later.”

Karl doesn’t speak again, more focused on trying to aim, peeking over the back of the seats and closing his left eye to stare down the sights of the handgun. It’s harder to see now that they’ve left the streetlights of the town behind for a grassy track that the car bounces along, surely sabotaging Karl’s shots even if it wasn’t too dark to land anything accurately. He registers the whirr of helicopter blades just as the pistol emits a click the next time he fruitlessly tries to pull the trigger, the weak noise informing him of the empty magazine.

“Out of bullets,” he shouts as he ducks down again, still clutching the gun in his dominant hand. Juliano doesn’t answer, gunning the engine for everything it’s worth as the car hurtles towards the waiting helicopter. “How far?”

“Couple hundred yards. They’ve given up,” the chauffeur tells him, but doesn’t let up on the accelerator. “Helicopter must’ve scared them off. Are you okay? You’re not hurt, are you?”

He nudges his thumb against his eyebrow, wincing at the tenderness of the swelling under his fingertip. “Just hit my head, I’ll live,” he answers, flexing his hands to shake off the stiffness. “You alright too?”

Juliano wrenches the steering wheel to one side before slamming on the brakes, bringing the car to a sudden halt in a position where the vehicle will shield them if there’s a second attack while they run for the helicopter. “I’m all good, thanks to you,” he throws a smile over his shoulder as he throws the door open and abandons the damaged car. “Come on, kid, let’s get moving.”

Karl grabs his phone and his satchel from under Juliano’s seat, throwing the strap over his shoulder as he hurries out of the car, stumbling slightly before his driver grabs his elbow and they sprint towards the helicopter. Dropping into one of the seats, Karl lets out a shaky breath, wringing his hands together.

“Jesus Christ,” he whispers as the helicopter lifts into the air. Out of habit, he goes to push his fingers through his hair, only to withdraw his hand with a wince. There are shards of glass in his brunet curls.

Juliano sits beside him, patting Karl’s knee as if he understands.

Karl doesn’t think anyone could understand the devastation burrowing into his heart as he watches the beautiful Italian city he’s called home for the past year dissolve into a circuit board of streetlights and cars on narrow roads, soon lost in the mass of towns and cities as the helicopter carries them over the landscape towards a country that Karl hasn’t returned to in five years, that he doesn’t even call home anymore.

He spends two days alone in a hospital bed, only seeing nurses and the occasional doctor come and go, before his father finally visits. He hasn’t changed in the five years since Karl has seen him, still dressed up in one of his crisp suits as he always was, briefcase in hand. Karl can’t help but wonder if he’s visiting on his way home from work, or if he’s going to make a pathetic excuse after five minutes in the hospital room that he has to get to his office.

“The doctor says you’re doing well,” his father greets as he pushes the door closed behind him, offering Karl a smile that doesn’t meet his eyes. “Let me see that head of yours.”

Wordlessly, Karl obediently lifts his fringe, combing his curls off his forehead with his fingers. He knows the swelling has gone down significantly over the past two days, but the lump that remains is still purple under the stitches holding the gash over his eyebrow together. He had winced when he caught sight of himself in the bathroom mirror that morning, stomach twisting at the bruise above his eyes and the small cuts over his face that the glass from the broken window had nicked into his skin. Now, he purposely avoids looking at his own reflection.

His father nods approvingly, sitting down in the chair, left unoccupied by his bedside for two days. “It’s looking good. The doctor says you could be discharged tonight if they’re happy with your head injury.”

“Where’s Juliano?” Karl asks quietly, looking up at his father. “It’s been days and he hasn’t visited.”

He watches as his father stares at the floor, sighing heavily. It takes several long seconds for him to meet Karl’s eyes. “Son, I’m really sorry. I know you and Juliano became very close during your time in Italy-”

“What the fuck are you saying?” Karl demands, pushing himself up until he’s sitting straight. He wants to cover his ears or close his eyes, he wants to fall asleep for days and wake up back in his apartment in Italy - or erase the last year and go back to his house in Greece, spending his days burning daylight with his housemate Sapnap.

“Juliano succumbed to his injuries late last night,” his father tells him. Even as the words buzz around Karl’s ears, not settling in or bouncing off; just resting there, burning his skin, searing and blistering as he shakes his head firmly. “The doctors tried to keep him alive, but there was nothing they could do-”

“He wasn’t injured,” Karl argues, his fingers twitching as he grips his hair, hands curling into fists as he winds his fingers in his curls and tugs. “They’ve made a mistake, Juliano was fine when he brought me to the hospital, he wasn’t hurt.”

His father stands, moving to stand beside Karl’s bed and pat his shoulder stoically. “There were a lot of internal injuries, a bleed they couldn’t stop… I’m sure the doctor wouldn’t mind coming in to explain if it would help you process it.”

Process it?!” he echoes, and he thinks he’s shouting now, heartbeat thundering in his ears. “There’s nothing to process, dad! They’ve made a mistake, Juliano wasn’t injured! He told me when we were on the helicopter that he was fine.”

“Karl, calm down-” His father attempts, but Karl is already shaking the hand off his shoulder.

He throws the thin covers off, swinging his legs over the side of the bed. The clothes he had been wearing when they were attacked have been folded and shoved into a plastic bag, which he grabs and upends onto his bed. “I’m leaving. Get out,” he demands, slender fingers fiddling with the needle in the crook of his elbow. He yanks off the medical tape that holds the IV line in place and eases the needle out of the vein, screwing up his face in discomfort as he throws it to the side and presses his thumb over the droplet of blood that tries to rise.

“The doctor hasn’t cleared you to leave yet, Karl!” His father crosses to the other side of the bed, one hand extended as if, if his words won’t make a difference, he’s going to physically stop Karl from walking out.

Karl bats the hand away, picking up the dark red sweater from the bed; it’s creased slightly from being in a bag for two days and he can see a bloodstain on one arm, barely darker than the rest of the fabric, where he had tried to wipe the blood from his eyebrow. But the glass shards have been dusted off; that’s just about enough to satisfy him as he shoves his hospital gown down from his shoulders and pulls the sweater over his head. “I said I’m leaving. I don’t care if you agree with it and drive me home, or I take the bus - I’m an adult and you can’t stop me. The least you can do is turn your back so I can put my jeans on.”

His father raises his hands in surrender, backing up several steps and hurriedly turning to face the wall. “Okay, okay. You’re right, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t try to treat you like a child. If you want to discharge yourself, it’s not my place to try and stop you. But can I please drive you home?”

He glances up from the corner of his eye as he tugs his jeans up over his narrow hips, making sure his father is keeping his back turned. There’s a second of hesitation as he’s tying the laces of his sneakers, before he finally agrees, “Okay, that’s fine. Does mom know what happened? My phone died yesterday morning and none of the nurses had a charger, so I don’t know if she’s even texted me.”

“I’m sure she texted or tried to call. As soon as she heard what happened, she started organising things for you to stay with us,” his father answers, still pointedly staring at the wall. “Of course, you don’t have to stay with us, it’s up to you. But I know it would be a huge weight off our shoulders if we knew you were safe, even just for a few days? What do you think?”

Karl bites back a sigh, rummaging through his satchel. Everything seems to be where he left it and he can’t immediately pick out anything missing, so he slings the strap over his shoulder and moves forward until he’s in his father’s line of sight. “I guess I could do that for a couple of days,” he concedes. It almost feels like he could be extending an olive branch, if he wasn’t about to use it as a bargaining chip. “But in return, can you ask around about Juliano? I’m telling you, he wasn’t hurt when we came here. Something doesn’t feel right, dad, please… I need to know what happened.”

His father nods, his hand returning to Karl’s shoulder to gently squeeze, encouraging and sincere. “Thank you, son. I’ll try my best to find out whatever I can.”

It takes twenty minutes of Karl arguing with a nurse, demanding to be discharged, before his father gets involved; he can’t even finish his threat before a doctor is exclaiming, “Senator Jacobs! I’ll get the paperwork your son needs to get discharged, I’m sorry for the delay.” After that, it’s easy for Karl to sign his name on the dotted line, and all that follows is an uncomfortably silent car journey towards the house Karl grew up in.

His father asks him a few questions about Italy while they drive, querying about the apartment he stayed in and how it was compared to the other countries he had lived in over the past years. Karl maintains that nothing - not the year he spent in Italy, or the three years in France - will beat living with Sapnap in Greece, spending their days doing anything they wanted. Sapnap had shown him the cheapest restaurants in the city, places that served food that was usually only edible during the lowest points of a hangover, and some of the most beautiful views Karl has ever seen.

When Karl recounts one memory with Sapnap, the beginnings of a fond smile forming as he thinks of his friend, his father wrinkles his nose in distaste and side-eyes Karl. "So you and this... Sapnap- you were involved?"

Karl almost chokes on his own saliva as he jerks to look at his father. "What? Dad, what the hell, we're friends. I'm pretty sure Sap is straight," he shakes his head, disbelieving, "or at least as straight as a Greek guy can get."

"That's not funny, Karl," his father snaps, but the one corner of his lips starts to tug up into a barely-withheld smirk.

Karl snorts, looking out the window. "It's kind of funny," he mutters. When he sighs, his warm breath fogs against the window. His father always keeps the temperature too low, whether it's in the car or in the house. He says it helps him focus; Karl hates it, whatever the reason is. "Juliano would've laughed."

"I know this is hard on you, son, but-" his father begins, but cuts himself off when Karl's gaze swivels to him.

He raises his eyebrows, prompting, and tries to ignore the spike of pain that twinges at his nerve endings as the stitches over his eyebrow pull taut over his skin. "But? Go on, say it," he spits, words venomous on his tongue. "It's hard but? Get over it? Is that what you were gonna say?"

"No, it wasn't," he insists, but he won't meet Karl's eyes either. "I was going to say that... Juliano wouldn't want you to be upset."

They're pulling into the driveway of his parents' house, which is hardly the best place to start an argument, but Karl's blood is boiling and his hands itch to lash out. "And how the fuck would you know what Juliano would want? I saw him every day, dad, I still don't understand what your deal with him was. He told me he'd explain, about the gun and being like a getaway driver, and he had a number to contact you on that I didn't even know about - which doesn't surprise me particularly, considering I tried to reach out to your email when you wouldn't answer my calls - and now suddenly he's dead after everything that happened in Italy? It doesn't make sense."

"I know it doesn't make sense," his father sighs, bringing the car to a stop near the front door, "but I'm going to look into it like I promised you I would, and hopefully things will start to make sense then. I hired Juliano when you moved from Greece because I knew he would protect you if anything were to happen. He wasn't just your driver, I hired him to act as protection too."

Karl clenches his jaw, grinding his teeth together in frustration. His father's words are doing nothing but making him ask more questions; instead of getting any answers, he's just becoming more confused. "But why would I need protection? And why did you hire a bodyguard without even telling me?"

His father shoves the door open and steps out, not even looking in Karl's direction. He crosses to the passenger side of the car, tugging Karl's door open, "Do you need a hand up?"

He shakes his head scornfully, unfastening his seatbelt and shoving past his father. The sudden movement makes the edges of his vision blur with dizziness and he almost sways on his feet, as he clenches his fists and forces himself to stay steady. "I bumped my head, I didn't break my legs," he scoffs.

If he were a better person, he might feel guilty when he sees hurt flicker over his father's face; but after four months of having his calls ignored, there isn't much sympathy to spare.

"We can talk about this later," his father sighs, starting for the door.

It's been five years since Karl was back in America, yet the house looks exactly the same. It may as well have been frozen in time: the paint on the fence hasn't worn down, the flowerbeds haven't withered even though no one tends to them, the tree in the corner of the garden doesn't appear to have grown an inch. When they step inside, the shoe rack is on the right-hand side of the hallway instead of where he remembers it on the left, and the minor change is enough to disorientate Karl to the point of nausea as he toes out of his sneakers. But the photos on the wall are the same, the teenage version of himself smiling stiffly at the camera, forced in between his parents. His hair was so much shorter then. He wonders if his parents prefer it to the way his curls flop over his forehead now.

The kitchen looks identical to the day he left, except for the blond man sitting in the chair Karl used to occupy during dinner. As he follows his father in, the man gets to his feet, as if he's about to greet a member of royalty or something equally ridiculous. It makes Karl roll his eyes and his head injury throbs in retaliation.

"Afternoon, Dream," his father greets. His tone is fonder than any sentence directed towards Karl has been since he walked into his hospital room; if he could, he'd roll his eyes again. "Where's my wife?"

"She went upstairs when the car pulled in," the blond man, Dream, answers. "I'm not sure why."

His father just nods, waving a hand dismissively. "Alright. I'd like you to meet my son, Karl. He's been living abroad for the last few years. Karl, this is Dream, he's a member of the security team around here. He's going to be taking charge of anything you might need while you're staying with us."

"What? You're sticking me with another bodyguard?" he questions, voice raising before he can take control of it again.

"It's just a precaution, Karl," his father tells him. He sounds tired as he rubs a hand over his face, like too much time with his son has sucked the energy out of him. "We can't be too careful, what if someone tries to hurt you again?"

Karl shakes his head, disbelief making bitterness spike in his chest. "Whatever. Just watch out, Dream, the last bodyguard I had died in suspicious circumstances."

His father's eyes snap to him as he shouts, "Karl! Jesus, will you have some sense? There's nothing suspicious about his death. It was sudden and tragic, but you can't go around insinuating things with no proof-"

"I do have proof!" Karl retorts, his hands clenching into fists at his sides. "I was with him when we left Italy and he wasn't injured then!"

"That isn't proof, son, that's just what you claim to have seen. It was a traumatic experience for you and you had a head injury, so who knows what tricks your mind could've played on you."

"Stick to politics, that's what you're good at," he snaps, "I don't want to hear your psychological theories. I'm telling you something happened to Juliano, and you swore you'd look into it."

"You're right, I did. So I'm asking you to wait until I look into it, instead of throwing around wild theories that could get someone in trouble, okay?" His father's attempt at being rational just angers Karl further as he throws himself into one of the kitchen chairs, sitting across the table from Dream who's pointedly staring at the wall.

"Fine," he mutters, his shoulders hunching up around his ears. "Whatever you say."

His father sighs and pats Karl's shoulder briefly. "Alright. I'll leave you two to get to know each other, I'm sure you'll get along wonderfully. Let me know if you need anything."

Karl doesn't answer, chewing at the inside of his cheek. There are a few seconds of silence until Dream clears his throat and calls, "You got it, Mr Jacobs, thank you," as his father retreats upstairs.

The silence drags on as Karl picks at some dirt under his thumbnail. When Dream returns to the seat he had been sitting in, the legs of the chair squeaking against the tiled floor, Karl glances up to give him the once-over; he takes in his green eyes, the small scar on his upper lip, the freckles on the bridge of his nose that swim against a yellowing bruise on one cheekbone.

“Your name isn’t really Dream, right?” he asks, muttering the words around his thumb as he worries his nail between his teeth.

Dream laughs softly, shaking his head. “No, it’s just what everyone has called me since I was a teenager,” he explains, folding his hands in front of him on the table. “Your dad said you lived abroad for a few years?”

Karl scoffs, biting down on his nail spitefully. “I can’t believe that. ‘A few years.’ Try five,” he scowls, bitterness hardening the edges of his words and making his anger swell again. “Either he really didn’t miss me or he forgot how to count.”

Dream shrugs. His lips pull up into a smirk, the little scar on his top lip stretching into a thin line. “Out of sight, out of mind, huh?”

It takes Karl by surprise. It’s the first bit of honesty he’s been faced with since arriving back in America. After two days of being surrounded by people who lie to his face or run circles around him with their words until he's only more confused, this blatant truth crashes over him, sudden and refreshing.

“Yeah,” he answers, managing a smile, “something like that.”

Karl stopped growing when he was sixteen, after a sudden growth spurt that left him at 5’11. He had insisted he could grow just a little more, so he could say he was six feet tall, certain that he still had it in him to grow another inch. He hadn’t grown another millimetre in the years since but, when he stands in the bedroom he grew up in, he feels like he’s ten feet off the ground.

It's a spacious room, he had decorated it himself with the walls covered in posters that his parents disproved off and fairy lights still secured against the plaster with Blu-tack. His mother had been furious and ranted for the better part of an hour about cheap decorations. The room just feels to have shrunk around him in the past five years, even though he's surely the same height as he was when he was eighteen and stood in his bedroom for the last time. His recollection may not be perfect after going so long without visiting the house he grew up in, but it doesn't seem like anything has even been moved. As far as he can tell, someone dusted recently, but everything else seems untouched.

He unpacks the belongings in his satchel carefully, as if the slow pace will fill the void that gapes in his chest when he thinks about everything he owns, abandoned in his apartment five thousand miles away. The three new sketchpads he bought are placed one at a time on his desk, followed by the case of expensive pencils. He runs his fingertips over the cover of the casing, the same way he did when he was considering buying them. The days feel like lifetimes in his memories.

His wallet gets placed on his desk too, in a few different positions, and moved to his bedside table where he fiddles with it until it's parallel with the edge of the wood. Then he picks it up and hurls it against the wall, enraged.

How is it fair that he gets to stand unharmed in his childhood bedroom and Juliano, who did everything to protect him during that final night in Italy, died alone, with no explanation, in an unimportant hospital in a country he'd never been to?

His wallet flutters harmlessly to the ground, a twenty euro note skimming across the wooden floor and slipping under his wardrobe.

“Fuck!” The profanity is wrenched from his lips, echoing around the room as his hand curls into a fist. He’s ready to bloody his knuckles against the wall, just to make himself feel something, when there's a rap at his door. “Who is it?”

The voice is slightly muffled as it comes through the door, “It’s Dream.”

He bites back a sigh, his anger quelling to a low simmer below his skin, as he reaches for the handle to pull the door open. Dream has his arms folded over his chest, the fabric of his white button-down pulled tight over the slight swell of muscles. Karl scratches an itch at the end of his nose and steps back to hold the door open enough for Dream to step through. “Come on in,” he offers with a jerk of his head.

The blond steps over the threshold, glancing around the room with the beginnings of a smile. “It’s been something like two months since I've started working for your parents, but I’ve never been in here before,” he says, looking over his shoulder to grin fully at Karl before he perches on the edge of the desk.

“Make yourself comfortable then,” Karl shrugs as he turns to scoop his wallet up from the floor. “Have you really only been working for them for two months?”

Dream hums an affirmative, picking up one of the new sketchbooks from behind him and flicking through the pages. “Yeah, seriously. Why? Expected otherwise?”

“Yeah, I guess. Not to toot my own horn or anything, just thought my parents would put someone that's worked for them for a while in charge of looking after their only kid.” He takes a seat on the edge of his bed, facing Dream. He wants to raise his eyebrows, watching him skim through the empty sketchbook, but the area around his stitches is starting to ache. “You’re not gonna see anything in there. All the pages are blank, I only bought the sketchbooks a few days ago. The day we left Italy actually.”

“Must feel like centuries ago,” Dream murmurs, glancing up at Karl. He looks sympathetic, but it doesn’t anger Karl the way he expected it to, and instead he just shrugs in response. “What was Italy like? I’ve never left Florida.”

Karl can already feel himself smiling as he speaks. “It was great- beautiful. I had an apartment just outside the city and when I looked out my window at night, and I saw all the lights…” He lets out a low whistle, before he lifts his shoulders in a shrug. “I mean, the other places I lived were beautiful too. I studied in Marseille for three years, then lived in Athens with a friend of mine for over a year once I finished my degree. I was living in Florence for nearly a year before all the shit went down. Athens was my favourite, but Florence is a close second.”

“Were you planning to travel all over Europe? Why did you move around so much?” Dream asks, eyes bright with amusement as he gives a soft wheeze of a laugh.

Karl finds himself giggling too, shoulders lifting in a careless shrug. “Why not?” he shoots back, “I could go wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted. I was gonna go to Madrid next, or Warsaw if I could find a nice apartment. It was just the ability to move around when I felt like it, it was the freedom.”

Dream grins, showing off the slight points of his teeth. “Suppose you don’t get much freedom here then?”

He rolls his eyes, ignoring the painful twinge of his brewing headache. “You’ve no idea. Why do you think I never visited in five years? I hate this place, I hate always being “Senator Jacobs’ son” when I’m more than that, y’know?”

“Unfortunately, I can’t really relate to that one,” the blond laughs, “considering I never knew my dad and I was homeless for three years.”

“Shit. I’m sorry,” Karl cringes, shame flushing hot over his face. “You must think I’m so pathetic. Spoiled little rich boy whose biggest struggle was picking what country to live in next.”

Dream’s smile tugs up into one corner wryly, looking amused. “Actually, my thoughts were closer to how we aren’t so different. You left home because of living in your father’s shadow, right? I left home because I didn’t want to live with my mom’s drug habit anymore. If I had the funds to move to a different continent, I would’ve done the same as you.”

He ducks his head to hide the embarrassed heat in his cheeks, nodding at his feet in agreement. “I know how lucky I am,” he murmurs, unable to shake the feeling that he’s being scolded.

“I’m not telling you off, Karl.” Dream’s words are enough to make him glance up, scanning over the blond’s grinning face for any signs that he’s being teased or made fun of. “Just trying to get to know you better.”

“People don’t usually care all that much about getting to know me,” he admits, picking at his fingernail.

Dream shrugs. “I’m not people.”

When Karl ducks his head with a smile, he doesn’t notice the way Dream’s smile falters, something distrusting flickering across his gaze.

It takes a week for his sleep schedule to become nocturnal, sleeping from midday until after dinnertime so he can stay awake the whole night. He rarely sees his parents, which wasn’t the goal of messing up his sleep schedule, but is certainly a benefit. The only person he really sees is Dream, whose sleeping hours quickly align with his own.

They form a habit of getting coffee at three in the morning, from a nearby cafe that stays open all night. Usually, Dream insists on driving; but on one mild night, Karl manages to get his way and convinces Dream to walk with him. It’s calming, walking through the quiet streets that are almost entirely empty of people, shoulder-to-shoulder with Dream, who always pays for his coffee even when he argues.

“It’s funnier in Italian!” he’s proclaiming after yet another joke falls flat as they leave the cafe, coffees in hand. “Your humour just isn’t developed enough, I bet even my dad would’ve laughed at that.”

Dream wheezes a laugh, “You should’ve told me a joke in English then. Your humour sucks in all languages anyways.”

“I’ll tell you what sucks, nimrod, tua madre,” Karl scoffs, taking a sip of his coffee to hide his growing smile.

The blond side-eyes him, looking unimpressed. “I’m going to Google Translate that later. If it’s something about my mom, Jacobs, I swear-”

“Jacobs?” a voice calls, and Karl turns to look over his shoulder. A man is getting to his feet from where he was sitting on the sidewalk, face contorted in rage. “I knew I recognised you. Karl Jacobs, the Senator’s son?”

“Can I help you?” Karl asks, his eyebrows furrowing into a frown.

The man looks dishevelled, his hair greasy and his clothes unwashed and wrinkled. He feels Dream’s hand on his upper back, nudging him forward as he murmurs for him to keep moving. Karl does as he’s told, letting himself be gently pushed onwards as they stride away from the homeless man, until there’s another hand grabbing at him, wrapping around his wrist and wrenching him backwards.

His coffee cup falls from his grasp, knocking off his forearm and spilling its contents over his arm when the lid comes free. “Shit!” he hisses, pain sparking over his nerves as his brain registers the boiling liquid against his skin, and he tugs his arm towards himself as he tries to shake off the man’s grip.

“You bastard!” the man is screaming at him, spitting curse words at him even as Dream grabs the stranger by the shirt and hauls him away. The man balls his hand into a fist, swinging for Dream with a furious yell.

Effortlessly, Dream intercepts his hand and throws the stranger against the wall, pinning his wrist to the brick. The bodyguard’s other hand twists in the man’s shirt, tightening the fabric around his neck. “Listen to me, man, if you know what’s good for you, you’re gonna turn and walk the other way. Got it?”

“I know you too,” the man hisses, his free hand grabbing at Dream’s shoulder weakly, fruitless in his efforts to push him off. “Would recognise you anywhere, you were one of Phil’s boys, weren’t you? Clay, was it?”

Karl watches the shock ripple over Dream’s face, before his features set like stone, expression cold and empty. “Don’t call me that, and don’t you dare talk about him-”

“Wonder what he’d think if he saw you, working for fucking Jacobs,” the stranger spits, “after everything they’ve fucking done to us. He should’ve let you die in the cold.”

Dream moves quickly. In the time it takes Karl to blink, he draws his arm back and his fist connects with the homeless man’s jaw, knuckles cracking against bone sickeningly. “Dream!” he yells, surging forward from where he had been frozen in place, but the man is already unconscious, sliding to the ground as Dream releases his grip on him. “Are you nuts? That’s assault!”

He reaches out with his good hand for Dream’s shoulder, but the bodyguard bats him away with a careless movement. “Assault?” Dream scoffs, malice dripping from his voice. “Haven’t you heard? The Jacobs are above the law.”

Karl falters, hugging his scalded arm against his chest as he stares at Dream. The blond seems like a different person now, nothing like the man who makes food for him in the early hours of the morning or rolls his eyes at his terrible jokes in the dead of night. “What are you talking about? That man knew you, who is he?”

“He doesn’t know me,” Dream spits through gritted teeth, eyes hard and cold as they stare down at Karl.

“I’m not stupid, Dream!” he pushes. He can hear his voice rising, sounding frantic to his own ears. “He called you Clay, is that your real name?”

Karl doesn’t have time to even flinch when Dream’s hand shoots out, curling into the fabric of Karl’s sweater and wrenching him close. When he speaks, it’s like a hiss, face screwed up in rage and words like venom. “I left that name behind years ago. That’s the name of a kid who nearly starved to death on the streets, I’m not that kid anymore. You must think I’m the stupid one if you think you can lie to me.”

“Okay,” Karl chokes out around the lump of panic in his throat. “Alright, I’m sorry, Dream- I don’t know what’s going on, you have to believe me, I’m not lying. I don’t know what he’s talking about, what my parents did to him- to you, I don’t know any of it, please-”

He vaguely registers he’s crying, his words stuttering on sobs as he clutches Dream’s wrist. He watches through tears as Dream blinks down at him a few times, his eyes clearing of the fire that was burning there. His gaze doesn’t quite soften, just flickers with realisation before his hand uncurls from Karl’s sweater and wraps around his shoulders, tugging him against his chest. “Oh fuck, Karl, I’m sorry.” All he can do is let out another sob against Dream’s shirt. “I’m so sorry for scaring you, I don’t know what came over me.”

“I swear, I don’t know what’s going on,” he gasps against Dream’s broad chest as his uninjured arm braces against the bodyguard’s back in a loose attempt at a hug.

Dream shushes him, “I know, I know. I’m sorry, please forgive me. You’re nothing like your parents, I’m sorry I thought so.”

It takes several minutes of Dream combing his fingers through Karl’s curls and hushing him quietly until his building panic attack subsides. He steps back from Dream’s embrace to wipe his face on the clean sleeve of his sweater, calmer now when the bodyguard urges him down the street with a hand on his shoulder, “Come on, let’s get you home- Karl, your arm.”

Karl jerks one shoulder in a shrug, before gingerly lifting his sweater sleeve up a few inches. Even in the dim glow of the streetlights, he can see how his skin has reddened and started to blister under the heat of the spilt coffee. “I don’t care about it, I want to know what’s going on.”

There’s a second of quiet as Dream hesitates, but he slowly nods. “Alright. There’s a first-aid kit in my car, I can clean you up there and explain. It’ll be safer there.”

Karl doesn’t question it, following Dream’s guiding hand down the street in silence. It’s a quick walk, aided by Karl zoning out for minutes at a time, numb to anything but the throbbing of his arm, pulsing in time to his heartbeat, before Dream is quietly telling him to watch his head as he ducks into the backseat of Dream’s car. When Dream crosses to the other side of the car and climbs in after him, Karl is silent as he lets the blond gently roll his sleeve up far enough to see the extent of the minor burn and sits patiently as his bodyguard retrieves a first-aid box from under the driver’s seat.

“Dream,” he whispers, voice slightly hoarse as the blond starts to wrap a bandage around Karl’s forearm, “can you explain now? Please? I need to know.”

There’s no answer until Dream secures the bandage and pushes the first-aid kit onto the floor. “Yeah. Okay,” he finally agrees, leaning back in his seat with a sigh. “When I left home… I ran away. I was sixteen. I had no money, no job. Just the clothes on my back and whatever I could fit into my backpack. I wasn’t an athletic kid, I spent most of my time hiding in my room, reading whatever I could get my hands on. I was a skinny kid, not very strong or fast. That doesn’t bode well when you’re homeless on the streets.” He can’t meet Karl’s eyes; instead, he stares at his hands, where the knuckles are swelling and beginning to bruise.

“I met this man, Phil. He wasn’t homeless or anything, he seemed like a normal guy. I mean, he had a family and everything. You should’ve seen it, Karl,” the words escape on the tail end of a chuckle, but there’s still no light in Dream’s eyes, “his tiny one-room apartment with just two mattresses on the floor for him and his three sons. It’s crazy, the people who pass you on the streets in their nice clothes and their well-paying jobs who wouldn’t give a second glance to a teenager starving in an alleyway, but guys like Phil who sleep on the same mattress as their teenage sons because they can’t afford a bigger apartment, they’re the guys that will invite you into their home and lay you out a plate of food, they’ll eat a little less than everyone else just to see their kids go to bed with a decent meal in their stomachs.”

Dream takes a deep breath and it seems to rattle in his lungs, like his ribs are close to snapping and simply inhaling makes them tremble. “Phil kept me alive, those three years when I had nowhere to go. He fed me when he could afford it and offered me a spot on the mattress when there was no room in a shelter. And there was this guy that he knew, this real shady guy who basically organised these… fights. You got paid a little just for showing up, and you got paid a bit extra if they needed you to lose. It was always good news when your fight got rigged, when they needed you to tap out at a certain time, because sometimes you could push it a bit for an extra twenty bucks. The real money was in winning though. And that’s what Phil taught me how to do. Twice a week, we’d meet up in the middle of the night and he’d teach me to fight; even his boys would join in sometimes too. His oldest, Techno, he nearly broke my nose once and now he’s one of my best friends. So I started winning and I fought and fought until I had the money for my own apartment, and then I got out of the fighting scene. I never looked back.”

Dream’s voice shakes like he’s close to tears and, slowly, Karl reaches for his hand, brushing his thumb over a bleeding knuckle. “I’m proud of you,” he says softly, ignoring how he smears blood further over the back of Dream’s hand.

“Phil went missing three months ago,” Dream whispers. “His sons said he had been getting harassed for nearly a year, people throwing bricks through the windows of their apartment, following him home from work. Tommy thinks someone followed him to school one morning too, he’s only fifteen. And Phil didn’t fucking tell me, Karl, I could’ve done something about it. I asked around after the boys told me he was gone, trying to find out what happened, and everything points back here. To your parents.”

Karl stalls, hesitating before shaking his head, movements slow in disbelief. “That doesn’t make any sense. Why would my parents want to hurt Phil? There must be a mistake, Dream.”

“I’m telling you, they had something to do with it,” Dream insists. His voice shakes with desperation. “Please, Karl, hear me out. I did everything I could to get this job with your parents just to find out what happened to Phil, please. I wasn’t the first kid Phil trained up, a lot of them ended up getting involved in gang activity. If one of them maybe, I don’t know, threatened your parents or knew something they shouldn’t, it could have been traced back to Phil instead of the gang. And that could explain you getting attacked in Florence.”

Karl rubs a hand over his face, overwhelmed. “How does that explain me getting attacked?”

“Well, maybe your attack was retaliation for Phil’s abduction. Gangs have a lot of Italian ties and they’re a lot more powerful than I am. If I could trace Phil going missing back to your parents, someone with the right connections and even half of my motivation to find him could do it too. When someone drags you from the gutter and keeps you alive the way Phil did for us, that loyalty never goes away. It’s not that unbelievable that someone would go after you as revenge.” Dream is looking at him, eyes wide and pleading. He looks desperate, begging for Karl to believe him, his expression wild and clinging to the last shred of hope he has.

“And Juliano?” Karl asks, voice trembling slightly. “I’ve thought for weeks that something was off about his death- how sudden it was, how they wouldn’t let me see him after. Do you think they killed him as revenge too?” Silence settles over the car for several seconds before Karl tries again, “Dream. Is it possible?”

“Karl, honey,” Dream whispers. His hand turns over in Karl’s grasp, fingers curling gently around his uninjured wrist. “I saw the security footage of the hospital before it was wiped ten minutes after you were discharged. Other than hospital staff, the only person that went into your friend’s room before his death was your mother.”

Karl falls apart, tucked into Dream’s arms in the backseat of his car.

His eyes are heavy when he wakes in the late afternoon the next day, cheeks rubbed raw with tears. He can hear his parents moving around downstairs and he shrinks further under his blankets, as if it can hide him from the nightmarish story Dream spun for him hours before. Karl fumbles for his phone, squinting as the screen glows too brightly in the darkness under his covers. There’s only one notification, a text message from a number he’s never seen before: “it’s Dream, I ditched my phone. meet me where we get coffee, it’s important. don’t tell your parents where you’re going, don’t even let them know you’ve left the house. please trust me.

Confusion churns in his stomach, as he reads over the text again and again until he’s sure he isn’t still asleep. He can’t make sense of why Dream would get rid of his phone and presumably buy a new one to send him a vague text, so he types out a tentative response: “how do i know it’s you? tell me something only Dream would know.

The answer comes immediately, simply reading ‘tua madre.’ He recognises his own words, his immature joke from the night before, and the seriousness of the situation crashes over him like ice water. Throwing off his covers, he scrambles out of bed to get dressed as quickly as he can without making too much noise that might alert his parents that he’s awake. He escapes through the window fifteen minutes later, lowering himself off the ledge as far as he can reach before dropping the remaining feet to the ground, and he doesn’t look back when he breaks into a sprint away from the house.

He runs the whole way there, adrenaline spurring him on and the panic that something terrible has happened. When he reaches the cafe he frequents with Dream, the outdoor tables are empty and there’s no one in sight on the sidewalk. He was certain that Dream would be waiting for him outside, and the absence of his bodyguard makes dread rise like bile in his throat. It’s as he’s reaching for the handle to let himself into the cafe that his phone buzzes in his pocket with an incoming message: “across the street.

Karl turns, face twisting into confusion as his eyes flicker over the opposite side of the street. Then he sees him; Dream is sitting on a bench, dressed casually in jeans and a hoodie, with a cap pulled over his hair.

He hurries across the street, dodging a car when he neglects to check for oncoming traffic. He doesn’t bother trying to apologise or pacify the driver, just sprints towards his friend, struggling to breathe through the lump of panic lodged in his throat.

Dream looks up at him as he approaches, and Karl’s stomach lurches at the bruises smeared across his bodyguard’s face. One of his eyes is half-swollen shut, marred with bruises that spread to his cheek and jaw. There’s a barely-healed gash on his upper lip in almost the same spot as the small scar, and he winces when he shifts in place to look up at Karl, an arm curled protectively around his torso.

Fuck, Dream,” he swears, dropping into a crouch in front of him to examine his injuries further. “Oh my god. When did this happen?”

Dream’s lips twitch like he wants to smile, but his eyes betray how worn down he is. “This morning. I went out for a run because I couldn’t sleep. A car pulled up beside me and a few bodyguards I work with got out, started kicking the shit out of me. Pretty sure that they were sent to kill me.”

Karl frowns, cupping the uninjured side of Dream’s jaw to tilt his head back, revealing a set of fingerprints bruised into the sides of his neck. “But they didn’t?”

The blond huffs out a laugh, looking down at Karl like he’s amused. “They underestimated me. I’m just better.”

“Jesus,” Karl mutters, withdrawing his hand. “You need to go to the cops.”

Dream barks a humourless laugh and immediately winces, bracing a hand against his abdomen. “Fuck. You kiddin’ me? I’m not going to the cops, I’m getting the hell out of here and I’m not coming back. Maybe I’ll go to Europe.”

“You’re running away?” Karl questions, louder than he intended to. “How can you just run and just- fucking leave me here, Dream?”

Dream reaches for his arm, holding him in place. When Karl looks down at his hand, the bruising on his knuckles is worse than before and one finger looks like it could be broken. “Who said anything about leaving you here? I brought you here to take you with me, love.”

He shakes his head, disbelieving, as he looks back up at Dream. “Why would I run back to Europe?”

“There must have been a microphone or something in my car, or the homeless guy snitched about who I am- the point is, your parents know I’m connected to Phil now. That’s why they tried to have me taken out. And if they know about me, they’re going to suspect you next. They know we’re close, Karl, they’ll expect me to try and get you on my side by telling you what they’ve done, and that means you’re a threat to them too. You have to come with me,” Dream pleads, voice quiet yet shaking, “Karl, I’m begging you, sweetheart. It’s the only way I can keep you safe anymore.”

“I can’t,” Karl whispers, and he feels like he might be drowning. “If I leave, Juliano won’t ever get justice. Neither will Phil, his sons won’t ever find out what happened to him, they’ll never get that closure. My parents will just get away with their crimes and go on to hurt more people, I can’t let that happen.”

Dream’s hand moves to the back of Karl’s neck, sliding into his curls and pulling him forward into a hug that Karl gently sinks into, wary of hurting the blond’s ribs any further. “And what good will the police do?” he asks, murmuring the words against Karl’s ear. “They have half the force in their pocket and the other half is too afraid of crossing them.”

Karl hides his face against Dream’s neck, sighing weakly. “I’m gonna confront them. It’s my only option. I want to leave with you, Dream, but I can’t run away with a heavy conscience.”

He feels Dream nod. “Okay. Alright, I’m coming with you.”

The barrel of Dream’s gun is cold when it presses into the junction between Karl’s jaw and ear.

“Get the fuck back!” Dream yells over Karl’s shoulder, using his trembling body as a shield from the bodyguards at the door as he pushes towards the house. Karl knows the safety is on, he knows Dream won’t shoot him, but this is the most insane thing he’s ever done and he feels like his knees would buckle if Dream wasn’t holding him against his chest. “I’ll blow his goddamn head off if you don’t back up, I swear to god. I’ll kill him, I’ll fucking kill him!”

The front door swings open and his father bursts out, his hands raised on either side of his head. “Karl! Dream, don’t hurt him. Please- I’ll do whatever you want. Please don’t hurt my son.”

“Call your security off. They’re gonna go sit in the car, they aren’t going to call anyone or alert the cops that anything could be amiss. And then we’re gonna go inside and have a nice conversation, Senator Jacobs, you understand me?” Dream calls out his orders in the coldest tone Karl has ever heard from him. Immediately, Karl’s father dismisses the bodyguards and Dream nudges Karl forward slightly. While his father’s back is turned, Karl feels Dream’s lips against the shell of his ear as he whispers, “All okay, honey?”

“Still good,” he murmurs in response, letting out a shaking breath. The brief check-in is enough to settle the nerves in his stomach, enough to remind him that Dream would never let anything bad happen to him. He thinks Dream would die first.

His mother is standing in the kitchen, wringing her hands, when they make it through the entry hall. Dream gestures with his handgun for his father to stand beside her and, once the senator has followed the order, Dream’s arm slips from around Karl’s chest. His father starts to call his name, an arm reaching out for him, just as Karl tugs the gun from his waistband and aims it at his father’s head, holding the weapon exactly how Dream taught him.

“Karl-” his father begins to say, slowly returning his hands to either side of his head as he looks at Karl pleadingly. “Son, come on now, enough of this. You don’t even know how to shoot.”

He flicks off the safety and pulls the slide back, letting the sound of a bullet sliding into the chamber ring out into the quiet kitchen. “I’m a quick learner. Don’t fucking move. I want you to come clean, about everything.”

“Sweetheart, I don’t know what lies this man has told you-” his mother tries. Her words are cut off by her own shriek when Dream fires a round into the ceiling.

“Shut up and listen,” the blond warns her, still using that harsh tone that makes Karl’s skin crawl.

He wants to ask about Juliano, about what really happened to him. Yet, in his heart, he knows that no amount of questions he asks will bring his friend back. Instead, he sucks in a breath to steady himself. “The man who helped Dream years ago, who taught people to fight- I want to know where he is. Where’s Phil?”

“Karl, what do you mean? Who are you talking about?” his father asks. Weeks ago, maybe Karl would have believed him. It’s as easy as breathing, now, to see through his lies.

He scoffs as he adjusts his grip on the handgun, fixing the angle of his elbows. “You’re so full of shit. Phil trained people in fighting and a lot of those people went on to join gangs. Those gangs did something to you, didn’t they? Is that why Phil went missing? Because you traced them back to him? If I have to ask again, I’m going to shoot your knees out.”

“Okay!” his father exclaims, and gestures with one hand to the pocket of his jacket. “Can I get my phone from my pocket, please? We did- I did send men after him, three months ago. He disappeared before anyone could get their hands on him, he basically went underground. We thought he would resurface to look after his children, but eventually, we had to track him down again. We followed him to an address, it’s on my phone.”

Karl nods, watching as his father pulls the phone from his pocket and holds it in his direction.

“Put it on the floor,” Dream demands, “and kick it towards me.”

As the phone skitters across the floor, Karl continues, “And Juliano? Why- Why did he have to die? He kept me safe, he got me out of Italy when those people attacked me. Why did you kill him when he did what you wanted?”

His father stammers, tumbling over his words. “Son, I don’t- I don’t know what to tell you-”

“Your father didn’t want to,” his mother interrupts. When he looks at her, her expression is emotionless, and it makes fury spark under his skin again. “In fact, your father and Juliano were friends. That’s why he entrusted him with looking after you. But, once you came home to the States, he knew too much. If your father wasn’t going to shut Juliano up, I knew I had to. To protect you.”

Through the tears in his eyes, Karl can see his gun trembling in his hands as he turns his aim to his mother. “You heartless bitch-”

“I’m heartless for going to whatever lengths it takes to protect my family?” Her voice pitches up, derisive but desperate. “I couldn’t let anything happen to you again, Karl, you’re my son.”

He shakes his head, his forefinger moving to the trigger as he bites back a sob. “No, I’m not. Not anymore, you lost the right to call me your son. Both of you did.”

Dream’s hand moves into his field of vision, tentatively wrapping his fingers around the barrel of the gun while his other hand steadies his aim at Karl’s mother. “Give me that, love,” he whispers, inching the handgun from Karl’s grip. “Let’s go. We got what we came for.”

“What will you do, Karl? Please, this doesn’t have to end like this,” his father pleads as Dream steps in front of Karl, shielding him from his parents’ view.

Dream reaches into his pocket, brandishing his phone with a smile. “I’ll tell you what we’re going to do, you sick bastard. We’re going to send the recording of your whole confession to every major news outlet in the country,” he sneers, “and, once we’re in a country far away from you, where you can’t hurt Karl ever again, we’re going to watch your life and career crash and burn. Maybe we’ll find a beach and drink beers by the waves just to celebrate the fact that you’re going to spend the rest of your miserable lives in prison. I wish I could say it’s been a pleasure, Mr and Mrs Jacobs, but I would take homelessness over this horrible fucking job.”

Karl leads them back to the door, one quick step at a time, while Dream keeps his aim on his mother. Once he has the front door held open, they sprint to the car, hurling themselves into the vehicle just in time to shelter from the bullets that hail against the reinforced glass. When Dream throws the car into reverse and peels out of the driveway, he throws his head back and laughs.

“What are you laughing at?” Karl asks, even as a smile pulls at his own lips.

Dream grins at him, wild and manic, eyes bright with adrenaline. “That was the craziest thing I’ve ever done.”

“And you ran away from home at sixteen and joined an illegal fight ring,” he teases as his hand finds Dream’s on the gearshift, covering his cut knuckles with his own.

“So I did,” Dream laughs, pushing his foot heavier on the gas, his eyes never leaving Karl’s. “Still, I wouldn’t have met you if I didn’t, right?”

“You’re literally fucking insane,” Karl warns him. He wonders what it would be like to pull Dream over the centre console by his shirt and kiss him, even if it meant driving into oncoming traffic. It doesn’t sound like a terrible idea.

The blond just beams at him, the scar on his lip stretching into white. “Sure I am, baby.”

“Can I say something nuts?”

As the sun sinks below the Greek horizon days later, Karl’s toes curl into the sand as he squeezes the hand in his. The waves look like they’ve been set on fire in the reflection of the sunset and he itches to go and splash around the way Techno and Wilbur are, flicking water at each other with their hands. A few feet away, Sapnap has picked Tommy up and dunked him under the water, egging the teenager on in weak English in an attempt to make him repeat the Greek curse words Sapnap has been trying to teach him.

Dream looks at him, golden in the glow of the sunset. “More nuts than this whole situation? Go for it, honey,” he laughs. The bruises on his face are healing nicely, even if his split lip can’t seem to stay closed, not under the near-constant abuse from Karl’s mouth and teeth, when he takes any opportunity he can to pull Dream into a kiss.

“Is it weird that this feels like I’m home?” he asks, gesturing vaguely at their surroundings.

Wilbur has teamed up with Tommy against Sapnap and Techno, with Phil acting as a referee while they try to tackle each other under the water. They’ve been at the beach since the early afternoon, the older members of the group sipping lukewarm beers between rounds of playing and rough-housing with the teenagers. It’s the happiest Karl has felt in a long time; he wishes Juliano was there to see it.

“Nah, of course not,” Dream tells him, pulling him close to plant a kiss on the top of his head. “Home is people, not a place. Phil taught me that.”

Karl nods, leaning into the arm around his shoulders with a content smile. “You’re right. Welcome home, Dream.”

His boyfriend grins down at him, ducking his head to press their lips together. “Welcome home, Karl.”