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A Cursed Palace (And All of its Blessings)

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He ran frantically through the dense forest, struggling to catch his breath.

 

His heart beat in time with his quick, noisy steps and the pounding sense of fear in his mind.

 

Tree branches and thorny bushes hit his body as he stumbled through the undergrowth, but he didn’t care.

 

He didn’t have time to care. 

 

That way!”

 

Tommy sped up at the sound of the terrifyingly familiar voice. “Tubbo!”

 

He turned around to look for a head of brown hair that should be there, why isn’t it there—

And he fell to his knees as an unseen root tripped him, giving him an ample view of the dark woods behind him. It was so quiet, so surreal, that Tommy could imagine that he wasn’t running for his life now. That he wasn’t being chased by three terrifying horsemen who couldn’t be far behind at this point.

 

Finally, finally, his friend crashed through the brush, eyes wide with fear. “We can’t make it,” he gasped, his tired voice accepting of their fate. He was shaking from exhaustion and the cold, hugging his dark green coat around him.

 

The boy’s aura was a soft yellow, dim, and almost unnoticeable against the white snow. Greyish blues and deep reds spiked the yellow in sharp flashes. It took the shape of a few bees that spun lazily around his shivering form. Tommy frowned at the barely-there color. His friend was unhappy, and the flashing colors only confirmed that.

 

The muffled pounding of horses galloping toward them grew closer, as loud and urgent as a trumpet’s blare. The trees themselves seemed to tremble as the riders approached, the eerie screams of the horses echoing through the chillingly stagnant forest. Tubbo turned and gasped as he saw the silhouettes of the beasts coming closer.

 

“Absolutely fucking not,” Tommy growled, seizing Tubbo’s arm, lifting himself off of the ground, and dragging them both through the forest. He had to keep him close. He couldn’t afford to lose him, not now, not when they were so close.

 

The air grew colder as the forest changed around them, pine trees replacing oaks. More and more pure white snow started showing on the ground. Tommy’s ruby red cloak stuck out like a flag begging to be captured as it rippled in the breeze behind him. 

 

He’s right, a small voice whispered. You can’t escape.  

 

Not with that attitude. 

 

“Just a bit farther, Tubbo!”

 

The pine boughs dropped icy snow down on them as they pushed past, drenching them in freezing water.

 

Rocks and roots kept tripping them, hidden by the blanket of snow. 

 

The forest closed in around them, as if the trees themselves wanted the boys to never reach the exit. 

 

The boys were scratched to bits and sore as hell after so many hours of adrenaline-fueled running.

 

But they kept going, not daring to look behind again. Even if it seemed the woods were out to get them, Tommy would not stop. Not for anything.

 

They finally broke free of the suffocating grasp of the pines, reaching a clearing. Snow lay in piles where trees didn’t block out the night sky, and more was beginning to fall. 

 

Tommy looked up, relieved to see the sky for the first time in hours. The stars they’d been following for weeks shone their benevolent light upon the boys, making the snow glitter like millions of diamond shards. 

 

Clouds were surrounding the thin, pale moon above them, promising a snowstorm to come. The wind whipped around the two boys, stealing the air they were desperately trying to inhale. 

 

In the distance, a huge castle could be seen through the treetops. The windows were lit brightly,  like a beacon signaling safety to the weary travelers.

 

A horse crashed into the clearing, sending up a spray of crystalline snow. Two more followed close behind, but far back enough to indicate a clear leader. The huge bay stallion in front screamed as it reared up, its breath clouding in the frigid air. Its eyes were wild and rolling from exhaustion and overwork.

 

The rider in question leapt off of the horse and landed gracefully onto the ground. His poisonously green cloak billowed out in the nascent wind. He rose from his crouched position and held out a long, shimmering sword in Tommy’s direction.

 

The man in green walked towards him, his boots barely making a sound in the snow. The blade came to rest on Tommy’s collarbone, rising and falling with each heaving breath the boy took.

 

Tommy stared at the tip of the enchanted blade, then shifted his defiant gaze to rest on the smooth mask the rider wore. A creepy smile was etched messily into the porcelain, hiding the man’s true expression.

 

His aura was a neon green, taking the form of a halo around his hood. It dripped with the invisible color, leaving drops in the snow that faded quickly. It was shot with black, a color more often than not present in the halo.

 

Black meant a deep hatred, as Tommy had learned from experience.

 

“Tommy,” the man said, his voice silky and low. “Why are you running? It’s going to storm soon.”

 

He lifted a lazy hand to the sky above the clearing, which was quickly darkening. Soft rumbles of thunder accompanied by the wailing of the wind warned of a terrible storm to be caught in. 

 

“You should stop,” the man continued, lowering his sword and stalking around the two boys like a predator circling its prey. “You should come home.

 

Tommy could feel Tubbo shivering behind him, either from the cold or fear. Or both. He was absolutely terrified, too.

 

The masked man had finally caught up to them after days of being chased. He had even brought reinforcements, judging from the pair of men still on their horses. There was no possible way they could make it out of this alive.

 

So Tommy smiled.

 

“Fuck off.”

 

The halo flickered with scarlet for a moment. Red was quick, shallow anger.

 

The man in the mask tilted his head and came closer, resting the sword tip in the snow barely a foot away from Tommy. “We can do this the easy way, or we can do this the hard—”

 

“I said, fuck off, ” Tommy repeated, cutting off the man’s obnoxious threats. “Do you know where we are, you bastard?”

 

The man drew up, straightening his back so that he stood eye to eye with Tommy.

 

He spun around, looking around the clearing quickly. His mask pointed toward the castle in the distance, and he froze. “No…” he whispered, his words almost carried away by the screaming winds.

 

No! ” he screamed, bringing his sword up to Tommy’s neck once again. Tommy could hear how heavily the man was breathing, clouds rising from behind the mask. 

 

His halo was dripping faster, spinning quickly around his head as the sickly green was almost completely replaced with red and black. He was pissed.

 

“You can’t touch me here, Dream,” Tommy sneered, backing away slowly. “Welcome to the Antarctic Empire, gentleman!” he called, lifting his hands to the sky, where the storm was still growing with no signs of stopping.

 

The unnamed men still on their steeds exchanged a glance as their horses nickered nervously at the oncoming blizzard.

 

He couldn’t see their faces, but their auras shone brightly against the dark forest background. 

 

One man had orange flames surrounding his wrists and neck, the tongues of fire slowly turning into a light purple fading into white. White was fear.

 

The other one had a soft blue hue, taking the form of glasses on the man’s face. It was also paling as the man fidgeted on his horse.

 

Tommy continued backing away, one hand on Tubbo’s shoulder as he led them both toward the edge of the clearing. 

 

“You lost, Dream!” he yelled, grinning maniacally. He was free.

 

Dream cursed loudly and sheathed his sword. He jumped back onto his huge horse and rode it to the middle of the clearing. “This isn’t over, Tommy!” he screamed in reply, fury tainting every word. “I will find a way.”

 

Those last words were quiet. A promise. Tommy didn’t let his mind finish the threat. He held his head high. Dream’s only power was his words, and if he didn’t have that….well, the man had nothing without Tommy. 

 

With that, the trio rode off and away from the two boys, not wanting to be seen inside Empire territory. 

 

The pair of travelers stood still, hardly daring to believe that they were finally safe. After a few moments where the deadly riders didn’t return, they nearly collapsed in relief, holding each other so they wouldn’t fall onto the freezing earth.

 

“It’s okay, we’re okay,” Tommy spoke softly, hugging his friend tightly. 

 

Tubbo’s aura finally started to brighten a bit. Tommy almost cried. His friend’s soul, which had been dim for so long, was finally beginning to gain the color Tommy knew it could have.

 

The two made their way through the forest once again, still running. 

 

They were safe from Dream, but if they didn’t move quickly the storm would almost certainly finish them off. 

 

Wind and snow stung their faces as they continued, whipping around their cloaks and light clothing. They definitely didn’t prepare for the Empire’s weather, but they hadn’t really had time to prepare anything when they had escaped three months ago.

 

They hadn’t planned to make it this far, either.

 

A small town could be seen up ahead, a lantern illuminating the gateway in. They headed towards the gate and stopped at the huge door, gasping for breath in the frigid air.

 

“Hello?” Tommy called, banging on the door. 

 

A small slit opened at eye level. A suspicious face could be seen peering at the boys. Their eyes widened in surprise at their state and shut the peephole.

 

“Stand back,” a strong voice commanded. Tommy and Tubbo obeyed, watching as the heavy gate was pushed open against the wind to reveal a man gesturing to get inside.

 

The two exhausted travelers passed behind the door and shook the man’s hand gratefully. 

 

“Thank you,” Tommy gestured towards himself and his friend. “Is there anywhere we can stay for the night? We can pay.”

 

The gatekeeper pointed wordlessly to a large building a few blocks away. Tommy thanked him again and the pair of friends set off to the tavern.

 

It was quiet inside the dining area, only a few men sipping ale still out of their homes. Every aura here was blurred and oddly distorted, which meant drunk . Tommy and Tubbo walked past them, up to the counter with a small coin purse. Too light for comfort, but they’d been surviving out of the frayed bag for months at this point.

 

Tommy managed to pay for a small room and some stew. They brought the steaming bowls up to their room, where they collapsed onto the bed and ate.

 

The storm was still raging outside, and it seemed to have gotten even worse somehow.

 

The wind whistled past the small window across from the beds, rattling the shutters and thin window panes with a loud clatter. The snowfall was so thick Tommy could barely see the lanterns by the road below them.

 

He sighed, unclasping his cloak, which was in tatters after their journey. Tubbo did the same, eating his meal slowly. The smoky yellow bees around him rested on his shoulders and flashed bright yellow. A happy and content color at last. Tommy smiled softly at the sight, bringing small spoonfuls of his scalding stew to his lips.

 

They were safe.

 

For now.

 

--------

 

Wilbur!”

 

Wilbur skidded down the polished floor of the hallway, glancing back to see Techno storming after him. He cackled and kept running, holding on to a golden crown tightly.

 

Weaving through the maze of corridors, he managed to get some distance between him and his pursuer. He flew past servants lighting the oil lamps in their sconces at every corner, clamping his jaw shut as he passed. They shrank away as he went by, even though he barely registered their presence. 

 

He shivered as a cool draft came from one of the many chinks in the walls. Detailed tapestries hung on either side of this particular hallway, so he took a chance.

 

Wilbur paused at a tapestry detailing a blond man with ebony wings flying over a cruel-looking dragon, majestically stabbing the beast with a sword swimming in enchantments. The edges were embroidered in red and black thorns, the same thorns that lay on the man’s brow in a crown shape. 

 

Tall pillars of dark stone towered over the scene, each lighted with a purple orb surrounded in white haloes. The calligraphic caption at the bottom simply read, “ Our Emperor, May He Reign Eternal” .

 

Wilbur rolled his eyes at their blind love of the Emperor, who really hadn’t done much of anything in his time as a ruler. Sure, he hadn’t publicly beheaded anyone yet, but was the bar really that low for a quality emperor?

 

The sound of pounding feet getting nearer broke him out of his scrutiny, and he ducked behind the cloth. Perching the crown on his head, he scrambled up the uneven bricks of the wall, praying that Techno wouldn’t notice his form from under the tapestry. 

 

The prince slowed down near the tapestry, and Wilbur held his breath in anticipation, his heart beating much too fast and loud for his liking. Techno stopped moving, and the halls were silent. “Wilbur?”

 

Wilbur kept his mouth shut, fighting back a giggling fit. 

 

“Swear to the heavens, I’ll sic Steve on you. This is the fourth time this month.”

 

Wilbur blanched at the mention of the massive polar bear, but he kept a steady grip on the rough stone walls. Knowing Techno, he probably wasn’t joking.

 

He heard the sound of Techno’s ridiculous heeled boots marching away. Once he was well and truly gone, Wilbur let out a sigh of relief and climbed back to the ground. 

 

He took the huge crown off of his head. It just didn’t feel right on him. Techno wore it better, anyways. Peeking around the edge of the tapestry, Wilbur slowly crept out into the open. A startled maid fell over at the sight of the man seemingly appearing out of nowhere, letting out a small gasp. 

 

Wilbur held a finger to his mouth, smiling softly at the maid. She paid no attention to his soft expression, fear souring her face as she scrambled away. Wilbur dropped his hand, and his spirits fell with it. 

 

“AHA!”

 

Wilbur froze. He turned around slowly, dreading what he would see. A tall man who was even taller in his riding boots—seriously, the fact that he walked in those regularly impressed Wilbur to no end—was stalking towards him with a scowl on his face. That expression could kill, but it looked just a bit less frightening when framed by Techno’s bright pink hair.

 

“Give it back,” Techno growled, walking up to look down at Wilbur. Usually, Wilbur was taller, but those damn boots—

 

“And if I don’t?”

 

“Steve will be eating well tonight.”

 

Wilbur swallowed, clutching the gold circlet tightly. Then he smirked his golden smile and took off laughing. “Only if he can catch me!”

 

“Wilbur, you—you know it’s hard to run in these!”

 

Wilbur only laughed harder at the thought of the prince sprinting in those flimsy heels. 

 

He easily lost the man, hiding behind corners Techno would breeze past and then went back in the direction he had just come from with a jeer. The fortress’ halls were alive with the sound of Techno and Wilbur screaming at each other from across dozens of maze-like corridors. 

 

Wilbur slowed down after a while, panting while still laughing softly. Clutching a stone pillar for support, he looked around, listening for any sign of the prince. Techno was nowhere near him, as far as he could tell.

 

He strolled down the dim hallway with an extra spring in his step. True, he had stolen Techno’s crown four times this month alone, but this was the first time he’d lost the seasoned hunter in the labyrinth of his home. 

 

A door to his right was open, flooding the dark hallway with light from a fire inside. He skipped into the room and shut the door behind him, finally letting himself take some deep breaths.

 

Wilbur looked around to find he was in one of the many sitting rooms of the castle, filled with bookshelves, tables, and a large fireplace. 

 

He collapsed into a soft green armchair by the fire and kicked his feet up onto the table in front of him. He set the crown on his lap and leaned his head back in satisfaction.

 

“Hello, Wilbur.”

 

Wilbur shot up, almost knocking his prize off of his legs. The emperor himself sat across from him, looking over his reading glasses to stare at his son.

 

They stared at each other for a long moment. Wilbur awkwardly fidgeted with the crown under his father’s stern gaze. The crackling fire and the quickly-arriving footsteps of Techno were the only sounds present in the room.

 

Even with the fire, rug, and thick tapestries, the room seemed to drop to freezing temperatures. Wilbur felt ashamed in his father’s presence, caught in a practical joke on his surrogate brother.

 

This was the first time he’d seen his father for days. What a way to greet him.

 

“Hi, Phil,” Wilbur replied shakily, clutching the crown tightly. “How’s the book?”

 

His father raised an eyebrow, unimpressed. The large book in his lap looked old and important. He’d probably been reading peacefully before Wilbur had decided this would be a good hiding place.

 

“It’s fine. What are you—” But before he could finish his question, Techno flung the door open to glare at the prince sitting with his crown. 

 

Wilbur,” he growled, stalking over to stand behind Phil’s chair. “Give it back.”

 

Wilbur broke out of the trance with his father and turned to Techno, grateful for the interruption. He tapped his chin in thought for a moment, then looked up at Techno with a sly grin. “No, I don’t think I will.”

 

Techno snarled and lunged at his friend, but the crown prince had already dashed out of his chair. Wilbur put the heavy circlet on his head and ran around the room to avoid the furious man.

 

Techno stopped chasing him for a moment to look at Phil with a pleading look in his eyes. “Phil. Tell Wilbur to stop bein’ mean.”

 

Hey!

 

“Wilbur, stop being mean.”

 

Wilbur crossed his arms and glared mutinously at the two men. Techno stalked over to pluck the crown off of his head with a smirk. The pink-haired man rested the diadem atop his head and sat where Wilbur had been moments ago.

 

Wilbur sighed dramatically. “Tech, you’re no fun.”

 

“And you’re annoyin’.”

 

“Boys,” Phil interrupted, flipping a page in his book. He didn’t even look up at them.

 

“It’s stormin’ outside,” Techno remarked, stretching his arms over his head and resting his boots on the squat table in front of him. “Pretty bad one, too.”

 

Phil looked up from his reading and frowned. “We had a snowstorm just a couple of weeks ago, mate. Are you sure?”

 

“It is,” Wilbur agreed, moving to stand in front of the warm fire. With how old and drafty this castle was, it was hard not to notice the freezing winds that buffeted you as you walked around inside the fortress. “I can see it from my room.”

 

Phil dog-eared his page and shut the book with a sigh. “I’ll have to deal with more damage tomorrow,” he groaned, holding his head in his hands. “You two will have to cancel your studies. I’m sure the tutors will have other things to deal with.”

 

The two princes exchanged a grin over the emperor’s head. Both of them had been waiting for an excuse to get out of their studies for weeks. Techno wanted to spar one-on-one with Sam.

 

Wilbur wanted to leave the castle.

 

Phil seemed to sense this. “Wilbur, if I hear you’re out of a guard’s sight for even a second , I’ll make you sit in on meetings with the advisors.”

 

The prince feigned a wounded expression as he leaned on the mantle. “Have a little more faith in me than that!”

 

Techno snorted. “You were absolutely goin’ to leave.”

 

“And you go every night. I think once a week out of this prison is fair.”

 

“Techno’s situation is different, Wil, you know that,” Phil countered, bringing his head back up to look at his tall son. “He has to do something to help.”

 

Once. Just for tomorrow. Only a couple hours,” the prince begged. “I’ll even go to an outer village so I see fewer people.”

 

“Can you control it?” his father asked, raising an eyebrow at the way Wilbur’s nails were quickly sharpening.

 

He hid his hand behind his back. “Of course.”

 

Wilbur didn’t mention the way the back of his throat was tingling. He didn’t mention how he felt his control slipping with his sudden burst of excitement. He didn’t mention the monster inside of him purring at the thought of new people to play with.

 

He willed himself to stay calm, clenching his hand tightly. He felt his fingernails return to normal and let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding.

 

The emperor studied his son as the prince’s eyes went back to a usual brown instead of the bright gold they had been a moment earlier. He took off his glasses and sighed, rubbing his face tiredly.

 

“Fine. Only for a little bit. If I hear something happens out there—”

 

“I know, I know,” Wilbur interrupted, waving his now-normal hand. “I’ll have to listen to the advisors’ dull meeting.”

 

And you’ll have to fix your mistake,” Phil added.

 

“Mhm,” he replied, only distantly hearing the conversation, his mind already fixated on his adventure. “Well, since I have such an exciting day ahead of me, I will be departing for bed now.”

 

He gave an exaggerated bow to the other two royals in the room, who rolled their eyes at his dramatics.

 

“Good night, Wil.”

 

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That had been...easier than expected.

 

Wilbur had planned on sneaking out tomorrow anyway, and the weather was just a brilliant coincidence. 

 

He hadn’t expected his father to allow him to leave, especially after his control had slipped for a second. Phil rarely let his sons out of the castle because of their...gifts.

 

Wilbur paused his stroll to stand by a large window overlooking the storm outside. The wind swirled the thick snow into waves that danced by the castle with a whistle. The glass panes grew misty under his breath, hiding the mandalas of frost covering the outside of the window.

 

He tried to whistle along for a minute but stopped as soon as his throat tingled again. He winced at his weakness and left the musical blizzard to its chaos.

 

The palace was quiet at this time of night. Guards wouldn’t change for another few hours, and most of the servants were asleep by now. 

 

Some maids still scurried around, lighting the lanterns in the halls as he passed. The warm light lit the stone passageways pleasantly, enveloping Wilbur in a comforting atmosphere. He ran his hand along one of the old walls, shivering at the cold touch. The weathered bricks were rough as they rubbed his fingers, catching the calloused skin in small cracks as they passed.

 

The prince’s boots—thankfully not heeled—tapped softly as he walked down the eerily silent corridors, passing a few guards with a nod. He had been trained to not speak much to anyone outside of his family in case he accidentally lost control. 

 

The castle staff had been trained on rumors about how dangerous he was.

 

He’d only lost control once or twice, but Wilbur agreed with his father that it was better to be safe than sorry. 

 

The other people avoided him, knowing exactly what he was capable of. Everyone who served in the castle had to be sworn to secrecy about the royal family’s curses, lest another kingdom learned of their weaknesses. 

 

They ducked their heads, refusing to look the prince in his eyes. They were all warned of what limitations his curse had, so they knew he couldn’t charm them with a mere look. But fear kept them from so much as glancing at him. 

 

A small wave from a servant girl walking out of the kitchens brightened his sad smile, and he returned it with one of his own. There were still a few people who could stand to look at him.

 

Niki was one of them.

 

Wilbur smiled softly at the thought of his lifelong friend, watching her go to her quarters. Niki had always been unafraid of him, never backing down from his gaze. She had stuck with him since they were small, and they shared plenty of wonderful memories.

 

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Wilbur was six. He was sitting alone in the courtyard, quietly humming to a rose bush. The flowers reached toward the sound, buds blooming much quicker than they would have naturally. He giggled as some petals tickled his cheek, bringing the blossom to his nose to smell its sweet scent.

 

The bush carefully kept its thorns away from the child with the charming voice, wrapping a vine around his head in a round shape. The boy laughed as the bush gave him a crown of roses, petting the leaves in his hair.

 

“What are you doing?”

 

A soft voice interrupted his humming, and the bush retracted, growing still and lifeless once again. He turned around in surprise to see a girl his age staring at him in wonder.

 

Dad says I’m not allowed to talk to people, he thought. But she looked so nice.

 

He gestured for the girl to sit next to him. “I’m playing with the roses,” he said simply, as if it were the most normal thing to do in the world.

 

The girl looked at him with wide eyes. Wilbur didn’t realize it, but he looked positively wild. His eyes glowed a soft golden color, brimming with curiosity for his new companion. His hands ended in dark claws that extended far longer than any normal person’s nails should, with sharp, needle-like points at the tips. The boy’s ears were slightly pointed, sticking out from under his curly hair. Hair that was streaked with bright white and gold.

 

Wilbur smiled at the girl, trying to be nice. He shrank back as the girl gasped at the pointed teeth that showed. He moved to get up away from her, to keep her safe, but a hand on his wrist stopped him.

 

“Can you...can you do it again?” the girl asked quietly, only curiosity in her expression. 

 

Wilbur grinned again and nodded.  He sat back down with his legs crossed, sitting very stiffly. He closed his eyes and began humming again, making sure to focus on the bush and not his friend. 

 

He didn’t want to charm her. 

 

The flowers grew back out, weaving around the two children playfully. A crown was placed back on the boy’s head, and out of the corner of his eye, he could see the girl caressing roses that bloomed in her hands. 

 

“What’s your name?” Wilbur asked, humming a bit quieter so he could hear the girl’s response.

 

“I’m Niki.”

 

“Hello, Niki,” Wilbur replied, humming louder and cupping his hands in front of him. The bush complied with his wishes, a small bunch of roses appearing in his hands. “My name is Wilbur.”

 

He turned to Niki and handed her the bouquet, a hopeful smile on his face. “Would you like to be friends?”

 

--------

 

Wilbur chuckled softly under his breath as he strolled down the halls. He’d spent almost every day with the girl, enjoying her company mostly in reluctant silence. Even at such a young age, he knew better than to speak to people outside of his family.

 

After a few months, Niki had learned everything about the young prince’s predicament. She insisted that she didn’t mind him speaking to her, and even encouraged it. Her lack of fear surprised him, as that was all he had ever known the others in the castle to feel towards him.

 

The only reason he came even remotely close to her at the time was that his father had left the castle. Phil was gone for almost two years after his wife’s death. Wilbur’s mother’s death.

 

Phil had not been happy when he learned that Wilbur had talked to Niki when he returned. But he had caved into letting them stay together after Wilbur had sworn that he’d never charm her.

 

It also might’ve had something to do with how Sam had mentioned that children needed a friend or two to keep them happy.

 

Or the guilt he felt at leaving his son alone for so long.

 

--------

 

Wilbur was nine. He was in the kitchens with Niki, watching her help the baker make some bread. He sat on a stool in the corner, swinging his legs and cleaning his new glasses.

 

“May I help?”

 

The baker looked horrified that the child had spoken, knowing very well the gift the boy possessed. He was about to tell him, no, but the girl helping him turned, unafraid, to the cursed boy.

 

“Of course!” she exclaimed, moving over so that Wilbur could stand next to her. “Just add the flour to the eggs here.”

 

Wilbur did as he was told, neatly measuring the flour and stirring the mixture. The baker looked on in apprehension but continued kneading his dough in silence.

 

“Now what?” Wilbur asked, making the baker jump in fright. “You don’t have to worry,” he said to the man. “I can control my voice very well now. I’ve never charmed Niki once!”

 

“It’s true!” Niki agreed, nodding her head vigorously. “Okay, so now you put these in.”

 

She pointed to some containers behind the bowl. Wilbur nodded and once again followed the directions exactly.

 

By the time all three had finished their bread, Wilbur was surprisingly spotless. He’d always been a neat child.

 

Niki noticed this with a frown. “You’re clean.”

 

Wilbur looked down at his royal outfit and nodded, confused. “Uh-huh.”

 

“You can’t be clean,” Niki insisted, grabbing some extra flour. “It ruins the experience of baking.”

 

“Now, Niki—” the baker tried, but it was too late. Niki had already put a dusty finger on the prince’s nose, leaving a white smudge where she had touched him.

 

Wilbur tried to look at the spot, going slightly cross-eyed. Niki laughed at her friend’s expression. The prince was quiet as he stared at his friend in shock.

 

The baker braced himself for a royal temper tantrum, an explosion of the poor boy’s curse, but none came. 

 

Wilbur smiled slowly, his eyes staying a calm brown. “You’re right!” he exclaimed. “It is more fun!”

 

The poor baker breathed a sigh of relief as he looked over fondly at the two kids who were sprinkling flour over their faces.

 

When the bread had been pulled out of the oven, Wilbur and Niki looked like they had been in a snowstorm. They had white powder in their hair and all over their faces, cheeks pink and smiles wide. 

 

Wilbur peeked over the counter to look at the fresh bread. His loaf looked average and dull, which disappointed him. But Niki’s…

 

“Your bread looks so pretty!” he gasped, jumping up and down to get a better look at the perfect-looking loaf. “You’re really good at baking!”

 

Niki giggled. “Thanks.”

 

“Would you like to eat this bread for dinner, Your Majesty?” the baker asked, rolling the bread in soft cloths until they were to be served.

 

“May I?” the prince asked Niki, barely concealing a grimace at the formal title.

 

“Of course!”

 

Wilbur turned back to the baker. “Yes, please.”

 

That night, the royal family had eaten some of the best bread they’d ever tasted. 

 

Wilbur was in the kitchens a lot after that.

 

--------

 

The man passed the door leading to the royal quarters, sighing at the fond memory. He remembered asking Phil if he could have Niki eat with them for dinner, which the emperor had denied. Something about “status” and “the implications of eating with a servant”, which Wilbur found completely unfair. Niki couldn’t control where her family had come from, why should that stop her from living a good life?

 

After some non-gifted pleading, his father had finally given in to allow the servant girl to eat with them once a week. The family had quickly accepted her, with her quick wit and smart remarks she was able to keep up with them very well.

 

It was always the highlight of Wilbur’s week.

 

He made his way up the grand, spiraling staircase that led to the wing with the royal family’s living quarters. Taking the steps two at a time, he reached his room quickly.

 

The hallway was silent and foreboding. Phil and Techno hadn’t retired for the night quite yet, so no guards had come up to escort them. He was alone. 

 

A large door gilded with silver and gold greeted him at the end of the hallway. The door was open just a crack, and from where Wilbur was he could see the emperor’s bed and a small dresser, littered with what he knew were drawings of the prince’s late mother. 

 

He took the liberty of shutting the door softly. He knew the guards in the castle knew the consequences of stealing from their rooms, but one could never be too careful. 

 

A smaller door with a large sword emblem on the front was to the left of Phil’s room. This door was firmly shut, and Wilbur knew that four separate locks waited to be opened by Techno when he decided to pack up for the night. He was a paranoid man, sure, but he also had more valuables in his quarters than any other room in the castle, save for the treasury. 

 

Across from Techno’s room was a plain door with a single silver vine trailing over the top. It wasn’t locked. It was barely closed. But no one would dare come in there anyways. 

 

Wilbur opened the solid door and allowed himself inside, smiling as he saw the already-lit fireplace warming the usually cold space. A maid probably took a bet from one of her friends to light the cursed prince’s fireplace, but he wouldn’t complain. Nor would he pay attention to the sadness clouding his mind at the thought.

 

Dozens of plants ringed his room, a pot or vase filled with flowers on almost every available surface. He went around, picking up a gilded pitcher and watering each one with care, brushing the petals and leaves lovingly as he did so. 

 

The storm outside was still going, making the warm room darker than usual. The fire helped, but its flickering glow barely reached the other side of his excessively large rooms. He lit a candle by his bed to add some light to the dim atmosphere.

 

His bedroom was larger than the sitting room he’d been in earlier, stretching back to a large balcony that directly overlooked Stronghold, the capital city. It felt like a taunt to Wilbur, and he took it as one.

Another room to his left housed his swords, crowns, and various textbooks he would spend hours poring over, practically sucking each knowledgeable word off of the page. For every sword, a dozen more books were present. It was clear which one he preferred.

 

The bathing room to his right was pompously decorated, with waves carved out of marble decorating every corner. The washing tub was more of a pool he could heat with a small furnace under the thin floor. Fountains sculpted like leaping fish or elegant gods would pour glittering water into the huge basin, filling the rooms with the sweet scent of whatever flower was most prized.

 

Suffice to say, he thought it was incredibly unnecessary. 

 

Walking to his thankfully small closet, he flung open one of the doors and pushed past all of his stuffy uniforms to access the false back. He opened the hidden panel and looked at his stash of forbidden things.

 

A book that was written by an author he loved, one he had signed by the writer.

 

A small flute intricately carved with vines and flowers. 

 

A wooden box with a necklace from his late mother, something he always took with him if he went out. 

 

A map of the Antarctic Empire, complete with marked secret paths out of the castle and to the frozen lands beyond.

 

And a guitar that looked well-loved, scuff marks and scratches aplenty. A curling wave was etched on one side of the body, every frothy tip perfectly detailed.

 

Wilbur pulled the instrument out of its hiding place and went to sit on his bed, a secretive smile on his face.

 

He wasn’t allowed to play music at all, even though he was well into adulthood and could control his voice better than ever. Phil had seen the way he got lost in the music when he was younger and immediately forbade him from ever touching an instrument again.

 

Of course, Wilbur had never listened.

 

He tuned the guitar patiently, strumming every string slowly until each note rang clear. He cleared his throat, closed his eyes, and began to play.

 

Even though his curse was only supposed to apply to his voice, he was somehow able to charm things just by playing an instrument. It was why they were completely banned from the castle.

 

He strummed a few chords, warming up his fingers. The plants in the room shifted in time with the gentle tune, one by his bed going to curl around his head in a familiar crown shape.

 

Wilbur had saved the beautiful rose bush that had led to an equally beautiful friendship, and he treasured the plant like no other in the castle. 

 

After he felt confident enough in his finger movements, he started on a more complex melody that he had been working on for weeks.

 

Humming softly, he moved his hands quickly up and down the fretboard, savoring the secret sound of every string.

 

His flora started to move towards the sound, curling around his bedposts and resting their vines at his feet to listen to the music. He felt his crown bloom in happiness at the pretty tune.

 

He opened his eyes and let the tingling in his throat he had been holding back out, feeling like liquid gold was pouring out of his mouth to fill the air around him. It was a strange yet wonderful feeling, one Wilbur was rarely allowed.

 

The roads are my home, horizons my target...”

 

The vegetation swayed as he quietly sang the melancholy song. He usually wrote sadder music, but the emotions that filled his voice gave it a special ambiance that made the flowers lean towards him.

 

He used the claws forming at his fingertips as a pick, delicately strumming the guitar without scratching the wood. 

 

When the prince was alone like this, with his only audience being his plants, he didn’t have to have control. He could look however he wanted to, sing whenever he felt like it. 

 

His door and walls had been soundproofed years ago because he sometimes spoke in his sleep, the only time when he had no control at all. 

 

No one knew about his playing at night because no one ever heard him. He liked it that way.

 

Hours passed in what seemed like only a few minutes. Phil wasn’t wrong when he said Wilbur got lost in his music. The sound of muffled footsteps outside of his door made him pause, his breath catching in his throat.

 

The plants immediately left his side and made an extra wall in front of the door, blocking him from any prying eyes. The leaves almost completely muted the sound of whoever was outside, though. 

 

Wilbur picked up his blanket and hid the guitar underneath of it, covering the lump with a pile of frilly pillows that had never served another purpose. He slid off of the bed and crept to the door, wincing as his boots clicked with each soft step. He gently parted the foliage, pressing an ear to the door. 

 

“Good night, Techno,” Phil murmured, his voice distorted through the thick wood. Another pair of footsteps followed, the telltale clicks of heels echoing after the emperor’s solid stomps. 

 

“Rest easy, Phil,” Techno replied. The sound of a door creaking open and softly shutting meant the emperor was in for the night. The heels came closer to Wilbur’s door, and the prince could see Techno’s shadow through the thin crack under the door. “Good night, Wil.”

 

“Good night, Techno,” Wilbur whispered. Techno grunted a response then followed Phil’s lead to also retire to his room.

 

Once he heard Techno’s door shut and the sound of his many locks sliding into place, Wilbur relaxed. The leafy wall followed him as he tiptoed back to his bed, the vines disentangling themselves to tie around his bedposts. 

 

Wilbur gave them an apologetic look. They wanted more music, and he wanted to continue playing, but he had already gone on for too long. He was lucky he’d heard the sounds of his family coming down the hall, else he could’ve been found out. 

 

The once-roaring fireplace had devolved into a bed of flickering coals that sent up a spray of sparks or puffs of ash once in a while. Another sign that he’d gotten entranced by his craft and truly lost the time. 

 

He uncovered the guitar from its fluffy prison, plucking the strings to make sure their tuning hadn’t been affected. The vines swayed at the quiet sound, enjoying even the smallest morsels of music that came from his fingertips. 

 

Wilbur picked up the instrument by the neck, keeping his sharp nails away from scratching the soft wood. He gingerly stepped over the vines covering the floor, treading cautiously through the sea of herbage to reach his closet. 

 

Placing the guitar back behind the hidden panel, he moved his uniforms back in place and shut the closet doors with a sigh. The sigh then prompted a huge yawn, his body finally realizing what time it was.

 

Even though he had stopped singing and playing, the plants still moved as if they were charmed. He had done this for so long around them that they were in an almost constant state of movement, only becoming still and normal when he left the castle.

 

Which rarely happened.

 

His home was his prison, the window panes bars on his cell. Phil tried to be a kind father, but he was overbearing and protective of his family, isolating them from the rest of the world in what he claimed was for their safety.

 

Wilbur knew better than that. He figured out very early on his containment was to protect the rest of the world from them.

 

The melancholy prince stood in front of his mirror as he undid his tie, glossing over his glowing eyes and pointed ears. His hair was streaked with pure white and gold, but it was quickly fading into a shimmering brown. A honeysuckle vine took the tie out of his hands and set it down on his bedside table. Morning glories put his glasses in their case on the dresser, and a clematis plant lifted a nightshirt to him.

 

Wilbur sighed as he combed his fingers through his hair, claws slowly retracting. His rose crown curled away as he did so, returning to his head after he was finished. He could finally look himself in the eye, the disconcerting gold coloring that seemed to vibrate with energy fading to a dull brown. 

 

The ochre orbs stared back impassively. If he squinted, he could make out what looked like a dark, writhing mass that lay in the center of his eyes, dragging his gaze into that unforgiving void. Golden sparks framed the void, flaring like airborne embers. 

 

He blinked, and his eyes were just eyes again. 

 

He stepped back from the mirror, realizing with a glimmer of surprise that he’d moved right up to the glass. His nose had been brushing the surface. It was like he’d wanted to get closer to whatever the mirror had shown.

 

He brushed it off like water off a duck’s wing, pointedly ignoring the voice in his head whispering words to make him uncomfortable. 

 

The eyes are the window to the soul.

 

What are yours hiding, prince?

 

The mirror was pushed out of his mind as Wilbur busied himself with taking the dead leaves off of a close vine. The yellowed, brittle leaves were thrown into the coals, sizzling as the last of their moisture was greedily stolen by the heat. 

 

The plant brushed Wilbur’s face in thanks, retracting to curl around its pot. Wilbur nodded to it, its leaves tilting in a sort of acknowledgment in return. 

 

Ivy snaked around his ankles as he stepped toward his bed, growing up to shake his hand before retracting. The clematis vine he kept by his closet petted Wilbur’s head, placing a small pink flower behind his ear. 

 

“Thank you all,” he whispered, petting his clematis fondly. “Good night.”

 

With that, the plants receded to their pots around the room, each one brushing his hand in goodbye. His rose bush left last, as usual, the crown-vine staying on his head until he had gotten into his bed. 

 

It reluctantly pulled away, its flowers tickling his nose as it shrank back to its pot.

 

Wilbur smiled sleepily and blew out his candle, falling asleep in seconds.

Chapter Text

--------

 

A soft tickling on his nose woke him up. Wilbur breathed in, inhaling a few petals, which he promptly sneezed out. That earned him a leafy slap on the face.

 

Ow!”

 

He shifted in his bed away from the vine, turning over to go back to sleep. He rubbed his cheek where the plant had hit him. The vine wove through his hair, thorns softly scratching behind his ears. 

 

“Stop,” Wilbur murmured, shooing the vine away. “Sleep.”

 

A thin tendril went inside of his ear, jolting him up and away. He sat straight up in his bed, holding a hand to his ear and glaring at the offending plant.

 

His rose bush held up his glasses expectantly, and Wilbur briskly snatched them away. His annoyance melted into a light chuckle as he caressed the plant before turning away to leave his bed.

 

He stretched his arms over his head, walking over to his window. His balcony was covered in a thick blanket of snow, and it seemed the rest of the kingdom had suffered the same fate. The sun reflected brightly off of the pearly ground, making him cover his eyes with a wince.

 

The prince turned back around to see his plants setting out an outfit and his hairbrush neatly on the bed. He smiled. Exactly why I don’t need a maid.

 

Wilbur put the clothes back in the closet though, much to the disappointment of the vines. They curled around his arms questioningly, nudging his hands to put them back.

 

“I’m heading out today. Out of the castle.”

 

Every plant in the room froze. Then they all rushed to twist around the prince, making him fall over with the added weight. 

 

“No, no,” he laughed, laying on the floor and petting the plants. “I’m not leaving you. I’m just heading out for a quick ride.”

 

The plants calmed down, stopping their frantic weaving around him to hug him comfortingly. They moved to retrieve the outfit he used for sneaking out, but Wilbur waived that one away, too. He sat on his bed, hairbrush in hand, and grinned at the confused herbage.

 

“Dad allowed me. No sneaking out.”

 

He brushed his hair as he let the plants pick out suitable clothes. Because he had charmed them so often, they had somehow absorbed his fashion sense. He trusted them to find something that would look decent. 

 

An ivy tendril opened the door to his balcony to test the air. A cold breeze blew through the room, making Wilbur and his plants shiver. The ivy shut the door quickly, creeping back to Wilbur apologetically.

 

He absentmindedly caressed the triangular leaves as he stared off at the sky outside. 

 

The roofs of the capital city below the castle peeked through the coat of sparkling white powder. Part of him wished he could see the capital today instead of riding to a smaller village, but he dismissed that thought swiftly, shaking his head. 

 

More people meant stricter control, which meant he would be stressed. The anxiety would keep him from actually enjoying the sights of the bustling city, which defeated the point of him even going there entirely.

 

His rose bush curled onto his head comfortably when he finally set down his hairbrush, lazily swinging a blossom in front of his face. 

 

He batted it away playfully, snickering at how the vine snaked around his arm to bring it up to his head. It made his hand brush the flowers in his colorful crown, their petals rippling contentedly, before eventually setting it down and tapping his nose, then settling back on his head.

 

His clematis nudged his shoulder, and he looked up to see that the foliage had formed a mannequin of sorts modeling the clothes they had picked out. He stood up to inspect it, the tendrils following him to sit on his shoulder.

 

It was simple, a white shirt with ruffles and puffy sleeves covered by a brown and gold vest. A gold tie sat on the front of the shirt. Wilbur retied it, making it look more like a scarf. A vine hastily placed a belt with his sword on the side of the leafy mannequin.

 

The prince nodded his approval, making all the plants in the room shake and bloom with happiness. 

 

He hummed quietly, letting them help him get dressed. They followed him, tying his scarf and adjusting his belt as he knelt down in his closet to retrieve his mother’s necklace. 

 

Wilbur ran his hardened fingertips over the jewelry fondly, rubbing off the thin layer of dust coating the necklace. It was a thin gold chain holding a heart-shaped garnet, a black line etched on both sides of the meticulously carved jewel. 

 

He walked back to the mirror, where his clematis offered him boots.

 

Wilbur took them with a nod and tied their laces up, handing the necklace to his rose bush to handle. It used its small tendrils to close the delicate clasp around his neck. Tucking it under his tie the way it knew he liked it, the roses tapped his nose again and rested on his head.

 

Morning glories carried his favorite cloak over to him, clasping it around his shoulders with a quick hug. He caressed the trumpet-shaped blooms in gratitude, adjusting the cloak slightly.

 

He held up a hand, and all movement stopped. The plants waited expectantly, vibrating with excitement. 

 

The prince grinned and sang a clear note that rang through the air, letting his curse flow through him freely for a minute, causing every plant to bloom with huge, vividly colored flowers. He watched as the mirror showed his eyes lighting up like lanterns, and his hair waved around wildly in the energy, turning as white as the snow outside. 

 

He could see the power whirl around him, the golden mist that flowed from him to swirl around the room beautifully, shimmering in the morning sun. 

 

Wilbur turned around to face the flowering plants, holding out a clawed hand. Each plant plucked off a flower and gave it to him, then took another to set in the crown on his head. All of them settled around his shoulders like a second cape. The roses dipped down from his hair to pluck the vibrant bouquet out of his hands and tied it with one of its own vines as he walked away from the mirror. 

 

The rose bush placed a single bud in the center of the wrapping, then handed them back to Wilbur with a pat on the head. 

 

“Thank you,” he said, allowing the power to settle. The gold mist faded in the sun, and the plants returned to their normal size. 

 

Each one tilted its leaves in a bow to the crown prince, and Wilbur returned the respects with a deep bow of his own. He knew he would never be able to achieve what he had if he didn’t respect this beautiful flora. 

 

Shifting the colorful crown in his curls to sit just right, the roses tickled his ears again before settling back in their pot.

 

Wilbur took a deep breath, allowing his hands to return to normal before opening the door to leave. 

 

--------

 

He hurried down the hallways, waving to all the guards and servants as he passed. They smiled shakily and nodded back to him, clearly sensing his good mood.

 

He passed through the corridor then ran outside, his cloak billowing in the chilled wind as he rushed down the stairs. He still clutched the gorgeous bouquet, hiding it under his cloak as he entered the kitchens.

 

All the cooks were busy preparing breakfast, but they spared him a glance and a nod before returning to their work. He was a frequent visitor here, coming down almost every day to speak to Niki.

 

One chef pointed with a spoon to where his friend was making breakfast rolls. She was humming quietly with a small smile on her face as she shaped the soft dough.

 

Wilbur quietly snuck behind her, tapping her on the shoulder and giving her the bouquet. Niki gasped in surprise and wonder at the present, even though he brought her one like it every week.

 

She placed the bunch of flowers in a special vase by the window then turned back to Wilbur with her hands on her hips.

 

“Someone’s in a good mood,” she remarked, brushing past him to her workspace.

 

“How could you tell?”

 

She took a hand coated in flour and tugged on his hair lightly. Wilbur looked at it himself, blushing as he realized it was still mostly white. “How bad is it?” he whispered.

 

“Mostly gold, the tips are still white.”

 

Wilbur heaved a sigh of relief, leaning on the counter opposite his friend. “How has it been?” he asked, playing with a snowy curl. “Do you need help?”

 

“I’m almost done, actually,” Niki replied, carefully placing the rolls in an oven. She turned to face him, one eyebrow raised. “Why are you so happy today?”

 

Niki rarely accepted his offers for help, but that was probably for the best. The lumpy bread he created was nothing compared to the beautiful rolls she’d shape.

 

“I’m going outside!” he announced, a wide grin spreading across his face. He saw a plate of scones on the counter and moved to snatch one.

 

“You’re always outside. You hate being indoors for too long,” Niki swatted his hand away from the pastries and placed the tray far away from his reach. 

 

“Outside the castle.

 

Niki’s mouth opened in a small ‘o’. “You don’t look like you’re sneaking out,” she whispered.

 

Niki was usually his cohort when he was sneaking out, passing him through the servants’ quarters. She’d usually hide a couple of pastries for him to take for food out there, along with a portion of her pay from that day.

 

Wilbur had tried to refuse the generous gifts hundreds of times, but her persistence always won out.

 

“I’m not! Dad said I could go for a few hours to one of the outer villages.”

 

“Well, you can’t go anywhere looking the way you do now,” Niki teased, handing him a shiny tray to study his reflection in. 

 

His hair was unnaturally light, as if the sun itself had seeped into the usual brown waves. His eyes were still honey-colored, and he could see the pointed tips of his ears peeking out from under his floral crown.

 

Wilbur sighed and handed the platter back to his friend. “I know, which is exactly why I’m staying for breakfast.”

 

“Well, you should hurry on upstairs, it’s almost ready.”

 

Niki pushed him out of the kitchens with a smile, giving him a small parcel. “For your adventure,” she called as he made his way to the dining area.

 

Wilbur entered the huge dining hall just as the first servants came in bearing heaping trays of food. 

 

He weaved his way through them to climb up the stairs leading to the head table. At the head of the table sat his father with Techno on his left. The crown prince seated himself on the emperor’s right side, smiling brightly.

 

Phil looked up from a letter he had been reading with a small smile of his own. “Having fun?” he teased, watching the flowers in his son’s hair ripple in excitement. 

 

Techno looked across the table at his white-haired brother with a smirk. “You look old.”

 

“I do not .”

 

“Look, Phil, they grow up so fast.”

 

Phil snickered at that, covering his mouth to hide his smile. Wilbur stared at his father, betrayal washing over his expression. 

 

Before he could make a witty rebuttal, the food arrived. 

 

Breakfast was quiet as usual. Once in a while, the silence was interrupted by a quip from one of the princes. The emperor barely spoke. He never said much when his son was around, but Wilbur knew he spoke freely with Techno. 

 

Bitterness curled unpleasantly in his stomach, but he swallowed the feeling before it began to show. 

 

“How bad was the storm?” Wilbur asked his father, swallowing a bite of one of the scones he had tried to steal earlier. 

 

“Multiple roads are completely covered, and merchants are complaining to no end.”

 

“Well, darn. Guess that means Wilbur won’t be travelin’ anywhere today,” Techno remarked, feigning a look of sympathy. His plate was loaded with potatoes. The warrior claimed it was an effect of his curse, but everyone else knew he was just weirdly obsessed with the starchy food.

 

Wilbur scowled. “Friend can get through it.”

 

“I’m sure they can,” Phil agreed, whacking Techno on the shoulder lightly with the rolled-up letter. 

 

“Aw. I was hopin’ to train with you today.”

 

“I have time before I leave,” Wilbur admitted, leaning back in his chair to gaze at his brother.

 

Techno grinned menacingly. “No curses. You need to look presentable before you leave anyways.”

 

The other prince grimaced at the thought of fighting Techno without the help of his curse. Even without his gift, Technoblade was still one of the best fighters in the kingdom.

 

With his curse, the man was unstoppable.

 

To be fair, Wilbur was the only one who had ever beaten the seemingly invincible man. He’d trained even longer than the formidable warrior, but he wasn’t as engaged in the activity as his brother was. 

 

Phil claimed he was an even match as well, but Wilbur hadn’t seen him pick up a sword in years. 

 

“All right,” the crown prince agreed, holding his hand out to shake with his brother. “I’ll bite.”

 

Techno laughed, confidence flowing off of him as he shook on it. “Oh, I’m sure.”

 

Phil watched the conversation in silence, knowing very well he’d have to pick up the pieces of someone’s shattered pride afterward.

 

--------

 

The courtyard was a place of tranquility, the soft blanket of snow and waterfalls frozen in ice creating quite the peaceful atmosphere. The skeletons of trees that flourished under Wilbur’s care in the summer shuddered in the constant winds of the mountain air, bare branches creaking in the breeze.

 

A gazebo stood alone in one corner, its paint purposely faded to create a rustic look. Carved stone benches sat unattended in the chilly air collecting dust. 

 

In the harsh weather of late winter, few people came to visit the enclosed glen. The guards would occasionally enter to run through training exercises with their protegees from the academy, so long scratches from stray blades decorated the walls and fountains.

 

Today, however, the courtyard was a prime destination.

 

Wilbur stood on one side of the court, pointing his sword towards his opponent. He had taken off his cloak and crown, standing in the frigid air with only light clothing.

 

Techno faced him on the other side, still wearing his heavy, fur-lined cape and crown. His pose was identical to his brother’s, but he had a confident smirk on his face.

 

Sam Awe, the captain of the guards, stood in the middle of the courtyard, glancing at both men with a slight grin. “Alright, boys. Play nice.”

 

With those words, he drew his sword and sliced it through the air in front of him. “BEGIN!”

 

Wilbur and Techno stalked to the center of the enclosure, facing each other cautiously. Each man had one hand behind his back, and the other hand held his sword high in the air. They swiped down with the blades simultaneously, placing them under their arms as they bowed respectfully to one another. 

 

Blazing gold eyes met fierce red ones. Both pairs had an identical, delighted glint.

 

And the duel began.

 

Techno went in first, swinging his sword down to Wilbur’s left. He blocked it easily, pushing the blade up into the air before going in for a thrust of his own.

 

It was a dance, practiced hundreds of times over the years they had spent in solitude. Each dancer knew the steps perfectly, executing each movement flawlessly.

 

Wilbur resisted the tingling in the back of his throat as he was pushed back by his brother’s brute force. Techno had the upper hand in strength, but Wilbur was faster and had better reflexes.

 

He didn’t need his curse to win this.

 

He dashed toward his brother, jabbing out at his side, then his knee, and finally bringing it down with a loud clang! on Techno’s sword.

 

Sparks flew from the impact as the two men faced each other, faces mere inches apart. They shared a grin and broke apart, continuing the graceful fight.

 

Wilbur studied Techno’s technique. He was attacking mostly from his left, meaning his right would be the side he defended the most. 

 

Wilbur came down hard on his left side, leaping high into the air to avoid his brother’s spinning blade. Techno spun around to protect his side, switching tactics quickly to attack from the right. 

 

Wilbur anticipated this and came down towards the middle, jabbing with his sword to poke towards Techno’s chest. His eyes widened in surprise as he blocked the thrust, throwing Wilbur’s sword back with a grunt.

 

They stood across from each other, breathing heavily. Techno was still smiling. Wilbur knew the man hadn’t had a good fight like this for months. He was enjoying this. 

 

The crown prince was just as delighted.

 

He started making blows to his opponent’s legs, slashing one-handed while the other hand held his brother’s sword arm. 

 

Techno was focused on the ground, swiping back and forth as he backed away from Wilbur’s blade. He placed his sword tip on the ground, and Wilbur took a chance.

 

He stepped onto the blade and jumped. Techno brought up his sword in shock, his movement pushing Wilbur higher into the air. Wilbur flipped once in the air before landing directly behind the pink-haired man.

 

He placed his sword deftly between Techno’s shoulder and neck. 

 

Wilbur had won the duel.

 

Techno dropped his sword and slowly raised his hands in a calm surrender. Neither prince said anything. 

 

Loud applause broke the tense silence. As their fights usually did, a large audience had arrived at the courtyard to watch the rare spectacle. 

 

Techno clapped him on the back and gave him a quick hug. He turned away and held Wilbur’s hand up in the customary way to declare the victor. 

 

Even though he had lost, the warrior was in good spirits. He was laughing and smiling broadly, a sight rarely seen by anyone outside his family. 

 

Wilbur gazed at a bush by the wall and hummed, willing it to bring him his cloak and flower crown. The crowd’s applause stopped as everyone watched the shrub abruptly lurch and give the crown prince his items. 

 

Wilbur accepted them, shaking the bush’s vine as if he was shaking someone’s hand in thanks. He set them on his head and shoulders and walked towards the crowd, Techno by his side.

 

Phil was at the very front, his arms crossed and head tilted to study his sons. “Well done, both of you,” he said, ruffling their hair. 

 

The emperor put his hands around the princes and led them back inside the castle, the crowd behind them dispersing but still whispering excitedly about the fight.

 

Wilbur nearly pushed his father’s hesitant grasp off, but he decided it was too early in the morning to cause a scene. 

 

“What was that move you pulled at the end, Wil?” Techno asked as they walked down a hallway.

 

This corridor was outside, a passageway between the main hold of the palace and one of its outer wings. The frigid air of the mountain blew around the trio as they leisurely strolled towards the most protected part of the castle.

 

They were used to the cold, so they barely shivered.

 

“Used your momentum to push me up above you. You didn’t expect it and weren’t fast enough to stop me.”

 

“So no gifts?” Phil questioned, stopping to lean outside one of the windows of the corridor. 

 

“None during the fight.”

 

They stood together in comfortable silence—for Phil and Techno at least, Wilbur was a bit too close to the emperor for comfort—for a while, looking down upon the kingdom before them. The princes mused about the fight, and the emperor thought about how proud he was of the both of them.

 

Wilbur’s mind quickly drew away from the details of his victory, not wanting to dwell selfishly on his lucky win. Instead, he let his gaze wander to study the beautiful landscape.

 

Their castle resided on the top of a tall mountain, sprawling not only over the peak, but winding around the sides as well. Most of the castle was inside, where it was easier to protect the heat from the greedy Northern winds. 

 

On one side of the huge stronghold, an inlet led to the freezing, wild oceans that few dared to traverse. Glaciers and ice floes surrounded the piers of the castle, making it challenging for anyone to trade by sea. On the other side of the cliff lay their snow-covered kingdom.

 

The Antarctic Empire covered a huge expanse of frozen lands, spreading across tundras and spruce forests alike. Wilbur could just barely see the blueish peaks of the mountain range that marked the border of his home in the distance.

 

Normally, the biting winds of the North would drive anyone  inside during the winter months. But on a clear day like this, when the sun shone brightly in the pale blue sky without a cloud in sight, Wilbur wouldn’t want to be kept from the outdoors.

 

After a while, Wilbur stood back, excusing himself for the day so that he could head out. His hair was close to normal now, and no one would be looking closely enough at his eyes to tell that they were strangely colored.

 

He headed for the stables, skipping down the castle stairs as he went. 

 

A small songbird flew down to rest on his shoulder, attracted by the small atmosphere of charm he always possessed. It usually managed to catch small, less intelligent animals, but he would let them go after a few minutes. He hated how his curse took away the free will of those affected by it, but he would reluctantly admit that it was useful on rare occasions.

 

He hummed a few notes to the bird, and it warbled back cheerily. 

 

The stables were mostly empty. Must be a training day for the knights. He always stabled Friend along with all the other horses because Wilbur saw no reason to keep them separate. Horses were horses, and they shouldn’t be held up on an unnecessary pedestal.

 

Friend, the stallion his much-younger self had so creatively named, nickered as he came close, sniffing at the bird on his shoulder. The creature flew up to hide in Wilbur’s crown with a startled chirp.

 

The stallion snorted and glanced at Wilbur with intelligent eyes, annoyed that he wasn’t the center of attention. The prince unlatched the door and walked into the stall, marveling at how clean the stable hands had managed to keep it. 

 

He’d have to remember to personally thank them when he returned. Non-verbally, of course.

 

Friend was a beautiful horse, anyone could see that. He had a grey coat that looked blue in the right light, something his father hadn’t believed when Wilbur had brought him home. With his neatly brushed, snowy mane, Friend was certainly a sight to behold.

 

Wilbur walked behind the horse, unlocking a door to get his riding gear. He’d ridden Friend bareback before, but neither of them enjoyed it. 

 

He came out bearing a saddle, coat, and reins. Friend balked at the bit, tossing his head and stomping his hooves emphatically when it was offered. Wilbur sighed and put the reins away, shaking his head at his horse’s stubbornness.

 

Friend hated reins and would listen to Wilbur perfectly without them. It was just a precaution to try and coerce the horse into actually using them, a task both horse and rider knew was a waste of time. 

 

He’d found the blue horse alone in the woods with a rope crudely tied around the colt’s neck, leaving ugly sores where the rough material had chafed the poor creature. Wilbur had immediately taken it off, using his curse to make the foal trust him. Ever since that day, Friend had thrown a frightened fit around any form of rope, and Wilbur had never pushed it.

 

He placed the coat and saddle on Friend, patting him as the horse stayed completely still. He crouched down to attach the saddle under his steed’s stomach.

 

Friend lowered his nose to snuff at the bird hiding in his owner’s curls. The poor creature flew away with an agitated warble, quickly gliding out of the stable. Wilbur stood up and glared at his horse.

 

“What was that for?”

 

Friend snorted, shaking his mane, and looked away. 

 

Wilbur rolled his eyes but patted his horse’s neck anyway. Jealous prick. He led Friend out of the stable, passing Carl, Techno’s horse. Carl and Friend nickered a greeting at each other in passing, touching their noses together.

 

As soon as they were out in the cold air outside, Friend started stamping and huffing, huge clouds of breath weaving around the horse. Wilbur leapt on quickly, knowing how much his steed hated standing still in the cold. 

 

As soon as Wilbur was seated, the horse began walking towards the hidden gap in the castle wall he always used to sneak out without his father’s knowledge. “Not today, Friend,” he whispered, patting the horse’s neck to push him in the other direction.

 

They traveled down the winding cobble path that led to the main exit of the castle, a wide stone bridge that crossed a gap between the mainland and the cliff the palace rested on. 

 

He set off to pass the heavy gates of the castle, trotting Friend down to meet the guards. The men on duty nodded to him as he passed, opening the gate without saying a word.

 

Wilbur nodded in turn, letting Friend maneuver his way around the wide road leading to the capital city. He patted his horse’s neck again, guiding him to a less popular path that would quickly take him to the outskirts of the main kingdom. 

 

“You want to go fast, Friend?” Wilbur whispered as soon as the gate was out of sight. Friend let out a soft neigh in reply, already quickening his gait.

 

Wilbur squeezed his legs slightly, letting Friend know that he could take off. 

 

And oh boy, did the horse take off.

 

Friend raced through the sparse pine trees without breaking a sweat, galloping down the snowy road with ease. The wind whipped around them, whistling past Wilbur as his horse sped on. Every new gust was a cold slap in the face, but it was so exhilarating that he couldn’t find it in him to be upset about it.

 

Wilbur cheered as Friend leapt over a fallen tree, the horse letting out a whinny as well. They were both happy to be away from their prisons, at least for a little bit.

 

They left the castle behind, entering a dense forest wonderland. A decently wide brook bubbled cheerily in front of them, small chips of ice breaking off from the banks to flow down the fast current.

 

Friend jumped the creek with ease, and both steed and rider looked back at their triumphant feat. The horse let out a satisfied snort and continued, following the barely visible path through the thick woods. Wilbur scratched the horse just behind the ears every time the horse made an impressive jump or sharp turn to continue down the path. 

 

After a while, Friend slowed down a bit, allowing Wilbur to take a look around at the world he hadn’t seen in months.

 

He only came out of the castle for the yearly speech his father held, and even then that was still in the capital, not the actual kingdom.

 

Spruce trees surrounded the road, growing straight and stiff into the air above them. Their boughs were weighed down by the heavy snow resting on their needles, making Friend swerve slightly to avoid the lower branches. Some of the trees were laden with thin icicles that chimed and twinkled in the cold breeze, letting out soft musical notes like the wind chimes in the capital.

 

The pale winter sun filtered through the needles, making spots of light dance on the rider and his horse as they passed. The small pinpricks of light made the snow shimmer, reflecting the light a hundred times on every frozen crystal.

 

Wilbur watched small rabbits and wild wolves alike frolic in the thick blanket of snow off of the path. Some of them even came to see the travelers, curiosity overcoming their instinctual caution as the man with an attractive aura rode past.

 

Something landed in his hair as he looked around, and he lifted a hand to find it. The songbird from earlier hopped onto his hand with a happy trill. He placed it back on his shoulder, letting it sit in the warm folds of his cloak to protect it from the biting cold.

 

Friend paused to look at Wilbur and the bird, an accusatory glint in his eyes. Wilbur tucked the bird in closer and returned the glare, daring the horse to scare it away again.

 

After a few moments of the staring contest, the horse rolled his eyes and kept moving, huffing in annoyance. Wilbur laughed softly at Friend’s troubles. 

 

He didn’t expect the bird to return. Usually, small creatures lost interest after a while or when he took his charm away from them. This curious fellow had come back to him willingly, a notion that warmed the prince’s heart.

 

Wilbur had made a new friend.

 

The three travelers took a short break at a small, mostly-frozen pond where Friend could take a drink. The prince played with the spruce trees, letting their needles tickle him as he and the bird sang to them.

 

The smaller, more flexible saplings wound their springy branches around him curiously, unused to the man’s curse. Unlike the trees by the castle, these had never experienced the prince’s curious condition. They’d shrink back every time he extended a hand to them, cautious of the sharp nails he currently showed. 

 

He laughed warmly at their tentativeness, humming a comforting tune to reassure them. They listened to his tone and softened, allowing the man to run his fingers through their needles in wonder.

 

The bird weaved through the higher branches of the trees, occasionally bringing him pinecones and small bits of sap to inspect. Every gift was accompanied by an excited trill as the prince accepted them with a smile, the bird pleased that its contributions were noticed.

 

Friend, apparently finished with his drink, walked up to Wilbur and grabbed him by the cloak to fling him on his back. Wilbur, unsurprised by the horse’s bluntness, calmly straightened in the saddle and held out a hand for his feathered friend to land on.

 

He wished the spruces a good day and they carried on. 

 

Eventually, they found their way into a small town. It had obviously suffered in the storm, with signs and lanterns hanging at awkward angles and branches littering the road ahead. 

 

Wilbur pushed his hood over his flower crown, hiding his face. He wasn’t too recognizable because of how little the people saw him, but he was sure a crown would tip them off. The prince had never been this far out into the kingdom before, so he wasn’t sure if the people here even knew he existed. 

 

The bird shimmied its way between Wilbur’s cheek and his hood, fluffing its feathers while rubbing its small head into the prince’s face. He smiled and brushed his hand lightly over its feathers in return, earning him a pleased warble.

 

He trotted Friend through the messy streets, glancing around at the people milling about. None of them seemed too perturbed by the mess, so maybe the town had always been this way.

 

Two teenagers were walking out of a tavern laughing about something, both looking disheveled and exhausted. Wilbur patted Friend on the neck to go near them, the horse obediently turning in their direction.

 

He knew he wasn’t supposed to speak to people, he had promised his father he wouldn’t. But these boys looked unarmed even though they seemed to have come out of a battle. The prince simply couldn’t stop his concern from controlling his actions.

 

“Hello there!” Wilbur called out, stopping Friend in front of the boys. “Do either of you need help?”

 

The two boys exchanged a glance. One of them, with blond hair and a ragged red cloak, glared at the man on the horse. “No. We’re fine.”

 

His answer was clipped and short, much unlike the friendly atmosphere he had shown earlier. It startled Wilbur, and he drew back a bit. The sudden movement made Friend nervous, quickly calming down with a reassuring pat from his rider. 

 

“Glad to hear it,” the prince responded kindly. The other one, a boy with brown hair and a dark green cloak, looked nervously at the prancing stallion. 

 

Wilbur noticed the fearful look and smiled. “Don’t worry about Friend here,” he reassured, running his hands through the white mane. “He’s quite, well, friendly.”

 

The brunet laughed a bit at that and reached up to pet the horse’s side. Friend peered down at the shorter boy, studying him for a moment, before whuffing warm air into his face and turning away. He allowed the boy to pet him softly, running his hands along his neck.

 

Wilbur smiled at the scene. His bird suddenly flew out of his hood to sit on the boy’s hand, spooking the young man. It chirped, tilting its head to look at him. The boy slowly brushed his fingers along the side of the creature’s head, smiling quietly at the soft touch. 

 

The bird warbled a quick, cheerful tune before flying back up to perch on Wilbur’s shoulder. 

 

“Your pets are very nice, sir,” the brunet remarked, looking up at the bird with wonder.

 

Wilbur laughed. “They aren’t my pets. This little guy,” he chuckled, gently patting the bird on his shoulder, “just decided to sit on my shoulder for a while, and hasn’t moved much since. No idea where he’s from, but he’s definitely a wild animal.”

 

The bird twittered at that, acting very wild as it rubbed its face against Wilbur’s again.

 

The blond looked on the scene, unimpressed. If anything, he was glaring at the hooded man. But Wilbur noticed he wasn’t looking directly at him, instead at the air around him. Strange.

 

“May I know your names?” Wilbur questioned, hopping down from Friend nimbly. He led the horse to a nearby water trough, the other two following close behind.

 

“I’m—” the boy in the green cloak started, stopping abruptly when he was kicked by his friend. The brunet glared at him before continuing. “I’m Tubbo, sir.”

 

Wilbur looked over to the other boy, not really expecting an answer. The aggressive blond shifted a bit, glancing over at Tubbo, who was rubbing Friend’s neck again.

 

“Tommy,” he bit out, staring at the ground. 

 

“Lovely to meet you both. I’m…” he trailed off, hesitating at his name. He couldn’t just say he was the Crown Prince Wilbur, now could he. “Wil.” 

 

That was hardly any better, but Tubbo nodded, not having noticed the man’s hesitation. Tommy, on the other hand, narrowed his eyes at the man’s reluctance to answer. 

 

“Nice to meet you as well, Mr. Wil,” Tubbo replied, all politeness and cordiality. “I’m afraid Tommy and I have some traveling to do, so we’ll have to excuse ourselves. Would you happen to know the way to the capital?”

 

“Certainly,” Wilbur replied, pointing off towards where he had just ridden from. “Through those spruces should be a deer path that leads directly to the castle gates. Go a little to the left and you’ll find a road paved to the capital.” 

 

“Thank you, sir.”

 

The two young men went off in the direction he had pointed to. They still didn’t seem to have any weapons, so traveling alone all that way didn’t seem like the best choice. Wilbur jumped back onto Friend to ride beside them, worry creasing his brow. 

 

“You can’t be traveling on your own, without a horse!” he exclaimed, pulling Friend to stop in front of them. “I’d be happy to escort you. The roads are dangerous today.”

 

Tommy glared ferociously at the prince and grabbed Tubbo’s wrist. “We’re fine,” he snapped, tugging a reluctant Tubbo away from the man.

 

Wilbur watched the two travelers as they marched off. Tubbo pulled free from his friend’s grasp and seemed to be scolding him angrily. They argued until the prince couldn’t see them anymore. 

 

Well, that won’t do, he thought. He led Friend behind the tavern, crossing a small clearing of snow. His bird flew ahead, guiding them to an edge of the forest. Wilbur stopped at the line of trees and whistled to their guide. 

 

“Now I can’t tell you to follow them,” he remarked to the bird, placing it atop his hood as he searched the trees. “That Tubbo one would recognize you.”

 

Wilbur hummed loudly, making the trees shudder and groan as their trunks turned toward him. He held up his hands and made a motion as if to spread the trees away from him. The spruces complied and creaked as they leaned away, making a path in front of the horse and the rider appear.

 

“Hello?” he called, pouring his curse into the word. His voice echoed unnaturally, and the man could just see faint gold swirls weave around the trees.

 

A rumbling echoed through the forest as a collection of animals came to investigate the one who had summoned them. Foxes, rabbits, birds, and even a couple of wolves came down the path to sit expectantly in front of the prince.

 

Squirrels and smaller birds scurried to sit in the branches close to the man, chittering nervously. The bird on his hood chirped back, quieting them so that Wilbur could focus.

 

Wilbur surveyed the forest life, studying each creature. He gestured to the two wolves slowly, beckoning them to stand by his horse. They loped over, sniffing the hand he offered cautiously.

 

Friend pranced around, obviously uncomfortable around the large predators. Wilbur murmured in his ear comfortingly, calming the restless horse without using his curse. He looked back down at the wolves, a serious expression hardening his face.

 

“Follow the travelers,” he commanded, ruffling the coarse fur behind their ears. “Alert me if trouble arises on their journey.” His soft voice seemed to flow around the wolves, transforming them to appear bigger and make their fur shimmer faintly.

 

The cursed wolves’ eyes glowed a soft gold, and they wagged their tails before sprinting toward the two boys. 

 

“But,” the prince murmured. “They will be able to keep them safe.”

 

He turned Friend to look at the rest of the wildlife still watching him intently. “Thank you!” he shouted, pulling his horse around hard enough to make him rear up. The animals scampered away, the charm wearing off and their natural instincts returning.

 

Wilbur nodded to the trees as they bent back to their normal places. He squeezed his calves around Friend’s side again, and the three beasts, man, horse, and bird, chased swiftly after the wolves.

 

--------

 

Tommy was not paranoid. 

 

He could clearly see huge wolves following them, obviously sent by the hooded rider. He could practically taste the same gold smoke that had swirled around Wil.

 

“Tommy, would you calm down a bit?” Tubbo asked, shoving his tense friend with a laugh. 

 

“I can sense them, Tubbo. They’re covered in his aura.”

 

The brunet frowned, but he started moving faster down the snow-covered road. When Tommy said he sensed something, he was usually right.

 

The clear, cold day hadn’t shown any signs of danger so far, a suspicious sign to the two boys who were used to constantly being at risk. The forest was a bit too quiet, their steps through the snow a bit too loud.

 

If those wolves weren’t trouble, then something else would undoubtedly endanger them.

 

The sound of a horse galloping up behind them made them turn in surprise. They both paled and began running as fast as they could down the road.

 

The monstrous bay from before was running them down, its green-cloaked rider holding a bow aimed at the panicked travelers. A bright green and black halo shone over the man’s head, dripping slowly on the ground as he passed. 

 

Just my luck, Tommy thought.

 

A glowing arrow whizzed past his ear, making him shout in alarm. Another was shot into the ground directly in front of the fleeing boys, making them skid to a halt.

 

The stallion caught up to the travelers and pranced in front of them, letting out a shrill scream as its rider pulled sharply on the reins. Dream cocked his bow so the arrow’s trajectory would land squarely between Tommy’s eyes.

 

Tommy,” he gritted out. “ It’s over.

 

Tommy wanted to cry. He’d made it this far, and now he’d die in the middle of nowhere without anyone to save him. Dream’s invisible halo spun, still dripping viscous drops of acid. 

 

He tried not to flinch as he watched one droplet hit his face. The acid didn’t burn, he didn’t even feel the impact. It isn’t there, it isn’t there, he chanted internally, trying to calm himself down. Oh, how he hated that man’s aura.

 

Tubbo, the brave idiot he is, attempted to step in front of his friend. “You can’t!” he exclaimed, glaring at the man. “You’re still in the Empire!”

 

“No one will come out here with this amount of snow on the road,” Dream snarled, shifting his bow to aim at Tubbo’s heart. 

 

Before he could let go of the string, the pair of huge wolves Tommy had seen before lunged at the horse and its rider. They toppled the man from his steed, growling with their teeth bared. They shimmered in the sunlight, white and gold streaking their grey fur.

 

It was obvious they were under the spell of the strange man with the blue horse from before, the gold mist coming off of them in waves the same as the aura surrounding the man. I knew it.

 

The predators stood in front of the two boys, protecting them from the grounded man. They both tipped their heads up and let out an eerie howl that echoed unnaturally through the air. 

 

Tommy watched as more gold smoke shot from their mouths, racing to somewhere behind them. They’re calling him, he realized, bracing himself for the appearance of the mysterious hooded man.

 

As expected, a familiar blue horse came thundering down the road, its rider practically swimming in a cloud of golden power.

 

Dream was wrong. Someone had come to save them.

 

At least, he hoped so.

 

--------

 

Wilbur had been slowly walking Friend back down the trail, watching a pair of foxes weave through the horse’s legs when he heard the howl. The playful foxes scattered, hiding back in the trees at the edges of the path.

 

Friend’s ears had pricked up and had neighed loudly, glancing back at the prince for permission to speed up. The man nodded, and the horse took off, speeding down the icy path. 

 

Now they were still sprinting through the kingdom, kicking up white powder in their wake. 

 

His bird flew swiftly beside them, chirping every once in a while. Wilbur tucked his hood down further over his hair and eyes, knowing very well they were probably lightening to unnatural colors. 

 

It got harder to control himself when he felt strong emotions, and the feeling that he had to save them was almost overpowering. Whatever was threatening those boys was too much for the wolves to handle, and that terrified him.

 

In the distance, Wilbur could see the two travelers stopped in front of a man getting up off of the ground and a gigantic horse. He squeezed Friend a bit harder, whispering for him to go faster. 

 

His horse snorted and shook his head, leaning down to the ground as he picked up speed. His mane was whipping around in Wilbur’s eyes, making it almost impossible to see, but the prince didn’t mind. He already knew where he was going. 

 

He let Friend gallop past the travelers, the prince leaping off in front of the wolves guarding them. The jump caused his hood to drop, but there wasn’t enough time for that to matter. He drew his sword and pointed it at a man in a green cloak and a mask, the threat that the wolves had warned him about.

 

The mask the man wore was strange. It was a spotless white plate marred by a crude smiling expression that looked like it had been drawn by a child. A large crack ran through the mask because of the fall, a small gash showing a poisonous green eye that glared at him.

 

His bird flew to the two boys, resting on a surprised Tubbo’s shoulder with a quiet chirp. 

 

Friend turned to scream at the monstrous horse, presumably belonging to the masked man. His steed kicked and bit the huge beast ferociously, snapping his teeth and whinnying loudly. The other horse backed up, too surprised to bring its large hooves up to defend itself. 

 

“Get out of my way,” the man on the ground growled, standing up slowly to face Wilbur. “You don’t know what you’re doing.” He was a bit shorter than the prince, certainly making him less threatening.

 

Wilbur said nothing. He tightened his grip on his blade, still glaring at the other man. The prince felt his steadily sharpening fingernails digging into his palms, but ignored them to focus on the others. He glanced behind him to look at the two boys. They stared at him fearfully, and he cursed his hood for falling off. He probably looked terrifying in this state.

 

He could feel his control just barely holding on in his anger. This man had attacked two defenseless children. There was no way the prince would stand for that.

 

The green man sighed and took out his sword, a wicked thing glowing with powerful enchantments. 

 

“This’ll hurt me more than it’ll hurt you,” the man promised, running at Wilbur with his blade.

 

Unlike his graceful dance with Techno earlier, this fight was rough and brutal. The masked man was unpolished, and his moves were easily avoidable. He was good, but not nearly as good as Wilbur.

 

The prince deftly parried his thrusts, apparently angering his opponent with how unbothered he was. The man in green started attacking harder and faster, but also sloppier. Wilbur easily blocked his messy stabs, occasionally moving toward the offense with a light jab at the other man’s chest. 

 

Their swords met in the frigid air, cold steel against solid netherite. Wilbur’s weapon was obviously of higher quality, and the strong yet light material scratched the lesser blade every time they hit. 

 

Sparks flew with every loud clang of the metals hitting each other, illuminating both of their faces every time they were close. 

 

They circled each other, trading short blows. The masked man was trying to tire him out, but Wilbur had fought Techno for hours before. He’d barely broken a sweat. 

 

He pushed the tiring man to the edge of the path, spinning around to touch a small spruce with his free hand, humming softly. The tree leaned over to shove its boughs in his opponent’s face, making the masked man sputter and pause his fighting to push the needles away. 

 

Wilbur laughed at their troubles and pushed him back to the road, dancing around the man once again. His long nails were making holding his weapon steady a challenge, but the prince continued swiping and leaping around the man without fail.

 

His opponent seemed to realize Wilbur was just toying with him, and he tried to jab towards the prince’s chest over and over again, each one more desperate. He was breathing heavily, trying to pass the prince to get at the young men behind him. Wilbur continued to stand directly in front of him, never letting the man move past his defense. 

 

Wilbur grew tired of playing. He used the tip of his blade to hook the handle of the other man’s weapon, flipping it into the air to land in the snow beside him. The prince stepped up to the shorter man, a small smirk on his face. His sword tip rested on the center of his opponent’s throat, poking him enough to draw a small bead of blood.

 

Stay away,” he whispered, forcing his curse into every syllable. 

 

The masked man shuddered and backed away, the eye showing through the broken mask flashing gold. He dashed back to the horse that Friend had kept away, jumping on and riding away without a second glance back.

 

Wilbur snorted. “Coward.” 

 

He stepped to retrieve the blade the man had left behind, examining the shimmering weapon. It was well-crafted, much too fine for an inexperienced fighter like the green cloak. Plenty of other scratches and dents from previous fights ruined the blade’s potential, making Wilbur tut in disapproval.

 

He whistled, and Friend came trotting over, sniffing his rider for any wounds. “I’m fine,” Wilbur reassured, placing the enchanted sword on the saddle. He turned around to look at the two wolves he had charmed, snapping his fingers.

 

The oversized dogs loped over, tongues hanging out of their mouths as they grinned at him. He smiled back and patted both of their heads before pushing them off to the woods. They ran off, leaving Wilbur with the travelers he had saved. 

 

The two boys were trembling, staring wide-eyed at their rescuer. Tommy was standing in front of Tubbo with his arm out, trying to defend him against the prince. Wilbur tilted his head and exchanged an amused glance with Friend.

 

Tubbo was still the current perch of his feathered friend, holding up a hand to protect the bird from the cursed man in front of them.

 

He clicked his tongue, and the bird came back to sit in his hair among the still-beautiful flower crown. It snuggled in among the curls, making content chirps. 

 

Wilbur pushed his cloak behind him and walked slowly toward the two boys. They gasped and fell over in fright, raising their arms to shield their eyes so they didn’t have to watch their inevitable death.

 

Their murderer knelt, his cloak waving in the soft breeze around them. His floral crown tipped a bit as he lowered his head respectfully, revealing the bird nestled in his snow-white curls.

 

Tommy and Tubbo straightened up, lowering their arms slowly. They exchanged a confused glance and stared at the man kneeling before them. His feathered friend trilled softly, cocking its head to look at them.

 

“My humblest apologies for frightening you,” the man intoned softly, raising his head to look at them with flashing golden eyes. “My only intention was to keep you safe.” 

 

He paused, then extended a cautious hand to the fallen travelers. His fingers ended in sharp claws that seemed to be shrinking before their very eyes. “May I please escort you for the rest of your journey?”

Chapter Text

--------

 

Wilbur rode silently beside the two young travelers, trying his best to look straight ahead.

 

He had offered them both a ride on Friend, pointing out their obvious exhaustion. The pair had refused, Tommy a bit more aggressively than the other. 

 

Now, they walked quickly alongside the horse, frequently glancing up at its rider. He heard them whispering about him softly, sharing confused looks before staring at him.

 

He pretended he didn’t notice, instead occupying himself with the bird that lay in his hair. He had abandoned the idea of putting the hood back up; the travelers had already seen him without it. 

 

His hair had begun to darken again. It should be almost normal by the time he reached the castle unless some other terrible swordsman decided to ambush them.

 

“I believe you deserve a name now,” he murmured, raising a hand for the bird to perch on. “What should I call you?”

 

His feathered companion fluffed up and trilled at him, cocking its head under his gaze. 

 

“My, you’re talkative, aren’t you?” he laughed, earning him more stares from the boys. “I think I’ll call you Chatter.”

 

Chatter chirped in reply, satisfied with the name. Chat would be a good nickname, he mused, placing the bird on his shoulder. 

 

Chat snuggled next to his warm cheek, warbling contentedly. Something caught their eye, and they flew off suddenly. The movement spooked Friend, who nickered in surprise. 

 

The bird flew up to circle the travelers, dipping down to the bare roots of a tree. They appeared to pick something up, then glided back to the prince. 

 

Chat dropped a small white flower in his hand with a soft tweet, returning to their place by Wilbur’s face. The man laughed and thanked his companion, watching as the bell-shaped flower’s stem grew around his wrist and fingers at the sound of his voice. 

 

The others stared as the growing vine bloomed with more small flowers, covering the prince’s arm in sweet-smelling blossoms. “Means spring is just around the corner!” he called down to the boys. “That storm must have been the last of the season.”

 

Tubbo opened his mouth as if to reply, but closed it abruptly and looked away. His eyes strayed to where Wilbur’s hands rested on Friend’s neck, nails lengthening with the small charm he used on the flower. 

 

The prince quickly drew them into the folds of his cloak, sending a reassuring smile down at the brunet. 

 

There wasn’t any conversation for a while after that. The two boys didn’t even speak to each other. Tommy’s fingers twitched near his belt, sending suspicious glances towards the man covered in flowers. Tubbo wrung his hands as they walked, staring at the ground.

 

Wilbur busied himself with quietly braiding Friend’s mane, occasionally taking a white flower from his arm to place in between the loose knots. 

 

It was a tense, uncomfortable silence. Thankfully, Tommy broke it.

 

“So who are you really? ” he demanded, shooting an accusatory glare at the man on his horse. 

 

Maybe not thankfully.

 

“I told you,” Wilbur replied evenly, “I’m Wil.” 

 

Tommy scoffed. “Normal people don’t just walk around carrying netherite blades knowing how to fight like they’ve been trained their whole lives. You beat Dream.

 

He said the name in reluctant awe. Obviously, people believed this Dream to be a superb fighter. Even the people the man seemed to wish death upon.

 

“I just had some dumb luck—” Wilbur began, but the boy in the red cloak interrupted him. 

 

“Don’t give me some bullshit about luck ,” he growled. “You knew what you were doing against Dream. That’s skill, not luck. The only way you could learn to fight like that is if you’re royalty or—”

 

“Tommy!” Tubbo exclaimed, his face flushing as he turned on his friend. “This man just saved our lives. The least you could do is thank him instead of interrogating him like an ass.”

 

He looked up at the prince, an apologetic smile peeking out from his hood. “Thank you for that. I don’t know why you protected us, but thank you.”

 

Wilbur waved off the gratitude, returning the boy’s smile. “Of course. It was no problem at all, I assure you.”

 

Tubbo nodded to himself at that and went back to looking at the ground. Tommy stared at the prince for a few more moments before muttering a ‘thanks’ as well.

 

The bright sky started to turn red as the sun set, bathing the snow around them in an eerily-colored light. Wilbur watched as the two boys slowed down, clearly tired after their adventures. He eased Friend to match their pace, the horse huffing in annoyance at how leisurely they were traveling.

 

After a few more minutes of walking, the palace came into view. Wilbur halted Friend and turned to his fellow travelers.

 

“This is where I leave you,” he announced, pointing off to their left. “Follow that direction for a while and you should come across a path leading directly to the capital. It’s frequently patrolled by guards, so no thieves or other unsavory characters should be lurking nearby.”

 

The boys nodded and began to walk in that direction. “Wait!” Wilbur called, searching his cloak for the bag Niki had given him.

 

He tossed the parcel their way, smiling as he rode past. “Not sure what’s in there, but I’m sure it’ll help you!”

 

And with that, Wilbur let Friend gallop away, leaving the bewildered travelers with their gift. 

 

--------

 

“What’s in it?” 

 

“Should we open it?”

 

“I think so.”

 

Tommy carefully unwrapped the string holding the bag closed, gasping when he saw the coins and bread that spilled out. He counted out ten gold pieces, four rolls of bread, and two flower-shaped pastries. 

 

He and Tubbo shared a grin and each took one of the pastries, eating as they walked through the trees. 

 

“See? I told you he wasn’t that bad!” Tubbo’s aura shone with a bright, honey-colored hue, meaning he was happy. It was the first he’d seen his friend’s usually dim yellow swirls that color in a long time. Too long.

 

“I suppose not,” Tommy replied reluctantly, finishing off his treat with a sigh. 

 

He still didn’t trust him, not by any means. But Wil had treated them with nothing but kindness and respect, doing everything he could to make sure they were alright. 

 

He’d even restrained his power away from them.

 

Tommy frowned at that thought. Everyone he’d ever met with a power that strong had immediately used it on him to seem like a better person than who they were.

 

Stronger, smarter, more attractive, the list goes on and on. Wil hadn’t tried anything of the sort for some reason. His horse wasn’t influenced by the gold mist at all but liked the man well enough. He’d even eased his power on the bird he called ‘Chat’, and it hadn’t flown away when the charm had worn off. 

 

If anything, Chat had stayed closer, giving the man gifts and chirping happily as they sat on his shoulder. 

 

There didn’t seem to be an explanation for how he managed to keep the living things so attracted to him if he wasn’t using his gifts. Except for...

 

The man just seemed...nice. He was naturally a good person. 

 

And that confused Tommy more than any other explanation. 

 

--------

 

After Wilbur made sure that Friend was taken care of and comfortable in the stables, he strolled up to the castle with an extra spring in his step. Chat stayed firmly on his shoulder, refusing to leave at all.

 

Wilbur passed a stablehand on his way up the many flights of stairs to the castle entrance. He handed his stolen sword to the boy and asked him to have it brought up to his room. The boy was brave enough to stammer out a ‘yes, sir’ before hurrying away with the weapon.

 

He was less excited than this morning, so he was in less of a rush to see his family for dinner. 

He passed by the courtyard, pausing to admire the view of softly falling snow. Wilbur took a breath of the crisp air and sighed, relaxed and calm at last. 

 

Today’s events had made him tense and almost uncontrollable. He could’ve done much worse to Dream, but he already figured that he looked like a monster to the boys. The prince didn’t want to look any worse in their eyes.

 

He was a monster.

 

Just one that was impeccable at hiding it. 

 

Wilbur strolled through the halls, silently greeting everyone who passed with a wave. The servants had eagerly been awaiting his return, and a few surprisingly brave maids followed him as he walked toward the dining room, asking if he needed anything.

 

“May I take your cloak?”

 

“Your Highness, do you need to sit down?”

 

“Would you like a mug of ale, sir?”

 

That last one almost tempted him, but he waved the kind women off with a grin. He said nothing, knowing that if he did, it’d spook them all away.

 

The maids curtsied and left hurriedly, leaving Wilbur to his thoughts once again. He rounded a corner to see the dining hall in all of its majestic glory.

 

Even from here, he could hear his father and brother arguing about something or other. Typical dinner conversation that would be forgotten in minutes. Unlike Wilbur and his father, their arguments never seemed to hold any weight on their relationship.

 

To his surprise, he noticed Niki sitting at the high table as well. 

 

Today is the day she eats with us, Wilbur remembered, suddenly in more of a hurry to attend dinner.

 

He bounded up the stairs, letting Chat fly beside him. He seated himself quietly, shooting a confused glance towards Niki. The other royals hadn’t noticed his presence yet, too caught up in their conversation. 

 

His friend rolled her eyes in response and mouthed guard business . Wilbur nodded almost imperceptibly. Techno had been training to relieve Sam as the captain of the guards for over six years now. Phil and he frequently discussed the warrior’s future, his father insisting that it would be more beneficial for him to be an advisor instead. 

 

Wilbur’s future was talked about rarely. He assumed he would eventually end up as one of Phil’s advisors, but he was never told for certain.

 

Chat chirped quietly, fluttering to rest in his crown. Wilbur shushed them and patted them down, not wanting his father to see the bird. Phil had a strict ‘no pets’ rule in the palace. It annoyed Techno and Wilbur to no end, and both had tried multiple times to make the emperor reconsider.

 

Niki noticed the creature in his hair, though, and raised an eyebrow at the forbidden animal. 

 

I’ll tell you later, Wilbur mouthed, and she nodded. She glanced at his arm, which was still covered in the flowers from the forest. He flushed slightly and allowed the vine to give him a flower of its choosing, which he delicately placed behind Niki’s ear.

 

The friends shared a smile and turned their attention back to the emperor and his adopted son, whose argument had apparently been resolved.

 

“Techno, at least promise me you’ll sit in on a meeting once a week,” Phil pleaded.

 

“Fine,” the prince huffed, crossing his arms. “Then you can promise me that you’ll allow Sam to tutor me as well.”

 

Phil narrowed his eyes. He thought for a moment, then sighed in defeat. “Very well.”

 

Techno grinned at his victory and finally noticed Wilbur sitting across from him. “Hullo, Wilbur.”

 

“How was your day out, mate?”

 

“Eventful,” Wilbur replied, watching the servants bring in their dinner. He silently served himself, almost ignoring the questioning stares of his family. 

 

His plate consisted of a few carrots, a thin slice of bread, and a couple of bites of whatever game had been hunted today. Probably by Techno.

 

“Are you going to tell us about it?” Niki asked slowly, placing a slice of chicken on his plate. Nodding his thanks, he began to eat, avoiding the question for as long as he could.

 

“Well,” he started, finishing his bite thoughtfully. “I saved two kids’ lives, chased off a terrible swordsman and stole his sword, made a new friend, and never had lunch.”

 

He finished his vague summary with the realization that he hadn’t eaten since breakfast, and his stomach seemed to realize that as well. Quickly finishing his plate, he began to serve himself seconds as his tablemates stared incredulously at him.

 

There was a pause as his family took in his words.

 

“You saved two lives today?”

 

“You stole someone’s sword?”

 

“You didn’t eat lunch? I made you a whole bag!” Niki cried indignantly, glaring at the sheepish prince.

 

“Well, I may have given that to those kids. They seemed hungry.”

 

“Mate, slow down. What happened today?” Phil asked, setting down his fork to look over steepled fingers at his son. 

 

Wilbur almost glared in response but opted to continue looking at his plate instead.

 

“I rode out on Friend and found an outer village, where I met these two boys. They didn’t trust me much, but that was understandable. They asked which way the capital was, I told them, and then they tried setting off on their own. No horse, and no weapons.”

 

The table was silenced in contemplation. Wilbur took this as a chance to shovel more food into his mouth, sneaking a few bread crumbs up to Chat.

 

“So, I let them go after they refused my offer of escorting them as far as the castle,” the prince continued, finally finishing his food and pushing his plate away. “And I sent some wolves after them to make sure they weren’t ambushed. So obviously they were ambushed.”

 

All three of his companions tensed up, glaring at their food at the idea of two helpless boys being attacked. To be fair, Tommy’s tongue could’ve been a mighty weapon, Wilbur mused.

 

Phil and Techno’s control was slipping a bit, the emperor scratching his back and the warrior clenching his jaw to stop his teeth from growing. Wilbur understood their anger, he’d felt the same way.

 

“This man, the travelers called him Dream, was about to shoot them down when I arrived and took care of it. He left, and I escorted them as far as the palace. I gave them Niki’s bag in farewell and we went our separate ways.”

 

“How did you ‘take care of it’?” Techno questioned, speaking through gritted teeth.

 

“Fought him one on one with a sword.”

 

And then Phil lost control. 

 

He stood up, his chair falling back at the sudden movement. Huge black wings appeared from behind him, spreading to block most of the light in the hall. His eyes burned with blue fire, and he gripped the table with taloned hands that dug holes into the wood. 

 

“You what?”

 

Niki flinched slightly at the man’s anger and appearance, ducking her head to stare at her plate. Wilbur felt Chat shudder at the sudden change of atmosphere, and he placed a hand up there to comfort them.

 

“I dueled him,” the prince repeated, leaning back in his chair calmly. “I won easily, he was a terrible swordsman.”

 

Techno gave up trying to control himself at the word ‘duel’, growing taller than the prince he glared at. “That was a stupid idea,” he rumbled, his voice dipping a couple of octaves.

 

“What was I supposed to do?” Wilbur demanded, staring defiantly at his terrifying family. “Just let him kill those kids?”

 

Techno flicked a long ear and grunted, leaning back in his chair. He ran his tongue over new tusks that jutted out from his mouth, still staring at his brother. “You could’ve been killed.”

 

“Not with Phil’s curse I can’t.”

 

“Mate, don’t call it that,” his father chided gently, relaxing a bit. He sank back into his chair, folding his dark wings behind his back.

 

“You know exactly how I feel about them,” Wilbur shot back, anger beginning to show in his words. And his appearance, judging by the hair he could see turning white in front of his eyes. He took a deep breath, calming himself before he lost complete control like the rest of his family.

 

“I think,” Niki started, looking up from her plate to give a level stare towards the crown prince. “That Wilbur knew what he was getting himself into, and he acted for the greater good of his people. He was an idiot, and he could have been killed, but he didn’t. And I believe that is what we should be thankful for.”

 

She finished her short speech with a small smile, unable to be upset at her best friend. The rest of the table nodded at her wise words.

 

Techno shrank back to his normal size, his ears and teeth retracting. Phil’s talons disappeared, but he kept his wings out. Wilbur knew it was uncomfortable for the emperor to keep them inside for so long, but he didn’t usually show them outside of their living quarters.

 

The prince clapped his hands, happy that they had come to an understanding. “So, now that we’ve—”

 

Chat chose this moment to appear from his hair with a quiet cheep. Everyone froze to stare at the tiny head poking out of the prince’s crown, mouths agape. Niki was trying very hard to suppress quiet giggles, failing miserably as the silence stretched on.

 

The bird cocked its head at its surprised audience, and trilled again, louder this time. Niki lost it, laughing loudly while the other men stared incredulously at the creature on Wilbur’s head.

 

Wilbur, in the meantime, was slowly hunching his shoulders up and blushing furiously, refusing to meet his father’s eyes. He laughed nervously and put a hand up to Chat, letting them perch on his fingers. “Cat’s out of the bag,” he muttered sheepishly. “This is Chat. They just stuck around with me today, and now they won’t leave.”

 

He finally looked up at the emperor, a hopeful look in his eyes. His father raised an eyebrow and crossed his arms, unimpressed with his son’s antics. “Wilbur, you know the rules—”

 

“I do, I do,” Wilbur cut him off, very much regretting that decision when Phil narrowed his eyes at him. “But you didn’t even notice them until they made a noise, they aren’t doing any harm. Chat is different.”

 

Phil sighed, rubbing the bridge of his nose in exasperation. He stayed silent, a tired look crossing his features. His wings sagged from their stiff position, the feathers brushing the floor as the emperor deflated.

 

“I mean,” Wilbur continued, desperately trying to convince his father. “You wouldn’t shut out one of your cousins, now would you?” 

 

The emperor’s head shot up and tilted to study the prince, very much like Chat had just done. “What?”

 

Wilbur swallowed nervously. Either his father would find this hilarious, or he’d never be allowed outside again.

 

“You know, Chat’s a bird, you have wings, you’re related in some way…”

 

“We’ve been over this. I’m not a bird,” Phil replied indignantly, his face starting to flush in embarrassment. His wings ruffled behind him, only proving Wilbur’s point.

 

Techno noticed this with a sly grin. “No, Wil’s got a point. Birdza and all that.”

 

The old nickname from when they were younger made their father go red, sputtering as he tried to come up with a rebuttal. He spread and closed his wings quickly, shedding a few shiny black feathers.

 

The rest of the table laughed, relieved to have moved on to a more relaxed subject. Wilbur let Chat hop onto Niki’s hand, watching her face light up in wonder at the friendly creature. 

 

Phil watched the exchange with a thoughtful expression. “Alright, Wilbur. You may keep Chat. But if I find any extra shit on my furniture we are going to revisit this conversation.”

 

Wilbur nodded vigorously, watching Niki pet Chat lightly, the small bird crooning at the touch. 

 

Techno watched the scene impassively, then turned to Phil with a determined glint in his eye. “So this means I can finally let Steve in the castle?”

 

There was silence. Even Chat stopped chirping to look at him questioningly. Everyone’s faces were mixed expressions of disbelief and horror.

 

“He’s a literal polar bear, mate!”

 

“Absolutely not, he’d eat Chat!”

 

“He’s so big !”

 

Techno groaned, crossing his arms and tipping his chair back like a child throwing a temper tantrum. “Oh, come on.

 

--------



“And then they fell over! I honestly think that they believed I was going to attack them!”

 

“Well, you may have looked a bit frightening to them,” Niki laughed.

 

Wilbur and Niki were strolling down the dim halls toward the library together, Chat flying graceful loops around the pair. They perched on Wilbur’s crown for a moment to chirp in agreement with Niki, much to the prince’s mock annoyance.

 

“You’re supposed to be on my side!”

 

Chat trilled, a noise that sounded like the bird was laughing at him and flew away once more.

 

“So, why are we going to the library?” Niki asked.

 

“I’d like to find out what kind of flower this is,” he gestured to the vine on his arm. “And maybe pick up some light reading, seeing as I’ll never leave the castle again.”

 

After their playful banter with Techno, his father had donned a serious expression and scolded his son for his actions. Wilbur took the responsibility for what he had done; there was never a moment when he denied his involvement with the travelers.

 

He didn’t regret a single thing. He’d do it all again if he could.

 

“I’m sure Phil will forget about this in a week,” Niki reassured, patting the arm not covered with bell-shaped blossoms. 

 

“Doubtful.”

 

They rounded a sharp corner together, and a large door appeared at the end of the corridor. The pair could see the glow of candles from the small crack beneath the solid spruce slab. 

 

Chat landed in Wilbur’s hair, and he patted them down to hide in the curls. He wasn’t sure how Karl would react to having a bird in the library, but he wasn’t exactly keen on finding out either.

 

The library of the palace was larger than anyone could ever imagine, a gigantic atrium sprawling in every direction at the center of the mountain the castle was built upon. The ceilings stretched to the sky above, a large skylight illuminating all that wasn’t bathed in the rosy glow from candles. 

 

From the height of their mountain, one could usually see millions of stars if they came at night. A sturdy observation deck stood directly underneath the giant glass opening, a place visited by Wilbur and Niki quite frequently.

 

Tonight, the constellations and nebulae of the sky shone even brighter than usual, creating an ethereal atmosphere around the two friends as they entered. 

 

Karl, the head librarian and records-keeper, was still standing at his desk even at this time of night. He was literally up to his ears in yellowed documents and letters, carefully transcribing the old papers into a leather-bound book next to him.

 

The librarian looked up to the sound of the pair’s footsteps and almost dropped his quill in surprise. 

 

“Oh! Hello, Prince Wilbur! Lady Niki!” Karl bowed, knocking a pile of tattered paper to the ground in his excitement. He blushed and apologized, crouching down to retrieve the fallen notes.

 

Wilbur and Niki exchanged an amused glance. “Hello, Karl. Still working?” the prince asked, moving to help the flustered man with his task. Niki followed suit, picking up the folds of her plain dress to kneel with them.

 

Wilbur liked Karl. He was one of the few others in the castle that didn’t refuse to meet his eyes. The prince had had many pleasant conversations with the man, always enjoying his company when he visited the library. 

 

“Ah, you know me! There’s always so much to do here,” Karl explained quickly, brushing off the offers of help from the others. “History is always continuing, there’s really no time for me to pause in my studies.”

 

He stood up, arms laden with the scrolls, a faraway look in his eyes. The librarian shook himself out of the trance and smiled brightly at the two. “What can I do for you both today?”

 

“I’d just like to find out what this is,” Wilbur said, gesturing to his leafy arm while helping Niki up. “Any light reading you would recommend at the moment?”

 

Karl’s already-bright eyes lit up mischievously;, he knew exactly what the prince was referring to. “Allow me a moment to look through my collection,” he replied, setting his papers down and briskly walking towards a small door.

 

Wilbur watched him walk away, a small smile on his face. He knew he could count on Karl when he needed a favor. The prince had spent many a long night with the librarian, helping sort books or transcribing old documents for hours. 

 

Karl would help pass the time by spinning stories that would stay in the young man’s mind for days afterward. Tales about secret treasures, underwater cities, secret spells broken by the power of love, the list went on and on. The man was something of a library himself with how many stories he could recite to Wilbur.

 

--------

 

Wilbur was fourteen. He was dangling precariously on a ladder, his already lanky form reaching to place a book on a high shelf. His glasses were barely hanging on to the bridge of his nose, and they hung lopsided in a way that made it hard to see the spines of the other books.

 

He sighed and drew back to the wobbly ladder, jumping down with no grace whatsoever. He stumbled a bit, his poor glasses finally falling to the floor with a small chime. 

 

Another sigh, somehow even more exasperated.

 

“Karl?”

 

The librarian looked up from his desk, a kind smile directed towards the prince. “Yes?”

 

“Could you tell me a story?”

 

Karl nodded, his grin widening. “Of course!” 

 

He leaned back in his chair, setting his quill tip to the corner of his mouth as he thought of a good tale to weave. The point left a faint smudge of ink on his lip, making Wilbur have to suppress a chuckle as he righted his glasses.

 

“Once upon a time,” he began, setting down his quill to fold his arms in front of him. Wilbur moved to lean on a globe across from the man, trying to look casual.

 

Needless to say, he utterly failed. His posture made his long legs slide on the floor, causing him to slip and fall directly on his rear. 

 

The prince huffed in annoyance, rubbing his aching back. The librarian began to move to assist the fallen royal, but Wilbur waved him off and decided to lay on the floor for the story. “Please, continue.”

 

“Once upon a time, there was a castle.”

 

“Was it like this one?” 

 

Karl always encouraged him to ask questions during his stories. He knew the boy didn’t have many others to talk to, and the librarian loved satiating his morbid curiosity.

 

“Yes, but this castle was in a much warmer place.”

 

Everywhere is warmer than here.”

 

The librarian laughed quietly. “I suppose so. Anyways, in this castle there lived a selfish prince.”

 

Wilbur stared up at the skylight framing the ceiling of the library. The sun was hidden behind a thick layer of clouds, promising snow and storms to come. 

 

A shame. He’d been planning on playing his guitar on his balcony tonight.

 

“This prince was so vain that he had servants whose only job was to follow him around carrying mirrors.”

 

“Sounds like a prick.”

 

“He was!” Karl agreed heartily. “One night, this prince held a ball. All sorts of handsome men and beautiful women attended, all as fair as their host.”

 

Wilbur placed his arms behind his head as he listened to the librarian. The pile of books he had been shelving lays forgotten by his ladder.

 

“One more uninvited guest arrived. An old woman, ugly as you could imagine. She wore a dark cloak over her hunched back and gnarled face. She pleaded with the prince in her gravelly voice to give her shelter in exchange for a rose.”

 

“Just a rose?”

 

“Only a rose. The prince refused, repulsed by her hideousness. Then, the hag transformed into a gorgeous witch, claiming the prince was a selfish and vain monster, a beast if you will.”

 

Karl paused for dramatic effect, making the prince shift to look at him, a curious look in expression.

 

“The witch cursed the prince, making him look just as hideous as her disguise. She proclaimed that he would never look as he did before until he could find someone who could look past his beastliness to love the man within.”

 

“Love?” Wilbur asked, scrunching up his nose. “Ew.”

 

Karl laughed again, leaning back in his chair. “Love isn’t always ‘ew’, Prince Wilbur.”

 

“Yes, it is. It changes people.”

 

“Exactly!” Karl exclaimed, snapping his fingers excitedly. “That was the point of the curse.”

 

“Huh.”

 

Karl continued his fairy tale, describing how the prince found a fair maiden who could love him for who he truly was. Wilbur only half-listened, his attention fixed on another topic. It was unusual for him to do so, he usually listened to the librarian with rapt attention.

 

Karl noticed this, and as soon as he finished with the inevitable happy ending, he questioned it.

 

“Is something the matter, Prince Wilbur?”

 

“...no.”

 

Wilbur sat up, moving back to the ladder to finish his task. Karl watched with a raised eyebrow but stayed silent. 

 

After a few minutes of quiet, the prince finally turned to the librarian, his eyes flashing with gold.

 

“I feel like the prince in the story.”

 

“You are far from selfish or vain!” Karl countered, crossing his arms.

 

“But I am cursed, and I’m also locked in a castle,” Wilbur retorted, spinning around to gesture at the library and then his glowing eyes. “And I’m just as much of a monster.”

 

He barely whispered the last part, but the librarian heard him clearly in the empty atrium. Wilbur sank down next to the shelf, his hair streaking with gold. The man stood with an uncharacteristically serious expression to kneel in front of Wilbur. His grey eyes flashed with sincerity and fondness, giving the prince a comforting smile.

 

“You are not a monster,” he said softly, ruffling the boy’s hair. “You are one of the kindest people I know. You’ve just been given a...gift you don’t know how to use quite right.”

 

Wilbur looked up to return the librarian’s smile with a shaky one of his own. “Thank you, Karl.”

 

“Of course.”

 

--------

 

Karl returned with a few dusty books, some with pages of maps sticking out from between the yellowed pages. Wilbur thanked him enthusiastically, relieved he would have something to do while waiting for his next chance to leave the castle.

 

He and Niki wished the kind librarian a good night and walked off to where Wilbur knew a selection of botanical encyclopedias were located. He’d visited that area often over the years, always wanting to learn more about the plants he collected in his room.

 

He set down the old books in his arms to pluck an encyclopedia from a shelf. Niki leaned against the shelf in front of him, leaning down to look at the book in his hands.

 

“What are you?” he murmured to the flowers swaying softly on his arm. 

 

The blossoms responded with a shiver, growing up his fingers to guide his hand as he flipped through the book. The tendrils stopped at a page he skimmed over, pushing his hand down on the paper.

 

Snowdrop, the heading read. An illustration perfectly matching the flowers on his arm looked up at him, its ink splotched and smeared over years of use.

 

“Snowdrop,” Niki breathed, a smile crossing her features. “What a pretty name.”

 

Wilbur nodded, reading about the small flower. Apparently, they weren’t even supposed to grow around the evergreens in the Empire. Not enough sunlight filtered through the thick boughs of the spruces for the delicate plants to flourish. Little fighter, the prince thought with a chuckle.

 

He put the book back, petting the snowdrops as he picked his small stack of reading material back up off of the floor. They swayed under his touch, pleased with the attention.

 

The pair of friends made their way out of the atrium, calling out their final farewells to the librarian at his desk. Chat popped out of Wilbur’s hair to whistle alongside them, making Karl start and stare in wonder at the small creature. 

 

To Wilbur’s relief, the man only laughed and waved them off, going back to his studies. 

 

Niki and Wilbur left the library in high spirits, chatting in their easy banter as they returned to their living quarters. Chat rubbed their face against Niki’s cheek in farewell as Wilbur left her in the hallway to the servant’s dormitories. 

 

The prince smiled at the warm scene, his previous tenseness from their prior conversation all but forgotten. He whistled to Chat, and they glided to sit on his shoulder with a sleepy chirp.

 

The two friends parted ways happily, one going down to her bed, the other leaving with his new companion to do some reading for his plants.

 

Wilbur knew today had been one of his best days in a long time.

Chapter Text

--------

 

“Steve!”

 

Technoblade called to the polar bear, his best friend. The bear looked unimpressed, as he always did, at the prince’s arrival. He turned to the warrior with a permanently displeased expression, then rolled over to go back to sleep.

 

Typical best friend behavior.

 

Techno walked up to the bear and laid against his back with his foot propped up against one of Steve’s massive paws. 

 

“We’re goin’ huntin’ tonight,” he whispered conspiratorially, as if the pair didn’t go out every night to hunt. 

 

Steve huffed in reply, shifting his paw out from under Techno’s foot. 

 

Fragments of words and syllables flooded his mind, a thousand voices screaming into his inner ear as he so much as glanced at the bear. They seemed to like the idea of his friend joining them. Destruction was always more enjoyable with company.

 

“See? Even the voices want you to come with me.”

 

Techno knew for a fact that the polar bear couldn’t hear his internal voices, but he used it as a reason every night anyways.

 

Steve finally sat up, making Techno stumble with his movement. The gigantic bear stood on his hind legs to tower over the prince with a glare. The look would’ve sent any sensible man running.

 

Technoblade was not a sensible man.

 

He smirked and let go of his curse with ease, growing up to stand eye to eye with his friend. His teeth grew into long tusks that protruded out of his mouth, making his grin even more sinister. A tasseled tail appeared behind him, lashing around in the cold air.

 

“Let’s go!” Techno rumbled, swinging his heavy cape over his shoulder as he marched out of Steve’s enclosure. 

 

The castle staff had made a special stable just for the polar bear at Techno’s request. It was quite literally a small house, which both Phil and Wilbur had deemed completely unnecessary.

 

Techno disagreed. Steve deserved the best.

 

The ocean of thoughts that were not his own agreed vehemently, but their bias got the best of them. They devolved into a mass of screams supporting Techno, which the man in question tuned out easily, focusing instead on the dark forest in front of him.

 

“What do you think we’ll find today, buddy?” he asked when Steve stopped beside him to survey the woods.

 

Steve snorted and trudged ahead, knocking aside branches and dislodging snow everywhere. Techno laughed at the bear’s bluntness, following after the huge animal.

 

A long sword was strapped to his waist, hidden beneath the folds of his red cloak. The prince kept a clawed hand on the handle as he followed the path created by Steve’s destruction, always prepared in case something leaped out at him.

 

The voices had stopped shrieking their adoration of Techno, and instead became a sea of whispers about blood and killing. They were excited for tonight, as they always were.

 

A decomposed corpse lunged at him. Techno drew his sword and lopped off its head in one fluid movement, the voices cheering at the victory. It dissolved into smoke, the rotting body dissipating before his eyes.

 

He hadn’t even blinked.

 

Steve stopped at a clearing in the dense forest, a small pond in the center reflecting the clear sky above. The bear huffed and flopped over, laying down in the snow to watch Techno’s nightly training.

 

The cursed man would drag Steve out every night to join him as he hunted down the monsters that appeared when the sun went down. There was no real purpose for his presence, but Techno enjoyed his company.

 

An arrow sliced through the air, nearly hitting his tusks. Techno grimaced at the close call, but he had already stabbed the offending skeleton archer. 

 

It rattled loudly, its skull grinning at its attacker. The pile of bones collapsed at the prince’s feet, puffing up in a cloud of ash at impact. Techno coughed as the dust flew up to his nose, making Steve snort in amusement from the other side of the clearing.

 

“Skeleton ash doesn’t feel great in your lungs!” Techno called, swiping at another zombie. “Tastes terrible, too!”

 

Steve yawned loudly, making a flock of birds fly out of the spruces in alarm, then flopped onto his other side to grumble.

 

“So Wilbur and I had a duel today,” Techno started, slamming his fist into a huge spider’s face. “And I lost. Graciously, of course.”

 

Another skeleton shot at him from beneath the cover of the forest. The prince threw his sword behind him, guessing the location of the monster by the sound of its rattling bones. 

 

A crash confirmed that his blade had hit its target. 

 

“Should’ve known better than to challenge him when he’s excited. You know how he gets.”

 

A drowned crawled out of the pond, dragging its stiff body to where Steve lay. The bear turned around and lazily batted the waterlogged corpse back into the water with a huff.

 

“He didn’t stick around to brag about it though, Phil let the bird free today.”

 

Techno frequently compared his surrogate brother to a bird. Phil had locked the prince in a cage, and Wilbur was always trying so desperately to sing his way out. 

 

He felt a twinge of guilt that he was allowed out whenever he wanted because of his condition.

 

Wilbur had been right. It wasn’t fair that Techno went out every night. Wil would be lucky if he could leave the castle once a year. 

 

Then again, Wilbur didn’t have a chorus of voices constantly demanding blood and death every waking second.

 

At the mere mention of blood, the voices in his head organized into a single bellow that drowned out any other conscious thought. 

 

BLOOD

 

Another zombie fell at his feet.

 

BLOOD

 

A skeleton’s head suddenly came off.

 

BLOOD

 

An enderman mysteriously lost its pearl.

 

Thumps and crashes filled the still air as the warrior whirled with his blade, one with his weapon. 

 

He didn’t see the bodies. He only saw red.

 

Finally, there were no other monsters in the area. Techno came back to himself, holding his head as he tried to calm down.

 

The voices purred in satisfaction like a beast that had been well fed.

 

Techno gasped for breath, leaning on his sword as he regained control. A ring of dissolving bodies surrounded him, many more than he thought he’d disposed of.

 

Steve was still playing with the drowned in the pond, dipping a massive paw into the freezing water to push the zombie back down. It hissed and moaned every time, sending up flurries of bubbles as it unwillingly descended. 

 

“Steve! Don’t play with your food,” Techno scolded, slowly walking over to stand next to the bear. 

 

Steve glared at him before placing a well-aimed swipe at the drowned’s head, knocking it cleanly off. Techno patted the bear’s huge haunches, then started back to the castle.

 

The moon had traveled high into the sky at this point, meaning Techno had been out here for hours. Lost in his curse. 

 

His muscles ached dully from the use, making him drag his feet through the snow. Steve nudged him from behind, snorting warm air into his back.

 

“Th’nks,” he muttered, fighting the exhaustion that was slowly creeping into his body. 

 

They made it to the palace without Techno collapsing. The prince put Steve back into his home, shutting the gate with an overly loud farewell that made the bear roar in return.

 

It was far too late to be so noisy, but Techno honestly didn’t care in the slightest. 

 

He glanced up to squint at the tower with the royal family’s living quarters. Phil’s light was off; he was probably sound asleep after all the work he had done today. 

 

Or yesterday. He wasn’t quite sure what time it was.

 

Wilbur, however, still had the faint glow from his candles and fireplace going strong, flickering as his plants passed by the window. A flash of purple light erupted from the window, then another.

 

Techno sighed. “ Light reading tonight. Lovely.”

 

Thank the heavens the other prince’s room was soundproofed. Enchanting was noisy business.

 

---------

 

The sun rose over the kingdom, promising a clear, crisp day. 

 

A prince woke up surrounded by books and plants, a shimmering blade lying in his hands.

 

An emperor woke up to too many complaints from his kingdom and decided he could sleep for a few more minutes.

 

A warrior woke up with a killer headache, covered in polar bear fur.

 

And two boys woke each other up by throwing pillows at their heads.

 

--------

 

“Tubbo! What the hell?” Tommy hissed, shielding his head from his friend’s attacks. 

 

Tubbo laughed, a menacing grin spreading across his face. His aura, Tommy was pleased to note, was a warm shade of yellow. The shimmering bees whirled around the boy’s head in excitement.

 

“You said today was going to be a big day!” Tubbo quipped, slapping him with a pillow again. “And you asked me to get you up early.”

 

“No, I didn’t.”

 

Tommy rolled over and pulled a threadbare blanket over his head. Nothing was happening today. He was in his home in Manburg. The only exciting thing to happen would be Dream testing him. 

 

Dream.

 

Dream was gone.

 

He shot up, looking around at his surroundings frantically. The pair were in a small room of a tavern. The tavern Tommy had paid for last night with Wil’s money. His bed was very comfortable, something only merchants or nobility could afford. 

 

His blanket wasn’t threadbare, he wasn’t in Manburg, and Dream wouldn’t come near him.

 

And then Tommy realized why he had wanted to get up early. 

 

Fuck! Tubbo, we have to go!”

 

They pulled on their cloaks quickly and dashed down the stairs to the front counter of the tavern. A few patrons were eating an early breakfast, and they stared at the boys as they skidded past.

 

The man working the front counter stared down at them, a frown creasing his face. “Can I help you?”

 

“Can-can we muck out your stable?” Tommy gasped, completely out of breath.

 

“You’ll be paid a silver for every stall,” the man replied, gesturing toward the door. “ Each.”

 

Tommy and Tubbo exchanged an excited glance and ran out the door to the cold air outside. 

 

Even though the sun had barely risen, the capital city was already bustling with activity. 

 

Across the street, a market was being set up. Tents and stalls were propped up by their vendors, their assistants carrying crates of the goods they’d sell that day. 

 

Tommy had heard legends about what Stronghold’s markets sold. Expensive weapons and potions, food from anywhere in the world, he’d even heard whispers of enchantment books being traded around.

 

Down the road, where the main square was, a small orchestra could be seen tuning their instruments. A regularly changing roster of bands and bards would play all day, every day, filling the streets with the music of a thousand lands.

 

Above them, women leaned out of windows to air out Empire flags and laundry, or to dump chamber pots into the gutters. The pair of travelers made sure to stay away from the leaky pipes.

 

A rickety stable stood in the back of the tavern, and a horrifying smell came from inside the dark room. Tommy and Tubbo exchanged a determined glance. They rolled up their sleeves and pulled their cloaks around their faces to block out the stench. 

 

Tommy would tell you firsthand how disgusting mucking out a stable is. 

 

It’s fucking disgusting.

 

The almost overpowering odor of the uncleaned stable made the boys sway, but they picked up pitchforks and got to work. 

 

The sun was halfway to noon by the time they had finished, wiping the sweat off of their faces in the chill air. The innkeeper paid them twelve silvers in total for how quickly and efficiently they had finished the task, praising them with a delicate pat on the back. The man grimaced at how dirty the two were and directed them to the bathing room, which they heartily agreed to.

 

After a slightly warm bath and a much warmer bowl of stew later, the two were ready to continue with their day. 

 

The market had already been set up for the day, so they couldn’t assist the vendors with building their makeshift stores. Plenty of buildings still had snow covering their awnings, though, so Tommy and Tubbo split up, each one taking a side of the road.

 

At least three shopkeepers scoffed at Tommy when he offered to shovel snow for them, laughing at his skinny frame. They were quickly surprised when the boy would return in record time to have the snow completely gone. 

 

He was paid very handsomely for that.

 

“How’s it going?” Tommy called to Tubbo, who was shoveling the front of the building across from his. 

 

“Great! One of the shops was a bakery, and they paid me in a dozen cookies!”

 

“Popping off!”

 

They laughed and continued shoveling, letting the soft music from the town square wash over the silence. The orchestra had been long replaced by a bard who would strum his lute, singing tales of forbidden lovers and mournful deaths.

 

A bit too sappy for Tommy’s taste, but it was better than nothing.

 

The sun had reached its peak in the sky by the time the boys had finished their labors, and the city was full of people now. 

 

All sorts of colorful auras clouded around Tommy as the pair of friends strolled through the market, making him blink and cough through all of the invisible smoke. Tubbo held his arm through it all, guiding the nearly blinded boy around the stalls. 

 

A familiar gold sparkle caught his eye, and Tommy whipped around to see its source. 

 

A woman with dark hair, save for a few blond strands framing her face, stood in front of a baker’s stall, picking out some rolls to put in her basket. Her cloak wasn’t fancy like Wil’s was, but she wore a servant’s dress under the thick fabric emblazoned with the Empire’s crest.

 

Her aura was a delicate pink, wafting around her form with a thin wreath on her head. Light pink smoke swirled around her waist, sparkling with a telltale gold shimmer that told of who she had been around. 

 

Her aura was shot with yellows and faint white hues, showing her nervousness. But the yellow meant she was happy, so she must be doing something she enjoyed. Maybe something for the man.

 

The lady didn’t seem to be under Wil’s influence, but she had certainly been near him recently with how his aura still clung to her own. Wil didn’t look or act like a servant, so he must be the nobility she worked under. 

 

Strange. Tommy knew the royal family of the Empire was secretive. Most of the Empire assumed them to be haughty, believing themselves too high of status to be seen near the common folk.

 

Wil wasn’t haughty, and he had been near Tommy and Tubbo, the most common people he could have come across.

 

The lady left the stall, and Tommy followed her, blocking out Tubbo’s questioning cries. She moved down the street, her aura twinkling in the sunlight that streamed through the roofs above. 

 

Tommy pushed past the dense crowd to keep her in his sights, feeling lightheaded as he forced his way through so many people’s auras, through so many emotions. He could barely keep track of himself with all of the clashing personalities, something that made him sick to think about.

 

The lady stopped to look around, her basket of bread swaying in her hand. She turned and saw Tommy, and her eyes lit up. Her aura flashed with orange and yellow again, losing all traces of white. Surprise and happiness

 

She started moving towards her pursuer, a smile lighting up her face. Tommy gasped and backed away, his thin-soled boots slipping on the icy cobble road beneath him as he desperately tried to escape.

 

A soft hand touched his shoulder, the feeling light yet firm. “Are you Tommy?”

 

He turned to face the shorter woman, distrust flickering over a stony expression. “Who’s asking?”

 

She pulled him away from the crowd, dragging him to stand behind a stall. She held out a hand for him to shake, shifting the basket underneath her cloak. “I’m Niki, a friend of the man you met yesterday.”

 

‘Friend’ was an odd choice of words, considering how different their statuses appeared to be, but Tommy brushed it off. “Mr. Wil?” he questioned, hesitantly taking Niki’s hand.

 

“Yes! You remembered him,” her smile grew wider. 

 

Tommy chuckled nervously. “Hard not to, considering he saved my life.”

 

“Wasn’t there another young man with you? Wilbur mentioned a name like ‘Tubbo’.”

 

Wilbur. Tommy stored the new name away to ponder over later. 

 

“Ah, yes. He’s probably out in the market looking for me now.”

 

Niki startled at that, distress flickering cornflower blue over her otherwise peaceful aura. “I’m sorry to keep you from him!” she exclaimed. “Just a couple of questions, if I may.”

 

“Of course.” Tommy wasn’t going to deny a friend of a clearly formidable man, for who knows what kind of terrible things would befall him if the boy wronged him.

 

“Are you alright with a place to stay and eat? Wilbur was concerned about that.”

 

“We’re fine. We found a tavern last night with the money Mr. Wil gave us.” His answer was clipped and short. He winced inwardly at the unnecessarily harsh tone.

 

“May I ask the name of the tavern?”

 

“The Bronze Bull, if you must know.”

 

Niki clapped her hands and laughed. “Thank you, sir, for your help. Wilbur would have come down himself if he wasn’t occupied at the moment. He just wanted to make sure you were alright after yesterday’s events.”

 

Tommy laughed with her, though his was forced and sharp. “Nothing we haven’t dealt with before, I assure you, madam.”

 

Periwinkle blue tinged her pinkish smoke, lacing her aura with concern. “I’m sincerely sorry to hear that, Tommy.”

 

Tommy brushed away the pity, also not a new occurrence. “Think nothing of it. Is that all?”

 

Niki nodded, stepping back to allow the young man back into the market. “Yes. I will not keep you any longer. I wish you a safe rest of your day.”

 

With that, she made a shallow yet graceful curtsy, then disappeared back into the thick crowds of the capital. Tommy watched her leave, staying in his place until he could no longer see any traces of pink mist.

 

“Tommy? Tommy!”

 

Tubbo stepped out from the crowds to stand in front of his friend, his aura streaked with burnt orange. Worried.

 

“Where were you? Did something happen?”

 

“I’m fine. One of Wil’s friends came to check on us.”

 

Tubbo jumped a bit, his tattered cloak shifting with the sudden movement. “Why?”

 

“They said he was worried about us or something like that,” he waved away his friend’s worry and gave him a small smile. “Nothing concerning, don’t worry.”

 

The pair moved back into the market, their minds only half-heartedly invested in their perusing of the stalls. Tommy selected a new red cloak, thinly lined with fur. It would certainly be an improvement from the glorified thin rag resting on his back now. 

 

He also bought a pair of plain daggers for them, giving one to Tubbo and the other to himself. He refused to stay helpless like he had been yesterday. 

 

That feeling had been awful.

 

Tubbo chose a small book filled with stories, much to Tommy’s confusion. The boy with the green cloak only shook his head when asked, saying that there had to be something to entertain themselves with.

 

Tommy agreed and paid for the storybook as well.

 

They spent the rest of the day merely enjoying the sights of the capital, strolling down the maze of streets with no real direction in mind. They never moved too far from where the tavern was, and they’d remind themselves of the path back at every intersection they crossed.

 

Their pleasant walk was interrupted when Tommy caught a glimpse of a neon green flash in the distance. He pulled Tubbo down an alleyway, hiding against the wall of a store. Tubbo opened his mouth to demand what was happening, but Tommy slapped a hand over his mouth and held a finger up to his lips.

 

Peeking around the corner, he could see a man in a white cloak with a medallion displayed proudly on his chest stalking the streets. His hood was pulled over his head, blocking his face from Tommy’s limited vision. 

 

The man’s aura was a pale yellow but was held under poisonous green chains, all too similar to Dream’s horrible halo. The man’s cloak brushed past a wicked-looking sword, one that the ghostly links were also attached to.

 

Tommy swallowed and paled as a realization dawned on him. 

 

Dream had hired an assassin to kill them. 

 

He might not be able to get in the Empire himself, but this other man could with no problem. A smart loophole.

 

Tommy held still until the man had passed by, letting out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. 

 

He dragged Tubbo down the streets to their tavern, staying silent until they had reached their small room and the door had been firmly shut.

 

The blond collapsed onto the bed, holding his head in shaking hands.

 

How could he have been so naive? Of course, Dream wouldn’t stop looking for them. This time, there was no hooded man with gold in his eyes to save them. They still weren’t safe.

 

And they never would be.

 

--------

 

“...And then there is Manburg, a newer country established to the south.”

Techno raised a hand quickly, giving Wilbur a sly glance. “Do only men live there?” he asked innocently, only the mischievous glint in his eyes betraying his true intentions. 

 

Wilbur nodded importantly, as if this was a question that was crucial to their studies.

Sam sighed. “No, Techno, it’s a regular country.”

Techno leaned over to Wilbur. “ With a horrid name,” he whispered loudly.

 

Wilbur snorted. Techno hated politics as much as he did, so they mostly jested during their combined studies. Techno apparently despised governing others in general, and he described his alignment as ‘anarchist’. Wilbur didn’t care as much, he just didn’t want to sit through another lecture.

 

Sam pointed to the map on the board impatiently. “Manburg is a genuine rival to the Empire as of late, as I’m sure your father has told you.”

Techno nodded, but Wilbur stayed silent and unmoving. His father hadn’t told him anything.

 

The captain noticed this and inclined his head in Wilbur’s direction. “To summarize, their sponsor is extremely wealthy and powerful, and he has made suspicious claims about our land that may hint to possible conflict.”

 

Wilbur nodded, and Techno jotted something down in his battered notebook. Wilbur looked over, and saw Techno writing the note of “another guy i gotta beat in battle”. He snickered, and Techno shoved him lightly with a grumble.

 

Sam rolled his eyes but smiled fondly at the two boys, happy they were getting along. 

 

Most people didn’t think Wilbur and Technoblade would be anything but rivals for Phil’s attention, constantly butting heads and acting with malicious intent to each other. On the contrary, they quite liked each other. Techno enjoyed watching Wilbur play with nature, and Wilbur liked when Techno told him what he was writing. 

 

They were quite similar, actually. They were both artists in a way, and they loved to be surrounded by nature. They had a special place in their hearts for creatures of all kinds, and would probably take in a dragon if it so much as looked at them in a cute way. 

 

Wilbur referred to them both as twins every once in a while, something Techno vehemently denied. They were the same age, and suspected to have similar birthdays. Techno didn’t know his when he first came to the castle, so Wilbur decided to celebrate Techno’s birthday on his own. 

 

He always thought birthdays were a lonely celebration. But not with Techno. They’d call each other old at least a hundred times, exchange thoughtful notes written in calligraphy even Phil would be proud of, and at the very end, walk around the castle grounds in the muted light of the evening. 

 

Honestly, it was the staple of Wilbur’s dull year. 

 

“Manburg has a certain sponsor that’s recently come to light as well,” Sam continued, flipping open a journal filled with notes from one of his advisory meetings with the emperor. “He goes by the alias ‘Dream’. No one knows his intentions, name, or personal details. He just showed up, as far as we can tell.”

 

Wilbur stiffened, his eyes widening. Dream. The man who tried to kill Tommy and Tubbo. He stood abruptly, knocking Techno’s books down as he shot up. Sam stared at him, then gestured to take a seat. 

 

“Wilbur?”

 

Wilbur couldn’t look any of them in the eye. He felt his control slipping, felt his nails dig into his palms as they sharpened. He left the room in a hurry, ignoring Techno and Sam’s protests. 

 

He slammed the door behind him, ignoring the resulting clash that echoed throughout the drafty halls. He knew for a fact this door jammed after being shut that hard, so it’d be a while before anyone would catch up to him. 

 

He stalked down the corridors with a scowl that spooked every servant out of his path. His hair was clearly turning a blinding white that practically shone in the dim light of the hallways. Blood dripped from his clenched fists as his nails grew to frightening extremes. 

 

He walked through a corridor filled with windows. They were open to welcome the sun and lukewarm winds from the south blowing through the Empire today, and provided an entrance for the trees to peek their branches through. 

 

Vines and long branches crept into the passageways, curious as to why their strange prince felt so strongly. Wilbur ignored them as he continued storming through the palace, ignoring their shaking in response to his coldness. 

 

This anger, this rage , was unfamiliar. He was better than this. He was above letting himself get carried away on the tides of raw emotion. Today was an exception….and of course today he had to come face to face with his father.

 

Wilbur practically ran into the man, so focused on dwelling in his anger that he barely realized Phil was in front of him. They both stumbled into each other with a gasp, rubbing bruised limbs awkwardly before locking eyes.

It was silent for a moment, just two men staring at each other with indiscernible emotions bleeding across their faces. And then Phil, as he always did, took the first step.

“Wilbur?”

Wilbur swallowed and then stood to attention. An audible snapping sound came from him as he reined in his curse quickly, the air around his body rippling as he pulled himself back together. Within the blink of an eye, his hair lacked so much as a gold strand, his eyes were dull and normal, and his hands shook out of fists to lay slack at his sides. Neither party wanted to mention the blood slowly oozing from small crescent-shaped cuts in his palms.

 

“I’m sorry for disrupting your walk, Dad,” Wilbur breathed, already moving to step past the emperor. 

 

Phil held out a hand, catching his shoulder gently. “Wil…” he started, his eyes searching his son’s strained face for an answer to several of the questions he could never ask. He dropped his hand and looked away. “Take care of yourself,” he muttered lamely. 

 

Wilbur relented a quick nod before rushing away, all too aware of the feeling of his father’s gaze on him. He turned a corner and released a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding in as the world finally seemed to catch up to him.

 

A couple deep breaths later, he could finally hear beyond the rushing blood in his ears. The rage was still there, still pulsating and warm and wretched, but it was contained behind a glass wall. He took four slow steps forward, keeping his eyes trained on the cracks in the tiles below him.

His pace gradually quickened to just above a stroll, his gaze never straying from the spiderweb of imperfections beneath him. Wilbur couldn’t look anyone in the eyes, the shame he felt was more than enough to want to hide away. 

 

The castle felt colder than usual as he wandered through empty halls that should have been filled with people and life.

It looked like he wasn’t the only one who wanted to hide.

Guilt gnawed at him as he realized everyone had hidden from him , most likely for fear of his temper tantrum. He can’t have lost control for more than ten minutes, and yet that was enough to quiet a whole palace. He was feared. Not respected, not held in awe, he was feared like some sort of monster.

Wilbur couldn’t find it in himself to blame them.

He whisked himself up the stairs, turning corners so sharply that his cape flared behind him. Torches that flickered merrily in their sconces sputtered as he flew by, some even going out completely as he picked up speed. The need to leave, to get away from it all, was almost overpowering.

The door to his chambers had never looked so inviting. Wilbur let himself in and shut the door softly, leaning up against it and praying no one was stupid enough to follow him. After a few minutes of silence on the other side, he crept away from the solid wood to collapse onto his bed.

Gentle vines reached for him, twining flimsy stems around hands that shook like leaves in a thunderstorm. His body felt frail and unstable in comparison to the emotions swirling in his mind.

The plants held his hands as he stared at nothing at all, letting his eyes wander as he tried to grasp the hurricane behind his thoughts. It was futile, of course. He felt physical pain as it lashed out at random, fireworks of pain sparking behind his eyes. A lightning storm inside of a glass cage.

Wilbur sat there for what felt like only a few minutes. As soon as the storm had died down to a steady downpour that merely dampened his spirit, he wearily looked up to find that the sun was setting. 

 

He could’ve sworn…he’d left his studies at midday, it couldn’t have been—

 

The telltale creak of his door opening snapped him out of his confusion, and he tensed as he turned around to see who had decided they were brave enough to make fun of him today.

But…there was only one person he knew who didn’t knock.


--------

Wilbur was ten, sitting on his bed and braiding flowered vines into a garland to hang around the room. In other words, bored out of his skull. 

 

True, it was very late and he should’ve been asleep, but the storms over the past few days hadn’t let him catch more than an hour of sleep at a time. The winds always seemed to bite hardest at the tail end of winter. They also happened to be the loudest. 

He shut his eyes tight and focused on the vine in his hands, willing it to grow just a few inches longer. This was one of his newer plants, and his most stubborn one, too. It simply refused to listen to him. It reluctantly lengthened, shivering and trying to twist out of his fingers.

Just as he was about to finish the last garland, there was a knock at the door. It was so timid, so quiet, that he thought he had imagined it. After all, who would come knocking on his door? At this time of night?

 

He crept to the door with his crown-vine in hand, prepared to slap a mean-spirited servant who thought it would be funny to prank the unfortunate boy. But when he opened the door with his thorny weapon raised, a slightly shorter boy stood in front of him, his bright pink hair tangled from sleep.

 

“Technoblade?”

“....hullo.”

Wilbur put the vine down and let it crawl back to his bed. Techno fearfully watched it recede behind Wilbur’s back, his eyes wide and hands clenched at his sides.

Wilbur stuck his head out from behind his door. “What are you doing here?” he whispered, looking around for his father or any other guards. “Is something wrong?”

“I…I had a bad dream.”

Wilbur drew back in quiet shock. “Oh.”

Techno pulled nervously at a few strands of hair as he turned his gaze to the floor. “Can I, um, can I spend some time with you?”

Wilbur blinked. Techno immediately backpedaled at the lack of a response. “I—sorry, sorry, I’ll go away if you—”

 

“No, no, it’s okay. You can come in, I just…nevermind. Come on.”

 

Wilbur opened the door slowly, stepping out of the way to let the other boy in. Technoblade dashed in like he was afraid Wilbur was about to shut the door. He immediately froze when he saw the absolute jungle Wilbur’s room had become.

Ridiculously large leaves covered every available surface, the vines they were attached to snaking around the floor and up walls like miniature trees. Flowers of all sorts of shapes and colors turned to him as he stopped in the center of the room, almost like the plants were watching him.

Techno turned to Wilbur with clear fear in his eyes. “Your room is scary.

 

--------

 

Techno shut the door behind him and nimbly stepped around the vines on the floor. “Good evening, Your Shut-In-Your-Room-ness.”

 

“Hello to you, too.”

The visitor had a platter of food and a jug of water in his hands that he set down next to Wilbur. He lay down on his stomach next to the prince and took a piece of bread from the plate, tearing it into little bits. “Are you goin’ to tell me what happened?”

“You’re getting crumbs everywhere , Technoblade.”

Techno flipped onto his back and continued eating. “And you’re avoidin’ my question.”

Wilbur took an apple from the platter and rolled it around in his hands as he thought of what rational answer he could give. Simple anger couldn’t justify his rampage, surely. If he told Techno that he felt…attached to the young travelers and genuine animosity for their masked pursuer, he would be laughed at. He’d become sentimental in no time at all.

 

Wilbur fell onto his back beside the other man, throwing his apple into the air and catching it over and over again. “You have to promise not to laugh.”

“I will promise no such thing.”

Wilbur paused his game with the apple for a moment to turn and look at Techno. “D’you remember the man who was chasing those travelers the other day?”

 

Techno nodded, picking at his bread. “The one who you were stupid enough to—”

 

“Fight, yes. Did I ever mention his name?”

 

Technoblade was silent for a while, placing the bread back on the platter and folding his arms onto his chest as he thought. Wilbur resumed gently tossing his apple. A vine from above reached down to catch it in midair, curling around the base of the apple. It slowly let go of the fruit, letting it fall back down to the prince. 

 

“Can’t say I know many people strange enough to call themselves ‘Dream’ of all things,” Techno remarked, taking a dagger from his belt and twirling it in his palm. The blade sparkled as it reflected the sun’s dying rays, bouncing light into Wilbur’s eyes. “Sounds pretty unique to me.”

 

Wilbur nodded, holding the apple tightly. “That’s what I’m afraid of.” He finally took a bite from the apple and let his arms rest, but the apple didn’t feel satisfying to eat. He set it aside and sighed, staring at the ceiling. 

 

Techno sat up and pocketed his knife, looking out toward the balcony. He slowly began to undo his hair, unbraiding and untying the knots that held the long strands together. “I wouldn’t worry too much. I mean, if the guy can be beaten by you then he’s clearly not a danger.”

 

Wilbur snorted and lightly whacked him with the back of his hand. “ Thanks, ” he drawled. 

 

Techno grinned like he had just told the funniest joke known to man. He shifted the food to the side so he could sit right next to the prince, laying his head on Wilbur’s shoulder as he loosely braided his hair for sleep. 

 

Wilbur took a few strands of the pink hair into his own hands and began to do the same. 

 

They sat there for a good while, saying nothing and merely enjoying each other’s company. However, it was obvious that Wilbur was still uneasy with how his hands fumbled at the braid and how tight his shoulders were.

“Well, it’s obvious my reassurin’ didn’t work,” Techno grumbled, waving away Wilbur’s hands. “Niki said they were fine , Wil.”

 

Wilbur nodded stiffly, a small frown still on his face. “You’re right…but it still bothers me,” he murmured, standing up to light a candle for them. Techno stood with him, taking the candle from his hands and setting it back down.

“Tell you what, I’ll go speak with Sam tomorrow and tell him to watch out for Dream, or anyone with that general description. Would that help?”

 

“That would, actually. But you really don’t have to—”

 

Techno shook his head and clapped Wilbur on the shoulder. “It’s not a problem, I swear. I need to go train with the man anyways.”

 

Wilbur stared at him incredulously as Techno packed up the meal that had remained mostly untouched. “Like you don’t train with him enough?”

 

The pink-haired man wagged a finger at him as he picked up the platter and stacked the water jug on top. “I shouldn’t have lost to you the other day. I made countless mistakes that I need to fix.”

 

Wilbur stepped to the door to let Techno out, smiling and shaking his head. “Simply unacceptable, isn’t it? For the great Technoblade to lose to poor ol’ me?”

 

Techno nodded dramatically. “I’m ruined! My reputation has been trampled!”

The man stopped in the doorway to look at Wilbur, his gaze much more serious. “I hope you have a good night, Wil.”

 

“You too, Tech.”

 

--------

 

“It’s not scary !” Wilbur exclaimed, running in front of Techno to show him all of his wonderful plants. He was so, so excited. No one had visited him in…well, no one really visited him! It was new and thrilling to have a real visitor.

 

He turned around with a wide smile to look at Techno, but his smile faded when he saw how genuinely frightened the boy looked. “W-what’s wrong?”

 

Had he already been too much? Was he scaring Techno?

 

“There’s just…a lot here. Can I sit down?”

 

Wilbur nodded and led the other boy to his bed, where he arranged the pillows into a mock throne for his guest to sit. He eagerly watched Techno climb onto the fluffy mountain, waiting for the boy to speak. “So, what brings you to my fantastic home, sir?”

 

“I…I just wanted some company. After the dream.”

 

“Oh. Uh…of course! Yes! I am good at being company!”

 

Techno nodded silently, fidgeting again with his hair as he stared at the blanket below him. 

 

Wilbur watched him nervously twirl his hair, unsure of what to do. He could ask a thousand questions, but he didn’t want to scare the boy anymore than he already was.

 

“Can I…can I braid your hair? Or something?” he blurted, wincing after he had said it. 

 

Techno just stared at him. “...heh?”

 

It was such a ridiculous noise that Wilbur couldn’t help but laugh. He didn’t mean to be rude, it was just so random! “Your hair! If you want, I could braid it. See?”

 

He gestured to the garland of vines around his bed, which leaned toward his touch as he came close. “I’m not very good, but—”

 

“That would be nice.”

 

And so he did.

 

After he had declared the braid to be perfect, Techno had turned to him and given him a shaky smile. “Thank you.”

 

Wilbur felt like his smile really did split his face; it was so wide. 

 

Techno had left soon after that, thanking Wilbur again before softly shutting the door behind him. 

 

Wilbur turned to his plants and bounced a bit, whisper-shrieking with happiness. He’d had a visitor, and it had gone well! He hadn’t messed anything up! 

 

His joyous bout was interrupted by a quiet, hurried knocking on his door. The prince opened it to see Techno still there, standing awkwardly outside his door. 

 

The boy tackled him with a hug, squeezing him tightly before letting go. Wilbur barely had time to hug him back before he had stepped away. “Um…have a good night, Wil. Thank you again!” 

 

And with that, Techno dashed into his own room, leaving a shocked Wilbur to stand in his doorway with his arms still slightly outstretched. 

 

“You too, Tech,” he whispered.

 

--------

Chapter Text

--------

 

Technoblade was a simple man, when it came down to it. 

 

When he was brought to the castle, he was given a room smaller than Phil’s or Wilbur’s. It was apparently the old head chambermaid’s room, close to the royal family at all times. Back when the royal family could guarantee the safety of servants so close, of course. 

 

It was a small room, to be sure. Phil’s was grandiose, but it was so large that it seemed empty. Wilbur had made his room a living, thriving greenhouse, so it was more bearable. But even so, Techno had no need for a large living space. He wasn’t like Phil, who would spend hours pacing his room and muttering to himself about one crisis or another, or like Wilbur, who shut himself in his room and tried to fill his need for companionship with the plants that covered every inch of his quarters.

No, Techno had no need for those things. He hated staying put for too long. His room was where he slept, washed his face in the morning and evening, and dressed himself. After all, the point of a bedroom is to use the bed, isn’t it?

 

But he digressed.

 

The taste of spring, crisp and laced with flowers, greeted him when he opened his windows to let the sun in. Techno was an early riser, always waking with the sun as it rose over the sea. He and the sun were old friends. Even before his life of luxury he would wake up and fall asleep as it appeared and disappeared on the horizon. 

 

And when his life changed with a man with a smile like stars and wings like void, the sun was an easy friend to fall back on. It was unchanging, unlike many things in his life. Dependable, he would say.

 

Techno allowed himself a moment of silent appreciation as he looked over the sparkling waters below. Seabirds were beginning to take flight, cawing as they dipped and weaved around the masts of the ships in the port. Snapping ice floes could be heard in the distance as the world woke up. Techno watched a frozen island drift until it disappeared behind the coastal mountains. 

 

And with that, he stretched and began his day. 

 

He took the old, chipped pitcher of water off of his nightstand and brought it to his basin, pouring some of the water into the bowl. As he scrubbed away the remnants of sleep on his face, he hummed to himself. 

 

He’d picked up the habit from Wilbur, who would idly hum to himself as he worked in their studies. Techno didn’t think he even realized he was doing it, but he knew that if he told Wilbur about it, the prince wouldn’t let himself be so careless again. Techno would no longer have his favorite distraction. 

 

He donned an old white training shirt, a pair of well loved breeches, and scuffed boots that he really should get around to cleaning, but never will. He had no important events of the day that he could recall, so he sees no reason to dress up. 

 

He was still tying back his hair in a loose ponytail as he left his room, taking a small keyring from one of his pockets and locking the several locks that held his door shut. 

 

Techno nearly dropped the keys when a loud crash came from Wilbur’s room. He crept over and cautiously opened the door to find Wilbur on the ground, his glasses askew, with a book in his hands and a blanket of plants swarming him. 

 

“You alright?”

 

“Hm? Oh, yes. I fell off of my step stool, so you can…ah, see here.”

 

Techno shook his head with a smile and shut the door, leaving Wilbur to do…whatever he was doing. 

 

Techno finished locking his room for the day and began walking down to breakfast. He’d expected to find Sam on the way there, but there was no sign of the captain. Strange, but not concerning. Perhaps he just had an unruly guard to discipline. 

 

The castle was mercifully quiet at this hour. Usually the echoes of whispers and footsteps would reverberate a thousand times over down these winding hallways, and it drove Techno mad. It was bad enough that he had his own internal echoes to manage.

 

You called?

 

Ah, yes. Convenient as always. The strange echoes in his head that seemed all too familiar, but far too strange for him to comprehend.

 

Do you remember when we were gods?

 

And that was his cue to pull up his mental barriers. It was one thing for the voices to give him helpful advice while hunting or recommend the next move in chess, but it was another thing entirely for them to ramble about gods and fate. They were spontaneous and random at best, and cryptic and genuinely disturbing at worst. 

 

The day he had learned how to tune them out was probably the happiest day of his life.

 

The dining hall was emptier than usual. Phil wasn’t in his throne-like chair at the head of the table, which meant he was already working on one thing or another. Techno can’t say he minded Phil being up and moving rather than sitting and enjoying his meal. That chair was so straight and stiff that he was surprised the man didn’t complain about back pain more often.

 

Wilbur was still upstairs, finally realizing his balance was horrific.

 

So the only people Techno passed in the hall were guards that had just come off of their shift, taking a moment to grab a snack before going off to training. 

 

Just as Techno was grabbing a biscuit from a pile of baked goods, Sam walked into the dining hall. He already looked exhausted, rubbing his eyes as he walked in behind a group of knights. The captain of the guards sat down at one of the tables and set his helmet down, his gaze turning unfocused as he lost himself in his thoughts.

 

Techno was familiar with the expression. He was an avid thinker as well.

 

Thunker?

 

Haver of thoughts?

 

Thank you, voices in my head, for your ever so helpful contributions.

 

“Hullo, Sam. What’s got you thunkin’?”

 

“What’s got me…what?”

 

Techno sat across from the captain and idly played with the plume on Sam’s helmet. “What’s on your mind?”

 

Sam leaned back for a moment, then rested his head on his armored arms. “Several new recruits giving us grief, word that a strange man tried murdering two young travelers, worrying about Wilbur…the list goes on and on Techno, you know that.”

 

“That I do,” Techno replied, mirroring Sam’s position on the table so they were at eye level. “But I have somethin’ that might help you out.”

 

“Go on.”

 

Techno leaned in closer to the captain. “I came down with a request from Wilbur, actually,” he whispered, eyeing their surroundings to make sure no one was eavesdropping. “He’s fine, by the way. Nothin’ a little talk couldn’t help.”

 

Sam narrowed his eyes. He knew Techno very well, and he also knew that Techno enjoyed beating around the bush. “What was the request, Techno?”

 

Techno dropped his voice even quieter, and Sam leaned in close to hear him. Their faces were almost touching. “Wil thinks he knows the guy who came down for those kids, and he wanted you to tell the guards to look out for them.”

 

“Who was it?”

 

Techno mouthed the word Dream , and Sam’s eyebrow quirked up slightly, the only sign of a reaction from the stoic man. He was great at interrogations for a reason, this man. Rarely let anything of interest show. 

 

“He rode down in green with a mask that had, and I quote, ‘a childish smile scribbled on it’,” Techno continued, watching a flicker or recognition light up in Sam’s eyes.

 

The captain leaned back and stroked his chin thoughtfully. “The man’s been known to hide his face, but I don’t know the details. Wilbur’s sure it was him?”

 

“You think he would’ve stormed out of your lecture the way he did if he wasn’t?”

 

“Fair point…but commanding my officers to keep a lord out of our nation could just stoke the flames of war.”

 

Techno took a bite of his biscuit and thought about that for a moment. Sure, they might have ample reason to keep the guy out, but what’s the testimony of two ragabonds and a mysterious prince really going to do for them?

 

It’s better than nothing, milord.

 

I wish you’d stop calling me that.

 

Nevertheless, some evidence is more suspicious than none at all.

 

True!

 

Wilbur is trustworthy.

 

His word is good.

 

Yes, it—

 

Techno pulled up his mental curtains again and drew his attention back to Sam, who was waiting for a response patiently. 

 

“We have a noble’s word against his. I think that's plenty of reason.”

 

Sam nodded reluctantly, tapping his fingers on the table as he tried to come up with any other possible way this could fail. The man looked for the worst in every situation so that he could always achieve the best outcome. It was certainly…a unique way of looking at things, but it was effective enough for Techno.

 

“A man in green with a smiling mask?”

 

“That’s him.”

 

Sam nodded again, this time with more certainty. He stood up from the table abruptly, giving a deep bow to Techno. “I will report what I can to the border officers.”

 

Techno got up and gave an equally formal bow in return. “Thank you for your service, Captain.”

 

The captain put his helmet on and strode out of the room, knocking on the doorway to the dining hall as he did so. The other guards in the room hastily finished eating at the sound of the alarm and moved to follow him in a quiet group, leaving Techno alone with his biscuit.

 

He scarfed down the last of the bread and turned to sit on the table, taking out a pair of knives from his pocket. He quietly sharpened the already deadly, pristine blades against each other and waited for someone to tell him off.

 

No one came. 

 

Technoblade sighed and made louder scraping noises.

 

--------

 

In one of the many pockets of the Antarctic Empire’s castle, there is a courtyard. Hardly anyone knows it’s there; even servants who have worked their whole lives in the palace will never see it. 

 

It wasn’t much, really. It wasn’t nearly as grandiose or as large as the other courtyards and glens that the castle had to offer. There were no benches to sit on, no cobbled paths to walk upon, not even a real door to enter the place. The hatch that led out to the small pocket of land was hidden behind a tapestry.

 

The tapestry wasn’t terribly old, but it commanded as much respect as a priceless artifact. In many eyes, it was priceless. The threads detailed a woman dressed in deep purple robes, with raven hair and similarly dark eyes, sitting on a simple swing in the crook of a gnarled tree. She was smiling as she faced the sun to her right, one hand holding the rope of the swing and the other holding her large, black hat on her head. In her lap was a bouquet of flowers and ferns, with several from that same bunch adorning her hat. 

 

Embroidered at the base of the tapestry were the words; Our Beloved Queen, May She Find Peace In This World .

 

Servants and guards would nod respectfully as they passed the Queen, some who knew her would kneel in front of the tapestry and pray. No one dared touch the relic of another time. 

 

Well, no one except for Niki and Wilbur.

 

This courtyard was insignificant. It was the sort of thing that people would let their eyes wander over. Blink, and they’ll miss it. But to Wilbur, it was one of the most important places he could put a name to. 

 

The old courtyard where he and his mother would play.

 

Of course, he barely remembered anything from then; he was only four years old. But he remembered the flowers she would grow and give to him, he remembered how she would ask him to sing for the flowers, how she would laugh when they reached out to tickle him, and how she would smile when he came to hide behind her when they got too close. He remembered the pure joy that this courtyard was. 

 

Wilbur treasured this small piece of the world like it was made of flawless gold and the finest jewels. He found himself wandering to his mother’s tapestry nearly every day, and every time he would say hello to the queen, then gently push the tapestry aside to access his treasured land. 

 

The Queen had been dead a good twenty years, but her special glen lived on. Wilbur tended to it, bringing books to read to his mother’s flowers and decorative garlands to hang in the tree with the swing. 

 

He loved this secret place so dearly, and some days he believed it loved him back. 

 

One day, he had brought Niki in with him to share his happiness. Wilbur invited her to see his personal wonderland, and she was just as awed to see it as he had hoped. 

 

They hung lanterns in the tree for summer nights when they would make forts out of blankets and entertain each other with shadow puppets. They’d fall asleep to the sound of the wind blowing through the small chimes the Queen had hung in the branches long ago. 

 

Niki would sit on the swing and sew while Wilbur sat on the branch above her and played with the birds. He would send them down to collect beads and baubles from her sewing box and laugh when she swatted them away playfully. He’d always manage to steal a button or two, though.

 

As much as he liked sharing his mother’s hideaway, Wilbur cherished moments alone in the garden. His father had once given him a collection of his mother’s journals to keep, and Wilbur would only ever read them in the garden. 

 

Today—with an embarrassing fall in the process—he had chosen his mother’s travel log. It was a collection of notes from before she had taken up the role of a queen, back in the days where she was free to travel the lands beyond her kingdom. Wilbur knew the book by heart and could accurately recreate every map she had sketched in the pages. 

 

He idly rocked the swing as he skimmed over the pages, tracing the lines of text with a finger so lightly that sometimes he wondered if he was touching the words at all. 

 

There was an island I visited once that was filled with pickpockets and swindlers. They would’ve stolen the very clothes off of my back if I hadn’t kept an eye on them! I hope they find some reform someday, some of those unfortunate people really were pleasant.

 

Wilbur felt like he was having a conversation with his mother every time he read her journals. It seemed like she was talking directly to Wilbur, and that made him smile every time.

 

The seas are wild in the springtime. I was nearly tossed off of my poor boat coming back home last week! The storms get so close to port that I can hear them through my walls sometimes…I can’t imagine how strong these ship captains must be, day after day and year after year having to fight the weather when it’s like this.

 

Wilbur liked to imagine that he and his mother would get on well. She seemed so similar to him, yet so fiery that he wondered if they would ever have a dull conversation.

 

He misses them, those conversations that would never happen.

 

“Wilbur?”

 

Wilbur looked up to see Niki tentatively peeking out of the hatch. “Am I interrupting you?”

 

“No, not at all,” he replied, setting his book down on the swing as he walked over to meet her. “Is there something wrong?”

 

“Wrong? No, I just came to tell you about Tommy and Tubbo.”

 

Wilbur’s melancholy mood immediately lifted at the mention of the strange boys. The two stepped into a patch of sunlight and sat on the grass, ignoring how cold and damp the ground was. 

 

“Yes, how are they?”

 

Niki clapped her hands excitedly. “The city loves them! I spoke with the innkeeper at the Bronze Bull, where they’re staying, and he told me wonderful news! They’ve managed to help nearly every vendor in the market, and they ask to assist with anything they can.”

 

“Surely they ask for payment as well?”

 

“No! It’s all volunteered. They’ve never asked for a single gold piece for their work, but they’ll gladly take any pay given. It sounds too good to be true, but it is true.”

 

Wilbur shook his head with a laugh. “They’re smart boys, they have to want something out of all of this. A reputation? Fame?”

 

Niki shrugged. “Neither of them seem to want that, but who knows. Maybe your mystery travelers have some sort of heinous plan to take over the Empire!”

 

Wilbur nodded seriously as she giggled to herself. “I wouldn’t put world conquest past them at all.”

 

“And you would gladly follow them?” Niki teased, making Wilbur break a small smile.

 

He fell onto his back and sighed. “Whatever King Tommy wants, King Tommy will get, I suppose.”

 

Niki joined him in looking up at the sky, watching the clouds lazily float by. “They seemed so antsy though…I worry for them.”

 

“You and me both, but I’ve learned my lesson in giving help where it isn’t wanted.”

 

Niki held up a hand to trace a cloud in her vision, taking a moment to think to herself. Wilbur shut his eyes and let himself relax, taking deep breaths of air that smelled like clean dirt and growth. 

 

For as cold as the Empire was, the spring in these lands was the most refreshing thing Wilbur had ever experienced. Months of dark snowstorms and little sunlight were chased away by the playful winds that promised clear skies and green fields. Only in the summer did all the snow truly melt away. There’d still be white on the ground for a few months, but it would soon be peppered with fireworks of colorful wildflowers. 

 

“I wonder where they came from.”

 

“Hm?”

 

Niki turned to him. “I wonder where Tommy and Tubbo came from, Wil. They clearly aren’t from around here, have you seen how few layers they wear?”

 

Wilbur nodded, sitting up so he wasn’t tempted to fall asleep. “A warm place, I suppose. And it can’t have been too far, they seem resourceful and smart, but they’re still so young .”

 

Niki fidgeted with the hem of her skirt. “Well, if Dream was after them, perhaps they came from wherever he hails from.”

 

“Manberg.”

 

“...bless you?”

 

“No, that’s the name of his…country.”

 

Niki stared at Wilbur for a moment, then burst out laughing. “You’re joking!”

 

Wilbur’s lips quirked. “I wish I was. The country’s name is genuinely, officially, Manburg.

 

Niki tried to stifle her laughter but failed, continuing to snicker over the ludicrous name. 

 

The two friends moved back to lean against the old tree, watching the sun go down just like they usually did. Wilbur felt a light tickling under his hand, and he moved it to find a small flower attempting to bloom. 

 

He caressed it lightly, mentally encouraging it to just get a little bit farther. After a few moments of gentle care, the little plant shakily opened its petals and took in the last rays of sunlight. It shrank away as soon as the sun had dipped too low for the light to hit it directly, but Wilbur coaxed it back out with a quiet hum. 

 

“Spring is nearly here,” he murmured.

 

Niki set her head on his shoulder. “Are you ready?”

 

Wilbur didn’t think he was ready for spring when he replied. “I am.”

 

But he couldn’t think of what else there was to prepare for.

Chapter Text

--------

 

The season of spring was always a joyous time for the citizens of the Empire. The usually cold and forbidding weather finally began to mellow. It was a welcome change from the miserable winter months.

 

However, at the peak of spring in the Empire, the mood tended to dip. For when the ground thawed and the snow above melted, mud formed. Plenty of mud.

 

Wilbur had made it a tradition to pamper Friend especially well during this time. The horse didn’t like the grime, and neither did its rider. 

 

On weeks like these, where the sun had been out for days and paths and pastures alike turned into puddles, Wilbur cleared his schedule. As soon as the stablehands saw that he frequented Friend’s pastures, they avoided the barns entirely. 

 

It made Wilbur’s life easier, but his stomach still turned at the thought of the servants avoiding him for their own safety. He’d catch glimpses of them dashing away right as he arrived or scurrying inside the barn when he left. 

 

His smile dimmed considerably when he saw how they refused to look him in the eye, but he shook his head and tried to continue on like it didn’t bother him.

 

Chat had taken to following him on these outings, excited to play in all the nooks and crannies of the barn. The small bird’s joy was infectious, and Wilbur often found himself laughing and chasing the bird as it dipped and twirled in the air. Even Friend had warmed up to the feathery bundle of happiness. 

 

Chat would make a beeline for the horse and settle in his forelock comfortably, daring Wilbur to move them from their perch. The prince made the wise choice of never letting his hands stray there as he braided Friend’s mane. Fearing an endless wave of pecking from the bird, he left the two alone to converse in their own strange way. 

 

Chat would warble something to Friend; then hop around on his forehead. The horse would huff and roll his eyes before shaking his head gently. The bird would chirp, Friend would make a whuffling sound, and their conversation would continue. 

 

Their little song and dance only stopped when Wilbur led Friend out to pasture, letting the horse roll in the wet grass and gallop around to his heart’s content. Of course, this would mean Friend would canter into the mud purposefully, Wilbur swore and end up with grass and dirt all over him. 

 

Friend usually pushed Wilbur into the mud as the icing on the cake. Lovely.

 

Today was a particularly messy day. The night prior had brought plenty of rain to the Empire, which brought plenty of muck. Wilbur was beginning to think that the horse didn’t hate the mud as much as he let on.

 

Friend had dragged Wilbur across the entire pasture by the hood of his cloak, and he ended up dropping his rider in a murky puddle before galloping away. Wilbur was now completely soaked, but he still had a smile on his face. Chat had attempted telling Friend off for treating Wilbur like that, but the horse had bit at the bird playfully. 

 

“You’re a prick. You know that, right?” Wilbur called to his steed, standing up and shaking some of the rainwater off of his clothes. “And here I was, thinking I was going to give you a bath .”

 

At the word bath, Friend stopped prancing around to look at Wilbur accusingly. Wilbur smirked and shrugged. “No bath for Friend! No bath at all.”

 

Friend charged Wilbur and gently knocked him down into the puddle again, placing a muddy hoof on Wilbur’s chest. He whuffed in the prince’s face and pressed his hoof into the man’s ribs.

 

“Alright, alright! I’ll give you your bath,” Wilbur wheezed, trying to pull the horse off of his lungs.

 

Friend snorted in approval and cantered back to the stables, Chat flying close behind. 

 

“Thanks for the help,” Wilbur muttered, picking himself up for the second time. He made his way back to the barn, wringing out his cloak and sleeves as he trudged through the mud Friend had churned up. 

 

He glared at the horse who was innocently hanging his head over the wall of his stall, blinking as Wilbur passed. Wilbur entered the barn and picked up a bucket by the doors, walking to the back of the building to retrieve some brushes. 

 

“How muddy are you today?” Wilbur asked, poking his head out of the tack room to squint at Friend. The answer was very , by the looks of it. 

 

Friend pranced in place as Wilbur approached with his bucket of tools, excited for his bath. The prince patted the horse and set the pail on a stool nearby. He took a curry comb from his collection and began rubbing the mud and debris from the horse’s coat, moving the brush in vigorous circles along Friend’s back. 

 

Dust and dried mud came off in clouds that made Wilbur blink and cough. Friend had decided to behave for once and was politely still, but he mimicked Wilbur’s coughs in a way that made the prince roll his eyes fondly. 

 

Wilbur whispered praise to the horse the entire time, making sure to tell him that despite being a nuisance, he was doing very well. Friend’s ears flicked constantly. He was very happy with all the attention, and Wilbur was more than willing to give it to him. 

 

He replaced the curry comb with a dandy brush to wipe all of the dirt away, gently rubbing at the places where the mud stubbornly clung to Friend’s coat. “You really did a number on yourself,” Wilbur commented, earning him a probably unintentional tail swipe. 

 

Wilbur took much longer with the body brush, slowly making his way down Friend’s coat and gently flicking away any residual dust. Once the horse’s fur had a dull shine to it, Wilbur grabbed a comb and sat on the floor of the stall. He patted the ground next to him and Friend lay down, stretching his neck onto Wilbur’s lap.

 

Chat, meanwhile, had been collecting shiny bits and bobbles from around the stables to give to Wilbur and Friend. Wilbur had a pile of small ribbons beside him that he braided into his horse’s mane after it was neatly combed through. 

 

The entire afternoon had passed by the time Wilbur was satisfied. 

 

Naturally, as soon as he had left the stall, Friend rolled around in his hay and shook himself, messing up all the painstaking work Wilbur had put into his coat.

 

Wilbur blinked. “I am never grooming you again,” he grumbled, snatching his bucket and moving to storm to the tack room. Friend grabbed his hood once again and pulled him back, snorting the way he did when he was content.

 

“You big softie,” Wilbur chided, rubbing the horse’s neck and pressing their foreheads together. “That’s a good lad.”

 

Chat flew down from the rafters to land on Wilbur’s shoulder and warbled in agreement.

 

--------

 

Tubbo didn’t want any of this. He didn’t want to run across an entire continent for months, being chased by a man who needed Tubbo’s best friend back at his side. He didn’t want to be in an unfamiliar country with no other friends or family to talk to. He certainly didn’t want to accept the fact that he might have to move again with this assassin looking for them.

 

Tubbo never wanted this. 

 

However, as he’s learning himself, what he wants and what he needs are two very different ideas.

 

Tubbo wasn’t sure what to think when Tommy pulled him aside one day and whispered a rushed plan to escape. He’d never thought about a life outside of being a mere servant, let alone dream of escape. It seemed fruitless at the time. It seemed like the silly fantasy of a young boy.

 

Suddenly, Tubbo was pulled into a whirlwind of fleeing and desperation. Fantasies didn’t include the harsh reality of going hungry most nights, or the feeling of fear that curled in the very pits of your soul and sprung forward to fuel your constant running. 

 

Escape wasn’t all flower fields and butterflies, that was for sure. 

 

Tubbo couldn’t fathom how many times the thought of giving up had crossed his mind. Hundreds, at the very least. Countless sleepless nights and an underlying atmosphere of misery will do that to a person. 

 

He’d begged Tommy to stop, to just turn themselves in, so that he could rest for more than an hour or two. Tubbo had never been pampered by any means, but basic human decency was better than the hell they were living. He was sick of spending his nights running and looking over his shoulder, too scared to stop at any village in fear of being captured. He just didn’t understand why Tommy was so insistent on leaving, until Tommy finally broke his secret.

 

Tommy could see.

 

--------

 

“...I just don’t understand why we’re even doing this!”

 

“Tubbo.”

 

“No, Tommy. Don’t ‘Tubbo’ me. Give me one fucking reason why I should keep going with you!”

 

Tommy said nothing. He just kept walking ahead of Tubbo, keeping his head down and creeping around as silently as possible. 

 

Tubbo sneered. “You can’t even justify this. Let’s turn back. Please, Tommy. This isn’t worth it anymore, I’m sure we can—”

 

Tommy whirled around, sending a flurry of leaves into the air. “We can’t go back. I am never going back to…that.”

 

“To what , Tommy? A decent place to sleep, for once? A whole meal? A—”

 

“A cell with chains? My life stripped away from me?” Tommy cried, running his hands through his hair as he paced around Tubbo. “I’m finally free from a life of being used like a fucking hammer.”

 

Tubbo took a step back, shaking his head incredulously. “You had it great! Dream took care of you, for heavens’ sake. You’re just ungrateful—”

“You don’t understand!” Tommy screamed, glaring at Tubbo with a wild look in his eyes. He was incredibly worked up, panting and shaking like he had just ran an extra mile. 

 

Tubbo took another step back. He wasn’t…he wasn’t afraid of his friend, but Tommy looked dangerous right now. “Then help me understand, Tommy. Why are we here?”

 

Tommy opened his mouth, then shut it, and then tried to open it again. He sputtered a bit before sitting where he stood, holding his head in his hands. 

 

A heavy silence seemed to fill the woods around them. It was like time had stopped moving, waiting for what Tommy would say next. The only noise was the boy’s deep breaths and Tubbo shuffling around in the leaves. Not even a breeze stirred the stagnant air. It was a silence full of nothing, the most terrifying kind of silence.

 

“Tubbo…d’you know about souls?”

 

“Souls? What, like that bullshit about spirits and ghosts?”

 

Tommy shook his head, looking up at Tubbo with a flicker of desperation in his eyes. “No, no. Like…like the part of a person that makes them really unique. Who they are on the inside.”

 

“I guess? I don’t see how that’s important, though,” Tubbo replied, cocking his head to the side in confusion. 

 

“I can see those. I can see the souls.”

 

Tubbo blinked. “You can…what?”

 

“I can see a person’s soul, aura, or emotions. I can tell whether they’re lying or if they’re in love.”

 

“I don’t think I understand, Tommy. Really.”

 

Tommy laughed, but there was no humor behind it. “I don’t blame you. It sounds stupid. But it’s real. It’s why I have to leave. If you had a person who could tell whether someone was lying…wouldn’t you want them to overpower your political opponents?”

 

Tubbo slowly crouched down to be on eye level with his friend. “You’re saying that’s what Dream wanted?”

 

“That’s exactly what I’m saying.”

 

“Prove it,” Tubbo whispered. He couldn’t believe Tommy, not with such a ridiculous idea like this. “What am I feeling right now?”

 

Tommy shifted his gaze to a spot on Tubbo’s shoulder, and he appeared to deflate. “You don’t believe me. You’re pissed off, you’re tired, you have a longing for something…and now you’re surprised.”

 

--------

 

Admittedly, Tubbo had been shocked. It’s not every day that your best friend can read you like a book, especially not after how long Tubbo spent making sure Tommy couldn’t see the displeasure in his expressions. 

 

Thinking back on it, it was a wonder he hadn’t noticed sooner. Tommy was always abrasive, but if he was really bothering someone he’d clam up immediately. Most of the time, no one had even told him to stop yet. Tubbo had still been pissed when he’d learned that Tommy knew he was upset, but he didn’t ever slow down. 

 

After they had made their way into the Empire, the only nation that hadn’t been infiltrated by Manburg’s reign, Tommy had encouraged settling down. He was certain that they would be safe here. The Empire was known for its legendary militia, not to mention their firm monarchy. Tommy laughed at the thought of the Emperor bending to Dream’s will, especially without Tommy at Dream’s side. Without his little lie detector, the man was just an average ruler. 

 

With those assurances, Tubbo felt like he could relax for a moment. He let his guard down and actually managed to enjoy the Empire. Stronghold alone was a sight to behold, with its diverse market and secrets behind each corner. He loved it here. He loved the security he felt here. 

 

The weather, however, was an acquired taste.

 

Now, though, Tubbo had to enjoy the streets of Stronghold alone. Ever since Tommy had caught a glimpse of the mercenary skulking around the city, he had stayed in his room and refused to leave. Tubbo spent most of his early mornings convincing his friend that they were going to be fine. Because if Tommy , the most charismatic person Tubbo knew, couldn’t stay positive during this, Tubbo had to give enough reassurances for the both of them. 

 

Those reassurances sounded empty to his own ears.

 

Tubbo had managed to pull Tommy out of their room today, and it was obvious that the people of Stronghold were happy about it. At least five shopkeepers had welcomed Tommy back and offered them both some quick jobs. Tommy had been in the city for two weeks, and he was already held on a pedestal. 

 

Tommy responded to each offer with excitement, but Tubbo didn’t need Tommy’s vision to see that his friend was faking his joy. The boy was shaking under his cloak, and his eyes shifted more than they usually did. He kept glancing behind them, looking both ways twice when they crossed roads, and freezing whenever someone accidentally brushed past. 

 

Tubbo had never seen him so terrified.

 

“Loosen up a bit,” he muttered, shoving Tommy lightly. “You look like you’d rather be any place but here.”

 

“That’s because I would ,” Tommy grumbled in reply, once again checking over his shoulder. “He was wearing white before, right?”

 

Tubbo sighed. He’d asked this question several times in the last hour. “Yeah, Tommy. He was.”

 

“Could he have changed cloaks? He might have cut his hair, but I dunno if he knew we saw him

 

“Can you please calm down,” Tubbo hissed, pushing his friend harder this time. “You sound like a paranoid lunatic.”

 

Tommy shook his head slightly before picking up a crate of water jugs. “I’m not paranoid , I’m just being cautious. Trying to stay on the safe side, y’know?”

 

Tubbo rolled his eyes before tossing a similar box onto his shoulder. “There’s a fine line between caution and paranoia, and you, Tommy Innit, have crossed that line.”

 

The young man frowned as he loaded his crate into a wagon. “I have not.”

 

“Yes you have.”

 

“I have not! I am perfectly un-paranoid.”

 

“This is called denial, Tommy.”

 

“Fuck you.”

 

“The next stage of grief is anger; you’ll get to acceptance one day.”

 

Tommy sent him a crude gesture that just made Tubbo snicker. As they loaded the wagon with water crates, they continued to poke fun at each other. Tubbo could carry two boxes at once with ease, while Tommy struggled to keep one in his grasp. Tubbo found it hilarious.

 

“C’mon Tommy, these boxes aren’t that heavy.”

 

“Not everyone carried things for a living, bitch.”

 

“Oh, I know. I wasn’t one of those people either.”

 

Tommy glared at him and started ranting about how he was incredibly strong and good-looking. Tubbo smiled quietly and let his friend get lost in his own praises. Tommy was distracted from his fear, and he was acting more like himself for the first time in a while. It was a welcome change.

 

By the time they had finished their tasks, the sun had dipped below the horizon. They checked into the inn for the night, purchased a platter of bread and cheese to bring to their room, and subsequently crashed onto their beds.

 

Tommy stretched out onto his mattress with a content sigh. “Freedom feels pretty damn good, doesn’t it?”

 

The young man had his attention elsewhere, so he didn’t notice Tubbo’s expression darken as he looked away. “Yeah,” Tubbo muttered, giving the floor an intense glare.

 

Freedom. What a horrid word. It left a bittersweet taste in the mouth, just like the word perfection. 

 

Freedom was just as impossible as perfection.

 

--------

 

…and I wish you good tidings, good fortune, and good luck.

 

Sincerely,

 

Philza Craft, Emperor of the Antarctic Empire

 

Phil set his quill down into the inkpot and lightly blew on the letter. A meaningless correspondence with a trade union that wished for funding. He’d refused, of course. Their prices were ridiculous, their merchants were unlikeable, and they never fit into Stronghold’s jolly atmosphere.

 

Sometimes, making decisions was easy.

 

He took off his reading glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose, trying not to look at the pile of paperwork in front of him. Phil leaned back in his chair and let his slowly let his wings unfurl from where they lay on his back. He stretched them with a flap, making half of his papers fall from the pile. Phil sighed, but he didn’t move to pick them up.

 

The emperor stood from his desk, folding the letter neatly as he walked to his window. The sun had long since disappeared, and the lamps in the capital city were the only sources of illumination this evening. The light from Stronghold looked dim in comparison to the bright sky above. 

 

The skies above the Empire were always a wonder at this time of year. Comets and constellations alike would attract scholars and passing travelers from the farthest reaches of the world. The stars were such a staple of their nation that Kristin had redesigned their flag to include one.

 

Ah, Kristin. She would’ve loved the sky tonight. Phil could hear her now, pointing out the stars she knew in whispers and laughing when he tried to pronounce half of them. 

 

Phil hoped she was with the stars now. It’s what she’d wanted, to always be above and watching over their family long after she had passed on. 

 

Phil looked down at his hands, which were crumpling the delicate letter. He turned away from the stars with a sigh, then began pacing the vast study. 

 

It was late, yet he was restless. He had work to do, but he couldn’t bring himself to write another word. It was one of those nights where he let his mind carry him away from the conscious world, taking him on a journey beyond his carefully-constructed walls.

 

His pacing was a routine. Twenty paces forward, pause, turn, then start over. Once every few rotations he might hover over his desk, brushing a hand over the manuscripts on the table, but he would not linger for long. 

 

On nights like these, he would pace until the room spun and the lights blurred. Nights like these would produce his finest ideas, but also reminded him of his deepest insecurities. He left the direction of his thoughts up to chance. More often than not, they strayed to think of his late wife.

 

Tonight, however, his mind led him to his son. 

 

Wilbur…where to start?

 

There was no good place to start with the man. Half of the time, Phil couldn’t manage to call him his son. Not because of any dislike he had for his boy, no, quite the opposite. He simply couldn’t believe he had such an heir. 

 

He loved Wilbur, he did, but it was from a distance. The boy had always been closer to his mother, anyways. He didn’t know what to make of the man. 

 

Phil was a lover, a warrior, a diplomat, an emperor…but he never believed himself to be a father. When Kristin had broken the news to him, he was stunned. It wasn’t like he had never considered it, he just didn’t think it was in the cards for him. It was like a dream come true.

 

Phil stopped pacing for a moment. He took a deep breath and looked once again at the stars for clarity of mind. The stars couldn’t tell him he was a horrible father. The stars couldn’t cry and scream until their voices were broken and raw. 

 

No, Phil left those tasks to himself. 

 

Containing his family, as he had drilled into his head a hundred times, was good for them. It was safe . He had yet to regret this decision. Wilbur boasted control over his “curse” almost every time it was brought up in conversation. He was so certain that he could be safe by himself. 

 

And perhaps that was Phil’s fault. Perhaps he had kept the boy too sheltered. Wilbur couldn’t remember it, but the emperor could vividly recall the first nursemaid his son had had, twenty years ago. 

 

Wilbur had rambled on about a story he had constructed, and the nurse listened. By the time he had ended his story, she believed herself to be a different person entirely.

 

“You can be Rianda, and I will be the prince.”

 

“Rianda?”

 

“Yes, you’re the fierce princess that comes to rescue me!”

 

“...I see.”

 

His son hadn’t had the faintest notion of control at that point in his life. He was only a child, an innocent child with an unfortunate gift he didn’t know how to use quite yet.

 

Phil wasn’t a power-hungry ruler. He was satisfied with the nation he had, regardless of whatever flaws it may include. But the thought of Wilbur atop his throne one day, lightly using his gift to control armies and enemies alike…

 

Phil was not a power-hungry ruler, but he was an ambitious father. 

 

A light rapping on his door startled him, and his feathers involuntarily ruffled at the sudden noise. He scrambled to pick up the fallen papers from earlier, shuffling them and placing them back on his desk before answering the knock.

 

With a light swishing sound, his wings returned to their flattened state. He rearranged his shirt to hide them as they pressed firmly against his back. It was uncomfortable to hide them this way, but he’d rather not spook a maid this late at night.

 

Technoblade’s face greeted him as he opened the door. “Phil.”

 

“Techno. What are you here for at this hour?”

 

“Had a couple questions on some old fightin’ maneuvers,” Techno replied, peering around Phil to check his study. “Unless you’re busy, of course

 

“No, no, not at all!” Phil laughed, opening the door wider to let the man in. “I was just thinking some things over.”

 

“Anythin’ important?”

 

“Nothing that can’t wait a few days.”

 

Techno nodded and stepped into the room, walking over to one of the bookshelves across from Phil’s desk. 

 

The emperor hurriedly cleared his desk of any loose papers, pausing when his gaze caught on one of the headers.

 

Apology?

 

Phil smiled to himself before putting the paper away with the rest. “So, Tech, what’s on your mind?”

 

Yes, sometimes decisions are very easy indeed.

 

Chapter Text

Wilbur didn’t dislike his studies, but he wasn’t particularly interested in them today.

 

His tutor droned on about geographical locations, nothing Wilbur hadn’t already memorized. He had always been fascinated by geography, studying maps with a fervor throughout his youth and well into his adulthood. 

 

As he let his attention drift, his gaze wandered to the trees he could see through the window. The forests had finally begun to lose the blanket of snow that hid them from the sky, revealing deep greens and ochres to the rest of the world. After what felt like years of a cold, dead winter, the land looked alive .

 

He’d memorized the lands of the Empire like the back of his hand, including every secret path out of the castle. At this point, he probably knew the lands better than any other resident. 

 

It didn’t make him hate the walls that kept him inside any less. 

 

“Your Highness?”

 

Wilbur looked up, abruptly taken out of his thoughts. “Yes?”

 

His tutor gave him a pointed look, gesturing to the door behind them. A page quivered in the doorway, shaking in the presence of the royal.

 

The prince directed his gaze at the boy and smiled. Instead of calming down, the boy paled further. Wilbur sighed inwardly. “I apologize. Please repeat yourself.”

 

“T-the emperor requests your presence in his study,” the boy stammered, looking more faintish by the moment.

 

Wilbur stood, shaking his cloak out behind him. “You are dismissed,” he told the tutor, who bowed and began packing his materials up with a sigh.

 

The prince left the room, trailing the page to his father’s study. The petrified boy glanced behind him constantly, shuddering under Wilbur’s intense gaze.

 

If he was being honest with himself, Wilbur was tired of this unnecessary fear the castle seemed to hold him in.

 

The pair stopped in front of a gilded door, and the boy hesitantly knocked. “His Highness, Prince Wilbur, is here under Emperor Philza’s request!”

 

Wilbur winced at the formalities. He despised his label, but no matter how he insisted he’d much rather just be called Wil, the palace staff persisted with their impeccable manners. They claimed it was disgraceful to refer to him in any other way.

 

“Come in,” Phil responded.

 

Wilbur nodded to the boy, who took off running at the dismissal. He opened the door and shut it quietly behind him.

 

Phil was standing by the window, his wings out on full display. He faced away from Wilbur, but his tense shoulders gave away that he had heard the soft pad of his son’s steps.

 

Captain Sam sat in a comfortable chair by one of the many bookshelves, holding a thin stack of parchment in his gloved hands. He set the pile down on a nearby shelf and waved to the prince, a casual smile lighting up his usually serious expression. “Hello, Wil. Studies going well?”

 

One would expect Wilbur’s own father to be asking those sorts of questions, checking in on his son, but no, the emperor stayed motionless by the window. 

 

The father and son had never truly repaired their relationship after the emperor had deserted the castle in his grief. He had left Wilbur during one of the worst periods of his life, a time where the young prince needed his father the most.

 

Wilbur had yet to completely forgive the man.

 

Phil had yet to apologize.

 

Techno had returned with the emperor, a sudden addition to the family that Wilbur suspected was a futile way to fill the hole that his mother had left. It was obvious how much time the man spent with the young warrior, constantly doting on him, more so than his own son.

 

He’d given Techno a house for his polar bear, for heaven’s sake.

 

Wilbur instead leaned on the companionship of Captain Sam. The green-haired man was unfailingly loyal to the emperor, but he saw the disconnect between the man and his son very clearly. 

 

Sam had convinced the emperor Niki should stay around. Sam had given Wilbur lessons on combat. Sam barely blinked when he learned that the prince was prone to sneaking out, and instead gave the young man better advice on how to leave unnoticed. 

 

Sam was there when Phil refused to be, so the least Wilbur could do was treat the kind man with the same courtesy. 

 

“Going well, as always. Geography lessons today,” he finally replied, standing up straight and mirroring his father’s stiffness.

 

“I’m sure you were acing it, then.”

 

“Thank you, Captain.”

 

The unsaid accusations thrown at Phil did not go unnoticed, judging by the way the man’s wings bunched up as his shoulders tensed further. 

 

He finally turned around to face his estranged son with a determined look in his eyes that almost caught Wilbur off guard. Almost.

 

He refused to show weakness in front of his father.

 

“Wilbur, I believe we should talk.”

 

“About?”

 

A tense silence stretched for a few agonizingly long moments as the emperor chose his next words.

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

Phil’s face crumpled, his steely gaze deflating as he collapsed in on himself. He sank down into his chair, holding his head in his hands. There were no tears, but the way his shoulders shook promised them soon.

 

Wilbur refused to crumble.

 

“What about?”

 

“Everything!” Phil exclaimed, snapping his head up to stare at the prince. “I wasn’t there. I wouldn’t be there. I left, brought someone completely strange into your life, just after you lost your mother.”

 

Wilbur’s hands clenched at the mention of her, but he continued gazing levelly at his father.

 

“And I ignored you, and I neglected you, and I didn’t see you.”

 

Every word was true. 

 

Every word stabbed Wilbur’s heart with their blunt sincerity.

 

Every word broke his father further, leaving the man in shattered pieces.

 

“And I never once looked back on it. I never questioned what I did. I made excuses. I disgraced your mother’s name in terrible ways to excuse my inexcusable behavior.”

 

Yes, he did. 

 

“Last night, with how you showed yourself, I didn’t recognize my son. You controlled your powers—” curse “—perfectly when Techno and I couldn’t. You saved lives yesterday. You were selfless, brave, and completely unexpected.”

 

Phil choked, unable to meet his son’s unwavering gaze any longer.

 

“I am not brave.”

 

Certainly.

 

“I am far from selfless.”

 

Obviously.

 

“And I was not your father.”

 

Well then.

 

What more could Wilbur expect? His father had finally, after all of these long years of silence, apologized for his actions. Every single one of them in those few words. He had accepted his faults, commended his son’s strengths, and admitted their differences. He didn’t demand forgiveness, he didn’t blame his grief, and he didn’t put any fault on Wilbur.

 

A perfect apology.

 

Phil had opened up completely to Wilbur, and now he was at the young man’s mercy.

 

“I know.”

 

Phil continued to teeter on the edge of sobbing, but he managed to have the strength to hold his head up to look at his son. His gaze was pleading, begging for Wilbur to say more, to utter the words that would break his misery.

 

Would he be any better than his father if he refused?

 

“And I forgive you.”

 

Phil gave him a teary smile as Sam began to make his way over to the emotional emperor. 

 

“But I will never forget.”

 

Everyone in the room froze. The words seemed to echo over and over, filling the air with a bitter promise repeated a thousand times in the men’s minds. Each word was brimming with resentment, but also acceptance, in a tart, bittersweet mixture. 

 

Phil may have earned Wilbur’s forgiveness, but he would never do enough to make up for all those years of mistakes. And they both knew it.

 

“Thank you,” the emperor whispered.

 

Wilbur inclined his head in a stiff nod, allowing a single tear to fall, breaking his resolute composure. It didn’t go unnoticed. Phil stepped around Sam to stand in front of his desk.

 

He held his arms out slowly, making one final request of the prince.

 

And of course, Wilbur accepted.

 

He stepped into the embrace of his father, and finally let his composure dissolve. Phil’s arms and wings completely smothered the prince, but Wilbur didn’t have it in him to care. He hugged his father back just as tightly, letting the emperor hold the back of his head and whisper apologies in his ear hundreds of times.

 

The emperor held his son in his trembling arms for the first time in years, and at last, there was peace between them.

 

It was a tense peace, a fragile thread that could be cut with a single word if they so choose, but it was peace nonetheless.

 

Relief and a calm contentedness washed over the pair, and they lay there in each other’s company for what seemed like centuries. They spoke no words; they didn’t need to. 

 

Nothing could truly describe how they felt and why they felt that way. It just was.

 

For a single, surprising moment, everyone in the Antarctic Empire felt the frigid air around them grow just a bit warmer. They all chalked it up to the changing seasons, dismissing the phenomenon and going back to their daily routines.

 

After all, spring was a season of new beginnings and growth.

 

--------

 

As winter melted into spring, the time likewise blurred away.

 

Days turned into weeks, and before anyone had realized it, almost a month had passed. It had come and gone just as fast as the fleeting mountain winds, but each day was a small step towards something better.

 

Wilbur and his father reconnected, gradually opening up piece by piece with each other. Techno wisely kept his distance, not wanting to sour the fragile bond the pair were gradually strengthening.

 

Instead, the warrior threw himself into his training and studies with more gusto. Wilbur never found him without a sword or a book in his hand for weeks. Steve was given mostly one-sided love and affection…but that wasn’t unusual.

 

The two spirited travelers finally settled down in Stronghold, arranging for a more permanent residence in the tavern. The streets of the capital had grown familiar with the young men and their productivity, and the citizens had grown fond of them.

 

Niki spent most of her time working or down in the marketplace, trying to catch a glimpse of the pair of friends. She’d tell Wilbur about all of their adventures and how the kingdom was slowly growing to like the two. He was ecstatic at the news.

 

The crown prince, however, was also conflicted.

 

--------

 

Wilbur was seven. He sat in the throne room of the palace, covered in silken robes and much-too-heavy jewelry. A small golden crown lay atop the boy’s head, dipping to almost touch his eyebrows with its weight.

 

He had no idea why he had been summoned, or why he was wearing all of these rather unnecessary accessories. Sam had merely told him that ‘ a wonderful surprise’ would be arriving today.

 

Wilbur was not an ignorant child. He’d noticed how excited the kingdom had been for the past few days, servants running here and there to decorate the drafty corridors in bright garlands, cooks hurriedly preparing delicate yet complex dishes fit for a banquet, and the guards training for a sort of parade.

 

A celebration was about to happen, but Wilbur didn’t know why or for what.

 

His eyes lifted to the large doors of the throne room as fanfare blared through the echoing halls of the castle. The heavy crown dipped lower still, and he gingerly moved it higher on his head.

 

Captain Sam stood beside him, stiff and formal. It was just another thing that confused the young prince, as the guard wasn’t usually this uptight around him. They had grown quite close over the past two years, and he was a naturally easy-going man that Wilbur liked quite a bit.

 

The pair looked cautiously to the opening doors, and both of them nearly fainted at the sight before them.

 

“At long last, Emperor Philza has returned!”

 

People were clapping. Trumpets were blasting. Sam was saying something to Wilbur.

 

Wilbur heard none of it. 

 

He stared at the blond man in the doorway, a painfully familiar smile gracing his features. The man still held himself like royalty, the air around him still seeming to shiver in the presence of his power. 

 

New scars pulled the man’s face, making his smile a bit wider, and one of his eyebrows was cut in half by a thin white line. Phil’s hair was longer, and some of the straw-colored strands had been braided around his face. He had changed. 

 

The emperor was different.

 

Wilbur didn’t recognize him anymore. 

 

He could not recognize his father.

 

Distantly, he could feel Sam pulling on his arm, telling him he needed to move.  

 

Wilbur rose stiffly and walked to meet the emperor at the center of the elegantly tiled floor. With a small grimace, he realized the man had not come alone. 

 

A small child, a little younger than Wilbur, stood by the man’s side. The child had pink hair, more scars than his older companion, and held a rudimentary sword in one hand.

 

In the other, he held the blond man’s hand.

 

The three met in the middle of the throne room, a content man and his nervous companion on one side, and a stoic boy on the other.

 

Wilbur bowed, a deep, sweeping gesture reserved for serious occasions, never used between family members. “Welcome home...Your Highness.”

 

The emperor blinked, startled at the coldness of his son. His smile faded a bit. “Hello, Wil.”

 

“I hope your travels were to your satisfaction.”

 

“Wil, mate, no need for the formalities.”

 

Wilbur stood up straight, and at that moment, the boy who was barely half the height of the emperor seemed to tower over the confused man. His level stare had flickers of uncharacteristic resentment. Phil drew back, startled at his son’s hostility. “Wilbur…?”

 

“And I hope that you plan to stay , Emperor Philza.”

 

The words cut through the air like a freshly sharpened blade. The sentence rang clear through the throne room, and everyone gasped at the young prince’s harsh tone.

 

Wilbur was not known for being unkind. Quite the opposite.

 

The crown prince completed another bow, stretching one of his legs back in the customary way to say farewell to an acquaintance. 

 

Family did not need such customs.

 

But Wilbur was not speaking to his family.

 

He left the throne room quickly, leaving a heartbroken man in a room that seemed too large, and so, so empty.

 

Yes, the boy thought bitterly, his control slipping as he stalked away. What a wonderful surprise.

 

--------

 

Wilbur was ten. He sat, alone as usual, in a hidden corner of the library. Karl was sick today, and could not keep the boy the company he so desperately craved.

 

The prince’s nose was practically touching the pages of the book he was reading, a small collection of tales from the history of the Antarctic Empire. 

 

It was only recently written, for it mentioned the current royal family. The pages sang praises for Emperor Philza, a man known for his generosity and kind heart. His late wife, Queen Kristen, was told to have a heart equally as large, if not even more welcoming. 

 

Wilbur let out a small sigh as he read over those words. It was true, the part about his mother, at least. She had been a truly kind soul, and all of his fading memories of her were filled with happiness. 

 

Phil was another story, but the boy continued reading.

 

Not much was written about himself. The Crown Prince Wilbur was supposedly a quiet boy who was reserved and distant from the rest of the kingdom. 

 

Not by choice, he thought.

 

Prince Technoblade was a boy who was also not well known, only realized for his adoption into the royal family and his interest in swordsmanship.

 

Oh, well. At least they got Techno’s identity figured out.

 

A quiet scuffling from behind the shelf Wilbur lay against shook him out of his bitterness, and he quietly closed the book to redirect his attention to the source of the sound. He lightly nudged the books on the shelf out of the way, shifting their spines so that he could see past them. Wilbur could only see the others’ legs from his position, and he craned his neck to try to catch a clear glimpse.

 

Two people stood close together, one wearing long green robes with embroidered ends, the other in simple baggy pants used for training.

 

Phil and Technoblade.

 

Wilbur let out a nearly inaudible sigh and turned away. Why should he care what his father and his favorite son should say?

 

He was just about to pick his book back up when he heard their whispers.

 

“Why won’t you let Wilbur do anything?”

 

That’s a pretty good question.

 

“Tech, he can’t go out.”

 

“But I can!”

 

“Wil is...different,” the emperor stumbled over his words, uncertainty filling his quiet tone. “He has amazing control, but if he ever slips, who knows what could happen.”

 

So his father had no faith in him.

 

The pair’s quiet conversation died down as Techno reluctantly agreed. Wilbur may not like him much, but at least the boy was decent enough to realize the unfairness here.

 

The pair left, their footsteps echoing through the empty library.

 

Wilbur stayed, his mind a sea of doubt.

 

He stood, shakily. Unshed tears threatened to fall from his eyes, but he sucked in a breath and steadily regained his composure. 

 

He began to walk away, his already-strict control tightening until he felt his throat ache. He ignored the pain, tightening his grip on his curse until he could feel nothing.

 

That night was the first time he ever left the castle on his own.

 

--------

 

Wilbur was seventeen. He was supposed to be listening to his studies, but his attention was elsewhere.

 

The window he sat next to overlooked the courtyard, and in that courtyard was Technoblade.

 

The young teen was practicing with a group of guards, going over sword techniques until the boy was able to perform with perfection.

 

Even through the glass of his window, Wilbur could hear the shouts of the young men as they trained, and an older man’s laughter.

 

The emperor sat in the gazebo, watching his adopted son work almost effortlessly with his wooden sword. Phil shouted encouraging words and praise that Wilbur couldn’t make out, but he could clearly hear the fondness in the man’s tone.

 

He scowled slightly, then turned away from the window to finally listen to his tutor.

 

A few hours later, Sam and Wilbur were alone in the same courtyard, practicing much more advanced techniques. 

 

Wilbur had never been interested in combat, but the captain had insisted that he should be proficient in the art of sword fighting. He never regretted a lesson with his mentor. 

 

Wilbur was distracted, his traitorous mind still lingering on the scene he had watched earlier. His lack of attention made his moves sloppy and imprecise, allowing Sam to easily disarm the prince.

 

“What’s wrong, Wil?” Sam asked, offering a hand to the fallen boy. Wil took it and heaved himself up, grabbing his sword and moving back to a starting position.

 

“Nothing. The wind’s just getting to my head today.”

 

The lie slipped easily off of his tongue, so effortlessly that he almost didn’t feel guilty about it.

 

The pair continued practicing, Sam patiently correcting Wilbur’s frequent mistakes. The prince knew that his mentor knew he was better than this. 

 

But not good enough for your father’s attention.

 

The thought nearly caught him off guard, and he gracefully saved himself from slipping on the icy ground. Sam noticed the mistake but didn’t comment on it.

 

They took a short break, allowing a few moments of rest before continuing the lesson. Wilbur paced the side of the courtyard, his eyes on the ground in front of him. A shuffling noise from the corridor off of the courtyard drew his head up.

 

Phil was strolling down the hallway, with no places to be and no Techno to distract him. Wilbur cleared his throat softly, only half-intending to catch his father’s attention.

 

The man heard him though, and he turned around in surprise to see his son staring at him stiffly.

 

Neither one of them moved, their gazes locked on each other. Wilbur’s eyes were hard and accusatory, and Phil’s were just...blank. Like he didn’t know who he was looking at.

 

The emperor broke eye contact first, quickly hurrying away without a word. Wilbur held out a hand, a feeble cry dying in his throat. He drew back his hand like he had been burned and turned away, a dark look crossing his normally peaceful face.

 

Sam and Wilbur continued sparring. The captain did not point out how his student made no mistakes, or how aggressive his moves were.

 

He merely smiled somberly and nodded, a knowing look in his eyes.

 

--------

 

Even after all those years, the emperor had still apologized. His father had apologized.

 

Wilbur spent more time alone with his thoughts, but not enough time that his family noticed his absence. He wasted hours staring through the skylight in the library or mindlessly organizing his perfectly clean room, trying to piece his scattered mind together.

 

Today, he was absentmindedly looking over various maps in a study, one hand caressing Chat’s soft feathers. The bird had been a faithful companion during his contemplation, never making enough noise to disturb him, but always bringing him small gifts to try and lift his mood.

 

Wilbur was lost in his near-daily internal debate, so he didn’t notice Chat suddenly leave the room.

 

On one hand, his father had seemed genuine. Wilbur had watched the man fall apart in front of him, completely exposing himself to his son. Phil had never done that before.

 

On the other, it was all a bit sudden. It almost seemed planned. A certain air of fakeness surrounded the situation, an all-too convenient and too-perfect way to gain Wilbur’s trust.

 

One day out of the blue, Phil finally decides to own up to his actions. It was suspicious how brief the summoning had been, as well as how everyone in the castle seemed to know what had happened. 

 

Wilbur had never been directly uncivil or rude to his father, for he knew better than to stir up drama in a palace full of gossiping maids. But it was like the whole castle had warmed up to him all of a sudden, not just his father.

 

Guards and maids wouldn’t stare at the ground and run away if he passed by, some would even ask him how his day was. It was a strange experience, to one day be ostracized by everyone, and the next to be completely welcomed.

 

All in all, the occurrences couldn’t be coincidental. It was shallow of him to assume his father had ulterior motives, but he knew very well that his father was a smart and careful man. 

 

If he had apologized, he had done so for a reason. 

 

The only question that remained was what that reason happened to be.

 

Chat flew back into the room, the slight breeze from their wingbeats ruffling Wilbur’s hair. He held out a hand for the bird to perch on, but they glided past to sit on his map.

 

Wilbur set his hand down slowly, tilting his head in confusion at Chat’s rejection. 

 

The bird chirped indignantly at him, then hopped over to the hand that rested on the old atlas. Chat pulled at his fingers, trying to lead him out of the room.

 

“Chat, I’d rather not,” he murmured, drawing his hand back.

 

Chat shrieked, then flew up to peck him between the eyes. The bird left the room once again, letting out harsh trills as they flew through the door.

 

“What the...hey!”

 

Wilbur dashed after his companion, running through the halls of the palace to chase them. He left the map and his doubts in the room behind him, completely distracted by whatever Chat was leading him to.

 

He skidded to a stop at a window where the bird was perched, chirping softly at him. They flew up to rest in his hair, tugging his curls to look outside.

 

The window looked out over the courtyard, where Technoblade and Phil were talking to each other. 

 

Wilbur groaned and started to turn away, but Chat’s insistent tweets stopped him. He paused and looked closer at the scene below him. It almost looked as if...they were fighting.

 

Phil and Techno were arguing. Not one of the light-hearted arguments that would take up most of dinner, no, this was a verbal war.

 

“You’re selfish!” Techno roared, towering over the emperor. His control had been lost, and his form was quickly turning more boar than man. “You cannot honestly just expect Wilbur to go through with this, not with what you’ve put him through.”

 

Wilbur leaned closer to the window, Chat’s noise quickly silencing as they looked on in shock. 

 

“Did you really believe I would just rule this empire forever?” Phil shot back, his wings fluffed up in anger. 

 

“Yes, actually, I did!”

 

“Wilbur needs to go and do something for once in his life, and don’t you dare tell me you think otherwise.”

 

“I think he doesn’t need to suddenly become emperor because you’re too tired to deal with it!” Techno’s hands were getting dangerously close to his sword, but Phil bravely swatted them away.

 

Become...what?

 

“You have no right to tell me what I should or should not do for my son,” the emperor hissed.

 

“You can’t call Wilbur your son just because you finally apologized and then decided to use him.”

 

You can’t call Wilbur your son.

 

Techno’s rumbling voice echoed through the courtyard, and Wilbur and Phil both took a step back in shock. Phil was furious, but his opponent was even worse. 

 

“I’m done, ” Techno growled, turning away from the emperor. “I’ll be with Steve.”

 

As the warrior turned away, his gaze passed over the window Wilbur was nearly touching, and his eyes widened when he saw the prince staring in horror at him. Phil followed Techno’s gaze, and a similar look of despair replaced his rage. 

 

“Wil, please!”

 

“Wilbur, wait —”

 

But the prince was already gone.

 

--------

 

“Your Highness!”

 

“Sir, please!”

 

Wilbur ran through the corridors, ignoring every servant that tried to stop him. He had an iron-like grip on his curse, making sure his eyes didn’t even start to brighten as he fled the castle. It lurched in response, but he forced the power down deeper.

 

The air was cold, too cold, but he kept running. The sound of guards desperately trying to chase him faded as he shoved the doors to the outside open. He leapt down the stairs, nearly falling over in his hurry to escape. 

 

Chat flew over his head, chirping in encouragement as he raced across the rocky cliffside. Loose stones and clumps of browned grass nearly made him trip and go careening to the ocean below, but Wilbur managed to avoid them all.

 

Friend was waiting in the stables, and he started nickering in fear when he saw the state his rider was in. The prince threw the door to his stall open and grabbed his horse, completely ignoring the need for a saddle. 

 

The horse balked, but Wilbur used a wall of the stable to leap onto his steed, determination shining in his eyes. Friend stamped and tried rearing up, whinnying in protest as Wilbur forced his horse out of the stable.

 

If the prince had been thinking clearly, he would have felt guilty at his harsh treatment of his loyal companion.

 

He squeezed his legs around Friend, urging the horse to go faster. Friend gave up his resistance and galloped away, his hooves clattering on the rough cobble of the bridge to the gates.

 

A cluster of guards stood in front of the gates, shaking as the prince drew closer. “Your Highness, we request that you return to the castle at once!”

 

“Open the gates!” Wilbur ordered, forcefully pushing the warm feeling in his throat down. 

 

The guards obeyed, believing that they were under the prince’s influence. It’s exactly what they would claim when Wilbur returned. If he returned.

 

Wilbur thundered past, ignoring the frightened shouts of the men as they narrowly avoided Friend’s flying hooves.

 

“Wil, please!”

 

Phil was flying above him, desperately trying to cut his son off before he reached the gates. The emperor landed in front of Friend, spreading his massive wings to block the gates from the prince.

 

“Get out of my way,” Wilbur growled, pulling Friend to a halt in front of his father. The horse moved to the side, giving Wilbur an unobstructed view of the winged man.

 

“Wilbur, you need to listen, mate, Techno wasn’t thinking clearly. You saw how he looked!” Phil cried, holding his arms out to try to calm the prince down. 

 

“Don’t make me have to make you move,” Wilbur spat, having none of his father’s excuses.

 

“Wilbur. You wouldn’t do that to your own father, we both know that.” Phil had an annoyingly cocky smile on his face. He was calm and confident in the fact that his son would never use his curse against his family.

 

Wilbur smirked. That’s where his father was dead wrong. 

 

Emperor Philza, get the hell out of my way.”

 

Phil’s mouth opened slightly, his eyes going wide. His body moved against his will, tucking his wings behind him and stepping out of the prince’s path. The emperor could do nothing as he watched his son gallop away without a single look behind him.

 

Wilbur left the castle behind, quickly escaping Phil’s view as he turned into the forest. 

 

The guards behind him stood to attention as the prince’s curse faded. The emperor turned to them with a stony expression. 

 

“I want men out there after him. Now.”

 

The men nodded vigorously, dashing off to the stables to retrieve their steeds. Phil stayed on the bridge, worry and sadness cracking his stoic face.

 

On a ledge of the mountain, far away from Phil and the guards leaving the castle, a man and his polar bear observed the scene impassively. He had a hand on the bear’s back, ruffling the coarse fur as he watched the emperor fly back to his tower. 

 

Fierce northern winds tossed the man’s long hair around his face, waving it to his side like a pink flag. He ignored the winds and continued staring at the road below him. Captain Sam had run out of the castle doors to address the guards as they mounted, directing them with anxious movements of his hands. 

 

The guards set out, their horses kicking up clouds of snow that swirled away in the wind as they galloped away. Their quarry was long gone, the fleeing prince probably leagues away by now. 

 

The thought made Techno smile, his lips curling slightly around his receding tusks. 

 

Fly free, songbird.

 

--------

 

If Wilbur was being honest with himself, he had absolutely no idea what he was doing. 

 

His determination to just leave the situation had gotten...a little extreme, and now he was racing down the icy path to Stronghold with no plan in mind.

 

He could go back down the path he had taken in the winter, he was almost certain that he was the only one in the palace who knew about it. But his father would expect that. Phil would expect him to ride out to the farthest reaches of the empire to escape his home.

 

The emperor certainly wouldn’t think that the prince would risk staying in Stronghold.

 

Wilbur went down the hidden path anyways, trying to keep the guards he knew would be after him in minutes off of his trail. Friend’s hoofprints were lost in the debris of the forest, making their path unidentifiable as the pair leapt over fallen trees. 

 

The prince took Friend off of the path to ride through the dense woods, whispering comfortingly as his steed snorted nervously. Branches and icicles slashed his face and body, covering him in dirt, needles, and cuts. The pain didn’t even register in his panic-ridden mind.

 

He practically choked the tingling in the back of his throat, forcing it deep down to where it couldn’t resurface. It physically pained him to push his curse that far away, but the adrenaline rushing through him dulled the ache to where he barely noticed it.

 

Chat flew beside him, deftly avoiding the boughs that blurred past, eventually landing to rest on his shoulder when they began to slow down. They chirped softly, but Wilbur paid no mind.

 

He slowed down once he reached the road to the city again, easing Friend to trot along the merchant wagons crossing the bustling streets. 

 

His cloak and blouse had been torn by the forest to the point where he barely looked like a middle-class villager, much less a prince. People stared at his ragged form as he guided Friend around the citizens walking alongside him. 

 

He kept his head down, trying to look as inconspicuous as possible. 

 

Friend nickered and snorted, tossing his large head around. The horse’s unrest made the pedestrians shy away from the pair, bringing even more unwanted attention their way. 

 

The prince continued down the streets, avoiding large crowds until he was on one of the outer roads of the maze-like city. The people here stared menacingly at the horse and rider, pressing against the walls of the stores lining the path as they watched with uncomfortable intensity.

 

A dark alley caught Wilbur’s eye as he passed, and he turned the horse to walk down the narrow road instead. The people’s eyes seemed to glaze over the alleyway, ignoring the horse and its rider as they stopped to rest.

 

Now that they weren’t the center of attention, Wilbur allowed himself to relax a bit. He slumped over Friend’s neck, exhaustion washing over his body as his mind realized the state he was in.

 

He slid off of Friend and almost immediately collapsed when he touched the ground. Chat and Friend made concerned noises at his stumble, the horse pushing the prince up with his long muzzle. 

 

His legs were just stiff from the ride, and his head only hurt because of the exhaustion. He was fine. He staggered up, barely managing to stay on his feet. He gave a reassuring look to his companions, smiling shakily.

 

“I—” Wilbur tried to tell them he was fine , but a wave of pain crashed his body, making him fall to the uneven stones of the path. 

 

His curse was resisting him, clawing at his insides as it tried to leave his hold. Every time he tried to push it back down, it shoved back, making spasms of blinding pain wrack his body.

 

Now that his adrenaline from his escape was wearing off, he could feel every small cut from his desperate escape through the sharp trees add to his agony. His vision was starting to blur, and the edges began to turn black. 

 

The last thing he saw was Chat flying out of the alley with a trill, leaving him to his misery. 

 

What have I done?

 

--------

 

“I truly don’t understand why this is necessary!” Tubbo cried, holding onto the ladder Tommy was perched on. 

 

Tommy held a couple of nails in his mouth, one in his hand being readied to be pounded into the roof with his mallet. “What’s not to understand?” he called back, slamming the hammer down onto the roof. “We do jobs, we get paid. It’s simple, really.”

 

“But you’re up so high!”

 

Tommy snorted, brushing off his friend’s concern. He was fine up here, as long as Tubbo didn’t slip and cause the ladder to fall. 

 

It just so happened that at that moment, Tubbo got distracted and let the ladder fall.

 

Tommy shrieked as his rickety support disappeared beneath him. He scrambled to get a hold on the uneven brick walls of the storefront. Once he had successfully managed to keep himself from falling to the cobbled road beneath him, he shot Tubbo a heated glare. “What the hell?”

 

“Sorry, it’s just…” Tubbo trailed off, craning his neck to look somewhere in the distance. 

 

Tommy sighed and climbed down the wall, setting down the heavy mallet and nails as he leapt to the ground. He wiped his hands of the grime from the wall, grimacing at the dust clouds that flew off of his newly-calloused fingers.

 

The pair had been working with the citizens of Stronghold for almost a month now, and they were slowly being trusted with more dangerous tasks, such as repairing an old roof. The work had toughened them to the frigid winds of the Empire, and now they hardly noticed the biting cold that had attacked them so fiercely on the night they had arrived.

 

“What did you see?”

 

Tubbo turned to him, uncertainty clouding his gaze and his aura, spiking the honey-colored bees with pale orange. “I could’ve sworn I saw—”

 

His quiet words were cut off with a shrill shriek from above their heads. The pair looked up and around them, trying to discern the location of the sudden noise. Tommy shielded his eyes from the bright spring sunlight that streamed down, squinting at a small silhouette gliding towards them.

 

A small, reddish-brown songbird landed on Tubbo’s shoulder, chittering quickly and loudly. It hopped in place, desperately trying to get their attention.

 

Chat?” Tommy and Tubbo exclaimed in unison, exchanging a shocked glance. 

 

Wil’s bird chirped in affirmation, then began tugging on Tubbo’s hair. 

 

The boy tried swatting the bird away. “Ow! What are you—”

 

Chat shrieked again and took off, flying through the crowds of Stronghold. The boys exchanged another glance and followed their guide, listening for the bird’s telltale trills.

 

The songbird led them deep into the city, passing the main square and turning down roads to less...desirable locations. These roads were riddled with holes, no one bothering to fix the streets because of their disuse.

 

Stores covered with stiff boards blocking their doors and windows lined the streets, and crudely smeared paint censored their signs. Shady people clustered in small groups, talking in hurried whispers about whatever heinous deeds they would commit next. They glared at the young men as they passed, pausing their conversations to judge them like predators considering their next meal.

 

Tommy and Tubbo drew up their hoods, trying to ignore their stares and stay close together. Tommy’s hand rested tightly on the hilt of his dagger, moving his cloak to hide the weapon from the people’s hungry eyes.

 

It was a part of Stronghold the boys avoided at all costs. The kinder citizens had warned them of these back alleys, telling them of frequent muggings and more unspeakable events that were commonplace around here. 

 

They knew better than to accept any work around here. Who knows what terrible situations they’d be forced into.

 

Chat finally stopped in front of a dark alley, perching on the uneven stones of the cobbled road. It chirped urgently at the approaching travelers then hopped inside of the path between the dilapidated stores.

 

Tommy slowed, holding out an arm to guard Tubbo. He pulled out his blade and held it in front of him, then dashed to look inside of the alley. He gasped and dropped his dagger at the sight before him.

 

Wil, the traveler who had saved his life a month ago, was writhing on the ground in pain, gasping and trying in vain to get off of the dirty street. His horse, Friend, stood over his fallen rider, whinnying frantically and trying to move the man up with gentle pushes of his snout. 

 

Wil’s aura was fighting itself, tendrils of his natural gold ripping and tearing through a cloud of pure white fear and deep blue pain. The man’s hair was turning as white as his fear, just like it had done when he dueled Dream. 

 

At the sound of Tommy’s blade crashing against the rough pavement, the man paused in his contortions to look blearily up at the boys. Panic filled his expression and he scrambled away, pushing himself up against a wall. 

 

Tubbo pushed past Tommy to kneel next to the fallen traveler, his eyes wide and searching as he tried to find the source of Wil’s pain. Friend hissed and snapped his teeth, shoving Tubbo away with his snout. The horse stamped his hooves and screamed at the boy, clearly telling him to leave.

 

Chat shrieked back at the horse, hopping in front of Tubbo and spreading their small wings out indignantly. Friend paused, and the two creatures seemed to have a silent conversation. The horse huffed and went back to rubbing his nose against Wil’s face, ignoring the two boys.

 

Wil was still trying to put distance between himself and Tubbo, and his attempts apparently caused him more pain, leaving him trembling against the cobblestones of the alleyway once again.

 

Tommy, who had been frozen in shock up until now, shook himself and crouched next to Tubbo, cautiously approaching their shivering savior.

 

“No, p-please,” Wil gasped, rolling away from Tommy’s advances. “No—can’t, c-control—hurt—curse—” He screamed into the ground, curling into himself. 

 

“Mr. Wil, please, you need to calm down!” Tubbo cried, laying a hand on the man’s shoulder. The white-haired man flinched at the touch, shaking uncontrollably. Small cracks began appearing in Wil’s skin, the fissures snaking their way across his face like tiny veins. The lines exuded some sort of light instead of blood, glowing faintly in the dim alley. 

 

Tommy stood up and stared at Friend and Chat levelly. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, drawing his blade and holding it above Wil’s shivering form. 

 

Friend and Chat shrieked, but it was too late. Tommy turned the dagger around and jammed the hilt into the man’s head, hard. Wil went limp but continued twitching.

 

There was silence in the alley. Friend glared at Tommy through his dark forelock, breathing heavily. 

 

What the hell, Tommy? ” Tubbo hissed, angrily shoving his friend into the wall of the path.

 

“He wasn’t going to calm down, so I let him rest.” Tommy replied with a wince, rubbing the back of his head. 

 

“Rest?” Tubbo demanded hysterically, rolling Wil onto his back. “You could have killed him!”

 

“I didn’t,” Tommy retorted as he crossed his arms over his chest. “He’s unconscious, that’s all.”

 

Tubbo was about to yell at him again, but Tommy held up a hand and crawled over to the fallen man. “You should’ve seen his emotions,” he murmured distantly, laying the back of his hand on Wil’s forehead. It was warm, but not worryingly so. “He was tearing himself apart.”

 

Tubbo bit back a reply, instead glancing at Wil. Aside from the curious cracks, the man was covered with scratches. Most of them were just shallow and red, but a few were bleeding sluggishly, dripping down his arms onto the cobble. His clothing was torn and ragged, revealing more cuts. 

 

“What happened to him?” Tubbo whispered. 

 

“No idea, but we owe him our lives,” Tommy replied, picking one of the man’s arms up and draping the tall man over his side. “I say we get him back to the tavern and help him like he helped us.”

 

Tubbo nodded and took the other arm. Chat chirped softly and flew up to land in Wil’s hair, laying their head down and crooning. The man’s head lolled under the added weight, making it very clear he wasn’t well. Friend huffed and followed them out of the alley, acting as a guard against the staring citizens.

 

The shady people from before came close to the trio, hungrily eyeing the unconscious man. Friend nickered a warning to them and stamped his hooves as they passed, making them draw back with a glare. 

 

Slowly but surely, Tommy and Tubbo managed to half-carry, half-drag the man to the back entrance of their tavern. Tommy patted Friend’s neck and gestured towards the stable. The horse wouldn’t leave until Tommy promised, feeling rather foolish for talking to a horse, Wil’s complete safety. 

 

They dragged Wil up the stairs of the tavern, tossing a few coins to the owner for his secrecy as they passed. 

 

The man who owned the Bronze Bull had given the boys a larger room on the top floor of the tavern in exchange for their constant help and steady payment. It had two beds, a sitting area, and a small bathing room separated from the main room by a sliding wall. The boys only used one bed, seeing as it was big enough to fit three full-grown men. 

 

They placed Wil on the other large bed, trying to make him as comfortable as possible. Tubbo dashed to a cupboard to grab a pack of bandages. They had bought it as a precaution, and luckily it had still been unused. 

 

Tommy went to the bathing room to retrieve a cloth and a bowl of water, bringing them to the foot of the bed. He gently rolled Wil onto his stomach, and with Tubbo’s help, began dressing his many wounds.

Chapter Text

--------

 

The boys’ guest woke up long after the sun had set.

 

The man looked confused and disoriented, silently surveying the room he was in and the bandages on his arms with wide eyes. He began to panic again when he noticed the others in the room with him and only stopped when Tommy threatened to knock him out again.

 

Wil now sat at their table, tapping his fingers on the table as he stared silently yet accusingly at his rescuers. Chat appeared to be sleeping on his shoulder.

 

Tommy glared back, his arms crossed as he leaned back in his chair. 

 

Tubbo had his hands folded in front of him and was glancing exasperatedly between the others. He was usually the mediator between anyone and Tommy.

 

“So,” the brunet began, giving a pointed glance towards the quiet man. “D’you mind telling us what happened today?”

 

Wil stopped staring daggers at Tommy to move his gaze towards Tubbo. He raised an eyebrow but didn’t utter a word.

 

Tommy, meanwhile, continued scrutinizing the man. Wil’s aura was still laced with white fear, but the blue pain had mostly receded. Gold was no longer trying to choke the rest of his aura, instead stirring restlessly around him. 

 

“For fuck’s sake, can you even speak ?” he demanded.

 

A deep, rose-colored pink shot through Wil’s aura. Shame. It was tinged with the stark indigo of disdain as he returned to glaring at Tommy. The man shook his head. No.

 

The boy’s eyes widened as they exchanged an unsure glance. Tubbo shifted uncomfortably as he leaned forward. “All right, you can’t speak. May we ask you ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions?”

 

Wil hesitated, looking thoughtful. After a moment he conceded, nodding his head. Yes.

 

“Are you actually Wil?” Tommy growled. Tubbo kicked him underneath the table.

 

Another slow yes.

 

“Were you in a fight?” Tubbo asked, his kind voice a sharp contrast from Tommy’s harsh tone.

 

No.

 

“Do you have a place to go back to?”

 

Wil froze, his gaze turning stormy and distant. Various blues colored his aura, and the white grew brighter. Tommy frowned slightly. His gold was almost completely overtaken by sad blues before he answered with a nearly imperceptible no.

 

“So, you’re on the run,” Tommy concluded. “Get those scratches running through the pine trees around here?”

 

Wil drew back, violet disbelief and bright yellow surprise bursting through the sea of blue. Yes.

 

Tommy relaxed. “Well, lucky you found us. We are, too.”

 

Both Wil and Tubbo stared at him in shock. Tommy shrugged, feigning boredom. “What? He already saved us from Dream, and it’s not like he’ll go selling us out any time soon.”

 

A faint purple threaded through Wil’s aura, almost hesitantly. Respect.

 

Tubbo’s, meanwhile, was spiked with reds and oranges. He held his head in his hands. “You can’t just go telling people these things, Tommy.”

 

Tommy shrugged again. “We’re in the same boat. If we’re going to drill him, might as well give up something about us.”

 

“No, we don’t, actually.”

 

The light green of amusement bloomed around Wil, reflected by the expression on his face. He nodded to Tommy and gave Tubbo a small smile.

 

“Alright, so in exchange for that,” Tommy started, a determined glint in his eyes. “Are you nobility?”

 

Wil narrowed his eyes but did not move.

 

Tommy snapped his fingers. “C’mon. I want the truth .” Another kick under the table for his boldness.

 

Pink shame once again filled the man’s aura. Yes.

 

He wasn’t lying, but the shame was strange. Why would he feel ashamed about being nobility?

 

“Thought so,” Tommy replied, unsure of what else to say.

 

Tubbo glared at him again. “Anyways, do you know what caused that? In the alley, I mean.”

 

Fear and shame completely covered the sadness. Yes.

 

Tubbo stood suddenly, then walked to a cupboard behind Tommy. As he rifled through the contents, trying to find something, Wil gazed at Tommy speculatively. 

 

The blond met his eyes evenly, bright blue against vivid gold. He could’ve sworn Wil had brown eyes, though.

 

“So, what, you just have white hair now?”

 

Wil snorted, leaning back in his chair. A part of his hair had fallen to cover one of his eyes with its pearly curls. The man blew out of the corner of his mouth, making the hair jump up then rest even lower over his face. He made no real move to fix it.

 

Wil shrugged. I don’t know.

 

“Has this happened before?”

 

Yes.

 

“Why?”

 

Wil narrowed his eyes. Tubbo came back with an inkpot, a ragged quill, and some parchment. He set them in front of Wilbur  with a small smile. “There. Should be a bit easier to talk now.”

 

The man inclined his head and smiled gratefully, then glanced at Tommy. The blond was still looking at him expectantly. He held the boy’s gaze for a few moments before dipping the quill into the ink and began writing on the paper.

 

He set the quill in the holder on the pot and pushed the paper towards them when he was finished, leaning back in his chair with a resigned look. 

 

Three words were written in fancy, neat cursive script.

 

I lost control.

 

--------

 

Wilbur was seven. One week after his father’s return to the Empire. 

 

He was sitting in his room in front of his mirror. A few brave maids were dressing him up quietly, drawing their hands back each time they touched him as if he’d burned them.

 

Normally, he would feel sad about their fear towards him, but at the moment, he was too tired to feel anything at all.

 

As soon as his father had returned, his advisors had demanded some sort of party to celebrate his arrival. Phil had tried to deny it, saying it wouldn’t be safe, but his advisors had smiled sadly and assured them that though he was incredibly powerful, he had an equal amount of control.

 

So now, the young prince was being dressed in the finest furs and silks the Empire could provide. 

 

It was a bit much, if you asked him.

 

The day after his father’s return, he had been sent to a blacksmith who could forge him a crown fit for his status. A circlet wrought out of pure silver rested on his dark curls now. It was carved with rolling waves that were so detailed they seemed to move on his head. Pearls and sapphires encrusted the foaming tips of each curl of silver water, glimmering in the soft light of the sunset from his window.

 

Wilbur thought it was beautiful, but it was heavy. He hadn’t complained, though. Not once.

 

A deep blue cape covered his shoulders and fell in waves down his back, ending in silky white fur that brushed his ankles as he walked. His lighter blue shirt was tight, and he had to suck in air to actually fit in it. The maids hurriedly explained that it made him look taller and more regal when he quietly asked why the tightness was necessary.

 

The maids finished their work and bowed to the prince, scurrying out of the room as fast as they could. Two guards replaced them, trembling slightly as they bowed and gestured for the boy to follow them.

 

Wilbur returned their bows in turn, thanking them both with a hesitant smile and a nod. 

 

He walked down the festive corridor with his escorts, nerves making his steady pace a challenge to keep up with.

 

Phil had lectured him on control every time he saw him. He never once asked how the prince was or if he’d missed him.

 

He held his curse in a tight grip, gradually forcing it down to where he couldn’t feel tingling in his throat anymore. It reared up in protest, but Wilbur grimaced and kept his control steady.

 

He would prove to his father that he was strong.

 

The sounds of the party in the dining hall grew louder as he came closer. The orchestra the king had invited was playing a merry tune that the musicians and guests alike enjoyed. It was nice. He found himself bobbing his head to the song as he walked, but he stopped when one of the guards looked his way.

 

Wilbur wanted to enter the room by one of the side doors, and he started to veer off into the corridor that would take him there. It would mean less attention towards him, which sounded perfect, but one of the guards put a gloved hand on his shoulder and steered him towards the main door. “Sorry, Your Highness. The Emperor requested that you make an entrance.”

 

Wilbur barely concealed a sigh and allowed the guards to take him to the large doors of the hall. 

 

A loud trumpet announced his arrival before he was halfway through the doors.

 

“Presenting His Young Highness, Crown Prince Wilbur!”

 

The music stopped. 

 

Everyone in the room turned to face him standing on the dais. If you had asked anyone but Wilbur what he looked like, they would have said a sad child, his melancholy expression nearly hidden under his regal attire.

 

He held his head high and bowed deeply, bringing his head back up with a small grin.

 

The guests clapped and cleared the way for the young boy to cross the hall to his father. 

 

Phil stood in elegant green robes and a long, dark cape that trailed down the stairs he stood on. His long hair was braided down his back and inlaid with various jewels, and he wore a simple gold circlet on his head. 

 

He didn’t need a fancy crown to announce his status. The way he held himself and the air around him was proof enough.

 

Wilbur tried not to shrink as he walked to his father. He stepped on the bottommost stair and stared up at his father, inclining his head slightly. His crown dipped a bit, but straightened when he brought his head back up.

 

Phil extended a hand to his son and laughed. “Come, Wilbur! I’d like you to meet some old friends of mine.”

 

The party went as well as he expected. His control never slipped once, but towards the middle of the festivities he began to feel weak with the effort. He excused himself from the conversation he was never truly a part of to sit down.

 

He found the boy Phil had brought with him sitting alone in a corner, seemingly forgotten. His pink hair was neatly braided and coiled around the back of his head, small wisps framing his face. He wore a simple bronze ring on his head, much like Phil’s crown.

 

The lonely boy was slightly hunched over in his seat, staring fearfully out at the large group of people dancing and talking with one another. Wilbur noticed his eyes were a deep red.

 

“Hello,” Wilbur whispered, moving his cape out of the way to sit next to the boy. “I don’t think I ever heard your name. I’m Wilbur.”

 

The pink-haired boy stared at him for a moment, then went back to gazing at the party. “Technoblade.”

 

Wilbur hummed in acknowledgement, at a loss for words. What could he say to the boy who had practically replaced him?

 

“I like your name,” was what he settled for.

 

Technoblade stared at him again and tilted his head in confusion. “Really?”

 

“Mhm.”

 

“Oh.”

 

They sat in silence together for a while, merely watching the party that had forgotten about them.

 

“Technoblade is a pretty long name. Can I call you Techno?”

 

“I’d like that.”

 

“Okay.”

 

Wilbur could feel the tingling in his throat threaten to return, and he gripped the sides of his chair as he forced the curse down deeper, much harder than before. 

 

Techno noticed this. “Are you alright? Your eyes are turning yellow.”

 

Wilbur cursed. Techno’s eyes widened at the foul words. 

 

“I’m fine ,” the prince gritted out, leaving his chair abruptly to tell his father that he wasn’t feeling well.

 

His head spun as he made his way through the crowd, making his vision blur a bit. Phil was so far away, and his head was hurting now.

 

Wilbur abandoned his plan and immediately made his way to a side door, almost crying in relief at the fresh, chilled air that greeted him as he threw the doors open. 

 

He barely managed to close them before falling over, his small body spasming in waves of pain that his curse sent up. 

 

Almost three hours passed before the guards found him.

 

He was carried to his room immediately, even though the party had barely ended. A skilled physician, his father, and Techno were the only ones allowed in his room.

 

Even Niki wasn’t allowed near him. Then again, he didn’t want her to see him like this.

 

He was in his room for weeks, lying in his bed. His curse made him unable to speak to anyone without accidentally charming them. His hair stayed completely white for even longer, and it took almost half of a year for his eyes to return to normal.

 

When he was alone in his room, he’d allow silent tears to streak down his face. All that control he had spent years of his life perfecting was gone, and he had about as much control over himself as a newborn.

 

Phil had banned parties from the palace after that, isolating himself and his family from the rest of the Empire.

 

--------

 

Wilbur winced as the memories of those weeks flooded through him. It had been some of the worst moments of his life.

 

Tommy and Tubbo glanced at the letter, then back to him. 

 

“Your control? What, like over your...whatever you have? The power?”

 

Wilbur scowled. He nodded, but kept his dark gaze away from the boys. 

 

He could practically feel Tubbo’s nervousness from here, and the paleness in his face only reflected his fear. Tommy hadn’t stopped studying him since he’d woken up, looking at him but at the same time looking through him, as if there was something more to Wilbur that the prince himself didn’t even realize.

 

“Well!” Tubbo exclaimed, clapping his hands together to break the tension in the room. “I’m sure some good bed rest will fix this, and—”

 

He was cut off by Wilbur’s vigorous no.

 

Tommy narrowed his eyes. “How long are you going to be like this?”

 

Tubbo pushed the paper back to the man, who took it with a grateful nod. Wilbur wrote his reply quickly, giving rough estimates from the last time this had happened.

 

Voice: a month, Hair: 3 months, Eyes: 6 months

 

Tubbo gasped and covered his mouth with his hand. When he looked up at him, there was nothing but concern in his gaze. “I’m terribly sorry, Mr. Wil. Is there anything, anything at all we can do?”

 

Wilbur expected Tommy to disagree and say something like ‘the man doesn’t deserve our help’, but the boy gave him the same concerned look. He still wasn’t looking directly at him.

 

Wilbur hesitated, then dipped his quill back into the inkpot. 

 

If it isn’t too much to ask for, a place to stay.

 

Tommy nodded slowly and stood, making his way to the door. He took a small object from one of his bags, then left the room.

 

Tubbo pulled out some bread from his small, green satchel and gave a few slices to Wilbur, who accepted them with a nod. As he ate, he studied the threadbare pouch with a smile. It was battered and worn, but it was still beautiful. Faded yellow thread decorated the edges, the stitches crooked and uneven. A crude bee was embroidered on the front, and underneath it was Tubbo’s name. 

 

It was messy, but it was adorable. It looked old and loved. Even after whatever ordeal these two had been through, Tubbo still held his bag close. 

 

Wilbur gently tapped the bag, drawing Tubbo’s attention. He picked up his quill and quickly scrawled a question onto the parchment.

 

Did you make this?

 

“My bag? Oh, no. Tommy made it for me when we were little,” Tubbo replied. He sounded distant, like he was remembering better days, but he looked up at Wilbur with a small smile nonetheless. “It’s the only possession that matters to me.”

 

Suddenly, there was a loud thud from the room beside them, and the sound of a man yelling. Tommy’s voice came across much louder, but the wall separating them muffled his words. Another thud, then a crash , and more screaming.

 

Wilbur glanced at Tubbo, raising an eyebrow. The boy shrugged in response, undoing his cloak.

 

After a few terrifyingly quiet moments, Tommy came back into the room with a smug grin, wiping a small dagger and placing it back in his bag. “The room next to ours is suddenly available. You can stay there as long as you need to.”

 

Wilbur decided it would be better for his sanity if he didn’t question it.

 

--------

 

The boys woke him up early, opening his door and coming in with breakfast. Tubbo threw a parcel of food at Wilbur’s head in greeting.

 

“So,” Tommy plopped down onto the floor. “You’re going to need new clothes if you want to look like you fit in.”

 

Tubbo nodded, sitting next to his friend. “Absolutely. No offense, Mr. Wil, but you look terrible.”

 

Wilbur, who was barely awake, grimaced. He slid off of his bed to sit opposite the pair and unwrapped the bag he had been thrown. Inside was a fluffy pastry, a slab of bison jerky, and a small apple. 

 

He wished he had the luxury of a table and some chairs, but the room had been sufficiently wrecked by Tommy last night. Wilbur had a feeling he’d have to get used to that, both a lack of those sorts of pleasures and Tommy’s chaotic nature.

 

Tubbo pushed the inkpot, quill, and parchment from last night towards the man. “We’ll go out and get you some basics so you can actually leave the tavern, but you’ll have to pay us back.”

 

“Oh yes,” Tommy teased, putting on a snobbish accent. “He’ll simply have to pay us with exquisite jewels from his royal treasury.

 

The boys snickered over their food, and Wilbur couldn’t help but smile along at their antics. 

 

Once he had finished his meal, he wrote down a short list of items he would like to have, adding a note that they shouldn’t spend more than twenty silver on him. When Tommy and Tubbo read out that last part, they exchanged a glance. Tommy snatched Wilbur’s quill and crossed out the spending limit with an exaggerated flourish.

 

Wilbur tried taking the paper back, but Tommy held it away from him with a mischievous grin.

 

The boys left him in the room, alone with the exception of a sleepy Chat, still laughing as they closed the door behind them.

 

Wilbur stretched and stood from the floor, inspecting himself in the cracked mirror across the room. 

 

His hair was pure white, as he had expected, and very tangled. His clothes were all but rags that hung on his frame, shredded from his escapade through the wilderness. The holes in his shirt showed all the bandages that covered his skin, which were thankfully mostly white. He looked about as miserable as he felt.

 

Wilbur sighed at his less-than-ideal appearance and began combing through his hair with his fingers. He felt small points instead of the usual roundness of his ears, which made him sigh once again.

 

Wilbur had a feeling he’d be sighing quite a bit in the weeks to come.

 

At least, he thought, trying to cheer himself up, I don’t have terribly long nails. They were only slightly longer than normal, which was a welcome surprise. They were a pain to keep hidden, but the gloves the boys would get should be enough. 

 

After confirming that his clothes were beyond saving, he opened the large window at the foot of his bed and leaned out of the opening. Breathing in the fresh, crisp air, he smiled at the scene below him. 

 

The sun had barely risen, but the streets of Stronghold were already alive with activity. Market vendors shouted at assistants and possible customers alike, trying to sell their wares to anyone who’d listen. 

 

A man with a guitar stood in the city square, playing a beautiful tune to a small crowd gathered in front of him. Looking at the man made him think of his own guitar, which made him think of his plants, which made him...not want to dwell on those thoughts.

 

Tearing his gaze away from the streets, he saw that the trees and rooftops were just as alive with movement, if not more so. 

 

Birds of all kinds gathered on the shingles around him to sing for the rising sun, raising their sweet voices to create a symphony that only those who listened carefully enough would ever notice. 

 

Chat flew out of the open window, trilling a greeting to the man as they looped around his head joyously. Wilbur laughed out loud before he could stop himself. His voice came out as smooth and sweet as honey, and his chuckles sounded like the chime of soft bells. The curse sweetened his voice for every living creature, making his tone sound nicer than it truly was. 

 

At the sound of his voice, a group of birds stopped their singing to fly over to the man, entranced by his curse. They perched around him, hopping onto the branches of a tree just starting to bloom small white flowers. The tree itself leaned towards the man with a creak, extending a branch filled with sweet-smelling flowers that fell into his hair like snowfall.

 

Wilbur knew he shouldn’t be doing this. But he whistled a gentle tune anyways, the birds around him copying his melody perfectly. Their high-pitched warbles added a clear harmony that weaved through his own soft voice pleasantly, making the birds twitter happily once their song had finished.

 

He ushered them away, reluctantly retreating back into his room. The birds trilled sorrowfully, sad to see their new friend go. Chat glided through the opening quickly, landing on Wilbur’s shoulder as he shut the window. 

 

He sat back on his bed, rubbing his face and softly groaning. He hated this feeling, this feeling of forced silence. But Wilbur knew that if he didn’t continue his vigil, he would endanger the boys that barely trusted him. 

 

So Wilbur stayed still and silent, his back straight as a rod. He shut his eyes and began his daily practices that he remembered from all those years ago.

 

Breathe in.

 

As he inhaled, he approached the curse inside of his body cautiously, reaching inside of himself to touch it gently. 

 

It reared in defense, pushing his soft touch to force a clear note out of his mouth. Wilbur knew that if his eyes were open, he’d see gold mist surrounding his face. He could feel his hair lifting with the pure power that flowed from him, forcefully escaping him into the air of his room.

 

He coughed and waved a hand in front of his face, but he kept his eyes shut and his breathing steady. He allowed the power’s force to fade and crawl back to whatever deep pit in his soul it resided in.

 

And he tried again.

 

Breathe in.

 

He slowly reached out to his curse, caressing it softly. It balked like a stubborn horse, but didn’t react as aggressively as before.

 

Breathe out.

 

Wilbur exhaled through his mouth, giving the power space to relax. 

 

He kept this routine up for what seemed like centuries, completely focused on the taming of the wild power inside of him. With every slow inhale, he would reach for the curse, a little more forcefully each time. Whenever it rejected his gradual pressure he relaxed, allowing it to visibly cloud the air around him.

 

It was a while before he opened his eyes again, putting a firm barrier between his throat and his curse. A thin gold mist blocked his vision, and he let it dissolve in the sunlight streaming in through his window.

 

Wilbur gave a start when he realized he had company, breaking his calm trance.

 

Tommy and Tubbo sat cross-legged on the floor in front of him, staring wide-eyed at the spectacle on the bed. A small bundle of clothes sat forgotten by Tommy’s side.

 

The man froze, terrified that he had accidentally charmed them. He cautiously waved a hand at them.

 

“Hello,” they responded in unison, getting up off of the floor. 

 

Wilbur held back a sigh of relief at their consciousness.

 

Tommy tossed him the pile of clothes, an uncharacteristically soft smile on his face. “See, Tubbo,” he remarked, leaning against the wall casually. “That’s what I was talking about.”

 

“You’re really something, Mr. Wil,” Tubbo agreed, giving the man his writing utensils.

 

Wilbur flushed, but he decided not to comment on the cryptic conversation.

 

Just Wilbur is fine.

 

“Alright, Wilbur,” Tommy called, dragging his friend out the door. “Get dressed, we have a lot to do today.”

 

He shut the door before the man could wave a goodbye. Grinning to himself, Wilbur exchanged a glance with Chat before pulling on the clothes they had bought him.

 

They have a decent fashion sense, he mused, turning around in the mirror to see himself.

 

A simple white undershirt was covered by a grey vest adorned with gilded buttons, which Wilbur was quite sure was more than ten silvers. It was accompanied with a silky gold scarf he might find in his own closet. A loose sash sat on his waist, covering the band of black riding trousers—probably worth the other ten silvers—which were tucked into knee-high boots.

 

A soft silver cloak sat on his shoulders, nicely covering the belt he sheathed a small sword into. Wilbur slipped black leather gloves on, completing the look. Every inch of bandaged skin was sufficiently hidden, and Chat could hide in his hood, easily invisible unless you were looking for them.

 

He found the pair of friends leaning on a small building outside the tavern, bickering quietly. 

 

Tubbo noticed him first with a grin. “Looking sharp there, boss man.”

 

“Oh. My. Gods,” Tommy gushed dramatically. “Do a twirl, please.

 

Wilbur rolled his eyes but complied, spinning around slowly for his audience. The boys clapped and whistled appreciatively, laughing at their own ridiculousness.

 

A loud whinny interrupted the moment, coming from inside the building they were next to. A stable, Wilbur realized, dashing inside to see Friend impatiently stamping around.

 

He rushed to his faithful companion and held the horse’s large head against his own, rubbing the horse between the ears the way he knew Friend liked. The horse snorted, accepting his rider’s silent apology. 

 

“Get a room!” Tommy called from outside. Wilbur shot him a crude gesture that only made the boy laugh harder. “C’mon, we have things to get done today.”

 

With a heavy heart, he left Friend with a silent promise to return. Chat bumped their head against the horse’s snout in farewell, then retreated into the folds of Wilbur’s cloak. 

 

Wilbur quietly followed the boys as they made their way through the streets of Stronghold, resisting the urge to pull his hood up. He knew it would only make him look suspicious, and extra attention was the last thing he needed.

 

“Y’know, Wilbur,” Tommy commented, glancing up at the man beside him. “It was fuckin’ hard trying to find clothes for you. You’re freakishly tall.”

 

Wilbur stifled a grin, merely raising an eyebrow in response. 

 

“Like, really. Who gave you the right to be all the way up there?” the blond continued. “You’re, what, like 6’6?”

 

The prince tilted his hand in a so-so gesture, truly struggling to hide his smile.

 

“Heavens above, I’m sorry, but that is simply too tall,” Tommy declared loudly, attracting the attention of other people. “I’m 6’3, but even that is a bit much, even for my standards.”

 

Wilbur raised his eyebrow again and tilted his head, clearly skeptical. 

 

“I am, ” Tommy retorted, reading his face like a book. “Tubbo can back me up, can’t you?”

 

“Well…”

 

“You traitor!

 

The two boys dissolved into laughter, the man beside them holding up a hand to stop soft chuckles of his own. He was openly smiling now, having given up trying to resist Tommy’s infectiously good mood.

 

The trio strolled past a market, browsing the goods on sale in no real hurry. Tubbo picked up a small charm in the shape of a bee, a wondrous expression on his face. “Wilbur!” he exclaimed, running up to the man with a hopeful gleam in his eyes. “Are there any bees in the Antarctic Empire?”

 

Wilbur thought for a moment. He remembered occasionally seeing them outside of his window in the summer, and he was sure they were plentiful in the wilderness. So he nodded, much to the boy’s delight.

 

“Tommy! You’ll never guess…” Tubbo’s excited voice trailed off as he dashed through the crowd to his friend, leaving Wilbur alone with the market. 

 

Wilbur walked around the stalls aimlessly, admiring the stained-glass ornaments of one, rifling through the pages of books in another. A cart of flowers caught his eye, and he stopped to inspect its wares.

 

An elderly woman stood behind the cart, and she waved merrily to the prince as he came closer. “Hello, sir!” she exclaimed, adjusting her apron. “Since you’re our first customer today, you may pick out one flower for free! Perhaps for that special someone ,” she added with a sly grin. 

 

Wilbur smiled quietly in response and leaned over to look at the flowers. 

 

A bouquet of soft pink roses bloomed next to blue stalks of lupine that swayed in the breeze. A few red poppies shifted lazily, their waxy petals whispering in the wind. Daffodils and tulips twined together, their bright reds and yellows flashing like fire in the sunlight. 

 

All of these flowers were from abroad, and would be unfamiliar to Wilbur if he hadn’t spent years of his life studying them. A small, familiar white blossom caught his eye. He smiled and pointed it out to the woman wordlessly.

 

“Really? But it’s so small!”

 

Wilbur nodded, still smiling gently.

 

“Please, take another then,” she insisted, using small shears to give him the delicate snowdrop.

 

He skimmed over the cart once again, settling for a small purple crocus. The kind woman happily gave him the other blossom, wishing him well before moving on to another customer.

 

Wilbur walked away, tying the stems of his flowers together and humming softly. The stems lengthened into delicate vines that wove around each other, small leaves appearing in the folds. Purple and white flowers blossomed in his hands, creating a perfect floral crown that reminded him, almost painfully, of home.

 

He placed the crown on his head and continued on, looking for the two boys he came with.

 

Wilbur found them standing outside of the market, clearly waiting for him.

 

“A crown? Really?” Tommy asked incredulously. “I thought you were trying to hide from people.”

 

Wilbur shrugged and continued on. His companions snorted in unison before following him.

 

The trio made their way down to the docks of Stronghold, pulling their cloaks up to guard their faces from the crisp, salty breeze that came off of the choppy waves.

 

“So,” Tommy announced, rounding on Tubbo and Wilbur. “I heard a prestigious ship would dock here today, and wouldn’t be leaving port for a month.”

 

“And?” Tubbo asked, leaning against a slick wooden pole.

 

And I say we board the ship and leave with it.”

 

“Do you know its next destination?”

 

Tommy hummed a yes. “Schlatt’s kingdom, actually. Manburg, I think he calls it nowadays.” His tone was casually sarcastic, hinting that both boys were very familiar with the location. Wilbur’s mind stumbled over the unfamiliar name. Schlatt. But…Manburg was ruled by Dream, wasn’t it?

 

“Are you joking?” Tubbo demanded, clearly not in the mood for jokes. “Dream will be all over the place.”

 

Wilbur tensed at the mention of the name, storing away this “Schlatt” for later. The last thing he needed was for these two to fall right back into that man’s hands. 

 

Tommy noticed both of their discomfort, but he waved it off casually. “I mean, yeah, but d’you really think he’ll look for us in his own territory? It’d be the last place I’d look for sure.”

 

“Okay, but do you know how much passage on a prestigious ship costs? We’d never make enough in time.”

 

“I’m not asking for you to go,” Tommy replied softly, looking away to the ocean. “Dream is after me, not you. Once his assassin realizes I’m not in Stronghold anymore, they’ll leave and you can live here in peace.”

 

“You’d leave...without me?” Tubbo whispered, stepping back.

 

“You don’t want this life, Tubbo. I’m on the run, and you have an opportunity to be safe. I wouldn’t give that up.”

 

Wilbur sighed, a noise that startled both boys out of their argument. He stood beside Tommy, taking out his sword and drawing an invisible line between them in the icy wood below them. He stepped on the line and looked at them both, raising an eyebrow. 

 

Wilbur took his sword and placed it under his arm, facing Tubbo and bowing like he was about to duel him. He stood and folded his arms in a cross against his chest, then pointed to the young man. 

 

Tubbo blinked, clearly confused. 

 

Wilbur turned and did the exact same motions towards Tommy, never taking his boots off of the invisible line. Tommy blinked as well, and realization dawned over his face. “ Protection, ” he murmured.

 

The man nodded and stepped back from them, sheathing his sword and holding out an open palm to both boys. 

 

“Wilbur says he’ll protect us both, no matter what. Even if something divides us,” Tommy explained slowly, smiling when Wilbur nodded.

 

The man took out his own empty coin purse and pointed to the ships, then gestured to them both. 

 

“In the meantime, he’ll try to help us get enough money to board the ships.”

 

Wilbur nodded again, then gestured to himself and Chat, then back to the ships with a determined glint in his eye.

 

“But he’s going on that ship no matter what.”

 

Wilbur nodded one last time, a sad smile on his face.

 

Tubbo shook his head. “After all the shit you’ve put me through, there is no way you’re gonna leave me behind.”

 

“Tubbo—”

 

“Don’t ‘Tubbo’ me, sir, ” he spat. “Thanks for the offer, Wilbur, but you all aren’t getting rid of me that easily. And if you try, I’ll find my own way to reach you.”

 

Tommy paled at how his friend’s voice deepened into a threat. “Understood. Won’t suggest it again.”

 

Hey ho! The Heart of the Sea spotted coming into port!” a voice bellowed from the docks.

 

Tommy grinned. “That’s our ride, boys.”

 

And with that, the trio walked down the docks to meet the captain of the ship.

Chapter Text

--------

 

“Tie down the sails!” 

 

“Why isn’t the anchor already down?”

 

“I’ll kick you off this ship myself if I see you flirting with that girl again!”

 

A woman with a cloud of white hair and a young and stern face commanded the vessel docking at the pier. She wore a gilded tricorn hat atop her snowy curls with an exotic, multi-colored feather sticking out of a corner. It looked indescribably soft, and it gently fluttered as she moved.

 

She appeared at the edge of the ship, leaning over the edge to judge the distance between the vessel and the pier. The woman jumped up to stand on the banister at the edge, revealing a worn blouse, vest, and trousers, an unusual outfit for a woman. 

 

Wilbur watched her movements quietly, and Tommy and Tubbo followed him with equally inquisitive stares. 

 

An unstable plank was lowered to the dock. The crew of the ship flooded down to disperse on the docks. A group of guards joined the crew and checked them over for any suspicious activity. Wilbur grabbed his companions by their hoods and dragged them behind a pile of crates. 

 

They stumbled and slid on the slick stone floor of the docks, and Wilbur had to tug at the others’ cloaks again to steady them. Tommy wrestled his way free of the man’s grasp and glared at him indignantly. Tubbo rubbed his neck and waited for Tommy to do the talking. 

 

“Wil—” Tommy started, no doubt thinking of some way to curse the man out. Wilbur held up a hand and pointed to the guards. Tommy glanced at the armored men questioningly, and then his face lit up in realization. 

 

He and Tubbo moved in front of Wilbur, hiding him even further. 

 

The guards conferred with the white-haired lady. Wil couldn’t make out what they were saying, but the woman’s face looked disgruntled as she handed one of the men a leather pouch. Some sort of payment for docking in the harbor, most likely. 

 

The crew of the ship waited behind the lady as she paid, fidgeting and murmuring to each other. The woman’s face grew darker with each passing second, and the crew seemed to sense that. They crowded around the guards, holding their hands above their weapons in an unspoken threat. 

 

Seeing as they were outnumbered, the guards backed away and allowed the crew to pass. Everyone relaxed instantly, some of the crew members even patting the guards on the back as they went by.

 

“Don’t even think about gambling all your money away tonight!” the captain called out, slowly following the group.

 

She marched down the makeshift bridge and hopped gracefully onto the pier, her brown cape flowing in the breeze. She fiddled with the cutlass at her side, adjusting the belt and sheath before setting off toward the harbormaster’s cabin.

 

Wilbur and the boys followed the captain quickly, Tommy racing ahead to get her attention. “Ma’am!”

 

The woman turned around, an eyebrow raised. “Yes?”

 

Tommy stopped in front of her with Wilbur and Tubbo close behind. “Might you be the captain of that fine vessel?” he asked with unusual formality, gesturing towards the ship she had just left.

 

“And what if I am?” she replied, placing her hands on her hips.

 

“Well, I’d like to speak to that captain. I have an interest in boarding the ship on its next journey.”

 

“What’s your name?”

 

Tommy smiled slyly and crossed his arms. “I’ve asked you first, madam.”

 

The woman finally relaxed, returning the young man’s grin and holding out a hand. “Puffy. Captain Puffy of the Heart of the Sea.

 

Tommy bowed gracefully, making his friends barely suppress giggles at his eccentricity. “An honor, Captain. My name is Tommy.”

 

They shook hands, and Puffy gestured for the group to follow her to a bench near the road. The captain sat down with a sigh, taking her hat off and stretching out on the soggy wood. 

 

“Look, Wilbur!” Tubbo whispered, gesturing to Puffy’s white hair. “She’s old like you are!”

 

The prince swatted at the boy, rolling his eyes at the brunet’s chuckles.

 

Puffy sat up, inclining her head in the pair’s direction, showing that she’d heard Tubbo’s jest. “I don’t think the color of your hair is a measure of your age.”

 

Tubbo blushed furiously and hid behind Wilbur.

 

“Your quiet friend seems to be a prime example,” she continued, nodding to Wilbur. “Who might you be?”

 

Wilbur glanced at Tommy pleadingly. 

 

“This is Wilbur,” Tommy supplied, stepping in front of him. “He isn’t well right now, and his voice is unfortunately affected.”

 

Puffy nodded, raising her eyes to continue staring at Wilbur with a thoughtful look. “I see.”

 

Wilbur shifted, uncomfortable with the attention. Tommy and Tubbo moved to block him from the captain’s gaze, a task harder than it seemed, seeing as Wilbur was taller than the both of them.

 

“He would be accompanying me on your ship, as it turns out.”

 

“Yes, you mentioned that,” the captain remarked, turning her attention back to Tommy. “You’d like to join us on our next journey.”

 

It was phrased as a statement, not a question. Tommy visibly swallowed, and Wilbur put a hand on his shoulder.

 

“Yes! Myself and Wilbur seek passage to Manburg, and your ship seemed like the safest and most viable option,” Tommy declared, boldly sitting next to the captain as if they were old friends. “Name your price, and I’m sure we can match it.”

 

“No.”

 

Tommy drew back, confused. “What?”

 

“My ship is a busy vessel, and we’ve lost most of the crew,” she continued, her gaze turning distant. “The life of land is appealing to so many.”

 

Tommy tried to interject, but Captain Puffy held up a hand. “I don’t have time to watch two reckless travelers who’ve never been near the sea.”

 

With that, the captain stood up and began to walk away, leaving Tommy sputtering. 

 

Wilbur swallowed. He reached inside himself to beg his curse to stay put, pleading with it silently. The power sulked, but retreated from his throat so he could speak freely.

 

“Madam.”

 

Puffy paused.

 

Three pairs of eyes looked at him, two in shock and fear, the other gazing at him with calm curiosity.

 

He cleared his throat, hoping his voice wasn’t too raspy from disuse.

 

Wilbur bowed deeply. “My name is Wilbur Craft, first son of the Emperor Philza.”

 

Tommy and Tubbo gasped, but Puffy stayed silent, the thoughtful expression returning. “Continue.”

 

“Tommy is a hard worker, I can assure you. If you were to ask anyone in Stronghold, you would find that he’s helped them with no short list of tasks.”

 

The blond blushed but smiled, a look that gave Wilbur the courage to continue. His curse was becoming more restless, pushing up at his throat warningly. Wilbur ignored it.

 

“Myself, well, I am softened by a life of luxury. But I promise, if you were to allow us onto your vessel, we would work tirelessly under your command just as your crew does.”

 

Tommy narrowed his eyes at the deal, but wisely kept his mouth shut. 

 

Puffy regarded Wilbur silently, studying him for any hint of falsehood in his claims. Finding none, she softened and strode over to him. “You offer yourself and your friend’s labor in return for passage to Manburg?”

 

Wilbur glanced questioningly at Tommy, who hesitated slightly before nodding. “I do.”

 

“It will be at least two months of travel. A lot of work for you both.”

 

“No problem at all, madam.” The power was starting to make him shake again, threatening to break his fragile control. Sharp pains radiated from his chest, but Wilbur took it in stride and remained still.

 

Tommy scoffed. Tubbo swatted at him with a silencing glare.

 

Puffy was quiet, glancing between the prince and the boy. An unlikely pair, for sure, but the captain seemed satisfied.

 

“We leave in exactly a month’s time,” she stated briskly, whisking away from the group.

 

Tommy managed to find his voice, calling out to the woman as she left. “But what is our price of passage?”

 

The captain paused once again. She turned, a small grin playing over her face. “Prince Wilbur has given me more than enough payment, young man.”

 

She left without another glance back. 

 

As soon as her back was turned, Wilbur let out a breath. The exhale hurt his already-aching chest, and he collapsed onto the bench, holding himself tightly.

 

“Wilbur!”

 

Tubbo and Tommy were immediately at his side, looking up at him with obvious concern. 

 

“Did you…” Tommy trailed off, eyeing the air around Wilbur’s head suspiciously. He didn’t understand what the boy was looking at, but he did understand the unspoken question. Even though their chances to get on that ship had seemed slim, he wouldn’t dare use his curse against an innocent person like that. 

 

Wilbur shook his head adamantly, leaning back against the bench with his eyes shut tightly. He was fighting a war with his curse, battling the monster within to protect his friends.

 

“Are you sure—”

 

Completely,” Wilbur growled through gritted teeth, gasping as pain shot up his throat again. He winced at his harsh tone and stood up, quickly walking back to the tavern.

 

The boys tried to follow him, loudly protesting that he shouldn’t be moving. At this point, people were starting to stare at the commotion they were causing. Someone would call for the guards, and Wilbur would rather jump off the docks than go back home. 

 

Wilbur held a hand out, trying to tell them that they should keep their distance. His other arm clutched his side as his chest throbbed. The pair didn’t stop running after him, though. 

 

People crowded around the boys, trying to ask them what was wrong. Wilbur eventually lost sight of them in the crowd, and he breathed a quick sigh of relief. Other well-meaning pedestrians attempted to stop him as well, asking him if he needed help.

 

Their words were muffled and distorted, like he was underwater. His stomach churned with a different kind of pain as he ignored their words. He was pushing people away from him, again.

 

He made it to the tavern in good time, rushing up to his room without a word to the innkeeper at the door. 

 

As soon as he had his door closed, he fell onto his bed and choked a strangled note out, gold wisps following the sound and attacking his face. 

 

Stop.”

 

The word made his curse pause its assault. Wilbur had never tried charming it before, and with such a commanding tone.

 

It purred in malicious satisfaction, enjoying Wilbur’s outburst of anger. The power died down, resting in his chest to allow him to finally fully breathe.

 

Wilbur turned onto his back, breathing deeply. He stared at the ceiling, allowing a single tear to fall down his cheek. 

 

A muffled chirp came from beside him. Chat peeked at him, cocking their head at the drop of water resting on his face. They hopped up to his pillow and silently snuggled next to his face, an attempt to comfort him.

 

Wilbur chuckled, a sound that came out more like a sob in the quiet of his room.

 

There was a loud scuffle outside his door, and the sound of familiar bickering weaved its way to him. A slow knocking rang clear, each pound making the prince shrink further in on himself.

 

“Wilbur? Can we come in?”

 

The man didn’t reply. Another tear slid down his face.

 

“Wilbur?”

 

“Tubbo. Let him be.”

 

“Oh.”

 

The sound of reluctant footsteps and a door slamming shut echoed through Wilbur’s room. 

 

Chat warbled quietly, sensing his desolation. They fluffed their feathers and settled down even closer to the man.

 

--------

 

Wilbur stayed in his room for the rest of the day, and all of the next.

 

The boys paused outside of his room multiple times. Tubbo quietly pleaded time and time again for him to come out so they could help , but each time, Tommy firmly guided his friend away without a word to Wilbur

 

Chat didn’t stay by him. Wilbur had opened the window and they flew away without a chirp in farewell. 

 

He hadn’t seen them for almost two days now.

 

The loneliness was painful, but it was a familiar aching he found disappointed solace in. Unlike the pain of repressing his curse, this dull throb was one he had lived in companionship with for most of his life. It was like an old friend, and he welcomed it as such. He hated the loneliness, but he was used to it. That was his normal, and it calmed him down after such an eventful few days.

 

He continued fighting against his curse, sometimes succeeding in pushing it down so he could say a few words. But sometimes he failed miserably, and he was left a shaking mess.

 

It tried getting another rise out of him, craving his anger like a starving animal. The power fed off of his resentment, even though the feeling was directed at itself. And Wilbur thought he was in the right for his hatred, he thought this uncontrollable force deserved it. His curse was a monster, an evil part of Wilbur he sorely wished would give up and leave. In turn, he supposed he was a monster because of it.

 

Late on the second day of his self-imposed isolation, a soft knocking made him turn to the door.

 

Tubbo’s feeling persistent today, he mused. He’d already ignored the boy’s voice three times today, and was prepared to do it again.

 

But Tubbo’s voice never came.

 

“Wilbur. I’m coming in.”

 

Tommy opened the door quietly, holding a candle that softly illuminated the room. His eyes fell on Wilbur and his hard gaze softened at the man’s sorry state. 

 

Tommy shut the door softly behind him and set the candle on the table by Wilbur’s bed. He walked to the window and shut the curtains with a quiet sigh.

 

He walked back to face Wilbur and promptly sat down on the floor. He shut his eyes and held his hands over his ears. 

 

Neither one moved. The silence was tense, but no one made an effort to break it.

 

Wilbur pulled his blanket over himself and turned away from Tommy. He didn’t want to deal with any stubbornness at this hour, or worse, pity.

 

“I will not leave.”

 

Tommy’s steady but quiet voice made Wilbur glance over his shoulder. The boy still had his eyes closed, but he had taken his hands off of his ears. They rested in his lap, tearing a strip of cloth from his cape.

 

Tommy turned away from the man for a second, tying the fabric around his face in a blindfold. He turned back to the confused man, his mouth set in determination.

 

“You aren’t the only one with a gift, you know.”

 

Wilbur sat up, mirroring the boy’s pose. He stayed silent.

 

“But since you can’t use yours, why should I have the advantage?”

 

So, Tommy could see things no one else could. It didn’t surprise Wilbur as much as it should have, but there had been signs. The way Tommy would glance around Wilbur, judging the air around him like it was an extension of the man.

 

“I can see someone’s soul. Personally, I call them auras.”

 

Wilbur tilted his head questioningly, then straightened, remembering that Tommy couldn’t see him.

 

“It tells me what they’re feeling at any given moment. It’s how easy I can guess your intentions, or whether you’re lying.”

 

Wilbur scowled into the darkness. He had no secrets from this boy, then.

 

“I don’t read your soul, really,” Tommy continued. “I don’t always know the truth. I see colors.”

 

Colors?

 

“Every emotion is a color. And every soul has a base color that it usually is when the person isn’t feeling many emotions.”

 

That made sense, in a way.

 

“Every soul takes the shape of something relating to the person,” Tommy paused, laughing under his breath. “Tubbo’s are a bunch of bees. They just sit on his shoulder, and when he gets upset they fly around a lot. Thank God they don’t buzz, or I wouldn’t be able to stand it.”

 

In spite of his misery, Wilbur smiled.

 

“I can’t see my own. Trust me, I’ve tried. And it’s really hard for me in crowds. All the souls overwhelm me.”

 

Tommy’s voice got quiet, a rare occurrence for the usually confident boy. 

 

“If I get lost in a crowd for a long time, I can lose myself. Being mixed in with everyone’s soul, the literal essence of themselves, I forget who I am for a while, and what I’m like.”

 

Tommy laughed again, his voice returning to its calm tone. “I always get better, though. I always remember who I am after a bit. Once, it took me about a month to get my bearings. Tubbo was out of his fuckin’ mind with worry, the clingy idiot.”

 

Tommy stopped talking and folded his hands in his lap, an obvious invitation for Wilbur to speak.

 

Wilbur didn’t.

 

He sat there and stared at the boy silently, studying how the candlelight flickered over his calm face. The blond looked like he was at peace, like he had just released a heavy burden. His shoulders were held back, and even though he’d been sitting in an uncomfortable position, Tommy held his head high to look in Wilbur’s direction.

 

And Wilbur smiled wider. “Thank you,” he whispered, ignoring the gold mist that streamed out of his mouth towards the boy. 

 

Tommy grinned in return. 

 

They sat in comfortable silence for a long time, each of them having said just enough to keep the other from speaking again. Wilbur watched the candle slowly shrink, its yellowed wax dripping down to the iron handle to make shaky patterns on the dull metal.

 

Tommy eventually stood up, picking up his candle and standing by the door. “Tubbo will realize I’m gone if I stay any longer,” he said simply, then left.

 

It was then that Wilbur realized he was still smiling.

 

--------

 

Wilbur woke up early the next day, determined to make things right.

 

The sun hadn’t even reached the horizon by the time Wilbur was out of the tavern. His fingers shook as they fumbled with the clasp of his coat, paling in the numbing chill of the air. 

 

It was colder than usual, which was a welcome excuse to put up his hood. His flower crown from his last outing had long since wilted away, making his head feel strangely light without it. He doubted the nice vendor from before would give him any more free handouts, so he’d have to go without a crown for the time being.

 

His breath clouded the air in front of him, creating a thankfully gold-free mist that surrounded him as he strolled down the streets of Stronghold. Wilbur had firmly fought off his curse today. His throat still stung after the fact, but the pain was worth it. 

 

The cobbled roads were slick with morning dew, faintly shining in the dim light of the lanterns overhead. It was still somewhat dark out, and few were starting their day this early. 

 

A shopkeep was lifting a cloth off of their tables, ruffling the wet cloth with a shudder at the droplets that came off of it. Wilbur made his way across the street to greet them, his hands clasped behind his back.

 

“Hello,” he called, thankful his curse had decided to be merciful today. “May I be of any help to you?”

 

The man tossed a towel to him and ordered the prince to wipe the tables down. The dew had soaked through the thin cloth, making the tables glimmer with drops of moisture.

 

And Wilbur did what he was told. 

 

His morning went on in a similar manner, crossing the street to assist anyone who might need it. He never mentioned payment, but some kind vendors gave him a few silvers here, a small pastry there, or maybe an enchanted crystal for his troubles.

 

This last form of payment intrigued him, so he paused his tasks to examine the rock in his hands.

 

It was an opaque crystal, unpolished and murky. The rock glittered slightly when he held it up in the light of the coming dawn, scattering flecks of lights onto Wilbur’s face like shimmering freckles. 

 

It certainly wasn’t enchanted, there was no telltale purple glow coming from inside of it. But it was pretty, and could definitely fetch a few silvers for it if he said the right things.

 

Wilbur approached a stall laden with jewelry, its wares clearly positioned for the benefit of the sun to reflect off of their many precious stones. 

 

He offered the crystal to the lady running the stand in an offhand manner, giving a few compliments towards the quality of the stone before countering them with possible flaws. He presented it like it wasn’t worth much, but gradually raised the price when he saw the lady’s eyes widen at the sight of it.

 

All in all, Wilbur could have easily been a bartering shopkeep in another life. 

 

He walked away with a heavier coin purse and a wider smile.

 

A few more people had set out their wares by now, so he decided to buy Tommy and Tubbo an apology breakfast. Being as he had no idea what either of them liked to eat, he chose random foods he could easily afford and hoped it would be enough.

 

Dawn finally began to warm the crisp air, and small rays of light peeked through the buildings. The light made Wilbur’s snowy hair glitter like it was strung with pearls. He shielded his eyes from the sun and took a deep breath, enjoying the hard taste of the cool air around him. 

 

As the sun rose over the market, it shone over the diversity of every trader or merchant. The items of the market really were exotic, but not unfamiliar. Wilbur had seen plenty of these wares at much higher qualities throughout his previous life of luxury, but none of them were from his native lands.

 

Few things grew in the unforgiving climate of his kingdom. There weren’t many plants that could survive years of deadly winters and cool summers. The brittle hay that grew in the fields to the west supplied their small cattle population, as well as the demand for kindling. 

 

But these were the sorts of conditions that created strong people.

 

The Empire was fortunate enough to have the largest militia anyone knew of, as well as a wealth of knowledge collected in its many libraries. Otherwise, it would be a useless asset to the other kingdoms. The land wasn’t worth protecting to them, and there weren't enough trade opportunities for it to be remotely profitable. 

 

Knowledge meant power, and Wilbur knew all too well that his father had plenty of both. One thing he would certainly not miss from the palace were the lectures that would attempt to fill his head with as many useless facts as possible. Sam tried his best, but there was no amount of banter or jokes that could make that information bearable. 

 

Despite his misgivings with his old home, Wilbur found himself smiling as he walked back to the inn. Sam was like a bright star in a cloudy sky. He was one of the best people Wilbur had ever met, and he had given Wilbur something to look forward to. His lessons were usually the highlight of his very, very dull days. 

 

He made his way into the inn, giving a wave to the tired innkeeper. The man gave him a halfhearted nod and went back to barely staying awake at his counter. They were lucky the innkeeper didn’t seem to care about very much, and how he was more than willing to hand off work to Wilbur’s young companions. He didn’t think they’d have half of the privileges they had without the man’s lenience.

 

Wilbur brought the boys’ breakfast to their room, and his hand hovered over the door. He could hear the two moving around inside as they got themselves ready for the day, with muffled yawns and quips coming through the door. 

 

Wilbur hated his loneliness. He hated being isolated, and he despised being the one to implement it. But it was all he’d ever known, and it was safe. A situation where he was in control of himself, and people weren’t around to sway his mind. 

 

He swallowed and raised his hand. 

 

Knock.

 

Wilbur left home for a reason. He wouldn’t go back to being alone. No one could push people away from him, or choose to isolate him anymore.

 

Knock.

 

And he couldn’t push others away from himself, either. 

 

Knock.

 

Perhaps change was a good idea. Maybe it wouldn’t be so—

 

“Coming!”

 

Wilbur dropped his hand and stepped back, taking a deep breath to steady himself. 

 

Tubbo opened the door, his attention on the buttons of his shirt. “Hello, Mr. Innkeeper! What can we—Wil?”

 

“It’s about time,” Tommy remarked, poking his head into view. “I thought you’d wallow in misery for another month.

 

Wilbur smiled, finding the expression easier than ever to come by. This was safe. He handed the two their breakfasts and stepped into their room, pulling up a chair to sit and wait while they ate. His smile grew when he saw how they beamed at the gifts. 

 

Tommy came over to the table and clapped Wilbur on the back. “Back in action, are we?”

 

Tubbo followed, giving Wilbur a rougher shove. “Glad you’re doing better, Wil. Missed you for a moment.”

 

“Just a moment?” Tommy teased, taking a bite of his apple. “You were worried out of your fuckin’ mind for the guy. ‘What can I do to help? What if he’s hurt? What do we do? Mimimimimi—’”

 

Tubbo threw his apple at Tommy’s head. “Bitch.”

 

“But you love me,” Tommy replied, catching the apple and handing it back to his friend.

 

Tubbo sighed, taking the apple and rolling it around in his hands. “But I love you.”

 

Wilbur was touched by Tubbo’s concern. He gave an especially bright smile his way, and he settled in his chair to watch the boys bicker. They continued trading quips for the entirety of breakfast, and more food was thrown. 

 

Thankfully, Wilbur managed to dodge the various pieces of bread that somehow ended up flying towards him.

 

After Tommy had finished his meal, he took out his knife and stabbed it into the table. Wilbur jumped at the sudden movement, but Tubbo acted like it was the most normal thing in the world. Tommy and Tubbo exchanged a grin, then looked to Wilbur. 

 

“What next?”

Chapter Text

--------

 

Fly free, songbird.

 

Techno had meant a couple days to stretch his wings. Not a week, not two weeks, and certainly not a month. A month of no communication from Wilbur, no sign of him in Stronghold, and no peace left in his wake. 

 

“Send another round of guards, then,” Phil ordered, slamming his fist into the table. “This has gone on long enough.”

 

Techno sunk into his chair across from the emperor, crossing his arms over his chest. He drummed his fingers on his arm nervously, trying to keep his hand from twitching to the dagger in his boot. 

 

Phil had been on a rampage ever since Wilbur had left, building a torrential rage that he took out on everyone in the castle. It had started calmly, with just a few orders to diligently search for the missing prince. But when the guards came back empty handed, Phil had scowled and his mood had darkened. 

 

It was now late spring, and the sun outside was brighter than ever. But inside the castle walls, it was dark and chilled like the expression of the emperor. 

 

Cold and hard…like a steel blade, the voices whispered, and Techno shook his head to rid their echoes from his mind. It was bad enough that Phil of all people looked close to his breaking point; Techno couldn’t allow himself to follow suit. 

 

The cool metal of his dagger weighed heavy on his ankle, tempting him to unsheath it and play with the sharp edge. However, he’d learned composure from Wilbur over the years, and he did not give in.

 

Sam, who stood at the front of the table, bowed his head with a nearly imperceptible grimace. “Your Majesty, there has been no—”

 

“I cannot take no for an answer!” Phil cried, slumping in his chair. He hid his face in his hands as his shoulders shook. These weren’t the first tears shed over Wilbur’s great escape, and they certainly wouldn’t be the last. “I…I just want my son back.”

 

Techno would’ve snorted if he wasn’t so set on remaining an emotionless statue during this meeting. If he made a sound, someone would bring him into the exact conversations he wished to avoid. So instead, he sat and observed. 

 

Phil wanted his son back, but why? That was the question.

 

He is a grieving parent.

 

Wilbur is a weapon that should not be lost.

 

The kingdom will be weak if word gets out about the rebellious prince.

 

Rebellious. Wilbur had always been a rebel, making friends with the servants and sneaking out past his curfew. He didn’t follow any rules unless they benefited him, and more often than not, he decided Phil’s rules did not. 

 

“What if we…didn’t send more guards?” Techno mused, absentmindedly picking at his cuticles. Those were the first words he’d spoken during the meeting, and they carried just as much weight as he wanted them to. “Just a thought.”

 

“Techno, have you lost your damn mind?” Phil whispered, his eyes wide and horrified. “You’d just…give up?”

 

Techno straightened in his chair, folding his arms on the table as he leaned forward. “Now, who said anything about giving up?”

 

“You—”

 

I asked a question. Here’s another; what happens if we send more patrols out?”

 

Phil furrowed his brow as he tried to make sense of Techno’s request. “We find Wilbur,” he replied, as if it was just that simple. 

 

Sam was also looking at Techno quizzically, and Techno realized he had them hanging on every slow word. 

 

Unlike Phil, though, Techno knew what Wilbur would want. 

 

“Chances are, Phil, we don’t find him. Then we have a surplus of guards searching the kingdom, and that sounds attention-grabbing. The great Antarctic Empire, searching for something so important that even the quiet royal family is flustered…I can see the curious diplomats and letters coming in now.”

 

Phil narrowed his eyes at the implications Techno was throwing at him. “You think it would make us look weak to look for a lost family member?”

 

Techno tutted, shaking his head with a chuckle. “It’s not at all what I think. Know thy enemy, Your Majesty.”

 

Techno met Phil’s cold stare, and he wasn’t surprised to find a glimmer of anger in his eyes. But Phil plastered a smile onto his face and nodded. “I think our meeting here is done. Sam, you are dismissed.”

 

Sam nodded and left, and Techno heard him breathe a sigh of relief on the way out. If only Techno was that lucky.

 

Phil turned to Techno, his kind expression replaced with that of a cold emperor. “What are you trying to do here, Techno?”

 

The room’s temperature seemed to drop as Phil spoke, and Techno fought the urge to shiver. Every inch of him was tense under the pretense of smooth calmness he wore, and Phil knew it. 

 

“I just think that we should keep our image in mind as well. Since the Empire is so important to you—”

 

Phil stood up slowly, his dark wings unfolding behind him to flare menacingly. “Watch your tongue,” he growled, towering over Techno’s slouched form. “I would put Wilbur over these damned lands every time.”

 

Techno slid his gaze up to meet the emperor’s, keeping his expression uninterested. He gave a slow, measured shrug, leaning back into his chair and putting his hands behind his head. “Sure you would,” he drawled, satisfied with how Phil’s feathers ruffled at his tone.

 

“We could also just leave Wilbur alone,” he continued, his voice light and uncaring, like he was commenting on the weather. “Let him come to us.”

 

“And what if he doesn’t,” Phil countered. 

 

Techno pushed his chair back and stood, ignoring how disrespectful he was acting. He walked to the door and paused in the entryway, turning to face the livid emperor. 

 

“If he doesn’t wish to return, then we have failed him as a family.”

 

--------

 

Techno didn’t see Phil for the rest of the day, and to be frank, he didn’t want to. The emperor would be better off alone with his thoughts, for the alternative would be snapping at Techno for his earlier remarks. 

 

However, Techno couldn’t find any remorse for those statements. Wilbur was a grown adult who had spent every day preparing for the fleeting chance of freedom. At long last, he’d gotten his chance, and he had taken it. Whether or not Phil could handle that didn’t matter right now.

 

As long as Wilbur was happy, Techno could be happy, too. 

 

As he strolled along the outside of the castle, keeping a hand firmly planted on one of its worn walls, Techno winced at the lie. Wilbur was probably happy beyond the castle walls, but Techno was miserable without him. 

 

He missed Wilbur’s snarky comments in their studies, his experienced swordplay that finally gave Techno a challenge, and most of all, the tiny, insignificant things. When he had nightmares, Techno couldn’t run to Wilbur’s room for comfort anymore.

 

The empty space with wilted vines and a painful lack of life felt colder than the worst winter nights. 

 

Wilbur’s room, which was once a haven for Techno, had become a constant reminder of the brother he had lost. Wilbur’s plants had stopped stirring after a week, and now they hung limply from their pots and rafters. They looked like how Techno felt beneath his careful mask of disinterest. 

 

Techno paused his walk to steady himself, turning to the castle wall to hide his pained expression. Clenching his jaw, he took deep breaths through his nose as he fought back tears. He knew he was allowed to cry, and he knew everyone expected it at this point. But if he permitted even the smallest crack in his resolve, he would break like rotten ice.

 

Techno was terrified that he wouldn’t be able to piece himself back together after that. He was trying to stay strong for Wilbur, but gods, it was difficult. 

 

“I miss you,” he whispered. Even though no one, let alone Wilbur, was there to hear it, the admittance felt good. It was only one speck of dust on the load on his shoulders, but he could still feel the world of difference it made. 

 

Techno let go of the wall after a few more moments of simply breathing, and then he turned around to go back inside. He had taken it upon himself to water Wilbur’s plants every other day, and they were due for some attention.

 

He nodded to the guards as he passed, and they inclined their heads in return. Techno was horrible with faces, but he thought he recognized them from the training he’d observed this morning. 

 

As a part of his training with Sam, Techno would accompany him as he oversaw the training of guards, new and old ones alike. Techno was as evenly matched as the captain in terms of skill, but in terms of social skills…well, he had a lot to learn. 

 

“Techno, if you see a weakness, kindly point it out,” Sam had told him after training. “If another kid goes home crying, I am going to get formal complaints.”

 

“All I did was tell him his form was off!”

Sam sighed. “But you also made a public demonstration out of it, showing people the correct form. You humiliated him.”

 

“I thought it was a learning moment,” Techno mumbled, his face going red. 

 

He hadn’t meant to embarrass anyone; he’d just wanted to correct an error. Sam had been patient with him as the man always was and had told him that they’d review some “captain-like critiques”.

 

His thoughts were interrupted by a chill moving down his spine. Techno glanced around for a new chink in the walls, but there was no wind stirring the halls. His stomach dropped as he realized it wasn’t a cold chill; it was the feeling of wrongness .

 

Techno began to run through the halls, searching for the source of the heavy weight in his chest. His voices were whispering among themselves, but there were too many voices speaking at once to be understandable. He could hear the palace staff whispering as well, wondering what had gotten the remaining prince so upset. 

 

The voices and the servants went silent when Techno froze in his tracks. The hallway ahead looked hazy and unclear, and a bluish tinge colored the air.

 

Smoke.

 

Fire!

 

Danger.

 

Techno practically flew down the corridor, praying that this was just a mishap in the kitchens. The voices chuckled at his naïveté, whispering in the corner of his mind as they mocked him.

 

He’s burning them.

 

He is angry with him.

 

“What do you mean?” Techno cried, ignoring the stares he was receiving from the servants he passed. They knew the prince would talk to open air at times, but he never screamed at nothing. 

 

The voices faded away with whispered giggles, leaving Techno alone in his own head. For once in his life, Techno wished the voices were there. They knew , and they wouldn’t tell him.

 

He stopped in front of the kitchens, his face paling as he saw no plumes of smoke flying from the staircase. He whirled around, trying to find where else the smoke could come from. Now that he was closer, he could smell burning wood, not food. Maids tentatively approached him, asking if he needed anything. 

 

“Does anyone know where the smoke is coming from?” Techno demanded, scowling when no one could answer. He huffed and followed the scent of smoke, bringing an arm up to his nose as the air became thick with the heavy fog.

 

Techno skidded to a stop in front of the staircase that led to the royal family’s wing, freezing as he saw the smoke billowing from the entrance. Phil was up there. Phil could be hurt, or worse. 

 

Techno scrambled up the stairs, coughing and squinting as the smoke flew directly into his face. He wrapped his cape around his face like a scarf, hastily tying the ends in front of him in a crude knot. The filter made the air bearable, but not by much.

 

He came over the top of the stairs and waved around in front of him, trying to clear the air so he could see. With a sickening lurch in his stomach, he realized the smoke was coming from Wilbur’s room.

 

Phil!” he rasped, stepping through the doorway. He let out a quick breath of relief when he saw Phil, unburned, in the middle of the charred room, but he sucked in another at the sight of the burned match in his hand. “...Phil?”

 

Phil turned to him, a steady stream of tears flooding down his cheeks as he glanced around the destruction he was causing. Techno swore he caught a glimmer of guilt in the man’s expression, but it was quickly replaced with determination. “Hello, Techno.”

 

“What are you doing?” Techno shrieked, his voice breaking with emotion. He shoved Phil to the side and took a relatively unburned blanket from Wilbur’s bed, throwing it on the fire devouring the bookshelves. 

 

Phil just stood there, letting his hands go limp at his sides. The match dropped to the floor, and Phil sank down with it. Techno was too busy to notice the emperor kneeling on the ashy floor, putting out flames with pillows and blankets alike. 

 

He ran to the bathing room to collect a pitcher of water, filling it to the brim and carrying it back to Wilbur’s bed. He threw it on the still-smoking piles of burned rubbish, dousing the flames once and for all. Only after he’d thrown the pitcher to the ground and looked around at the horrific scene did he notice Phil. 

 

He opened his mouth, prepared to scream and berate the emperor for hours, but he stopped. 

 

Phil was staring at the ground, silently crying with a numb expression. His eyes, usually so full of blue fire, were empty and dull. His mouth was moving soundlessly, repeating the words I’m sorry over and over again. 

 

Techno clenched his fists and took a deep breath, promising himself he would deal with this later. He brought Phil to his feet and draped one of the emperor’s arms over his shoulders. As he carried Phil out of the wreck that used to be Wilbur’s room, Phil blinked and looked around. “Techno?”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“I had to do it.”

 

“Phil—”

 

“He’s gone,” Phil whispered, another tear falling down his face. “Why would I keep him close if he doesn’t even want to be near me?”

 

--------

 

Phil hadn’t said another word after that. Techno had led the man to the medical wing, telling the nurses that he was “at the wrong place at the wrong time.” They didn’t have to know the truth, no one did. Phil’s suffering was his and his alone, and Techno would never tell anyone that Phil had finally snapped.

 

He hoped that Phil would be back on his throne in a couple days with a prescription of plenty of rest and herbal tea. The nurses had assured him as much as they walked him out of the room, saying that Phil was in shock and couldn’t handle many people right now. After seeing how empty Phil had looked as he burned Wilbur’s room, Techno absolutely agreed.

 

Techno paused in front of the stairs to his room, and the guards that had been placed there hesitantly blocked his way. 

 

“I’d like to go up there.”

 

“Sir, we cannot allow that.”

 

“I put out that fire. I should be able to go back and survey the damage.”

 

The guards exchanged a nervous glance. “We don’t know if it was foul play or an attempt on the emperor’s life, you see.”

 

“Just let,” Techno stopped as his voice broke. “Just let me see what’s left of him, please.”

 

The guards dipped their heads and parted, allowing Techno through. He nodded to them in thanks and began climbing the stairs, taking each dreaded step towards certain misery. 

 

Wilbur’s room belonged to Techno just as much as it did to Wilbur. The room had been so full of memories, and now they had been burned away. The walls that had guaranteed him safety for so many years were blackened and brittle. The promised security was gone, and with it were all the little things Techno’s gaze used to stray to.

 

Techno had mapped out the constellation of cracks in the ceiling over the years, and he would make a mental note every time another line appeared. The right door to Wilbur’s balcony squeaked no matter how much oil the maids used on it. One side of Wilbur’s bed was higher than the other, and Wilbur used to always complain about his lopsided mattress.

 

There were so few imperfections in a room of such status, but Techno clung to each flaw like a lifeline. It made the room familiar, and it reminded him of Wilbur. Safe, secure, but not without his cracks. It was an escape, just like Wilbur was. 

 

Techno bit back a dry sob at the state of Wilbur’s room, leaning onto the door frame for support. 

 

The paint on the walls peeled up and away from where the fire had been, revealing scorched wood and blackened stone underneath. The bookshelves that had held years of knowledge and memories had been mostly destroyed, with only the topmost shelves having survived the fire. Wilbur’s bed was covered in damp ash, coloring the downy mattress underneath a sickly shade of gray. 

 

And the plants…oh, the plants. Burned beyond recognition, shriveled tendrils that used to be flourishing vines lay on every surface. The charred plants made a spider web of brittle, ashy twigs that covered the entire room. It was surreal to see a place of such plentiful life reduced to a miniature wasteland, practically unrecognizable from what it was before. 

 

Small beams of light came through holes in the outermost wall. Techno had thankfully gotten here before the fire had spread to the balcony, but it looked like it had been a close call. Techno raised a hand to touch one of the rays, numbly watching his fingers turn yellow in the sun’s light. 

 

He couldn’t bring himself to feel much of anything. Every emotion would be wasted in this room. There was no amount of tears, screams, or smiles that could bring back what had been lost. It was hopeless desolation.

 

Techno turned his attention to Wilbur’s wardrobe, relieved to find it only slightly singed. He opened the doors to find the contents untouched by fire, and he nearly smiled as he hurriedly unlocked the false back. Wilbur’s guitar was whole and perfect still, though probably very out of tune with the heat it had been around. A random book, some maps, and a small box were also in the compartment. 

 

Techno opened the box slowly, his eyes widening as something red shone in the faint light from the balcony. He lifted a scarlet gem carved in the shape of a heart from the box, turning it over in his palm. Two words were engraved in the back of the pendant, and Techno squinted in the dim light to read them. 

 

Beyond death.

 

He held the pendant up, studying the way it reflected the dim afternoon light. It was obviously valuable…but Techno had never seen this before. The thought that Wilbur still kept secrets from him, even after all these years, made his stomach lurch. 

 

The queen.

 

Queen’s necklace.

 

His mother.

 

Oh.

 

Techno put the necklace back in its box carefully, then carried it away from its hiding place. Wilbur’s room was far from safe, and this had obviously meant something to him. Techno decided he would keep it in his own room for the time being and if— when Wilbur returned, he would give him back the necklace. 

 

As Techno reached down to grab Wilbur’s guitar, he paused. He looked around the room, at the fine layer of ash on every surface that sucked the color out of the space. Wilbur’s room had always been bright and colorful. 

 

The balcony doors rattled as Techno contemplated the issue, shaking in the strong gusts of wind outside. Techno glanced at the doors, then back at the room. He took one step forward. Another step, and he flung open the doors.

 

The wind howled as it entered, kicking up clouds of ash and taking it back to the sky. That ash was made of memories, happiness, and pieces of Wilbur that Techno had grown familiar with. But the breeze took it away like it was nothing, like it had meant nothing at all.

 

For the first time in what felt like years, Technoblade began to cry.

 

--------

 

A broken emperor sat in his bed, staring at the wall as if there was something interesting on it. There wasn’t; he just needed something to occupy his sights with. Otherwise, he would look down at his hands and see ash clinging to the skin, even though he knew there was none there. 

 

He could feel the thick, hot substance attacking his hands with phantom pain. It was pain he knew was just in his head, but that didn’t make it hurt any less.

 

A broken father sat up in his bed, his attention not on the wall, but the missing prince. Not a day went by that he didn’t think about the day Wilbur left, finding a hundred things he could’ve done differently to keep Wilbur here. He hadn’t even been given the chance to tell Wilbur what he’d wanted to say. 

 

“Wilbur,” Phil croaked through cracked lips. “I want you to be by my side as the future emperor. I want to teach you the ways of the people and the land, even though I’m sure you already know plenty,” he chuckled, a dry, rasping sound. “I want to know you again, just like I used to, and I want us to grow and learn together…

 

…as father and son.”

 

Chapter Text

--------

 

After Tommy and Tubbo had helped Wilbur get settled in, he’d started to accompany them on their morning tasks. The need for tall, able-bodied helpers was high right before the start of trading season, so there was always work to be done. 

 

Wilbur grew familiar with the layout of Stronghold, but he felt more than just a small prick of shame when Tommy and Tubbo were more capable of navigating its streets. He was a future emperor, but he could barely find his way around the empire’s capital city. It was embarrassing, to say the least, but his companions took it in stride without complaint. 

 

They were unbelievably patient with him, and they rarely paused when he didn’t understand something. Wilbur had trouble with addressing people, mostly. His social skills were underdeveloped at best, and unbecoming at worst. If he was too formal, he would be suspicious, and they couldn’t risk being found out. If he was too casual, he would come off as disrespectful, and he had no chance of exploring the kingdom if that sort of reputation preceded him. 

 

At some point over the past couple of weeks, the boys had decided that they didn’t need to follow Wilbur at every second. It had been nice at first, but eventually Wilbur began to feel like some sort of unstable animal that needed to be monitored at all times. Wilbur started to sneak away at night or while the boys were busy with work to explore on his own, and the others had apparently given up on chasing after him.

 

At that moment, he was hiding behind a stall of fruit. 

 

Guards still stalked every alley and corner of Stronghold, making it near impossible for Wilbur to do anything without his hood completely covering his face. Some posters still remained from when they were put up weeks ago, announcing his disappearance, a sum of money for his return, and a slightly inaccurate portrait of his face.

 

His nose couldn't be that wide.  

 

Wilbur hadn’t been spotted exactly, but a group of guards had started down the road he happened to be on. His hood wasn’t up all the way, and he would have certainly been recognized if he hadn’t ducked behind the nearest pile of apples.

 

Someone plucked an apple from the top of the pile Wilbur was crouched behind, and Wilbur could make out the tip of someone’s tweed cap. The patron leaned over, and Wilbur nearly ran away again. 

 

Wilbur was tall, sure, but he was “built like a beanpole”, as Techno called him. This man was tall and as wide as a barrel, with muscles and tattoos to spare. He wore a hat that looked too small on his head, as it barely covered any of his dark hair. If Wilbur wasn’t terrified of being squashed like a bug, he would’ve found it funny.

 

He wore a white shirt with suspenders that threatened to slide off of his shoulders at any moment. They slipped further down the longer Wilbur stared at them. The man carried a large basket in the crook of his elbow, one that was laden with fruits and bread from the market. There were already a couple apples in there, but apparently he just had to pick another one that revealed Wilbur.

 

He had several studs in his ears that glinted in the sun, and Wilbur could make out the edges of some sort of tattoo under his ears. It must have been on his back or along his spine as there were soft black markings on either side of his jaw. 

 

What really caught his attention, though, were the twin shark tattoos on the man’s robust forearms. They looked vicious and realistic, and they seemed to move every time the man flexed his arms. 

 

“Why is there someone hiding behind this pile of apples?”

 

“Can you keep it down?” Wilbur hissed in reply, glancing around to make sure nobody was listening. Thankfully, the fruit seller seemed to be busy with another customer, and he was paying the loud man no mind. 

 

The tattooed man looked around as well before leaning down further. “Why are you hiding behind a pile of apples?” he whispered, staring at Wilbur with wide eyes.

 

“Because the pile of oranges didn’t look like fun,” Wilbur responded irritably, shaking his head. “It doesn’t matter. Just…please keep your voice down.”

 

Wilbur froze as the group of guards started to make their way over to them, pointing at the loud customer. “Is something wrong here, sir?”

 

The man glanced at Wilbur for a split second before giving the guards a cheery smile. “No, nothing at all! I was just—a rat!

 

The man squealed and jumped back, hitting the pile of apples with his elbow. The guards turned and looked at the ground, trying to find the rat. The apples rolled towards them, and one of them stabbed back on one and slipped. As they fell, they grabbed onto the sleeve of another guard, and the pair fell with a loud crash. The other guards were frantically trying to navigate the sea of apples and possible rats without falling over, and the cacophony was attracting quite the crowd.

 

In the midst of all the chaos, the patron seized Wilbur by the collar of his shirt and literally carried him away into a nearby alley. He dropped Wilbur on the ground next to him and helped him to his feet, giving Wilbur a wide grin.

 

“Thanks,” Wilbur muttered, rubbing his neck. Shame colored his face a bright red as he’d never, in all of his twenty-four years, been scruffed like a misbehaving kitten. “Was carrying me really that necessary?”

 

“Had to get you out of there somehow, didn’t I?” the man replied, tossing Wilbur an apple from his basket. “Here you go, as payment for your troubles.”

 

“I really can’t—” Wilbur started, but the patron waved him off.

 

“Don’t worry about it, I didn’t pay for any of ‘em anyways.”

 

With that, the man strode away, whistling to himself as he walked. Wilbur watched him, slack-jawed at the pure audacity of this person. My rescuer is scared of rats and a thief…what a strange man.

 

“Wait—sir!” Wilbur called, jogging to catch up with the burly customer. 

 

“Foolish.”

 

“Pardon?”

 

“Name’s Foolish!” the man repeated, tossing one of his stolen apples in the air. “Foolish G, that’s what they call me.”

 

Wilbur couldn’t think of a response to that, so he followed Foolish silently. He was an odd one, but he seemed nice enough. He had a spring in his step that made him seem even more carefree, something Wilbur didn’t think was possible.

 

The alley led them to the docks, where Foolish turned to Wilbur with a small smile. “I think this is where we part ways, friend.”

 

“Wilbur,” he replied, extending a hand. “I’m Wilbur.”

 

Foolish’s eyes widened as he shook the hand eagerly. Wilbur felt like his arm was going to be torn out of his socket with how vigorous the handshake was. When Foolish finally released him, Wilbur flexed his hand to make sure it still worked. Surprisingly, it still did.

 

“You’re the Wilbur!” Foolish whispered, adjusting the cap on his head. “The Captain was talking about you! It’s an honor, Your Highness.”

 

“Thank you, Foolish, but the title isn’t necessary. Just Wilbur will do.”

 

Foolish nodded importantly, winking at Wilbur. “Of course, Wilbur.

 

“No, just—”

 

“See you around!” Foolish waved, already striding away. Wilbur watched the man until he was out of sight, turning to go behind a pile of lumber. 

 

“The Captain was talking about me,” Wilbur muttered under his breath, pulling his hood over his eyes. “Wonderful.”

 

--------

 

Wilbur spent the rest of his day purposefully losing himself in Stronghold’s maze-like streets, playing a game to see if he could remember his way back to the inn. Most of the time, the answer was yes, but he had to ask for directions twice. 

 

No matter how many times he passed over the same streets, the awe he felt for the city never faded. Everything was new and exciting to him, even after seeing it a hundred times. It was hard to believe that such a fantastic place filled with music and life had been just out of reach. Stronghold was like a gem, shiny and covered with so many faces. Every angle was a fresh sight or a new corner of the city to explore. 

 

He didn’t have funds to waste on meaningless trinkets from the market, and he wasn’t confident enough in his thieving abilities to steal them, so he simply watched the stalls that lined the streets. Even though he had seen things like these in much higher quality in the palace, he enjoyed the novelty of the market. Selling goods was an art, a certain kind of twist to the sellers’ words that made Wilbur want to draw closer, even when he knew better. 

 

It was utterly fascinating to him, but he would have to leave it all behind.

 

The day of their departure had crept up on Wilbur, and he didn’t feel ready. Tommy and Tubbo hadn’t said much about it, but Wilbur knew they were prone to taking things in stride. There was no plan for their adventure outside of the bare bones. Escape the Empire, sail to Manberg, and then an assumed happy ending. 

 

Wilbur skirted around a corner, deftly avoiding the watchful gaze of a guard on duty. He’d gotten much better at drawing less attention to himself ever since the apple incident. He’d learned that the gutters on some buildings were incredibly easy to climb, and that the roofs of Stronghold were just as exciting as the streets below. 

 

Jumping from roof to roof was exhilarating in a way that felt forbidden. He probably wasn’t allowed up on the roofs, but a bird’s eye view had its uses. He could watch the guards on patrol and predict their routes, which made his job of evading them incredibly easy. Everything was on a schedule, and Wilbur was above it, both literally and figuratively. 

 

The birds seemed to enjoy his company as well, and they accompanied him on his rooftop adventures. He sang and whistled to them, and his curse was pleased to have an outlet. The sight of the glassy-eyed songbirds made him feel a spark of guilt, but it was better than seeing that expression on a person’s face. 

 

Some days, he would take the bread from his breakfast up to the sky and wait for the birds to descend, diving at the free food in his arms. At first they were rude and prickly, pecking him all over to get to the bread, but after a while they would calm down and allow him to give them separate pieces. 

 

Watching Stronghold, feeding the birds, working with Tommy and Tubbo…it was a routine he could get used to. 

 

Unfortunately, time had other plans for him.

 

--------

 

The morning of their departure was very quiet, surprisingly enough. Wilbur knocked on the boys’ door and softly called for them, but only Tommy answered.

 

“I’m ready to go,” Tommy whispered, shutting the door behind him and fastening his cloak. “Ship leaves at dawn, so we better start moving.”

 

Wilbur held out a hand, stopping the door from closing all the way. “Where’s Tubbo?”

 

Tommy turned to look at the partly-shut door, an unreadable expression on his face. His fists clenched and unclenched at his sides as he thought, but his mouth stayed shut. After a few moments, he looked away and walked past Wilbur, heading toward the staircase.

 

“Is he going to be late?”

 

Tommy whispered something too quietly for Wilbur to hear, so Wilbur stepped forward. “Pardon?”

 

Tommy put a hand on Wilbur’s shoulder, looking up at him with a determined expression. “Tubbo isn’t coming,” he replied, giving Wilbur’s shoulder a pat before starting down the stairs.

 

Wilbur turned to look at the boys’ room, frowning slightly. Tubbo had been adamant that he would be joining Tommy. They were practically fused at the hip; they never did anything alone anymore. 

 

He had a feeling that Tubbo hadn’t gotten a say in the matter.

 

The inn was silent at this hour, even though it was the beginning of trade season. It was the small window of time between Stronghold’s nightlife and the morning crowds, and most people were catching some rare hours of sleep.

 

Most people did not include the docks.

 

The port was full of noise and laughter despite the early hour, and no ship was more rambunctious than the Heart of the Sea. The crew was roaring their goodbyes to the captain, and she was screaming right back at them with a smile. Standing beside Puffy was Foolish, wearing the same shrunken tweed cap and wide smirk as before. 

 

Foolish made eye contact with Wilbur the second they stepped onto the wooden docks, and he waved and beckoned them over. 

 

“You know him?” Tommy asked, raising an eyebrow at the sight of the rambunctious crew.

 

“Something like that,” Wilbur replied with a sigh, leading them towards the ship. 

 

The planks of the docks were slick with morning dew and sea spray, and Wilbur nearly tripped several times on the short walk to the ship. The stacks of timber and collections of crates covered in briny nets were a godsend as they were solid and stable enough for Wilbur to catch his balance on them. 

 

It didn’t help that the docks were rather dark, either. The port was on the western side of Stronghold and slightly lower than the city, so it was the last place to get the sun’s rays in the morning. The gradually brightening sky didn’t provide much light to see by, so the lanterns scattered on the docks were the only source of illumination.

 

Sharp breezes from the rolling waves in the distance made the lanterns, sails, and various chains sway in unison, creating a soft seaside symphony in the background. The docks themselves creaked and groaned as the waves lapped against their supporting frames, shifting side to side in a way that made Wilbur’s stomach churn.

 

As they walked, Wilbur squinted in the dim light at the Heart of the Sea, studying the ship thoroughly. It didn’t look too special at first, it was just a sturdy ship. Obviously cared for, but barnacles still lined the hull in clusters like constellations. It had a strong frame, but one of the masts leaned to the left ever so slightly. It was a real ship, a ship that had faced the world and come back ready for another adventure. 

 

One thing that caught his eye, though, was the figurehead at the front of the ship. A wooden ram, sculpted into a rearing pose with its forelegs kicking out into the waves. He’d never seen a ram figurehead before, but it was certainly a majestic one. Even though it had its fair share of chips and holes, it still looked well-made. It fit the ship, oddly enough. A battered ram for an equally battered ship.

 

Tommy and Wilbur stepped around an anchor laying on the planks, but Tommy stopped and crouched beside it. He gently poked one of the many barnacles growing on the corroded, chipped metal, and it made a strange squelching sound. 

 

Tommy snickered and tried poking one again, but Wilbur pulled him to his feet. Tommy made a small squawking sound in protest, but Wilbur just rolled his eyes with a light smile. 

 

They stopped in front of a bridge that led up to the deck of the Heart of the Sea, looking up at the captain and Foolish. Puffy was wearing a hat with her vibrant signature feather, but the colors were dim in the early morning light. She looked like she had been ready to depart for hours, and she was probably more put together than either Wilbur or Tommy. 

 

Foolish whispered something into Puffy’s ear before dashing down the bridge to meet them, already extending a hand for Tommy to shake. “Hello, Wilbur’s friend!”

 

“Hello…other friend of Wilbur’s.”

 

Foolish threw back his head and laughed. “You’re a funny one! I’m Foolish, but the ladies call me Foolish G.”

 

Tommy’s eyes widened. “The ladies, you say?”

 

Tommy’s stiff demeanor had finally relaxed, and he was smiling again. A real smile, not the forced one he’d made around the barnacles. The boy was trying to hide his nerves, which was admirable, but it made Wilbur’s heart squeeze. Tommy tried to be so much for so many people, but he was still human, deep down. 

 

No matter how “big” of a man he was, he was still but a man.

 

Wilbur left him to talk with Foolish, heading up the bridge to see Puffy. 

 

The captain had finished her screaming session with the rest of her crew, and she turned to Wilbur with a face red from so much yelling. “Good morning.”

 

“Morning, Captain.”

 

“I’ll have none of that around here,” she chided, cuffing Wilbur’s arm gently. “Just Puffy will do.”

 

Wilbur nodded, although he knew he would still call her by her title. He may not be the sharpest tool in the stable when it came to social skills, but he knew when to give respected people their dues.

 

The people on the docks were beginning to leave, either walking back up to Stronghold or clustering in groups behind crates for a sneaky cigar. Wilbur frowned as he watched the crowd thin, giving Puffy a questioning glance. “Where’s the rest of the crew for this journey?”

 

Puffy wheeled him around to face Tommy and Foolish, who were just now boarding the ship while deep in conversation. “You’re looking at ‘em, roof rat.”

 

“Roof rat?” 

 

“I’ve seen you scurrying around the chimneys from the crow’s nest,” Puffy grinned, revealing a golden canine on the left side of her mouth. “You might be able to fool the Empire’s shiny guards, but you can’t fool me.”

 

Wilbur chuckled. “I’ll keep that in mind, ma’am. I must ask, though; doesn’t the ship need more than four to commandeer it?”

 

“Not if you two can mop the decks with haste,” Puffy replied with a wink, tipping her feathered cap down over her white curls. “It’s about time to cast off. We seem to be a passenger short though, so we’ll wait a while longer.”

 

“Our friend won’t be joining us,” Wilbur whispered, glancing over at Tommy. “He was…er, compromised.”

 

Puffy gave him a strange look. “I know Tommy’s other half isn’t joining us. Tommy told me so weeks ago.”

 

Wilbur started to reply, but the sound of boots headed up the bridge made him pause. 

 

Boarding the ship was a young man that looked similar to Tommy, but this man had certainly lost the humor Tommy had. His expression was stony and disinterested, and he had a slight curl to his lip, as if he was sneering at all of them. He was clothed in all black except for the lavender cloak that sat on his shoulders. It looked like an expensive weave, and a foreign one at that. 

 

The stranger looked up to where Wilbur and Puffy were standing, and he made his way over to them. 

 

“Captain.”

 

“Stranger.”

 

“I told you my name,” the man grumbled, producing a pouch of coins from inside the exotic cape. As Wilbur studied the fabric up close, he could make out a faint, unnatural shimmer to the cloth. It was enchanted, then, and enchanted well. There was nearly no trace of any magical meddling with the fabric, only that it seemed to ripple and move slightly of its own accord.

 

Wilbur looked up to see the man staring at him, his eyebrow arched in disdain. 

 

“Will,” Wilbur blurted, offering his hand to the newcomer. 

 

The man stared at the hand, then he tilted his head up to study Wilbur again. “Purpled.”

 

Before Wilbur could utter a “how do you do”, or a “lovely to make your acquaintance”, the strange man spun on his heel and stalked away to the ship’s cabin. The door slammed behind Purpled with a loud crash.

 

“Weird fella,” Puffy remarked, pocketing the payment. “But he pays well, and he keeps to himself. Can’t ask for any more of a man.”

 

Wilbur didn’t respond. Something about Purpled didn’t sit right with him, and it wasn’t just his churning stomach saying that. His curse of all things had receded, backing as far away from the stranger as possible. He wouldn’t say anything out loud, but he’d keep a close eye on the man for now. Perhaps Tommy could get a better read on him.

 

Puffy whistled loudly, stopping Wilbur’s train of thought. Foolish turned away from his conversation with Tommy and gave her a nod before bounding over to the center mast of the ship and untying the sails. 

 

Tommy stepped back to let Foolish and Puffy ready the ship, moving to stand next to Wilbur.

 

“Tommy, what did you think of the man in the purple cloak?”

 

“Who?”

 

“The man who just boarded and slammed the door.”

 

“I didn’t hear any slamming doors, I was very busy talking about big man shit with my best friend Foolish G.”

 

Wilbur blinked. “Glad you’re making friends,” he muttered, glancing at the door again.

 

Tommy nodded, not catching the sarcasm in Wilbur’s tone. “I’m the best at making friends, you know. The people adore me.”

 

“I’m sure they do.”

 

The ship gave a lurch as Foolish hauled up the anchor and the bridge, all the while Puffy was untying the ropes fastened to the docks. Tommy and Wilbur turned to look at Stronghold as they started to move, squinting as the first rays of sunlight began to peek over the roofs of the city. Tommy was staring directly at where their inn was, its chimney just barely visible behind the other buildings. He gave a half-hearted wave towards where Tubbo still was, his mouth taut with a bittersweet smile.

 

He turned to Wilbur with a sniff, rubbing his eyes. “What are you looking at, you old bitch?”

 

“Nothing, Tommy. Nothing at all.”

 

With that, the ship set sail…

 

--------

 

…and Tubbo watched it leave, the packed bag in his hand falling to the floor. He held up a hand to the window, fogging up the cold glass as he leaned forward to stare at the ship. 


“Damn you, Tommy,” he whispered, a single tear falling down his face.

Damn you.”