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glory falls

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The first thing Dream notices when he wakes up is that he’s in a cave.

I’m in a cave, he thinks faintly as water drips from the ceiling onto his face. Ow.

Wait.

His face?

Dream jolts up abruptly, only to wince and clutch his arm as something pulls. He muffles a grunt of pain and presses a hand to his face, flinching when it meets soft flesh instead of hard porcelain. Where…?

“Dream!”

Dream glances over and sees Tommy at the mouth of the cave. Tommy ducks under the low overhang and scampers in. His arms are full of… something, some kind of vegetation that Dream can’t see clearly.

“You’re awake!” Tommy exclaims, voice echoing in the small space. “Took you long enough, you fucker.”

“Tommy,” Dream blinks. His thoughts are half-formed, returning to him slowly, but a wave of panic is rapidly swelling within his chest. “Where are we?”

“In a cave, duh.” Tommy dumps his spoils onto the ground, and now Dream can see that it’s some carrots, wheat, even a few potatoes rolling about the cave floor. “Phil brought us here after we got you away from the village. Said it wasn’t safe to stay in the open.”

“That was a good call,” Dream’s mouth says automatically before his brain catches up. “Wait, Phil?”

“Yeah!” Tommy is nearly vibrating with excitement. “He’s alright, innit? Bit old, but the man can’t help that. He’s been really useful and nice this whole time—”

“Did you miss the part where he tried to kill me?” Dream interrupts. Scrambling to his feet, he yelps when he immediately bangs his head against the ceiling and falls back onto his ass as his head spins. “It’s not safe.”

“It is,” Tommy insists, scrambling closer. “Here, have some food. Phil said it would help you heal.”

Knowing that he’s right, Dream reluctantly takes a carrot and starts munching on it. The clean crisp taste is a shock against his tongue, and as soon as the first bite goes down, Dream realizes how hungry he actually is.

“Uh… Should you slow down?” Tommy asks as Dream scarfs the rest of the carrot down and immediately reaches for another. “You’re going kinda fast there, Dream.”

“Let him eat, he needs the energy.”

Dream stiffens in the middle of grabbing another carrot and looks up. Phil stands at the entrance of the cave, wings blocking out nearly all the light until he pulls them in and crouches to come in.

“We’ll get you some meat in a bit,” Phil tells Dream as he comes to halt by Dream’s side. “But you should probably start with some vegetables, it’s easier for your stomach to digest.”

“Thanks,” Dream says warily and clutches the carrot closer to himself.

Mentally, he’s already searching through his inventory, looking for any weapon that can help. Somehow, he still has the iron axe that he grabbed from the villager, but there’s not enough room for him to swing it without hitting Tommy. Maybe if he—

“Relax,” Phil says as if reading his mind. “I’m not going to fight you.”

“That’s not what you said earlier,” Dream shoots back.

“Well, times have changed.” Phil takes a seat on the ground, crossing his legs, and pulls out a piece of cooked meat. Dream’s mouth waters at the sight. “Pork?”

Eyeing him suspiciously, Dream takes the pork. Phil watches him with a relaxed expression while Tommy fidgets besides them. The first bite that Dream takes, he has to hold himself back from moaning. The meat is just so much more substantial than the carrot, and he can almost feel his body responding.

“What happened when I was out?” Dream asks through a mouthful of food.

Tommy launches into the tale with great enthusiasm.

Apparently, Dream passed out (like a pussy, Tommy makes sure to add), but Tommy’s story had been enough to convince Phil that Dream isn’t some kind of kidnapper. They’d left the village after profusely apologizing and headed to a cave system nearby to avoid detection. Since then, Phil has been caring for Dream’s wounds and collecting some supplies while they wait for him to wake up, convinced by Tommy that he wasn’t aiding in a crime, all while putting Tommy to work and teaching him how to forage and grow crops.

“I wasn’t even that badly injured,” Dream says, perplexed. He’s finished his meat, and Phil passes him a piece of bread that he gratefully accepts. “How was an arm wound enough to knock me out for that long?”

“Mate, you lost a lot of blood,” Phil says dryly. “Honestly, I’d be more surprised if you didn’t conk out after that.”

“What about you?” Dream gestures with his free hand. If his pride stings a little bit, no one has to know. “I hit you, I know I did.”

“It wasn’t that deep,” Phil says, a scoffing note in his voice that Dream chooses to ignore. “And besides—” He lifts his shirt slightly, and Dream’s eyes widen as he sees the thin white scar in the same place that Dream cut him. “Immortal. We play by different rules.”

Dream has nothing to say to that.

Phil continues, “I’m willing to bet that you’ve been pushing yourself too hard for a long time now. Your body probably saw the chance to get some proper rest and took it.”

“But—I’m not even injured anymore!”

“Uh huh,” Phil says, unconvinced. “Then let’s take a look at that wound of yours, shall we?”

Moving forward, he unwinds the bandage around Dream’s shoulder where his blade cut deep. Dream winces, expecting to see an angry wound, but when the bandage comes off, both Phil and Dream suck in a breath.

“Huh,” Phil says after a long moment. “That’s not what it looked like yesterday.”

Rather than a raw open cut, there’s a scabbed wound running all across Dream’s shoulder. It looks like a wound that’s been there for weeks instead of days, and when Dream tests it by rotating his arm around, it barely twinges.

“That happen to you a lot, mate?” Phil asks.

Dream shakes his head.

“I’ve always healed fast,” he says, thinking back on scarred palms and rough kicks to the ribs. On the streets, if you didn’t get up, you stayed down. In the arena, it was even worse. “But nothing like this.”

“Hm.” Phil’s eyes sharpen. “Got any magical blood in you?”

“I don’t think so,” Dream says, still staring at his wound. Had it healed that fast when the soldiers injured it? “I have a friend who’s half-demon, another with fire magic, and neither of them have ever noticed anything from me.”

“Interesting,” Phil says beneath his breath. “Very interesting indeed.”

Uncertain, Dream offers, “Maybe it didn’t hit as deep as we thought?”

Collectively, they pause, and Dream colors as he remembers the way he had immediately weakened as blood gushed from his wound.

“Nevermind,” he says. “Let’s table that discussion. Tommy, are you alright?”

“Am I alright!” Tommy bursts out as if waiting for this moment. “I’m great! That was brilliant! Coolest fucking fight I’ve ever seen, and believe me, I’ve seen lots.” He pauses, tilting his head to the side while an uncertain expression crosses his face “Uh...”

“Uh huh,” Dream says. Somehow, he doubts that someone as protective as Wilbur (from Tommy’s description) would let him anywhere near a fight. “Glad we impressed you.”

“Made me think that I should take your training more seriously,” Tommy continues. “I’m gonna impress Wilbur so much when he sees me again.”

Phil starts.

“Wilbur?” he asks, and Dream winces. He really needs to talk to Tommy about withholding information. “Who?”

“My older brother,” Tommy says easily. He sees Dream’s frantic head shakes and pulls a face. “What, why? Phil is our friend now, we can trust him.”

Dream gives up and sags back against the cave wall.

“You’ve gotta learn how to keep your mouth shut,” he grumbles.

“Your older brother is named Wilbur,” Phil states. His face is pale, and his eyebrows furrowed. He looks like he’s just seen a ghost. “Is that a common name ‘round these parts?”

Dream squints. This is definitely not a normal reaction.

“Do you know him?” he asks suspiciously.

That seems to jar Phil, and he shakes his head.

“No, I just… What year is it?” he asks.

Perplexed, Dream replies, “It’s the King’s Year.”

“Fuck,” Phil swears under his breath. “It’s been longer than I thought.”

Dream and Tommy exchange a look. Tommy raises an exaggerated eyebrow, and Dream shakes his head. Tommy then pulls a face and sticks his tongue out. Dream sighs.

“We can’t stay here forever,” he says, pivoting the topic. Phil can deal with his own issues. It has nothing to do with Dream. “If I’m all healed up, we need to move. The soldiers will be on our tail.” Pulling himself back upright, Dream winces at the phantom aches in his body. He must be getting old. “Let’s go.”

Dream stumbles to his feet and makes his way to the cave entrance, Phil and Tommy following him. He’s never liked caves; they remind him too much of nights sleeping against cobbled streets in his youth, and later, of the hostile stone room that he’d had to complete his champion rites in. The room there and the king’s greedy glare had left Dream feeling empty and cold inside.

As he finally exits, Dream blinks against the sunlight. He shades his eyes, wondering why the warmth of the sun feels so foreign against his face when he remembers.

His mask.

“Uh,” he says and tries not to sound panicked. “Can someone give me my mask?”

“What’s the rush?” Tommy chimes in. He crosses his arms and frowns at Dream. “Don’t you want to take a look at your own face? You’ve got a cool scar now.”

“A scar from—right.” Dream remembers the glass from the window slicing his cheek open. “No, I don’t want to see. I want my mask.”

“Why?” Tommy asks petulantly. “We’ve seen your face, and it’s not even a bad one! Not as great as mine, obviously, but you don’t need to hide it.”

“Tommy,” Dream says, patience rapidly fraying. “Give me my mask.”

“And people already know you’re wearing one! It doesn’t hide your identity, if anything it makes you more distinctive—”

Tommy.” Dream’s voice sharpens into something dangerous, and Tommy freezes. The edge in Dream’s voice is something he only reserves for the nastiest of fights, when he needs to let his opponent know that he’s not fucking around anymore. “Give. Me. My. Mask.”

Slowly, ever so slowly, and with resentment written into every line of his body, Tommy reaches for his inventory and pulls out a familiar white disk.

“Here,” he says grudgingly.

Dream grabs it and slides it on. Immediately, the nerves that have been fluttering in his chest calm down, and he takes in a deep breath through his nose.

“Thank you,” he says as he adjusts to that ever-familiar feeling of his mask.

“Whatever,” Tommy huffs.

A pang of guilt strikes Dream, and he turns around, touching Tommy’s shoulder gently.

“Hey, I’m sorry I yelled,” he says quietly. “I know you were just trying to help. But this—My mask is important to me, okay? Please don’t mess with it.”

“I just don’t know why,” Tommy says, a note of whining slipping into his tone. “It doesn’t make sense. Why do you have to hide your face from us? We’re your friends.”

Dream blinks, caught off-guard by Tommy’s declaration as a memory hits Dream, hard and heavy like a blow to the head. Somewhere between the daily scuffles on the street, scrounging for food from behind the restaurants that fancy people went to eat at, Dream had run into a younger kid with angry eyes and fire sparking from between his fists.

“What’re you doing here?” Dream had asked, halting in front of the dumpster.

The other kid had stiffened and spat out, “I found this first! You can’t have it. I’ll—I’ll fight you for it!”

Dream had just come from another fight, losing his hard-earned shoes to a group of bigger, stronger kids who hadn’t cared that those shoes would be too small on their feet, just that someone else wouldn’t have them. He’s not looking forward to another fight.

“We can share,” he offered weakly.

The other kid glared.

“I’m not going to share with a stranger,” he groused.

Wracking his brain for possible solutions, Dream ended up saying, “Then we don’t have to be strangers. We can be friends?”

He’d ended with a question because, well, Dream wasn’t entirely sure about what he was doing, but it stopped the other kid from leaping at him, so he counted it as a win.

Extending his hand like he’s seen the adult people on the streets do to one another, Dream waited as the other kid eyed it warily.

“Why are you doing that?” he asked. Suspicion was written into every line of his body. “You givin’ me something?”

“Uh, no,” Dream said, caught off guard. “I don’t have anything to give you.”

“Oh.” He looked disappointed but came out a little more from behind the dumpster, scuffing his feet against the ground. They were also bare, Dream noted. “I don’t have anything to give you either.”

“But you could,” Dream said. “If we were friends.”

“What are friends supposed to do?”

“I don’t know,” Dream admitted. “I’ve never had one before.”

That, of all things, seemed to perk the kid up.

“Me neither!” he said eagerly.

“Then we can figure it out together,” Dream said, encouraged. Trying again, he said, “I’m Dream, what’s your name?”

“I’m Sapnap,” the now revealed Sapnap declared. “What’s the first thing we should do, now that we’re friends?”

Dream hoped that Sapnap didn’t realize that Dream was just making this up as he went along, but as he racked his brain for ideas, inspiration came in a flash.

“We’ll protect each other,” he said confidently. “From any of the older kids or adults that hit us. And we’ll share our food so we don’t go hungry.”

“That sounds nice,” Sapnap said, eyes big. “And?”

“And we’ll make sure that the other never, ever gets caught,” Dream said. “That’s what friends do.”

He shook his hand in the air impatiently and said, “Well?”

Staring at him, Sapnap had grinned, exposing a row of sharp teeth and said, “Friends.”

And they shook.

Dream shakes himself free from the cobwebs of memory as he tries to focus on what Tommy is saying. After all, he isn’t a kid anymore, and Sapnap isn’t here right now. Tommy is.

“We are your friends,” Tommy says as Dream forces himself back to the present. “Right?”

He sounds crestfallen, and Dream scrambles to recover.

“We are,” he reassures Tommy. He’s not too sure about Phil yet as only time will tell on that front, but, “I just—Don’t take it personally, okay? Things have been… weird since I was on the run.”

“Hopefully they get better from here on out,” Phil says from the side.

Dream casts a glance over. Phil is shorter than him by a good bit, but that does nothing to hide the intimidation factor of his wings. If Phil is going to be traveling with them, like it seems like he will, those wings can’t stay out.

“Do you have a way to hide those wings?” Dream asks. His fingers dance at his side as he nervously taps his thigh.

“What!” Tommy shouts. “Why would he hide them, they look so cool!”

“They are cool, but they’re far from inconspicuous,” Dream corrects. “I don’t care how powerful you are, I’ve got a bounty on my head, and I can’t afford to risk any kind of anonymity anymore.”

Besides, Dream thinks privately to himself, he’s not sure if he trusts Phil all that much anyway, not when the man just tried to kill him.

Phil doesn’t trust him all that much either, if his wry smile is any indication. Instead, he says an easy, “Of course, mate,” and then claps his hands together.

And his wings are gone.

Dream blinks as Tommy reels back.

“What the fuck?” Tommy asks. He scrubs his eyes with his hands then opens them extra wide, like that will somehow help him see better. “Where did they go?”

Phil laughs, a breezy sound.

“Nowhere,” he says. “They’re still here.”

“But...” Tommy sounds utterly confused. “I can’t see them?”

Phil claps his hands again, and just like that, the wings reappear. Tommy exclaims and bounces over to run his hand over the ridges of Phil’s wings like that will somehow tell them how Phil was doing what he did.

Dream stands a safe distance away. Nervousness thrums in his chest for some reason he can’t explain, a thin layer of sweat breaking out all over his forearms. It’s not just the wings disappearing that bothers him; it’s the way that his mind goes all foggy the moment he tries to remember the wings that are truly there.

“What is that?” he asks, sharp.

“Perception magic,” Phil says. “It’s an old branch of enchanting. It layers some enchantments onto my wings that make them invisible for anyone who I don’t want to notice. Gets into their minds, rearranges a few things.”

Dream’s mind whirls.

“Where did you learn that?” he demands. “This could—”

“Before you get carried away, this is a very rare, very ancient art,” Phil says with an apologetic tone. “I’ve been around for a very, very long time, and I’ve only ever seen one other person use it. Most ways of teaching it have been lost to time too. Records destroyed, textbooks gone.” He sighs. “It’s a damn shame that the king has banned it.”

“But—Surely you can cast it on someone else,” Dream says desperately. If he could go on undetected, just a little bit, he could go back to the capital. He could see George and Sapnap and Bad. He could—

“Magic always requires sacrifice. Do you have any idea how much energy that would take?” Phil says. “I can get away with it because I’m a little more than human, but even then, covering just my wings can wear me out if I’m not careful. There’s a price to pay if you want to mess with people’s minds.”

“But if I’m willing—” Dream starts to argue.

“Trust me.” Phil’s face darkens. “You don’t want to pay it.”

Instinctively, Dream wants to continue arguing, but Phil’s expression is as somber as the grave. So, swallowing back his remaining protests, Dream backs down from the subject.

“Well, it’s good that the wings won’t draw that much attention,” he says, searching for the silver lining. “But if the soldiers come—”

“Oh, I can hold my own in a fight, mate,” Phil says. He jerks a thumb at Tommy and says, “It’s the child you have to worry about.”

“I’m sixteen!” The indignation in Tommy’s voice is almost comical. “I’m not a child!”

“Mate, I’ve lived to see entire worlds rise and fall.” Phil’s tone is light, but his eyes are fathomless. “You’re all children to me.”

A chill goes down Dream’s spine.

Just as he’s about to dismiss it as a side effect of the weight of Phil’s words, that cold feeling is followed by a wave of fire rolling over him. Dream seizes his chest, pitching forward as heat stabs into him. It feels like someone is jabbing spikes made out of pure fire through his body, splintering his very bones.

“Fuck, Dream, you alright?” Tommy’s worried voice sounds above him, and Dream winces as he forces himself to straighten.

“I’m alright,” he says, waving off their concern. Taking a deep breath, he massages his chest. “Just got a hot flash.”

“What, like women get?”

Dream barks a laugh then cringes as another bolt of heat lances through him.

“Not quite,” he manages to get out. “Just… Gimme a second.”

He breathes in and out through his nose, holding himself absolutely still. After a few seconds of this, Dream feels the pain retreat like nothing ever happened.

“Sorry,” he says, pulling himself together. “I’m fine now.”

“What was that?” Phil is examining him closely. “You looked like you were about to have a heart attack.”

Dream shrugs, trying to ignore the way that his heart is still going a mile per minute.

“I think it’s just anxiety,” he says, as embarrassing as it is to admit. “It’s been happening more since I was on the run.”

“Hm.” Phil scrutinizes him. “Anxiety got you that bad?”

“What can I say?” Dream defends himself. “I’ve got people wanting me dead for a crime I didn’t commit. I think I’m allowed to be a little nervous about that.”

Nerves would never be allowed in the arena. Nerves meant shaky hands, meant distracted glances, meant certain death if your opponent was good enough.

Nerves meant never going back home to the smell of Bad’s freshly baked muffins and the sound of Sapnap’s elated yelling, nor George’s hand combing through his hair.

Dream can’t afford to have nerves.There’s too much at stake.

“If you say so,” Phil acquiesces with a frown. Then, continuing, “You want to elaborate on those false accusations for me?”

It’s a different kind of sick feeling that hits Dream when he remembers the outrageous claims that have forced him from his home.

“Apparently, I’ve been abusing my position as champion to try and overthrow the king,” he tells Phil, grimacing at each word. “But it makes no sense because I’ve never even seen an artifact of power, and I sure as hell don’t know anything about treason.”

“Got any disagreements with the king?” Phil asks, eyes sharp. “He’s good at telling when people are against him, especially when they’re close to him.”

Dream is shaking his head before Phil is even done talking.

“I’m not too big on politics, I don’t really care about what the king does,” he says. “Besides, we never talked, just greeted each other at the opening for the competitions. And he was there during my rites, but that’s typical.”

“So you don’t disagree with anything the king has done,” Phil says.

Shuffling in place nervously, Dream stutters, “Well, I—I mean, no one is perfect, but, like, he’s okay. I guess I don’t really like how many kids are on the streets or how he makes so many of them train to become champion, and I talked a lot about how I came from the streets, but that’s not a big deal.”

“It does make you more likeable, though,” Phil muses under his breath. “But to chase a champion out… It’s not like him.”

Not like who? Dream wants to ask, but Tommy interjects with a chipper voice.

“While you were out, I got some more iron too,” Tommy says and promptly dumps a pile of uncrafted iron at Dream’s feet. “Look! There’s enough for a sword for you and a sword for me...”

“Woah, Tommy, I don’t know if you should have a sword yet,” Dream says, alarmed. “A dagger, for sure, but you just got used to the weight of a wooden sword. Iron is much heavier.”

Crossing his arms, Tommy scowls.

“But I need to protect you,” he argues. And then, “And myself, of course. But in general—”

Before Tommy can say anything else that will make Dream feel like shit for making a kid worry about him, Dream cuts him off and turns to Phil instead, saying, “If the hunters come, you’re the most mobile one. So if we’re in a situation where—If it looks pretty rough...”

He slants a glance over at Tommy, and Phil follows his gaze easy enough.

“I’ll take Tommy and get out of there,” he says.

Dream releases a breath that he didn’t even know he was holding, and he feels tension seep out of his shoulders. Marginally, at least. He’s rarely relaxed these days.

“Thank you,” he says.

“I can take care of myself,” Tommy protests. “Dream, I’m not gonna leave you behind—Only cowards do that!”

“Only survivors do that,” Dream corrects. “It’s not cowardly to protect yourself.”

“He’s right,” Phil chimes in. “Number one rule of survival is to know your odds. It’s the smart move, kid.” Something in his eyes changes, and Phil looks oddly sorrowful as he says, “Sometimes you have to leave people behind.”

“But then—” Tommy looks lost, voice breaking slightly as he asks, “Who will protect Dream?”

Shit. This kid.

A lump rises in Dream’s throat, and he swallows hard. Tommy’s concern reminds Dream so much of another group of kids who scrapped their way to the top after years of fighting to protect one another. It had started out as just Dream and Sapnap, two kids who picked fights too often for their own good, but then they’d met George who reeled them in and egged them on in equal measure. It wasn’t until Bad, their oldest brother, that they’d pulled themselves enough to get to where they are now.

Or—

Were.

Dream hopes that the king isn’t doing anything to his friends while they hold down the fort. It feels like it’s been eons since he’s last seen them, but Dream continues to cling to that near-impossible hope that he’ll return to them someday. Without that hope…

He has nothing left.

“I can take care of myself, Tommy,” Dream soothes. “Just think of me like Wilbur, yeah? He wouldn’t want you to get hurt.”

Phil stiffens again, but Tommy doesn’t seem to notice.

“Then you’ll train me more,” he demands, getting up in Dream’s face. The kid is tall, the tip of his nose brushing against the surface of Dream’s mask. “I’ll learn how to use a sword, a proper one. I’ll learn how to fight so that people won’t have to protect me. I’ll protect them instead.”

“Well,” Dream replies as warmth, the non-painful kind, suffuses through him. “Can you keep up?”

“Fuck you, of course I can!”

Dream laughs, bright.

“Then I look forward to seeing how far you’ll go,” he says.

And that’s the honest truth.

 

 

 

 

“Fuck off!

Sparks fly through the air as Sapnap drives his sword through a skeleton. Wilbur winces at the screech of iron against bone as the skeleton collapses and leaves Sapnap standing in a small vortex of sparks.

“Should, um, someone put that out?” he points out weakly. “We are in the middle of a forest, after all.”

Calmly, George summons a water bucket from his inventory and dumps it over Sapnap’s head as the other man yelps.

“Cool off, idiot,” he says boredly, like this is just part of his every day routine. “You’re losing control.”

Sapnap scowls, hair plastered against his skull and water dripping into his eyes. He looks very much like a disgruntled cat.

“I can’t help it,” he says, aggrieved. “We’ve been after them for days and haven’t seen anything. We’ll never catch up to him at this rate.”

“Be patient,” George says, though his voice is tight. “We would have heard if anything happened to him.”

“I know, but—”

The hunters are incredibly dedicated to chasing down their target, Wilbur thinks. He can’t help but appreciate it, though, since every extra mile they traverse is another mile closer to Tommy. Whenever Dream’s name is brought up, the hunters all react in their own way. Bad tenses up, mouth tight and unhappy as Sapnap kicks or punches something nearby.

And George? George just looks mad, quiet rage simmering from the way he polishes his arrows again and again.

It makes Wilbur wonder just how horrible this Dream character really is.

True to their word, the hunters have been pushing at a fast pace since they first left the town. On the third night, Bad helped Wilbur bandage the blisters forming on the bottom of his feet, his clawed hands surprisingly gentle as he spread ointment and wrapped them carefully.

“These will harden into calluses after a bit,” he had informed Wilbur. “It hurts now, but they’ll help in the future.”

“Thank you,” Wilbur had said with wide eyes. “I’m sorry for the inconvenience.”

“Not at all! I used to do this for these idiots all the time,” Bad had replied as George and Sapnap bickered behind him. “It’s… nostalgic.”

Now, Sapnap throws his sword down in frustration.

“We can’t let anyone else get to him first,” he says, almost a growl. “Who knows what they’ll do to him?”

“No need to remind us,” George says. His eyes are hidden behind the goggles he wears while traveling, but his mouth is twisted into a scowl. “We’re all on the same page here.”

“But—”

“Alright, guys, settle down!” Bad breaks in, clapping his hands together. His tail lashes behind him, the only sign of frustration as he checks the enchanted compass before pocketing it again. “We’re only a few miles from the next town, we’ll break there for the night and restock. George, Sapnap, you two need to stop fighting. We’re all worried—”

“Why do you need to get to him first?” Wilbur blurts. Three pairs of eyes swivel to him, and Wilbur curses his curiosity and big fat mouth. Dad has always said—

Well. He’s not here anymore.

“I mean,” Wilbur fumbles. “The king is sending lots of hunters out after Dream, right? Is it just that you need the bounty?”

“It’s none of your business, chimney boy,” Sapnap dismisses while Wilbur blinks in confusion. Was that supposed to be a nickname?

“Sapnap! Don’t be rude,” Bad chides. Turning to Wilbur, he says, “Of course the bounty is important, but there’s something personal on the line for us. But I don’t think we’re comfortable sharing that with you yet, sorry.”

Wilbur shifts from foot to foot.

“That’s alright,” he says and means it. There’s a lot he’s not sharing with them either. “As long as we get to Tommy, I don’t care. You can do whatever you want with Dream.”

“Oh, we will,” George mutters under his breath. Wilbur doesn’t think he’s supposed to hear when George says, “I’m gonna kick that jerk’s butt so hard, and then ki—”

“Alright,” Bad says hastily. “We’re wasting daylight. Let’s go a bit further, and then we’ll set up camp in a nice clearing somewhere. Everything will seem better once we get some warm food and rest, hm?”

They all mumble their agreement.

That night, they break for camp in the middle of a forest clearing. Wilbur helps Bad stack the firewood in the center as Sapnap and George kick debris away.

The exhaustion of the past few days has started to catch up to Wilbur, and his hands shake as he tries to arrange the twigs into some semblance of a pyramid. It refuses to stand, however, and Wilbur curses as it falls over for the umpteenth time.

“Fuck,” he whispers under his breath.

“You alright?”

Bad’s hand appears, and he crouches next to Wilbur as he begins to rebuild what Wilbur knocked down, deftly stacking them back up.

“Thanks,” Wilbur says. “I’m fine.”

Bad hums, noncommittal as he arranges the logs and nods in satisfaction.

“This is done. Sapnap!” he calls. “Can we get a light?”

Sapnap picks his way over to them and glances at the set up.

“Step back,” he says.

Just as Wilbur does so, Sapnap snaps his fingers, and a flame springs from his hand. Without hesitating, Sapnap plunges his hand, fire and all, underneath the wood stack, and the campfire crackles to life.

When Sapnap draws his hand back, it’s completely untouched save for a few streaks of ash.

“There you go,” he says while Bad chirps, “Thanks, Sap!”

Wilbur watches as Sapnap ambles his way back to George, hands shoved into his pockets. He’s seen Sapnap use his fire magic before but…

“He’s been like that since I knew him,” Bad says. Wilbur jumps, his thoughts probably written all over his face as Bad huffs, “It’s okay, a lot of people don’t know that much about magic.”

Thinking privately, Wilbur recalls evenings spent watching Phil bend over enchantment books late at night, eyes wide in wonder as Phil’s wings appeared and disappeared in front of him; even later, burying his hand in golden curls as he desperately tried to remember what Phil had taught him…

Wilbur says wryly, “Yeah, I’m not that familiar with it.”

Bad doesn’t catch the sarcasm in his tone and continues, “The unknown scares people.” He feeds twigs into the fire and watches it leap higher and higher. “We know so little about magic and what it does. The true art of magic has been lost to time, and it doesn’t help that we can’t go to the Nether where it originated. Of course, it’s human instinct to be scared of what we don’t know, but it doesn’t excuse cruelty.”

Across the clearing, George whacks Sapnap over the head with a stick, and Sapnap yelps indignantly. Wilbur’s heart clenches.

Bad nudges him with a shoulder.

“Go and get to know them,” he advises, sounding for all the world like a dad telling his kid to go out and play with the neighborhood kids. “You have more in common with them than you think.” His eyes soften. “You don’t have to keep yourself walled off, Wilbur.”

Skin prickling, Wilbur ducks his head.

“Yeah,” he says. “I’ll try.”

The fire crackles, sending sparks up to the stars above.

Despite Bad’s advice, Wilbur keeps his distance for the time being, but keeps an eye on the unusual pair. Sapnap falls asleep quickly, loud snuffly snores filling the air as Bad reads something quietly on the other side of the fire.

As the night passes, Wilbur finds himself inching closer and closer to George. George’s goggles lay beside him, reflecting the orange flames, but his expression is unreadable all the same as he stares into the campfire.

Wilbur clears his throat awkwardly.

“How are you,” he states more than asks, then immediately wants to hit himself over the head. What kind of inane question is that?

“Fine,” George answers quietly. “Just… taking it all in.”

Breathing out long and slow, Wilbur leans back on his hands and gazes up at the sky.

“Yeah,” he says. “I feel that.”

Silence falls over them again, thick and syrupy. Exhaustion clings to Wilbur’s very bones, the weight of so much travel taking its toll. Scratching idly at his ankle, he tries to figure out what to say to George, maybe even if he wants to say anything to George. Hunters are known for being aloof and solitary. He probably doesn’t want anything to do with Wilbur, right?

Of all the hunters, George is the most inscrutable. Part of it has to do with the goggles he wears during the day, but even without them, it’s like George had taken one look at Wilbur, decided he was suspicious, and then built a towering wall about him. Not even Sapnap treats Wilbur with that much wariness, though he hasn’t taken the same easy liking to him as Bad.

Oblivious to Wilbur’s turmoil, George ends up making the decision for him as he abruptly says, “It’s cold.”

Wilbur starts.

“The fire is right there,” he says stupidly.

“That’s not what I’m talking about,” George says, adding under his breath, “Idiot.”

For some reason, it doesn’t sound like the insult is addressed to Wilbur.

“Sapnap always makes the fire too hot,” George continues, but his complaints are said in a light voice. “And then Bad makes the fire too small afterwards. Neither of them get it right.”

The lilt of his sentences almost makes it sound like George wants to add something, but he cuts himself off before he continues.

“You three are really close,” Wilbur elects to say. “I can tell.”

“We grew up together,” George says. “We saved each other.”

Wilbur thinks about Tommy, the hollowness in his cheeks when Wilbur had first seen him, his sass and attitude evident from only a few exchanges. He thinks about the bruises pressed into Tommy’s arms, him being dragged away by uncaring hands.

He had been so small back then, but so full of life already. Wilbur hadn’t been able to resist those painfully familiar blue eyes, nor could he resist the chance to take away some of Tommy’s pain.

Wilbur misses him. God, he misses Tommy so much that it’s a physical ache.

“Tell me about your brother,” George says suddenly. Wilbur looks over in surprise as George draws his knees up to his chest, hugging them. “He’s who got you stuck with all of us, right? But I don’t know a thing about him.”

“Tommy is...”

Wilbur struggles for the right words to describe the kid who’s become more important than his own breath. He’d met Tommy only months after Techno started disappearing into the woods, and Wilbur had wandered after him as often as he could to get out of that too large, too empty house, filled with memories that cut every time Wilbur touched them.

It had only taken a few sentences for Wilbur to realize that there was no one looking out for this kid and that only he could save him.

“Tommy is fucking loud,” he ends up saying. George laughs, startled, and Wilbur grins. “I mean it. He’s the loudest person in the room, and if he isn’t, he’ll make sure he is by the end of the day. And he curses like a sailor too. I don’t know where he picked it up from.”

“Sounds annoying,” George says.

“He is,” Wilbur says fondly. “So annoying. He’s clingy as fuck too; won’t leave me alone, wants to go with me wherever I go. I can’t even go to buy food without him nipping at my heels.”

“That’s familiar,” George says with a note of longing in his voice.

“He wants to see everything and do everything,” Wilbur says. “He’s so fucking special, that kid, and I don’t think he realizes it at all.”

Heat rises to Wilbur’s eyes, and he has to turn away from the fire.

“Sorry,” he says, blinking rapidly. “Smoke. You know how it is.”

“Mmhmm,” George hums, noncommittal.

Wilbur sniffs, trying to pull himself back together. When he’s fairly certain that he’s not going to burst into tears anymore, he turns back to George.

“What about you?” he asks, trying to hide the shakiness of his voice. “Who’s someone important to you?”

He doesn’t think George is going to answer, not when he’s easily the most reticent of all the hunters, but is surprised when George’s entire face goes soft instead.

“There’s this idiot,” George says, “Who’s too fast for his own good. What’s next, what’s next, what’s next. Always thinking how he can do something better.”

Wilbur mirrors George’s pose and pulls his knees up, waiting with bated breath to hear what George says next. Maybe it’s the intimacy of the fire’s slow crackle and the night sky above them that’s making George open up. Either way, Wilbur doesn’t want to waste this chance.

“We were going to die, you know,” George says suddenly. “We tried to make it on our own, but there’s no way that a group of kids with no skills could survive to be adults in the capital. Not when we were living on the streets.”

Wilbur winces. For all of Phil’s failings as a parent, Wilbur has never gone hungry, has never known the phantom pangs of starvation. Disturbingly, it’s all too easy to replace Tommy’s blond hair and blue eyes with George’s matching set of brown and brown. The hunter has such fine features, it would have been too easy for hunger to carve hollows into his cheeks.

“If it wasn’t for him, we probably would have died,” George continues as Wilbur wrestles his sympathy down. “He decided to enter the tournament of champions, even though he wasn’t trained and definitely too skinny. Ha!” George lets out a bark of laughter. “I could probably break him in half now.”

“Isn’t the tournament really dangerous?” Wilbur asks as if he hadn’t seen the effects first hand. Techno, as little as Wilbur had seen him in those last years, had always returned from the arena with haunted eyes and bloody hands.

“I don’t want him to see, Phil,” Wilbur had overheard him say once, long after Phil and Techno thought that he was asleep. “I don’t want him to see what I become.”

In the end, it hadn’t mattered what Wilbur wanted. Techno had been the first to leave, and Phil right after.

And Wilbur had been left alone, as always.

“It is.” George answers Wilbur’s question, drawing him out of the long-forgotten memory. “It’s inhumane, actually, no matter how I think about it. Forcing people to fight each other to the death, just for the king’s entertainment...” He shakes his head. “It’s sick.”

“But people go willingly,” Wilbur says uncertainly. “The champion gets everything they could ever want.”

“But for a price,” George counters. “There’s always a price.”

Wilbur shivers.

The flames splutter, dipping lower and lower as the moon hovers above the treetops. There’s no telling what time it is, but Wilbur can’t sleep. Images from the past flicker behind his eyelids every time he shuts them, of emeralds, of wings, of Tommy.

“So... your friend?” he asks. “Did he make it to the tournament?”

“He did,” George responds softly. Fire reflects in his dark eyes.

“What happened to him?”

George doesn’t answer. Instead, he draws in a shuddering breath and releases his knees, stretching his legs out in front of him.

“It’s late,” he says. “We should sleep.”

Wilbur can already feel the soreness in his legs from another long day of walking, and he winces. But…

“I can’t sleep,” he admits. “Too much happening up here.” He knocks a hand against his head.

“Then sing a song,” George suggests. His eyes flicker to Wilbur’s face where surprise is written across it. “I heard you humming earlier when we were walking. You have a nice voice.”

“Thanks, but I don’t really—” Wilbur’s protests subside as George stares at him with a deadpan expression. “Yeah, I can sing.”

Clearing his throat, Wilbur uncurls and straightens his spine. Sapnap continues snoring, and Bad lays aside his book. Wilbur can’t tell if he was listening to their conversation or not, but his pupiless eyes are fixed on them now.

Wilbur fiddles with the hem of his shirt, humming lowly to himself as he tries to warm up his voice. Oddly enough, it doesn’t sound too out of place amongst the whispering trees and crackling fire.

“Any requests?” he asks.

George’s eyes are indecipherable as he says, “Something that reminds you of home.”

Wilbur swallows. His voice sounds creaky when he thinks of a familiar tune, once sung around a very different fireplace, and says, “I can do that.”

Straightening his back, Wilbur clears his throat and begins humming, a low, soothing melody that winds through the surrounding forest. Words follow shortly after, and slowly, Wilbur settles into the familiar cadence of melody.

As he sings, George’s eyes droop lower and lower. The moon continues its steady journey through the sky, silver rays suffusing through the leaves. Eventually, George lays on his side, and his eyes slide shut completely. On the other side of the fire, Bad vanishes his book to his inventory and leans up against a tree trunk, hands neatly folded across his lap as he sleeps.

Wilbur lets the last lines fade, voice dropping as the song ends.

“Good night,” he whispers to himself. Across the clearing, tree boughs wave as if in acknowledgement. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

Arranging himself on the ground, Wilbur closes his eyes and can’t help but think that here, in this little camp, he’s not as alone as he thought.